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July 2007

Michaelangelo Antonioni, RIP

Yes, it is a bit spooky that he died within a day or two of Bergman, one of those things that you feel must mean something even though you aren't sure what it might be—which, come to think of it, is highly fitting for these two directors. Here is what I said a month or two ago about 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.

I'm still working my way through the rest of Antonioni's work. There is probably less great work there than in Bergman's career, but I can say of his best films exactly what I said yesterday of Bergman's: that they're among the few that I care about as much as I do my favorite books and music.

Here is the NY Times's obituary.


Sunday Night Journal — July 29, 2007

Provisional Last Word on Harry Potter

NOTE: There are no spoilers, properly speaking, in this post, but I do give my general opinion of the last book, so if you want to remain absolutely free of preconceptions about it you may want to skip this.

UPDATE: no spoilers in the post itself, but there are some in the comments.

As my wife said last night, this weekend has been “all Harry Potter, all the time,” at least up until the wee hours of Saturday night. Having decided that we would make one of our rare ventures into a theater for the most recent Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we decided on Friday night to refresh our memories by renting its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That turned out to be a good idea, as I had forgotten most of it. Then last night we went to see Phoenix. And after we got home we both finished the Potter books we were reading, Deathly Hallows for me, its predecessor Half-Blood Prince for her. Both films were thoroughly enjoyable for the most part, although, as with the books, I wouldn’t make any great artistic claims for them. If you’re a fan and haven’t seen the new movie yet (which I guess is almost a contradiction in terms), you can look forward to portrayals of Dolores Umbridge and Luna Lovegood which could hardly be improved upon. I note in passing with dismay that Emma Watson (Hermione) has the unnatural-looking thinness that seems to be required these days of young women in show business; let’s hope it’s natural to her.

Here’s what I am not saying about the books:

  • That they are risk-free. There is a real possibility that some readers might be confused and misled by the treatment of magic and wander into occultism. I don’t think they would be a great many, and if they go very far at all into that path, they have deeper problems, but it is a possibility. Although I’ve insisted that “magic” in Potterworld is not the magic with which occultists toy (or worse), there is at minimum a prudential argument against using the same paraphernalia for non-occult literary purposes.

  • That they are completely compatible with Christian theology and morality. I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of some anti-Potter Catholics to speak as if they want to see in children’s fiction a theological correctness, in which every element of the story must conform explicitly to Catholic doctrine. The more extreme proponents of this view seem to imply that a work is to be rejected if any character in it ever commits a sin which is not clearly and specifically punished. A rigid application of this criterion would, obviously, be a recipe for artistic shipwreck, and require rejection of much or most of the world’s great literature.

    On the other side, there are apparently some Christians who do maintain that the books are thoroughly and specifically Christian. I think they’re overstating the case. I’ve heard it said throughout this controversy that J.K. Rowling is a Christian, but without any further detail. On the basis of the books I would guess—and I emphasize that it’s only a guess—that her Christianity is not very definite about doctrine.

  • That they are great literature. There’s much in the books that I find distasteful (the gross-out humor) or unconvincing and unamusing (the depiction of the magical world as a sort of Halloweenized parody of the real one). There is certainly no remarkable prose craftsmanship on display. That’s forgiveable, as the story here is the main thing, but it’s certainly a major handicap if we are going to throw around the word “great.” I find them overall fairly lightweight, although they get better after the almost comic-book level of the first one, and often show real depth. But I don’t put them in the class with Tolkien.

Here’s what I am saying: the over-arching theme of sacrificial love in the story—the whole seven-volume story—disqualifies it from being fundamentally evil. I’ve been saying that with the qualifier “so far” until now. Having finished the last book, I can remove the qualifier.

