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June 2007

My Daughter the Nurse

This link may not work for very long, but as of this posting you can click on the "Watch this video" button associated with this news story and see one of my daughters in action in her job as an emergency room nurse. (You have to sit through a commercial first--sorry.) I've often thought it would feel pretty good to have a job where your whole purpose is to help people who really need help. I'm proud of her.

Tom Jones with Notes

There was a comment sometime in the past few days, possibly from Janet C but I'm not sure, saying that she had started Tom Jones but was having trouble understanding some of it. I can't find the comment now, so am just making this a post.

I've been reading an old Modern Library edition because it's compact and physically comfortable, and just plowing on when I hit a reference I don't get, and haven't found that to be much of a problem. Part of the reason I started it in the first place, though, was the recommendation of my college student daughter who had just read it in an 18th century lit class. The edition she used is a Penguin Classic and has copious notes. Possibly too copious, and they're at the back, but anyway, if you want an edition with notes, this is worth looking at.

And speaking of Tom Jones, someone mentioned really liking the character of Squire Western in a BBC production. Yeah, he is funny, but at this point, maybe a third of the way through, I'm thinking he's too much of a real jerk to like very much. The scenes of his arguments with his sister are just laugh-out-loud funny, though.



This is the title of a play by Margaret Edson which I just read. Several months ago my mother offered it to me with the description "It's a downer but it's very good." I wasn't going to take it, because, as I'm always complaining, my reading list is always too long, and this didn't look like something I would like: a play about a woman dying of cancer. I don't especially like reading plays (except Shakespeare) and it didn't sound like a promising subject.

(Digression: one of the experiences that caused me to give up sending poems to magazines and just put them on the web was the time I had several returned with a note that the editor was "at this time only considering poems that deal with women's health issues." I mean, why bother?)

Then I noticed a blurb from John Simon on the back: "A dazzling and humane play you will remember till your dying day." Simon, for many years National Review's movie critic, is a hard-nosed and hard-to-please kind of guy, and if he called it "dazzling" I was pretty sure it would be worth reading.

It's great. It's powerful on the page, and I can only imagine that a good performance would knock you over completely. The woman with cancer is an English professor who specializes in Donne's Holy Sonnets, and let's just say the play delivers on the promise of that situation.

I see there is a 2001 movie starring Emma Thompson which has an awful lot of five-star reviews on Amazon. Anybody have an opinion on it?


Postscript to the Liturgy Discussion

I must say that, even though I think he was giving Bishop Trautmann far too much credit, it's very encouraging to me that a young Catholic like Ryan C would find the whole liturgy war sort of foreign and incomprehensible. Bishop T. is pretty old, and I'm far from young, and I'd like to think younger people are going to be more united in their sense of what the liturgy ought to be. Much of the problem of the last thirty years has been that a fairly extreme horizontalism that frankly disliked the whole idea of the transcendent has been very influential, and there has been a corresponding tendency on the part of its opponents to be touchy and suspicious (not a good thing, even if warranted). The progressive banality which many bishops still support or at least tolerate is on the wane, as are those bishops. Maybe with more agreement about ends there will be less warring about means.

I personally, however, am never going to get over the Anglican liturgy. I'm reconciled to that.


Sunday Night Journal — June 24, 2007

Some Anniversaries

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me the entry into the process of growing old seems to mean being buffeted by gales of nostalgia, accompanied by regrets and second thoughts as windstorms are accompanied by rain. This year brings several notable anniversaries that have me thinking about the past even more than usual.

My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. And the above-mentioned regrets don’t include any misgivings about having taken that step. At the time of our marriage we were both new, or newly-revived, Christians, in the process of returning to the Protestant faith in which we had been raised (she Southern Baptist, I Methodist), and attending an Episcopal church. As far as I remember I hadn’t yet begun to toy with the idea that the Catholic Church would be our destination; we would have to confront first the rudderless drift of the Episcopal Church.

No, no regrets there, but terrible nostalgia, as I recall the enchantment of encountering C. S. Lewis for the first time. As Lewis himself says of George McDonald, there was a morning freshness about his work, an enchantment in finding an approach to Christianity that made us see the springs of life that had been there all along.

In the public realm, this summer brings the fortieth anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love. I’ve been dreading the flurry of media comments and retrospectives, because I don’t expect they’ll get it right, and I’ll want to argue with them. I think I’m going to have to ignore most of them. I’ve thought of writing something about it myself, but I don’t think I will, at least not now; the scope of the task is too great.

I gather there has been a tendency in historical studies over the past couple of decades to deprecate the approach to history that emphasizes big things and big events—rulers and their wars—and to give more attention to the effort to dig out a sense of what life was really like in the past. This seems a good thing. But in pop history, by which I mean a fairly superficial look at a past which begins in roughly 1950 and can speak of the career of a pop star as an “era,” the two approaches meet in a way that combines the worst of both. Pop history selects an external event, such as the release of an influential movie or recording, and then attempts to read it as a record of the convictions of individuals. In so doing it isolates and exaggerates certain landmarks, such as the Summer of Love or Woodstock or Watergate, which become hopelessly imprecise and overloaded labels for the complex movements of a whole culture, credited with providing an insight that is mostly spurious.

