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January 2017

Sunday Night Journal, January 29, 2017

Back in early 1970, during my last official undergraduate semester of college, I read Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966) for a class. "Religion in the Contemporary Novel," or something like that. I had only six months or so earlier become really acquainted with his music, by way of the album Songs From A Room. I had heard a bit of his stuff before, including and especially "Suzanne," and didn't especially care for it. Songs From A Room changed that, and by the time I read the novel I was a fan, and had hopes for the book.

The hopes were disappointed. The book seemed more or less insane, and I couldn't make much sense of it. I have no memory of anything I might have learned or said in classroom discussions of it, if there were any. I soon forgot it, except that I remembered a really deranged scene involving what we would now call a "sex toy" that had a mind of its own.

Recently, writing about that period of my life for the memoir-ish-sort-of-thing I'm writing,  and maybe also prompted by Cohen's recent death, I decided to read Beautiful Losers again and see if the experience of forty-five years or so, as well as a deep love of Cohen's musical work over the period, would help me make more sense of the book, and perhaps appreciate it.

Well, no, not really.  I have a better sense now of what Cohen was about, and in a very very broad sort of way what the book is about. But it still seems fairly deranged, and I still don't understand it very well. Anyone familiar with his songs is aware of the way he weaves together the spiritual and the erotic. In this novel he takes that extremes: it is saturated with fairly detailed and often unpleasant descriptions of sex, or maybe I should say descriptions of unpleasant sex, such as the sex toy scene I mentioned above. And its spirituality is focused on the extreme penances of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, with a number of digressions about the tortures perpetrated by the Indians on their own and on missionaries like St. Jean de Brébeuf. There are some beautiful passages, and beautiful or clever sentences in the midst of the craziness. There is a profusion of imagery and obscure pronouncements that made me think of the songs Bob Dylan was writing at the time: it may be profound or it may just be a kind of surrealism that is sometimes vivid and powerful but not necessarily intelligible. I didn't spend a great deal of time trying to understand it. I'd say he had great potential as a novelist and writer of prose generally. But I really can't recommend this book. 

There's not a very clear story involved, but such as it is it involves an old scholar with an obsessive interest in certain Indian tribes and in St. Kateri, his friend and lover F. (male), and his wife Edith, who is also sexually involved with F. (whether that involvement is also romantic in any normal sense is a little unclear). It is a very weird triangle. F. exercises some sort of psychological power over both the scholar and Edith, and is somehow training or educating the scholar in some sort of psychological or spiritual discipline, something which savors of the notion that seemed to turn up a lot in the '60s, that something like salvation can be obtained by obliterating reason and surrendering to the extremes of experience.  Or perhaps F. is just pushing him around. To tell the truth, as with the cryptic flights, I can't be bothered trying to figure it out. 

But let me quote a passage which will prove that Cohen really could write. This is the closing paragraph of the book, but it doesn't give away anything. For much of the book, the scholar is writing the deaths of F. and Edith. For another large part, F. is speaking through a letter which he left behind. On the basis of the last sentence, this seems to be the voice of F. 

Poor men, poor men, such as we, they've gone and fled. I will plead from electrical tower. I will plead from turret of plane. He will uncover His face. He will not leave me alone. I will spread His name in Parliament. I will welcome his silence in pain. I have come through the fire of family and love. I smoke with my darling, I sleep with my friend. We talk of the poor men, broken and fled. Alone with the radio I lift up my hands. Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.

Oh, and I have to note that this made me laugh. F. and the scholar are passing through a separatist rally in Montreal:

 --This is an ugly crowd, F. Let's walk faster.

--No, it is a beautiful crowd.

--Why?

--Because they think they are Negroes, and that is the best feeling a man can have in this century.

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Last Fairhope Film Festival movie: L'attesa, English title The Wait. I will tell you right off that I did not understand it, assuming that there is some large Idea there to be understood. It stars Juliette Binoche, and it has now been almost twenty-five years since she appeared in Blue. She's now middle-aged, and I will also tell you that to me many women are at their most beautiful in middle age; what they have lost in youthful bloom they've gained in depth. It also stars a beautiful young woman, Lou de Laâge. 

The basic story is slight, and simple. Anna, played by Binoche, has just lost her son, Giuseppe, in some sort of accident (the film is set in Sicily and Anna is a French expatriate--I think). Giuseppe had a girlfriend, Jeanne, who had been invited to visit the family over the Easter weekend. No one has told Jeanne of Giuseppe's death, and she arrives expecting him to be there. At first Anna doesn't have the heart to tell her. Then Anna finds that she cannot tell her at all. Days pass. Still Jeanne asks about Giuseppe, and still Anna avoids telling her the truth, though it slowly begins to slip out.

There's really not a great deal more to it than that. From my point of view the fact that these events occur during Holy Week seems as though it must be significant in some way, but I'm at a loss as to exactly how. A strange and very picturesque Sicilian procession, which I think but am not sure occurs on Holy Saturday, provides some striking imagery but again I'm not sure what its significance is. It may be that the director just liked the imagery. 

Anyway, I would recommend this if only for its visual richness, of which you can get a taste in the trailer.  

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Maybe it's just my somewhat pedantic urge for precision and accuracy in language, but the admonition to "Make a difference!", unqualified, drives me a bit crazy. Similarly with the politician's call for "change," unqualified. Donald Trump is making a difference, and introducing change. I always want to point out that one could make a difference by, for instance, blowing up the Wallace Tunnel in Mobile, which would put a big crimp in Interstate 10 traffic (even more if one also blew up the Bankhead Tunnel). But as a rule the people who use these phrases have in mind a very specific sort of difference and sort of change that they want, and not others. They did not, for instance, have in mind the substantial difference Donald Trump is making; in fact they are wailing over it. I mention this because the choir at our parish church often sings a "worship song" which is mainly the repetition of the words "Go make a difference." Ambiguous advice at best.

