Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Movie Review: Tangled (2011)

Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. 2010.

I came kicking and screaming to the Wonderful World of Disney™. I had regarded Disney movies as fuzzy infantilizations of the traditional tales, but spurred by my wife and kids, movie-by-movie I was won over. All of a sudden I was the one sneaking the DVDs into the cart and declaring movie days to see the next feature.

Still by the time I sat down to watch Tangled I was still cocky enough—even after watching nearly all the landmark movies from Show White onward—to be certain I'd spotted a dud. How could it not be? It was CG, it was after the Disney Renaissance headed by The Little Mermaid and helmed by Ron Clements  & John Musker, and it was on the heels of the yet most brilliant, rich, and satisfying of them all: The Princess and the Frog. What could Tangled possibly be except the first step on the slippery slope of focus-group-tested CG crapola? It could, in fact, be perfect.

And it had me from the opening sequence, where we meet not the cliché of the youth pining away for a new life, but a flesh-and-blood girl, vigorously pushing against the limits of her small world in every way she can: reading every book, learning every skill, mastering every game, and perfecting every skill. Even up to covering the walls of her tower with a vibrant art that recreates the world beyond from the frustrated fragments she knows, half-remembers, and imagines, Rapunzel is a real girl yearning for the real world beyond her confines, and her opening solo, "When Will My Life Begin?" perfectly captures her predicament and eagerness.

Any young girl, and any parent, can see Rapunzel is ready for life and adventure and independence, that she has maxed out her stay at home and learned all she can there, but like the Disney heroines before her—Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana—she's taught and told to stay at home and accept her role and the life she's given. Taught by who is effectively her step-mother, we should add. Oh if only we parents, for all the kids movies we sit though, would more readily see ourselves as the villains we can be!

And Mother Gothel is quite the villain, a brilliant embellishment of the archetype of the devouring mother. She is no magic-wielding witch, though, just a centuries-old hag that kidnaps baby princess  Rapunzel so she can continue making exclusive use of a magic herb's youth-restoring powers, powers that were transferred to Rapunzel's hair when her mother consumed the herb to save her life.

Thus Gothel keeps Rapunzel safely tucked away in her tower, ignorant of her royal lineage. She also lets the princess' hair grow and grow without so much as a snip, for if it is cut its magic is lost. And so Mother Gothel's eternal youth comes at the cost of Rapunzel's eternal childhood and imprisonment. Not that Rapunzel is kept under lock-and-key per se. Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel down, or up, by a rich variety of undermining, aspersions, and fear mongering that nurture the budding girl's need to be protected.

For example, by her golden tresses Rapunzel every day lifts dear mommy up the tower, for which filial devotion Mother Gothel first praises Rapunzel at length, only to follow with the complaint, couched in joke, that she takes too long. It's passive aggression so pitch-perfect it's painful to watch, and worse so because Rapunzel doesn't see it. Rapunzel just laughs because she has no idea of anything other than this vicious control. 

The most devious of Mother Gothel's cruel manipulations, however, is adding "I love you most" to Rapunzel's submissive devotional "I love you." The brilliant psychological insight of the exchange is that you can tell it's a little routine they do: Mother says I love you to prompt Rapunzel to say it, but after she says it Mother tops it. She's conditioning her daughter's submission and Rapunzel thinks the abuse is an affectionate routine. 

The routine is also a grand gesture from Mother Gothel, for in addition to playing mother, keeping 17-year-old Rapunzel dependent and wrapped up in maternal caretaking like a child, Gothel is playing God—the source of all good and the greatest love—to Rapunzel. And mothers are Godlike, but to infants, to whom mother is inconceivably large, omniscient, omnipotent, and the source of all things. To keep a growing child under this pretense of her mother is a terrible violence against her need to thrive, and Mother Gothel's sinister conceit bursts out in a brilliant show stopping solo, "Mother Knows Best," which has a savage irony worthy of Sondheim even if it sounds like Master of the House from Les Miserables.

And so Rapunzel waits, drawing her past and future on the walls of her tower: the suns that come to her in dreams and visions, and the lights that appear in the distant skies every year on her birthday. Little does she know the suns of her dreams are the blazon of Corona, whose people every year release lanterns to the sky to remember their lost princess on her birthday. They're the Call of the Unknown, and although they're not the end-in-themselves Rapunzel thinks, they're her dream and the path to her destiny. No wonder why Mother Gothel fears Rapunzel ever seeing what they truly are.

So while Mother Gothel denies Rapunzel's earnest, eager request to see the lights, mommy dearest offers to make Rapunzel's favorite food for her birthday instead. It's a cutting line for parents, for whom it's so tempting to steer kids towards familiar, safe things that are easy for us to manage, that make us feel good, or that we simply prefer, when what they need is adventure. 

It's been easy for Mother Gothel to keep Rapunzel under wraps with prevarication, though, until in frustration at Rapunzel's insistence she accidentally tells the truth that she'll never let Rapunzel go. Realizing her error, Mother Gothel follows with, "Great. Now I'm the bad guy." This is not only an ominous foreshadowing, but psychologically apt: casting herself as having been made the villain by Rapunzel's insistence is a challenge to Rapunzel to back down and assume guilt. 

But when Rapunzel realizes she's being led on and will never be allowed to leave, her guilt wilts and her pluck and wit take flight. She not only tricks Mother Gothel into leaving for a few days, but brokers a deal with the thief Flynn Ryder, who having just stolen the royal crown in a daring heist has wandered into Rapunzel's tower to take refuge. But if Flynn wants to get his loot back, he's going to need to take Rapunzel to see the lights. 

