Friday, October 30, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, October 24 through Friday, October, 30.

1) In the WSJ, Tunku Varadarajan reviews "The Great Cities in History" edited, by John Julius Norwich.

2) From, "The Pursuit of Wisdom in the Age of the Internet" by James Bowman (at The New Criterion):
As a professional critic, I notice that criticism itself is changing. I’m old enough to have been trained up to the job in the days when it was still thought by most if not all people that the object of criticism was, to use the title of our conference this weekend, the pursuit of truth.
Not definitive truth, not conclusive truth, not truth that left no room for other truths, but still truth — truth, perhaps, even as beauty, as Keats saw it, which I disagree with Peter Wood, who spoke this morning, in thinking not a lie but a poetic truth. In any case, truth certainly as something distinguishable from error. Now that a generation has grown up believing that that kind of truth is invidious, or "privileged" or authoritarian or hierarchical or, God help us, "patriarchal," and that everybody has a right to his or her own truth, what we have instead of truth as the purpose of criticism— where it is not simply Marxist political analysis — is "intertextuality." That is, we harvest as many points of connection as we can think of between King Lear and Batman and between both of them and the universe of texts awaiting us out there on the Internet — and then we put in the links between them.
It’s a highly idiosyncratic exercise, since there are an infinite number of texts and an infinite number of possible connections. That’s how you end up with that grab-bag as outlined by Professor Cowen, "a joke from YouTube, a terrifying scene from a Japanese slasher movie, a melody from iTunes," and so forth. The only real connection between them is in the fancy of the critic, who thus steps forward as the real hero of the critical enterprise whose only aim is to enhance his own "rich and varied inner experience."
3) After posting my review on Monday, I stumbled upon this excellent article: Beyond Zarathustra: Nietzsche and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4) Monsters and the Moral Imagination by by Stephen T. Asma (At the Chronicle of Higher Education)
In a significant sense, monsters are a part of our attempt to envision the good life or at least the secure life. Our ethical convictions do not spring fully grown from our heads but must be developed in the context of real and imagined challenges. In order to discover our values, we have to face trials and tribulation, and monsters help us imaginatively rehearse. Imagining how we will face an unstoppable, powerful, and inhuman threat is an illuminating exercise in hypothetical reasoning and hypothetical feeling. . .
 People frequently underestimate the role of art and imagery in their own moral convictions. Through art (e.g., Shelley's Frankenstein, Hitchcock's Psycho, King's and Kubrick's The Shining), artists convey moral visions. Audiences can reflect on them, reject or embrace them, take inspiration from them, and otherwise be enriched beyond the entertainment aspect. Good monster stories can transmit moral truths to us by showing us examples of dignity and depravity without preaching or proselytizing.
5 ) The Manhattan Institute's Howard Hussock discusses the implications of a "to quietly raise additional billions in taxes by limiting the value of itemized deductions—such as contributions to charity."
The proposal would hold steady the deductions’ value (at 35 cents on a dollar) even as the top tax rate rises in 2011 to more than 39 percent (as the Bush tax cuts expire). When a similar proposal was advanced early this year by President Obama, the long-time head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Martin Feldstein, estimated it would lead to a $7 billion drop in charitable giving. Such a fall would compound big losses that have already hit charities; the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that six of 10 United Way chapters saw a decline in giving last year, totaling $4 billion. Although Americans donate about $300 billion in total annually to charity, these sorts of hits are not small change. As a coalition of 15 major charitable organizations put it in a letter Finance Committee chairman Senator Baucus, “Charities have seen an increased demand for their services as individuals and families struggle with financial uncertainty.”

The implicit assumption of the proposed change: that government will do better things with that money than will philanthropy.
6) In the WSJ, Barbara Jepson asks of the new wave of young conductors. . .
Is this just the latest changing of the guard, as middle-age maestros move up the ladder and eminent conductors in their 80s—such as Sir Colin Davis, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Sir Charles Mackerras—shed important posts? Or are the latest crop of baton-wielders, like tennis phenoms, obtaining expert training and top talent agents earlier than before?
7) In the WSJ, Robert Greskovic reviews "Ancient Paths, Modern Voices," a festival of Chinese arts in NYC.

8) Shiller's Poetics of Freedom by Rüdiger Görner (at Standpoint.)

9) At City Journal, Adam D. Thierer reviews, "A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution" by Dennis Baron.

10) In the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, in the WSJ, Daniel Akst discusses Vienna's Ringstrasse.
not just a landmark in the history of human freedom but a masterpiece of urban design, one that, in the words of historian Carl Schorske, "surpassed in visual impact any urban reconstruction of the nineteenth century—even that of Paris."
11) At Foreign Affairs, Jon B. Alterman reviews, "Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean For Our World" by Vali Nasr.

12) Pop Quiz: Mozart or Salieri?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Homeric Recitation

The Opera of All Operas

222 years ago today Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theater in Prague. We will come to a discussion of the opera in due time here, but for now enjoy a few selections of fine performances.

James Levine, conducting

Act I: Notte giorno faticar
Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello. Madrid Teatro Real. 2005.

Act I: Madamina, il catalogo è questo
José van Dam (Leporello) and Kiri Te Kanawa (Donna Elvira). 
Don Giovanni (film) dir. Joseph Losey. 1979.

Act I: La ci darem la mano
Rodney Gilfry (Don Giovanni), Liliana Nikiteanu (Zerlina.) 
 Zürich. 2001.

Act II: Il mio tesoro intanto
Luigi Alva as Ottavio. 
Don Giovanni (film) dir. Teresa Stich-Randall. 1960.

Act II: Don Giovanni, a cenar teco
Samuel Ramey, Kurt Moll, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. 
The Metropolitan Opera. 1990.

A Few Recommendations

Productions available on DVD
  1. Herbert von Karajan conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. 1987.
  2. Victor Pablo Pérez conducting the Madrid Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. 2005.
  1. Mozart and His Operas by David Cairns (Chapter, Don Giovanni)
  2. The Classical Style by Charles Rosen (Chapter, Serious Opera)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Music of "Amadeus" Part III

This is Part III of a three-part study of the use of music in Milos Foreman's 1984 film, Amadeus. (Part I, Part II.)

The final act of Amadeus begins with the death of Mozart's father, Leopold. When his passing is announced to his son we hear the "Don Giovanni chord" again and now it becomes the musical motive element for the movie. The chord doubles as the chord to the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni, which swiftly follows. As the scene of Don Giovanni's judgment plays out, Salieri perceives the risen Commendatore as a symbol of Leopold and assumes the memory of his demanding and overbearing father still haunts the young composer. Amidst the chaos and dissonance on stage with the resounding Commendatore (doubled by the winds for an eerie sonority), Leoporello sputtering on about his terror, and the Don defiantly refusing to repent, Salieri, narrating, discloses to his confessor that was the moment "the madness began in me."  Just as Salieri discovers his plan to "triumph over God," Don Giovanni realizes he will not.

Da qual tremore insolito
Sento assalir gli spiriti!
Dond'escono quei vortici
Di foco pien d'orror?

(di sotterra, con voci cupe)
Tutto a tue colpe è poco!
Vieni, c'è un mal peggior!

Chi l'anima mi lacera?
Chi m'agita le viscere?
Che strazio, ohimé, che smania!
Che inferno, che terror!
Terrors unknown are freezing me,
Demons of doom are seizing me,
Is hell let loose to torture me?
Or does it mock my sight?