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I still can't read the words "President Trump" without laughing a little.

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Several book reviews by people who read and comment here have appeared in the past week or so:

At The University Bookman, Rob Grano reviews The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel.

At her blog, Janet Cupo reviews two novels by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See and About Grace.

 And Craig Burrell has done something unusual: read all of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

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Mean old meanie Kevin Williamson (National Review) on the self-styled "Resistance" to Trump:

This isn’t Nazi Germany, none of you ladies and gentlemen in the pink hats is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the history books will not tell of acts of courage at the Battle of Soy Latte. 


52 Albums: Week 4 - Fragments Of A Rainy Season

[Note: There are seven links to YouTube videos in this piece. I more or less arbitrarily picked the first and last to embed for quick access, but thought embedding them all might make the page annoyingly slow to load.--Ed.]

At some point when I was a teenager I thought I should like John Cale. I liked the Velvet Underground (still do – not saying that’s a good thing). I liked Nico, whose best albums he produced. I liked Brian Eno, whom he had worked with. But when I listened to Cale’s albums there was something missing. They just seemed, well, “wishy washy” is the phrase that came to mind. I bought one or two albums, but only listened to them once or twice.

In 1990 Brian Eno and John Cale released an album together - Wrong Way Up. (I still think of this as the “new” Eno album.) I loved this album. It made me think I was missing something in Cale’s work. In 1992, Cale released a live album called Fragments Of A Rainy Season. I thought I’d give it a try, and I was amazed. I heard some of the songs I had heard before, but there was nothing wishy-washy about them. Most of the album was just Cale playing the piano and singing, but there was more energy and, I guess, momentum than I had heard from him before. The tempo was faster (on the songs I knew). The piano was driving – percussive. And the vocals (which I think were his weakest point in his studio albums) were forceful (when they needed to be).

There are 20 songs on the album. Some are pretty good – “On a Wedding Anniversary”, “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed” (both Dylan Thomas poems), “Ship of Fools”, “Leaving it Up to You”. A few are very good - “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, “Chinese Envoy”, “(I Keep A) Close Watch”, “Buffalo Ballet.”

One song I have to single out, though I don’t really want to listen to it for a while, is “Hallelujah.” I think it’s a very good version of a great song. From what I’ve read, Cale’s cover started the craze for the song, for better or worse.

There are 3 songs that I think stand out. “Paris 1919”, “Cordoba”, and “Dying on the Vine.” “Paris 1919” is from the 1973 album of the same name. Here is the album version:

Here is the later version. “Cordoba” is from Wrong Way Up album with Brian Eno. This is one where I like both versions. The original, which is soothing, and has Cale on the viola. The live version – forceful (he definitely didn’t drink decaf before this show).

The best song on the album (and my favorite John Cale song) is “Dying on the Vine.” The album version is ok. The version from Fragments Of A Rainy Season is great. But there is a later version, which is basically the Fragments… version with the addition of a string quartet. I saw Cale in concert in NYC (The Bottom Line) when he pretty much did Fragments Of A Rainy Season with a string quartet. That was an amazing show. I’m not sure whether I like it better with just the piano or with the string quartet. The album version. - The piano version. - The string quartet version: 

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this album (or the rest of John Cale’s) work) in this sloppy essay. I hope you’ll click on some of the links and see that there is really something there, whether I express it or not.

--Don is a regular reader of this blog who usually doesn't have anything to say.  He lives on Long Island.


A Note on the 52 Albums Project

I'm going to start posting these on Thursday instead of Wednesday. That puts it closer to the middle of the week between Sunday Night Journals, which are posted either late Sunday or early Monday. My intention will be to post them first thing Thursday mornings, although occasional lapses are possible.


Sunday Night Journal, January 22, 2017

So now Trump really is the president. I was astonished and appalled when he got the nomination, and thought it only guaranteed that Hillary would win. I was more astonished when he won the election, and was only pleased by the result because it meant that Hillary would not be president. Since then, I've heard or read a number of people saying things like "I no longer recognize my country." I don't think they really mean it. It's the striking of a pose, a way of saying "I'm very upset." But to one who did really mean it I could only say "You never knew your country." 

Donald Trump is thoroughly American, as American as...well, apple pie doesn't really do anymore, does it? I believe the phrase at one time was "Mom's apple pie." The average American mother has no time and probably little inclination to bake an apple pie, and very likely doesn't know how. So let's say Donald Trump is as American as...as P.T. Barnum. As Hollywood. As reality TV. As Disneyland. As SUVs. As professional sports. Mega-churches. Yellow journalism. Buzzfeed and the Drudge Report. Talk radio and the New York Times. Al Sharpton. Al Gore. Starbucks. Google and Netflix. Rock-and-roll. A 10-million-word tax code

Any useful discussion of this country has to take into account the fact that we're crazy.

But admittedly, it is extraordinary that someone like Trump is president. I don't expect him to be a good president; in fact I expect him to make a mess. But I hope he surprises me again.

Something that struck me in his inaugural address was the extent to which much of it reminded me of Obama. Not in its specifics, of course, and not in its tone, but in its assertion that this is an unprecedented and almost mystical moment, and that from this point on all our problems will begin to be resolved by the sheer personal power of the speaker. Take this sentence, for instance:

That all changes -- starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.