Rapunzel's sudden temerity is exhilarating and a little bit scary for us and her alike, and as the pair make their way through the woods Rapunzel is alternately giddy with her newfound liberty and racked with guilt at having deceived her mother. The scene is also a beautiful display of animation, with all of the variety of emotion that I love in Glenn Keane's characters. Maybe it doesn't come through as strongly in CG, but I know it when I see it.

Anyway Flynn is still hoping to get his riches and be on his way, so he sidetracks to a raucous pub in the hopes its surly felons will scare Rapunzel to give up and go home. So what follows is a heartfelt saloon-swinging paean to human flourishing and progress, right? Naturally! Packed with just enough zany gags and clever rhymes to keep it lighthearted, this is nonetheless a touching number in which the gaggle of unsightly goons of the bar confess their aspirations for a better, more beautiful life. The tune—not so far from She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain—is so simple we feel invited to jump in too and join the motley family. When Rapunzel joins the chorus, though, she's taking her place on life's stage. She's learning she's not wrong to have dreams and to want to grow and see and be more. She's learning she's human, and her first introduction to this fact is not a group of people like her or the person she was taught to love, but people who at first blush seem pretty unlovable. 

The only person, in fact, who hasn't come 'round yet and who is pretty unlovable is Flynn, whose loveless dream of money and sandy beaches is so cold it draws the scorn of the femur-cracking ruffians of the Snuggly Duckling, who though they stick at no offenses are nonetheless joyful and vital. 

Beauty will soon tame the beast, though, and when Rapunzel reveals her powers to save and then heal Flynn—in a scene so tender and honest any romcom writer would be jealous—we find out some about the despondent orphan Eugene Fitzherbert, who as a desperate child picked the dashing persona Flynn Ryder out of character in a book. We see then two orphans but distinctly: starved Eugene blindly chose to be anything other than the lonely boy he was, but stifled Rapunzel never had a choice and was only what she was told to be.

Now they're both free to choose, though, and the footloose pair's furtive arrival in the kingdom quickly unleashes a torrent of emotion: the sight of Rapunzel twirling free with her tresses braided up garlands sets Eugene's sights on a liberating new dream, and the freedom to move sets Rapunzel's creativity ablaze. In a childlike effusion of creative joy the lost princess—home, though she doesn't yet know it—seizes the tune of the band and pulls the reluctant onlookers at the town center into a spontaneous circle dance. Round and round she pulls everyone skipping over the sun emblazoned on the stony floor as the rhythm leaps and bounds into a montage of a courtship more mature and real than that of any other Disney movie. 

It's an effusion of serious, sensuous romance as Eugene and Rapunzel dodge guards, exchange sweets, curl up with a book, and come so close to dancing together. Flynn's heart has passed from a friendly feeling toward a stranger, to a simple-but-genuine desire to bring about the good for her, to a love of her inner and outer beauty. And so the scene intensifies with abandon as the two grow closer and closer, growing freer as they fall in love. They leap higher and higher to the pounding rhythm and as the golden day blushes into dusk, the music reaches a feverish pitch of blaring brass and the two finally swing into each other's arms. 

It's worth adding, though, that Rapunzel's inner growth is not overtaken by romance: when she free-hands a blazing sun with a sprawling violet corona across the floor of the town center, her bare hands drenched in purple paint, she proudly wipes her brow and smiles to see her work exploded from the confines of her little tower. In maintaining this development alongside the romance, Tangled surpasses both the pure archetypal mold of the classic Disney movies, whose heroines (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) are not characters at all, but types, and the Disney Renaissance heroines like Ariel and Belle, who are more differentiated but still not full dramatic characters. Only Meg and Tiana are so full-blooded as Rapunzel and all three are at once types (youths coming of age) and real, unique characters.

When the romance blooms, though, Disney fans might balk that the scene is a simple throwback to earlier movies. Yes, Rapunzel and Eugene's nighttime boat ride to see the lights is visually similar to Ariel and Eric's famous  "Kiss the Girl" scene in The Little Mermaid. And yes, it's musically similar to Aladdin and Jasmine's, "A Whole New World." But it's so much better than both for three reasons.

First, Rapunzel and Eugene know each other well at this point. Second, Rapunzel and Eugene have both completed their quest and the quest has brought them together. Third, they've also undergone their own personal changes of heart. Rapunzel has seen the lights, but found a new and better dream, and Eugene has seen his love for Rapunzel replace his rich and sandy retirement. In short, they're ready to fall in love without all the plot games and confusions we see when other characters who only partially know each other and themselves fall in love halfway through the movie and then limp along trying to figure it all out.

Best of all, though, is that Tangled builds on this clarity and gives us a genuine fourth act that doesn't merely prolong the sweethearts' nuptials but elevates and intertwines both the drama and the archetypal arch. 

When Mother Gothel reappears and dupes Eugene's old cronies into sending him up the river to get hanged for stealing the crown, she sets the stage for herself to play savior once more to Rapunzel, whom she summarily returns to the safety of her tower. Yet truth outs, and ultimately it is not the crown or the lights that triggers the denouement, but Eugene's love token—a handkerchief bearing the royal symbol of the sun—that sets the torrent of memories, the suns she's painted all her life, ablaze. And then the movie gets really dark.

