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May 2012

Request for Film Recommendations: Love

From Grumpy Ex-Pat:

I am teaching a 2nd year course next semester on 'Love' - a course for theology majors. What three movies should I show? I am thinking of Baran, Romeo and Juliet and Once, although I cannot think of any theological meaning to ascribe to the latter. I got very good suggestions last year for my Film and Theology course, which is why, scrounging on Maclin's goodwill, I am asking here again. Any suggestions, Paul, Janet, Rob Grano, Craig, Louise?

Offhand, I don't have any, but am not really free to think at the moment. I am taking an illicit break in a conference I'm attending--skipping the keynote address, which is just a big pep talk. I don't need any pep.

I Hate That Song

When I was young, I used to be fairly vicious in denouncing music that I thought inferior, especially if I thought it was merely commercial. If you've seen the movie High Fidelity, think of the two music nerds who worked in the record store, especially the character played by Jack Black. I don't think I was that bad, but I guess I was pretty bad. 

Sometime in 1969 or '70, when I was in college, I had a brief and rather confused relationship with a girl named Linda. That was her misfortune, I think--in retrospect, I wouldn't have wished my then-self on anybody. She might have been good for me, if I'd given her a chance.  Anyway, I guess she had heard one too many of my denunciations, and one day she interrupted one of them with "You know, it's really obnoxious when you do that." I remember being almost stunned. The thought had never occurred to me, and I really took it to heart.

Forty years later, I still remember it. And ever since then, I have tried to moderate my natural intemperateness where judgments about music and literature, are concerned. I try to remind myself that the fact that I don't like something doesn't mean it's a worthless and dishonest piece of junk. I've tried to restrain the impulse to hate a work of art, and, if I can't do that, at least to restrain the impulse to say so.

Nevertheless, I want to go on record as saying that I hate "I Will Survive," at least in its original version. Those who were appalled at my posting a cover of it may consider yourselves as having been revenged. Because I can't  so much as glance at that post without the original hated version of the song getting stuck in my head for several hours. Which just makes me hate it even more.

I wonder whatever became of Linda. 

Sunday Night Journal — May 27, 2012

Three Movies and a Book

Winter's Bone

I suspect most people who read this blog regularly have already seen this--after all, you're the ones who told me about it. But a brief description for those who haven't: it's about a seriously messed-up family in rural Missouri. and is a very grim portrayal of the methedrine trade that seems to be doing to a lot of rural and small-town America what crack did to the big cities. The father is mixed up with the local meth (and who knows what else) syndicate. After being arrested, he has put the family farm up for bail money and disappeared. The mother is mentally ill in a pretty serious way, completely non-functional. There are three children: seventeen-year-old Ree and two much younger siblings. As the semi-adult on the scene, it falls to her to try to salvage the family and their home.

Ree needs to find her father and get him to show up for his court appearance. Naturally she goes first to his criminal associates. They don't want any questions asked. Things get ugly, and that's enough plot summary, in case anyone who's reading this hasn't seen the movie.

It's an excellent piece of work, but extremely grim, though not hopeless. Take two parts rural poverty, one part menace, and a dash of horror, and set it in the middle of grey-brown mountain winter. Not pretty, but worth seeing. I must say, too, that it captures the general atmosphere of a certain element of the rural South all too well. (No, Missouri is not "the South" exactly, but the poor white culture that we think of as Southern actually reaches into parts of the Midwest.) I don't mean the drugs and the heavy violence, but the basic culture: the way the people talk, the way they deal with each other, the houses with old cars and other machinery strewn around the property, and so forth. The film mainly shows only the darker side, which is only one part of the picture, but accurate as far as it goes. The acting is excellent. I was amused to hear a figure of speech which I used to hear frequently from someone I worked with who came from a similar background: "useless as tits on a boar."

I have not read the novel on which the movie is based, by the way.

