Monday, April 14, 2014

Central Park in Spring

Yesterday was the first of the vernal season on which the sun and wind could both agree to warm us in their springtime hands. The Central Park promenade teemed with travelers and citizens alike, all teased out of doors by the sun and sweet air. The trees, though, more budding than blooming, were not yet persuaded from their winter seclusion and so the lively mall at the heart of the city bathed in unhindered light.

Cyclists streamed through, dodging pedestrians, dogs, and strollers. The restful natives sunned themselves on the lawns while cameras, occasionally attached to fleshy humanoid stands, snapped pictures of the germinal fauna. Blowing about were bubbles of all sizes, vast but short-lived ones emanating from the sudsy ropes of the professionals and thousands of tiny spheres flitting up the woody canopy from the soapy plastic pistols of little kids. One squirrel, who had the distinct air of having overslept and whom I named Phil, scampered about the daffodils beneath a tree for twenty minutes before concluding, I assume, that his winter store had been stolen. Cave furres!

Down by Shakespeare and Columbus, violinist Susan Keser, The NY Violinist, played with aplomb a crowd-pleasing selection of romantic and baroque pieces with generous helpings of Bach and Vivaldi. She even played the solo to some recorded concerti, bringing a big ensemble sound around her fine playing. I also caught quite by chance a few magic routines by The Magic Bald Guy, aka Mick Stone, who brings hilarity to polished and delightful legerdemain. It's easy enough, I hope, to appreciate good technique and fun magic at a theater, but when the performer has also to woo and charm a crowd who can walk away at any moment, tune out passers by, and improvise humor, well you have to applaud that beyond the usual. Talented performers like these, whose work lights up the city with fun and flare, deserve not only thanks but a little coin too for so liberally sharing the fruits of thousands of toilsome, lonely hours perfecting their crafts.

Certainly I can't forget Willie G., The Poet of Central Park, self-proclaimed poet, I believe, who sells his poems in the park. With regrets I didn't have enough cash to afford one of his books, but I gave a small donation to his poetical cause and in thanks he gave to my girlfriend a poem about happiness. I haven't read the poem yet, but I'll be pleased to find it half as charming as its author. And kudos to Flicker photographer Pete Considine for his great shot of Willie.

So that was Central Park in yesterday's spring, at least in my corner. Squirrels and daffodils. Sun, music, and magic. Happiness.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thanks for All the Fish

New York is supposed to be a rough and tumultuous place. In my experience it has not been so and in these twenty eight years of Big Apple citizenship I can count on one hand the times I've been rudely treated. This number excludes, it goes without saying, curses and epithets hurled from vehicles en passant. Of course you never see an object with so much clarity as when it stands in relief, and hence these instances figure prominently in my mind.

I found myself amidst the third of these spasms of rudeness today, surprisingly at the venue of the city's great gem, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In retrospect my surprise seems unreasonable, for the unruly exist everywhere, but I like to think that great art has a humbling effect on the disposition, and what is rudeness of not the affectation of superiority? It was perhaps a naive thought, but I didn't expect Ugolino to be the most tortured in the museum today. Nonetheless today's experience, in which the group sales associate accused me of lying and threatened to inform my employer that my party hadn't given them sufficient warning for my party of ten, conformed precisely to the pattern of my previous encounters with exemplary rudeness.

The first shared trait is the presence of the raging party's inability to control the outcome. Today's ticket taker knew she couldn't turn away so few students with three chaperones and, as is often the case, impotence in one area expresses itself as aggression in another. The military strategist Sun Tzu struck upon this fact when he wrote that violent language is a presage not to attack, but retreat. As our inevitable entry pressed upon her, the taker grew more imperious, you were told, and admonitory, they'll be contacted, and scolding, as I just said, until at last she grudgingly acquiesced.

The second trait is that the affair was altogether frivolous. Even the dullest people know, it seems, when to be serious, but the timid heart makes a stand when the stakes are low. They plant flags on nameless molehills for petty glories, not Iwo Jima and the Hot Gates. In this case our party, which was barely large enough by their own standards to qualify as a group, could have easily split up into three small groups of four. What havoc would we have wreaked, we little platoons!

The third common element was the breaking not of morality, but policy. Policy, what the managerial mind confuses with law–ius, the fruit of jurisprudence–is quite handily defined as a definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency or facility. Unlike law which is inviolable because it is grounded, theoretically, in morality, policy exists for the sake of another cause. It can be broken if upholding it will contradict a higher cause or if breaking it won't undermine the cause for which the policy was adopted.