Rapunzel steps out of her room, still in shock at the revelation, and mutters, "I'm the lost princess." Comfortable again in her old authority and thinking things have gone back to normal, Mother Gothel flexes her maternal muscles a bit and scolds Rapunzel for mumbling, just like old times. But Rapunzel has changed, and when she repeats herself she adds impertinently, "Did I stumble, mother?" I tell you in truth my jaw dropped when I first saw it. What a throw-down! It's such a bold move for Rapunzel, and any kid is going to see such declarative, scornful, disobedience as both thrilling and fraught with danger. 

But Tangled ratchets up that danger again when Mother Gothel goes to mollify Rapunzel's anger with a little maternal pat on the head and Rapunzel grabs her by the wrist. Then Mother Gothel, in foreshadowing of her vanity-driven fate, stumbles backward and breaks her mirror. Outraged at the thought of her now inevitable decrepitude, the gloves come off and Mother replies with darkest and most brilliant line from this or any Disney movie, "You want me to be the bad guy? Fine. Now I'm the bad guy." It's not so good because it portents danger, though, but because it's psychologically spot on.

Every parent wrestles with the growing tension of needing to nurture their children while setting limits on their behavior. It often feels like you have to choose between being kind and encouraging their independence. As they get older it feels like drawing a line is setting yourself up to be their villain. When they're teens and maintaining discipline risks the withdrawal of their kids' affection, parents are downright afraid. So when Mother Gothel says with such relish that she's ready to be the bad guy, we're genuinely scared. We feel for a moment, or we should, the danger of the child at the mercy of an adult whose passions, vices, fears, torments she can scarcely understand but who nonetheless holds virtually unlimited power over her. We don't know what the upper limit of Mother Gothel's pursuit of vanity is, if there is any at all.

We find out when Eugene, swiftly rescued in a light-hearted jailbreak perpetrated by the loyal ruffians of the Snuggly Duckling, shows up at Rapunzel's tower, is lured in, and is brutally shanked in the side by Mother Gothel. As if that's not graphic enough, Mother Gothel has Rapunzel gagged and chained in the tower. With the poor girl, who is now plainly Gothel's slave, struggling to get to her bleeding love, we feel the true stakes of Rapunzel and Eugene's story and of the archetype of coming into your own: life itself.

And with that the movie surpasses itself and twines together a perfect ending. Rapunzel willingly gives her life away, resigning herself to Gothel's servitude so she can save Eugene, who to his own death and to spare Rapunzel such a life, at last cuts free Rapunzel's golden locks with a shard of Gothel's mirror. And so the devouring mother by her own vanity shrivels up into her much overdue mortification and gasping at the sight of herself in the shattered mirror shrouds her desiccating, necrotizing face and stumbles shrieking out the window. It's graphic but as it should be, for there's something uniquely evil about an evil mother, that the one who protects and gives life ever should harm or take it. No one needs to learn that; it's in our bones and I tell you Mother Gothel's demise is the most satisfying and appropriate of all Disney villain deaths: what was day-by-day stolen from Rapunzel is suddenly and pitilessly paid back.

The finale is satisfying beyond justice, though, and I teared up myself a moment later when Rapunzel's tear brings Flynn back to life. It's so perfect because what devotion and life Mother Gothel had extracted from Rapunzel with lies and coercion, Rapunzel gives freely to Flynn who had given his love and sacrificed his life. What more is that this masterful finale of mutual sacrifice not only completes the love story and defeats the villain, but preserves to the very end and intertwines the independency of the characters' developments, for both Flynn and Rapunzel need to learn to love despite their loveless childhoods.

For the loner, that begins in trusting Rapunzel enough finally to drop the act of Flynn Ryder and to be Eugene Fitzherbert. He needs to have a faith in himself he's never had before and he needs to have a faith in Rapunzel he's never had in the world before. For the shut-in, learning to love begins in shunning what was formerly everything and everyone to her—a vain, manipulative mother—and having the faith to eschew that mother's familiar-but-shallow attention for Flynn's real, but incipient love. For both, love culminates in the embrace of sacrifice, the highest love, that leads to redemption.

Instead of succumbing to Mother Gothel's repeated attempts to drag her into cynicism, fear that Flynn will leave her and that she can only ever trust her mother, Rapunzel not only gives her love to Flynn but also sacrifices the new life that had just become possible rather than destroy him, and so is rewarded with that love and life back again. Moreover, for her virtue Rapunzel takes her place as princess, for although she always was a princess, technically, like Pinocchio and Hercules, she has to prove herself one by her virtue to truly be one. 

It's a parallelism and intertwining of character and archetype rarely equaled in adult dramas and matched in the Disney canon only by Hercules and The Princess in the Frog, but which are more powerful here because the story is simpler and the cast is smaller. In short, it's a masterpiece. An adult watching it comes out a bit younger, more on the side of youth, love, and freedom, and a child more trusting and spirited. You can't ask for more.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Schubert's Erlkönig, Animated


Somehow Schubert–without my seeking–always finds me in the autumn. This year I came upon an animation of what is probably the composer's most popular lieder, Erlkönig, famous for its supernatural subject and text by Goethe, its frenetic galloping figure on the keyboard (too fast for Schubert himself to play it), and its distinguishing of four distinct characters for the vocal soloist. 

I had the pleasure ten years ago–alright, I keep my stubs so it was 13 years ago, on January 21st to be specific–to hear the great pianist Kirill Gerstein perform the piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it was nothing short of a thrill. The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who retired in the early 1990s, gave surely the most vivid performance of the vocal part, and those who think pop culture is swallowing civilization should rejoice that his famous rendition has millions of views on YouTube.

It's a bravura piece, and frankly, pretty scary on its own. One can imagine an audience that has not been desensitized by decades of intense visual stimulation being easily arrested by the urgency and drama of this music.

