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January 2019

Derry Girls: A Half-hearted Recommendation

This is a British comedy series set in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s and featuring a quartet of teenage schoolgirls. I had never heard of it, but it showed up on Netflix recently and my wife and I thought it looked interesting enough to give it a try. We pretty quickly went through all six episodes of season 1, which are all that are currently available. A second series is supposed to be available this spring.

Reason #1 for recommending it: it's often very funny.

Reason #2 for recommending it: the girls are Catholic, and the Troubles of Northern Ireland are in progress, and so along with what are I suppose fairly typical sitcom stories there are interesting background views of the culture and the times.

Reason #1 for not recommending it: it's frequently quite vulgar, though that of course is normal in contemporary entertainment. And it's persistently irreverent toward all things Catholic. Worse, though, is an incident in episode 3 which is just out-and-out sacrilegious from the Catholic point of view (and should be for any Christian, as it involves Mary). As an event in the plot it's an accident, and not the deliberate act of any of the characters. Still, the producers of the show thought it up and implemented it, which doesn't speak well of them. So if you choose to watch it be warned. You won't miss all that much if you just skip episode 3 altogether. 

I must say that I don't have very high hopes for the second season. The first one ends with someone announcing that she's a lesbian: these days that's about as imaginative a plot device as Frankie having a crush on Annette.

Well, watch the trailer and see if you think it's funny:

By the way, if you watch it, you'll probably want to turn on captions. I would have found a fair amount of it unintelligible without them. 

Craig's Favorites of 2018

In case you aren't in the habit of reading Craig Burrell's blog All Manner of Thing, here are links to his three annual best-of-the-preceding-year posts:


Music  (mostly classical).


In addition to the always-interesting subjects and opinions thereon, Craig is an elegant writer and a pleasure to read.

While I'm at it, Craig mentions, in this post, that this year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. It was Craig's mention of this recording in last year's Favorites post that caused me to investigate it:


I had thought I might write about it here, but there's a good chance that I won't ever get around to doing that, so I'll go ahead and say something now. It's a double CD and I've only listened to the chamber symphonies, and I like them a great deal. They belong to a species of music that is one of my favorites: "modern," in the sense that it is pretty obviously an astringent departure from the sounds of the 19th century and earlier, but it's not so atonal and dissonant and generally inaccessible to the ordinary listener that said listener (i.e. myself) can't connect with it. Sorry, I don't have the vocabulary to explain that in any more detail. If that sounds like something you'd like, give it a try. There is a sample in the above-mentioned post. 

Sundays and Cybele

Maybe it's the result of early imprinting, of the fact that moody, mostly black-and-white, mostly European films from the '50s and early '60s were more or less the definition of "art film" when I was in college in the late '60s and first encountered the concept and the thing itself. I remember seeing this one back then, and I remember that it had some strange music and that it was moody and poignant. That was all.

So I have occasionally over the years recalled it and thought I'd like to see it again, and I finally have. When we first joined Netflix it was listed, but when I put it on our queue it went into that mysterious list called Saved in which the Availability column is always Unknown. Some months ago it finally moved into the Queued list, and I've now seen it. (Thunder Road, a very different movie but one of which I have older and yet more powerful memories--a formative influence in the 8th grade, I think-- remains in Saved limbo--or, rather, I suppose, purgatory.) 

Sundays and Cybele is French, and the title is not only not a good translation of the French Les Dimanches de Ville D'Avray, but a spoiler. You aren't actually supposed to know that name until near the end of the movie. That complaint aside, it is even better than I had hoped. It is a very, very beautiful film, with some of the most evocative black-and-white photography you'll ever see. But it is also very, very sad. And I mean that as a warning, so don't say I didn't.

The Criterion Collection description is as apt as anything I could come up with:

In this provocative Academy Award winner from French director Serge Bourguignon, a psychologically damaged war veteran and a neglected child begin a startlingly intimate friendship—one that ultimately ignites the suspicion and anger of his friends and neighbors in suburban Paris. Bourguignon’s film makes thoughtful, humane drama out of potentially incendiary subject matter, and with the help of the sensitive cinematography of Henri Decaë and a delicate score by Maurice Jarre, Sundays and Cybèle becomes a stirring contemplation of an alliance between two troubled souls.