Thank You for Smoking

This is a comedy based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name, which, again, I have not read. A black comedy, I should say (is that still allowed?), which follows the fortunes of a spokesman for the tobacco industry as he tries to make his employer look like a benefactor of mankind. Deeply cynical, he meets regularly with a couple of lobbyists for the firearms and alcohol industries. The three call themselves the M.O.D. Squad--Merchants of Death. I wouldn't recommend it strongly, but it's pretty funny in places. There is a sex scene which, like most, would have been better left off-screen. 

Die Hard

I hate to say it--I'm embarrassed to say it--but within the limits of the sort of thing it is, this is a great movie. I recorded it when it was shown on AMC several weeks ago and watched it in half-hour bits.  (It is crazy that we have cable TV and only use it for watching Alabama football, PBS, and movies most of which we could easily rent.) Years ago--and I think this is not the first time I've described this phenomenon--I saw part of it on TV in a hotel while I was at some conference or training. I had seen the last half or so of it, and every time I saw it mentioned I wondered how the story started. 

Really, don't laugh: as action movies go, I doubt they get much better than this. The villains are really bad, the action is spectacular and for the most part not totally unbelievable, and the hero is really a hero, albeit a flawed one (naturally): in the end his strongest motivation is his love for his wife and the attempt to save her from the villains. 

I suppose anyone with the least bit of weakness for this sort of thing has already seen it,  but if not, try it sometime when you want a couple of hours' entertainment. Die Hard II  is not nearly as good, in my opinion.

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

One of my children gave me this book, which is subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, for Christmas, inscribing it to "Indecisive" from "Overthinking it." I was skeptical, because I hadn't read any of Gladwell's books and think of him as a purveyor of the sort of pop social-science that tries to explain way too much. I ended up somewhat fascinated, though, not so much by any overall thesis, which in the end is not really on offer here (the subtitle seems to promise something which is not delivered), but by the case studies presented and what they reveal about the working of the human mind. 

I have suspected for a long time that there really is such a thing as female intuition, and that it's nothing mystical, but rather a very strong sensitivity to little things, operating in part below the level of consciousness. I have seen instances in which it was strikingly correct and instances in which it was strikingly incorrect. That sort of phenomenon, and those two sorts of instances, are what the book is about. It begins with a (true) story in which the Getty museum was offered a piece of statuary represented as being ancient Greek. The museum paid legal experts to investigate its ownership and history, and scientists to investigate its age. It was pronounced genuine, and the purchase was made. But from the beginning there were doubts on the part of art experts who knew at first glance that something was wrong.

Evelyn Harrison was next. She was one of the world's foremost experts on Greek sculpture, and she was in Los Angeles visiting the Getty just before the museum finalized the deal with Becchina. "Arthur Houghton, who was then the curator, took us down to see it," Harrison remembers. "He just swished a cloth off the top of it and said, 'Well, it isn't ours yet, but it will be in a couple of weeks.' And I said, 'I'm sorry to hear that.'"

The book contains one anecdote after another like that, in which someone reaches an instantaneous sub-rational conclusion and is convinced of its truth though he may not be able to explain why he believes it. My favorite of these is a tennis coach who usually knows when a player is about to double-fault on a serve. He didn't set out to make these predictions as a stunt, he just noticed that he usually seemed to know. And--this is the really interesting part--even after devoting a great deal of effort to trying to figure out the signal, watching a great deal of film, breaking it down frame-by-frame and so forth, as of the writing of the book he still doesn't know how he does it.

And then there are the cases where an intuitive snap judgment is wrong, the most dramatic and tragic being the Diallo case in New York, in which an unarmed man was killed by police who seem to have genuinely believed, first he was holding a gun, then that he had fired it.

What is the lesson here? That sometimes quick intuitive judgments are uncannily right, and sometimes they're completely wrong. When they're wrong, they tend to involve situations where something is at work that causes us to think we see what we expected to see, or are particularly alert for, such as a gun in the hand of a suspected criminal.

