Television Feed

Shtisel, Again

I've now watched both seasons of this Israeli TV show, and will repeat and upgrade my recommendation. It's one of the few TV series that I would want to watch a second time.

Its portrait of the Shtisel family includes a number of subplots, and it occurred to me a couple of days ago that one of the major ones shares something with Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev, as Robert Gotcher described that book in a post in our 52 Authors series.  The struggle between father (Shulem) and son (Akive) Shtisel involves Akive's talent for art and desire to pursue it. And it didn't hit me, until someone (in the show) stated it explicitly, that any representational art at all is of dubious morality from a strictly Orthodox (Jewish) perspective. 

If you have watched part of it, or when you do watch it, and found/find yourself frustrated with Akive's romantic life, press on: there is resolution. There is resolution of nearly all the running threads of the story at the end of season two, which makes me think there won't be another. Well, better to end too soon than to jump the shark

Aside from the fact that it's just a good piece of work in every way, the series has special relevance and resonance for Christians in this country, and I suppose in Europe, who, in trying to be true to their faith, find themselves swimming very much against the current of the national culture. I've had the impression that there is some tension between the haredim (see Wikipedia) and secular Israelis, and at several points Shtisel sent me off to the Internet to learn more about that. (Not that I learned very much--but it's more than I knew before.)

For that matter, secular culture aside, the whole problem of trying to sacralize every aspect of life in the world is probably applicable to many faiths and cultures. In the next or next-to-last episode there's a situation involving Shulem and a painting that is quite moving in the way Shulem deals with his own conflicting obligations and impulses. It's one of a number of incidents in the series, especially ones involving the often-exasperating Shulem, that had me thinking "You don't have to do that" and at the same time admiring and respecting his integrity. I'd like to discuss it but it would constitute too much of a spoiler, so I'll just leave it as something for you to look forward to. 


Shtisel

Someone recommended this Israeli TV series a week or two ago. I've now seen most of the first series (there are two). It's really good. Very much recommended. It can be compared in a very broad way to Detectorists, in that it's a quiet, low-key story, warm and generous but not sentimental, devoid of cheap spectacle. The comparison doesn't go much further than that. Shtisel doesn't have much outright comedy, though it has its moments of humor. And the milieu presented in Shtisel is, obviously, vastly different: a very Orthodox ("haredi") Jewish community/subculture in the midst of modern Jerusalem. But if you like Detectorists I think there's a pretty good chance that you'd like this.

Here's the only trailer I can find. It's misleading in a couple of ways, mainly in the music. The series actually has a very beautiful, quiet, effective soundtrack. Whatever that is playing in the background of the trailer is not in the series. And that voiceover intro is a little obtuse.

There's just one thing that bothers me about it: those hats. What's the deal with those? The way they sit so high on the man's head always strikes me as discomfiting, distorting the figure's proportions, and slightly ridiculous, as if the hat is too small and might fall off. I don't know whether there is some significance to them or they just happened to be what was worn at the time when the group's dress code was formalized.


Detectorists, Series 3

It's on Netflix now, but DVD-only. There are only six episodes, and they're only a half-hour or so long, and I've watched the first four (i.e. the first DVD). I just did a search to make sure I was right about the number of episodes, and saw a sad headline: "Why Detectorists series 3 will be the last." So now I will never have more than two episodes yet to watch. But I will give writer-director (and lead actor) Mackenzie Crook the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that in his estimation he can't do more with the characters and still keep up the quality.

Anyway: if you've seen the first two series and liked them, I'm sure you will like this one. If you haven't seen them, you should. I might rate this one of the best things ever done for television. I just read over what I said about it in December of 2016, and it still holds, so I won't repeat myself. 

I will however repeat that it's really sad that there will be no more.

Detectorists-series-3-air-date-1024x768

Oh, and one other thing: I did notice one aspect that seemed a falling-off from the previous two series, and that was the quality of the cinematography. It isn't as crystal-sharp and vivid as I remembered. Then I realized that I had watched the other two in streaming HD, and basic DVD quality is lower. So I guess there's a reason to have Blu-ray. 


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. 


Sunday Night Journal, November 18, 2018

In the effort to see more of the yet-unseen Bergman films in the FilmStruck catalog before it shuts down, I started watching Thirst. About fifteen minutes in I realized that I'd seen it before, only two years ago. I had not cared much for it then (see this post) and decided not to finish it. I proceeded to another of which I hadn't heard before, All These Women (1964). 

Well, that was a surprise. If I hadn't already known it was Bergman, the only clue would have been the presence of several of Bergman's favorite actors in it. I learned afterwards that Roger Ebert called it Bergman's worst film. And I don't think I'd argue with that, but nevertheless I enjoyed it. It's a jape about an artist (male), and his hangers-on--women who in another context would be called groupies, a business manager, and a critic-biographer. The Great Musician is a cellist who is almost never seen--once or twice from the back, and maybe a brief glimpse of his face that went by so quickly I wasn't sure what I'd seen. We hear him playing one of Bach's cello suites, and the contrast between the sublimity of the music and the sordid absurdity of everything else going on is surely intentional. 

The goings-on take place in the musician's mansion or palace. Seven (I think) women are in residence, one of them his wife and the others--well, as I said, groupies, but ones who feel pretty possessive of him and consider themselves to be his widows when he dies. (I'm not giving away anything, as that's established in the opening.) A critic named Cornelius is writing the great man's biography. He arrives and begins scurrying around the place brandishing a two-foot-long red quill pen, scribbling away and discoursing pompously, chasing both the master and any of the women who will pay attention to him. 