(from below, with hollow voice)
Torments eternal wait thee!
Burning in endless night!

My soul is rent in agony!
Condemn'd to endless misery,
Oh, doom of wrath and terror,
No more to see the light!

The staging here is particularly spectacular. Instead of utilizing a strictly off-stage chorus, when the "hollow voices" enter the score, a dozen demons enter the stage, cloaked in black and carrying torches. With choreographed striding and spinning they confront and torment the scoundrel, forcing him back and, finally, down.

The following scene retains the grave mood of Don Giovanni. Winter has come and the streets once bustling to Mozart's happiest tunes are now snow-laden and empty to the "sinister syncopations" [Hutchings, 130] of the orchestral prelude to Piano Concerto No. 20 (in D minor, KV.466.) Once more Girdlestone concisely describes the piece:
None of the singing themes here. . . but one same note throbbing against the beat, whilst, under its monotonous pulsation a menacing bass emphasizes each bar with an uprush of three little notes–a formula usually expressive of passion and threatening. Repeated notes, piano, with a syncopated rhythm, and the formula of the rising triplet: with these two elements common to all the music of the time is built up this opening, one of the most personal and the most powerful in Mozart.

Out of this misty background a melodic outline arises and is at once swallowed up; after a further bar of repeated notes the figure begins again one degree higher. Then, cutting out the melodic motif, with heightened stress, thrusting home oever more swiftly and more truly, whilst the woodwind from horns to flute one after another add their colour to that of the strings, and still piano, the phrase rises, degree by degree, to the octave, where the strain is relaxed somewhat and whence we climb down again to the starting-point.

The fortissimo then breaks loose. [Girdlestone, 309.]
Personal indeed. The masks once dazzling and peacockish to the tunes from Die Entführung now unsettle us. Mozart, heretofore jovial and boisterous, is ill and warms himself before a fire. As he pours himself a drink for some more warmth the second subject enters piano in the oboe and bassoon and is taken up by the flute. This scene invokes a frightful pathos for the vulnerable Mozart, ill but still-composing as another figure, cloaked in black, makes his way toward him. The strings trade a three-note phrase back and forth as the camera cuts between Mozart and his uninvited guest. As rising and falling figures alternate in the score so might Mozart and the masked man contest, if only Mozart knew war had been declared against him. Ignorant, he works diligently at a score as the music and his nemesis march on. We are denied the closing subject of the concerto and the music breaks off into the Don Giovanni chord, more startling here than ever.

The masked figure breaks the roughly three minute absence of dialog by offering a commission for a requiem mass to Mozart. Though unnerved by the sight of the masked man, Mozart is pressed for money and accepts the commission.  The soundtrack resumes with the slow incipit from the Requiem Mass and we cut back to old Salieri who now formally lays out to Fr. Vogler his plan to kill Mozart as the Requiem's Rex tremendae plays. Imagining his plan coming together (that Mozart should write a requiem mass and Salieri, in the composer's death, take credit for writing it for "his dear friend" Mozart) Salieri fantasizes that people will finally say he has been touched by God. Pointing up in defiance, Salieri adds "and God forced to listen" as the music insists back, "Rex Tremendae Majestatis."

The parody ensemble that follows is a fun diversion in this otherwise serious act. It is essentially, "Mozart's Greatest Hits" set to a nonsense play. I have a mixed reaction to this scene. On the one hand it is gratifying to see Mozart's music achieving some success again. On the other, it is sad that pieces like Là ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni and the march from Act III of Figaro should have achieved success only in such a vulgar capacity. Had they been more successful outright, a parody would be more tolerable and not pathetic. Such observations are reactions strictly in the context of the film. As viewers in this world, we know Don Giovanni and Figaro are works of first-rank and as such this scene is a hoot. With this split, though, the scene plays two ways and I am not sure how effective it is.

Increasingly desperate for work (i.e. for students or commissions for pieces) Mozart returns to the house of the aristocrat he scorned earlier. Informed he cannot tutor the man's daugther as she has married and moved away, he presses the man for a loan. The last time he left this man's house, a delightful scene followed. This time, we cut to Mozart furiously and single-mindfully writing the Requiem. The Dies Irae movement plays loudly and a man pounds on the door but Mozart does not hear. This music is in Mozart's head and he is only shaken from his focus by the shouting of his wife. It is not the masked man, though, but Mozart's actor friend, Emanuel Schikaneder, with whom he is collaborating on another opera.

Lorl, Mozart's maid who is really spying on him for Salieri, returns to her true boss and informs him of the opera. The glorious overture to The Magic Flute begins on the soundtrack. Mozart is working ever diligently, but pauses to kiss his sleeping son. He walks about his apartment to the gentle, lofty opening notes of the overture. Coming out of his bedroom Mozart seems the model father, loving and working. Then he glances at his father's intimidating portrait and in a fit of defiance laughs at it and starts skipping around the room as the overture presents us with an appropriate dotted rhythm. Mozart thumbs his nose at the portrait and someone knocks on the door. The masked figure and the Don Giovanni chord cut short Mozart's fun. The mass is unfinished so figure departs and after a quarrel with his wife, Mozart resumes work on the mass, presumably the Rex tremendae as it underscores the scene. Mozart, though, is unable to continue working long and sneaks out to carouse with Schikaneder and his actress friends. In a cut that could not be more contrasting, the Rex tremendae is abruptly cut off by the melody to Papageno and Papagena's duet in Act II of The Magic Flute. Mozart plays it and other light tunes from the opera as he drinks and fools around with the theater gang. Again he plays the dotted rhythm from the overture which fades back into the Rex tremendae. No longer skipping but now half-dressed and drunk, he stumbles through the snowy streets to his apartment, where his mother-in-law informs him his wife, fed up with Wolfgang, has taken leave to a spa.

Toward a most humorous effect, her great whining is matched and cut directly to The Queen of the Night's stormy aria Der hölle rache, at what is presumably The Magic Flute's premiere.

[N.B. Salieri in the theater: his medal is tucked so as deliberately to keep it in the shot.]

Mozart passes out during "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" and is carried off and home to the tune of the duet from before, which gets cut off as we see the coachman leave Mozart in his bed with Salieri watching over him. The following scene of dialog feels all the more poignant for being unscored. In a highly scored movie and in an act with almost continuous music this scene feels as if it takes place in a vacuum, with just these two men. This penultimate scene, for all its complexity, achieves an apparent simplicity: Mozart is simply dictating music for Salieri to write down. But what a scene! One feels present at the creation of the music as we watch the way Mozart layers on each part of the Confutatis and as we hear each layer first separately then together.

We begin in A minor, first with the basses coming in at the 2nd beat of the first measure, then the tenors come in two beats later. The second bassoon and bass trombones double the bass voices and the first bassoon and tenor trombones double the tenors. The trumpets and timpani play tonic and dominant on the first and third beats and the strings play in unison a rising  five-note figure ostinato. Salieri stops to note how wonderful the music is but Mozart, in the full thrall of composition, hurries on.

