Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Review: American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell. 2013.

Casting actors is an art. The casting director has to balance an understanding of the film's story, setting, and tone with the harsh realities of budget and availability, all the while coordinating with those notoriously easygoing people: directors and agents. On what sides does the casting director err: looking the part, giving a good reading, playing well with the other lead, or popularity?

Don't knock popularity either; too many movies try and recreate the buzz of yesteryear by nostalgic casting, such as Gravity's pairing of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and the umpteen re-pairings of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, to leave aside altogether Hollywood's infinite capacity for remakes, reboots, and ripoffs. So how does American Hustle fare? It's a triumph, the perfect pairing of 2013 A-listers with the acting chops to boot.

Breaking out of the Batman mold is Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, the Bronx-born minor business owner who moonlights as a bogus financier promising to procure loans in exchange for a modest fee. Irving's personal and business arrangements stay private because he keeps things modest; the feds don't poke around a measly 5k scam and with the extra income Irving is able to keep his flaky, moody, and wildly irrational wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) quiet at home. Everything is neatly under wraps until Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a pool party. The two don't simply bond over the recent passing of Duke Ellington, but bond over a sobering fact: his music saved their lives. After they finally fully fall for each other in the most romantic kiss ever at a dry cleaner's, Irving reveals his little scheme to Sydney, who first storms out only to return in the persona of Edith Greensly, an English aristocrat with overseas banking connections. In other words: she's in.

That's really the theme of American Hustle, the mask that each character puts on for the world and for themselves, and while Sydney's guise is the most histrionic, Irving's covers the most. Literally. The movie begins with a close up look at Irving's extraordinary efforts to cover up his receding hair by means of styling, hair spray, and a preposterously large tuft of hair. We laugh until he pulls of the look and realize his talent for fraud. Talented and small-time, two traits FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) picks up on when he pinches the pair for impersonation. Actually, he only pinches Sydney, a fact which he uses to pin down Irving: she'll go free if they help DiMaso hook some bigger fish.

As the fish get bigger and bigger, moving up to mayors, congressmen, senators, and full-blown mob kingpins, we realize two things about DiMaso. First, he's ambitions. Second, he's wearing a mask too, playing the part of the hard-nosed FBI mastermind when he's really an upstart agent who can't get funds from his boss and lives with his fiancé and mother in a tiny apartment. Like his criminal catch, DiMaso even has a physical affectation and like Irving's, DiMaso's is a follicular fetish: curling his hair.

The script wisely begins in medias res, getting straight to the political plot which plays like a thriller, and then doubles back to give us backstories. This not only whets our appetite for the resolution, but a head start allows the script to labor over details which might seem ponderous if they prefaced the plot. Likewise the backstory elucidates details of the opening scene, such as the tension not only between Agent DiMaso and Irving, but also between Irving and Sydney. We learn that love and lust  have blossomed into a quadrangle of confusing affections. Irving loves Sydney, but really does care for his wife and of course her son, whom he adopted. Rosalyn has feelings for Irving, but is too flaky to maintain any healthy relationship. DiMaso falls hard for Sydney, but how do we judge Sydney's reaction to his advances? On the one hand she's bitterly angry with Irving for not fleeing with her on account of his family, and on the other she needs to play DiMaso so they can try and put on over on him and come away clean.

As characters develop, relationships weave together, the fraud gets more and more elaborate, and the fish get more and more toothy, we start to realize we're in a pretty hefty movie. You'd never know it from Hustle's light tone, though. Whether it's Rosalyn's preposterous rationalizations, Sydney's poised juggling of Irving and DiMaso, or our glee at Irving's audacious hoaxes, we're always coming from or heading to a laugh, the biggest owing to a running joke that puts the laughs of most comedies to shame.

Yet pleasing as it is, Hustle is no pushover and one foil puts the drama into perspective. Of all the phony accents and primped hair and personae, of all the aspiring agents and two-bit cons on one side, and all the corrupt targets they're after on the other, NJ Mayor Carmine Pollito (Jeremy Renner) is a good man caught in the middle. The chimerical perfect politician, family man and servant of the people beloved by all, Carmine gets caught in DiMaso's sting to bring down the congressman and mobsters. He's innocent, so naive, and so comfortable with himself that he befriends Irving, taking his ensnarer to dinner and buying him gifts. Renner is really splendid here, with Carmine's unaffected manners, chummy talk, and wide grin throwing everyone else's phony act into sharp relief.

The denouement is surprisingly complex, satisfying the drama with a finale consistent with the movie's tone. Just look what gets wrapped up:
  1. DiMaso, Sydney, and Irving have to trap the mobster whose rear end is very well covered.
  2. Sydney has to choose either DiMaso or Irving.
  3. Irving and Sydney have to try and out fox everyone.
  4. Irving has to choose between Sydney or Rosalyn.
  5. Irving has to overcome or mend his increasing guilt over selling out Carmine.
  6. And keeping her in the loop consistently with her character, Rosalyn's mouth runs over and throws a wrench into the whole operation.
It looks for a while like American Hustle is going to go for a cheesy happy ending or a full-blown bloodbath a la Scorsese, but finds its own way not only to resolve its caper, but to bring its characters to meaningful ends. Love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and redemption, I won't spoil the resolutions but they are rewarding endings to rich a rich movie. A brilliant touch, the script leaves one of its characters exactly the same, adding to the final scene two priceless things best taken together: a reminder to know your self, and a little laugh.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple

Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.