I was, finally, somewhat disappointed in Deathly Hallows, but not because I think it retreated from the theme. Without going into detail that would spoil the story for those who plan to read it but haven’t yet, I’ll just say that as a work of fiction it runs into some difficulties. When the book arrived last weekend, my daughter, who is of the generation that have passed from late childhood to early adulthood reading the Potter saga, of course had first claim on it, and read it through in a day or so. When I asked her to tell me her basic opinion without giving away anything specific, she said, “It’s good, but some of it doesn’t hang together very well.” That’s my nutshell opinion, too. We both thought it seemed as if the latter part especially had been written in a rush.

Here are some links to other opinions, all of which contain major spoilers, so don’t read them if you don’t want to know how the story ends. I share many of the criticisms made by Ross Douthat and Eve Tushnet. The comments on Mark Shea’s post include some excellent debate about the question of magic, including some interesting observations by Sandra Meisel who has a formidable knowledge of history. And although I think he may be overstating things a bit, I like this remark by Shea himself, which I can quote without giving away anything:

Think about it: it must drive the devil freakin’ *nuts* to see imagery that has long been his property now being co-opted by this insidious Rowling person and turned to the service of Christ, inspiring people with Christ-like models of love and self-sacrifice and with a story of divine grace and mercy that clearly draws on the Christian tradition. I think God must be laughing his head off at this consummate work of jiu-jitsu. To have even the image of the *witch* bow the knee to Christ. Old Scratch must be mighty frustrated. If only Christian Harry haters could figure that out.

Spoiler-ridden opinion links:

Ross Douthat

Eve Tushnet

Mark Shea


Ingmar Bergman, RIP

Since I first encountered them in college, forty years ago, Bergman's films have been among the few that I care about as deeply as I do my favorite books and music, notwithstanding the fact that I had no clear idea what some of the more gnomic ones (e.g. Persona) were really about. As much as any artist, and more than all but a very few, he showed us the meaning of the absence of God. May he find the light and joy that were seldom seen in his work, but were all the more vivid for being rare.


Music of the Week — July 29, 2007

Tristania: Illumination

A year or two ago on the Caelum et Terra blog there was a discussion of guilty pleasures, with accompanying revelations. Being Catholics, we were careful to specify that we did not mean sinful pleasures—sin is sin, and when you sin you go to confession and try your best not to do it again; you don’t put it in the fridge with the intention of taking an occasional bite or sip. A guilty pleasure is one that isn’t a sin but in some way goes against your better judgment: if it’s food, maybe it isn’t good for your health or your waistline, like a bag of cheese curls; if it’s art, maybe it’s something of which your critical faculties can’t approve but which you nevertheless enjoy, like an old episode of Magnum P.I..

For my part, the thing that came immediately to mind when the topic was suggested was heavy metal music. I’m fascinated by sound for its own sake, and the dense, massive power and weight of the bass and guitar combination in metal is particularly fascinating—it’s as if someone had figured out how to organize thunderclaps. This music has never been something I wanted to hear very often, because in most of it the elements of music beyond the thunderclaps are pretty deficient, limited to the expression of rage and hostility. And the lyrics tend toward the hateful and violent, sometimes even the Satanic, and not in a tongue-in-cheek way.

A few years ago, thanks to eMusic, I discovered a sub-genre that I actually like and—I’m admitting here for the first time—has mostly moved out of the category of guilty pleasure. Sometimes referred to as gothic or symphonic metal, it adds melody, variety, and contrast, even subtlety, to the basic format, incorporating keyboards, strings, maybe even the occasional choir, and some of the techniques and ambitions of progressive rock. A sub-sub-genre sometimes described as the “beauty and the beast” style adds female vocals which typically are near-classical in their range and purity. Its atmosphere is not one of evil and violence but a gloomy, occasionally morbid, romanticism.

Of the bands of this type that I’ve heard, my favorite is Tristania. Considering that I have four of their five full-length albums, it would be dishonest at this point to pretend I’m not a fan. It’s true that I got the first three from eMusic for a negligible sum, when eMusic offered unlimited downloads for ten dollars a month. And it’s true that I don’t listen to them all that much, because their intensity wears on me after twenty minutes or so. And it’s true that much of their music—almost all their earlier albums—is marred by the presence of the so-called “death grunt” male vocal, which can best be described as the sound of a very large, very hostile Cookie Monster. But the interplay of the classic metal elements with the lovely soaring vocals of Vibeke Stene can be beautiful and very potent. I have half-jokingly described them as the Fairport Convention of metal. (Alas, Vibeke left the band last winter; one hopes they’ll find someone comparable.)