Then the sopranos and altos come in singing in thirds, "voca me cum benedictis" sotto voce and pianissimo for the supplicative request, "count me among the blessed." Beneath that are simply arpeggios on the strings and adescending scale in eighth notes leading back to ostinato. Christoph  Wolff aptly points out the how the close of this movement is filled with many harmonic modulations. Each line of the second stanza modulates, the first from A minor to A-flat minor, the second to G minor, and the third from G-flat/F-sharp to F major. He points out that, "in the interests of increasing tension, the last two take place in an asymmetrical, seven-bar scheme." [Wolff, 102]

The full Confutatis is then played, inter cut with scenes of Mozart reviewing the completed piece in his head and scenes of Constanze hurrying home, the ostinato bass emphasizing her haste. Likewise, as the confutatis winds down with the treble-strings ostinato and half-notes in the voices, so too we see Mozart withering before us. Constanze returns home and quarrels with Salieri just moments before her husband dies. Mozart's burial is scored to the Lacrymosa of the Requiem.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Iudicandus homo reus;
Huic ergo parce, Deus
Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
Man for judgment must prepare him.
Spare, Oh God, in mercy spare him.

Mozart created the most perfectly matched themes for this text. Against a simple dactylic figure in the strings (a quarter note in the 2nd violin and viola and two eighth notes in the 1st violin) the voices enter on a similar cadence:
Mozart. Requiem: Lacrimosa, 3m.

In Mozart's Requiem, Wolff quote's Nissen's precise observation, that this music, "most deceptively imitates a fearful quiet, broken by sobs and groans." [Wolff. 108.] For example below the quarter notes of the voices seem to penetrate an absence created by the soft string figure and the rests:

Mozart. Requiem: Lacrimosa, 5m.

Wolff himself also points out, ". . . the ascending line in the soprano, rising one and a half octaves, at first diatonically and then chromatically, underlines the main idea of stanza 18, the resurrection foretold in its second line ("qua resurget")."All of these themes are beautifully appropriate to the scenes they underscore, both the sadness over Mozart's passing and the hope of resurrection. Indeed it is Mozart who is saved and it is his music that lives on and grows more beloved to more people and it is Salieri who is forgotten, but "kept alive to be tortured."

[N.B. Watching the carriage carrying Mozart off, Salieri's coat is open despite the rainstorm, keeping his medal ever-visible.]

Mozart. Piano Concerto No. 20 KV.466. Romanza.
Mitsuko Uchida, piano.

Amadeus concludes with old Salieri, the self-described "patron saint of mediocrities," describing how he has watched his music growing fainter, "all the time fainter, til no one plays it at all. And his. . ." We leave Salieri as he is being carted off for breakfast to the romanza of Piano Concerto No. 20 (KV.466) and what an odd sight it is. The caretaker comes in, calling Salieri "professor." This is a particularly painful line: the man obviously knows Salieri not, but simply somehow heard he taught and thus calls him "professor," oblivious to his music. The composer who ever had the emperor's ear, who was the "brightest star in our musical firmament," who knew Mozart, who killed him. . . is being carted off to the water closet and sugar rolls at the asylum. The lyrical rondo is a humorous contrast to the on-screen world of the asylum and Salieri's disconcerting contentment. Girdlestone likened this movement to a calm after the storm, but a calmness in which some hint of what past ever hovers over. Just as Mozart's music and his genius hovered over the whole film, so they hover after.

Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and his Piano Concertos. 1964. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Requiem K.626. (Score.) IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.,_K.626_%28Mozart,_Wolfgang_Amadeus%29

Wolff, Christoph. Mozart's Requiem. University of California Press. Berkeley, Ca. 1994.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1968.
You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point. –Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey [1]

Few films have inspired as many interpretations and explanations as 2001: A Space Odyssey. An abundance of formal and amateur cogitation exists on the film, strictly engaging the structural and allegorical elements of the film, such as the aspect of evolution. Here I hope to address for the first time its philosophy.

The use of words in 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the film’s most radical innovations, will be the starting point for our discussion. We begin in the “Dawn of Man” era with pre-vocal visual cues and bestial grunting. Then we leap ahead to the discovery of a monolith on the moon and what do we get, philosophical exegeses on the nature of the monolith, hordes of ecstatic scientists, desperate philosophical reasoning by the crew about god and existence? No. We get a phone call home, cautious questioning and small talk between scientists, and Dr. Floyd’s generically bureaucratic speech (which, he’s later told, “beefed up morale a hell of a lot.”) The most impassioned dialogue is HAL’s as he negotiates for his “life.” The last chapter is of course without dialogue and we get no epistemological or ontological discourse or verbal coda of any kind.

Such banalities of life indeed stand out painfully: Dr. Floyd’s over-acted phone call home to his daughter and the phony applause he gets before he speaks. Worse, the “victory” photo of the scientists in front of the moon monolith, reminiscent of hunters in front of their kill or sportsman in front of their trophy, is painfully more ironic by the high-pitched music ramping up the tension as they pose (the prosaic “move together” hand gesture of the cameraman is the final blow). Also, the choosing of sandwiches, Dr. Poole’s (“Frank”) “Happy Birthday” phone call from his parents (and their small talk during the call), and the eating of the “space/TV dinners” whilst actually watching television. The irony of the latter situation is that you might think seeing themselves on TV might engender some kind of response.

The instinctive interpretation of these uncharacteristic and jarring manipulations of dialogue is that this usage is an attempt to draw attention to some unsaid ideas. While this is essentially true I believe it doubly belies the purpose of the dialogue. It’s not so much that the unsaid is more important, but that saying is not even a viable means of expression for what Kubrick intends. Nietzsche said it best, “Thus Thales had seen the unity of all that is, but when he went to communicate it, he found himself talking about water!” [2]

The greater significance, though, lies in the problematic fact that dialogue is inherently explanatory. By offering up internal ideas and qualifications about the monolith, for example, Kubrick would delimit, sway, and ultimately corrupt the interpretation of the viewer. Without explicative dialogue the viewer does not have to tangle with fabricated internal opinions; the viewer’s opinions become the only ones.

We must first remark, though, on the peculiarity of film. Mainly, that within the film the director is privileged absolutely to ascribe meaning and to define any and all. He can identify what a thing is, noumenally. Let us now say the monolith exists in itself, i.e., noumenally and non-metaphorically. All we get from Kubrick is, however, the phenomenal, i.e. what something appears to be to us. Internally, there is no explication of the monolith: the individual “understandings” of the humans are not disclosed and no narration is provided. We can make no assumptions of it based on internal evidence. Our “understandings” of it, on account of the lack of contradicting internal evidence, are all that exist. They are metaphors we create in an attempt to explain. This is an almost Nietzschean perspectivism. We do not know what the monolith is and anything we could say is essentially a guess. The film suggests the noumenal is beyond understanding. In refusing to offer us “facts” Kubrick allows the film itself to act as the question, “What is knowing?”

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that we have this “Science Fiction” film that is thoroughly non-scientific. As Nietzsche said, “Science rushes headlong, without selectivity, without ‘taste,’ at whatever is knowable, in the blind desire to know all at any cost. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is ever on the scent of those things which are most worth knowing, the great and the important insights.” The film now becomes a metaphor, one for our human desire for such valuable insights. It is an attempt to understand our attempts to know by examining the nature of knowledge.

Kubrick has uprooted objectivism and left us only our metaphors, that is to say, our art, and our selves. The loose narrative of the film offers one comment, though, namely that our metaphors are enough. The monolith, now a symbol of the unknowable and not simply the unknown, appears at pivotal times in our history. Whether it occurs as a reminder that we humans do not and cannot know all is not pertinent, and while it does not necessarily spur us on, it definitely has not stopped our evolution. Our individual metaphors elevate us in spite of the elusiveness of the noumenal. The final shot, the Star Child, is our apotheosis.