We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.

[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Good Intentions

Traditionalists are seldom lacking reasons they prefer the older form of the Roman Rite: the lectors, the extraordinary ministers of communion, the priest facing you, the sign of peace, and on and on. You name something, and one of us has a gripe about it, wisely or not. Experts might be able to justify better candidates and name a more egregious cobbling or snipping, but for my part as a humble layman I find the recitation of the petitions the most awkward part of the Novus Ordo.

To begin with charity, the notion of simple requests for God's help was a noble idea. It hearkens back to one of my favorite passages from Classical philosophy, a passage from Marcus Aurelius Meditations in which the emperor reminds himself to pray like the Athenians, "simply and freely" or not bother praying at all. Not structured by formula or tradition, these are short, simple petitions–even the word is appropriate, from Latin peto, which simply means to ask–seeking help. With regrets, that's where my charity ends and my frustration begins.

First, you can't structure spontaneity. I cannot force a genuine, simple outpouring of concern for these fleeting, unprepared announcements, whether or not I actually have concern for them, just because they're tossed at me. I know what the mass is and prepare myself for it, but these petitions blindside me and I'm paralyzed.

Second, the petitions often wildly differ. Who can with honesty and a moment's notice, pray for earthquake victims, political leaders, vocations for the priesthood, the military, and the deceased of the parish? This variety is also distracting and sends my mind down various byroads away from the mass.

Third, these requests are usually read by lay readers. Why? Who is this person and what function of the mass do they serve? Are they saying prayers? The Missal Instructions (GIRM 69) say that the priest "regulatesthe "prayer" from the altar and then (GIRM 99) that the lector announces the petitions.

So are the words of the lector the prayer or not? If not, what does it mean for the priest to regulate my prayer?

Also, nuntio in Latin means to bring news. To whom is the lector bringing news? If it's God he brings the news to, then it's a prayer (whose?), and if it is I to whom be brings it, then how can he bring me my own prayer? What's going on here?

I'm really not trying to be clever here, but this is confusing.

Fourth, what about the Kyrie at the beginning of mass? Yes, those six words which so many priests speed by are prayers for mercy from God. I find when they're sung as some length and with beautiful music the words are a perfect time for collecting one's various concerns, and coming at the beginning of mass they are gradually focused into the prayer of the mass.

Fifth, why do the petitions have to be the same for everyone? Who decides what "the prayer of the entire community" (GIRM 69) is, and why does it change on a weekly basis? Why is it called the "Universal Prayer" or "Prayer of the Faithful?" What about other prayers? What about the mass itself?

Sixth, The Missal Instructions define the Universal Prayer as one in which "the people respond in some sense to the Word of God which they have received in faith. . ." (GIRM, 69) This is not even a syntactically comprehensible sentence, let alone a theologically comprehensible one.

Seventh, the speaker always references a "parish book of intentions," which I'm apparently supposed to have read, perhaps? Or maybe I'm just supposed to offer prayers for everyone? I just don't know what to do here.

Finally, the Universal Prayer always ends with an encouragement to pray for our own special intentions, as if to say, "Right now find something to pray about!" Or am I supposed to save something to pray for at this time? What about that spontaneity? Or why not just pray when it occurs to you? What's special about saying it right at that time?

Also, why send everyone off on their own prayers right before the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

I might seem out to be contentious, but I'm bewildered by the fact that no matter my preparation or disposition I always feel awkward at this part of the mass.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top Ten: Polyphony for the Nativity

In celebration today I humbly present a small, choice sampling of my favorite polyphonic pieces for the Nativity. I've taken a few liberties listing a few pieces not specifically part of the liturgy for today, so I hope you'll pardon me. Contemporary and frivolous pieces have their places in our hearts, for sure, and while we don't have to reject Rudolph and friends, these pieces, their texts and the music which elevates them to that realm of purest expression, dwell at the centers of hearts which they elevate to the cosmic dimensions of this holy day.

These pieces, against the traditions of our day, remind us that solemnity, reverence, and joy are not contradictory, but in fact very much one and the same.

10. Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

9. Mirabile Mysterium. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

8. Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

7. Hodie Christus Natus Est. Giovanni de Palestrina. [YouTube]

6. Videte Miraculum. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

5. Jauchzet, frohlocket! J. S. Bach [YouTube]

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: Christmas Vacation

Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik. Written by John Hughes. 1989.

Christmas Vacation is one of the most American of Christmas movies, and not just because Aunt Bethany manages to recite both the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. Rather it's American insofar as it captures what has for decades now been the American father's quest for the perfect family Christmas of presents, good food, and festive tradition. This third entry in the Vacation series again follows the hapless but well-meaning Clark W. Griswold as he attempts against ill fortune, yuppie neighbors, selfish relatives, cheapskate bosses, and his own ineptitude to pull off the Griswold Family Christmas.

The real star here is John Hughes script which keeps the Yuletide vexation of the American everyman running through every scene. Whether it's the jerk pacing you on the highway and souring the family's car-ride caroling, your kids complaining about the house guests, or the neighbors' contempt for your holiday decorations that troubles you, Christmas Vacation knows your frustration. Some of these scenes are played for broad comedy, but some remind us how hurtful simple slights can be, such as the in-laws' mocking Clark's efforts.

