Summary Judgment

The Semiotics of Saddam

Dissecting the tape of the dictator’s capture.

The Saddam Hussein video. “Formally it’s a deft piece of work, with striking moments: the underside of Mr. Hussein’s tongue, radiantly orange in the doctor’s light, is a shot for film students,” said the New York Times of the footage of Saddam Hussein in captivity. The symbolism was much critiqued. For the London-based Arab paper Al-Hayat, the video undermined Saddam’s rigorously controlled image of valorous manhood: “The ‘knight of the Arabs’ now evokes laughter and pity.” But the Washington Post observed that “within a more Western-oriented context,” the capture of rulers (like Croesus and Shakespeare’s Richard II) can be “more the fulfillment of a certain kingly destiny than it is a negation of kingly power.” And for Israel’s Ha’aretz, the reference point was Orwell’s 1984: “The message was that it is impossible to escape the long and determined arm of the empire and that Saddam’s body, even his body, was occupied.”

Movie still

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line). All hail the King: “the greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema“; “labeling this as a ‘movie’ is almost an injustice“; “I teared up several times“; “ fucking wow.” There are minor quibbles (too many endings, no Christopher Lee, confusing for newcomers), but most think this is the best of the three movies. Roger Ebert complains that “epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns” in audience’s minds; nevertheless, some critics find worldly parallels. Slate’s David Edelstein talks of thousands dying “to destroy what in essence is a weapon of mass destruction,” and a Los Angeles Times editorial claims the capture of Saddam Hussein—who “looked for all the world like a dark wizard whose evil finally had caught up with him”—“fits perfectly with the trilogy’s ultimate message.” Others wonder where Tolkien-loving audiences could be led next: Wagner? (Tolkien stole his ring, complains Alex Ross.) Or Kushner? (The ending is “gayer than anything in Angels in America,” says J. Hoberman.) (Buy tickets to The Lord of the Rings.)

Mona Lisa Smile (Columbia/Sony). “Was there ever an actress with a less enigmatic smile than Julia Roberts?” asks New York. The inspirations for this “slick, melodramatic” movie aren’t too mysterious, either: Critics see Dead Poet’s Society and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the tale of a rebellious teacher (Roberts) who shakes up her straight-laced Wellesley students (Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst) with Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Despite its nonconformist message, Mona Lisa Smile is actually “a lesson in emotional conformity,” says Time: “Each character is given a single trait to pursue into caricature.” And nobody believes the film has earned its feminist indignation. It “wears the 1950s like a funky sweater twinset covering toned abs and a navel ring,” scoffs Entertainment Weekly. (Buy tickets to Mona Lisa Smile.)

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House of Sand and Fog (Dreamworks). This solemn noir about the battle for ownership of a Northern California house is “a fixer-upper,” according to Everybody likes what the Hollywood Reporter calls the “carefully laid foundation of suspense and dread” in the first half. And the stars get raves: L.A. Weekly says Ben Kingsley’s Iranian patriarch is the kind of role “that got him a knighthood, Department of Frosty Stares” while Entertainment Weekly thinks Jennifer Connelly’s reformed alcoholic is “her most delicate and subtle performance yet.” But “narrative logic fades during the second half,” says the Christian Science Monitor, and “the climax is a tragic pileup so appalling that it nearly derails the movie,” in Newsweek’s opinion. The underlying structural flaw, according to the New York Times: The conflict arises from “a sin so trivial as to be almost comical.” (Buy tickets to House of Sand and Fog.)

Book covers

“Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Garry Wills (Houghton Mifflin); An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “The overwhelming presence of slavery in early America,” according to the New York Times’ Gordon S. Wood, is “driving a huge rethinking of our history.”Wills’ book, which argues that Jefferson would not have won the presidency without the extra votes accorded to slave owners under the “three-fifths” clause in the Constitution, “has the forensic brilliance of a really good legal brief,” says Newsday. The more hands-on Wiencek—who traces Washington’s moral evolution from using his slaves’ teeth for his own dentures to freeing them in his will—“attends reunions where the black descendants of Southern plantation owners are finally being invited to mingle with their white kin.” In the former book, “slavery is a moral issue to get outraged about,” says Salon’s Laura Miller; in the latter, “it’s a rotten taste in your mouth, something to gag on.” Both books have the Boston Globe wondering about our relationship to the Founding Fathers: “Are we mature enough as a nation to face the possibility that we should not admire or honor them at all?” (Negro President. an An Imperfect God.)

CD cover

The Diary of Alicia Keys, by Alicia Keys (J-Records). The piano player with attitude has “taken the best elements of” her first album and “dialed back the flash.” The New York Times’ John Pareles thinks Keys successfully looks “beyond hip-hop’s arrogance and the instant gratifications of current rhythm-and-blues” to keep the classic ‘70s soul tradition alive. But Entertainment Weekly says she (and Norah Jones) are part of a wave of “New Authentics” who raise the question, “Where exactly is the dividing line between integrity and dullness?” On Diary, the line seems to be drawn between the first and second half: Time says, “The first six songs are models of how to make nostalgic music that is not anti-present,” but EW complains the album then “drifts into a narcotized semi-slumber of one earnest, samey retro-soul piano ballad after another.” (The Diary of Alicia Keys.)

Book cover

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (Ecco Press). “The sheer multiplicity” of English translations of Don Quixote is “nothing short of incredible,” according to the Los Angeles Times’ Ilana Stevens, who counts almost 20. But everyone agrees that Edith Grossman’s new version is the best: Carlos Fuentes says it reads as easily “as the latest Philip Roth” while Harold Bloom calls Grossman “the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note.” “Reading Cervantes we keep stumbling against ourselves,” says the New York Times’ Richard Eder, who thinks an episode involving ungrateful liberated prisoners sheds light on the current situation in Iraq. James Wood picks up some of his own ongoing critical concerns in The New Yorker, arguing against idealized, religious interpretations of the book (“Cervantes’s novel bristles with little blasphemies”) and suggesting that “the hysterical realism of modern writers like Pynchon and Rushdie seems to take its cue” from the book’s cartoonish violence. (Don Quixote.)