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June 2008

Sunday Night Journal — June 29, 2008

Cries and Whispers

This DVD had been sitting around the house for a couple of weeks or so before we finally watched it tonight. I had been putting it off, waiting for the right time, because I expected it to be a somewhat intense, maybe painful, experience and I wanted a little time before and after so that I could see it and reflect on it with a clear mind. I knew it was not something to be viewed for entertainment on a Saturday night or relaxation after a day’s work.

If Bergman’s name had not been enough to make me treat Cries and Whispers with a bit of respect and caution, my memory of it would have. I had seen it when it came out in the early ‘70s and been deeply moved, far more so than I had expected to be. I remember being more or less unable to speak for some minutes after the end. My reaction tonight, though strong, was not so strong as all that; I’m not sure entirely why. It may be that the vision with which the final scene left me both then and now is something with which I’m more familiar than I was at 24 or so; I certainly stood in more need of it then than now. It’s a glowing vision of immense joy and gratitude for the sweetly perfect moments of life, and an assertion (or at least a suggestion) that it is these, and not the long hours or years of struggle and pain, that matter most, and are in fact eternal. It makes me think of the lines that close “Burnt Norton,” the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after

Some consider this Bergman’s finest work. Maybe so, although I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to pick a single finest. Certainly it’s among his best. It concerns three sisters, one of whom is dying painfully—cancer, I assume, although that’s never stated—and the servant girl who does most of the work and most of the caring. The two other sisters are both very much wrapped up in themselves and closed to others, each in a different but equally effective way.

I suppose Bergman, the atheist son of a Lutheran minister, just couldn’t help weaving Christian themes and imagery into his work, perhaps unintentionally. At any rate they are prominent here. The dying sister is named Agnes, which is derived from a Greek word meaning “sacred” or “pure” and also has an obvious resemblance to agnus, as in Lamb of God. Her suffering and death provide an opportunity for her sisters’ redemption. The faithful and loving servant is named Anna, from the Hebrew Hannah, “favor” or “grace.” There is an obvious evocation of Michelangelo’s Pieta in one scene, far too close a resemblance to be accidental.

If these remarks seem a little scattered, it’s because they are; the film is too rich and complex for me to do it justice quickly or briefly, and more thoughts and emotions are coming than I have time to write down. And for the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I don’t want to be too specific about the plot. Nor would I want to reduce it to a statement. But I can say that it left me with a very clear sense of how it is possible for a person to choose hell over heaven, and that we are making that choice at every moment of our lives when we make the choice between loving and not loving.

Sartre’s famous play No Exit is said (I’ve never read it) to make the point that hell is other people. This suggests to me that Sartre was already entering hell, because hell is the absence of love. Or rather the refusal to love, because I mean the absence of love given, not love received. To love and not be loved is immensely painful, but it isn’t hell. If one were loved by no creature in the universe, if one were unloved even by God himself, but were still able to love, one would not yet be in hell.

I should also mention that in simple visual terms Cries and Whispers is one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see. (And warn you that there is one pretty horrifying scene.)


Music of the Week: Mark Heard - High Noon

Those who read this column (or whatever you want to call it) regularly may remember that Mark Heard’s name came up in comments recently, very strongly recommended by a couple of people. I admitted with a little embarrassment that I owned this cd, a selection of material from his last few albums, and had never listened to more than a few songs from it.

I had picked up the cd five or six years ago (at least), either used or on sale, out of curiosity because I’d encountered his name here and there as a highly regarded Christian singer-songwriter who lived a tragically short life (1951-1992). Since I don’t care much for most explicitly Christian pop music—what’s generally known as CCM, or Contemporary Christian music—I’m always on the lookout for Christian artists who don’t seem to be just slapping a Christian message on commercial pop. I was disappointed in Heard, though. I put on the cd and half-listened to the first four or five songs, didn’t care especially for the sound, put it aside, and then forgot about it.

Now, thanks to those recent comments here, I’ve given High Noon another chance, and changed my mind. I won’t go as far as the commenter who said Heard is a better songwriter than Bruce Cockburn, but at his best he is very, very good. The best songs here are certainly in the league with those of Cockburn and a few others. There are a few that I don’t care much for, but considering that someone else’s idea of an artist’s best stuff is never going to coincide with mine, I definitely plan to seek out more of Heard’s work.