Take a few examples from my own profession, teaching. Having office hours saves me from constant interruption, but students are welcome to drop by. A grace period of two days prevents students from copying returned material, but I don't turn down good work from good students. As Aristotle shows, 1374b, these are circumstances of prudence, in which we arbitrate by equity and do not judge by law, considering more the man than the law, more what is meant than what is said, and the big picture rather than one detail. The museum's policy is obviously designed to prevent the exhibits from being swamped by large groups, a threat which we didn't pose.

I'll leave it for you to determine whether flash mobs of patrons are plaguing large museums today or whether the third largest museum in the western hemisphere can't handle facilitate, say, a few thousand patrons per hour. If the Met cannot, perhaps its custodians can contact the thousands of arenas, theaters, and schools which do this every day, most without two million square feet of real estate. I'll also not consider whether the inconvenience, and it's nothing more if it's anything at all, of showing up in a group warrants mandatory appointments and, by charging a mandatory special fee, an abdication of the museum's founding principle. Passing over that naturally necessitates I not inquire just how if at all the surcharge is spent to compensate for the alleged inconvenience of being part of a group. In charity I won't even wonder why school groups need appointments and other groups do not. Too I'll put aside–because I'm not agitated at all–a fact esoteric to this episode, how the same individual had previously informed me that she realized giving advance warning wasn't always possible and that it would be acceptable simply to show up a tad before the group and pay at the separate counter.  Finally, I won't in generosity even wonder about what mind would with such tenacious gusto and disregard for the obvious cling to such a policy. But I digress...

The final characteristic common to these outbursts was a sense of righteous indignation. These folks all felt entirely justified chewing out your humble blogger, a fact which should cause any balanced individual to pause. Mature people tend to react with moderation because they harbor some doubt about whether they're justified to react as they wish. There's a reason, though, that shooting first and asking questions later is called being trigger-happy, and that's because, as the phrase suggests, there is a mania attendant the abstention from use of senses and intellect. The Greeks had ἔκφων, literally out of one's φήν, or mind, but also carried away, without usual senses, or frenzied. (Speaking of which, a review of the brilliantly-titled late Hitchcock masterpiece, Frenzy, is forthcoming.)

We would be remiss to ignore the Latin origins of rude though, which are plentiful and revealing. The adjective rudis means both uncultivated and in its natural state. Of animals it means unbroken and of skills it means ignorant of. Is not the rude man, or woman, all of these things? Inattentive or ignorant of convention, unshaped by experience and thought, stuck in bad habits. The verb form rudo can refer with no small measure of humor to both the bellowing of an orator and the braying of an ass.

With no doubt the museum could issue an expedient and exculpatory explanation as to why their policy is both necessary and sufficient. With even less doubt will any external independent party be unable to corroborate their justification. The bottom line isn't museum policy, though, but that staff there, and in many places, have changed from old timers who judged by common sense over to the degreed, pantsuited, professionals who flashing their plastic badges prance through the morning line of patrons on their way to serve as the lesser stewards the greatest treasures, they less the patrons of culture than the patronizing custodians of peremptory bureaucracy.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Review: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Directed by Rob Minkoff. 2014.

A simple test will tell whether Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a movie for you. The evaluation has nothing to do with whether you can get your head around the sight of a talking dog or time travel or such, but rather tells taste in humor. Imagine this: Peabody and Sherman find themselves amidst the French Revolution and, after Peabody executes a slick escape from the guillotine by use of a melon, an outraged Robespierre picks up the sliced fruit and exclaims, "Tricked by a cantaloupe, the least of fruits!" If that qualification, the least of fruits, which is impossible to explain or understand, doesn't tickle your funny bone by its absurdity and resistance to reason, then neither Mr. Peabody and Sherman, nor any of the classic Jay Ward cartoons, may be for you.

If you chuckled, though, then welcome aboard.

Mr. Peabody, a dog, is a brilliant scientist and father to Sherman, his adopted boy. The clever twist to this reboot is recasting Peabody from a wily historian into a genius sophisticate, as at home splitting atoms as he is regaling guests with witty banter and mixing his classic drink, the Einstein on the Beach. He can also whip up a Baked Alaska while he plays the piano, electric guitar, and didgeridoo, before he cures your backache. There are two keys to Peabody's success in this picture, though. The first is Ty Burrell's voice acting, which imbues to Mr. Peabody a maturity, charm, and paternal concern which win us over. The second key is that Peabody's many skills are introduced mostly in the service of the story. We don't get many cutaway moments like the opening in which Peabody shows off just for laughs, but rather jokes built into the plot.