[1] Norden, Eric. Interview: Stanley Kubrick. Playboy (September 1968). Reprinted in: Phillips, Gene D. (Editor). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1-57806-297-7 pp. 47-48
[2]Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Gateway Editions. 1996

Friday, October 23, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, October 17 through Friday, October 23.

1) At City Journal, Sol Stern reviews "The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools" by E.D. Hirsch. The book was heretofore unknown to me despite its topic and near-contemporaneous publication with my little essay from a few weeks ago, Revolutionary Education. While Hirsch's book details at greater length the problems of "progressive education," he discusses also the Founding Fathers' ideas on educations.  I will be posting a follow-up discussion of those ideas soon, as well as some thoughts on Hirsch's points, but I thought I would bring this review to your attention now.

2) Victor Davis Hanson is a cultural drop-out, but is compensating:
A final, odd observation. As I have dropped out of contemporary American culture and retreated inside some sort of 1950s time-warp, in a strange fashion of compensation for non-participation, I have tried to remain more engaged than ever in the country’s political and military crises, which are acute and growing. One’s distancing from the popular culture of movies, television, newspapers, and establishment culture makes one perhaps wish to overcompensate in other directions, from the trivial to the important.

Lately more than ever I try to obey the speed limit, overpay my taxes, pay more estimates and withholding than I need, pay all the property taxes at once, pick up trash I see on the sidewalk, try to be overly polite to strangers in line, always stop on the freeway when I see an elderly person or single woman with a flat, leave 20% tips, let cars cut me off in the parking lot (not in my youth, not for a second), and patronize as many of Selma’s small businesses as I can (from the hardware store to insurance to cars). I don’t necessarily do that out of any sense of personal ethics, but rather because in these increasingly crass and lawless times, we all have to try something, even symbolically, to restore some common thread to the frayed veneer of American civilization. . .
3) At Standpoint Magazine, some thoughts on Martin Heidegger.

4) Now on display in New York City:
5) Violinist Janine Jansen discusses her new album, "Beethoven, Britten: Violin Concertos."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Music of "Amadeus" Part II

This is Part II of a three-part study of the use of music in Milos Foreman's 1984 film, Amadeus. You can find Part I here.

St. Stephen's Cathedral in Amadeus
actually St. Giles Church in Prague, Czech Republic.

Shortly after the premiere of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart marries Constanze Weber. Dated from this time (Summer 1782) is Mozart's C minor mass, the Kyrie of which sets the tone for Mozart's marriage. The use of this movement is simple but nonetheless effective. The insistent, limping four-note phrase in the strings in C minor creates a sense of the inexorable, a sense relevant in three respects. First, young Wolfgang is getting married without his father's consent. Second, Mozart's wife will gradually replace his father in terms of significance and influence over Mozart. Third, and most importantly, this new rift between father and son will prove the weakness Salieri exploits to sabotage his rival. This occasion that should be most happy is thus a source of inexplicable unease to the viewer unaware of Mozart's fate.

The image in the background is a reproduction of an actual painting
of Mozart in Verona at age 14, painted by Saverio dalla Rose, January 1770.
The original is in a private Parisian collection.

What follows is another simple yet effective combination of sight and sound. Mozart's new wife brings some of her husband's work to Salieri in the hopes that he, as court composer, could persuade Emperor Joseph to offer Mozart a lucrative position as royal tutor. Salieri, already amazed and intrigued that the music Constanze has brought are first editions, opens the folio and is simply overwhelmed by the music. Salieri narrates his shock at the seeming impossibility of the fact that he was looking at perfect drafts as the soundtrack plays the pieces. The choice of pieces and editing is brilliant. The soft, gentle duet between harp and flute of the concerto KV.299 starts to carry us away. . . and Salieri, desperate to see another piece, crashes the pages together to see another and turns to Symphony No. 29, (KV.201.) (The piano opening to the piece is actually skipped and we come in forte at measure thirteen.) He noisily turns the pages again to a stormy passage from the E-flat concerto for two pianos, then again to a charming violin theme from the Sinfonia concertante (KV.364), and finally back to the C minor Kyrie, amidst a soprano solo. Like Salieri, we have gone from delighted to overwhelmed to transfixed and Salieri, carried away in ecstasy by the Kyrie, loses himself and drops the pages in a sort of musical. . . fulfillment. Confused, Constanze asks if the music is not good and Salieri responds without hesitation and with exhausted honesty, "It is miraculous." Moments later when she asks for his help again Salieri is back to his calculating, envious self.

Another scene, while not necessary for the plot, adds much color and character to the film and is one of my favorites. Mozart tells off a boorish aristocrat who insults him, takes the bottle of champagne he servant brought, and walks off into the streets of the city in the afternoon. To the music of the rondo from Piano Concerto No. 15 Mozart strolls the streets with bottle in hand.

It is a typical day in Vienna, a garrison is coming through the square, merchants are selling their wares, people run errands, and street entertainers catch the fancies of passers by. (The dog on the ball, the fire-eater, and the bear were especially playful touches.) The piece has a certain casual urbanity to it and perfectly complements the pleasant busyness of the city. "Its refrain, given out by the piano and repeated by the tutti, which adds a long ritornello, is one of [Mozart's] most pleasing rondo themes, both fiery and graceful, and perfectly illustrative of the union of these two qualities which characterize Mozart's genius." [Girdlestone, 204]

The opening theme from the 3rd mvt. of Piano Concerto No. 15, KV.450. [2]

The ebullience of this scene and music are shattered when Mozart enters his apartment building and we are presented with Leopold to the tune of the "Don Giovanni chord." Why here? We don't yet know when we hear it this time. Surely Leopold was angry his son married without his consent, but why this sinister music? Leopold, cloaked in black and blotting out the light behind him, certainly seems a foreboding presence and indeed we are a little uneasy as Mozart runs with childlike trust into this character's grasp. Mozart is enveloped in his father's cloak as well as his embrace and this is an appropriate gesture as Leopold, for all his love, was a domineering father.

To Mozart though, this is just a pleasant visit from Papa and so it is time to celebrate, which they do with a party. First, though, they pick their costumes out to the Janissary march from Die Entführung. This music is actually an arrangement, sans words, of Mozart's march, and perfectly complements the joyful haste with which Mozart and his wife, though not the reluctant Leopold, pick out their costumes. It also plays right into a similar piece, an arrangement of Mozart's song Ich möchte wohl Der Kaiser sein, a swaggering little "war song" which serves as the music to their game of musical chairs.

A scene not unlike Mozart's afternoon walk through town follows. Likewise, this rondo from Piano Concerto No. 22 (KV.482) is something of a cousin to the spirited rondo heard earlier. Girdlestone's description of the opening heard here so succinct it bears repeating:
The refrain of the rondo is a stiffer version of that of the B-flat concerto, K.450, but it is more of a dance than a gallop. The piano gives out the first part and the tutti repeat it. The second half belongs exclusively to the piano and a longish transition, braced by woodwind and horn calls, brings back the first part. This is the usual ABA design of rondo refrains. A very long ritornello follows it, the chief elements of which are an alternating motif, given out by clarinet and bassoon, and an active figure, quivering with the bassoon, chirping with the flute, which plays a part later on.