That said, I found this animation, with its puppeteered, cutout-silhouette style, added to the piece an otherworldly dimension. It sounds trivial, even ridiculous, but seeing through parts of the characters seems to disembody them to another plane. We watch as if visited when the Elf King turns to us to lure us with his tender promises

Anyway, Schubert found me again. Listen, enjoy, and maybe it will give you goosebumps, as it did me.

And don't forget to check out the Oxford Lieder Festival, going on now.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ten Frames: Peter Pan (1953)

10+ frames from Peter Pan, with final comments ad libitum.

1. This is a great look for Peter Pan, a look which is unfortunately inconsistent and lost over the course of the movie. The partial illumination of his face makes him look like a bandit and his toothy, pointy grin gives him an air of devilish mischief. And I think there is something devilish and dangerous about a boy—especially an energetic, talented, temerarious boy—who won't grow up, and the danger that poses for others, however heedless he is of his immaturity.

2. This game of cat-and-mouse between Peter and his shadow is a marvelous illusion of two characters and I love the weighting of the shadow's tiptoeing. It also hints at the psychology of Peter's immaturity: he has to subdue and reattach to himself the part of him that has grown up and been taken by Wendy. 

3. Perhaps because she doesn't speak, Tink is drawn with the most expressive face in the movie. Her jealous, gleeful chuckle at the kids' failed first attempt to fly is a delight, as is her surprise bump on the tush when she gets up comeuppance by tipping over.

Saturday, October 3, 2020


I've been thinking this week of the old saying that in getting older and having kids you become more conservative. So the line goes, in a nutshell, that with responsibility comes a certain amount of aversion to risk. I suppose this is in some way true, and heretofore I thought I was a pretty conservative dad, but in fact I think fatherhood has made me more liberal. 

I say this namely because I now see just how useless, how anger- and resentment-provoking, how contradictory to Christian and liberal education, and how stifling are authoritarian and forceful parenting. And in the process of learning to back off, trust, think creatively, to exchange efficiency for learning, and to model behavior, I've become pretty comfortable saying I'm wrong. 

It's no small help that my wife is exceedingly good at making honest apology, and that's not only been a positive example but it has also shamed me into getting better at it. Once you get good at offering honest apology, though, you realize how feeble and weaselly are most that you receive. I'll start by recalling my favorite fake, "I'm sorry if anything I said upset you." 

This evasion is impressively broad in its exculpatory powers. First it implies there's a possibility that the interlocutor was not offended, which of course doesn't mean that he who makes such apology is not guilty of having said something inappropriate. Second, it puts the onus on the hearer to take and articulate offense, which in instances of obvious insult should hardly be the case. Third, it implies an inability on the part of the offender to conceive of what he did or did not do as being either inherently offensive or at least offensive to you. It's tantamount to saying, "I can't see how I did anything wrong." 

Another clever apology is, "I'm sorry the way things turned out," as if the offense were just an unfortunate turn of fate and not a misdeed or something that could or ought have been avoided. "I've said I'm sorry, what more do you want?" is another classic, of course, implying that you don't need any time to feel better and assuming that their apology was sufficient amends. Though not strictly apologies, we ought to mention the expression of faux surprise that they've insulted you, as if your sensitivity were the issue, and preemptive irritation with you for taking issue with them.

Behind all of these defenses lies a deliberate confusion between regret and remorse, the former being simple dismay that an act or omission resulted in misfortune, and the latter being acceptance of the moral responsibility for it. 

The regretful person usually means something like, "I'm sorry what I did brought about something bad for you, but: 
  • I couldn't have done anything differently.
  • I didn't have any choice.
  • I didn't know any better.
  • I didn't expect that would happen.
  • I did everything that I could. 
Contained in all those exceptions is exoneration. 

The remorseful, however, accept the moral responsibility. Their conscience gnaws at them, to borrow from remorse's origin in Latin's remordere, "to bite back," because they should have acted differently. In my experience the people who offer regret but not remorse do so with remarkable deftness and subtleness of argument. They always, in my experience, consider themselves very good people and are moralizing types. It's amusing to note that they're also extremely opposed to lying, but at the same time marvelously skilled in omitting a truth or not telling the whole truth. 

They also very easily confuse two other words: generosity and altruism. Namely, they confuse liberality in giving with giving even at one's disadvantage. People who give from their abundance may indeed be said to be acting generously, and the generous fairly consider themselves good for such giving. 

Sometimes the generosity is financial, but some people are generous with praise, others with their time, and so on. However, few people are generous with everything—and fair enough, for who has enough of everything to share it all?—but most people, even people who are generous in giving away one thing, are downright miserly in protecting at least one thing.

Someone who is generous with money but embarrassed of his children will give you freely from his purse but not offer praise for your children or for your parenting. Someone that values a virtue but is vain and insecure about his possession of it will praise you in private but not in public. Such people give generously from their excess, but jealously guard that of which they possess less than they desire. This too is understandable, but the selectively generous seem by a great margin to overestimate their virtue, forgetting that selective generosity is far less noble than broad altruism.

What unites the regretful-but-not-remorseful and the generous-but-not-altruistic is fear. Fear at being seen as less than they are: less free, less rich, less successful, less powerful, less good, less loved. As such their false apologies and generosity both are really self-centered, which is obvious to all except them. If only they realized how miserable they look, and how they make me wonder what terrible judgments, constrictions, manipulations, fears, and punishments were inflicted on them in their childhoods to make them so miserable in adulthood.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Movie Review: Peter Pan (1953)

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

After nearly 100 years, Disney movies have many reputations, most of them mostly wrong. I should know, as I harbored them until getting the opportunity to watch the classics with my own children. 