That plot could scarcely be less substantial, but it's enough to hold the jokes together; Peabody has to entertain an irascible couple who is threatening to have Sherm expelled for fighting with their daughter. During dinner, Sherman and that classmate along with Peabody are whisked through time. Slight as it is, though, the script takes enough time to set up Peabody's relationship to Sherman as tutor and mentor. Mr. Peabody educates him himself, tells Sherman how to succeed at school, and finally dropping him off there, gives him a little dog whistle to call home. What a splendid little touch.

The script even takes enough time and thought for a touching little montage in which Peabody, after tucking Sherm in after a rough first day at school, reminisces about raising the orphan he found one rainy night. Set to John Lennon's Beautiful Boy, Peabody's look back at raising Sherm wisely starts in the present and works its way back, a brilliantly simple way of avoiding montage conventions. Similarly, and with a touch smart for the film and sensible in the plot, Peabody via his WABAC time machine has raised Sherm throughout other eras–there's a cute picture of him with Gandhi–letting the montage add variety to the film's visuals while avoiding the tendency to cram too much into the main story. Little details and efforts like these make a difference.

Speaking of that time travel, Mr. Peabody and Sherman have a funny blast through history. In one episode of the classic original Schubert runs out into a street of motor-vehicular traffic. Eek. I realized I was in good hands here, though, when Sherm proudly exclaimed that the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree was apocryphal. And bless him, Sherm actually used the word apocryphal. The time traveling scenes are a hoot and I laughed my tail off. Agamemnon is a muscle-head psyching up his Greek troops, who get duped into letting Peabody's miniature wooden horse into. . . their wooden horse. The writers even exonerate, though perhaps accidentally, Marie Antoinette by showing us the terrible misunderstanding in which she became known as the queen who said, "Let them eat cake." It's not just the historical sets, setups, and gags that make Mr. Peabody and Sherman funny, though, but the movie's off-kilter tone which gives everything a charming, comic bent. It's a note seldom sought or struck today, but when it's hit, it's deliriously fun, and that tone is zany. Sometimes that tone is set by dialogue, other times by a character's eyes or walk, but somehow it's always there, making us look at everything cockeyed, and laugh.

The script also does a slick job of working Peabody's historical descriptions into the plot so they don't feel like lectures. Yes, Peabody tells us about King Tut, but it's only to tell Sherm's little friend that given the young king's fate he might not make the best husband. Sure this is whimsical and silly, but it's not dumb. There are puns aplenty, too–I guess I'm an old Giza!–and even a running joke in which Peabody and Sherm repeatedly chuff out the rear ends of various animal-shaped vehicles. And that's the running joke! Wacca wacca!

Anyway, Peabody gets a laugh out of Mona Lisa, the kids take a flight in Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machine, Beethoven plays Dance Dance Revolution and Robespierre gets tasered. If that doesn't make you want to take a quick spin through history with this charming polymath and Renaissance dog. . . well who am I kidding, of course it does.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Be Vivaldi.

Sometimes I wonder whether I actually like to read. Many of my friends read voraciously across all genres, authors, and topics. To be frank with you, dear reader, I most often look at writing and think, "Who wants to read all that?" Take for example this beast in The Atlantic. It's fifteen pages in 12 point font, single-spaced. Is all of this necessary?

It's pretty presumptuous to write at length. First, the time and patience of the reader is limited. Try to get to the point. Second, yes, many great works are long or big, but the length of Parsifal is not license for others to write tomes. In fact, very few people should be writing anything so long as a book.

Don't imitate Wagner, imitate Vivaldi. Get in, make your point, and get out. See that smile above? That's the smile of someone who isn't wasting his or your time with the perfunctory.

Writing 101

Nothing stupefies the amateur so much as what liberties the experts take with impunity. The amateur toils away in obscurity, following the rules, while the expert tosses them to the wind amid approbation. Harrumph! Yet the grammatical misdemeanors of Ciceronian hyperbaton, of Catullus' elisions, Shakespeare's neologisms, and Eliot's poetical periphrases are not mine to forgive but the Muses', and the beauty of such works is the vindication and celebration of genius over grammar. Of course not everyone billed as an expert owns the name, and it's the venerated balderdash that irks most. The trend today is ostensible authors publishing middlebrow fare  to whoop for their books. Alas, since the passing of its founder, Arts and Letters Daily seems to specialize in promoting this aggrandizement.