The piano's entry in the second couplet is more arresting than usual.  It is preceded by nearly three bars where the silence is broken only by chords in the strings, lightly repeated, and when it occurs the piano does not start with a well-market theme but with a faltering figure. . . all the clearer for being followed, as the piano grows bolder, [by a demisemiquaver figure played in the bass then treble], on the vaultings of which the solo instrument sets sail for its first cruise. [Girdlestone, 361]
This tuneful, playful-yet-regal piece starts out as background music to Mozart and his wife setting out in carriage for one of his outdoor concerts, then switches to diegetic as he plays and conducts it, and then shifts back to background music for Salieri's snooping in Mozart's apartment. Like its cousin-scene earlier, this one offers a little glimpse into Mozart's work routine and daily life in 18th century Vienna.

I will refrain from commenting much on the productions of Figaro and Axur in the film as Salieri's narration over the former is self-explanatory. Likewise, the contrast between the two pieces is easily perceptible. The former is a work of groundbreaking brilliance that fails at the box-office and the latter is a competent but uninspired work praised beyond all reason. We know Salieri's seething envy toward Mozart is not assuaged by the emperor's praise and his shiny medal. In fact the medal becomes a constant symbol of his mediocrity. Similarly, his inability to produce something completely new is subtly emphasized by the fact that as his opera pales before Mozart's, likewise has Mozart already had the leading lady and moved on.

The finale of Axur, re d'Ormus ("Axur, King of Ormus.")

[1] Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and his Piano Concertos. 1964. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

[2] Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Piano Concerto No. 15, KV.450. (Score.) IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.,_K.450_%28Mozart,_Wolfgang_Amadeus%29

Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie Review: Hero

Directed by Yimou Zhang. 2002.

There seem to be two types of reactions to Yimou Zhang’s Hero, those who ignore the content altogether and simply see it as a beautiful and elegant visual feast and those who see it as either pro or anti communist.  I do not think either of those critical approaches is particularly useful, partially because the word “communism,” like many others, is the victim of verbicide. The word can refer generally to communal living, to socialism, to Marxism, or to the current Chinese communist party.  Now I do not wish to get lost in that forest of meaningless words and thus will attempt to consider the actual implications of the film and then decide on what to call it. Such implications may or may not be explicitly political.

Most of the matters to discuss occur in the last twenty minutes of the film.  The first is some advice offered Nameless:  “The people have suffered years of warfare.  Only the King of Qin can stop the chaos by uniting all under Heaven."  Nameless continues to say that, “He asked me to abandon the assassination for the greater good of all.  He said, one person's suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of many.  The rivalry of Zhao and Qin is trivial  compared to the greater cause.”  The king is brought to tears by the fact that his archenemy understood his “beneficent” motives so well when his own advisors did not.  This is the essential message of the film, that it is a noble thing to sacrifice oneself for the greater good.  Of all the messages of the film that are open to interpretation, this one is not.  The film’s American-release title (“Hero”) encourages this theme, as does the epilogue, which states that, “the nameless warrior was executed as an assassin but buried as a hero.”

The film does not address any details or potential problems associated with the notion of, “sacrifice for the greater good.”  Mainly, what is the good?  Who decides what it is?  By what authority do they?  What about people who do not want that “good?”  Do they vote on the good? Individual rights? What about the sacrifice of more than one?  Is there a limit, or threshold when the number of sacrificed becomes too many?  These questions are not entertained, but the answer is that it is ultimately the emperor who decides all of those things.

Yet two additional characteristics of the character, “Nameless” are worthy of note, his name (or rather lack thereof) and his excellence.  His lack of a unique name makes him symbolic of all of the Chinese people of all time who have died for the national unity or improvement of China.  The film is a glorification of selfless and altruistic sacrifice.   The hero’s excellence is also of great importance, since he is not simply a citizen but also the best swordsman in the land.  Yet his death is necessary for the unification to continue.  Did he in fact have to die?  Did Broken Sword and Flying Snow have to die?  Not really, but for the sake of the story’s significance they did.  While nameless could have simply gone into exile, he had to sacrifice himself to become the hero.  While Broken Sword could have gone on with his life, he had to sacrifice himself to prove his love for Flying Snow, as she had to do to prove it to him.  Yet Nameless was the greatest warrior in the land and he had to die for the warring Chinese states to become one land.  The situation, though, is slightly more complicated than that since Nameless first not only dissented but also attempted to assassinate the king, then agreed to the king’s plan.  The king’s advisors warn him, “If your majesty is to unite the land this man has to be made and example of.”  Based strictly on the internal evidence of the movie, we have to assume that Nameless was killed not because he was the best or because he dissented, but only because he attempted to kill the king. 

The next passage we must discuss is the king’s analysis of Broken Sword’s philosophy of swordsmanship:
King of Qin:  It's just dawned on me!  This scroll of Broken Sword's isn't about sword technique but about swordsmanship's ultimate ideal.  Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword.  Once this unity is attained even a blade of grass can be a weapon.  The second achievement is when the sword exists in one's heart then absent from one's hand.  One can strike an enemy at paces even with bare hands.  Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.  The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world.  He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind.
There are two possible interpretations of this passage.  The first is that this is a longer and more attractive way of saying that the ultimate goal of war is peace.  The second is that in the act of practicing swordsmanship one learns the nature of the world and that its nature is peace.  This second interpretation suggests that the study of swordsmanship is the study of self in relation to others and that such study will yield the understanding that peace is the natural way.  This seems not to have been the interpretation of Nameless and the king, since Nameless says, “Because of my decision today many will die, and your majesty will go one living.  A dead man begs you never to forget the ultimate ideal for a warrior.”  This statement suggests he interprets Sword’s words to mean while peace is the ultimate ideal, it can be brought about by killing.  Actually, the implication is broader, since the king intends not simply to kill those who quarrel and war but any who refuse to be a part of the nation he is trying to build and any who jeopardize it.  Additionally, it suggests a fundamental hypocrisy in the king’s (and country’s) founding premises.  It is as if to say, “We acknowledge this to be our fundamental premise, but we are not going to act on it when it is inconvenient.” 

Now we must ask two interconnected questions.  Does nameless fulfill the hero’s ideal, and which interpretation of Sword’s philosophy does the film promote?  To answer the first question, Nameless does fulfill the ideal you consider the king “uniting the peoples” to be peace.  The fact that the epilogue includes the details about how King Qin Shi Huang went on to unify the warring states into China and build the great wall, “to protect his subjects,” but not his tyrannical rule, his burning of books and scholars, and his attempt to eradicate Confucianism, makes the film an espousal of Qin’s interpretation of Sword’s philosophy.  So is answered, I think, the second question and thus I write espousal because even if the epilogue had addressed the negative aspects of Qin’s rule, the film could still have concluded, “Yes he went on to do evil, but he made us a nation.  We at least appreciate him for that even if we deplore his tyranny.”  That might have sapped the strength of the end of the movie, but it would have been more honest.  If the movie is to be understood as directed toward people who have an understanding of Chinese history and Qin’s subsequent tyranny, then the final scene would leave the viewer with the effect of, “My God, what he went on to do. . .”  Yet I do not believe this is so, since the effect could have been achieved with a long fade and then an epilogue mentioning the events of the rest of his reign which are deliberately left out.

What do we call these ideas, then?  Overall, the film for all of its beauty is about sacrifice for the greater good, the primacy of the group over the individual, and the right of some to define and impose that good on others.  Such ideas are altruist, collectivist and autocratic/oligarchic.  I care not whether you call Hero specifically communist, though it would be appropriate since the film entertains the same logical and moral contradictions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, October 10 through Friday, October 15.