The summer of 1967 did indeed witness an eruption into public awareness of what a relatively small number of hippies were doing. But the little group of bohemians at the very provincial state university which I attended had long followed and imitated what was going on in California and elsewhere, and the radical counter-culture had been developing for many years in something like its recognizable form. Even within that world, the rather distorted hippie concept of “love” that was bandied about was hardly the only game going: Sgt. Pepper was released that spring, yes, but The Velvet Underground and Nico and The Doors, two of the darkest recordings in the history of rock, preceded it by a few months. And if my experience is an accurate indicator, they were at least as popular among the real hipsters. There was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but there were also “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and Father, I want to kill you. And I’m not even touching on the grim political events of the time, such as the Six-Day War, which rather dwarf the significance of any pop album.

In the current media treatments of the Summer of Love (I find it hard to type the phrase without snickering), I know what to expect. Conservatives will denounce it as an outbreak of madness, and liberals will defend it as an essentially sweet if impractical gesture. Consider these opposing op-eds from the Los Angeles Times, one by Dawn Eden—in this context the conservative—and one by a liberal. Dawn has by far the better of the argument; she’s right about the significance of the fundamental errors of the hippies, and is in general far more substantial than her opponent, who doesn’t get much past superficial stuff about “speaking out,” accepting people who are different, etc. But neither piece does justice to the complexity of the times, much less to one’s experience of them. Of course that’s an unfair complaint to make about a thousand-word op-ed, but I want more. I want an account that will do justice to every aspect of the time, and communicate to the reader at least a little of what it felt like to live then.

All this makes me realize how much is forever inaccessible to history. Even those who live in a time can only capture portions and aspects of it. And once it passes out of living memory, no one will ever again truly know what it was like. We’re approaching that point with the Second World War, which was a powerful presence in the lives of my parents’ generation and therefore some kind of presence in mine, far less so in my children’s, and soon enough in no one’s.

I was very much part of the youth movement—whatever you want to call it—of the late 1960s, but whatever went on in San Francisco during the summer of 1967 had nothing to do with me. Instead of going west I went east, and had experiences that profoundly affected me but which are not for public exhibition. And I can best mark this anniversary by keeping my memories to myself.

Not everything is unsayable in words—only the living truth.
      —Eugene Ionesco


Music of the Week — June 24, 2007

The Innocence Mission: We Walked in Song

Never in the history of pop music has there been a more aptly-named band. Let me emphasize that I do not suggest that any member of the group was immaculately conceived or that they do not all need to go to confession with the rest of us. But there is something in their art, especially their more recent work, that seems to give some hint of something that we can’t easily imagine: a human consciousness unstained by sin.

There is a persistent and pernicious idea, one to which we all probably incline, that evil is somehow more alive and engaging than good. This is not so, but for most of us—for me at any rate—that’s often more an intellectual conviction than an immediate perception. Simone Weil remarks somewhere that fictional evil is generally more attractive than fictional good, whereas real good is more attractive than real evil. Substitute “imaginative” for “fictional” and I think you have a good description of the way most of our minds work. Moreover, there’s a tendency to see and portray the good person as somehow insipid, evasive of reality and possibly hypocritical, as in the phrase “goody two-shoes.”

The music of The Innocence Mission is a rare instance of success in the conflict described by Weil. When I listen to it I have the sense that I’m looking at the world through eyes which are enchanted by what is good and simply do not perceive “the glamour of evil.” It’s innocence, but an innocence of virtue and wisdom, not mere ignorance of evil. I have the feeling that it would recognize evil, in fact recognize it more quickly and fully than I, but perhaps fail to understand it, because unable to enter into the state of mind that would commit it or be drawn to it.

Some such explanation is required in order for me to understand what there is about this music that transcends any external description of it, which would be something along the lines of “gentle mostly acoustic folk-rock.” I’ve heard it described that way, somewhat dismissively, but I find much, much more here. A great deal of it is in the voice and lyrics of Karen Peris, the voice simultaneously womanly-warm and little-girlish, the lyrics simple but full of devastatingly effective moments where certain words are repeated and take on a resonance that never seems to end. And it’s in the melodies on which the lyrics float, and the simple but oddly moving arrangements, full of deeply evocative touches like the background vocals of “Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning” (a song which I might wish to have played at my funeral, though the Brooklyn reference would be puzzling).

In my opinion this album is at least as good as the Mission’s last, Befriended. And in my opinion that makes it great. Most pop music is evanescent stuff, but I think I’ll still want to hear this twenty years from now, if I’m still around.

Here is the album’s page at the band’s web site. It contains links to eMusic and iTunes, where you can hear samples.

Here is my review of Befriended, most of which applies equally to We Walk in Song. I have not, obviously, changed my mind about Befriended.


Russell on Romanticism

With a hat tip to Clio, who quotes this in a comment on her blog, I have to pass on this remark by Bertrand Russell: a Romantic is "someone who liberates the tiger from his cage and then admires the graceful leaps with which it devours the spectators."

Of course that doesn't say all there is to say about Romanticism, but it certainly pins down a certain aspect of it, or perhaps I should say a certain danger inherent in it.