Today's Arts and Letters docket brings us the case of Katie Roiphe in The Financial Times. Forthwith I would like to throw the FT editor under the bus with the author. Second, I want to postulate and hopefully demonstrate beyond its exemplarity as bad writing that the piece is a failure to persuade

Even the sloppiest authors usually get the first sentence approximately right.
Do you know someone with insomnia who wakes up at 4am and ends up working and reading novels and cleaning closets and cycling through anxieties until the sky turns pink? I know her and sometimes I am her.
The purpose here is to introduce the character of an insomniac and make her sympathetic and engaging. The detail first, though, that plenty of people wake up at the wee hour of 4AM, or thereabout, to go to work. No pity points there, and while I comprehend that the point is she loses sleep, regardless of when it is, few but the literati elite will sympathize with her pre-sunrise wakeup. Lesson: know your audience.

The author is trying to convey the desperate meandering from task to task that is the torture of the insomniac seeking sleep. The problem is that she hasn't chosen examples which exemplify the condition or linked them, i.e. written, in a way which conveys the condition. She uses polysyndeton, extra conjunctions, which conveys quantity, but quantity is neither the only nor the most important characterization of the experience of insomnia. She doesn't write to convey the variety and often frivolity of the tasks, her desperation, or the interminable duration of the sleepless hours dripping by. There is a substantial disconnect between style and content in which the former betrays the latter to languor.

Now I've relaxed about using the objective case in English, even to the point where "than me" doesn't up by dander, at least when used without a linking verb. Still: I am her? The author doesn't make the mistake later so the possibilities remain that the paragraph was not edited or that the author, or editor, thinks the correct alternative would cause more confusion or grief in its uneducated audience. In either case, unfortunate.

The next paragraph:
I often hear friends and acquaintances talking about being up in the middle of the night, worrying, whirring, working. It’s not a boast but there is, to a certain extent, a personal mythology being advanced. There is a sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps these anxious friends are tapping into. There is a definite and possibly weird element of pride.
Talking about being up in the middle of a lousy sentence. What a prepositional participial mishmash. The asyndeton and alliteration of worrying, whirring, working here is the same mistake as in the first paragraph and is whirring the right onomatopoetic word here? Insomniacs fly quickly about? Before she was cycling and reading. What mixed, unclear imagery. The remainder of the section is a confusion of indecipherable phrases:
  • advancing a personal mythology
  • sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps
  • a definite and possible weird element of pride
Their tales of insomnia are stories about how they came into existence? The morale is sort of counter-intuitive? The pride is definitely present, and possibly weird? The next paragraph, which desperately needs a concrete thesis, hypothesis, or at least definition of something, doubles down on the sophomoric adjectives:
  • pretty universally
  • bad thing
  • possible that certain segments
  • strange level
  • common mystery
Then we read about the "tremendous artifice" of the energy via an example about coffee-drinkers craving more coffee, without explaining how it's related, but she keeps describing "energy" and so we don't know if she's talking about the coffee-drinkers or something else or anything at all.

Oh, and how can you be jangly? By clanging pots and pans? Perhaps she uses the less common meaning of upset, but coffee and/or insomnia now makes you irritable or upset? When? How? Please, dear writer, help me!

The next paragraph is cheap piece of rear-end covering, admitting that some people may be clinically anxious, meaning I don't know what exactly but presumably that in some cases anxiety is objective, involuntary, or a disease. This is just a cheap bow to science and reason as she plunks ahead without investigating how the science might impact her argument. Then she goes on to use the word addictive, so whatever.
There is a particular vitality in anxiety, a sort of nervy power that one can’t say is fun, exactly, but is nonetheless slightly addictive. It can be productive, in a crashing way. It gives us a feeling of motion, of momentum, of wheels turning. One gets used to it, maybe seeks it out. One inhabits it, sets up camp.
This is a noteworthy paragraph because it both demonstrates how not to depict an idea and is the point at which I get annoyed. She keeps using delimiting words like particular, sort of, feeling of, used to without actually following up with a definition, giving use the illusion of explanation. The style is vexing to serious readers and pleasing to the soft-minded. The next sentence is a cake-taker.

The power is not fun (but it is in some way, we're supposed to gather, I guess), but nonetheless slightly addictive? So something which may or may not be fun is anyway addictive. Slightly. Perfectly clear. It's also productive, in a crashing way. What exactly about the act of crashing is meant here? The energy give us a feeling of motion. So is there any actual motion? One maybe seeks it out, but if he doesn't, then does he accidentally set up camp there? 