Their latest, Illumination, is an album very much worth full cd price. And my remark above about listening to them in small doses doesn’t really apply here, as the intensity is frequently moderated by quieter passages, and Beauty is given some really affecting melodies. They’ve gradually been leaving behind more and more of the conventions of metal and, as the AMG reviewer said, have almost re-invented the gothic romanticism of ‘80s bands like Bauhaus, Xymox, and the Sisters of Mercy (albeit with more power chords than synths). The mood here is predominantly one of melancholy, yearning, and regret, though there are occasional moments of bitterness and a couple of anti-Christian sentiments. As I wrote to a friend, I wish they didn’t think God is their enemy. I often think that people like them would be very committed Christians if they could ever get past their prejudices against the faith, because they seem to passionately desire what is real. The song “Sacrilege” reveals the misunderstanding: introduced by what seems to be a somewhat insipid Christian hymn, it defies the religion which they think would crush them. If they only knew…. In spite of that, I think they’re worth listening to, although certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Their music is gloomy but, as the title of this album suggests, it does not hate the light:

But you must not fear the dark
I will watch over your sleep
Until the morning comes


No doubt I’m reading too much into those lines, but they’re a good description of the way I feel when praying for someone I care about, especially those who may not be praying for themselves.

Here are: Illumination on eMusic, the official band site, and the MySpace page (very slow to load, but allows you to hear one of my favorite songs from Illumination, “Mercyside”).

And here’s a link to that CetT thread.


A Tenable Generalization About Men and Women

Men almost always want a bigger television. By that I mean not only bigger than the woman in his life wants, but bigger than the one he already has. Most of the exceptions to this rule are men who on principle refuse to have a television in the house at all, and those happy few who have already maxed out what the house can accommodate. And of course his idea of "accommodate" is not the same as hers.

I recall a meeting a few years ago, attended by three or four men and three or four women. We were waiting on our boss to start the meeting and one of the women began to complain about the tug of war she was having with her husband, who wanted to replace their tv with a much bigger one. All the women sided with her. All the men sided with her husband, even though I personally would not feel more than a momentary pang if told I could never watch television again.

Our boss, a woman, arrived in the middle of this conversation. She and her husband have no children and live in a house that could probably contain any two houses belonging to the rest of us. Taking in the subject, she said, "I'm fighting that battle with my husband, too," and joined the rest of the women in wondering "What is this thing with guys and the monster tv?" The men of course were saying "All that room and you don't have a home theater?"


Sunday Night Journal — July 22, 2007

A Vignette

I mentioned in a comment recently that I have an array of unfinished projects that never cease to whisper accusations of neglect at me. One of them is a novel that I started some twenty or twenty-five years ago. There are a number of reasons why it’s languished for most of that time, and for all of the past ten or more of those years: workaday responsibilities and distractions, an almost ADD-like inability to concentrate, procrastination, plain old laziness. And then there’s the more fundamental problem that I’m not a natural storyteller. I’ve had from the beginning the broad outline of my plot but have had trouble with the details. I originally intended for it to be a quasi-detective story, which was one reason the plot was difficult: you need a pretty well-engineered mechanism for that.

Some weeks ago I had an email conversation with a friend who’s trying to find a publisher for a novel she’s written, which caused me to locate and read the fragments of mine. I thought it had potential. I told her I’d send her some samples, but have, as usual, found it hard to organize that project. So I spent the time which ordinarily goes into writing my Sunday journal in doing so. The vignette which follows is brief enough to post. So, Vicki, here it is.

The time is the late 1970s. The place is Atlanta, approximately. The narrator is a thirty-ish ex-musician and current Ph.D student (history) who’s been asked by a hospitalized friend to track down an old girlfriend.