Just a Few More Things

Courtesy of Happy Catholic, you can read this pdf which juxtaposes old and new versions of Eucharistic Prayer #1. This is probably enough of a sample to give us a pretty good idea of how the new translations are going to shape up. Personally I vote for them.

The question of how much theological difference is communicated by verbal subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) is the subject of this really fine essay by Anthony Esolen, who as you may know is a translator and has given a lot of thought to these things.

A commenter on the Open Book thread referenced earlier makes a point which has often occurred to me but which I'd more or less given up on as a lost cause: the degree to which shifting scripture translations have damaged our ability to read our own literature or even understand many aphorisms, because scriptural allusions aren't recognized. He or she wishes we could start with the classic translations and update where necessary. I could certainly get on board that train, but I don't suppose it's a possibility.

Speaking of Open Book, by the way, I noticed a comment from Amy that she had forgotten about approving comments for the the past day or so, so that probably explains the apparent non-approval mentioned by Dave G.

Finally, the point was raised in the comments that we are sometimes excessively suspicious and therefore excessively sensitive to little things which we take as confirmation of our suspicions. That's very true, and something we (I) certainly need to be on guard against. Still, it's a fact that small signs can be indicators of big things, and some of what seems like hyper-sensitivity is not totally irrational. There really are some serious and significant theological divisions within the Church, with some progressives espousing something much closer to liberal Anglicanism than to the Catholic faith. Charity and generosity are always in order, but not blindness.


Summing Up the Liturgy Discussion

Rather than try to respond directly to everything in the comments, I thought I'd try to hit it all at once.

A little background: I grew up Methodist, which is an offshoot of Anglicanism, and the Methodist service still carried a good bit of the old Book of Common Prayer language, which is, in general, the finest liturgical English ever written. Later I spent a couple of years in the Episcopal Church, right before becoming Catholic. I knew I was giving up a liturgy that was rich in both music and words for something that was decidedly not, and was prepared to make the best of it. But lemme tell you, the best has at times been pretty sad. It was like going from Shakespeare and Bach to the reading of the city council minutes punctuated by clunky renditions of John Denver songs.

Nevertheless, at this point in my life I'm over it. I've gone from frustration to something pretty close to despair to acceptance. It helps a lot that I now have access to the liturgy at the local cathedral, which has sublime music and a generally reverent atmosphere. The language still tends to pull the rug out from under things, especially some of the scripture readings ("no one gives one's life for oneself" or however that goes). But, to put it very brutally, I don't much care anymore. As I put it a while back in a letter to Daniel, it's a little--maybe a lot--like being in an unhappy marriage, where you quit expecting anything better. I can live with this and even be happy with it, especially if I can avoid some of the Glory and Praise songs that produce a visceral irritation in me.

So why did I bother writing this? Because Bishop Trautman's piece ticked me off--his condescension, his apparent tone-deafness to beauty in the liturgy, and his apparent persistence in the belief that the current liturgical situation is just peachy and is about to be ruined by the Vatican. It's not because I'm so wild about the new translations. I've only seen bits and pieces of them, and from what I've seen, they are richer than what we currently have. I agree with Ryan that they're not great poetry. However, they are conceptually richer and at least more varied verbally. And that brings me to what may be the most important thing here, something that I haven't addressed because I'm really not qualified.

We can agree or disagree about the aesthetics of the new translations. However, I've read over and over again that the ones in current use are simply not adequate as translations--that they simplify to the point of distortion. IF that's true, it constitutes for me a decisive argument in favor of the new translations. The texts of the liturgy represent the patrimony of over 1500 years of reflection. We have no business hacking this luxurious growth back to a few bare sticks just because we can't be bothered to learn a few new words or make a bit of effort. It requires vastly more brain power to operate a computer, evaluate high-definition TVs and surround-sound systems, or play a video game than it does to understand even the most complex of the samples of the new translations that I've seen so far. It's tooooo haarrrd is just not a complaint with which I'm going to sympathize. Here's a chance to use my newly-learned English/Australian word: stop whinging.

We can all agree that there is in theory some proper balance of simplicity and complexity. But to say that the use of, for instance, the word "suffused" (one of Bishop Trautman's example) errs on the latter side is just preposterous. I cannot avoid the suspicion, to which I alluded in the original piece and on which Robert Gotcher remarks in the very first comment below, that this is evidence of a mistaken view of the liturgy (and perhaps even of the faith itself) which is certainly very easily found in progressive Catholicism and which involves an exaggeration of the horizontal dimension.

Ryan says, "If I had to settle for simple translation versus a poor attempt at an overly literal translation, I would choose the former." I agree with that in principle. But I think what we have is a bad simple translation, and going to a translation which at least preserves the sense of the Latin may be a necessary start. We can't get to a really rich liturgical language just by wishing ourselves there, but we can slowly, over generations, polish and develop it. I don't see how progress of that sort can be made if radical simplification and lowest-common-denominator accessibility are the overriding goals.