The next is a sad spectacle that makes you long for a real writer:
She used as an inspiring example an employee who successfully battled stress by stopping to gaze at a tomato plant in the concrete, urban nightmare of his life.
Aside from its Oprah-esque you-can-too tune-in-at-11 mentality, it leaves out a relevant detail: how often did the man gaze: regularly, or once? Makes a difference, no? 

Anyway, you can read on if you want more phrases like invented a thing called, usually sort of blah, and pretty much, but writing like this is frustrating enough when it's about nonsense, but aggravating when it's about something good. It cheats you of both knowledge and experience. A sentence of G. K. Chesteron accomplishes the feat Ms. Roiphe missed:
One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it.
He lures is in with a long unrolling of simple words, grabs our attention with suddenly strike, slows down again to set two locations, and then slows down more as if asking us to lean in for a secret. Halfway he masterfully shifts to the perfect tense, making us feel as if we've missed the point, but rushes on about the importance of that point, finally calling us a fool for having missed it. The experience of reading the sentence is the topic of the sentence. 

It's not unlike Ms. Roiphe's piece with talk of "strange moods" and apparent simplicity, except it works and is beautifully brief, clear, and specific. We are curious about the experience and eager read it again, and it's a pity when you can't say that about writing. I sympathize with Ms. Roiphe's premise and so acutely feel the piece's lack of cogency. How frustrating it is to see just the glimmers behind the words instead of the idea in full radiance. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Movie Review: If You Don't, I Will

or Arrête ou je continue. Written and directed by Sophie Fillières. 2014. 


Every movie begins with a promise to its audience: to make good on the premise of its opening scene. The movie has until the final shot to make good on that commitment. Some finales fulfill in a grand gesture, a la 2001, others, like Mr. Hulot's Holiday, trot off in quiet, and some very few disguise their exits, prompting us to wonder whether we've been cheated or have missed something. If You Don't, I Will fits into the latter, smaller category. It opens with a gesture grand in implication but subtle in presentation: a couple looking at a painting that bears the line from Matthew's gospel, "God calls us to be perfect." Pomme is skeptical while her husband Pierre is outright offended, judging God presumptuous.

We don't know or even sense it at the time, but the call to perfection is the struggle of this troubled couple whose every exchange is a strain on both partners. Something, and we never find out what, has come between them and in every quarrel their reconciliation seems to ebb away. The movie drops a lot of hints as to what it might be–financial strain, a lack of children, infidelity, distance after Pomme's surgery–but these are all red herrings. We don't need to know why they're apart because we've been given the key at the beginning: perfection. Perfection for Pierre lies in loving his wife once again, and Pomme's salvation lies in reuniting with her husband. Or does it?

Throughout If You Don't, I Will Pomme suffers wound after wound. Sometimes they're emotional, such as the slights and chills of her husband, but they're as often physical. She falls in the shower, gets paper cuts, gets pestered by ants, loses of a button off her pants, has to dash for the bus, cuts her lip on glass, and on and on. The continuous barbs against her body magnify the emotional thorns her husband drives in every time he rejects one of her endless prompts for mere kindness. Sometimes she gives him a chance to compliment her, other times just to do things the way they used to, and always in response, rejection. In a bittersweet moment Pierre compliments Pomme by calling her honey, and she looks up ready to take the olive branch only to discover by his confusion that he endeared her by accident. The simple moment reveals that if Pierre would simply let go of something, his inclination to love Pomme would take over. Instead he willfully closes himself off.

Mathieu Amalric's performance of Pierre is a little masterpiece. Pierre is so closed off that at every turn he looks as if about to collapse in on himself. All of this implosive energy, in each gesture and word, looks as if it wants to burst forth in either love or hate, yet always retreats back in. We sense a resolve, a guarded barrier between what wants to come out and what willfully repressed. Pierre's gaze even seems ever to look past the Pomme he sees to find something terrible from which to retreat. His emotional disconnection climaxes in impotence when in a scene of poised eroticism Pomme exposes her breast to him, hoping to entice her husband, or perhaps test him. At the voluptuous sight Pierre is stolid, and a moment later Pomme cuts her lip on a glass.