It's essentially a satire of which Cornelius is the main target, and it's hard not to see the film as Bergman taking his revenge on a critic or critics who had irritated him. It was Bergman's first venture into color, and is not at all remarkable for cinematography. The sets seem stylized, as if for the stage rather than the screen. It's also one of Bergman's very few comedies, but it's closer to the Marx Brothers than to Smiles of a Summer Night. If the latter is Mozart, this is more like Spike Jones. It's pretty lewd (not at all pornographic), and the score frequently breaks out into a high-speed "Yes, We Have No Bananas." It's not as funny as the Marx Brothers, but it's fun. 

The Wikipedia article described it as a parody of Fellini's 8 1/2, which, according to something I read recently, Bergman admired. So that made me wonder about 8 1/2. I do not have a good history with Fellini in general and 8 1/2 in particular. I saw it when I was in college, in an art-film series which, along with a course in film history, was my introduction to Serious Cinema. I found it dull and unintelligible at the time. Then I saw it again almost exactly ten years ago, along with several other Fellini movies, and I'll save you the trouble of scrolling through a long post and quote the relevant part here (the other movie I'm referring to is La Dolce Vita):

It’s official: I don’t much care for Fellini. I’ve seen Juliet of the Spirits, Intervista, and now the two that are widely considered masterpieces, and found them all more irritating than anything else, despite some excellent moments. I can’t entirely explain this. The apparently aimless talking—high-speed chattering, actually— and wandering around is not fundamentally different from some of Antonioni’s work, which I like very much. But Fellini’s people just annoy me, and I don’t find much imagery that touches me (often Antonioni’s saving grace), or the sense of mystery that some modernist films have. I came closer to liking La Dolce Vita than any of the others; I may see it again sometime.

I find that ten years is not such a long time once you pass fifty or so, and I remember quite well what I felt when I wrote that. I think I remember using some such phrase such as "bunch of hyper-active Italians" to my wife at the time.  I don't suppose I'd ever have watched it again without that Bergman connection. But since it was immediately available on FilmStruck, I decided to give it a try.

And I have to say I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This time I got it. 8 1/2 is a great movie. It's as good as all but the best of Bergman's, and if you've been reading this blog for a while you know that's saying something for me.

I think part of my problem before was that there is so much dialog, and it's so fragmented, that I couldn't see the structure. But that's an effect of the film's premise: we're watching a famous director who's working on a new film and is being constantly badgered by dozens of people connected with either the film or him personally or, usually, both. Sometimes I couldn't even sort out who was speaking. But anyway I got past that and...well, see preceding paragraph.

All These Women really, by the way, doesn't seem to me a parody of 8 1/2. There is one major connector, though, in the person of a critic who is one of the people pestering--and belittling--the director.

By the way, in case you haven't heard, Criterion is launching its own streaming service next year. I went ahead and signed up--you get a discount if you sign up now. 

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A couple of TV series watched over the past month or so: the third season of The Man in the High Castle continues the very persuasive depiction of a world in which Germany and Japan won the Second World War. But though the picture of that world is brilliantly done, as a story I don't think the series is so very good. Toward the end it takes off into pure science fiction, in the form of Super-Advanced Technology, which is not to my mind very convincing--neither the technology itself nor what it's used for. And maybe I've missed something, but the whole business of the mysterious films that show scenes from alternate realities doesn't altogether make sense to me. Other than their one use in preventing another war, what is their importance? Why does the quest for them propel so much of the plot? Through too much of the series they've seemed to be something of a MacGuffin: "The MacGuffin's importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations."

I have not read the book, by the way, though I plan to do so soon.

The sixth and, happily, final season of House of Cards is terrible. I pretty much agree with this review: "unwatchable nonsense." Except of course that I did watch it, because of some compulsion to finish what I'd started, with a faint hope that it would get better. Part of the problem was the attempt to rework the show after the unexpected dumping of Kevin Spacey. But as that review says, the show had been a crazy mess for several seasons. One of the odder things about this last gasp was the way it alternated between bits of feminist-y cheerleading for Claire Underwood's presidency and the picture of her as a very high-achieving Lady Macbeth who is actually better off without Macbeth. The scene where she unveils her all-female cabinet made me laugh out loud, I think mainly because of the swelling music, which seemed for a moment about to break into some patriotic anthem.

I must say, though, that the title sequence for House of Cards is just about the best ever. 

What really makes it is the music, which I think has varied a bit from season to season (I thought the bass went missing in season 2 or 3). Here is a version posted by the composer, Jeff Beal, so presumably the way he wants it heard. Everything is very present. 

That's just great music, never mind the visuals or the show it was written for, even though it's less than 2 minutes long. Robert Bahr of the Swedish label BIS liked it, and the other music for the series, that he put together a 2-CD set of Beal's music. I haven't heard it.

The titles for Man in the High Castle are really good, too, at least visually. They don't seem to be on YouTube though. These things are becoming an art form in themselves, it seems.

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I always have trouble getting used to the sudden onset of dark when we go off Daylight Savings Time (don't get me started). Instead of a gradual dimming at, say, 5:30 in the evening, it goes suddenly from light to full dark between one day and the next. Yesterday afternoon I went to the bay right at 5, with a beer in hand, to watch the sun set. I deliberately left my phone behind, telling myself "If you bring it with you you'll keep trying to take photos and won't actually be experiencing the experience." Anyway it was sort of a dull evening and partly because of the time change I was missing the actual setting of the sun. So I wasn't expecting a big show. The first clue I had that I was mistaken was a mysterious-looking red glow cast on some of foliage of the trees and bushes along the path. It turned out to be one of the more spectacular sunsets I've seen. Sorry, no pictures.

But here's one from a couple of weeks ago. That white streak that seems to be vertical really looked that way, though it's actually a contrail heading west to east.

SunsetWithContrail


Sunday Night Journal, September 16, 2018

Television is a drug, we've been told for decades. It really is. I don't like to think I'm hooked on it, and I can say in a certain sense that I "don't watch television." But that certain sense is what the phrase used to suggest (and I guess still does in many cases)--watching the stuff that's broadcast all day and night on various networks, the original big three and all the others that have proliferated. I never have watched much of that, not because of any virtue on my part but because I don't like it. And I've always found the commercials almost unendurable. 