From the moment I read the Bishop's letter I've been thinking about my high school Shakespeare class. I remember vividly my surprise at the way classmates whom I'd never suspected of having a serious thought, much less an interest in literature, responded to Shakespeare at the hands of a capable teacher. To this day I remember having an interesting conversation about Hamlet with the football player in the next row. We're underestimating John and Mary Catholic if we think they can't understand anything more complex than a simple declarative sentence.


Setting the Agenda for the Catholic Blogosphere

Clearly, that's what I'm doing. I was wondering why there hadn't been more uproar in the Catholic blog world about Bishop Trautman's attack on the new translations. No sooner do I sit down to write about it than it appears at Open Book and, apparently, all over the place. Amy has quotes from and links to some great observations in addition to her own cogent-as-usual ones, including an essay by an Australian bishop which I will definitely read later today.

Sunday Night Journal — June 17, 2007

Hey, Bishop, Leave Those Texts Alone

I knew fairly soon after I became a Catholic twenty-five years ago that I was not going to be the sort who takes a great interest in the intramural affairs of the Church. Vatican politics, the niceties of liturgical rubrics, canon law: none of that interests me very much, and in the three or four years that I’ve been producing this web site, I can’t recall saying anything about them. My attention is turned outward, toward the culture at large, which is, I think, as it should be for a layman. I do, however, precisely in that role as layman, care a great deal about the music and language of the liturgy, because it is they which surround and, in a sense, mediate the great Sacrament to me. I can live—I have been living—with these mediating artifacts being drab and even irritating, but I can’t participate fully, as we are supposed to do, in the liturgy if I’m being distracted and annoyed by them; I can only brace myself and hang on.

I’ve never acquired the habit of deference to clergy, and particularly to bishops, but I try to maintain a decent level of respect, and I don’t like to speak harshly in public of a bishop. That intention has been powerfully tested by the recent article in America by Bishop Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, in which he not only denounces the new liturgical translations but calls upon the faithful to resist them, while simultaneously insulting our intelligence. The article is accessible only to subscribers at America’s site, but can be read here at the web site of the Erie diocese. I have started to write about this on two occasions and stopped because I was becoming intemperate. I’ll now try again.

The substance of the bishop’s complaint is simply appalling. To address it thoroughly would require a magazine article, at least, so I’ll limit myself to two points:

  • He believes that lay Catholics—John and Mary Catholic, as he patronizingly describes us—cannot understand English words such as “sullied” and “thwart,” or a phrase such as “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” To fully grasp his low opinion of our reading comprehension, you need to read the entire America piece. Among other things, it’s a striking revelation of an odd rift I’ve noticed before in the progressive Catholic mind: on the one hand, we’ve been told for decades that the modern Catholic is intelligent and educated and will not sit still for the antiquated devotional practices and simple answers to moral questions that contented his illiterate ancestors. But this only seems to apply when the case is being made for a progressive innovation; otherwise, that same modern Catholic is treated like a somewhat simple-minded child, to be protected from anything difficult, either to comprehend or to do. How many times has a lay Catholic objecting to some progressive project been told that he has no business challenging professional theologians and liturgists?

  • He appears to have little or no use for, perhaps no perception of, any dimension of language except the purely denotative. Of the connotative, of the musical—in general, of the poetic, and of its possible role in the liturgy—he seems unconscious or indifferent. I believe this is a serious handicap for someone who serves as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

I suspect that these two points are indicative of some mistaken views about the liturgy: what it is meant to do, and how it does it. But I’m not going to try to sort that out; many volumes have been written about it, and I would have nothing new to add, and no expertise on which to draw. And I’m not qualified to judge whether the currently-used translations are sufficiently faithful to the Latin. Reportedly they are not. Certainly they are unattractive. I’ll go to what is, for me, the heart of the matter: the overly simplified, often clumsy, sometimes banal English currently found in both the liturgy and the scriptures has not been a help to my life as a Catholic. It has been an obstacle, a very serious obstacle. Of how many Catholics this is true, I can’t say, but I know for certain that I’m not the only one.

I’m not necessarily arguing for complexity in liturgical language, and certainly not complexity for its own sake, much less obscurity; simplicity can be poetic. But from the samples I’ve seen of the new translations that have so angered the bishop, they are much richer than what we now have, and although they may cause some initial confusion I don’t doubt that most Catholics can cope, and will soon benefit. You can only go so far in simplification before you begin to distort and omit. I believe it’s a mistake to interpret calls for clear and accessible liturgical language to mean that every sentence must be instantly and effortlessly understandable by someone with the comprehension, vocabulary, and attention span of a middle-schooler.

Bishop Trautman calls for the laity to write to the bishops’ committee and other authorities to voice our opinions on this matter. I think I will.


Music of the Week — June 17, 2007

Brian Eno: Another Green World

As I’ve mentioned before, I make it a rule to listen to a work at least three times before formulating any judgment on it. That’s not always the end of the story, of course—sometimes I change my mind after six or eight or a dozen hearings. But three is the minimum for avoiding a premature dismissal of something that’s not immediately winning, or excessive enthusiasm for something that doesn’t hold up. As I’ve also mentioned, a lot of this listening takes place in the car while I’m on the way to and from work, which of course is far from ideal.