The couple finally parts while hiking in their old wooded haunt, to which Pomme all but has to drag her husband. We assume that in leaving she's trying to teach him a lesson and that she'll soon come home, until night passes, and then the following day, and then day after day. In time we realize Pomme is wondering whether to return at all, wandering the primordial grounds to test whether she wants to return to life before Pierre, who back at home represses his fear for her by resuming their old routine. In fact Pierre sets out to find his wife only when Pomme's son tells him that something is gravely wrong. Brief and unsuccessful, the search is another impotent gesture. Back in the forest, Pomme meanders a long while, and don't we all when making a grave decision? We engage a little, and run away, tiptoe down one path, and then turn back for another. I think I can forgive Pomme her lengthy searching.

Two scenes in the woods symbolize the potential ends of Pomme's search. In the first, getting hungry, Pomme approaches a brace of hares, a couple in fact. She tells the male as she approaches, "Kill yourself. Cook yourself. Your wife will be safe." He might as well be Pierre, and we realize that Pomme is, or thinks herself, strong enough to get along without him. In the second, a chamois (a goat-antelope) stumbles into he hole where Pomme is spending the night. She watches him, and watches and watches, of course to no reply. It gets dark and she lights her lighter, resolved to see him. Pierre again? In the morning she helps the lost creature out of the hole. Can she do the same for her husband?

Pomme's choice, which I won't spoil, will invariably seem unsatisfactory insofar as it seems simultaneously decisive and arbitrary. After all, we know neither what separated the couple nor what might reasonably reunite them. Her decision, though, does not neglect the film's promise. We may not like Pomme's choice, but it forces us to ask where, in what, or in whose love we find our perfection.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Some Classics Whimsy: Coloring Pages

Some will tell you it is debt, corruption, and slackening moral standards that threaten the prosperity of today's children. I, however, point to a different scourge sabotaging childhoods throughout the land: inferior coloring pages. Oh yes, it's the high point of hot June afternoons and days when teacher just can't stiffen the sinews enough to teach, but what kind of pages are we giving our kids? Coloring should be a joy not bound by cheap photocopies.

Ah coloring. Whatever the means it's pure delight to open that box and take in the polychromatic splendor, watching one color fade into the next. There's no bad tool either. Who doesn't love the smooth roll of the crayon and its waxy sheen on the page. What a treat to watch a marker's ink slowly bleed into the paper, tincting it fiber by fiber. Pencils, though, were always my preference, with their superfine points you can nudge into every nook of the page. How soothing too their scratchy scraping on the paper.

Whatever your choice, you budge the little stick from its special rank and file and you're ready to color. Still we ought to support the joy of coloring not just with quality implements but worthy subjects.

I came across today, then, an old book of paper dolls, although both ignorant and indifferent to just what a paper doll is, I continue to refer to my findings as coloring pages. I noticed immediately their fine quality, especially the varying thicknesses of the lines which delineate the areas. More noteworthy though are their historical subjects, still more they're so far from the beaten path, and most of all that they're not simply generic drawings but sketches or composites of ancient artifacts. Take this page of Sappho, modeled off actual korai:

click to enlarge

To my astonishment its publisher, Bellerophon Books, is still in business and selling a variety of similar books which I hope are of similar quality. While Bellerophon offers a number of classically-themed books, their medieval alphabet looks perhaps the most fun to color. Imagine filling those swirling letters intertwined with their figures, bramble, and borders.

Here's another page from the volume I have, Great Women. Refreshingly it's not another bland picture of a leggy goddess frolicking in a tunic or toga. It's Boudicca, complete with authentic torc and carnyx.

She comes with a helmet and shield too, and Cleopatra with an array of headdresses. Again for you classicists, the Infamous Women volume includes Messalina and Agrippina.

Yes, these are probably too difficult for the wee ones, but better they scribble over Boudicca a bit, and perchance wonder about her, than fill in time-wasters. I should warn you, though, that these are definitely not for adults. It's not at all fun to look up the original art and artifacts and meticulously color in these pages. They're available on Amazon for about $5 each. Think of the children!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review: 300: Rise of An Empire

Directed by Noam Murro. 2014.

It's wisely observed that solemnity is a breath away from stupidity. Take, for example, the following pair: "The borders of Lacedaemon will mourn the death of a king descended from Hercules." vs. "The Greeks were betrayed by a hunchback." The former, reported in Herodotus, retains even in translation a sense of grandeur whereas the latter, written by Zack Snyder for 300: Rise of An Empire, invites chuckles. Now it may seem strange to begin the review of an action flick with quibbles about writing, but the movie was so heavily narrated and the action scenes so spectacularly forgettable that this 300 comes off as a drab, talky, slog.