There is one situation, the only one I can think of, where I've noticed myself having the sort of ability that those art experts in the Getty story had. I worked for ten years as a software developer, and still do a certain amount of that work in my current job. I was never as good as the best programmers with whom I worked, but I did notice one gift that not everyone else seemed to have: when there was a problem with software that I had been involved with, I often was able to go straight to the source of the problem without any preliminary investigation, without looking at the evidence. This was obviously based on knowledge, but my judgment did not make conscious use of that knowledge. Not a particularly significant instance, but an interesting one in light of this book, because I remember wondering how I knew. Whether or not the ideas in this book have any applicability to situations in which one finds oneself, it's an interesting read. 

Best Ever Cover (Of a Song I Don't Like)

Weekend Music

I'm sorry the name of the song is visible here, so you won't get the same shock of recognition I did when I happened across this song the other day. I almost never listen to the radio anymore, but one day last weekend I turned it on, and the regional PBS station was running a show called "The Crooners," featuring mostly singers from the '40s and '50s. This was part of a set that included Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney. I started thinking it was familiar when the bass kicked in, but I think it was almost to the chorus before the truth dawned on me. By then it was too late for me to tell myself I didn't like it.


Of course I never actually heard the original very much, or actively paid attention to it, but one couldn't completely avoid it when it was a hit back in the '70s. Someone who knows the song better would probably recognize it at once.

I'd never heard of this group, by the way. Very engaging.

Seeing for the first time

An anecdote from the Caryll Houselander biography I've been reading. I always wondered if this wouldn't be the case: Lourdes they witnessed the cure of a five-year-old boy who, as a baby, had been kicked in the face by a horse, disfigured and blinded.... Iris remembers the moment when the child received his sight: never having seen--as far as he could remember--he screamed with terror....

And then later he would have had to learn that he was disfigured, and to live with that.

Is Wagner Bad for You? (revisited)

In a comment on the previous discussion of Wagner, Rob G mentioned a book by E. Michael Jones called Dionysius Rising, in which Jones discusses various unhealthy tendencies of modern music (or so I understand--I have not read the book but I remember seeing reviews when it came out). That reminded me that a magazine article by Jones appeared in the discussion of my first encounter with Wagner (which I'm disturbed to see was over five years ago). The post is here. It says some of the same things I've been saying recently about Wagner, though overall the judgment is somewhat harsher, due in some part to my dislike of the production I had watched on DVD. 

But what really struck me was not the post itself but a comment by (presumably Jeff) Woodward, which I think pinpoints one of the things I most liked in The Ring this time, and which I didn't get at all in that first encounter:

...try instead thinking about the Ring as the tragedy of Wotan and his daughter Brunnhilde – Wotan who is haunted by the terrible consequences of his past sin (the theft of the Rhine Gold) and his knowledge that it will have to be his own daughter and grandson (Brunnhilde and Siegfried) who pay the final price for that sin....

Yes, that's exactly what I missed the first time, in my general impatience and exasperation, and saw this time. And this:

 But Brunnhilde is a true tragic heroine, and a great one. Punished for having once done the right thing (helping Siegmund in his fight with Hunding), she is given a chance at the cycle's end to do the rightest thing of all: – restore moral order to the world and, in the process, redeem herself and the man she loves. And she does it, through self-sacrifice. 

I wasn't quite so keen on that resolution, I think because the redemption involved has so much of that death-love thing in it. But it did move me, which it didn't on the first go-round. But I think Woodward is right that this is the real story. 

Sunday Night Journal — May 20, 2012

Wagner: The State of the Question

(For the benefit of anyone coming across this post in isolation from its predecessors of the past two weeks: I am writing this after having seen a repeat of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011-12 Live in HD broadcast of its new Ring cycle.)

I suppose I should say “The Ring” instead of “Wagner,” as it’s the only Wagner I’ve heard, not counting the occasional excerpt or overture. But it’s probably not unreasonable or unfair to regard this enormous work as representing the essence of the composer and his work.