I located the building at a little after eleven, and when I had stopped the car the street was silent. The neighborhood was shabby but could have been worse. The old house sat square in its small high yard, having been built on a mild slope which had been cut away for sidewalk and street. A brick wall, eighteen inches or so high, kept the yard from spilling out into the street but would not, to judge by the way it sagged outward, continue to do so for many more years. The house was like most of those in the neighborhood, tall and blocky and needing care. At the windows were torn screens and sagging air conditioners. While I sat there, putting off the task, wondering whether it was too early to wake up a bunch of hippies on a Sunday morning, a Led Zeppelin song came crashing into the street. After thirty seconds of that I figured no one within a couple of hundred feet could still be sleeping, so I got out of the car. As I stepped onto the sidewalk the music stopped abruptly, leaving the tail of someone’s fury in the air—fucking bastard—and with that for my trumpet call I marched up the two steps to the front walk, up three steps to the porch. I found the name on a mailbox and opened the front door.

The front hall breathed of an old sadness, with its dark wooden floor and wallpaper of a decorous, abstract, and empty pattern, long faded, having had little enough life in it to begin with—a pattern too mechanical to do anything but lock the mind into itself, suggesting or recalling nothing. It held, permanently, the mood of a lonely Sunday without festivity. Beer cans and other debris were scattered around, much of it looking as if it had been there for a while.

A staircase on my left ran up toward the rear of the house. I climbed, noticing how sturdy the banister had remained, sliding my hand along it and taking my time, having no wish to meet the woman I was seeking and half-hoping Darlene’s trail would end here.

When I stood at the door of 207 I could hear running water and the sound of a television. When I knocked, there was a tattoo of light feet moving away from the door, and in a moment the sound of the water stopped. The footsteps returned, more slowly, and there was movement on the other side of the door. A kid, I thought, figuring that I was now being examined through the peephole in the door. Kids home alone, with instructions not to answer the door. I tried very hard not to stare into the peephole, and looked everywhere else, feeling like the mischievous character in an old comedy, feigning innocence, hands in pockets, eyes wandering. At last I turned around and looked over the balustrade down into the foyer.

The door opened behind me. Turning, I saw the face of a woman with wet hair looking past the chain.

“Gina goddamn well better not have sent you over here this time of morning.”

“I don’t know Gina,” I said. “I’m looking for somebody who used to live here. Last I know she was in 205. Darlene Jeffrey. Did you know her?”

She paused. “Yeah. Don’t know where she is now, though. What do you want with her?”

I told her who I was and why I was looking for Darlene.

“Wheeler’s a shit,” she said, “but I guess you can come in. Not that I can help you much.”

She opened the door and we looked at each other. Her dark wet hair, parted in the middle, fell past a face that was somewhat pretty but hardened, not so much by her expression, it seemed, as by something in the bone, as if she had been put together by a builder whose work was solid but lacking in grace and finish. She wore a dark blue tank top and jeans, filling them with a body that was rounded but trim.

At a distance of ten feet or so behind her, in a frayed-looking robe of pink terrycloth, stood a little girl of eight or ten with long dark hair which I took as proof that the woman was her mother. Windows on the east side of the room let in the clean September light, but the one slightly open window didn’t let in enough fresh air to defeat the cigarette smoke and the close greasy smell of bad housekeeping. To the right, opposite the windows, were a kitchen and what I supposed must be a bedroom—all I could see was a floor littered with clothing. Beside the kitchen door, a crumpled grocery bag full of garbage seemed in immediate danger of toppling because of the heavy gallon-sized wine jug which had been imprudently added to what had already been a full load.

She gestured toward a battered-looking green couch which filled the space in front of the windows. At one end of the couch was a table upon which sat a small color television. I recognized the program: Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power.” I sat down on the other end.

“She’d rather have cartoons,” said the woman, “but she’ll watch anything.” She nodded in response to the little girl’s look, and the girl jumped up on the other end of the couch without looking at me, drawing herself up as if to keep as far away from me as possible.