After hearing Another Green World twice in the car, I was prepared to object to the All Music Guide’s description of it as “a universally acknowledged masterpiece”: universal minus one, at best, I thought. Then I listened to it with headphones, and heard something entirely different. In the car—which is to say, on a poor system with a lot of surrounding noise that overpowers detail—it’s an eccentric light-pop album with some interesting tunes and a lot of electronic noodling. Through headphones it’s a tour-de-force of production and arrangement.

I missed Eno entirely during the LP era, which is maybe just as well; the sheer richness and variety of timbral detail of this work, much of it soft and subtle, really need the pristine digital environment. It still seems a bit on the light side, and I’m not willing to go as far as “masterpiece,” but it’s impressive and fascinating.


Walker Percy on YouTube

Via Amy Welborn via Matthew Lickona, here is a roughly ten-minute video of Walker Percy's address on receiving the Laetare Medal at Notre Dame in 1989. If you know his work, this is a chance to get a sense of what the man himself was like. If you don't, his speech provides the frame of reference for understanding it. And the next thing you need to do is go to the bookstore or the library and get The Moviegoer or Love in the Ruins or Lost in the Cosmos.

Tom Jones

It's a great frustration to me that circumstances rarely permit me to read at length. I read a good deal, but it's in five- or ten-minute snippets. As part of my ongoing effort to visit the classics I missed several decades ago, I started Tom Jones a few weeks ago, when I had several days off and could manage an hour or two a day of reading. I would have been through it before now if I'd kept on at the pace I was making then. Now I'm down to reading one or two chapters at bed-time, so it's going to be a month or more before I finish. And I don't want to wait that long to say what a wonderful book it is. Stylistically, it's pure delight. And it must be a high point of the 18th century, the very acme of a certain genial, magnanimous, common-sensical English spirit. It may prove to be one of those rare books that are worth re-reading at regular intervals. Maybe one day I'll have time to do that.

New Links, Part 5

And speaking of Eve Tushnet, I'll be adding a link to her blog on the sidebar shortly. She writes there relatively sparsely and infrequently, and sometimes on interests I don't share, such as comics, certain TV shows, and cooking, but always insightfully enough to make it worthwhile for me to stop in every few days.

Eve Tushnet on Catholicism and Homosexuality

Over the past day or so I’ve been reading, in free moments here and there, this Commonweal exchange between Luke Timothy Johnson and Eve Tushnet. After finishing Johnson’s part I thought I would link to it under a subject something like “Interesting Dialog on Homosexuality.” But with all due respect to Mr. Johnson (a well-known biblical scholar) Ms. Tushnet’s contribution is the one to read. Mr. Johnson’s is pretty much the conventional Christian gay-rights rationale. Ms. Tushnet’s is emphatically not the conventional response. Eve (to revert to blogosphere informality) is herself a lesbian and a convert and addresses the question with a fresh wisdom and profundity unlike anything I've ever encountered on the subject. I could quote at length, and will perhaps have more specific comments later, but here’s a sample, picked mainly because those first two sentences resonate so much with me:

Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? We all know how flexible memory can be, how easy it is to give an overly gentle account of our own motivations, how hard it is to step outside our lifelong cultural training and see with the eyes of another time or place. To my mind, Johnson’s approach places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is. To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious—but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us. And so it’s necessary to turn at least as much skepticism on “the voice of experience” as Johnson turns on the voice of Scripture. It’s necessary to look at least as hard for alternative understandings of our experience as for alternative understandings of Scripture.

There’s a pattern in this exchange that I noticed over and over again on my way to the Church: that even if the case against the Church’s teaching seems superficially plausible, it’s the Church’s view—and often, but not always, the person arguing for the Church—that shows deeper and more poetic insight into human life. As the saying goes: This Is Not An Accident.


Sunday Night Journal — June 10, 2007

Movie Roundup, Continued

Note: I’ve been assuming in these notes that you’re assuming that these movies are basically for adults, and haven’t noted contraindications for children. Most of these are more or less unsuitable for children, but it doesn’t matter because they wouldn’t be interested anyway. Some have nudity or, as they say in the ratings, "sexual situations," that go a bit beyond suggestion, fairly mild by today’s non-standards, but if in doubt consult ratings, and feel free to email me for specifics.

Dead Man Walking: Like more than half of the movies on this list, this was my wife’s pick, and I would probably never have seen it on my own initiative. I assumed it would be a fairly heavy-handed piece of anti-death-penalty propaganda. But it isn’t, at all. It’s really quite well done and, taken as a study of the moral questions surrounding capital punishment, very even-handed. Sean Penn doesn’t do an entirely convincing Louisiana accent but apart from that he’s extremely good, as is most of the cast. I would recommend it, no matter what your views on the death penalty are, but if you haven’t seen it, be warned that much of it is pretty painful viewing, especially the crime committed by Penn’s character. (This one, by the way, is absolutely not for children.)

