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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:

...in 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:

Musical

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.

Dramatic

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.

Philosophical

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.