The veteran, as we are shown in the opening scene, was a bomber pilot who may have killed a young girl. I think that may have happened in Vietnam, though we aren't told. The eleven-year-old girl has been abandoned by her parents. Their connection is a chance for him to somehow atone for the death of the girl he (presumably) killed, and for her to find the father for whom she longs. The relationship is sweet and innocent--I was a little concerned that it was going to go in a perverse direction, but it does not. Yes, there is a subcurrent of potential sexuality in it--the little girl has a kind of crush on the man, wants to marry him (when she's eighteen), is jealous of him (and he of her), and such--but it's unconscious, and remains something that might develop in the future. 

I want to watch it again but the DVD has been here for almost three weeks and I'm not sure I'll have time in the next few days, and I hate to think that I'm keeping it from someone who might like it as much as I do. (I figure Netflix doesn't have many copies of something this obscure.) I've actually thought about buying it, which is the best recommendation I can give, since I don't buy many DVDs and my collection consists of Bergman, Fawlty Towers, and some Doctor Who episodes (Tom Baker period).


Vinyl Is Too Expensive(!) (?)

This is a topic that has come up several times in comments on various posts, but for those who haven't seen those I thought I'd make it a post. (I assume there are people who sometimes read the posts but not the comments.)

I mentioned a while back that although I applaud the revival of the vinyl LP I'm not personally in that market--well, not counting my recent purchase of two used Joni Mitchell albums, committed because her albums were so beautifully packaged. I had not paid much attention to the whole thing till some months ago, when I was in a Barnes & Noble and was shocked by the price of new LPs--$25 and up, it seemed. 

Rob G, in a comment a few days ago, pointed out that those prices are actually not at all out of line if inflation is taken into account, and provided a link to an inflation calculator.

To the best of my memory the first LP I bought with my own money was Ian and Sylvia's self-titled first album. That would have been in either 1964 or '65. I paid either $3.98 or $4.98 for it, in a little record shop that was just around the corner from the courthouse square in Athens, Alabama. The prices were either $3.98 for mono and $4.98 for stereo, or $4.98 and $5.98. I bought the mono (I still have it, and it's still a good album).

So here's what I would pay today (click on the graphic if you can't read the numbers):

Inflation-Adjusted LP Price

Of course everything is stereo these days. But however you tweak the comparison, $25 or so is not a bad deal at all. It shocks me a little that I was willing to pay that much in real dollars for an LP. I was probably sixteen years old and can assure you that I did not have very much money. 

Speaking of LPs, I recently came this close to buying the Innocent Mission's Sun on the Square on vinyl. I wanted the tangible object, because the Innocent Mission's lyrics are crucial, but sometimes hard to understand. Also, the artwork on their albums is usually beautiful. On Bandcamp, the CD is $12.99, and the LP is $20. I kept thinking how nice it would be to have the large-format art and lyrics, but just couldn't bring myself to spend $20. So I put the CD on my Amazon wish list, thinking that if someone gave it to me for Christmas that would be great, but if they didn't I would buy the LP. Someone did. 

I haven't really gotten to know the album yet, but the song "Green Bus" is already one of my favorites among their work. Here they are on Tiny Desk. "Green Bus" is the second song. 

Dang it, how and why does Karen Peris manage to get me all teary-eyed so frequently? 

Heard But Not Read, Or, Transcription Error

Back in August I had a post about the often-funny result of someone hearing a common phrase without having seen it in print or learned its actual meaning, then setting down in print what he thought he heard, which is sometimes oddly plausible. "Tow the line" as a misconstrual of "toe the line" was one example.

A couple of days ago I saw a new one which I think deserves the grand prize in this exhibition:

"It's a doggy-dog world."

At the Symphony

Thanks to a much-appreciated Christmas gift from two of our children, my wife and I went to the Mobile Symphony Orchestra concert last night. 