The first, that they're cheap knockoffs of classic literature and fairytale, is flat wrong. Books and stories were edited, generally sensibly, to make characters and arcs necessary for 70-80 minute animated films. That's perfectly fair, even if the movie turns out to be about something else and someone else entirely.

The second, that Disney movies always have tacked-on happy endings, is not generally true. Where an ending is glaringly different—like in The Little Mermaid—the new ending is suitable to the new character and essentially new story. It is at any rate more important that the ending is proper to the story and its characters.

There is in fact only one movie where the ending is plainly wrong for that reason, and that movie is 1953's Peter Pan. The mismatch of story and ending is all the more frustrating because the plot so perfectly paves the way for its proper ending and the film is animated with marvelous technical artistry.

That plot—that Wending Darling is whisked away to Neverland by Peter Pan, the boy who will never grow up, to play mother to Peter's Lost Boys—can be completed by one of two endings: Wendy decides she is ready to grow up and leave the nursery, as her father has promised she must, or she is not ready, and she begs her father to remain a child. Wendy's Neverland adventure is a playground in which she'll decide whether she's ready to grow up and the development is structured around three events in which she has the opportunity to be initiated into the tribes of Peter's eternal playground, or return home essentially grown up.

In the first, Peter brings Wendy to meet the mermaids of Neverland, among whom Wendy expects preferential, or at least equal or civil, treatment as Peter's special guest on the island. Peter, however, immediately forgets about Wendy and straightaway falls into his role of playing Big Man On Campus to the doting mermaids, who breathlessly hang on his every word as he repeats his oft-told tale of feeding Captain Hook's hand to the crocodile. When Wendy yoo-hoos for Peter's attention, the mermaids fly into a fit of jealousy and mercilessly tease poor Wendy with tugs and splashes until she lifts a conch to defend herself. Worse, Peter in response delegitimizes Wendy's outrage by telling her to calm down, even when the envious creatures admit they "were just trying to drown her."

Peter's forgetfulness and indifference is not senility or insanity, of course, but youthful impetuousness and the child's inability to recall and apply what is not in front of him. It's what most clearly characterizes Peter as a boy and what makes him a no-go as romantic interest and a just plan bad leader. 

We see this first when Peter exiles Tinker Bell on the spot and forever for trying to get Wendy shot out of the sky, even when we can plainly see Tink is jealous. Peter, though, doesn't read Tink's emotions and sees only her immediate transgression against Wendy. Yet a moment later he'll be ditching Wendy for the mermaids, and after that ditching the Mermaids to save Tiger Lily. Then he gets so caught up gloating over defeating Captain Hook that he nearly forgets about Tiger Lily, who is about to drown. When he finally flies Tiger Lily home, poor Wendy is is now totally forgotten and left to flap along behind.

The ensuing ceremony, in which the island natives make Peter an honorary member of the tribe for saving Princess Tiger Lily, is Wendy's second chance at being initiated into her place on the island.

In this, the set piece of the movie, the Lost Boys and even Wendy's little brothers join in a celebration of ecstatic dances and flailing fanfares. . . while Wendy is forced to gather firewood with the other women. When Wendy sees Peter rubbing noses with Tiger Lily, she's finally had enough of her second class status and throws down her firewood to go home.

Back at Peter's hideout, Hangman's Tree, Wendy sings a soft lullaby to the boys about the love and gentle beauty of mothers—whom they don't have in Neverland—so tenderly that they burst into tears and all agree, except Peter, to return to London with her. Even the pirates eavesdropping outside are moved to tears before they snag everyone, again except Peter, for whom they lay a trap.

At the Jolly Roger Wendy is tempted one last time to find her place in Neverland when Hook and his men promise a place for them on the Jolly Roger—and a free tattoo—by means of a funny and too brief shanty about the joys of working for Captain Hook. Wendy not only answers, and not only answers for all the boys, but is prepared to be the first to walk the plank to pay the penalty.

Alas, this is where the movie's trajectory begins to run awry. Wendy, who is prepared for independence, who has realized she has no place on Neverland, who has repeatedly been left behind by her flighty former infatuation, is ultimately rescued by her inconstant guardian. Worse still, she's rescued not only in-the-nick-of-time, but so nearly because Peter was busy rescuing someone else: Tinkerbell, who saved him from Hook's explosive trick and whom he calls "more important to me than anything in the world." To be rescued by Peter is what kind of ending for a girl on the cusp of adulthood?

Worse again, when Peter defeats Hook and flies Wendy back to her window, she tells her father that she's ready to leave the nursery, which feeling is totally incongruous with what has happened in Neverland. In a final frustrating moment, Mr. Darling sees the Jolly Roger sailing across the sky as a cloud and adds that he feels he's seen such before a long time ago, to which I add: so what? Isn't this movie about Wendy?

Certainly it would be welcome for Wendy's father to show the tragic aspect of growing up, in contrast to her newfound enthusiasm for it and Hook and Peter's denial of it, but it's a little late to shoehorn that in to the movie. That detail we would have welcomed in the opening act, not now.

The conclusion is such a frustrating ending, though, because the perfect ending is so obvious: Wendy takes charge of the Lost Boys and her brothers, commandeers the ship, and sails it and herself back to London without help, without pixie dust, and without Peter Pan, who again in childlike distraction forgets Wendy and flits off fighting Captain Hook once more. The two foes, locked in their perpetual struggle, illustrate the folly of fighting time. Back at home, Wendy tells her father, who is about to withdraw his threat that she must leave the nursery to grow up, that she is indeed ready to leave the nursery, and she does. 