But if by "watch television" you mean "watch moving pictures on a television screen," I can't deny that I'm hooked. For a long time it was only movies, which I felt entitled me to a certain self-respect--at least I wasn't watching "that network junk." But I can only say that now if I mean only CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, because thanks to Netflix and other options a great deal of what I watch now was originally made for TV, either here or in the UK. 

My wife and I have gotten into the habit of watching an hour or an hour-and-a-half of some sort of crime drama almost every night. Most of the variations from this have been other made-for-TV productions like Victoria and The Crown. And the majority of them are British. (See this post from two years ago.) One wants to relax at the end of a working day (and yes, mine are still largely work of one kind or another though I am supposedly retired). But one does not want to be bored. And crime dramas provide a mixture of the stimulating, even frightening or disturbing, and the reassuring: for the most part, at least in the ones I watch, there is in the end something close to justice: the murderer is found out and apprehended. The links in the list below go to the Wikipedia pages for the shows, in case you want to find out a bit more about them. I only noticed a spoiler in one of them (noted below).

Midsomer Murders is the least demanding, and the best option for the end of a particularly stressful day. It falls pretty well within the definition of the "cozy" genre.  Predictable, likeable characters (I mean, not counting the killers, with which these little English villages seem to be crawling), and not too gruesome or psychologically creepy. There are a lot of episodes, but I am trying to ration our consumption of them because eventually we will get through them all. And I have to admit they get somewhat repetitive. How could they not?--it's been going since 1998.

Marcella is another entry in what seems to be almost a sub-genre now: the detective with major personal problems. I watched this one alone...oops, I forgot to mention that I frequently watch half an hour of TV on my lunch break--and sometimes a whole hour, if what I'm watching lasts that long and I can't make myself stop in the middle. (But I don't have a problem, really. I can quite anytime I want to.) Anyway, I watched it alone because when my wife and I started watching it the opening promised to be so gruesome that she decided to bail out. Marcella Backland is a police detective in London, and her major personal problems (MPP) involve a collapsing marriage, the death of a child, and blackouts in which she does crazy things which she can't remember afterwards. I guess I'd give it a qualified recommendation. It's produced, directed, and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who was the guiding hand of the original Swedish The Bridge. Despite that opening scene, it is not extremely gory. 

So, The Bridge: having had this strongly recommended so strongly by Rob G, I finally watched the first season of it a couple of months ago. It's very very good, though sometimes gruesome and disturbing. As you know if you've seen conversations about it here, the bridge in question is the one between Sweden and Denmark, and each country provides a detective. Both, not surprisingly, have MPPs. I haven't watched any of the subsequent seasons, because I can only get them from Amazon for $24 or so each.

The Tunnel is a sort of remake of The Bridge with the Channel Tunnel between England and France in the role of the bridge. The detectives are similar, including MPPs. I didn't like it as well as The Bridge, but it's good. It's also more disturbing. The third and final season was recently shown on PBS and...how to say this without giving away too much?...it does not have the sort of resolution one expects in a crime drama. In case you're on the fence about watching it. And NOTE: that Wikipedia entry does contain one major spoiler.

DCI Banks is based on what is apparently a very popular series of novels by Peter Robinson. I haven't read any of them so obviously have no idea how the show compares to them, but I like the show enough to be interested in the novels. Banks is, I suppose, a pretty basic police detective in the mold of, say, Inspector Morse: he's got his quirks and his problems and is on the prickly side, but not MPPs to the extent that some of the aforementioned have. Really, if I were to summarize this, it would sound an awful lot like any number of similar shows, but it's very well done, the stories are good (though not always entirely believable, which I guess is not unusual), and the recurring characters, starting with Banks, are sympathetic enough that you care about them.

Case Histories stars...Lucius Malfoy? Yes. I was not a big fan of the Harry Potter books or movies, but when I saw the lead character in this series it didn't take very long for me to go from "He looks familar, I've seen him in something else" to the scary image of Malfoy. I've never been one to be greatly fascinated by movie stars, but over the years I've become more and more impressed by the ability of actors to transform themselves convincingly into utterly different people. It may be hard to believe that Jason Isaacs could be both Lucius Malfoy and the kind, strong-but-sensitive Jackson Brodie, who, as Wikipedia says, "hides a deeply empathetic heart under his tough-guy exterior." This series lasted only two seasons, apparently, and I would have liked to see more. Brodie is, in his basic situation, the classic private eye: an ex-cop who lost his job for exposing corruption, trying to get by on whatever miscellaneous investigative problems happen to walk in his office door. The problems usually meet first Brodie's secretary, Deborah, who is herself a very engaging character, sharp-tongued and quick-witted. Icing on this cake is an intriguing and somewhat quirky sound track. Definitely recommended, along with Banks

The Doctor Blake Mysteries is an Australian series. It falls somewhere between Midsomer Murders and the others mentioned here on a scale that runs from cozy to disturbing. It's not exactly cozy, but on the other hand it's not terribly dark, either. Doctor Lucien Blake is a "police surgeon," which seems to be something like the forensic pathologist who is often a second-tier character in mysteries, in the town of Ballarat. In this case the pathologist is the one who actually figures out the crimes. The stories take place in the 1950s; Blake is a World War II veteran who has returned to Ballarat after certain traumas. He's a bachelor and lives with his housekeeper and a couple of lodgers. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about this show, but I do enjoy it. As with Midsomer, each episode is a self-contained story, but the main characters persist from one episode to the next, and you come to care about them and want to know what happens to them.

