Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On rejection

It is the time of the year when those on the job market are receiving, and considering, their offers. To those who are disappointed for not receiving an offer from one of their top choices, I would like to offer the story of my first job search.

In the Fall of 1997, at the beginning of the wonderful year I spent at MIT, and still undecided whether I wanted to go back to Italy or not, I sent out a few applications for post-docs and tenure-track jobs.

By February, the rejection letters were pouring in. Some of them were written by Dogbert himself.

At one point, I received a letter from the Institute for Advanced Study. They regretted that they were not able to offer me a post-doctoral fellowship. That was quite all right, except that I had not applied for it! What was that? A preemptive rejection? Did they mean to write: "Dear dr. Trevisan, we hear that you are on the job market, and we are pleased that you did not apply here."? What worried me was that I was going to break a record, and receive more rejections than applications, or having a negative number of job offers, as I preferred to think of it.

As it happened, in another few weeks, I received the DIMACS post-doc. In their acceptance letter, they also mentioned that they had forwarded my application to the IAS, and that the Institute would inform me at a later point of whether it was going to offer me support for a second year.

This not only explained the mysterious letter from the Institute, but also suggested that the IAS bureaucracy worked faster than DIMACS'.

Late into May, or perhaps already in June, I got a call from Columbia. Having apparently gone down their list of top candidates, back-ups and back-back-ups, they wanted to offer me a job.

I was delighted to move into my faculty housing apartment in New York (which I still miss) and to work in a very friendly department with very smart undergrads. I loved Columbia, and I loved New York. I would have stayed there until retirement if Berkeley had not made an offer that I could not refuse.

So what's my point? There are two points, actually. One, New York is wonderful. Second, don't take rejections too hard. In the long run, things even out. (And, yes, I know what John Maynard Keynes has to say about that, but it typically does not take that long.)

Update: Oded Goldreich has written an essay in response to this post.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The pornographic musical

New York is probably the movie-lover capital of the world, but the San Francisco film festival scene is outstanding. Counting only the major ones, every year there is an Asian Film Festival, an Independent Film Festival, the International Film Festival and the Frameline (gay and lesbian) Film Festival. In addition, there is a German Film Festival, a Jewish Film Festival, the various cycles of movies run by the PFA in Berkeley, the retrospectives at the Castro and so on. A couple of years ago, a horror film festival was introduced, called Another Hole in the Head. Clearly, the tagline of the advertising campaign was
San Francisco needed another film festival like Another Hole in the Head

(The 2006 edition is coming up, by the way.)

At these festivals I have seen a number of unforgettable movies that never received wide distribution in the US. One such movie was Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn. Tsai Ming-liang is part of a generation of East Asian directors that have been inspired by a certain French style of movie making: through the movie, nothing really happens, except that you start to read between the lines of what the characters are saying, and to gain some insight about what they are thinking. When a resolution feels imminent, the movie ends abruptly. Tsai Ming-liang has taken this style and worked out a reductio ad absurdum. Two scenes from Goodbye Dragon Inn are seared in my memory. One scene is set in the restroom of a movie theater. There is a line of urinals, each with an ashtray next to it. A man is standing, smoking, at the urinal closest to the camera. He stands there, smokes, then puts the cigarette down on the ashtray. He keeps standing there. Other people come and go at the other urinals. He picks up the cigarette, he smokes. He puts the cigarette down, and so on. This goes on for a very, very long time. When an empty scene is kept going so long, what happens is that it becomes funny, then annoying, and finally funny again. It takes a tremendous sense of timing to make it work. (Actually, the scene is not completely empty: it is understood that some cruising is going on in the theater, and possibly, in the restroom, so one expects the scene to go off in a certain direction, but nothing happens.) Later, the cashier of the movie theater goes through the theater to pick up the trash. She wears a tutor on her knee, and so she walks with a limp, and she makes a metallic noise at each step. The theater is huge, and she goes, for ever, up and down the stair picking up the trash. The genius is that, at the end of this truly torturous scene, during which the audience alternatively groans and guffaws (a few people left), we see the cashier exiting the scene, and the scene does not end: we see the empty theater, and the noise of the limping cashier walking out of sight.

As an immediate reaction, I hated this movie. Somehow, the following day, I loved it. I tried to see other movies by him, but What time is it over there did not work for me (the scenes just felt annoying), and I was told not to even try to watch The river.

Right now, the International Film Festival is going on, and tonight's main attraction was Tsai Ming-liang's last movie, The wayward cloud. The movie was introduced as a pornographic musical, and that's a fairly good description. What is the movie about? That's obviously not the right question, but suffices to say that the premise is that Taiwan goes through a water shortage, and watermelons become the cheapest source of hydration. Indeed, watermelons figure quite prominently in the movie.

We get to see Lee Kang-sheng, the inscrutable projectionist of Goodbye Dragon Inn, shake watermelon seeds off his pubic hair, chase live crabs on a kitchen floor, sing a musical number in a dress, and repeatedly have intercourse with an overweight and accident-prone porn actress. The timing is almost always flawless and the last scene is unforgettable for the classical French style it is shot in (with the long takes and the close-ups) and the scandalous content. It goes without saying (it's part of this style of film-making) that the movie has no dialog. Some supporting characters have lines, but nobody ever says something to which someone else replies. The main characters, of course, speak no line in the entire movie.