Not all of the scenes hinge on curmudgeonry, though, and some of the movie's best gags are Clark's fumbling attempts to decorate the house, a task which sounds trivial until you go to put up Santa. The scenes of Clark festooning the house with hundreds of strands of lights only to be outdone by one overlooked switch and his subsequent attack on the lawn reindeer are infamous, but one quickie late in the movie is my favorite. Here, after most of the season's damage has been done, Clark is on the precipice of hysteria. As he prepares to chop down his own tree from the lawn to replace the Official Griswold Family fir that Uncle Lewis flambéed, Clark heads down the stairs with his chainsaw and in stepping down he notices the wobbly rail post. With Chevy Chase's classic straight face Clark fires up the chainsaw and lops the post right off, declaring afterwards with pride, "I fixed the newel post!"

Probably my favorite scene overall, though, combines Hughes' affection for the beleaguered father and plain old physical comedy. Here, Clark's oafish cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) has arrived unannounced with his family in their dilapidated motor home. Sipping some egg nog the surprise guest begins to fidget with the Christmas Pyramid and promptly destroys it with Clark looking on in suppressed horror before he fumbles in vain to re-attach the delicate fins. Now Eddie isn't a bad guy, in fact he has a good heart, but his arrival has just  thrown a huge monkey wrench into Clark's plans and he doesn't realize it at all. In fact, that's what everyone does, including Clark himself by his own stubbornness. The difference for Clark is that he's in charge of Christmas and he has to pull it off for everyone.

Which eventually he does despite himself and despite everyone's foibles because of a few pointed reminders from his father and some old home movies which remind him of what matters. These are nice little Hughes touches which hit the sweet spot between serious and sappy, just enough to give an honest heart to the movie and ground the slapstick in something meaningful. The finale is famous for being over the top, but it actually amplifies the plot's resolution: once Clark realizes that he has overreacted and learns to rejoice simply in togetherness, who cares what happens? Everything else rips loose then, SWAT raids and gas explosions included. It's appropriate, though, that the father who suffered much on land and in snow to keep Christmas together gets the final triumphal words: he did it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Review: Bad Santa

Directed by Terry Zwigoff. 2003.

Bad Santa is a refreshing reactionary Christmas movie. Instead of setting in us the typical frosty New England milieu, Zwigoff tosses us into the desert of the Midwest. Instead of setting the scene around family, hearth, and home, the lives of his characters revolve around a shopping mall. In place of cliche Christmas tidings we get profanity-laced tirades. Finally, rather than show us a good man who triumphs in the exultation of the Christmas spirit, we get a nasty misanthrope who repels us with his every boozy breath. In this respect Bad Santa is a riff on A Christmas Carol, but whereas Dickens' tale reaches its moment of recognition by presenting to its hero his mistakes and baleful demise, the antihero of Bad Santa is transformed by the love of others unfolding in the present.

Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, the drunken, lecherous, thieving, cussing, safe cracker who sneers at any hint of kindness or good nature and, of course, plays Santa Claus at the mall. Thornton's performance here was inspired enough to earn cheap encores in the Bad News Bears and Mr. Woodcock, but there really is something to Willie. He loathes everything he lacks, namely all of the bourgeoisie pleasantries and kindness which surround him at Christmas time. More importantly, he had a lousy childhood and can't find it within himself to strive for anything better than he knows. Because he hates what he lacks as inauthentic, he justifies and revels in his disgusting self. Add to this character Willie's predilections, inspired cussing, and crackling indifference to social mores, and then finally mix in that strange, Zwigoffian tone, and you have one bad and memorable Santa.

Bad Santa also has a rich bag of foils for the holidays, though. Willie's partner, Marcus, tolerates his shenanigans because Willie is the other half of their scheme. Every Christmas they play Santa and elf at a mall and on Christmas when everyone goes home, Marcus disables the alarm and Willie cracks the safe. The duo parts ways with their loot and meet up at a new mall the following year. Yet while Marcus takes ribbing for his height, he's not just there for cheap laughs. There's a dark heart to his character, for while Willie steals out of indifference to his life, Marcus is genuinely greedy. He likes life, or its luxuries, so much that he's willing to destroy some of it to gain for himself. Willie's at least consistent in hating what he's tearing down. There's a similar contrast within Willie's other foil, mall guard Gin, played by the late Bernie Mac. He's nominally on the side of the mall and law and order, preaching about justice to the mall's delinquents, but when he catches wind of the pair's Christmas scheme, the store dick wants a piece of the action, a piece he wins in a side-splitting scene of bargaining with Marcus. Willie may be a criminal and reprobate, but he's decent enough to be unhappy whereas Marcus and the store dick relish in their natures.

Willie's redemption comes in the form of Thurman Merman, whom Willie calls with increasing affection, Kid. Thurman's a miserable, friendless boy and raised by his senile grandmother he doesn't have any parents to guide him either. The Kid latches onto Willie, naturally, when "Santa" breaks into his house. When Willie realizes Thurman's place is a free safe-house for the season, he shacks up with Kid and Grandma. As he gradually realizes how miserable Thurman is, Willie starts to tutor him in not being quite such a wuss. Finally, when Willie in full Santa regalia goes flips out in rage on a bunch of punks who were bullying Thurman, we realize he's turned a corner and started to live for someone else. Similarly we find Sue, (Lauren Graham) a bartender and fling of Willie's who moves in with the increasingly motley crew of Grandma's House. She might seem a simple love interest or sexpot for spicing up the movie, but she has depth and significance: Sue has confessed kink for Santa because she was raised without Christmas. Like Thurman, and opposite Willie, she's reaching out for, and overcompensating for, what she lacked as a child.