Ozark is the lone American entry in this list. I might describe it very broadly as an attempt to do something like what Breaking Bad did so very effectively. It involves a Chicago financial planner, Marty Byrde, whose business partner has been laundering money for a drug cartel, and stealing from them in the process. They figure this out, of course, and arrive to kill both men. Marty talks his way out of being murdered by promising great things in the money laundering line. This involves moving to the Ozarks, where he predictably gets into ever-deeper trouble, with his wife, Wendy, becoming a very capable co-conspirator, and his children being dragged in as well. There are some darkly funny bits where Marty and Wendy lecture the children on honesty and other virtues while lying constantly, deceiving and abusing people in various ways, and causing the deaths of several. There are two seasons, and I'm not quite done with the second. I don't know whether more are planned but I doubt that the story is going to be wrapped up very satisfactorily in the two remaining episodes. I'm not very enthusiastic about this one, but the story got its hooks into me. It's pretty dark and has some especially gruesome deaths. 

All these shows, including the later Midsomer episodes, are filmed in HD, and frequently provide some very beautiful imagery. Banks and Case Histories, set in Yorkshire and Scotland respectively, are especially good in this respect.

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I have managed to see a few movies in recent months. Just this past week I watched, for the first time, the classic Western High Noon. I admit that this was sort of a check-off item, as I've wanted to see all the acknowledged classics in this genre. And I've been a little saddened to find that they don't in general have the appeal that they did when I was a child. That wasn't much of a surprise, of course, but some of them have been worse than I expected. This is an exception. It's really pretty good. I guess everybody sort of knows the basic idea from various cultural references if not from seeing the film itself: lone lawman confronts outlaw(s) at high noon. Gary Cooper is the town marshal. The black-and-white cinematography is good and the story works pretty well.

Although I had not seen the film, I've heard the theme song, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," occasionally over the years, enough so that I recognize it. I knew that it was associated with the movie, and was always a bit puzzled by that: what does asking your darling not to forsake you have to do with standing up to outlaws? Well, I must never have listened past the first line or two of the song, because it was written for the movie and specifically refers to people and events in it. Marshal Kane has just married his sweetheart, Amy (Grace Kelly). She's a Quaker and a pacifist and intends to leave him if he insists on fighting the outlaws. 

Another movie: Europa, directed by Lars von Trier. It's the only thing I've seen by him, and I know he has a reputation for having done some fairly twisted stuff. I don't know about that, but this is an odd one. Not twisted, not offensive, but...odd. I got it from Netflix semi-inadvertently--for some reason I had it in my head that it was an older work by Godard or Truffaut or somebody of that sort. I have no idea why I thought that, but I had put it on my Netflix queue a long time ago, and it finally bubbled to the top. 

I can't say much more for it than "somewhat interesting." It's about crimes and conspiracies in Germany immediately after World War II, the work of unrepentant Nazis trying to keep their resistance alive, and it involves an American who is drawn into such a conspiracy. That might suggest an action-thriller sort of thing, but it isn't really that. It's shot mostly in a murky black-and-white that looks more like something from the '20s than the '40s, if a period-cinema atmosphere is what was intended. I guess that's appropriate in one way, as that was certainly a murky period of history. If someone wants to argue its merits, I'll listen, but I wasn't impressed.

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Yes.

ZeroPointZero

 


Sunday Night Journal, June 10, 2018

I had a very strange experience last Friday night. Does everyone have the problem I have with "last" and "next" in this context? Today is Sunday. Does "last Friday" mean the day before yesterday, or a week before the day before yesterday? Similarly for "next." Anyway, I mean June 1, a week before the day before yesterday. There are several art galleries and a lot of artists in Fairhope, and on the first Friday evening of every month there's an "Art Walk," which means that a block or two in the middle of town is closed off to traffic, the shops--art galleries and everything else--are open, there are musicians here and there: a sort of fair, in other words, or a street party.

I have to preface this with the acknowledgement that I'm not much of a visual arts person. I'm not much of a visual person in general, as my wife, who is, will confirm: my attempts to describe anything I'm not actually looking at are frequently very inaccurate. Literature and music are my big artistic interests, with the visual arts a distant third. Sure, there are pictures I enjoy looking at, and artists I like, but it's just not something I devote a lot of attention to. And where abstract art is concerned I cross over from lack of interest to skepticism and even philistinism. As a rule the best I can say about abstract art is "Well, that's sort of pretty." (The worst is "Gosh, that's really ugly.")

So: we went to last Friday's Art Walk, the first one for me, though my wife may have been before. And we went into this gallery/shop which was full of what I think of as typical Fairhope art. Since this is a coastal town, there are lots of pelicans and piers and sunsets over the water. Some are better done than others, of course, and most of them are pleasant--I love pelicans and piers and sunsets, and if I could paint, that's the kind of thing I would paint so I don't really mean this as a putdown. I've posted a lot of pictures of sunsets here. And the ones in this gallery seemed well done, but still...just pleasant. I wandered through pretty quickly and found myself in the back of the shop looking at some abstractions.

That's when the strange thing happened: I was moved emotionally. I can't really say exactly what the emotion was. It was very similar to the feelings produced by certain moments in certain pieces of music: not really a specific emotion, but a sort of pleasurably piercing sensation felt definitely in the heart; I mean the physical heart. I was a little shocked. There were several paintings there, and most of them gripped me oddly, but there was one that really produced that sensation:

Christine Linson Gallery: Abstract &emdash; 41 - Red Intersecting

I would not have copied the image and posted it, but the web site provides the HTML for embedding it, so apparently it's okay with the artist. Her name, as you can see, is Christine Linson (the copyright notice you see here is not on the painting itself). This photo of it is just that, and isn't the painting itself anymore than a photo of a person is the person. The textures of the canvas and of the paint are a part of the effect, as is the size--roughly two feet wide, I think. Or maybe more like three?--you see what my visual memory is like.