Very Obama-like. And he goes on to promise changes which are not in the power of the president to make. From that broad perspective, both presidencies appear to be symptoms of a general movement toward a belief that government, and specifically the presidency, is the most important reality in society, the one that has the power both to cause and to solve our biggest problems, to save us from ourselves (or rather, in the minds of all too many people, the enemies in the other party). There's a longing for a king-messiah that exists on both sides of the political divide. It is far from what our founders intended, in fact is something they feared, and apart from that it is unwise, and apart from that it is unworkable. It will lead to more disappointment, anger, and polarization--the same things that helped make Trump's victory possible. We are flung out into the extremes: unbalanced nationalism on the one hand, unbalanced anti-nationalism on the other. And so on.

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Show me a citizen of the world and I'll show you someone who probably doesn't like his own people very much.

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As American as Star Wars. I saw Rogue One last week. It's enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, and especially if you like the original Star Wars--I mean not just the original trilogy but the first of the three in particular (which is still my favorite)--because it tells the story of how the plans for the Death Star got into the hands of Princess Leia. Thus it brings the action up very close to the point where the original film begins. It's also somewhat in the spirit of the original, and for that matter even resembles it in plot, beginning with evil descending on an isolated farm on an out-of-the-way planet. 

A few things that struck me:

Seems like most of the episodes at some point have a scene that takes place within a wretched hive of scum and villainy which has a pronounced middle-eastern feel, or perhaps I should say a Hollywood notion of a middle-eastern feel. This seems a bit odd. Why would planets in a civilization that can travel among the stars always have dusty marketplaces thronged with people in robes jostling and haggling? Is this not culturally insensitive? 

And why are those fully-armored storm troopers so very easy to kill? Or to disable with one blow from the fist or foot of a slender young woman who probably weighs 110 pounds at most?

This episode has a battle scene which is apparently meant to recall the final scenes of the original, when the Death Star is attacked. I was struck in 1977 and still am by how much the spaceship combat scenes resemble WWII air combat scenes in old movies. And in fact the whole structure of the Empire and the rebellion against it is very much a reprise of the fight against the Nazis as rendered in post-war movies, only with space-opera trappings. This is not the only movie (or movies) for which that holds. And it occurs to me that that struggle has become fixed in our minds as a sort of archetype of noble war. But the totalitarianism which is the enemy in that archetype did not exist until a few decades into the 20th century. Sure, there were always tyrants, and noble struggles against them. But this idea of the enemy as one giant inhuman machine, with its anonymous and absolutely obedient hordes of troops, and the cold, haughty, and ruthless commanders who are also absolutely obedient (and in fear of) some equally cold and haughty and ruthless superior--I think that's something new, at least in degree. More realistic films don't do it so thoroughly as Star Wars, but the flavor is there in almost any drama that pits some hero or heroine against a government (or big corporation).

Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.

The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all. 

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This picture was taken in our local independent bookstore. It's not very clear, because I was trying not to be noticed and took it hastily.  In case you can't read the names, the ones in the top row are Darwin, Einstein, and Austen. I think I see John Lennon and Poe in the second row. 

SecularSaintCandles

These struck me initially as slightly annoying, and then as rather pathetic, like those Darwin-fish stickers that put Darwin in the place of Jesus. I always want to ask what sort of salvation Darwin is supposed to offer us. Deliverance from superstition, I suppose? But then what? 


52 Albums: Week 3 - Waving Not Drowning

My best estimate is that it was 1983 when my friend Robert sent me a cassette of which one side (and maybe a bit of overflow to the other side) was Rupert Hines’s 1982 release Waving Not Drowning. I don’t remember what else was on the tape, and it’s gone now. I think it broke or had one of those malfunctions where the tape gets loose and tangled in the player, but that was after I had played it many times. I would have bought the album, but it was out of print, and in fact was already out of print when Robert bought it. In the letter accompanying the tape he said he had found the album in a cutout bin. If you don’t remember those, they were the bins in which LPs that were no longer in print, and therefore mostly unwanted, were sold for low prices. So it must have gone out of print very quickly after its initial release.

WavingNotDrowning

That was a great injustice, because it is a very very good piece of work. Ten years or so ago I included it in a list of my 25 favorite pop albums, and I probably still would, though such preferences tend to be volatile. It is not, however, for everybody. In fact it’s so much not for everybody that I question whether I should even be writing about it here, because I don’t actually think many people reading this would like it, and I can’t even recommend it without a certain amount of disclaiming.

Which I guess means I shouldn’t complain about its commercial failure. It’s now available on CD and MP3, and I find on looking around for information about it that it seems to have acquired a sort of cult following over the years. The AllMusic review describes it, very strangely, as “an enjoyable piece of British synth-pop”. Well, it does include a lot of synthesized sounds, but that’s like calling The Doors’ “The End” “an enjoyable piece of California pop.” Anyone buying this album and expecting something like Depeche Mode would get quite a surprise, either pleasant or unpleasant depending on the person. (Though I don’t suppose anyone buys an album unheard these days.)

It is a very dark and strange album, though the title suggests that we shouldn’t take its darkness as the last word: it’s a variation on the Stevie Smith poem “Not Waving But Drowning,” which describes a man whose struggles in the water are mistaken for a greeting, and who dies in the same desperation in which he had lived:

He was too far out all his life
And not waving but drowning.