If you can't see the makings of a happy ending you don't know the genre, and if you think it'll be your vanilla conclusion then you don't know Terry Zwigoff. Bad Santa's thoughtful characters and development are spiced up by Zwigoff's inimitable sense for humor in incongruity and the finale is no exception. Even as Willie finds others to live for and the three make a new and wacky family, it's amidst clever montages (with some smart and subversive use of classical pieces), gunfights, profanity, one hilariously flipped bird, and a bloody wooden pickle. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving, 2013

With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Out with the schola and toss out the chant!
     Graduals down and hymnals up!
There's no tradition we can't replant,
     You'll love it til your all grown up!

Sunder the altar and rip off the rail!
     Hands apart and up in the air!
Now reach across and shake without fail:
     Pray by yourself? Now don't you dare!

So dump the trads in a boiling bowl;
     Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
     Send them down the hall to roll!

That's what every Catholic does hate!
So, carefully! carefully with the faith!

This year I'm grateful for the Latin mass, for everyone who has preserved it, and for everyone with whom I have shared it. In thanksgiving, my Top Ten Chants.

10. Creator Alme Siderum [YouTube]

9. Pange Lingua Gloriosi [YouTube]

8. Asolis Ortus Cardine [YouTube]

7. Viderunt Omnes [YouTube]

6. Miserere [YouTube]

Monday, November 18, 2013

Theater Review: Betrayal

Directed by Mike Nichols. 2013.

Is it inevitable that any story touching on love or romance or sex eventually gets sold in tarted-up packaging designed to lure in the hoi polloi? Is it inevitable that philistines gravitate toward those strains of works? Yes and yes, if the reviews that festoon the Barrymore Theatre are any indication. Betrayal is "sexy" and full of "powerful performances." It's "great," too. And so is the cast. Perhaps the marquee layers and theater owners were simply trying not to spoil the show for new generations experiencing Harold Pinter's 1978 play. We thank them.

Famous for its reverse chronological narrative, Betrayal is the story of a love triangle between married couple Emma (Rachel Weisz) and Robert (Daniel Craig) and Jerry, Robert's best man and Rachel's lover of five years. It isn't the reverse chronology so much as the economy of the dialogue which gives Betrayal its bite. The characters don't have the luxury of grand speeches, monologues, or explanations, but only fleeting replies to suggest themselves to us, a technique that gives Betrayal an inviting intimacy. We always wonder just what characters mean with their words, whether they have the self-knowledge to mean what they say or be ironical. The reverse chronology only serves to magnify these doubts, forcing us to wonder at both the stage of the infidelities and who knows what about them.

What could easily turn into a jigsaw puzzle merely awaiting its final pieces, though, becomes an engrossing look at this triangle of betrayal. As we peel back into the past we realize that the breakdown begins earlier and earlier. We look back though lunches and afternoon getaways and vacations spent in isolation until in the final act we see that the betrayal began some point soon after the wedding of Robert and Emma When we realize this we revisit the whole story chronologically and wonder whether Robert didn't always know about Emma and his best man. If so, why start cheating, a reaction which doesn't forgive, confront, separate from, or punish Emma? Likewise the fact revealed in the opening that Emma had not only broken things off with Jerry but also plans to separate from Robert becomes less explicable the more the play progresses and we look back. It makes sense that she'd betray Robert for Jerry, but why break things off with Jerry, then separate from Robert, and in the opening scene not even make amends with Jerry?

Ultimately we wonder which spouse caused the rift. Was Robert always indifferent? Were his increasingly aggressive, insensitive behavior and his own affairs a reaction to his wife's infidelity or the cause of it? Was Emma's interest in Jerry a response or the cause of Robert's betrayal? We never lean for certain and the most truthful scenes of the play belong to neither spouse but Jerry, who pours his heart out to both of them, full of outrage at his friend's indifference to the betrayal, and full of love for Emma. Yet both Emma and Robert are ultimately indifferent to him. We empathize with Jerry while we experience Robert and Emma's lack of self-knowledge as Jerry's bafflement at their motives.

It's always a fear whether a film actor who can fill the screen with the benefit of effects and camera trickery can command the stage. The answer for Betrayal's trio is yes, although Rafe Spall is the more obvious success because of his character's greater dynamic range. He brings a manic energy to Jerry's outrage, although I'm puzzled why the audience found those tender, vulnerable moments funny. Craig and Weisz do an impressive job conveying interiority through sparse and veiled lines. Craig is always making himself comfortable, sprawling out on the furniture, despite the tension, and seems as if he's about to give up on every question. Weisz on the other hand shrinks inward and we feel her disappearing from the marriage as we imagine her next afternoon with Jerry.