Anyway...I have no conclusion to draw from this, no larger observation; it was just a new and interesting and very pleasurable experience. As far as I can remember I have never before had an emotional reaction to an abstract painting.

Here's a link to the artist's site.

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A postscript to last week's discussion of Pope Francis as seen through Ross Douthat's To Change the Church, regarding the persistence of the "liberal" vs. "conservative" struggle over the meaning of Vatican II:

The bigger picture here is not the half-century-plus since the Council, but the century-plus in which the Church has been dealing with the challenge of theological modernism, by which I mean, very loosely, the skeptical spirit which tends to remove or explain away the supernatural elements of the faith, usually in the name of making it more acceptable to Modern Man. And, widening the view even further, the challenge of modernism in the whole broad sense of the incredulity of all Christian belief in the eyes of that same Modern Man. That struggle is far from over. No one reading this will see the end of it, unless the end of this world intervenes. 

I think this is a much deeper and more mysterious phenomenon than we think. We tend to look at specific ideas and specific people who push those ideas, whether world-view-definers like Darwin whose names everyone knows, or theologians and philosophers like Rudolf Bultmann whose names are familiar only to those interested in the subject. But the really significant thing is that millions and millions of ordinary people who never give much conscious attention to ideas think like them. Maybe that's entirely explainable as the effect of culture and education dominated by skeptical assumptions. But I tend to think there is something more powerful at work here. I don't mean to suggest that I think it's the work of the devil, any more than false ideas always are. It just seems to me sometimes that ideas really do have a life of their own--not a conscious will, but an ability to spread and thrive under favorable conditions.

At any rate I often think of something I quoted several years ago from a comment on Rod Dreher's blog: "No matter what the Church did, [modern man] was done with it." Here's the post where I discussed it.

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If you were interested in Douthat's book, but not interested enough to read it, you can get a good idea of its gist from this interview with him. This paragraph is pretty much my own view of Pope Francis:

My provisional view is that the real Francis is what he appears to be — a devout, prayerful, pastoral Catholic who has a certain impatience with doctrinal niceties and who has come around to the fairly common Jesuit view that the Church’s teachings on sexual morality are a great impediment to evangelization and need to be tacitly relaxed. This is not the same thing as having a deliberate grand strategy for transforming Catholicism into Episcopalianism, and there are all kinds of ways in which Francis is not a theological liberal as the term is usually understood.

I keep remembering something I said to my wife within, if I remember correctly, a few weeks of Francis's election: "He seems like someone who would be a great parish priest, but I'm not so sure he'll be a good pope."

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A few weeks ago in the comments on that post about Nordic mythology we were discussing the disparity between the hard and violent world of medieval Scandinavia and the seeming mild blandness of contemporary Scandinavia. Marianne suggested a connection between that old spirit and the gruesomeness of Nordic noir. Well. Over the past week or so my wife and I watched the first series of The Bridge, the Swedish-Danish crime drama, and I think Marianne has a point. It wasn't the gruesomeness as such, though that was there, but the hardness. After three or four episodes my impression was something like a cold place full of cold people. There was more to it than that, of course, and the impression changed somewhat. Still, it wasn't altogether off the mark. It was reinforced by the cinematography, which is relentlessly washed out, gray and white, almost monochrome. 

But the cinematography is beautiful, especially in HD. I guess I probably discussed here the British-French knockoff (remake, imitation--whatever it should be called) of The Bridge. The bridge of the original is the Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen (Denmark) and Malmö (Sweden), and the story involves a crime that occurs on the bridge and is investigated by two police-persons, a Danish man and a Swedish woman who apparently has Asperger's Syndrome. The British-French version is called The Tunnel, with the English Channel tunnel serving a narrative function similar to that of the bridge. 

I liked The Tunnel, but I liked The Bridge better. The plots are pretty similar, but I thought The Bridge did a better job of integrating plot and character, especially that of the shall-we-say-eccentric policewoman. It does have some very gruesome moments, and one or two fairly explicit and unnecessary sex scenes. I've noticed before that some of these shows "front-load" their most sensational moments, as if they need to draw viewers in with sex-'n'-violence (or in this case violence-'n'-sex) before trusting the work to engage them. In this case it could backfire, as the gruesome scene in the first episode could certainly put people off the whole thing.

I discovered recently in the course of an initially very confusing conversation that there is a third variant on this plot, this one American-made and also called The Bridge, this bridge being one between El Paso and Juarez. I didn't know about it and the person I was talking to didn't know about the original. 

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There are several magnolia trees in the woods around my house, but they don't bloom much, which is always a little disappointing to me because I really like these huge sweet-smelling flowers. Besides being delightful themselves, they're a pleasant childhood memory, because we had two large and vigorously blooming magnolia trees. When they were blooming there were often some of the flowers in the house. Apparently they need a lot of sun to thrive. I finally noticed this year that one of the ones near us does bloom at the top, where it gets the sun, forty feet or so up in the air. Yesterday at someone else's house I noticed their magnolia, which stands mostly away from other trees, had a lot of flowers, many within reach from the ground. I was able to experience their scent for the first time in a long time. My wife was laughing at the way I stuck my nose into this one. 

Magnolia2


Sunday Night Journal, April 29, 2018

I had planned to write about something else tonight, but last night I watched the last two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, and for the moment am obsessed with it. I can't remember whether anyone who comments here besides Rob G is a fan and would care, and I know he's seen it, but I'll avoid spoilers for the new series, just in case there are readers I don't know about who might not want to encounter them. I'll assume that anyone who's interested has seen the original. If you have no interest in the series at all, this is going to be somewhat cryptic; if you really have no interest you may not want to bother reading the rest.

A bit of orientation for those who have seen the old series, but not the new: in case you don't remember, the original ends with Agent Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, and the demon Bob loose in the world in the form of a doppelganger Cooper. In a Red Room scene in that series Laura Palmer tells Cooper that she'll see him in twenty-five years (warning: this clip ends on a scary note):

The new series takes place at that twenty-five-years-later point.

