Thursday, August 30, 2012

Libertarian Invective, A Sample

Just a little something I dashed off to friends in one of my surlier moments.

I cannot begin other than condemning today's bipartisan indifference to the cataracts of red ink bilging forth from Washington. That said, I pine for no other form of cooperation than toward the diminution of executive, legislative, and judiciary authority (I think it's a sham to call the apparatus "federal" at its present degree of authority.) Mindful of the aforementioned and in the spirit of this spirited thread, I don't find the Romney/Ryan plan of reducing the rate of increase (of authority and spending) much more palatable, let alone laudable, than the present (and previous) administrations' indifference toward liberty and solvency. Likewise I find the clueless haste with which Bush et al passed TARP outmatched only by the double-barreled imbecility of President Obama and his toadies' passage of the turgid and impotent ARRA. I pass over the unaccountable accounting of the Treasury and the Fed's ruinous and fruitless QE, which seem to be of no consequence to the populus, its governors, or its legislators, who patiently wait for these problems to swim up and bite us in the ass.

Ideologically, I have no sympathy with the Progressive's impatience with and disdain for the Constitution, the hippies' disco-era Marxist bastardizations, or the Clintonistas who envisioned the end of history during the merry rule of Slick Willie. Likewise the GOP, whose most recent representative in the Oval Office called, after 9/11, for all Americans to go shopping, is a first rate sham, a sham which has been successful at conserving only the mistakes of its predecessors, conservative and progressive alike. The present political climate, stripped of its plumes and spangles, is one in which decent citizens put aside their intelligence, sagacity, and good humor, willfully to see in political bunkum their own ideologies, and then not only to shill for the exponents of said bunkum, but to vote supreme power to such rogues and scoundrels they would disdain as neighbors. As for compromise, I'm not holding my breath for the genius of Cicero to step into the Capital Building and breathe forth the spirt of Concord onto this august body of miscreants. There is, however, a certain Laputian doctor with what seems a wise measure. . . and he could also supply the honorable Charlie Rangel with some apophlegmatics.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Contemptuous Classicist: A Meme

More after the jump.

Movie Review: Pianomania

Directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. 2009.

Stefan Knüpfer is not a famous man. His name graces no concert marquees or programs. Somewhere at the back of an unread CD insert, perhaps, he is listed as, "Steinway Technical Director," an appellation which tells us nothing of either his gift or his skill. Mr. Knüpfer's gift is a set of golden ears, attentive to the subtlest overtones and shades of pitch. His skill is a peerless finesse for tuning that Cadillac of the concert hall, the Steinway D.

At the piano Knüpfer is quite a sight certainly for the layman but even for a musician: endlessly ratcheting at a string, trying to tune away a little sharpness, or fidgeting at a hammer trying, to coax out an overtone. Yet for all of the excruciating harmonic minutiae there is never any dullness to Knüpfer or his task. He has the aficionado's enthusiasm and the master's attention to detail and watching him work is an impressive sight. Whether tuning the strings for an elusive tone or measuring hammers to the millimeter, we see, perhaps for the first time, a mastery of this machine quite distinct from that of the pianist. And indeed the piano is a machine, however much we might restrict our notion of machines to boxes of cogs and vast industrial apparatuses. There is at any rate little doubt when in a bravura moment Knüpfer hauls out the entire action of the piano, revealing the circuitous complexity of the massive sound machine, his little kingdom.

As king, however, Mr. Knüpfer also serves, and he serves the needs of the piano's more flamboyant master, the pianist. Flamboyant and particular, so much in fact that the pianists' presence in Pianomania is downright chaffing. Which wants a little more sharpness here, a little less there. Who wants a wider sound, or a narrower sound, or something in between. Brighten this overtone, clean up that decay. One is too thin, another full but too late. Not all of the pianists make so many or such specific requests. Alfred Brendel and Lang Lang make a few of each, Rudolf Buchbinder practically none, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, well let us say the majority of the film traces his quest for the perfect pianos on which to record Bach's Art of Fugue. He wants one that sounds like a harpsichord, another like a clavichord, another like an organ. . . a pursuit which reaches an absurd apex when he requests a piano which is more banal.

Some of these scenes hit a comedic pitch as the two struggle to describe acoustic phenomena with a nonexistent vocabulary. At one point Knüpfer resorts to some hand gestures which become so silly he and the engineers burst out laughter. The precise temperament Aimard seeks may seem absurd to us, it certainly did to me, but Knüpfer is forgiving. "The moment his fingers touch the keys," Knüpfer says, "he tells you exactly what you did. It's fascinating."

Music is not at the center of every moment of Pianomania, however, especially when Mr. Knüpfer meets his most raucous client, comedian-pianist Hyung-Ki Joo. After tuning the instrument, the two share ideas for some musical skits a la Victor Borge and Knüpf plays quite a laugh, painstakingly replacing one of the piano's legs with. . . well I won't spoil it.