But the desperate speaker in this album is, in the end, apparently not drowning after all. I say “speaker” deliberately, because although this is a Rupert Hine album the lyrics are by Jeannete Obstoj, and they are a crucial element, without which the album wouldn’t have nearly the same force, and you really can’t say whether what you’re hearing is more his voice or hers. I hope she got songwriting credits. I have not been able to find out much about her. There’s a Wikipedia entry, but there’s not much there beyond the fact that she lived from June 5, 1949 until March 26, 2015. There’s more at her web site, but still not a great deal, except for something that I’ve wanted for years: the text of the lyrics. The link is to a PDF, and not everything in it is a Rupert Hine lyric, but I think all of Waving is there.

The album opens suddenly with a loud electronic whip-crack sort of noise followed immediately by a rapid chant, growing louder: “I feel the blood I feel the blood I feel the blood...” This soon becomes

I feel the blood of a reptile run
Through
The veins of a child

The song is called “Eleven Faces,” and the speaker is trying to pick out of a police line-up a man who has assaulted, perhaps killed, a woman, but is unable to decide which face if any is the guilty one.

Perhaps his face was wiped away that night
to leave some other that I'll never recognise...
Ten faces melt away, until there's only one
and someone murmurs now
you must decide, you must decide

The music is intense and driving and, unsettlingly, catchy. “Enjoyable piece of synth-pop”, indeed. I was about to say that it’s the darkest track on the album, but that honor should probably go to “The Sniper,” which is mainly a list of ways you might meet sudden and unexpected death:

The crash - the gas
the heart attack
The rare disease you cannot fight
The poisoned bite
the faulty light
The wet hand on the stereo...

I find it impossible to discuss this music without using words like uneasy, disturbing, disquieting, sinister, nervous, paranoid, menacing. Hine in fact took this music on tour with a band billed as Rupert Hine and The Menace.

So why would you even want to listen to it? Because it is absolutely brilliant. Musically it is strikingly imaginative and unpredictable. It achieves its effects with skill, not shock: no harsh or sudden noises (well, not many) or cheap eerie dissonances, but carefully crafted melodies and arrangements. It really could just as well be classified as progressive rock as synth-pop, though it doesn’t include the long instrumental jams typical of prog.

Here’s the most conventional song on the album, “The Set Up.” I picked it partly because it’s the only actual video I can find for anything on the album: a pointless criterion, I guess, since this is about the music. Moreover, the video is nothing special. Well, anyway...it's an unhappy childhood, blame-your-parents song, and maybe not a good thing for anybody under 30 or so to listen to (maybe 40?).  

That’s a fairly quiet, even pretty, song. But listening to Waving Not Drowning again after an interval of ten years or so, I’m a little surprised at how many of the songs are up-tempo and driving. That seems contrary to expectation for an album devoted to sensations that are typically quiet and private, but it certainly works. Hine has had a more steady career as a producer than as an artist in his own right, and it is apparent from this recording that he's very skilled in the studio. Notice that odd breathy burr, sort of dropping off a bit in pitch (I think--it's hard to describe) at the end of the last word of many phrases: “Every opportunity to make me like them.” It seems to be an electronic effect and it gives the end of the phrase an emphasis which is at once angry and spooky.

Lest you think the album too dark and perhaps nihilistic, I’ll point out a couple of other things besides the rather desperate affirmation of the title. From “Innocents in Paradise”:

Then should your concrete footsteps stop
to watch this town go down in flames
you'll feel your feet touch grass again
could be you'll find you're going sane

It was only a couple of weeks ago, when I found the lyrics as mentioned above, that I discovered that I had been mis-hearing these lyrics from the beginning. I thought that last line was “could be you’ll find you’ll go insane.” Having the correct words makes a pretty massive difference.

And from the same song:

No ifs or buts, you'll be broken before you learn to love

Maybe that’s not really very positive, but at least it supposes that you will learn. 

There was one thing wrong with Robert’s tape. It included two songs from Hine’s previous album, Immunity: “Surface Tension” and “I Hang On to My Vertigo.” But I didn’t notice that they were from a different album, and in my mind they are an almost essential part of Waving Not Drowning. They fit perfectly as the last two tracks in the set, so I was a little disappointed to find that they were from a different album. That same reviewer at AllMusic thinks Immunity is the better album by far. I disagree completely. I like Immunity, and there are some great tracks on it (especially the two just mentioned). But I don’t think it has the consistent brilliance and unity of Waving.

Nevertheless, here is the official video for “Surface Tension.” It’s really more like most of Waving than “Set Up.” If you like it, get both albums. You won’t be sorry. But get Waving Not Drowning first. And by the way, most re-releases seem to include an annoying extra track: "Kwok's Quease," a silly novelty thing about getting sick after eating at a Chinese restaurant. You might want to be ready to skip it. It completely destroys the atmosphere of the album. I only allowed it to play once. I listen to the album as an mp3 playlist which does not include that track.

P.S. The “Piña Colada” guy is Rupert HOLMES.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


Sunday Night Journal, January 15, 2017

One night last week I dreamed that I was on a college campus that was being terrorized by small (about man-sized) blue dinosaurs. They looked like upright alligators, a bit like Albert the Alligator in the Pogo comic strip, except that they were blue, a rather pretty light shade, rather than green, and not at all cute: more like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. They were running around loose and chasing students. I didn't see a dinosaur catch a student, but the presumption was that when and if that happened the student would be messily devoured, as an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon puts it. The campus was not any that I've known in the real world. Well, maybe it looked in a very general sort of way like parts of the University of Alabama in Huntsville campus, where I had my first job in technology: very open, very "modern" in that the buildings were simple brick or concrete affairs, nothing at all Greco-Roman.