My three-word overall verdict: fascinating, but disappointing. Or maybe I should say disappointing, but fascinating. Fascinating enough that I want to see it again, preferably sooner rather than later. But there are some things that the original had which are lacking here. And some things here which were not in the original, and the inclusion of which is for the worse. 

Things I missed: well, in general it just doesn't have the charm of the original, which is in large part a sort of eccentric campiness. Another aspect was the weird bent American nostalgia which has been present in a lot of Lynch's work, and which I think may strike baby-boomers more than others. The music is a good instance: the Badalamenti/Lynch/Cruise soundtrack of the original, which takes certain elements of '50s pop and gives them a melancholy, uneasy, mysterious ambience. Some of that music is still present in the new one--the introductory title sequence, for instance, with the big reverb-y guitar. But whereas the original series spent a lot of time on teenagers and teenage romances which carried some of the same nostalgic vibe, the world of the new one is colder and contains more and deeper evil than that of the original. So that music doesn't fit it as well, and isn't used as much. Ominous static-filled drones and rumbles are more often present. In a nice but somewhat incongruous touch, almost every episode ends with a band playing at the Roadhouse, and most of these do have the old vibe. But they seem disconnected from what's going on. 

I find less humor in the new one than the old. It's not lacking in the new one, but, again, this series is on the whole darker. I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I mention that Agent Cooper, as we knew him in the old series, is absent for much of this one. His corny but noble character is one of the delights of the original. His evil doppelganger is far more prominent in this one, and he's not in the least funny. 

The love stories that were so important to the original are much less prominent here. Some of them are resumed, but in a way that seemed somewhat perfunctory to me. And for that matter some of the best-loved original characters are either missing or considerably less prominent. I really wanted, for instance, to know what might have happened between James and Donna in the intervening years. But the actress who played Donna turned down the new series, or so I read somewhere. And although James is here he's on the sidelines. I should mention, though, that most of the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department is still here and still engaging, though unfortunately Sheriff Harry S. Truman has been replaced by his brother, the actor who played Harry having declined to participate. 

The biggest single disappointment for me, I think, was Audrey. She was a key character in the original, and in so many ways a very appealing and sympathetic one. It wasn't clear at the end of the original whether she was still alive or not (you remember the bank explosion?). Well, she is, but her role in the new series is slight and uninteresting. No, not just uninteresting, disappointing, as the person she is now seems to be uninteresting and indeed unpleasant, a far cry from the Audrey we knew. There is a twist that suggests that this is not the whole story, and is one of several things that very strongly suggest that the door has been left open for another series. But as far as I know there are no definite plans for that. 

I have to admit that the somewhat dull and/or disappointing futures which have been the lot of some of these characters is all too true to life; vivid and exciting youth generally does not lead to the vivid and exciting future that it seems to promise.

Less present in the old series, but much more present in the new, and not for the better, are elements which can be summed up in one word: violence. Gruesome violence. There was some in the original, and maybe if it hadn't been done for network TV there would have been more of it, but for whatever reason there is more of it here. Some of it is quite sudden and shocking. Much of it is dwelt on more lingeringly than need be. Lynch has apparently always had this desire to shock, and he does it pretty freely here. There's also a certain amount of semi-explicit sex, relatively tame by current standards, but not nearly as much sex as violence.

I deliberately avoided reading much about the new series before watching it, but I stumbled across a few observations, and one that seems to be common is that it's both slow-moving and confusing. It is indeed, both. I am a vocal complainer about the frantic pace, the fast cutting, of much TV and movie drama (e.g. Doctor Who and Sherlock). So in many cases the long lingering camera shots in the new series were appealing. But they're sometimes too long even for me. There are long periods where nothing much happens and nothing is said. Sometimes this is effective in heightening the atmosphere, sometimes not, though reactions to that will naturally vary. If I was impatient in some of these it's a tribute to the power of the narrative: I wanted to get on with it, and I didn't want a lot of time to be wasted out of the typical fifty-minute running time of each episode.

Which brings me to the story itself. I guess you ought to expect to be frustrated by a David Lynch story. It isn't only David Lynch's, it's also his collaborator Mark Frost's, and Frost is a much more straightforward storyteller. So perhaps we can thank him that TP:TR is as intelligible as it is. There is, at least, one over-arching story: the release of Cooper from the Black Lodge, and the effort to put doppelganger Cooper back into it. But there are a lot of sub-plots, some of which hardly even rise to that level, just bits of story that appear and disappear and don't seem to have any connection to anything else, or for that matter even make sense (what is that black box in Buenos Aires, anyway?!). In some of those cases a good deal of time is spent on them, and you end up wondering why. And the overall effect is of a very complicated and sometimes nearly-unintelligible narrative. And there are things that I just thought weren't all that effective: the frustrating situation of "Dougie," for instance, seemed to go on way too long.

I should qualify my complaint about the difficulty of following the story by mentioning that I watched the series one Netflix DVD at a time. There are eighteen episodes, usually two episodes per disk, and I only got one at a time. So with at least three or four days of turnaround time between disks it took me over six weeks to see the whole series, and of course I forgot a lot of details along the way. So it's probable that I missed some connections. I discovered earlier today, for instance, that an important event in the last episode is prefigured in the first ("Richard and Linda", if you've seen it).

And it's the story, and the mysterious worlds in which it takes place, that are fascinating. I say "worlds" because even more (I think) of this story than the original takes place in some sort of world-other-than-ours. Should I call it the spiritual world? I suppose. It's not a very appealing place--it's mostly monochrome, and has a cold and empty feel--but it is certainly other, and powerfully communicates a sense that reality is far more complex and mysterious than we can perceive. 