“She doesn’t like guys,” said the woman.

I waited to see if she would explain the remark. She didn’t. Over the little girl’s shoulder I watched as the eye of the camera drifted across a choir in sky-blue robes. The girl was humming softly, her face almost against the screen. The camera panned to the bright windows of Reverend Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral.

“She asked me once if that was heaven,” said the woman. “You remember that, Glad?” The little girl didn’t answer.

“Pretty boring heaven, it looks to me,” I said.

“You might not think so if you’d seen some of the stuff she’s seen,” said the mother, her eyes on the television, or on the little girl, but her vision far away, and again offered no explanation. Though the way was open for me to inquire, I didn’t.

“This is kind of distracting,” I said, “for all concerned. What if we talk in there, where we won’t bother her?” I pointed to the kitchen. The woman gave me a suspicious look, then shrugged. “Whatever.” As she stepped into the kitchen, the little girl spoke, without looking around.

“Do you want me to turn it up?”

“No, honey, that’s ok.”

“Is ‘Glad’ short for something?” I asked.

“Galadriel,” she said. “You know, from the trilogy.”

The position of the wine bottle in the garbage bag was as precarious as it looked, for the whole thing toppled to the floor when I brushed it as I entered the kitchen, scattering eggshells, paper, banana skins, and tuna cans over the floor. It seemed to break the ice; she laughed and began to talk while I cleaned up the mess. She offered me a cup of coffee but with so many apologies for its age that she convinced me to decline it. She poured herself one and lit a cigarette.

“Darlene and I were actually pretty good friends,” she began. “She thought I was real mature and experienced, which I guess is true—at least the ‘experienced’ part.” She grunted. “I tried to kind of look out for her. Not that she listened much. I guess nobody likes advice unless it’s what they want to hear. She wanted to be free and have a good time, but I kept telling her to get serious. Look, I told her, if you’re going to be on your own you got to take care of yourself, because nobody else is going to. Hang on to your money, go to secretarial school or something. And don’t ever give a guy nothing. I told her it was going to get real old, waiting tables just so you can hang out in clubs on your day off. But she was just a kid, you know? She’d agree with everything I said, sweet as could be, then turn around and do just the opposite.”

The kitchen table reminded me of my childhood: it was an old one with a 1950s look, red marble-like formica and heavy round chrome legs, though the chrome was pocked and rusted in places. The table was covered with more dishes than the two of them could have used for one meal. I sat down in front of a half-full bowl of wet Cheerios.


Music of the Week — July 22, 2007

The Clientele: Suburban Light

One rainy Saturday evening in 1976 I wandered into the only serious record store in town. By “serious” I mean it was like the record shop in the movie High Fidelity—the owner, Paul somebody, and most of the people who worked there were passionate music lovers, zealously evangelistic for the music they loved and mercilessly contemptuous of anything they thought at all meretricious. Having more than a little of the obnoxious music geek in me, I often got into lengthy discussions and arguments there. The store was dim and dusty and crammed with record bins of unfinished wood, not much better built than packing crates, and generally had a slovenly look about it, which was quite misleading, as the stock was meticulously organized. And if you still had trouble finding what you were looking for, most of the staff knew exactly where to find it, or could explain when it was expected or, possibly, why they would not soil themselves by stocking it.

I wonder if there are still such stores. In big cities, I suppose so, but this was a small college town, and the store is long gone. I moved away, so I don’t know for sure when it folded, but I don’t think it survived the transition to the cd era; somehow the cd was never quite as romantic as the lp.

The reason I had nothing to do on this Saturday evening was that I had recently been on the losing end of a breakup. Maybe I was looking for company at the record store. And, thinking back on it, I expect I had unconsciously decided to buy myself a present, an album I’d never heard before that would give me something besides her to think about for a while. The bright friendly windows gleaming through the heavy rain, full of new releases and rarities, were as inviting to me as a bar might have been to someone more convivial. I went inside, shaking off the rain, and found the store empty except for Paul—it was Saturday night. After a few pleasantries he left me alone to browse. I made a mental note not to stay past his nominal closing time, even though I knew he wouldn’t chase me out. An aging unmarried hipster with wire-rimmed glasses, hair vanishing in front and pony-tailed in back, pudgy, he didn’t have anything better to do, either.