It’s fair to say that I have been pretty well won over now. Götterdämmerung is the longest of the four operas in the cycle, running in this production only ten minutes less than five hours. Yet either because it’s more effectively structured as a drama, or because I had by then gotten adjusted to Wagner’s method, it didn’t seem overly long, and I was never bored. In fact I wished that it had been a bit longer, because I wanted it to end with a more lengthy orchestral elegy. I emerged into the baking heat and glaring sun of the parking lot of the theater feeling that I was coming out from under the influence of some drug. I found it difficult to adjust to the abrupt requirement that I get out of the world of The Ring and into the world in which I was required to run an errand at PetSmart on my way home. Hours later the emotions aroused by the work were still swirling around in me, the voices still resounding, and I found myself mentally deserting my immediate surroundings, staring into space, drifting back into that state where nothing existed for me apart from what I was seeing and hearing on that giant screen and from that enormous sound system, hearing the Rhinemaidens or the fire music or the Valhalla motif.

And yet...even as I succumbed to its spell, I had reservations and misgivings:


It seems to be a quirk of my musical sensibility that when I hear a singer with an orchestra my ear attends first and primarily to the orchestra. The result is that I’m often slow to recognize and respond to the singer’s melody. I mention that because I wonder if it accounts partly for the fact that for the most part it was the orchestral music that moved me as music rather than the parts given to the singers. There are no arias, and to my ear it seemed that most of the singing by far was recitativ (the stuff that in most operas and oratorios constitutes the musically uninteresting filler necessary to support the words that move the action along). To be blunt, there is a decided dearth of good tunes here. But it’s very possible that more exposure to the operas would change my view of that.

But the best of the music...well, it’s surely among the best. I found myself almost wishing he had been an orchestral composer, but that’s probably a misplaced wish; he seems to have needed a text.


One could never accuse Wagner of being an irresistible storyteller. Often the dramas of The Ring seem more like a series of tableaux than a narrative. There’s a good deal of exposition, some of it pretty clunky, and of characters announcing and describing their emotions. There are lengthy discussions and arguments which stop the action for fairly long stretches of time. I believe these operas were over-long even in a culture where people probably had longer attention spans than ours tend to be. Verdi was writing around the same time and his works are in the two-to-three-hour range. Wagner wrote his own librettos and was perhaps somewhat indulgent with himself; as dramas without music I doubt very much that they would have seen a second performance.


I am speaking here without any first-hand knowledge of Wagner’s ideas, only what I got from the operas and what little I’ve read about him. But with that in mind:

It isn’t fair, but Nazism casts a shadow over the century or so of German history that preceded it. It isn’t Wagner’s fault, but when you hear characters in a drama shouting “Heil!,” you can’t not think of Hitler. It isn’t Wagner’s fault that Hitler praised him. It isn’t entirely fair that the cult of heroism in The Ring is tainted by the similar Nazi cult. And yet this taint can’t be escaped or dismissed entirely. I suppose Hitler may have liked Brahms, too, but if he did we don’t care. What makes Wagner different is that he reportedly did talk a great deal about ideas which have some continuity with some elements of Nazism. Great evil casts a shadow backward as well as forward, and while Wagner may never have dreamed that his reputed anti-Semitism and nationalism would develop so diabolically, it can't be denied that there is continuity there. 

But it must be said that there is no trace of any of this in The Ring. There is no mention of nation, no mention of race, except in the sense of family. The dramas take place in a mythological realm which is not only timeless but placeless. If Wagner thought all this had something to do with Germany (and apparently he did, at least according to George Bernard Shaw—see this post at All Manner of Thing)—such idea are outside the work itself. 

One might say—and I did say to myself once or twice during The Ring—that Wagner’s world is entirely pagan. But that’s really not true; it is, rather, paganism viewed from a post-Christian distance. It’s often said that we live in a post-Christian society, and that’s largely true. But in many ways it’s been true for some 200 years now. Among other things, the 19th century interest in love as a mystical union owed something to Christianity. Real paganism, at least of the northern European variety, was a pretty hard, cold business; see Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter for a picture which is surely more accurate. What I have seen of the original Scandinavian legends contains love stories, but they are markedly unsentimental and unmystical. Wagner’s reworking of those sources is in many ways far more appealing, and is certainly far more sophisticated.