If I had leisure, I think I'd start with the "prequel" movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and watch it, the old series, and the new one again, as soon and as quickly as possible. For all its sensationalism and sometimes craziness, there is a very strong moral vision present in the thing as a whole, a vision which takes very seriously the struggle of good against evil, and is willing to risk depicting that struggle as both a natural and a supernatural one. As with what I know of Lynch's other work, the evil is depicted more powerfully. But that's a common problem with art.

I also discovered today that there is another Mark Frost book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, which apparently clears up and fills out a lot of things, or at least some things. I didn't find that his previous book,  Twin Peaks: The Secret History, which was written in advance of The Return, shed as much light on the new series as I'd expected. Maybe I'll re-read it, too. 

By the way, have I ever mentioned that at the time I first watched the original series (not that long ago), we had two dogs named Lucy and Andy? I thought that was pretty funny.

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Views of the median on I-65, taken last weekend while at a standstill in a miles-long traffic backup between Montgomery and Birmingham. 

I65Median
I65MedianIf you think the color looks manipulated, you're right. But the original images were so washed-out, so far from what I actually saw, that jacking up the saturation was the only way to get anywhere near it. 


Sunday Night Journal, March 18, 2018

 I said last week that the big contemporary corporate or government employer is "not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them." Later I started thinking about how different our biggest corporations--Google and the like--are from their counterparts of thirty or forty or fifty years ago, and yet how similar. Once upon a time there was much worrying about the organization man and the man in the gray flannel suit who worked for a big company and always wore a suit and tie and lived in a suburb and was crushed into conformity. Then along came the '60s and everything began to change, and we were all set free to wear jeans at all times and express our unique and vibrant individuality. 

But the essential nature of life in a big organization is the same. It's still just as necessary to fit in as it ever was; only the details have changed. The corporate style is more casual and smiley and whimsical now, and Google may try to establish a playful atmosphere for its employees. But under all that, at a deeper level, it may be even more conformist, and most especially at the biggest and most glamorous corporations, as the firings of Brendan Eich and James Damore illustrate. Their ideological deviations are comparable to being discovered to be a communist (Eich) or declaring yourself to be one (Damore) in the '50s.

I worked for a large corporation for most of the 1980s, and I don't think I would have gotten fired for any political or social opinion. "Human resources" (repulsive phrase) departments had not yet become dominated by left-wing political activists, as they seem to be in many corporations now. I suspect that they don't see what they do in that way, but are like many people of progressive views do not acknowledge any distinction between holding and working for those views and the pursuit of the good. Or, to put it less abstractly, basic human decency. 

There's something a bit creepy about the playful surface. You, the employee, may be allowed to build your own desk out of "oversize Tinker Toys," but your utility is in the end the only thing that matters. And the more they put a smiley face on it, the more it makes me think of the Eloi and the Morlocks

And where marketers in olden days may have tried to sell you something telling you that it will help you fit in, they now try to sell you something by telling you that it will mark you as a defiant individualist. But in the end they're still selling status. And it's still more in the corporate interest for people, whether employees or customers, to behave like a herd, and be treated like one.

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By the way I haven't bought a pair of jeans since sometime in the late '70s. I remember standing in a long checkout line at the supermarket and noticing that every single person ahead of me was wearing jeans. I had worn them as a symbol of rebellion in the late '60s--I would like to say a gesture of individuality, but of course I was only conforming to a group whose opinion I valued above that of the mainstream. And I obviously still had some of the contrary spirit in me, because I decided at that moment that I was through with blue jeans. Not sure when the last pair wore out. In a hot and humid climate they're not even very comfortable most of the time. 

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 Rob G sent me this quote from Augusto Del Noce's The Age of Secularization, which was written in the late '60s:

The so-called 'global' revolution becomes an absurd revolt against what exists. It becomes a form of ahistorical activism that cannot distinguish what is positive and what is negative in the existing reality. It faces the following fork in the road: it can either seek a way to escape reality, becoming practically indistinguishable from the beat and hippie movements, or it can enter into alliances with pre-existing forces in the system it fights against, possibly claiming the role of avant-garde and stimulus, but actually serving as a tool.

The beatnik and hippie movements were actually a mixed bag in that respect: the desire to escape reality was part of them, yes, but there was also a desire precisely to find and encounter reality. On the whole the former has proved more appealing and durable, though. Del Noce's last sentence is a pretty fair assessment of how things turned out.

I think when Del Noce says "revolt against what exists" he means simply the existing social order, but in conjunction with the reference to "a way to escape reality," it suggests to me something that seems increasingly common: a belief that we can simply redefine and reconfigure reality to our liking with very few absolute limits. Certain things may be impossible at the moment, such as "uploading" one's consciousness into a machine, but in time we'll figure it out. Never mind that that whole idea is based on an assumption that has no foundation other than that the people who hold it think it's obvious--I mean the idea that one's very self consists of data that can be stored in some physical medium.

The Obergefell decision strikes me as some kind of landmark in that reality-defying movement. Yes, it came as the logical outcome of a long development, but still, the event itself may stand as the marker of a decisive shift, because it makes the denial the law of the land. Until a few decades ago pretty well the entire human race in all times and places would have agreed that the words "husband" and "wife" (in whatever language) refer to specific real things, based on physical sex, and easily and usefully distinguished from each other in both language and practice. Everyone would have agreed that it is intrinsically impossible for a man to have a husband, or a woman to have a wife. But now that idea has been declared officially and legally false, and anyone who continues to believe it is held to be wicked and inhuman and at the very least to be excluded from the society of decent human beings. 

It's like having the government declare, and most people accept, that there is no difference between a circle and a rectangle. Other denials and absurd assertions follow by necessity: that circles may have corners, for instance, and that a rectangle may have curves. Reality will have the last word, but I don't know how long it will be before that word is spoken.