Pianomania, though, is not a paean for master tuners or a wagging finger at prima donna pianists. If anything Knüpfer is sympathetic to the pianist's endless quest to find just once in the world the perfect tone in his head. Pianomania then is an ode to beauty, the pursuit of its pure form in pure tones, and the instruments which, if cared for and wisely played, can produce such immaculate sounds. Such is his affection for a beautiful tone, Knüpfer confesses, that he turns off the radio when he can't stand the bad sound coming out of it. Mania perhaps, but being held by beauty is a rapturous madness.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Robert Hughes on Caravaggio

Art critic Robert Hughes wrote and narrated this documentary on Caravaggio in 1975. The section below begins Part III, the film's highlight, in which Hughes shares his perspicacity with a series of lucid and illuminating descriptions of Caravaggio's best works. Beside Hughes' lively comments is a soundtrack of wisely chosen music complementing Caravaggio's masterpieces.

Part I  | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy. 2012.

I entered The Bourne Legacy having retained nothing from the preceding Bourne films, save whiplash. I left The Bourne Legacy having learned nothing about the intrigues surrounding Jason Bourne or this film's hero, Aaron Cross. Does it matter? Not a bit. Legacy gets away with this gaping lacuna because the film is about not knowing. It's about the effects of secrets, secrets on top of secrets and within secrets. It's about secrets spreading like poison through unnamed government programs and threatening to topple agencies, agencies headed by people who don't report to anyone so long as crises are kept out of the news.

Unfortunately for Aaron Cross, he not only carries a secret, he is a secret, and whatever agency enlisted him is now burning the program. Everyone goes, the research stays. Jeremy Renner is a persuasive everyman and we feel the weight of the hundreds of billions of dollars of resources brought down on his head. We too shrink under the thousands of surveillance cameras overhead in drones, on the streets, and in buildings. All of this weight is multiplied by the fact that he doesn't know the motives of his hunters.

As omniscient observers, though, we see not only that Cross is in the dark, but most everyone as well. In a low-key scene early on, Cross, making his way back to civilization through mountains, enters a CIA safe house. Inside an agent minds the house. Or is he an agent? Who is he, what does he know about Cross, about Bourne, or about anything? Does he always mind the house or has he been planted there to meet, or dispatch with, Cross? Over some gruel the two men realize the alienating consequences of their business. "Are you testing me?" Cross asks the agent who no doubt wonders the same. This constructed ignorance is not limited to the operatives on the ground either, since even the CIA director and the important-looking admiral remain partially in the dark. The only man with the whole scoop on this project is its head, Col. Eric Byer, USAF (Edward Norton.) When he decides the program has been compromised, the higher-ups can't ask any questions and must go along with the clean up, if only to save their skins. Everyone else is just following orders or, in Cross' case, running for his life.

"Clean up" of course is one of those Orwellian euphemisms like pacification, normalization, and containment which masks the brutality of the act. Yet if Legacy had limited itself to portraying the besieged Cross it would not have seemed quite so brutal. While we sympathize with him, we don't quite feel pity for Cross because his extraordinary abilities seem matched to those of his oppressors. He simply lacks their resources. In one of the film's few light moments, after Cross makes an impossible getaway, a CIA desk jockey tracking him asks what he's armed with. Byer responds, "A rifle," and, embarrassed, adds, "A big rifle."

Spoilers hereafter.

We find a more sympathetic, or rather, more helpless, character in Marta Shearing, a doctor at the medical-pharmacological corporation Sterisyn-Morlanta, a corporation with some substantial government contracts. Shearing conducts research on breakthrough chemicals used to increase the mental and physical stamina of agents and, when Byer scraps the project, her team is wiped out. Surviving the purge by sheer luck, agents are dispatched to dispatch her before she can leave the country. Cross and Shearing finally cross paths in the attempted hit and the ensuing fight is for my money the best in the movie. The scene makes excellent use of the space inside Shearing's dilapidated house, which, with its stark white interior and sheet-covered furnishings, becomes an extension of the snowy outdoors. The result is a scene compact and striking, but not visually exhausting.

So why has Cross sought out Dr. Shearing? To get more of the enhancing pills, or pharma, as the addicted agents refer to them. He chose her because she had administered his physical dozens of times and quite simply, he remembered her. Shearing, however, does not recognize him at all, much to his astonishment and even anger. "What did you think you were doing?" he demands. She replies, aghast at her meager excuse, that she just "did it for the science." Flustered after Cross' barrage of questions she asks to be let out of the car and he lays down the hard truth that her science has become a death sentence. Paraphrasing, he tells her, "What are you going to do? Call your friend of a friend, or that guy who works at the Washington Post? Do you think you can get to him so fast that these people won't try to finish what they started?"