But there is something morbid in it; there is something morbid in much of Romanticism, in the artistic sensibility of the 19th century, I think, and Wagner brings it out more clearly than most. Where Christianity has love conquering death and bringing life, Wagner seems to make love and death the same thing, a mystical annihilation which may have more in common with some idea of union with the One than with the Christian idea of a personal union with God in which the person still exists. There is no God here; the frequent talk of “holiness” seems to have to do with Romantic ideas about “the holiness of the heart’s affections” (Keats). I'm not prepared to defend this statement, but intuitively it seems to me that the Wagnerian combination of morbid romanticism and hero-worship has as much to do with Nazism as Wagner's explicitly political and social thinking.

By the way, these recordings—at least I think they’re the same ones—are going to be available on DVD this fall. My first thought on reading that announcement at the end of the credits was that I must have them; my second was that the experience I’ve just had is probably unrepeatable and that the attempt to repeat it would probably be a mistake.

Die Walküre: Opening

Weekend Music

Don't worry, this is not about to become an all-Wagner blog. I may write about him Sunday, or may not depending on how much time I have. But a great deal of my time apart from my job has been or will be (Götterdämmerung this afternoon) spent attending the Ring this week, so naturally it's been very much on my mind. 

I recorded this from my very old LP set of The Ring, with Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in the mid-1960s. It actually belongs to one of my musical children, but he doesn't have any way to play it. I had to clean it up some, because in addition to the usual LP pops and crackles there is something amiss with my turntable, which produces a very audible hum.

But anyway: isn't this a great riff?!


Die Walkure - Opening



I'm not sure when I'll have a chance to say more about last night's Siegfried, but here's a quick note about the singer in the title role, Jay Hunter Morris. I'm not very knowledgeable about classical singers, just enough that I generally recognize the big names. I did not recognize Morris's name, but didn't assume that he was anything less than a star. There were brief interviews with most of the principals during intermission, and I was amused (ok, I was also pleased) to hear that he has a very distinct southern accent. Well, turns out he was an understudy called on very late in the game: see this story

I must say, that of all the principals, he came closest to having the good looks that Wagner attributes to his young heroes and heroines. With long hair and a beard, Morris looks like a rock star, or one of the Rohirrim out of The Lord of the Rings as they were depicted in the movie. That's him second from right on this page. The women, while certainly not unattractive, were not smashing beauties. That's not unusual in opera, of course, and always sort of undermines the effect. 

Seems like it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to eat popcorn at the opera at least once.

Die Walküre

I saw this second opera of The Ring last night, all four hours of it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm definitely into this now; I hope nothing prevents me from seeing Siegfried Wednesday and Götterdämmerung on Saturday. I believe I like Walküre better than Rheingold musically. Although for the most part I've been finding Wagner more interesting than moving, the final scene of this one, where Wotan repudiates his beloved daughter Brunnhilde, really touched me. 

One of the stars of this production is a crazy device which apparently came to be called simply The Machine. It's hard to describe: a couple of dozen long beams (I guess 30 feet/10 meters long) which pivot around a long shaft, the whole thing running across the stage and largely filling it. Each beam moves separately. They're flat on one side and have a low peak on the other--i.e., the silhouette would be a long low triangle. And amazing things are done with them, using positioning, lighting, and sometimes devices to suspend people in front of them, when they're positioned vertically or at a very steep angle. It can serve as anything from trees to horses to houses to mountains to waterfalls. I think if you go to this link a video of clips will start playing, and you can see The Machine in action. I think it's very effective, all in all, but at times distracting. That was especially so in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, because I couldn't figure out what I was seeing. 

I continue to think there's something unhealthy at the heart of Wagner's music, or at least of the Ring. The knowingly incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde might possibly have something to do with that. The only one who really objects much is poor Fricka, Wotan's wife, and she comes across as a scold and spoilsport. 

The Pop-Psych Rand

Part of my routine when I arrive at work every morning involves downloading some data from the web site of a company we work with. They always have a quotation on the login page, and they change it every day. Sometimes it's humorous, more often it's vaguely inspirational in a pop-psychology self-help you-can-do-it sort of way. Today it's from Ayn Rand, from Atlas Shrugged:

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swaps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won.