Now that might not precisely be Barrie's ending to his play, but it feels like the ending for which this movie has prepared us. I would love to see it attached to this marvelous classic, instead of seeing the story slowly go off the rails in its finale. Every time I watch the end of Disney's Peter Pan I'm disappointed anew, because with its beautiful artwork and animation and clearly-delineated coming-of-age initiation scenes, it's otherwise quite compelling. 

It does have some technical issues too, though. It feels very choppy and the scenes don't flow into each other so well. Peter's impish, off-putting, somewhat threatening face—perfectly captured in the first shot of him—is gradually lost for a more boyish look. His arch foe, Hook, is inconsistent in his presentation: his voice is outright terrifying but he's constantly the subject of low-brow Flinstones-like gags that undermine him as a villain and don't fit with the tone of the movie.

And the tone is the best part of the movie and really its substance. It's built up through wondrous visuals like flights past Big Ben, cannonballs ripping through clouds, flirting with mermaids, hook-and-dagger duels, and marches through the jungle. The tone is that eager feeling, amidst all the fantasy and play, that you're ready for some real danger around the next corner, and you're kind of hoping to find it. 

Returning to the safety of the nursery is exactly opposite this, but the famous song which bookends Wendy's journey to and from Neverland would work with an appropriate ending as well, and perfectly so: what at the beginning referred to escapism and leaving fears of growing up now means, though the words are unchanged, using your new success and growth to leave your pretend world behind and take flight for the awfully big adventure that is life:

When there's a smile in your heart

There's no better time to start.

Think of all the joy you'll find,

when you leave the world behind

and bid your cares goodbye

you can fly, you can fly, you can fly!

Monday, September 21, 2020

A Hero's Philosophizing


I saw re-tweeted the other day the following assessment of President Trump—possibly a fragment as I did not follow up and read the article but merely snipped this section—by former Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who famously landed his disabled aircraft in the Hudson River, off NYC. Of Trump he said:

He cannot understand selflessness because he is selfish. He cannot conceive of courage because he is a coward. He cannot feel duty because he is disloyal. . .

Before assessing these things I would note that they were re-tweeted, presumably with approbation, by someone I like and whom I think is pleasant and highly intelligent. I would also say that Trump may indeed be all selfish, cowardly, and disloyal, at least enough but perhaps only just enough to say he is mostly so. Finally, I add that Captain Sully's act of landing his aircraft that day was indeed heroic, more specifically he behaved steadfastly and altruistically. 

That said, on philosophical grounds, what he said is gobbledygook. They are statements of the kind which may be true by definition, that is, if you define a term to mean precisely and only what you want it to mean, but logically and technically speaking his statement demonstrates a serious confusion of terms.

Most painfully, notice the layman's mistake of using terms for stylistic variety without regard for differences in meaning. Specifically here, look at the verbs: understand, conceive, feel. We have to ask whether he really means to differentiate between understand (that is, to comprehend) and conceive (i.e. to form a concept of.) We also have to ask why one would understand selflessness but conceive of courage and feel loyalty. Can you conceive of selflessness, or feel courageous?

Worse that this inattention to meaning is the rather obvious fact it is all patently wrong. Whenever one gives, one is aware that he could give more or less, and insofar as giving is unavoidable to some degree, it's hard to imagine a person who could be unable even to understand selflessness. 

Now let's say somehow someone is selfish and so habituated to it and enculturated in it that he is as unware of it as he is of the air he breathes, that lack of awareness still has nothing to do with selfishness ipso facto. For example, if someone were indeed so selfish as we have just proposed, why would he be unable to understand selflessness if he were suddenly to see it. It might very well appear as obvious a contrast as stepping from a dark room into a light one, or from a cold place to a hot one.

Similarly, on courage, if a man knows he is a coward, does he not also know what is courage at least by knowing its opposite? 

Of duty—I won't ask whether he intends duty and loyalty to be opposites—it seems to me that one can indeed feel a sense of duty and simply not act on it, perhaps in the unfortunate case of a moral dilemma in which one feels a higher duty to something else. In such a case it is not the feeling which is in question.

It's not my wish to besmirch the reputation of a hero by picking on his argument, but this pop philosophizing smacks of an attempt not merely to point out the vices of a bad man, but to paint that man as vile on account of it being impossible for him to be good. Worse it's an inept job of slapping terms together into a specious, profound-sounding denunciation that's nothing more than an argument from authority.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Old Dies and the New Cannot Be Born



I had the opportunity this week to revisit the first version of Don Giovanni I ever saw, Joseph Losey's 1979 filmed production, with Loren Maazel conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra de Paris and Ruggero Raimondi as the infamous seducer. 

I hope to reflect on the production later and at length, but I couldn't help notice now what I surely did not notice 20+ years ago, the quote from the 19th century Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci that opens the film:

il vecchio muore e il nuovo non può nascere: in questo interregno si verificano i fenomeni morbosi più svariati. 

What a quote to set the stage. "The old dies and the new is not able to be born: in this interregnum occur phenomena morbid and most various."