It was night, and I was walking around, a little worried about the dinosaurs, but only a little, because I witnessed one of the dinosaurs chasing a screaming student without being extremely disturbed. I wasn't really fearful for myself (which is not at all realistic) but rather was concerned about the students and the general problem of What To Do About The Dinosaurs. I may have been part of a Dinosaur Action and Awareness Committee or something, because I felt a definite sense of responsibility.

Then suddenly there was a shift, like a scene shift in a movie that's also a time shift, the sort of thing where text across the bottom of the screen says "Five years later" or something. Things had changed significantly. The dinosaurs were no longer terrorizing students, no longer chasing them. In fact they were students themselves. They had been integrated into campus life, and on the surface it seemed that everyone was getting along. But there were subtler tensions. Aside from lingering concerns about being eaten, on the one side, and about being unjustly accused of eating, on the other side, there was just a sort of cultural barrier that made things difficult. It was not clear whether the whole dinosaurs-eat-humans thing was just a big misunderstanding, or a real problem that had somehow been resolved.  But in any case dinosaurs and humans just felt a little awkward around each other, or maybe more than a little, and so tended to keep to themselves. I guess I should say reptile-persons and mammal-persons, because both species were persons.

In this last bit, I was with some mammal-persons, in the campus cafeteria, and there were reptile-persons around. We, the mammals, were sitting together, and there was a sense that we should make some kind of gesture of welcome or at least non-hostility to the reptiles, but we didn't know what to do. Then the mammals I was with left, and I was sitting at the table by myself. In a couple of minutes I was ready to leave, too. But there was a reptile sitting at a nearby table, also alone, and I felt awkward. I thought he looked uncomfortable (don't ask me how an alligator looks uncomfortable), and I wondered if it would be a nice gesture if I went and sat with him, but that might have been unwelcome, and anyway was maybe a bit condescending or something. But then if I just got up and left, which I would otherwise have done without thinking about it, would he think I was avoiding him?

While I was considering the situation, I began to wake up. Sometimes when you're waking from a dream there's an in-between state where you are still in the dream but are beginning to be aware that it is a dream. Or at least it happens that way with me. When I reached that point, I realized that the whole thing was very funny, and by the time I was fully awake I was laughing.

Our difficulties involving ethnic diversity are not quite as bad as that. At least we all belong to the same species. 

Unfortunately they're not very funny, either. Even with good will all around, it's not easy to bridge cultural differences. There are many awkward situations. Natural inertia leads everyone to avoid the effort, just because it is an effort: much easier to just stay with one's own. Misunderstandings arise, and may lead to hostility. Or the groups may differ so much that they simply do not get along all very well, and are more cordial at a distance. What we're doing in the United States is not easy, and hasn't been the norm for most of the human race for most of history. We've managed it in the past, but it remains to be seen whether we can keep it up, with so many centrifugal forces at work.

Jurassic-world-raptor-delta      Albert

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I watched the Netflix series The OA last weekend and last week. I don't especially recommend it. It was gripping at first, but grew tiresome, and I think there are some pretty major problems with the plot. It's about a young woman who disappeared for seven years and has suddenly reappeared under strange circumstances, and refuses to tell anyone anything at all about what happened to her. There's a complicated and very New-Age-y plot involving her recruitment of several other people for a mystical task. All are outsiders in some way, and all but one are teenagers. There are a number of scenes where they're all sitting around by candlelight in an abandoned house, with the young woman telling her story and leading them in very weird dance-like movements which, when perfected, will have supernatural effects. There's a bit of an encounter group quality to these sessions, as they all become more open and loving, getting past...I almost said "their hangups"... all the damage done to them by their parents and the generally mean old world.

Part way through this it suddenly dawned on me that these group scenes reminded me of the 1960s, and of my own youth: the longing for community and meaning, the impulse to seek those things in flight from the normal world, and in a small pure group of the like-minded. And it seemed very sad.

If you decide to watch it, be aware that there is a sex scene in the first episode which appears without any prelude whatsoever and is pretty much soft-core pornography. I assume someone threw that in as a reliable attention-getter, because it's completely unnecessary.  There's another sex scene in a later episode, and a few scenes of somewhat disturbing fear and violence. All that also owes something to the 1960s, I guess.

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Another film from Fairhope Film Festival: Lamb, "the first Ethiopian film screened at Cannes." I expect most of us have neglected the Ethiopian cinema. But don't think the presence of this movie at Cannes represents any kind of condescension, because it very much deserves the recognition. It's a small, gentle affair, about a boy, Ephraim, who has a pet lamb to which he is very attached. The boy's mother has recently died and his father has gone to Addis Ababa to look for work. Ephraim is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, and, not surprisingly for poor rural people, their view of the lamb is decidedly businesslike: they expect it to be the main course for an upcoming feast (was it Easter? I can't remember). Ephraim naturally intends to prevent this.

From that description you might expect some kind of Disney-fied sentimental thing, but it's not that at all, and the resolution is not what I expected.  This review in The Guardian goes into more detail without giving away anything important. As the review says, a great deal of the appeal is in the picture of the lives of the people and of the land. You can get a sense of that from the trailer.

Lamb is listed on Netflix in the DVD section but is not currently available, so maybe that means it will be.

 

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So much of what's wrong with America is exhibited in this:

AmericasAmazingDad

 


52 Albums: Week 2 - Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash

I will happily accept that I am about as unmusical as it is possible to be without actually being tone deaf. It surprised me last year to notice that my contributions to the 52 Movies series focused on films with striking soundtracks, but I suppose in those cases the music serves a broader storytelling purpose. As a teenager there were a few albums that I listened to over and over again, almost obsessively – not entirely for the music, but often in order to get down the words on paper, to appreciate them as poetry. There was no Internet to look up texts, liner notes were patchy and not always accurate, and to me the heart of a song, the thing that matters, is the lyric. And even in new songs, there is nothing I like better than the flavour of history (a good example of this, I think, is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”).