First, a bevy of book reviews:

1) Adam Fleisher at City Journal reviews, False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World by Alan Beattie.
Beattie wryly notes, it’s not government that picks winners, but “losers that somehow manage to pick government.”
This observation is inconsistent with Beattie’s declaration that “countries have choices, and those choices have substantially determined whether they succeeded or failed.” People make choices. Economies evolve; they do not require an intelligent designer. The true surprise of False Economy is that the examples Beattie provides of countries—really, governments—making conscious choices about the direction or nature of the economy constitute a sad collection of stifled growth, misallocated resources, and missed opportunities. With the United States government currently embarked on a new and unprecedented project of consciously “transforming” the economic future of our country, False Economy is a timely cautionary tale.
2) Author Allan Massie reviews the second volume of Robert Harris' "Cicero Trilogy," Lustrum (due out November 24th.) Massie concludes with high praise:
This is a magnificent novel, better than Robert Graves's Claudius novels, better (I reluctantly admit) than the six books of my own Imperial sequence.
3) Paul Johnson at Standpoint reviews the great John Keegan's latest work, The American Civil War: A Military History.

4) At the WSJ, Martin Rubin reviews Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which brings us back to someone we discussed earlier in the week, Thomas Cromwell.

5) Also at the WSJ, Mark Lamster offers a selection from his book, Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens.


6) Ben Shapiro at Big Hollywood makes some good observations about the White House's new art.

7) Harry Stein at City Journal discusses "The Boys Who Cry Racism." From the essay:
Genuine racism is a terrible thing, and for far too long it was a virulent strain running through our national life. This is so patently obvious that it scarcely bears repeating. . .
But those liberals who’ve lately been issuing the racism charge so promiscuously (speaking of aberrant hearts and minds) are aiming it not at skinheads living in their parents’ basements or at would-be Klansmen, but at decent Americans with the temerity to object to presidential policies that they believe would damage both the quality of their lives and the nation itself: in short, at Americans acting in the best tradition of democratic citizenship.
8) At Capitalism Magazine, Walter Williams calls undergraduate grade finagling what it is–academic dishonesty.

9) Finland made "1mb broadband access a legal right." I don't even know where to start with that one.

10) Soprano Danielle De Niese discusses her career, performing, and devouring Le nozze di Figaro. (De Niese is currently performing the role of Susanna in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Figaro.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Music of "Amadeus" Part I

As readers may be aware, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is held in especially high esteem in this corner of the internet. In my short piece on The Magic Flute I mentioned in passing Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus and in the future I'll be posting (in parts) a somewhat lengthy review of it.

Today, though, I would like to highlight one aspect of the film: its music. More specifically I plan to discuss why and how the use of music in this film is so spectacularly successful.  Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the music for Amadeus, accurately expressed the reason in saying, "My main concern in Amadeus is that the music be presented faultlessly, not just technically, but as the perfect complement to what is on the screen. You can't cut the music to the film. One of the good things about Amadeus is that the film was shot around the music–not the other way around as is usually the case."

To elaborate on that, the music in this film does not simply pop in with a series of cameos. We do not have a scene of drama followed by a musical interlude, nor do we have music as simply background atmosphere.  In contrast, we have an almost constant and always appropriate musical presence in the film. Sometimes it is diegetic (i.e. actually produced in the world of the film) as when Mozart is playing at the piano or conducting an opera.  Other times it is laid over the film either as complement or contrast to the drama. As writer Peter Shaffer said, the music became a character in the story. Indeed. Mozart's music, his genius, is a constant hovering presence in Amadeus. In some sequences the use of the music is complicated and in others relatively simple. Let us look at some examples in the order they appear in the film.

The opening is one of the most complicated scenes and one in which the music is tied most closely to the material on screen. The terrifying first chords of Don Giovanni open Amadeus against a black screen giving way to shots of a snowy Viennese night. This musical phrase becomes a motive in the film. Its first appearance associates itself with Mozart's death, since we hear it as an elderly Salieri cries out and admits to killing Mozart. We are then treated to a relatively lighthearted moment where Salieri's bumbling servants try to entice him out of his room where he has locked himself. Perhaps he did not kill Mozart.  Is Salieri simply a kook? The servant breaks down the door and the opening of the "little" G minor Symphony (No. 25, KV. 183) bursts in forte and hammers out an insistent five-note phrase as we struggle to see why Salieri sits on the floor hunched over. Salieri falls back, hands and neck bloodied and with a razor in his hand. Like his servants we look on aghast and confused as a fierce and frantic arpeggiated phrase takes over. As the phrase is repeated in the music the camera cuts back and forth between Salieri and his horrified servants. As he is taken out in a stretcher the violins yield the foreground to the winds who try to hold the suspense with half notes piano.  They hold it and hold it as the men carry their ungainly cargo through the snowy streets until the winds conclude pianissimo and we finally get the title card.

Music and film take off once again with tremolos in the second violin and viola and the descending element of our arpeggiated phrase returns ,alternating between the first violin and the basses. As the delirious Salieri is carried he glances about and into the windows of the buildings, glimpsing a dance party. The scenes are then intercut between Salieri's delirium and the party-goers. This music is all diegetic and thus inaudible to the characters, but at this moment the line is blurred and the difference becomes important. The music continues to play just the same but the visual context changes: what is buoyant and strong in one moment (for the dancers) is sinister for Salieri. Poisoned by envy and distraught that he killed Mozart, the music is instead a source of pain. (This is likely only noticeable on a second viewing of the film.)

We see several shots of the dancers, but surely Salieri only glimpsed it for a moment. Perhaps he is imagining them, recalling a happier time when music was still beautiful to him. The music continues with tremulous strings doubled every other measure by the winds until we get a lighter theme piano followed by a return to the opening theme that fades out as Fr. Vogler arrives as Salieri's guest at the asylum.

In the asylum Fr. Vogler disappoints Salieri with his inability to recall a single tune of the once famous composer. Salieri begins to conduct and relive the time when he was considered "the brightest start in our musical firmament." We cut back to the late 1780s and see Madame Cavalieri, Salieri's favorite leading lady, performing in his most famous work, Axur, re d'Ormus ("Axur, King of Ormus") and then we cut back to Salieri in the asylum.

Soon after, Salieri recounts his first meeting with his idol, when Mozart came to Vienna to play at the Viennese palace of his patron, the Archbishop of Salzbourg. Played in the scene is a folk gypsy tune, Bubak and Hungaricus, that creates an exotic atmosphere. Playing a game with himself, Salieri walks amongst the visitors at the palace trying to find out which of of the young men is Mozart. Does such talent show on the face? Thus Salieri is on a bit of an expedition here, one which culminates when he is lured by his sweet tooth into the reception room. He is followed by a young couple flirtatiously playing and he ducks behind a table to get out of sight (and continue observing them.) Hearing some music being played several rooms away, the young man soon departs for they are playing his music without him. To Salieri's astonishment, the young man is Mozart! The exotic music leading to that scene and the silly behavior give way to one of Mozart's most subtle and sublime pieces, the adagio of his Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, "Gran Partita." Salieri goes on to describe to his confessor the beauty of the music.