Broken Flowers: Bill Murray playing what has become his standard depressed and vaguely hostile character, visiting a string of ex-girlfriends to discover which of them sent him a note claiming that he has a 19-year-old son. The plot becomes a capsule version of “life’s a bitch and then you die.” There are some great moments but as a whole it leaves one in a sort of Bill-Murray-character frame of mind, morose expectations confirmed and feeling that nothing in particular has changed, no lessons learned.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Italian L'Albero degli zoccoli): This 1978 film has been recommended to me more than once as a Catholic classic, and by people whose opinions I respect, so I feel a bit guilty saying that I was disappointed in it. I should give it another try some time: watching a slow-moving three-hour movie on Friday night was a mistake, as in my house we are always short on sleep by the end of the work week, and I found it difficult to stay interested in this portrait of Italian peasants ca. 1900. It’s beautifully done, and the picture of the way the Faith is embedded in the lives of the people makes you say, “That’s the way it ought to be.” Don’t let me discourage you.

The Dress (Dutch De Jurk): Story of a dress and the people through whose hands it passes, an idea that has more potential than it delivers. Much of the story involves a creep who has a weird erotic attachment to the dress. The English-speaking viewer inevitably attaches the Dutch title to him. It doesn’t add up to anything much.

Beyond Silence (German Jenseits der Stille): Another family drama that I wouldn’t have picked, but which turned out to be very much worthwhile. About a girl whose deaf parents expect more from her in the way of assistance with everyday life than she is, as she gets older, prepared to give. The situation is complicated by the father’s sister, who encourages the girl’s musical abilities, which prove to be substantial: absolutely the worst art she could have chosen, of course. It’s all worked out very believably and touchingly, with no cheap follow-your-bliss stuff. Excellent and recommended.

Nowhere in Africa (German Nirgendwo in Afrika): Still another family drama that I wouldn’t have picked; moreover, still another drama about Jews attempting to escape the Nazis, a subject which one would think is pretty well exhausted. But it’s marvelous. The family’s escape is to Africa, and the film is much less about what’s happening in Europe than about the reactions and adaptations of mother, father, and daughter to Africa. Far too much here to be summarized briefly, but suffice to say it’s very much worth seeing; the visual portrait of the African landscape and people alone would make it so. The final image haunts me. Based—as I began to suspect within the first half-hour or so—on an autobiographical novel by Stephanie Zweig which I think I’d like to read.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl: It’s three hours long, so you may want to watch it in two installments, but fascinating. Riefenstahl, as you probably know, produced films, some brilliant, for the Nazis. She herself appears here, sometimes attempting to explain and sometimes appearing to evade the facts of her complicity. Had she not stuck with the Nazis she would have seemed to us another glamorous female adventurer of the between-wars period, and there’s a bit of there-but-for-fortune in seeing how easy it might be to follow a regime into deep evil if one is respected, admired, and rewarded within it.

The Battle of Algiers (Italian La Battaglia di Algeri): I wanted to see this because I’d heard it bears a lot of relevance to the Iraq war. It does. It’s also a very fine work apart from that.

Faust: F. W. Murnau’s 1926 silent version. Like The General, which I’ve already written about here, I wanted to see this for more or less educational reasons, because it’s considered a classic, not necessarily expecting to enjoy it. But I did. If you can adapt to the conventions of the silent and to the filmmaking technology of the 1920s, you may find this far more enjoyable than you might have expected. I did.

Kolya (Czech): Hmm, yet another abandoned-child story. This one is also a life-under-Communism story: Kolya is a politically out-of-favor cellist who participates in a phony but legal marriage (an immigration dodge) which leaves him in custody of a child, the last thing he wanted to bring into his womanizing routine. Fairly slight but very good.

La Notte (The Night, Italian): The second in what is generally considered an Antonioni trilogy beginning with L’Avventura and ending with L’Eclisse. I didn’t like this one as well as L’Avventura, though I do want to see it again. Here’s an interesting comment from an anonymous Netflix customer: “The ending is (like many other films of this era) what we would today call borderline—unable to feel or act without a painful and ultimately destructive push and pull of emotion...demanding drama in your life can work in film. Films of this era created a whole generation of people who tried to actually live that way, and looking back at these films is instructive as to how we have gotten where we are—needing constant external input.” Don’t know that the cause-and-effect (very few Americans saw this film in its day, and probably not all that many Europeans did), but that does perhaps describe a real action-reaction in the culture.

The Firemen’s Ball(Czech Horí, má panenko): I was on my way to thinking that this 1967 Milos Forman film was a near-complete waste of time, shortly after my nineteen-year-old daughter bailed out on it, when I began to realize that there was a statement about life in Communist Czechoslovakia going on. That made it a bit more interesting. Still, it’s a kind of shabby and not extremely interesting story. I may be speaking partly out of prejudice against Milos Forman, whose later Hollywood career seems to have produced some films for which I don’t have a lot of respect, e.g. Amadeus and The People vs. Larry Flynt. (I have not seen the latter, but since everyone, admirers and detractors alike, seems to agree that it makes something of a hero of Larry Flynt while glossing over the disgusting truth about him, I feel justified in my opinion).