My more musical sister would watch the BBC chart show Top of the Pops week after week, and tune in to Casey Kasum on the American Forces Radio, and spend money on music by bands like Culture Club and The Cure. The only thing I ever wanted money for was books. The offerings of DJs on radio or television left me cold, although as a ten-year-old I had loved an all too short-lived BBC programme called The Song and the Story, in which Isla St Clair (with the Maddy Prior Band for backing) would both perform and expound folk songs. My parents had a number of folk and folkish albums from the 1960s and early 1970s, and in my early teens these were the records I would play over and over again (others might be better placed to write about Simon & Garfunkel, but later in this series I could perhaps provide a few words on Max Boyce). It was through my sister, so much more abreast of current popular music, that I came to hear The Pogues, the first band whose tracks I coveted for myself. I soon had my sister’s album on a cassette tape of my own.

Rum-Sodomy-The-Lash-cover

Perhaps due only to my own ignorance, I think of The Pogues as the beginning of punk folk. The first of their albums I became aware of was their second, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) – the title taken from a remark of Winston Churchill’s about ‘Navy traditions’. The group was London Irish, and was initially formed as a punk band under the name ‘Pogue Mahone’ (Irish for ‘kiss my arse’). Their style was unique and strangely coherent despite ranging between, as well as combining, the punk and the traditional. Shane MacGowan (whose musical career began under the stage name Shane O’Hooligan) was both singer and songwriter, and while his voice was rough, his writing was definitely poetry – marked by wistfulness, whimsy, bravado and sentimentality, and delivered with the energy and rawness of punk music played on traditional instruments. Another, more beautiful, voice on the album is Cait O’Riordan’s.

The tracks The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn and A Pair of Brown Eyes are perhaps the most typical, or the most striking. Sally McLennane is worth a mention too. And every so often they would throw in a 1960s folk song, making it their own, or even a genuinely traditional song, such as “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day”.

I can second the novelist in that last clip when he says ‘there are some albums that survive your teenage years, ... that you'll buy over and over again’. My first copy might have been a homemade tape recording, but I have bought it on tape, CD and iTunes since. As a teenager my own favourite track, precisely for the flavour of history, was “Navigator”, a song about the Irish navvies who laboured to build British railways in the 19th century.

 

 —Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


Sunday Night Journal, January 8, 2017

On Monday my wife and I watched the last episode of the second series of Man In the High Castle, the TV series (if that's the right term for a multi-segment drama released all at once for Internet streaming) based loosely on Philip K. Dick's alternate-history novel in which the Germans and Japanese win World War II. I can't say anything about the show's relationship to the book, which I haven't read, but I get the impression that there isn't a great deal of connection apart from the basic idea.

I thought Series 1 did an excellent job of portraying that might-have-been scenario, in which the Nazis rule the eastern half of the country, the Japanese rule roughly a third on the western side, and the rest, called the Neutral Zone, is independent and somewhat anarchic. The plot is complex and didn't seem entirely coherent, but that could be my fault. It revolves around a film or films that depict an alternate reality (alternate to the story's world, that is) in which the Allies win. For reasons that were never clear to me these films are very important, and they have some connection with the mysterious Man in the High Castle. Various people get involved with them and various things happen, many involving a resistance force that operates in both the German and Japanese sectors. There are a lot of subplots, and they make sense, but I was left unsure what the story as a whole was all about. The second series is better in that the bigger picture seems clearer and the whole thing more coherent (again, maybe that's just me).

In both, the portrayal of what life in the U.S. might be like under Nazi or Japanese rule is very convincing. One major character is Obergruppenführer John Smith, a former U.S. Army officer who has managed to do quite well for himself as a Nazi. The story takes place around 1960-'62, I think--and the everyday fabric of American society is not too dissimilar from what it actually was, which is to say that it's very 1950s-ish. (There is no rock-and-roll, however--"Negro" music is entirely forbidden.) Nazi evil is very domesticated: it's generally accepted, for instance, that racial hygiene requires that defective persons be eliminated, and the insertion of that sort of thing into a middle-American setting is disconcerting, to say the least. Smith is married with three children and has a nice home in a nice neighborhood and leads a life that looks in most ways normal for its time. But he goes off to work every day to help advance the Reich. And one supposes that such a world really could have come to seem normal.

Anyway: what I actually started out to mention is a little speech given by a very-high-up Nazi to a younger one who is having misgivings about the whole world-conquest thing. What he says is striking because he describes the goals of the Reich not in terms of the sort of grandiloquent and apocalyptic rage for domination that we associate with Hitler, but in a way that sounds more like John Lennon. "We are trying to build a better world. Don't you want to be a part of that? Imagine a world at peace, unified at last under one global government." It's easy if you try! 

In those sentences he sounds much like an ordinary progressive. And that brings me to a book I've been meaning to mention for some months now: Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. You may have heard of it. It was published ten years or so ago. I read a few excerpts at the time, and they didn't seem especially good, so I didn't read the book. But a couple of years ago my friend Robert talked me into giving it another look. Also, in the intervening years I'd become more aware of and interested in the tendency in progressivism to want to exercise very tight control over many aspects of life as part of the march toward that better world, to compel participation in the vision. So I gave the book another try, and on the whole I found it impressive.