Unfortunately I’m not enthusiastic about him as a performer. In particular I don’t care much for his voice and general signing style. He sounds a good bit like T-Bone Burnett, but somehow more abrasive and a little over-intense. This is purely a matter of my personal taste, and shouldn’t discourage anyone who might be interested. It doesn’t by any means ruin the songs, but it does make me wish I could hear more of them sung by performers whom I like better: Buddy Miller, for instance, whose version of Heard’s “Worry Too Much” (not on High Noon) is one of the very best tracks on a magnificent album, Universal United House of Prayer (see here for my review). I’m probably going to be checking out the tribute album Orphans of God in which other artists perform Heard’s songs.

Here’s a video of one of my favorite songs from High Noon, “Treasure of the Broken Land.” I think his singing works better in this song than in some others. The lyrics are essential, so read them here. If you like this, you’ll like a lot more of Heard’s music.

If that ending seems abrupt, it’s because the video doesn’t include the whole track, which runs over six minutes and includes a lengthy instrumental break.

The Wikipedia article has a bio and links to more related stuff.


Testing the search bar

I decided to try the blog search bar that you see at the top of the page; it's a Blogger feature that I can turn on or off. I don't much like the way it looks but I wondered if it might be useful to people. Let me know if it is. Or if you find it really annoying. I'm not at all sure it's going to stay there.

Driving in the Rain

I like rain and I like to drive. And I like driving in the rain a lot. I drove through a couple of nice thunderstorms on the way to Nashville a few weeks ago and have several souvenirs like these.

(Click to enlarge)

It wasn’t actually raining in the second one.


The Pictures On My Wall

Speaking of Coltrane (see comments on Guilty Non-Pleasures post below): the pictures below are the only ones on the wall of my office. They’re the actual LP jackets—did you know you can buy frames designed specifically for this purpose?

In light of the fact that I’m not a really serious jazz fan, and listen to far more pop/rock/whatever than jazz, it seems a little odd, even to me, that these images, and the music they represent, mean so much to me.

It has something to do with what they mean to the American soul. And it’s connected with that moment of brilliance and promise that occurred in the USA in the period roughly 1960-66. I don’t know...I need to get back to work now; I’ll perhaps think about it and say something more. Or perhaps not. At any rate, here they are for your enjoyment.


Sunday Night Journal — June 22, 2008

Guilty Non-Pleasures

It’s been an extremely busy weekend, and I’m pretty short on time and energy, so here’s something light:

I’ve mentioned guilty pleasures here before, meaning pleasures that are not actually wrong, but which one is embarrassed to admit that one enjoys: action movies, for instance, or soap operas, or junk food. (In that last category, for instance, here is a major weakness of mine.)

But the discussion of the movie Into Great Silence (see the Two Movies post below) got me to thinking about the reverse of a guilty pleasure. This is not a thing one ought not to enjoy but does, but a thing one ought to enjoy but does not: a guilty non-pleasure (“guilty pain” would of course be the real opposite, but I think this is usually more a case of indifference than pain). Several were mentioned in the comments, e.g Francesca’s failed attempts to learn to like Mozart. The key here, I think, is that one is willing to admit that the fault is probably in oneself, not in the artist or the art. One sees that the thing is, objectively, good, or at least accepts that verdict on the authority of people one respects. But one takes little or no real pleasure in it.

Here are some of my guilty non-pleasures:

The Iliad. I prefer to assume that my indifference to this is a result of the fact that poetry is generally untranslatable. I know it has been considered a great poem for several thousand years, and who am I to argue with the judgment of the ages? But in translation all you get is the story, and I found the story, when told at this length, tiresome. Of course in its broad outlines the story is a classic and a foundation for much other literature. But without the music of its verse, the details all run together into a catalog of gruesome deaths and some rather arbitrary finagling on the part of some rather unlikeable gods. (The Odyssey is different, far more entertaining; as a child I read it several times in an abridged prose form and loved it.)

Dante. Again, I assume the problem here is that I’m reading it in translation. I’ve read Inferno three times, I think, in different translations, and never gotten much further. It’s interesting, and I know all about Dante’s significance, his Catholic imagination and wisdom and influence, but not once in reading him have I ever found myself moved as I am when reading Shakespeare; not once have I rejoiced in the sheer magnificence of it; not once have I taken my eyes off the page to savor and ponder a passage as poetry.