The remainder of the movie is competent and entertaining although it proceeds along regular lines. Weisz and Norton, as usual, give to their characters subtle secondary characteristics.  Norton is aggressive and near manic, heedlessly pulling his rank because he knows the hell coming down on his head if Cross gets away. Dr. Shearing seems relegated to the distressed damsel shtick but we would be wrong to overlook Weisz's performance. Her Dr. Shearing is a brilliant professional who one day gets swept up in a web of intrigue and violence she never dreamed laid just beyond her lab. Shearing is  analyzing what's happening as fast as she can and trying to follow Cross' lead, but she's out of her realm. She's pale from the sudden and relentless fear, in contrast to Cross, whose flushed complexion evinces the edgy, stimulated zone he's pushed into by his pharma. Legacy is no potboiler and there is thought in and effective execution of the details.

The Bourne Legacy could have veered off into typical action territory with its familiar cliches: the massive conspiracy that "goes all the way to the top," the bloodless businessman out to become richer, and so forth. I wonder if there remain today any conclusion which could satisfy a film of intrigues like Legacy without falling into cliche territory. Legacy avoids the problem by suppressing the catalyst for the chase: it's just about the chase. It doesn't condemn any particular enemy but makes us ask, what could be worth this? What's worth all of these lies, this web of secrets, this contrived hierarchy of ignorance? Even the most casual observer surely looks askance at the overwhelming force, wielded swiftly and absolutely by appointed and internally-regulating officials, brought down on one man. Amidst his current adversity Cross remembers a talk Byer gave him about their role as agents, declaring they get filthy in the field and do evil so that everyone else can keep themselves clean.

Legacy leaves us with two questions. For which policy, which value, do you get so dirty, and what happens when the evil turns round on you?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mozart: An Annotated Selection

I just purchased Robert Harris' 1991 book, "What to Listen for in Mozart" and to my surprise what did I find inside? Why annotated selections of the score, I found. It seems so obvious, to print a score and label the sections. Anyone who studies or performs has marked up many a score but this was the first time I had ever seen an extended section annotated before. Labeling the sections, important modulations, cadences, and so forth is an enormous aid toward appreciating the structure of the music, which can get lost amid the lengthy descriptions we usually find, laden with flowery descriptions and technical terms.

Of course any aid can become a crutch, but I think the format has potential. As an example I've digitized some of my notes on the exposition of the first movement to Mozart's famous String Quartet in A, KV.464.

You can click to enlarge but you might want to download the image and zoom in on it more. You can of course listen as you read along.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Patience, Despair

Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
–Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

So we're happily rocking in our moral hammock, supported by the saving threads of Aquinas when someone sidles up and serves us one of those devilishly perspicacious aphorisms any philosopher would kill to have written. In just a handful of words Bitter Bierce cuts to the heart of the matter: is patience a virtue or merely a mild degree of cowardice or despair?

Bierce clearly has in mind the Christian meaning of patience, best articulated by Augustine as that by which we "bear evils with equanimity." Patience as such certainly seems a dour virtue. Why would one prefer to bear evils to overcoming them? Such a virtue seems characteristic of the enervating Christianity Gibbon thought had taught the old Romans to roll over instead of strive. Yet this truncated quote robs Augustine of his nuanced argument which in full reads:
It is by patience that we bear evils with equanimity, lest by loss of equanimity we abandon the goods whereby we arrive at better goods. [De patientia, 2]
Augustine's point here is less the bearing of evil than the loss of equanimity, that is, self-composure, (aequus, level.) Patience then, as Aquinas goes on to say [Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 136] is not a virtue which itself produces good but rather one which safeguards other virtues. Safeguards them from what? Sorrow. Yes, sorrow. Rather than being a form of despair, a dead end of misery, patience allows one to forebear sorrow rather than allow one's sorrow to overwhelm reason and perhaps, without the aid of reason, cause one to act in such a way as to abandon other virtues just to relieve himself from his sorrow.

While Aristotle makes no mention of patience itself we would do well here to observe his discussion of the virtues in the Ethics. Most importantly we should note that a virtuous man chooses the mean and not the extreme. For example, courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear. Thus we praise neither the reckless man nor the coward, but rather he who faces and who fears the right things, from the right motive, in the right way, and at the right time. [Ethics, 1115b] Even courage driven by passion is only courage when choice and motive are added. [Ethics, 1117a]

Though he does not discuss patience Aristotle does manage to teach us about it. First, patience indiscriminate is no virtue. Second, though it does not fit perfectly into Aristotle's framework of virtues, we see that patience still seeks the mean in attempting to moderate between virtues.

Bierce might have slighted patience but he makes a point: patience can be a mask for cowardice, indecision, and lack of passion. Patience ought to preserve virtue, which is a good litmus test to apply while one waits.