First, it plain old sets a spooky, ominous tone: that there is a lapse in the order of things and the natural order has given way to perversion and decay. This element is picked up visually by the title cards, designed by Frantz Salieri (aka Francis Savel aka Dietrich de Velsa), which reek of pestilence and decay:

Second, Gramsci's quote plays neatly to the philosophical dimensions that have haunted viewers and listeners for hundreds of years. Chiefly: there is an ineffable sense of instability to Don Giovanni, that it takes place tremulously, dangerously at a crossroads, at a crossing of worlds that must be kept brief. Don Giovanni is the crossroads of so many opposites: love and hate, life and death, fear and boldness, aristocrat and peasant, of lust and purity... that when Mozart's music cuts so deeply to our hearts as it does, and fills us with all these varied forms, we're overwhelmed beyond intensity to ecstasy, taken to our darkest depths and stretched to the edges of being. 

Beyond any conductor, Maazel here captures the precariousness of that dangerous crossroads.

Finally, Gramsci's line, from the notebooks he kept during his imprisonment by the Italian fascists from 1929-1935, also sets the tone for the theme of class struggle that pervades the visuals of Losey's version. 

Don Giovanni enters clad (ironically) in white, imperiously passing the camera—which is just under eye level—as if not to take notice of us, and the camera pans across the halls of his mansion from which pour his aristocratic guests, all oblivious to our presence, save Zerlina (whom Don Giovanni has already seduced and who seeks justice from him.) 

The technique—the eye-level pan—is opposite in effect to the more famous example used at the opening of The Godfather, in which the camera brings us dancing into the wedding of the Corleone family as one of the guests. Another famous example puts us as prisoners in a camp, watching the famously strident entry of Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in Bridge on the River Kwai, on which Don Giovanni cinematographer Gerry Fisher worked as cameraman 20 years prior.

Anyway, here we are rebuffed by the stolid aristocrats, who pour out of his castle into their host's yacht and then out again on the mainland where they tour a glass-works.  

There Don Giovanni overlooks the fire of the works and the singed workers, picking up the class theme as well as foreshadowing his fate. You don't have to be a Marxist to admire how well this is done.

You also don't have to be a Marxist to find Gramsci's statements that preceded the above quote prescient and perceptive:

L’aspetto della crisi moderna che viene lamentato come "ondata di materialismo" è collegato con ciò che si chiama "crisi di autorità." Se la classe dominante ha perduto il consenso, cioè non è più "dirigente," ma unicamente "dominante." detentrice della pura forza coercitiva, ciò appunto significa che le grandi masse si sono staccate dalle ideologie tradizionali, non credono più a ciò in cui prima credevano ecc.

The aspect of the modern crisis that comes lamented as a "wave of materialism" is connected with that which is called a "crisis of authority". If the ruling class has lost the consensus, that is, it is no longer "directing/managing", but only "dominant/controlling", holder/possessor (translation note: i.e. of illegal things) of the pure coercive force, this exactly means that the great masses are detaching themselves from traditional ideologies, no longer believing in what they once believed etc.

There is a palpable sense now that the old order has passed, its credibility spent as we have watched its lies, incompetence, and overriding self-preservation unraveled in real time during the McCarrick and Epstein scandals, the COVID-19 crisis, and the BLM riots, and that it rules by fiat. It's hard not to see all that as morbosi and svariati.

And the masses indeed no longer believe laws are passed and people are governed by consent and objective law, but by capriciousness and the self interest of the rulers. People no longer believe in the wars, in the schools, in the news... and yet new institutions, networks, and beliefs have not fallen into place quite yet. 

And so in the vacuum of the interregnum we're confronted not just with frightening external phenomena but the need to stand on our own premises, and like the visit of the Commendatore for Don Giovanni, it's an opportunity for penitence.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

All Aboard!

I'm fairly sure that—in America in July 2020—few if any people are vehemently opposed to federal government financial bailouts. We've been acclimated to it fairly well, every few years, since the airline and steel bailouts from the early G.W. Bush years after 9/11, and more memorably The Great 2008 Bailout of financial and automotive corporations, but regular people then felt, rightly, scammed by congress and the fed. Corporate losses are socialized but their profits kept, whereas regular folks are left to shoulder not only their burden but the risks of the rich as well. 

Regular people have now, I think, come round fully on the bailouts, now that they get their share. People have been forced out of work so, it is thought, they ought to be helped out in the same way the big companies are. Fair enough, really.

So Summer 2020 I'm fairly sure that most Americans essentially support Social Democracy, that is, government paying for, or providing for, all citizens' essential needs. The Left, to its credit, has increasingly become upfront about this. The right still dances around the issue of its socialism with euphemisms like "safety net."

 Peter Schiff summed the contradiction perfectly on Twitter recently, writing that "Democrats make government bigger and pretend the rich will pay for it. Republicans make government bigger and pretend no one has to pay for it."

The problem is that we the people are rather confused about what we have, what other countries have, and what we want and can have. 

What we have is a crony-capitalist cartel that uses borrowed and fiat money to efficiently and mostly imperceptibly indemnify the rich from losses and an inefficient welfare state that incompetently assists unfortunate regular folks. We also have:
  1. a gigantic and profitable private sector where intelligent and capable people prefer to go to make a lot of money
  2. a vast, expensive military, the function and utility of which is not known to anyone
  3. complex regulations and convoluted regulatory agencies
  4. many, expensive layers of coordinating bureaucracy to liaison between large departments of lawyers and insurers.
We also have no real desire to have equality of essential services. Sympathetic types on both the left and right may vote for social democratic safety nets, but they still want the best services for themselves. Not only do we Americans want robust, efficient, inexpensive social services for all and the best private services money can buy, but we also want the latter not to harm the former, and still more to have plenty of money left over to live however we want. 

So everybody out of work gets free money, more or less. It doesn't matter whether you're using your stimulus check to put beans on the table or make payments on your BMW. It doesn't matter whether you've thousands saved or none. It doesn't matter whether your business is a barely-profitable startup or you're paying yourself a six figure salary. 