The first piece was Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Most people who have listened to classical music very much have probably heard this. It's one of those fairly short (under ten minutes) and colorful pieces that serve very well to fill out a recording or a classical radio station's afternoon programming--or to open a concert. I've heard it enough in such settings, and paid little enough attention to it, that I would have recognized it without being able to identify it. I'd never actually listened to it. It was definitely not the reason I wanted to attend this concert.

Well, turns out it's really quite a good piece, irresistibly rhythmic and catchy, danceable I guess if  you have a whole lot of energy. There are good reasons why these old chestnuts stay around. Here, have a listen for yourself:

(And by the way why do we call them "chestnuts"?)

Next was Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. I'm not very familiar with his symphonies, apart from the "New World," which of course I love. I think I've heard this one before, but if so it was some time ago, and only once. I enjoyed it somewhat short of rapturously. But I think I might like it better with closer acquaintance. The last movement is a theme and variations, and I always like those because it's one of the few classical structures that I can actually understand (more or less).

And after the intermission, the Brahms Violin Concerto with Vadim Gluzman as the soloist. This was a real treat. I am not at all in a position to critique Gluzman's playing by comparison with other big-name violinists, but it certainly impressed me. This piece is horribly difficult. I want to say that the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote it, initially pronounced it unplayable, but I may be mixing up my stories.

It had been a good many years since I'd heard this concerto, and on hearing it again I remembered that I've always had an odd sort of reservation about the first movement. Despite the fact that what I take to be its main theme (I'm always a little uncertain of what's what in sonata forms) is one of the most sublime melodies ever written, I always feel that there is some sort of disconnect between what the violin is doing and what the orchestra is doing. I'm sure this is a defect in me. Toward the end of that movement it occurred to me that maybe I'm looking at it backward, that I'm thinking of it as orchestral music with solo highlights, but should be thinking of it as solo music with orchestral support. I'm going to listen to it again with that thought in mind. If there is an expert in the house I'd be interested in any light you can shed on this.

For what it's worth, I don't have that feeling, or at least not as strongly, in the second and third movements. 

For some reason Gluzman did not give us an encore, though he was called back at least three times. I hope there is a good reason for that. I'd like to have heard one of those brilliant showpieces that violinists use for that purpose.

I've said this before (see this post), but I am really appreciative of the local symphony orchestra. No, they're not in the league with the major orchestras, but they are plenty good enough to be enjoyable. You don't sit there wincing at the lapses. And I think they've improved a good deal since I first heard them twenty or twenty-five years ago. 

And there's just something about the sound of a live orchestra live (live music generally, I guess), something that I don't think you can get from a recording. I have a pretty good stereo system, and as it happens I've been listening to it more attentively than usual for a couple of months, because I'm thinking of swapping my very good but rather large speakers for a pair someone gave me that are possibly not quite as good, but are considerably more compact. The room (my study or office or whatever you want to call it) is small enough that the space gained would be nice.

So last night at the concert I sometimes found myself comparing what I was hearing with what I get from my stereo, and the very clear result was that there really is no comparison. The live sound, the real sound, is just something altogether different. My brain would have trouble articulating it but my ears have absolutely no doubt about it; they cooperate with my vision to give me a picture of the sound, and the image from the live orchestra is many times larger than that from the stereo. And that's not just a matter of loudness: my stereo can go loud enough that you couldn't stay in the room with it, and yet it would still not be the same as live music.

Years ago I read an article on this subject in an audiophile magazine. The writer described his extremely expensive high-end system and how great it was, and yet: he had a cat which was terrified of thunderstorms, and would zip away and hide under the bed at the first rumble. The writer, like a lot of audiophiles, sometimes liked to admire and exercise his system for visitors by playing various non-musical sounds and marveling at their realism. He was playing a CD of storm sounds very loudly when he noticed that the cat was sleeping not far from the speakers, quite undisturbed.

All the King's Men: The Movie

I meant to mention this a couple of weeks ago. After reading the book, I wanted to see the film, and did. I'm talking about the 1949 one, with Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark.