In fact, I've forgotten all of the movie's sword-and-sandals action except for one part where the Greeks were fighting with big bronze axes. The highlight is of course the naval battle at Salamis, but an utter lack of environment dulls this climax. Without a sense of size, scale, strengths, topography, and geography, we're just watching activity in which any result is possible and therefore don't invest in the action.

I'm not at all opposed to set-piece battles and even whole movies revolving around one climactic brawl, whether The Two Towers or Waterloo, but you need to prepare the audience so we can wrestle with expectations and possibilities and, hopefully, engage the story. There are a few notable shots of ramming triremes, although the movie's best shot is of them still, and a great big Persian oil barge goes Exxon Valdez and then kaboom, but the action here is unremarkable.

The script doesn't redeem this 300 either, following up an interminable prologue by confusingly bouncing among 1) narration over Thermopylae, 2) flashbacks of Thermopylae 2) narration over Marathon, 3) Themistocles in the past trying to persuade the Spartans to commit ships, 4) Themistocles in the present fighting at Salamis, 5) Persian General Artemisia talking to Xerxes at various points in time, and 6) Artemisia fighting at Salamis. The plot is intelligible, but the sequence of events is confusing and enervates the momentum.

To its credit the script attempts to sketch two opposing characters in Themistocles and Artemisia, but it would be nice if it had ventured something beyond the fact that one loves Greece and the other hates it. The smoldering cool of Eva Green's Artemisia is the more interesting, but it wears over the course of even 100 minutes. She doesn't change or have any cause which might be refuted, and while she does bring about her own downfall, it's predicated off actions which are but hastily recounted, neither taking place during nor developed in the movie. Themistocles on the other hand is flat and dull. In truth I can't recall a thing he said. And then the two knock boots on Artemisia's barge because Zack Snyder is writing the script.

Given how much the film leans on Spartan Queen Gorgo's narration and how she's driven for vengeance like Artemisia, the two women should have been cast opposite instead of Artemisia and Themistocles. Since I can't resist speculating...

You could give parallel arcs to the two wronged women in which Gorgo, who lost her husband to a cause she didn't believe in, achieves justice in contrast to Artemisia, the victim of rape, who is consumed by her desire for vengeance. Then you could oppose Themistocles and Xerxes, in which beside the obvious theme of liberty opposing tyranny, Xerxes could chide Themistocles with the taunt that the fickle Athenian mob will turn on him. That would have been something.

I appreciate that both 300 flicks tried to flaunt a brash bravado and an unapologetic purity of purpose, but if a film's going to be so simple it needs to be flawless to be effective. The alternative is an adolescent mishmash from which we walk away stolid instead of stirred, hostile even to a scant script that can't support cheesy dialogue, lackluster pacing, flat acting, and dull, clumsy visuals. To be fair, I enjoyed bits of 300, but it's a shame such a source should yield anything so terribly forgettable.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Switching Off vs Switching Over

It's a trite saying of the self-important that sometimes you just need to relax. The claim isn't even tough to justify, for just about everyone feels either that he works hard or hard enough and even the most leisured seem to find themselves at the edge of exasperation. One can find plenty of intellectual confirmation for the cause too, with just about any school of thought or philosophy making room for a little rest and relaxation. Yet the key component to relaxation is in fact the work itself. You don't realize how pleasant and restorative is relaxation until you've pushed yourself to the limit.

Teaching this academic school year has been instructive for your blogging educator. The early years of teaching, one hopes successful teaching, follow a familiar path. First you learn to establish order and organization, then you find the ideal presentation of the curriculum as you have found it, then you slowly perfect the curriculum, finally learning to adapt it to students, time, and place. All along the way you develop and find your own voice, style, and teaching demeanor. Occasionally an upheaval at one step sends you back a few, but the process seems reliably sequential. It also seems like many professional endeavors, to accelerate. This year I've gotten pretty carried away, and I won't out my hubris by suggesting at which step I find myself.

Re-designing tests, scanning articles, making projects, I'm progressing to the point where work is my default activity. It is swallowing everything. Weekly Shakespeare? Gone. Online and mail-order lectures? Poof! The fruits of my leisure reading are found on my bedside desk, on which reside half-a-dozen or so books, opened but plopped text down a few pages in.

Worse, even my interest for other things seems to wane. Less often do I anymore awake on Saturdays yearning for Bach than do I rise to find my mind turning to tweaking yesterday's work. Instead of the old postprandial hankering to write a new blog post, I've found it easier just to tackle the next test or assignment coming down work's pike.