It's flawed in some ways, and the biggest flaws are visible here:

LiberalFascism

I mean the title and the cover. They give the impression that the purpose of the book is to call liberals fascists, and that its contents would be about as superficial as any book on contemporary politics with the word "fascism" in the title. And that's exactly the way it was treated by many. But the title actually comes from H.G. Wells, and it was a prescription. Here is the abstract of a paper discussing the concept in Wells. The use of the phrase is, therefore, justifiable intellectually. But as a matter of marketing it seems a bad choice for the title (not that I can think of a better one).

Aside from the bad impression given by the title and the cover, the book also seems somewhat unfocused to me. There is an awful lot of detail, but I was often unsure exactly what it all added up to, apart from demonstrating the historical connections between fascism and progressivism. That may have been my fault, but then the ten-year-anniversary edition, which is the one I read, has a new afterword in which Goldberg states his purposes explicitly, so apparently I wasn't the only one.

In spite of any reservations, though, I found it fascinating and instructive in part because for a long time I've thought that the political taxonomy which has fascism on the extreme "right" and communism on the extreme "left" is wrong, that those two things are much more alike than they are different. My pat one-sentence summary is that fascism is national socialism and communism is international socialism. Those on the left seem to think that the word "socialism" in "National Socialism" is some kind of accident, but it is not.

From my point of view then, the most important aspect of the book is that it shows historically that the two ideologies are members of the same family, siblings or first cousins, and that what we now call liberalism or progressivism has roots in both. All are responses to the decline of religion in Western culture, and involve a quasi-religious attempt to find meaning and hope in secular politics, which inevitably means in the state, to some degree. 

It also--and this is one of the theses stated in the new edition--refutes--refudiates, to use Sarah Palin's wonderful accident--the association of American conservatism with fascism, detailing the left-progressive roots of characters and movements now ignorantly spoken of as conservative: for instance, Fr. Coughlin. American conservatism may be a good thing or a bad thing, it may be fundamentally confused in its attempt to mate classical liberalism and traditionalism, but it is not fascist, or generally sympathetic to fascism and linked to it in the way that progressivism is sympathetic to totalitarianism, whether described as "left" or "right."

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I can't remember the context, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere along the line here we've discussed the interesting quasi-English accent of upper-class Americans in movies prior to 1950 or so. A few days ago I ran across a page at Vintage News that claims to explain it: that it was not exactly a natural phenomenon, but something deliberately cultivated. Having read that, I resorted to Wikipedia, which gives considerably more detail. 

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I'm afraid I've become one of those people who tends to get a little depressed during the "holiday season." This has been growing little by little for some time. It's not the sort of misery that apparently afflicts some people, and that seems to drive them to therapists and such--just a certain degree of melancholy. My medication for this, which I providentially discovered around the time the syndrome began to manifest itself, is to read P. G. Wodehouse, whose writing tends to make me feel for a little while the way champagne looks. This year it was Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. I read a chapter or two most evenings over a couple of weeks, and the effect was salutary, as usual. 

One evening, along about page 83, Bertie described his Aunt Dahlia (she's the one he likes, if you recall) as speaking with "the explosive heat which had once made fellow-members of the Quorn and Pytchley leap convulsively in their saddles." Usually when reading Wodehouse and coming across some obscure reference like Q and P, I just move along. The name is amusing, and it apparently has something to do with hunting, and I figured that was enough to know. And besides, how would one ever track it down? But my iPhone was handy, and I decided to ask Google about it. Not surprisingly, it turns out that they--two different things--are the most well-known hunts in England (see Pytchley Hunt and Quorn Hunt in Wikipedia). 

So what? So I found the meaning of those at a very wonderful web site, Madame Eulalie's Rare Plums. If you've read The Code of the Woosters, you know the reason for "Eulalie" (to explain it would spoil the plot), and "Plum" was Wodehouse's nickname, derived from a childish pronunciation of "Pelham" (the "P" in "P.G."). At Madame Eulalie's you can find annotations for several Wodehouse novels, including The Code of the Woosters, which also contains a reference to Quorn and Pytchley. This is a great service. For instance, perhaps in reading Code you wonder what exactly Anatole, Aunt Dahlia's treasured chef, has done when he prepares nonettes de poulet Agnès Sorel. Well, now you can consult Madame Eulalie's plums and learn that

Nonettes are small honey cakes, filled with marmelade or another preserve. They are not made from chicken (poulet).

Agnès Sorel (1421-50), was the mistress of King Charles VII of France. She also has no connection with chickens.

If Anatole's dishes are as creative as the names he bestows on them, it's easy to see why Aunt Dahlia is reluctant to lose his services.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit also takes place partly at Aunt Dahlia's, and half a dozen or so of Anatole's dishes are mentioned. It had never occurred to me that the names are meant to be funny.

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I guess many of us have had the experience of becoming estranged from friends and family over differences of religion and politics. The traditional counsel says not to discuss them on social occasions, and I've always resisted that, because those things are among the most interesting topics available, and I don't like small talk and am not good at it. It is, unfortunately, wise counsel if you want to continue to have good relations with the people involved.

I've never intentionally and directly cut someone off because of those differences, and it's hard to imagine something that would make me do so. (Since the election I've seen a number of Facebook posts and other online statements from liberals saying they want nothing further to do with Trump supporters, on the grounds that support for Trump is not just a political disagreement but an embrace of real evil. I can imagine applying the same logic though I can't think of any present issue that would provoke me to do so.) But in many instances there has been a slow drifting apart, for which I accept at least half the responsibility. Both parties cease making the effort to maintain contact, because it's just awkward. Or at least that's how it's looked from my side. This post from Neo-neocon describes the process very well. Social encounters that exist for enjoyment become strained, and not enjoyable, and so lose their reason for existing, and dwindle away. It's unfortunate and it only increases the polarization. But one tires of being in the position she was in at that party, and begins to avoid it.