Three-word opinion: it's pretty good.

Slightly more expansive opinion: it doesn't do justice to the book, which of course you wouldn't expect it to. Apart from the fact that movies pretty much never can do justice to a good novel, this one is dependent on the narrator's introspection to a degree that would be difficult or impossible to transfer to image and dialog. And it either leaves out or changes a lot of very important things. But that really can't be avoided if you're trying to fit the book into two or three hours.

Still, taken on its own, it's a good film. I only knew Broderick Crawford as the hero in the old TV series Highway Patrol, but he's very credible in this role. John Ireland is okay as Jack Burden, but the character is pretty reduced in the film. Likewise for Joanne Dru's Anne Stanton. The real standout character portrayal is Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke, Willie Stark's political guide and gadfly, and also his lover. She's perfect, even down to her physical appearance. 

I was very grateful for one way in which the filmmakers departed from the book: they made no particular effort to place it in the South, and did not make their actors attempt Southern accents with the preposterous results that used to follow from that effort. Still does sometimes, but actors have gotten a lot better, especially those amazing British ones. The location is in fact California, but could be any area of rural 1940s America. 

I don't know about "very great." That's Sadie Burke to the left of the big title card.

The DVD included some promotional stuff for the 2006 adaptation starring Sean Penn does apparently set the story in the South, and judging by the clips it doesn't work very well. Sean Penn's accent is not terrible but it's not good enough not to sound false. I'm not in any hurry to see this one though I may eventually, just out of curiosity. 

Another Epiphany Poem, This One By George Mackay Brown


The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.

The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.

The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.

The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.

The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.


Brown, or Mackay Brown, is one of the poets in the British Poetry Since 1945 from which I drew at least one poem for the 52 Poems series. The index of that book lists him under "M" for "Mackay Brown." I don't understand this British thing in which sometimes two unhyphenated names, which appear to be middle and last, are treated as a surname. (MB is Scottish, but you know what I mean.) This seems to be the case with Ralph Vaughan Williams and has always bothered me. Why is he not just "Williams"? Or if he's going to be indexed under "V", "Vaughan-Williams"? 

Anyway, I like this poem, which someone posted on Facebook a few days ago. And I like the two poems of M-B's in that anthology. But the brief bio there does not mention that he was a Catholic convert. According to his Wikipedia page (notice that it calls him just "Brown"):

In late 1960 Brown commenced teacher training at Moray House College of Education, but was unable to remain in Edinburgh because of ill-health. On his recovery in 1961 he found that he was not suited to this type of work and returned late in the year to his mother's house in Stromness, unemployed. It was at this time that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptised on 23 December and taking communion on the following day. This followed about twenty-five years of pondering his religious beliefs. This conversion was not marked by any change in his daily habits, including his drinking.

Two Readings of Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

Fr. Michael Rennier at Dappled Things has some good remarks on the poem and on Epiphany, along with two readings of the poem, one by Eliot himself and another by Alec Guinness. Guinness has by far the more appealing and skillful voice. But I think I have a slight preference for Eliot's reading; somehow it sounds more like verse. Here's the link.

In either case one might not realize, if one heard either reading without previous knowledge of the poem, that it's a poem rather than a particularly rich bit of prose. It's not exactly free verse, but is irregular enough that it doesn't strike the ear as metrical.  I've often thought that one of these days I would put some effort into trying to figure out why some free verse works as poetry and some does not. It's in the sound, and mostly in the rhythm. Some of it truly is prose broken into lines in arbitrary or crude ways. 

However, these days whenever I use the phrase "one of these days" about some intention of my own I think chances are great that you're not ever going to get to it

Sister Wendy on Prayer

I think we have one of her books on art but I've never spent any time with it. As I've often mentioned here, my interest in the visual arts is considerably less than my interest in literature and music. She died the day after Christmas and this 2006 interview was reprinted in the Catholic Herald.

“Well people find prayer hard because it’s so simple, so painfully simple,” she replies. “That’s the hardness. I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray. If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe. You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.” 

"Alarming reading," as the interviewer says.