I couldn’t find anything I really wanted. In a what-the-hell sort of mood I started browsing the expensive imports and collector’s items, something I rarely bothered to do, as I couldn’t afford them. In the second category I found a used copy of an album called Suburban Light. I’d never heard of it or of the group, but something about the title phrase appealed to my mood, as did the cover art.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“The Clientele? Oh, that’s great. A totally unknown classic. It came out at the end of 1966 and flopped, then the critics rediscovered it a few years ago, but it’s hard to find. Sort of early psychedelic English kind of thing. It doesn’t sound like the Kinks but since you like Something Else so much you’d probably like it. Bring it here.” Another nice thing about the store was that Paul remembered your tastes: Something Else was one of my top five post-British-invasion/pre-Sgt. Pepper English albums.

I took it over to the counter. He slipped the disc out of its jacket—although it was used, it seemed to be in very good shape—and dropped the needle, expertly, on “Reflections After Jane.”

It was beautiful and under my circumstances almost preternaturally appropriate, so that was enough. I bought the album, even though it was outrageously expensive at something close to twenty dollars. I was so bowled over by the song that I probably would have paid that much for a 45. I thanked Paul, hurried back to my apartment in the rain, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the album several times in a nostalgic haze. It turned out that “Jane” was probably the best thing on it, but at least half of the songs were in its class, and if it didn’t quite deserve the “classic” designation it was certainly a very happy discovery.


Except for the description of the music, and the fact that I was living in a small college town in 1976, the preceding is pure fiction. But it’s very believable fiction: that’s what the music sounds like, and that would have been an appropriate time, place, and manner in which to discover it. Suburban Light actually came out in 2000. Its best moments capture a mid-‘60s feeling in a way that anyone who has either actual or vicarious nostalgia for the time won’t be able to resist it. It’s definitely one of my top ten mid-‘60s English pop revival albums. And I hear it’s not even their best.

 Here is the band’s web site.

Addendum to SNJ (Who Talks More?)

I've long been fascinated by la difference as an intellectual question (that is, as distinct from the emotional obsession with the opposite which kicked in around age thirteen). I think the interest began back in the early '70s, when radical feminists declared that there were no psychological differences between the sexes, except in those respects in which women were superior. It causes me to drive my wife crazy sometimes by expecting her to be able to explain everything every woman thinks or does. ("Why do y'all....?" "I don't know").

Anyway, looking around for further information on the question of which sex is more talkative, I found this NPR report on the same study discussed in my last journal. This paragraph near the end interests me:

In general, they found that women tend to talk more about relationships. Their everyday conversation is more studded with pronouns. Men tend to talk more about sports and gadgets, and their utterances include more numbers.

This supports what I was saying about the real difference being what each sex tends to find more interesting, but I was struck by the thing about pronouns. I realized some years ago that pronouns are a source of friction between me and my wife, making it difficult for us to work closely together on an everyday task like putting away dishes.

She: That one goes over there.
He: Which one?
She (impatiently): That one. Right there.
He: (exasperated): The yellow one?
She: Yes.
He: Where?
She (what is his problem?): There.
He (what is her problem?): On the second shelf beside the plates?
She: Yes! (implied: dammit)
He: (exit huffily)

I thought this was just us till I ran across C.S. Lewis's mention of it (can't remember which book--perhaps one of the space trilogy). But two women often seem able to communicate very smoothly in this way, as if there is some near-telepathic agreement about the antecedent of every pronoun.

And by the way, I think the chances are excellent that an accurate word count would find that I talk more than my wife on the average. She's fairly taciturn, and I'm either silent or loquacious, depending on who's around and what the topic is.