Since this is a technology company in the urban northeast, odds are slim that the management is terribly right-wing. This is an example of what I think a lot of people take from Rand, especially if they only read Atlas: not so much the hard-edged ethic of selfishness, but the follow-your-dreams, fulfill-your-potential sort of stuff. Not that there isn't some overlap between those two. And both are very American.

Sunday Night Journal — May 13, 2012

Today is Mother's Day, and has been very full of activity. I've had no time to write, so I will offer you something I wrote for Mother's Day 2006

It's hard for me to believe that that was six years ago. And I've been contemplating the fact that the year 2000 now seems a fairly long time ago--which of course it is, depending on what you're comparing it to. Remember how businesses were putting "2000" in the names of various products (e.g. Windows 2000, and talking about what they would do in "the new millenium"? How dated it all seems now.

Or even further back: 1969, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released? The year seemed impossibly remote. How different the actual future has proved to be; how little has changed in some ways, how much in others. 

This one, on the other hand, I didn't buy

Though it did catch my eye. Apparently there is some sort of sub-sub-genre of disposable music for dance clubs which is called "lounge," and the album art is often something like the picture below. I nearly always stop and look at images like this for a moment, though the music is of no interest to me. Very frequently the picture involves water, a beach or swimming pool, and a luxury resort. The images are of a kind of earthly paradise: perfect sensual pleasure. To my male mind, at least, there is a suggestion of sex, even if the pictures are, like this one, uninhabited.  Some include beautiful women, but the empty ones are, in a way, more subtly alluring, because they're all pristine promise and potential. I suppose my earthly paradise always includes water, preferably an ocean beach. 


If there's an interior, it's usually ultra-"modern," i.e. what modern was supposed to be 50 years ago, with an unearthly or perhaps inhuman feel—no actual human mess and trouble visible—like this one:

600x600 (1)

I don't really like this kind of thing--I wouldn't want either of these pictures on my wall--and am embarrassed by my susceptibility to it. I wonder if anyone else reacts this way. I suppose in a broad and probably less healthy way it's a variant of the appeal of Thomas Kinkade's art. 


Aftermarket: Mercy

Weekend Music

This is from an album called Southward, another album that I sampled on eMusic only because the art and the title intrigued me, and ended up buying. It consists of old gospel samples mixed with rhythm tracks, synths, and other things. This is probably my favorite track.


Here's the cover:


That Big Ol' Moon

The "super-moon" stuff from last weekend--a full moon at the moon's closest approach of the year (or for some number of years, I think)--was a little overdone, with many pictures of the moon looking truly enormous. But if you actually looked at the actual moon, you saw it looking pretty much like it always does when it's full. That doesn't mean it wasn't beautiful, though. My wife took this with her iPhone, from the parking lot of Ed's Seafood on the Mobile Bay Causeway. Pretty nice for a phone camera.


Well, okay, the super-moon stuff was a lot overdone. Those pictures that show it looking so big were probably taken when it was rising or setting, then cropped so the moon fills up more of the frame. As everyone who's ever watched it knows, the moon (and sun) look bigger near the horizon (and also reddish-orange instead of white).

Das Rheingold At the Movies

So I went to see the Metropolitan Opera's Rheingold tonight, as I had said I would, unless I didn't. And I'm glad I did. I greatly enjoyed it. Visually and sonically it was very impressive, although opera singers were never meant to be seen in movie-style closeup, the way video productions show them, and it's occasionally disconcerting to find yourself, say, looking down Alberich's throat as he belts out a big note. I'm not going to critique anybody's singing, not being qualified--it all sounded good to me. More important to me, in the case of a filmed production, are the looks and acting ability of the cast, and here those were for the most part more convincing than the set on DVD I watched a few years ago. Bryn Terfel as the dunderhead Wotan was especially good. 

I guess this is the third time now that I've heard the whole opera, and the music is making more sense to me, though I'm still not always sure which leitmotif belongs to which person or theme. And there's really quite a bit of symbolic depth in the story. Unless something comes up to prevent me, I'm planning to see the other three.