52 Movies: Week 53 - Tony Takitani

[Sorry, I missed one. --Ed.]

What a lovely little film this is. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, and clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, this minimalist gem carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.

The opening ten minutes provide the backstory for our oddly-named protagonist. Takitani Shozaburo is a Japanese jazz trombone player who was captured in China during World War II. After the war he returns to Japan, marries, and the following year the couple has a son. The boy’s mother dies soon after he is born, and Shozaburo gives him the Americanized name Tony, liking the sound of it.

Tony’s father continues to travel as a musician, and Tony grows up basically alone; among other things his Western name is a hindrance to the development of friendships. But he likes to draw, and eventually becomes an accomplished illustrator, one who excels at drawing cars and machines, but whose work shows little emotion despite its technical skill.

This prelude to Tony’s story is told largely via voiceover narration and a series of brief visual vignettes, during which the camera remains mostly static within each scene, but pans from scene to scene directly from left-to-right like in a slide show. These movements mark the passage of time, as in the technique in older films of having calendar pages flip or be blown off by the wind. At first this technique may seem a little forced and perhaps distracting, but as you settle in with it and the film progresses it becomes quite fitting and natural to the way in which director Jun Ichikawa tells the story.

After this prelude we see Tony as a successful technical artist, still alone in early middle age. One day he meets a pretty young client, and after a time he asks her out. They go on a few dates, seemingly hitting it off, and Tony proposes. Surprisingly, the girl, Eiko, agrees to think about it, and eventually says yes. They marry, but not long afterwards, and despite their apparent happiness, Tony finds out something disturbing about his new bride: she buys an “alarming number” of designer clothes.

Eventually Tony and Eiko talk about this obsession of Eiko’s, and she agrees to cut back. But an obsession is an obsession, this one takes a tragic turn, and again Tony finds himself faced with the possibility of being alone. His attempts to deal with this make up the remainder of the story.

The overall feel of this film is that of a fable, or even a sort of visual poem. Dialogue is sparse – most of the story is told by the conjunction of the narration and the visuals, and the narration itself has the matter-of-fact quality of a folktale. Issey Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father, and who is better known in Japan as a comedian and comic actor, captures both Tony’s lonely world-weariness and his hope perfectly. It’s a quietly wonderful performance. And Rie Miyazawa, who plays both Eiko and another girl, Hisako, that Tony meets later in the film, plays both of these quite different girls so well that only the credits give away the fact that it’s the same actress.

The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is sparse too – all solo piano, made up of haunting melancholy themes for the most part, but punctuated occasionally by the more upbeat, almost jazzy moments that accompany the film’s brighter scenes.

On a surface level, then, the whole thing seems very simple. But the excellent understated performances, the uncomplicated storytelling, and the visual poetry combine in a way which makes Tony Takitani deeper and richer than it appears. And the gentle touch of irony with which the film ends is perfect. Ultimately what we have here is a jewel of small beauty -- a fine poetic meditation on life and loneliness, love and memory.

Week52-Tony_Takitani_(2004)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


52 Albums: Week 1 - Meet the Beatles

As far back as I can remember, I was surrounded by record albums. My father loved music and I grew up singing along with Steve and Eydie, Keely Smith, Della Reese, and so many more—and Broadway musicals. But those were my father's albums.

Later on, sitting in my grandparents' bedroom while the adults talked in the living room and the younger kids played, I discovered the radio. Pretty soon I couldn't wait until Sunday lunch was over so that I could shut myself in the room with Bobby Vinton, the Four Seasons, the Everly Brothers, and Neil Sedaka, and listen and sing to my heart's content. But that was the radio, and it never occurred to me that you could buy those records and listen to them whenever you want.

Then one day in the 8th grade, a friend started talking about this English band called The Beatles. She had heard about them from her friend Margaret, who was from England. From England! Just to have a friend from England was pretty amazing.

Pretty soon I got to listen to the album at a friend's house, and then—I got my own—my first album. I don't remember how I came into possession of that album. I may have bought it myself, but I suspect that I hadn't yet figured out that I could do that. More than likely my father, having heard me enthuse about the Fab Four had brought it home for me.

I loved everything about that album. I loved the dark blue cover with those four faces looking at me. I loved running my fingernail down the slit in the side of the cover through the cellophane, and slipping out the paper jacket of the album, and then, the album itself—and those songs.

I listened to that album every chance I could get. After my family went to bed and I had sole possession of the living room and the stereo, I would listen to that music into the morning hours—and dance. I knew every word. I knew all the harmonies. I knew who sang what, and the life story of every member of the band. I loved to hear them sing, “Ooooooo.” I was in love with Paul.

When I listen to those songs now, it's evident that they are not great music. It's basically just one silly love song after another, but, really, what IS wrong with that occasionally. These were for the most part happy songs, and even the ones that weren't happy, made me happy, and obviously they made millions of other people happy then, and even now. Hearing them every once in a while in a store or on Sirius radio, I smile and sing along.

And of course it didn't it stop with Meet the Beatles. Pretty soon there was Introducing the Beatles, and Hard Day's Night, and Abbey Road, and on and on. And there were Herman's Hermits and the Rolling Stones, and Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Peter and Gordon, and all the British Invasion—but it all started with Meet the Beatles.

Once Bill and I were in the back seat of my parents' car and my parents were in the front listening to some song from their youth, and one of them said something like, “That was great music. Kids today won't have any memories.” Bill and I just looked at each other and laughed.

Meet_the_Beatles

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.