There's no villain in this story, though. I like my job, respect the material, and honor the agreement with my students and patrons. I can do no differently than I do. The curiosity is that even exciting, challenging, and valuable work, including intellectual work, can be stultifying. Man is multifarious. I recall still the tremendous indignation I felt toward the musicologist who wrote that, and I paraphrase, Mozart's musical abilities were developed radically beyond his other skills. (Emphasis mine.) Indeed they were, though, and the trio of interest, skill, and effort tend to amplify each other and resonate to the deafening of all other desires. We're often encouraged to be well rounded, but seldom reminded how difficult it is to keep that pleasing, burnished bent.

Again there's no villain here, except the extremities in which some virtues consume all of the oxygen, extinguishing others. It's easy to praise rest and moderation as well, but it's in fact even easier when you can feel the coarsening effect of immoderation. Naturally, to notice the effect you need to stop and reflect, which is tough to do when you're tired. One cannot reflect or meditate in exhaustion.

Of course, it's a trite saying of the self-important that sometimes you just need to relax. It's an easy enough claim to justify, for just about everyone feels–so what to do? It's easy to cry for moderation, but how exactly can one champion mediocrity? Anyway, effort is preferable to indolence, and tepid work means tepid relaxation.

It seems a prudent start to view relaxation not simply as the absence of work, but also as calling for the cultivation of other virtues; the slackening of one line to pull on another. I ought to note that here by work I mean anything done by necessity or disposition, i.e. something which inclines toward extremity. In this way one cultivates an interest which opposes the other to balance. In the alternative, either the lacuna of inactivity swallows up work or the wave of work fills the crevices of your mind. By an opposed arrangement vigor is checked so that it neither dominates nor collapses into sloth, and instead of relaxation as idleness, we have purposeful repose which repairs and permits the exercise of all virtues in quiet, humble balance.

Monday, March 3, 2014

How Not to Write, Think, or Be

All artists strive for a connection between form and meaning and I'm always happy to point out when they succeed. Take this condemnable Salon piece which is as intellectually confused as it is syntactically jumbled. Now Salon's suffered from political dysentery for years and it's apparent willingness to hire anyone on the left has liquefied the once esteemed publication into a chowder of cheap ingredients. Still this article makes me wonder: do they edit their pieces to make them worse? If not this is a shockingly inept display from an author and editor.

Let's look at the choice grammar first.
I am going to start with three beloved movies of my childhood, and end with a suggestion of why liberals will probably never be able to come to grips with what they winningly call “inequality.”
Start what? Discoing? It's probably not a great idea to leave out the main verb of the first sentence. Then he sets up his thesis as a conclusion. "Will probably never be able to come to grips with what they" is one of those phrases that would vanish had the author read it aloud even once. What a clunker. Next, we wonder what "winningly" could possibly mean here. Charmingly? Successfully? Now we wonder why "'inequality'" is in quotations. I'll give a pass on the referential use of "of" but boy is it awkward. It's best to restrict that use to idioms.

Then we get this work of brilliance:
Well, no. And with that acknowledgement, let me advance to my bold hypothesis: The dick joke is not always what it seems to be. The dick joke is not always your friend.
First, is this a hypothesis or thesis? Is an experiment going to follow or are you laying out argumentation? Choose the proper word, please. Worse, though, we realize the statement isn't even the "hypothesis," because the phrase "what it seems to be" explains nothing but rather refers back to the previous paragraph. It's always nice when the author can't be bothered to explain his idea in one clear sentence.

Alright, I'll drop the grammatical dissection. The article is badly written. What about its content?

Let's look at his three points:
  1. Animal House isn't liberal because its protagonists are like liberals' bad guys in real life.
  2. Caddyshack isn't liberal because conservatives make fun of country club grandees too.
  3. Ghostbusters isn't liberal because in it one government official is bad and the good guys run a business. 
Well guess what, you verbally incontinent intellectually costive fool: the movies aren't political at all. The frat boys of Animal House aren't heroes, but we rally around them because they're enthusiastic and frank. Nobody likes stuck up country club blowhards, and finally, the right doesn't have a monopoly on entrepreneurship. The Ghostbusters aren't right wingers because the EPA dweeb lets the ghosts out. Neither party has a monopoly on any virtue, and to taint any by claiming it for one ought to mark any man the fool as much as heedless ordination into political file.

Oh, and whence this cheap shot?
Drink, take and lie: translate it into Latin and it could be the motto of the One Percent.
Yeah I hear there's a really active Eta Sigma Phi over at Bear Stearns. Try this one on for size:
Quam recitas meus est libellus: sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.