Sadly, there were only about a dozen people in the audience. Maybe most of the opera fans saw it the first time around.

Obama's "Julia"

Presumably you've heard about this. Conservatives have been having trouble deciding whether they're more amused or appalled by it. I'm very much in agreement with Ross Douthat's view. A lot of people have attacked it, quite correctly, for its weird vision of the heroine Julia as a sort of social atom whose chief relationship is with the state. It's revealing that none of the people involved in producing and approving it, nor Obama himself, seem to think it's weird. Someone remarked years ago that the breakdown of the family, and some of the effects of the feminist movement, have created a tendency for some women to marry the state, to see it as providing what the husband they can't find or don't want ought to provide. It's a bit surprising to find big-government types more or less openly encouraging that tendency.

Just as odd to me is the serene indifference to the question of where the government is going to get the money it spends on Julia over her lifetime. The point where this becomes most curious is at Julia's retirement, where the very real question of whether the costly entitlement programs for retirees can be sustained simply is not acknowledged to exist; there's only the promise that Obama will save her from the Republicans. Ultimately it's a bit of an old-fashioned damsel-in-distress story.

Sunday Night Journal — May 6, 2012

Images and Sounds

I haven't posted any pictures here (my own pictures, that is) for a while. The reason is partly that I haven't been taking very many, and partly that I haven't sorted through the ones I have taken over the past months. And the reason for both those things is lack of time.

And if you're a very regular and attentive reader of this blog, and also have a very good memory, you might remember that sometime last year I posted a couple of videos (nothing elaborate, just things captured with the video setting on my camera), and that I mentioned that I was also planning to post a video taken during Tropical Storm Ida, which I believe was in 2009.

So I decided this afternoon that instead of writing I would spend some time selecting and beautifying some nice images from my past six months or so of pictures, and also post that tropical storm video. Well, as is often the way with computers, I ran into unexpected technical problems with the video, which I won't bore you with, and then was pretty much out of time. But here are a few pictures, starting with a still from Tropical Storm Ida.


One of those strange spider webs on the ground in the woods, that you only see when the dew is heavy:


One of many pictures I've taken of these dead trees in the bay. They were probably cypresses. I don't expect them to be standing that much longer--the next hurricane will probably knock them down. This was taken last October.


A heron in morning fog, December 31 2011:


And, from the same morning: I don't know why I took this, and it's entirely possible that it was an accident, but I for some reason I really love it:


And also: a couple of years ago my wife gave me for my birthday a little hand-held sound recorder. Sometimes I use it to record little notes to myself, usually about something I'm writing, while I'm on the way to or from work. I've also played around with recording natural sounds with it, and I did that one night a couple of weeks ago when I was taking my nightly walk to the bay with the dogs. There is a little creek that empties out into the bay, and up in that creek a bit there are a lot of reeds or rushes which provide homes for frogs. (It's the mouth of that creek which reflects the trees in the picture above--it moves around and changes shape all the time.) And there are woods all around. For some years now we've had very few lightning bugs--"fireflies" to most of the world, and I think that's a nicer word, but it feels slightly pretentious for me to say it, because I grew up saying "lightning bugs." But this year there have been quite a lot. I was standing about halfway between the bay and the reeds with the recorder going, and the woods beyond the reeds were full of those sweet cool flashes of light from the lightning bugs. You can hear tree frogs, an occasional bigger frog, and insects, but mostly the waves. At some points you can hear the traffic from up on Section Street, several hundred yards away. I'm sorry you can't see the lightning bugs.