No, Betrayal is not the sexy smoldering play it's billed as, but it's a perceptive, intimate question whether the betrayal of another doesn't begin with the betrayal of oneself.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

App Review: Classics App Roundup (iOS)

It's curious that the discipline which forever insists that it relates to absolutely everything, which lectures about Vitruvius and Archimedes, which brags about ancient wonders, should be so technophobic. Yes, there's the TLG and the Perseus Project, but databases aren't quite cutting edge in 2013. Maybe the classicist's mind is truly tuned to the past. Perhaps the classicist's heart is quickened only by the authenticity of aged print and spoken words. Maybe they are impecunious or, like many students of the humanities, maybe they simply act the part of the technophobe and luddite. The reason for the technology gap in classics might be that it's a field dominated by academics who don't want to adapt. Whatever the reason, there is interesting and productive work going on in the mobile app classics world. Here are my 10 favorite classics apps on iOS. 

As a note to teachers, you can stream all of these to a TV or projector via an Apple TV.

I. Colosseum 3D

I remember the first time I picked up Carcopino's Daily Life in Ancient Rome mostly because I put it down in despair after a lengthy description of the dimensions of some building or other. Colosseum 3D offers some spectacular fly-through renderings of the Colosseum. It's exciting to get a sense of scale for the massive space and to get the teensiest hint of its former glory. 

Free Demo. $3.99 to buy in-app for the full version. 

It's always a pain to study battles because you have to examine the action at so many stages. Descriptions in books are strewn with layers of color-coded, dotted, and dashed-lines or if you're lucky, pages of images, all to compensate for paper's inability to show you the unfolding visual. These apps from Amber Books present you the stages of the battle but both animate and narrate the transitions. They also have some light historical information.

$2.99 each

III. Virgil Out Loud

It's one of the  blessings and curses of classical languages that their study tends to subordinate pronunciation and conversation to grammatical concerns. Add the difficulties of meter and scansion to the pronunciation lacuna in the curriculum and it's no wonder poetry is a tough sell. In Virgil, iOS developer Paul Hudson teamed with University of Exeter's Stephen Jenkin and Llewelyn Morgan of Brasenose College Oxford for an app which gives you four choice selections of the Aeneid with reading notes and, more importantly, recitations. Morgan reads the hexameters slowly enough for students to follow, but the app highlights the line just in case.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Great Expectations

Directed by Mike Newell. 2012.

Critics often observe that great technique can redeem humble subject matter with examples The Magic Flute to Raiders of the Lost Ark of talent triumphing over paltry literary offerings. Less often do we observe–perhaps because it is less often the case–that an ingenious story holds up a mediocre execution. That's what we have though in Mike Newell's 2012 film adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations in which the author's ageless characters and one of his most satisfying and ingenious plots manage to shine through a veil of murky production and direction.

Dickens needs neither praise nor summary, but we might do some of both by observing Great Expectations' world of contrasts. We have the two orphans, Pip and Estella, each raised to gentility from squalid conditions. While each learns to be false for the new persona, Dickens inverts the parallels. For example, while they both tell untruths to others, Pip presents his studied propriety to the world and Estella a false interest in men, they give lies of omission to each other as kindness: Estella refrains from expressing her genuine interest in Pip, because she thinks she will hurt him, and Pip hides the truth about Estella's ignoble parents.

Their patrons are also a pair of contrasts with both Magwitch and Miss Havisham seeking to save someone from his and her terrible fate. Magwitch hopes by funding Pip's life as gentleman to spare him the squalor and suffering he knew as a criminal while Estella is brought up to avoid the same fate which jilted Miss Havisham at the altar. Yet contrasts persist here as well. First, while Magwitch stays out of Pips life, only helping him from afar by means of an allowance, Miss Havisham tries to remake Estella. Second, Miss Havisham seeks someone to raise as such while Magwitch is simply repaying Pip's kindness to a criminal that Christmas morning. Dickens' masterful denouement manages to thread and contrast both pairs of characters.

First, both tutors fail, Magwitch by omission and Havisham by meddling, to raise the children. Surrounded by falsity Pip becomes prey to his own affectations, and guided by Miss Havisham Estella's heart becomes hardened against love. Second, Magwitch is rewarded with a peaceable death when his beloved Pip informs the dying ex-con that his daughter, whom he thought dead from consumption in childhood, not only lives but has the affections of his very own Pip. On the other hand, Miss Havisham endures a fiery end worthy of Euripides. Finally, Pip and Estella are redeemed by selfless loves which endured past rejection. The first is Pip's own love for Estella which paves the way for their relationship by remaining past her rejection of Pip to the death of her husband. The second is that of Pip's brother in law Joe, whose craft and apprenticeship Pip rejected for the gentleman's life but who still spent his life's fortune to pay off the debts Pip accrued in the absence of Magwitch's confiscated fortune. Great Expectations' is an ending both elaborate and elegant, satisfying and moving as its threads, ever in contrast to one another even as they share space, time, and attributes, at last resolve.

Would that the expression of such a great work had equal vitality. Instead the direction and nearly every production element threaten at nearly every turn to enervate Dickens' vital characters and plot. Now one can look past the narrow color palette and flat tones, whose purpose is clearly to accentuate the characters at the expense of the environment. In fact I might even praise the aesthetic sacrifice. What I cannot overlook is the relentlessly flat direction. There's no dynamic variety to the movie. There's no mood to many scenes, no sense of tone to complement the emotion and activity. Even lighthearted moments like those between Pip and his chum Herbert Pocket don't play as light-hearted scenes because they don't have the support of direction which shapes the scene into something more than words and motion. Neither the marsh nor river nor forge achieve a sense of place nor even do the opulent settings later feel much a contrast. Only the office of the solicitor, Jagger, seems lived in, and the scenes there have a certain sense of type as Pip picks up his allowance from the lawyer barraged by clients. The cinematography is also unhelpful, with awkward close and mid-range shots forcing us around at inopportune moments. Even the blocking at times seems to stymie the sense of space and scene.