Music of the Week — June 10, 2007

Terri Hendrix: Places In Between

As with a great deal of music that I like, I owe my acquaintance with this artist to my old friend Robert Woodley. Places In Between is an uneven album, but it’s made me want to hear more of Hendrix’s work, a testimony partly to the merits of the music and partly to something likeable in what I have to call its personality, which in turn refers, obviously, to the personality of Terri Hendrix and also to the spirit of her collaborators: she has a dynamite band led by her producer, main instrumentalist, and sometime co-writer Lloyd Maines (who is, I learn from AMG), a man with quite a musical track record of his own and the father of one of the Dixie Chicks.

This is a sort of folk-rock-country music with touches of jazz. To locate it in the popular music landscape, it’s somewhere in the general vicinity of Sheryl Crow’s. I’d have to say that Crow—or rather, looking at the credits on her albums, Crow and her collaborators—are, objectively, the superior songwriters. But I’ve never entirely warmed up to Crow’s work, respecting it somewhat more than I like it. This is a purely subjective thing, but, for what it’s worth, on the testimony of this album, I like Hendrix better. There’s a warm, engaging quality about her singing and writing; I keep coming back to the word “likeable”—I come away from the album thinking that she would be an enjoyable person to know, certainly not a sentiment inspired by every artist whose work one admires. Even her melancholy songs leave you with the sense that a sunny energy is going to reassert itself shortly. Her lyrics are sometimes a bit heavy on the you-can-do-it, fulfill-your-potential side, and I wonder about the implications of her adoption of “Own Your Own Universe” as a slogan for her record company. But as a distributist I have to cheer someone whose successful career has, apparently, been an end-run around the major record companies; maybe an achievement like that requires a touch of power-of-positive-thinking attitude.

In my opinion the best track here is “Wish,” and it’s superlative. Head over to iTunes or eMusic and give it a try. Runners-up are “Invisible Girl” (I would prefer its sometimes risqué story be a bit less explicit, but it’s quite a romp, with a wonderful bit of voice-and-instrument doubling in the outro), the title song, and “My Own Place.”

Here’s the artist’s web site, and here is her MySpace site, where you can hear some complete tracks, including “It’s A Given” from Places In Between.


It's Hot, or, A Wildebeest in Yellowstone

The heat has arrived here. It will be oppressively hot and humid--90-plus on both scales--most of the time from now until October. As a result of having lived most of my life in a hot, humid climate, pictures like this one tend to have a hint of paradise for me:

This is my son Will on his recent trip to Colorado and Wyoming. You can read all about it here. (It does seem that people who live in Boulder should be called Boulders, doesn't it?)


In Dreams Begin Irresponsibilities

I've heard a number of people, predominantly but not exclusively women, over the years remark on having nightmares about being back in school facing some academic calamity, such as an exam for which they are totally unprepared. For instance, Amy Welborn and most of the commenters in this thread; for instance, my wife. I, on the other hand, have never had such a dream. My wife was a straight-A student, while I'm a lifelong under-achiever in nearly every way. So I guess this is my little compensation.

On the other hand, for many years I had a recurring dream about nuclear war, which is almost as bad.


Sunday Night Journal — June 3, 2007

Movie Roundup

I’ve been meaning to do another one of these for a while. The films are listed in the order in which I saw them, or at least in which Netflix sent them.

Blow-up: I’ve somehow gotten the impression that this movie is no longer regarded as highly as it once was. Well, if that’s true, I don’t care; I think it’s a masterpiece, and phooey to those who disagree. It made a huge impression on me when I first saw it, when it was new and I was a college freshman, but I didn’t really know why. I suppose it was a matter of mood and atmosphere more than anything else. Now I think I understand it, and I think it comes closer to capturing an essential aspect of the cultural upheaval of the ‘60s than pretty much any other work of art I know of. I’m ready to see it again.

L’Avventura: Going straight from Blow-up to this earlier classic by Antonioni was interesting; the connection in technique is plain. According to the critical commentary on the DVD, the title refers to the adventure of self-discovery, or something. Whatever. If you want to call it a nearly plotless portrait of some unappealing rich people, with unavoidable implications about The Emptiness of Modern Life and The Difficulty of Really Communicating With Another Person, that’s ok with me. It’s beautiful and evocative. The camera can’t stay away from Monica Vitti’s strikingly soulful face, and the contrast between what one sees there and the lives these people lead is unforgettable, even if I’m unconvinced that the philosophical depth claimed for the film is really there. I’m ready to see it again, too. I haven’t yet completed the putative trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’eclisse.

The Long Goodbye: 1973, directed by Robert Altman, Elliot Gould as Marlowe. Forgettable, apparently, as I’m already hazy about it and it was just this past February that I saw it. I think Robert Altman is overrated. Can’t point to anything in particular wrong with it but it just didn’t really work for me. Maybe it’s impossible to move Chandler into any milieu but 1930-1950 (approximately) Los Angeles.

In A Lonely Place: A 1950 Bogart noir, sort of—more of a character study than a crime drama. Highly regarded, I gather, and maybe I should give it another chance, but I was underwhelmed.

Junebug: Dysfunctional family piece, for which my appetite is very limited. Young man who moved away from redneck Carolina to be somebody in the big city returns with sophisticated art-dealer wife, many conflicts occur. Very well done but not really my cup of tea.