That's why, I think, people are really loving the current stimulus checks: it's free money by which you can live as you see fit and without all the attached social democratic strings, like taxes, egalitarianism, and the belief that the state is a large, powerful, authoritative, binding force of our society. 

This social democracy without the discipline, creates a lot of resentment for people trying to live honestly and independently. It's hard not to feel like a schmuck when you're fellow citizens are blatantly cashing in. 

There's no smooth transition from this incoherent mess of systems and beliefs to either a free market or a social democracy. Simply too many people benefit from this scheme in the short run, and so we're going to ride out the gravy train until it crashes. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The POTUS Legitimacy Crisis

In my article last month The Great Epi-Twitter Meltdown I touched on the origin of the recent riots and the recent years of intense liberal unrest finding root in the fundamental belief for many on the left that Donald Trump is not the legitimate President of the United States. I'd like to expand on this observation which in my estimates goes back at least a couple of decades.

Starting in the present, Trump is perceived by the left as illegitimate for two reasons. First, they believe—regardless of the conclusions of official investigations—that Trump was aided by Russian malefactors in his ascent to the White House. They regard, therefore, his actions as inherently treasonous and the election of 2016 as null. Second, they categorically cannot process the fact that someone they so intensely find repulsive occupies the highest political office in the United States. It cannot compute and so at some deep level must not be possible for such an object of their disgust to in any way represent, let alone govern, them.

The left's refusal to accept Trump is amusing since Trump himself fomented the birther movement against his predecessor in an attempt to garner attention for himself in preparation for his own presidential run. Trump's strategy to play upon the right's strings of distrust was effective at making him appear tough and persistent, with him constantly jibing at Obama to produce his birth certificate. Even when Obama did just that, Trump had the temerity to boast that he gets results, which was curiously true—though not relevant—as others had attempted ineffectually to goad the president into showing his birth certificate. 

Of course others on the right never accepted Obama for other reasons, different but as absurd as questioning his citizenship. Some right-wingers really thought he was a Muslim, others delegitimized him because he was not white, others thought the 2008 election was stolen in ballot shenanigans. Some people just couldn't reconcile that someone with such a leftwing agenda could be president; he must be un-American. Some people simply didn't take him seriously on account of his youth and inexperience. Whatever the reason, Obama was illegitimate in the eyes of many right-wingers from the get-go, just like his predecessor, G. W. Bush.

The ballot shenanigans of the 2000 election certainly dwarfed anything that happened in 2008, with weeks of recounting and reexamining Florida's ballots until the issue of the recount was settled by the United States Supreme Court, who allowed an accounting of the ballots that resulted in a Bush victory. From the beginning, then, G.W. Bush was "selected not elected" in the eyes of many liberals. 

(So illegitimate and hated was Bush that it became not uncommon to hear liberals wishing he would just die, and such was even publicly depicted, paving the way for Kathy Griffin's infamous cover of her holding Trump's severed head.)

In the 2000 election the U.S. Supreme Court was seen widely by the left to have acted in blatantly partisan, inherently anti-democratic bias, an outrage the left took badly after seeing their previous guy, Bill Clinton, was dogged for years by accusations of sexual harassment for years, humiliated in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and then ultimately hauled into impeachment hearings. The left perceived that onslaught, which ended only in February of 1999 with Bill Clinton's acquittal, as instigated, fomented, and perpetuated by right wing partisans and a self-declared moral majority of self-righteous religious fundamentalist crusaders, all out to destroy their guy. This sentiment, infamously promoted by Hilary Clinton during the "Year of Monica" as a "vast right wing conspiracy," though not universally accepted even among the left the time, has become liberal dogma.

The scandal also set the left rather firmly opposed to the religious, and the left is not entirely wrong in feeling so opposed, I think, as some of the right-wing reaction against Bill Clinton was indeed driven in part by religious women's disgust at the sexual nature of the charges which they found impossible to reconcile with the dignity of the office. As such, the left remembers chiefly that disgust felt toward their guy, and many to this day will tell you with intense resentment that he was "impeached for a blow job," saying and thinking nothing of the charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. 

Fast forward and escalate that resentment for twenty years—through the indignity of enduring the Bush "I'm the decider" years, the seemingly final victory of the left under Obama vanishing in 2016 with the rise of Trump and the fall of the corporate press—and it's not hard to understand the animus driving their hostility toward Trump, whom many on the left, even moderates, want to see not only defeated, not only disgraced, but punished. 

Trump's presidency is itself, and mostly I think, the right's vote of no confidence in the pre-2016 political status quo, in which they realized no principled republican could ever win: they brought Trump in precisely to give the left a bloody nose. 

That blow having been dealt—socially if not in policy—it seems now that many on both sides are unable or unwilling to consider any representative of the other side as a legitimate chief executive and representative of popular will, despite the promises or processes that bring the candidate to the office. Whether this is peak POTUS legitimacy crisis and people will moderate, or it will continue to escalate, we will see. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

YouTube Highlight: AuthenticSound

Authentic Sound is a delightful channel run by Belgian musician Wim Winters. Besides his marvelous playing he discusses musicology, history, instruments, and performance practice. 

He raises matters that performers often don't want to dwell on because they require a lot of work to sort out before you can settle on a reasonable reading of the score, and that non-performers (like me) just won't think of.

Here he is on a passage of Beethoven:

There's so much fun and insight here to dig into, you can disappear if you have the time.

You can also find Mr. Winters at his site https://www.authenticsound.org/