The only scenes which succeed visually and tonally as well as in terms of plot, that is to say which succeed as scenes, are two between Joe and Pip. We see the first when Pip impresses Joe with his writing. The moment achieves a sweetness because neither knows just how bad poor Pip's spelling really is. Complementing the action, the camera rests behind the pair as they recline next to one another on the river's crunchy coastline. The second scene contrasts the first. Now Pip admonishes Joe's provincial manners at the table of an urban tavern and here they sit facing one another, opposed. These scenes are subtle and more effective than the seeming absence of direction elsewhere. There's a line between Newell's spare style and the globs of gloss which often cake upon classics and Dickens, A Christmas Carol most infamously. Only a moderate touch will support without distracting by absence or excess.

The cast is fine, but most of all Toby Irvine as Young Pip and Jason Fleming as Joe Gargery shine. There's a sweetness to their simple relationship, and Young Pip does seem to have something bottled within, something which Joe with his wide smile and unconditional love tries to shield. In another good scene, between the two above, Joe gets tongue-tied as he tries to speak properly for Miss Havisham and Pip, now a teen, nudges him to keep it simple. Unfortunately, Young Estella suggests more of interest with her educated affectation than the lapidary stares of her older self, and Helena Bonham Carter seems too Tim Burtonized and Harry Potterized to come off as damaged and not simply eccentric. Finally, Ralph Finnes is superb as Magwitch. We get a real sense of the urgency he feels to help Pip, an angry desire to make amends to Pip for the world.

While a more moderate style would have better served the story, with a fine cast one of Dickens' best works shines through. To its credit, there are no distractions or intrusions upon the plot and characters. I enjoyed that characters weren't burdened with excessive dialogue and cues to remind audiences who-is-who, but it can be a tad on the confusing side. Perhaps Newell's biggest success with this look at Great Expectations is the sense of gravity he brings to Pip's initial act of kindness. We really sense his risk and fear, but the deed also contrasts the passivity that characterizes his youth. Pip didn't have the ability to choose very much, and his lone choice was an act of kindness. The weight of his act, as both a kindness and a singular event, presses home all the points of the resolution not only because it sets them in motion but also because in resolution we see all the loves are the same: undeserved, unasked, selfless, and enduring.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A New Convention

An old adage instructs writers to accept the criticism that something is wrong in their work, but reject recommendations to fix it. Another saying comes to mind: beware tinkerers. This sophomoric article in The Atlantic prompts these tidbits of wisdom not so much for what it says that what it doesn't. The premise isn't unreasonable: the constitution is imperfect. Fair enough, and I agree to boot. Even some recommendations are prudent. It's slipshod reasoning, gung-ho mentality, and lack of humility make it a poster example, however, of why change should be undertaken with great care.

This is my count of assertions, faulty reasoning, or incomplete ideas.
  1. Perpetual constitutions are impossible because Jefferson said so. 
  2. If Jefferson and Madison wrote a constitution today, it would be different. 
  3. The constitution too short.
  4. The constitution guarantees gridlock. 
  5. "The constitution failing" because Sanford Levinson and a "growing cadre" say so.
  6. We've learned a lot from science.
  7. Other countries "solved" what "cripples" us.
  8. Other countries learned from us, so we should learn from them.
  9. Stability equals old.
  10. More detail is better. 
  11. Because other countries' constitutions don't turn out exactly like America's, America's wasn't the model
  12. Because America's constitution is not copied and/or popular, it's less worthy of being copied.
  13. The government staying open and doing things is preferable to people who can't agree, not agreeing. Someone has to win and someone has to lose.
  14. Consensus does not equal majority. Derp!
  15. Something needs to be done about "campaign finance." Because that's a thing and the author said so. Clear enough?
  16. The constitution is too hard, the hardest even, to amend.
  17. Having more information available will help, because facts. 
There are prudent observations about improving representation and the concession that the amendment process might work is surprising, but the shoot-from-the-hip tone should terrify anyone of sound mind. The piece reads and reasons like a kid who just got the keys to the car. That we don't see mention of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, et al, should alarm us. I throw those names around not to appeal to their authority, but to chasten the exuberance which scientific and technological progress seem to be fostering in young people for the notion that you can remake a constitution, and thus nation and people, or make a new one, like a version of Microsoft Windows.

This thinking asks not of virtue or human nature beyond what present scientific trends seem to indicate. Worst of all, it seems to have no limiting principle. We find in such thinking no faith in specific principles but rather in "democratic ideals" and progress and managerial technocracy. Ready for a revolution?

The Present Mess

We stand five years into Obama's Administration of America's executive government and we the people have lost our minds, incapable of appraising the situation. On the left, while no one's staring doe-eyed into the starry gaze of the Chief Executive any longer, the chant of Change has yielded to dolorous defenses either of apathy, "What difference does it make?", or the tepid praise, "It would have been worse." On the right, while no one's challenging his legitimacy any longer, everyone's so disgusted that seldom does anyone bother about proper criticisms. All criticisms are taken as self-evident. Is there a veritable verdict?