Later, when Mozart is invited to the emperor's palace, Salieri composes a modest march of welcome for the visiting musician. The emperor, enthusiastic about music but spastic at the keyboard, insists on playing Salieri's little march, an act for which Salieri feigns deep honor. An ungainly little march by itself, the piece suffers more at the hands of the emperor. As Mozart approaches the two guards escorting Mozart are told to walk slowly to give the emperor time to practice, thus they lead Mozart too slowly for the sprightly march making the whole scene even more awkward. In wonderful little touches to demonstrate how banal the tune really is, Mozart stops to scratch his leg while walking and when he enters, greets the librarian as the emperor. At the end of the scene the emperor gives Mozart the sheet music of the little march and Mozart casually refuses it since he has the piece memorized already. Curious and playful, the emperor asks him to play it. As the emperor looks at the sheet music, Mozart not only plays the piece but unthinkingly blurts out "it doesn't really work does it?" and begins improvising, turning it into Figaro's vigorous march from the end of Act I of "Le nozze di Figaro" as listeners pile in, the emperor looks on approvingly, the opera director looks aghast, and Salieri looks on with thinly repressed envy.

The last scene I wish to look at in this Part I discussion is the production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, (The ("Abduction from the Seraglio.") Mostly self-explanatory, the scene begins with a brilliant edit from Salieri's music room in which he is flirting with and teaching his favorite leading lady, Katerina Cavalieri. At the keyboard Salieri gazes at her with both frustrated longing and joy at the purity of this songbird practicing her scales. The scene cuts right into the production of Die Entführung and Constanze's scales in her Act II aria "Martern aller Arten" and Salieri looks on, furious and betrayed, as his favorite leading lady, now a "greedy songbird," sings Mozart's "ghastly scales." Foreman and Schaffer elected for Mozart's two singspiel's, Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte, to translate the German into English. It is not at all distracting, but I am not sure how necessary or effective it was either, since it is still rather difficult for someone unfamiliar with the text to understand. The scene concludes with a full and beautiful production of the opera's finale, a great vaudeville. This is the perfect piece to characterize a very happy time in Mozart's life.

Just to draw a little attention to the breadth and depth of Amadeus I would like to note that the scene I just described contains 1) a full orchestra playing the music, 2) a fully staged version of the finale, 3) an opera house full of period-specific costume extras, and 4) descending candle-lit chandeliers.  All of that for just a ten minute scene in a three-plus hour movie.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.

With apologies for the lateness of this post on this 13th of October, I would like to take a moment to note the anniversary of the death of the Roman Emperor Claudius, not generally but with a specific point in mind. To that end, here is a scene from Episode X of the 1977 BCC series I, Claudius.  The newly elected emperor addresses some senators:

A few quotes:

Senator: Your appoint is unconstitutional.
Claudius: I agree, but there are 4,000 praetorian guards who do not. And who created the praetorian guard? You did, during the reign of Augustus.

Another Senator: Nonetheless, it is against the constitution for anyone but the senate to appoint an emperor.
Claudius: And it is also against the constitution to murder one! And if you hadn't done so Marcus we shouldn't be in this absurd position!

Claudius: It is true I have little experience of government, but then have you more? I at least have lived with the imperial family who have ruled this empire ever since you so spinelessly handed it over to us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Movie Review: A Man For All Seasons

Directed by Fred Zinnemann. 1966.

Has cinema ever offered a more noble character than Thomas More? Often first considered as a saint, theologian, scholar, philosopher, or simply as a historical figure, in A Man For All Seasons he is the hero. Yet rarely has an hero been of such great intellect, wit, austerity, faith, and outright cleverness. A Man For All Seasons, though, is not about Henry VIII’s court intrigues, 16th century politics, or issues of Catholic theology, rather it is about one man’s unwillingness to compromise his most sacred beliefs.

The greatest irony, though, is that while More dies in the end, he unquestionably dominates each and every scene. Not only is More a man of profound scholarship, but his scholarship is ever on the tip of his tongue, and what a sharp tongue it is! Early in the film when an aging Cardinal Wolsey attempts to compliment More’s logic and attention detail by telling him he should have been a cleric, More replies, “Like yourself, Your Grace?” In the simplest, and most defensible, of replies More has cut to the heart of the issue, which is that Wolsey is more politician than priest, that his first allegiance is in fact to King Henry and not to God.  More did not have to say this overtly nor did he have explicitly to condemn Wolsey for planning to pressure the church with land confiscation and taxation, but in explaining his machinations Wolsey left himself open to the criticism.  Yet Wolsey was used to dealing with the Machiavellian Cromwell and his like who would discuss such deceits freely, and not More, who for his intractable stance Wolsey urges to, “come down to Earth.”

Yet it is More’s profound intelligence and erudition which puts the bite in his wit. He has great knowledge not only of the law, his trade, but also of philosophy and theology. Education is of extreme importance to More, who calls it a “precious commodity” when his devoted but simple wife asks why he does not beat his daughter and he replies that it would, “beat the education out of her.” Also, instead of offering Master Richard Rich one of the political appointments he so desires, he repeatedly encourages him to take up a teaching position. Yet Rich is himself not uneducated and early on he quotes Aristotle, saying that if a man raises his status in life it is because he was born into one too low for him. This brings the room in More’s home to silence, since it is clear that Rich does not use his education for any noble humanistic or spiritual purpose, but rather as a tool to advance his political status. He selectively uses his education to justify his desire for power. Likewise, King Henry has a great knowledge of theological matters, but he chooses to use it simply for his convenience.  Like Rich, Henry is not using his intellect to discover the natural and transcendental laws in order to live justly, but rather to “discover” only those which allow him to live as he wishes. Henry is able to quote ancient scripture in Leviticus to try to explain why his marriage to Catherine was in fact not a marriage (because she was the widow of Henry’s brother), but he conveniently disregards the fact that pope has authority in the matter, authority that cannot be put aside when inconvenient. Even More’s hotheaded son-in-law is guilty of this crime of convenience, albeit to a lesser degree. The young William Roper, disgusted with the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, apostatized and became a passionate Lutheran. While he realized that certain portions of the church and certain practices needed reform, he neglected to realize that, for people of the Catholic faith, there are portions that cannot ever be forsaken.  When Roper again changes his mind and returns to the church, More replies, “We must just pray that when your head's finished turning your face is to the front again.”  Yet while we are sure he means this wholeheartedly, we also know More understands that Roper’s changes of heart are due more to the enthusiasm of youth than to any malice like that of Cromwell.

Indeed it is ultimately Cromwell who is charged by Henry with the task of bringing down More, and the task is ultimately a contest of legal understanding. In this contest More is unquestionably better armed. He has taken every precaution, never voicing an explicitly dissenting opinion so no one can testify against him, forbidding others from saying treasonous things to him so he cannot be found guilty by association, even retaining second (and witnessed) copies of letters to make sure he cannot be misquoted. While More has refused to sign a document declaring legal the marriage of King Henry and Anne Boleyn because the document also declared that the pope had not the authority in the matter, he also refused to say why he would not sign it. There was nothing anyone could do to More, in the name of the law, anyway. All anyone could allege is that he would not sign it, which is of course not a crime. More had cloaked himself in the laws of the land and the only ways Henry and Cromwell could get to him were by tearing down those laws. In one of the film’s greatest lines More says to the naïve Roper, when the young man says he would tear down any law to imprison the devil,
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.
When More is walking home from being questioned by Cromwell and having ended his friendship with Norfolk a great wind blows. The laws are about to be cut.