Monsieur Ibrahim: Sentimental story about a semi-abandoned Parisian boy taken under the wing of a kindly Muslim shopkeeper. Philosophically unconvincing—Ibrahim’s Islam would not be at all out of place on Oprah—but engaging. You can’t help liking the boy and Ibrahim (played by Omar Sharif). Almost worth seeing for the whirling Dervishes, if you’ve never seen them.

Central Station: Brazilian, also an abandoned-child story, and more convincing than Ibrahim. The adult in this case is a hard-nosed middle-aged single woman who really doesn’t want to bother. I notice that Netflix quotes reviewers’ praise of the actress, Fernanda Montenegro, who plays the woman, and rightly: she is what I mainly recall. Not a truly great film, but worthwhile.

The Dark Corner: More noir, about a private eye with a past being framed for murder, and I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t like noir as much as I thought I did. It wasn’t bad but I wasn’t enthused, either. Interesting to see Lucille Ball in an early non-comedy role.

Intimate Stories: Yes, I know, the title sounds like some kind of quasi-porn, and although I don’t know Spanish I suspect that whoever translated Historias Minimas this way probably made a mistake. It is indeed a small movie about small people and small events, but it’s thoroughly beautiful, not least in the straightforwardly visual sense. The slight but well-constructed plot revolves around the partly interlocking journeys of several small-town or rural people to the big city. Highly recommended.

Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring: I have had these recommended to me many times over the years, but have, to be honest, avoided what seemed an obligation, like that of reading a classic that doesn’t really interest you. From the descriptions I expected them to be long, ponderous, and sad. The first and last are accurate; the second is not. If you haven’t seen them, I strongly suggest you treat them as a unit. They’re probably too much for one viewing—they would be for me—but watch them on consecutive nights if you can, as they are really one story. And together they comprise a masterpiece. The first seemed to be meeting my expectation of a mildly unpleasant experience, as we watch the deliberate destruction of a good man. It’s excruciating, and I would just as soon have stopped there. But Manon turns the story from a portrait of brute suffering into a genuine tragedy, classical in its lines, and profound; a classic indeed. I suspect most people who read this blog have seen it, but if you haven’t, make a note: this is one you must see.

I see I still have another eight or ten movies to go, so I think I’ll split this up. More next week.


Music of the Week — June 3, 2007

Horse Feathers: Words Are Dead

I would probably never have heard this album if the eMusic subscriber who signs herself “flamgirlant” (get it?—I’m a bit obtuse sometimes and had to ask) had not persuasively and evocatively reviewed it under the title “Your Winter Album”. And although I’ve lived almost my entire life in a hot climate where snow is rare, I think I know what she means. The basic sound makes me think of bare branches against the sky, spare to the point of being stark, consisting mostly of guitar and one or more bowed strings (violin and cello, I think, although flamgirlant says there is a viola as well). There’s no bass, which increases the effect of thin sharp lines. There are only occasional touches of percussion. The principal singer’s voice is high-pitched and plain, fading into a whisper at times. Some of the song titles conjure lean American images: “Hardwood Pews,” “Finch on Saturday,” “Dustbowl.”

Not only the wintry quality, but something else about this music takes me back to the one winter I spent in a cold climate, Denver in 1970-71. That was an odd moment, when the wildest heights and depths of the late ‘60s leveled off for a while, and hippies were talking about moving to the country. There was a desire to return to the essentials, and a burgeoning of acoustic music. Although the two young men who mainly comprise Horse Feathers were presumably not yet born at the time, there’s something timeless in their music that would have been perfectly appropriate then. It makes me think in particular of a couple of hippie emporiums, one of them a music shop, if I remember correctly, with heavy unfinished wood furnishings and the smell of patchouli everywhere; guitars and banjos hanging on the walls; jeans, flannel, corduroy, leather; beards on the men and long dresses and long hair on the women; maybe even a baby appearing here and there.

But whereas the acoustic music of that time and place tended toward the John Denver commercial-romantic mode, Horse Feathers has a Gothic streak, and I don’t think you’re likely ever to hear one of their angular melodies on your local pop music station. I can’t understand more than about half the lyrics, but themes of mortality and melancholy seem to predominate. Imagine a combination of, say, Pure Prairie League and Nick Drake, and you’re in the general territory. It doesn’t sound remotely like Drake, and it’s American to the bone, but like Drake’s music much of it strikes you as both new and inevitable; it also carries a similar sense of privacy and introspection.

There is, in short, a touch of greatness here. They’re not there yet, and maybe this is as far as they go—sometimes a band has only one good statement in them, and there’s no shame in that; I’m grateful for this one and will probably be listening to it for a long time. Musically the album is simply brilliant, but in my view it would have benefited from more fully developed lyrics (and I need a lyric sheet). And the presence of certain sexual crudities in the song “Walking and Running” is, in my view, an aesthetic misstep, although if I understand the import of the song—a sort of lament and remonstrance about sexual promiscuity—the writer(s) could make a good case for their inclusion.

Go listen for yourself, to the samples at eMusic, or to full songs at the band’s MySpace page. I don’t think you’ve heard anything quite like this. Tell me if you think I’m completely off base.