Milton. Translation, however, is not the problem here. Milton just isn’t that interesting. I’m not so sure this qualifies as a guilty non-pleasure, since it seems so widely shared among critics; does anybody really love Milton? I haven’t looked at him for decades. Perhaps I’ll like him better if I ever get around to him again.

Most religious painting since, say, Fra Angelico. Granted, I am not terribly interested in the visual arts; you’ll note that I mention literature and music in the sub-heading of this blog, but not painting or sculpture. Still, there is a great deal of art I like, in a casual sort of way. But I have yet to feel what I’m supposed to feel when I look at pictures of the Renaissance and Baroque art that fills the Vatican and which I have almost zero desire to see. Perhaps one day I’ll see it in person and understand. For now, though, most paintings of the Crucifixion and other Christian themes leave me completely cold.

I would say something similar about icons, by the way, if I were to judge them as art. I do find them very helpful in prayer and worship, which is what they’re meant for.

Most jazz before 1950. I mean traditional or Dixieland jazz as well as big-band. I’ve never been able to enjoy it much. I read someone’s account of how much Louis Armstrong’s music meant to him, and I recognized the feeling it gave him: it sounded a lot like what I feel when I listen to reggae. But it doesn’t do that for me; early jazz is of interest to me mainly as history.

Charlie Parker. Everyone who’s knowledgeable about jazz seems to believe that Parker was a first-class genius. I accept that on authority, but I don’t hear it. In fairness, I have to say that I’ve never really heard that much of his music, and maybe (probably) not his best. But what I’ve heard didn’t touch me, although I could see that it was technically astonishing.

I’m sure I’ll think of more of these later. I’m a little surprised that there is no pop music in the list; I think that’s because there isn’t much of it, perhaps none, that I take seriously enough to feel that I really ought to like it. I’d be interested in knowing what similar blind spots or failures to connect other people have.


Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #3

(Continuing my tour of the Beethoven symphonies)

Now, suddenly, we’re in the realm of the master. There’s something unformed and hesitant about the first two symphonies, but it’s gone in this one. Now he speaks with authority, clearly established in the first few seconds. Perhaps a trained musician would have seen something like this coming, or at least its potential, in the first two symphonies; I don’t think I would have. But even a listener like me who doesn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to understand how or why it works can tell that there is a wonderful combination of wild creativity and discipline here. It’s long—the longest ever when it was written, I think—but nothing seems superfluous, out of place, or out of control.

I still don’t feel the deep affection for this work that I do for some other music which is probably not its equal, if considered dispassionately. I think it’s fundamentally a question of personality and temperament; I don’t feel that Beethoven is speaking for me or to me. The romantic-heroic spirit which we are told is celebrated here is not one to which I’m much drawn. The second movement, for instance, the funeral march, leaves me a little disappointed, in spite of the marvelous main theme, because it seems too intent on making grand gestures to mourn.

Nevertheless, I like to think that I can recognize a masterpiece when I hear it, and this is surely one.


The Power of Images

It’s funny the way images from a movie can haunt the real world and give it the ambience of the movie, almost making you feel that the line between them is blurred. For instance, you can be at a wedding reception in a public performance room having a stage at one end, its curtain drawn. And you can see a single loudspeaker cabinet, part of the p.a. system being used to provide music, standing alone against that deep red curtain, with a footlight shining up at it, lighting it and the rest of the curtain immediately around it, while beyond the halo of light the curtain is a much darker red. And suddenly you feel like you’re in a David Lynch movie, especially if they’re playing ’50s rock-and-roll.



This is that rainbow that I mentioned the last time I posted pictures, the one that I missed getting a really good shot of because I didn’t have the camera with me. At this point it’s barely visible; five minutes before it had been very bright. I suppose there’s a lesson there about trying to capture something and thereby missing the enjoyment of it; instead of just looking at it I rushed back to the house for the camera.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow over the bay before. Which is not as surpising as it might sound, because usually the sun is behind you when you see a rainbow, and I’m facing west here, meaning it’s fairly early in the morning—not, as a rule, when I’m most active.

(click to enlarge)