The right swears to his incompetence and the left to obstruction. The right claims incompetence because it doesn't fundamentally disagree with Obama's policy of energetic government. Yes, it balks about the President's desire "to fundamentally change" America, but only because it resists change, not because it despises the status quo. President Obama didn't swoop in to replace an executive poised to overthrow the previous progressive orthodoxies of economic intervention, military intervention, income tax and progressive taxation, mandatory government schooling, deficit spending, and social welfare institutions. They're upset that he didn't brand this package in the guise of American Greatness and that Obama pandered to the populares–the disenfranchised and distempered–instead of rallying around the flag. By the time Obama had rebranded his rhetoric and tacked traditional, he was already caricatured as the Muslim Marxist. Today the republicans, then, can only momentarily interfere by their tepid utterances of "slightly less cowbell."

While the left not unreasonably blames republican obstructionism, it's not quite a proper claim. One obstructs what one opposes. Only an obtuse belief in democracy for its own sake, regardless of consequence, can lead you to chastise someone for refusing to sign onto pernicious plans. When there's no majority assent the left grows angry, not unreasonably when the dissent is rooted less in principle than spurious distrust, but disreputably when they demand cooperation from principled opponents under the presumed virtue of conformity.

On the one hand, the left cannot imagine Obama as incompetent, some because they lack the education they assume Obama acquired at some point in his hazy academic career–if you don't know anything I'm sure he looks bright, even vaguely profound–and others because they fill in his gaps of logic and planning, presuming such were left out lest the hoi polloi be blinded by the pure light of progress. On the other hand, they too believe in energetic government. All Obama had to do, they thought, was prune away special interests, modernize and streamline with technology, and explain himself and poof! Progress would ensue. Never mind that the government's monopoly on finance and law creates the special interests, that technology is in fact twitchy and complicated, requiring fine, uncommon, expensive minds, and finally that people don't like to be lectured.

It's perhaps that last point Obama and the left underestimated most. More than the Affordable Care Act's wobbly website and deference to insurance company interests, the fact that Obama spent what seemed like years hocking it to the people in his distinctly didactic tone exhausted us. Month after month we heard in the educating twang of his lecturing paeans and platitudes about efficiency and fair shares and investment and you know what? People are busy living, which is to say caring about their families and friends. We'd be able to do that if left alone. Obama underestimated just how much people can and want to think in Grand Designs.

Intellectuals like to wag their fingers at Americans because we're not consistently engaged in politics, because we disappear after elections. Surely there are such voters who expect their democratic sanction to usher in managed prosperity and progress, but perhaps we underestimate those who are prudently apolitical. Maybe the vice isn't apathy but the runaway designs from which people retreat simply to live in their little platoons.

What, then, is the end of those Grand Designs? Neither Utopia nor catastrophe but an irreducibly Byzantine network of ad hoc compromises with plans that would have fully failed if they had been fully implemented. So Obama and his agenda limp along, the praeclarus imperator shackled to Leviathan, the sum of all the faith and rage that brought him there.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top Ten: Reasons People Don't Like the Latin Mass

In the years' since I've grown attached to the form of the Traditional Mass I've also encountered a variety of its critics. Most of these people have intellectual arguments about why they think TLM is bad for the church or Catholics as a whole, but I think their unspoken criticisms are more revealing.

I mention these not to point fingers but rather so proponents and lovers of TLM may find some measure of insight into people who at first might seem simply obstinate or even ill-intentioned. The grievances below vary quite a bit and few if any can be addressed by simple remedies. As Aristotle said, the orator must use all available means of persuasion to persuade the judge, and anyone you hope to persuade is your judge. Understanding and empathizing with their feelings will go further toward amity and reconciliation than any amount of citation or logic.

The Philosopher also added, as far as is possible, because some arguments cannot be won. For my part I have a long list of types of people with whom I won't even bother to disagree since I have no means of persuading them unless I learn to channel Demosthenes himself.

10. "It's so dense."

Some people need a lot of things going on. They are unaccustomed to the inwardness and intimacy which accompanies sustained contemplation of one finite, external object. People often express this as boredom, but it's an emotionally arrested state.

In my experience, these people are willfully surrounded by the din of radio or television and when without such, they fill the void with any available means of clamor. To paraphrase Guardini, words are consciously debased into talk for crowding out the intimidating inwardness of silence, and thus the silence of the Latin mass brings discomforts rather than conveys truth.

9. Bo-ring

come on, click it
Similarly, some folks just need physically to be busy. This is a way of creating the sense of importance when it is lacked and missed. Thus the hand-holding, hand-shaking, greeting, nodding, laughing, reading, and so forth, all to compensate for the fact they don't actually feel that something important is happening. These people often don't realize that they either dislike the Novus Ordo as they experience it, or simply aren't getting what they need from it.

8. Are you not entertained? 

On the other hand, some people just want entertainment plain and simple. They need to be awash in easily-comprehensible gestures which they can quickly consume and digest. Thus such people aren't bothered by priestly additions to the mass: little jokes, explanations, asides, and so forth. Anything which can jazz up what could otherwise be predicted is a real boon to the experience. Just a little more cowbell.