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It's been thirty years, at least, since I read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, which I consider to be a great masterpiece. and though I haven't re-read it I see no reason to change that opinion. Around the time I read it I bought her other enormous novel of medieval Norway, The Master of Hestviken, but only just now have I finally taken it up. It's a tetralogy (Kristin is a trilogy), and I've now finished the first book, The Axe. On the basis of that I would say that it's going to be at least as good as Kristin. I will no doubt have a lot more to say as I go along, and will try to avoid giving away too much of the plot, on the assumption that most people haven't read it, but for the moment just this: I have never read a more affecting picture of a person utterly broken by remorse. I don't recall being quite as moved by anything in Kristin as I was by this.

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I've also sampled that gum which has come back in style: two episodes of the new Twin Peaks. (The gum is a Twin Peaks reference, in case you're not familiar with the series.) So far my reaction is mixed. Considering that this is truly a sequel, and what happened at the end of the original series, I'm very much hooked already. I have one major reservation: changing standards, and the fact that the new series was not made for traditional network TV, free Lynch (and/or Frost) to include more violence and horror than in the original, and some of that has been hard to take. It's not just the presence of it, but that you feel like it could appear very suddenly at any moment. That isn't going to stop me from watching it, unless it gets very much worse, which I've been told it does not. And of course it's great to see some of the old characters twenty-five years on.

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Travel


Sunday Night Journal, December 17, 2017

One of the things that make being a pessimist less enjoyable than it might be is that the pleasure of being proven right about the impending collision with the oncoming train is substantially diminished by the discomfort of experiencing the collision itself. On balance, I would rather be wrong than right about many of my predictions and expectations.

Recently someone remarked that the culture of Catholicism on the Internet seemed to be dominated by those whose motto was taken from Flannery O'Connor's Misfit ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"): no pleasure but meanness. You can certainly see his point, and of course it's not only the Catholic subculture that has this problem. It's everywhere. I'm not on Twitter, and I don't think I ever will be, so my impression may be distorted, but that impression is that some very large portion of what goes on there consists of people savaging each other, and sometimes of a large number of people attacking one person in what can fairly be described as a verbal lynch mob. 

Almost twenty-five years ago, in the Fall 1993 issue of Caelum et Terra, I published a short piece in which I considered the potential for the world of online communication to increase the level of hostility in the world rather than to bring people together. I don't think I had heard the term "World Wide Web" at that point. It did exist but if its existence was known to me at all I'm fairly sure I hadn't yet experienced it, as the original browser, Mosaic, had not yet been introduced to the world at large. But I'd had five or six years of experience in pre-Web online forums, including Usenet, the text-only discussion groups on the Internet, and at least one of the commercial services which provided similar capabilities by subscription. (America Online, or AOL, you may remember, was pretty big at the time.) And I'd seen the way people could turn on each other with startling viciousness.

That piece was called "Global Metropolis," and I've thought about it often since the Web changed our lives so strikingly. But I don't think I'd read it since it was published, so I decided to dig the magazine out of the closet and, if it still seemed relevant, spend some of the time this evening when I would have been writing typing it in instead. Well, I did find it interesting as a view from 1993, and at least part of it seems pretty accurate. The next-to-last paragraph is the one that seems a fairly accurate prediction of the Internet's potential for exacerbating rather than pacifying conflicts.

I sometimes think it might be more accurate to say that we are creating a global metropolis, a violent one like those of the United States, where people perceive each other socially either as naked individuals in isolation from family and community, connected, if at all, by financial ties, or as anonymous components of a class or race. In these great warrens, people live in close physical quarters but without much sense of belonging to the same community; with, in fact, a dangerous sense of having tribal enemies everywhere. What this combination of proximity and anonymity has done for the great cities, television, along with increasing economic interdependencies, may perhaps do for the world at large: to increase both the level of tension and the degree of isolation.

You can read the whole piece here (it's not very long, about a thousand words). I certainly didn't imagine anything like Twitter, which as far as I can tell is an active deterrent to substantial discussion, which is actually intended to reward the quick and superficial remark. The glimpses I get of it make me think of an enormous number of dogs barking hysterically and ineffectively at each other. And if I had imagined it I would never have dreamed that we would have a president who sits in the White House and uses such a ridiculous medium to bark at anyone among the citizenry who annoys him.  

I'm not saying that the Internet in general and "social media" in particular are altogether bad--I mean, here I am. And I even have a Facebook account. Still, it seems that the "bringing people together" effect of it is very often to bring them into tribes united by their detestation of another tribe, and thereby to purify and concentrate their anger. The net did not cause the political divisions in this country, but it is certainly exacerbating them.

Still, when I look at the people around me going about the ordinary business of their lives, I don't see this division, and that's a hopeful thing.

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A couple of weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent our priest made the point in his homily that Advent is as much about the Second Coming as it is about the Nativity. "We await the birth of a sweet little baby who will one day destroy the world," was more or less the way he put it. 

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While watching The Crown on a chilly evening last week I discovered that my old dog, who is too blind and deaf to notify us of strangers in the vicinity, still is capable of service as an all-natural toe warmer. 

ToeWarmerI enjoyed The Crown considerably, by the way, and I think my wife enjoyed it even more. It's wise to keep in mind that they filled in some historical blanks with their own speculations and that it's a mixture of fact and fiction, not a documentary. Claire Foy's performance as Elizabeth is extremely convincing. I must say, however, that I remain puzzled to say the least about the function of the British monarchy.

Have I mentioned that we also recently watched the third series of Broadchurch? I suppose it's not surprising that I didn't like it as much as the first two, but it's still very good. There is apparently little to no chance of a fourth series, which might be a good instance of quitting while you're ahead, but this one left an important matter unresolved, which is a little frustrating. Well, maybe it isn't unresolved--maybe that was just the end of...well, if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't I shouldn't say any more.