Yet even with all of their political power Henry and Cromwell cannot bring down Thomas by themselves. Henry is still allegedly constrained by his conscience, which makes perjuring himself or torturing Thomas out of the question. Cromwell himself is too high up the poll directly to do anything as it would be too obvious a crime. They need someone flexible, someone unknown, someone who can be bought and they find that in Richard Rich. Make no mistake either, Rich knows precisely the character of the man he is dealing with in getting involved with Cromwell, which is why he so desperately courted the favor of Thomas, “If only you knew how much, much rather, I had your help than his.” Yet Thomas, perceiving Rich’s weakness, tries to encourage him toward a life where he will not be tempted by riches and fame. Yet we know the venal Rich will take the bait when he replies to mores offer, “If I was [ a teacher], who would know it?” More, whose life centers around his faith, family, and friends,replies, “You! Your pupils. Your friends.” After Rich has taken Cromwell’s bribe and comments how he has just lost his innocence, Cromwell, who also knows Rich’s weakness and that in his heart Rich was always willing to sell himself, says, “Some time ago. Have you only just noticed?"

In the final courtroom scene More’s wit and intellect is in full form, although he is physically too weak to stand, having deteriorated in jail for months. Of course he is in full form, though. You see, More has already understood the entire matter from the very beginning. He spent his whole life studying the law and theology, he knew the natures of the people he was dealing with and he had all of the facts. As such, he was able to consider every possible permutation of the events and he knew, ultimately, that they would have to break the law to get at him. He just did not know how. He continues to outwit Cromwell when the minister attempts to persuade the jury that More’s silence must be construed as opposition and More reminds the court that the legal precept is qui tacet consentire, meaning in fact that if Thomas’ silence is to be construed at all, it must be construed as consent, not dissent. More also reminds the court that while they may think they know his opinion, that his opinion is not a matter of fact or record and thus is not proven.  He says, “The world must construe according to its wits.  This court must construe according to the law.”

What More was not able to fathom, though, was just how low Rich was willing to stoop for power and glory. To Thomas it is truly an unconscionable betrayal Rich has perpetrated. Here he is about to be executed for following his convictions and there stands Rich, well dressed and well fed, rewarded for betraying his. The betrayal is indeed a betrayal of self more than of friend and country. With great disappointment and sadness More tells Rich, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Whales?” It is More’s self and soul that he goes to death to protect. Far from selling it as Rich did, he could not even tarnish it for the friendship of Norfolk, the affection of his daughter, or the love of his wife. It causes great pain to Thomas when he has to end his friendship with Norfolk “for friendship’s sake.” Of course they are not real enemies, but they had to have a show of a fight to give the appearance that they are so. Norfolk in fact laughs quite happily as More makes an ass of Cromwell in court.

Yet the worst wounds are inflicted by the losses of his wife and daughter and the fact that he was about to die without them really understanding why he had to.  At their last meeting he looks at Margaret with both joy and sadness, joy that she inherited his love of knowledge, keen intellect, and his “moral squint,” but sadness because she is still too young to understand as she tries to guilt her father into capitulating by wounding him in saying how the family does not read any longer in the evening since they have no candles. This is a triple wound for Thomas, since it represents not only the deterioration of his family, but also the deterioration of its intellectual life and that it is his fault too. His wife, Alice, thoroughly does not understand and while she is devout in her faith she is unschooled and, in fact, illiterate. Yet her final gesture to her husband is one of great love as she says, “And if any one wants to know my opinion of the King and his Council he only has to ask for it!” As her husband is to be murdered for his beliefs, she would gladly share hers if it would get her killed along with him. Yet it is as King Henry admitted, that it is because Thomas More is not only honest, but known to be honest that his opinion matters. Hers, as a woman and an uneducated one at that, does not. (Although Thomas tells Alice, Margaret, and Roper to flee the country anyway, fearing they may be executed just to ensure the affair is finished once and for all.) Yet to his death Thomas goes, untainted and untarnished, to protect his innermost self, that “single sinew that serves no appetite,” that most unique part created by God and that loves only God.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, October 3 through Friday, October 9.

1) A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Craft, Imagination and Renaissance Wisdom by Alvin Holm at
The Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center.  From the essay:
My contention is that the Renaissance Wisdom, imported from the classical past and delivered to the future we inhabit today, is largely conveyed through a craft tradition, parallel but not completely independent from the monastic and university channels which are most frequently credited.

2) The New Criterion reviews A New Literary History of America, noting that it "is only incidentally concerned with literature" and overall, it is about. . .
the left-wing politically correct worldview in which literature, in which cultural endeavor generally, exists only as a prop in a “progressive” political agenda. Harvard University Press should be ashamed.

3) Discussing a horrible event as reported in The Guardian, Theodore Dalrymple points out a disturbing trend:
The Guardian’s article appears to accept that such behavior, so long as it targets a member of an unprotected group, is merely undesirable—“anti-social” rather than obviously criminal. The rule of law is fast evaporating in Britain; we are coming to live in a land of men, not of laws.

4) In an essay in the New English Review, Dalrymple also discusses how. . .
The desire to blur limits and boundaries, in order to overturn society, has long marked out a certain kind of leftist. Because in social phenomena there are always borderline cases, they wish to undermine the very idea of categories. They are like people who would deny that anyone is tall because there is a fine gradation between tallest and shortest. Thus, because some things were considered crimes that are so considered no longer, and some things that were once legal that are now deemed criminal, they deny that the crime is anything other that an arbitrary social construction. A criminal is someone who merely has difficulty in his relations with society as some men have difficulties in their relations with their wives (and vice versa). What more natural, therefore, than that they should all attend the same day care centre, where they will be cured of their difficulties by psychological means?

5) From Maxwell's House of Books via Diversity Lane, the wisest words on the latest sordid tale from Hollywood:
Regrettably, this small, sordid suburb of Los Angeles is one of the world’s most powerful molders of “public sentiment”, and the recently focused attention on acclaimed director Roman Polanski should serve to remind us of of this fact. Over the years, movies have increasingly relied on the extreme, the perverse and the profane to sell themselves. But this is far from being the mere commercial exploitation of controversially “racy” material by cynical, yet otherwise bourgeois studio execs who “know better.” It is, rather, a clear reflection of the morally denuded minds of its makers–the producers and directors–those unwitting, third-hand consumers and distributors of the philosophical corrosives contrived by Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Sorel, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, et al. For over one hundred years, their destructive ideas have filtered down from academe and into popular culture. What “lesson” did they teach? Primarily, that truth and morality have no objective, universal content, and are nothing more than the arbitrary expressions of cultural bias, or the individual’s will to dominate. Thus, for their disciples, it followed that to free oneself from the fetters of traditional morality was to undertake a bold adventure in self-discovery, liberation and “progressive” thinking.

6) James Pierson at The New Criterion discusses President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:
In attempting to intervene so obviously in U.S. politics, the Nobel panel is taking the risk that its prizes will be discredited as nakedly political or that its awardees will come to be viewed in America as toadies of the European left, as some of them (Jimmy Carter and Al Gore) already are. Recent awards have raised eyebrows in the United States regarding the motives behind them, but this one may prove to be a real eye-opener.  In the terms of international politics, the Nobel committee is trying to use; its "soft power" (it has no hard power) to reward its allies and rebuke its adversaries in the United States. That tactic will work only so long as it does not become too obvious—and with this award it appears that the Nobel committee has overworked its message.

7) Alfred Brendel discusses music, his retirement, and his poetry.