The Prestige of the Avant-Garde

I've just been browsing in the most recent issue of The New Criterion, which is a memorial issue for Hilton Kramer, the magazine's founder, who died recently. During the time I've been reading TNC--a little over ten years--Kramer hasn't appeared very often in its pages, and so I really don't know that much about him, other than that he was for many years the art critic of The New York Times. The memorial includes some samples of his writing; this one struck me:

For the "normal condition" of our culture has become one in which the ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizable portions of the very public it affects to despise. That it does so by means of a profitable alliance with the traditional antagonists of the avant-garde--the mass media, the universities, and the marketplace--only underscores the paradoxical nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. It is in the interest of this ideology to deny the scope of its present powers, of course. Its continuing effectiveness--its ability to come before the public not only as an arbiter of taste but as an example of moral heroism--is peculiarly dependent on the fiction of its extreme vulnerability. The myth of the underdog, of a struggle against impossible odds with little hope of just recognition, is an indispensable instrument in the consolidation of the avant-garde influence.

But this is only part of the myth that is fostered in the avant-garde scenario. Central to its doctrine of embattled and threatened virtue is that notion of what Lionel Trilling has called the avant-garde's "adversary" relation to the larger (bourgeois) culture in which it functions. If the institutions that now serve as conduits of avant-garde claims are no longer shy about acknowledging this adversary role, it is because the role itself has acquired an unquestioned historical prestige.

 It occurs to me that this basic description also has some applicability to what we refer to, somewhat clumsily, as "political correctness," or the left-wing orthodoxy which is so very powerful in shaping public debate. The above was written in 1973, by the way.

Ride: Vapour Trail

Weekend Music

Yeah, ok, I can't resist starting this up again,  mainly because there's always something I want to share. This is one of the bands of the early '90s for whom the term "shoegazer" was coined. Originally it referred to peforming mannerisms: standing still, looking down. Now it means...well, stuff that sounds something like this:


For some time I had been hearing Ride mentioned along with Slowdive as the best of the shoegazer bands. Since Slowdive made some of my very most favorite music of the past 20-plus years (thanks to Daniel for introducing me to them), I naturally wanted to hear Ride. Several years ago I bought some tracks from a live album (because it was the only one available on eMusic) that didn't especially grab me, so it was only recently that I decided to try this one, Nowhere, which seems to be considered their best. And I do like it, though not nearly as much as the best of Slowdive.

This Time I'm Going. Maybe.

Sometimes advertising actually tells you something you wanted to know. Yesterday I saw an ad, I think on National Review, for an encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera's Wagner cycle, which was shown in theaters in some sort of broadcast arrangement at intervals over several months, last fall I think, and maybe into the winter. And I thought about going. But I think I forgot and missed the first one, and then the others were showing on Saturday around noon or so, and I always have so much to do on Saturday...and in the end I didn't see any of them. Which I regretted a bit, figuring I would never have a chance like that again, though I am not a huge Wagner fan. 

So. This time they're mostly on weekday nights, so I can see them and still get the yard work done on Saturday. I think I'll go. I ought to go. But I'm sure they're sort of expensive. And I do have a lot of other things I should be doing. Who knows, I might not even like the productions, the way I didn't like the one I got from Netflix a while back. In that case I'll have wasted a lot of time and money...


This Polish movie is a biography of Saint Faustina Kowalska, the recipient of the revelations that became the Divine Mercy devotion. It came recommended by my friend Robert right around Divine Mercy Sunday with the note "Not perfect, but it has a good deal going for it. Likely the best film about a Christian mystic that we'll see in our time."

So I put it on my Netflix queue, and moved it to the top, with the intention of watching it within the period of the Divine Mercy Novena--which I was not praying, but I had some vague idea that watching this would be some sort of observance. And yet I put off watching it, and only did so this past Sunday. And the reason is that I resist watching explicitly religious films, because they're so often dull and subtly disheartening. I think they make me feel a little guilty because I think I should like them, and uneasy because I think there must be something wrong with either me or the faith if it seems like such thin stuff compared to the world.

But I needn't have hesitated in this case. This is an excellent film. As Robert said, not perfect, but well-executed, modest, with little or no forced piety. I found it very moving. 

Looks like a good bit of it, maybe the whole thing, is on YouTube. Here are the first nine minutes:


The DVD also contains a nice short documentary called Return about Vilnius, where Sister Faustina met the priest, Fr. Sopocko, who was of great assistance to her, and about the Divine Mercy Sisters there.