7. Why so serious?

This is simply a confusion of serious and solemn, the former of which is merely grave while the latter encapsulates a sense of reverence. Taste in movies is instructive: such a mind describes movies as "heavy" or "deep." It finds seriousness only in the grievous, joy only in the jovial.

6. Status Quo

Plenty of wonderful people have spent years and decades in service to a parish which has changed little. They're financially and, more importantly, emotionally invested in the status quo which they helped maintain for the lion's share of their life. They deserve a little understanding even if they've perpetuated decades of Haugenesque cultural squalor.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen. 2013.

The story of 12 Years A Slave sits in the twice-fold unfortunate place: it's not about a hero, but heroic endurance, and it's not about a man who finds courage, but already is of such fortitude. For these reasons, which could have only been overcome by dramatic invention upon its factual basis, 12 Years A Slave is an inevitably imperfect drama. There simply isn't enough development and contrast of character. Its story of Solomon Northup, a freeman kidnapped into slavery in 1841, remains nonetheless compelling and affecting.

This affect owes mostly to the film's depiction of the institution of slavery and how people in different walks of life and of different classes, tempers, and intellects deal with the terrible system which they've inherited. To the slaver Freeman (Paul Giamatti) slavery is strictly a matter of commerce and he treats slaves as commodities, with a slave's outburst of anguish at the separation from her children amounting to a mere inconvenience of the trade. Slavery offers a man of blunt character and no intellect like the overseer Tibeats sources of imagined slights on whom he can take petty vengeance.

A female slave who catches the fancy of her owner might end up with her own attendants like Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), but upon his death she might just as easily lose them and all standing. Too she risks running into the wrath of the master's wife. A hardworking slave might be praised one day then whipped the next for not living up to yesterday's success.

12 Years A Slave revolves around three men, though. The first is Ford, a plantation owner who abides by slavery, though with reluctance and pity. He tries to keep families together and do good where possible, but he's resigned to the fact that he can change little outside of treating his own slaves with compassion. Ford gives hearing to Solomon, forced to take the name Platt, and offers him a fiddle as thanks for completing a special project. Yet the fact remains he owns Solomon slaves and no protestation or misery prompt him to free them. In the end, though, Ford transfers Solomon to another owner to save him from the wrath of his petty and cruel manager Tibeats who would, with the authority or not, kill him.

Solomon's new owner is Edwin Epps, brought to appalling life by Michael Fassbender. Epps is a man of appetites who uses everything for his own satiation. He uses his wife as a trophy and when angered threatens to send her back to the whorehouse in which he found her. He uses his Christian faith to justify owning his slaves and the obedience he commands from them. Sometimes he uses the slaves for amusement, waking them from sleep and forcing them to dance for his entertainment. He uses a pet favorite as an object of his sexual wants. He uses their daily quotas as an opportunity to derive pleasure from judging their sufficiency or inadequacy. When his cotton is hit by blight for a season he uses them and their alleged godlessness as an excuse for the misfortune. Slavery gives this most avaricious and libidinous man a world to dominate and plunder.

At last we have Solomon Northupp himself, who seemed to pay slavery little heed when he walked about a freeman into shops and through the parks of Saratoga, New York. When he's captured in a kidnapping ruse and wakes up in the deep South as Platt, his opinion surely shifts, but not to that of condemnation, even. Instead, Solomon's approach is aimed only at surviving. He refuses to give into the grief and despair that swallow all the slaves around him even as every attempt to get word of his liberty to friendly ears, and these attempts are few and far between, is met with failure.

Yet all of his sadness and resilience must remain within. He cannot confide in the overseers who manage him like a beast or to the owners who disbelieve his story or fear to report it. Solomon cannot even confide in the other slaves because he is so different from them. First, he is an educated man whose ideas and emotions have expression which is foreign to them. Second, he holds in his mind the image his lost freedom and the hope of reclaiming it, a sight they cannot imagine. The other slaves are lost to despair, some so far that they ask Solomon to end their life. Yet while the slaves carry on in their private torment they share the experience in their spirituals. They sing together, except for Solomon, who has nearly muted himself for fear of revealing his education.

When Solomon finally finds himself at uttermost need, though, he joins the other slaves in singing. With more and more desperate energy Solomon sings and learns their despair and the lone recourse of their song.

Solomon's eventual escape, though, is a happenstance to the plot, a conclusion which is brought about by fortune and which neither causes nor results from any deed or change from Solomon. In fact Solomon changes very little throughout. He commits early and hews consistently to a stoic philosophy of endurance which, while it serves him well, is not terribly interesting to watch. We don't watch him change so much as react. In lieu of dramatic tension director Steve McQueen supplements long shots–Mike Leigh long–of the slaves, which emphasize their passivity and isolation. On the one hand this is effective and appropriate because the movie's theme is endurance and isolation. On the other hand, although this structure mimics the experience of slavery, the movie becomes an episodic pour of misfortune after misfortune. A little more reflection on and development of Solomon's internal world and a little preparation of the film's denouement would have given his journey more shape and weight.

Nonetheless 12 Years A Slave gains more from its structure than it loses. We feel Solomon's isolation, from the pain of his silence to the remorse of participating in that from which any man would recoil. We see the ways in which everyone accepted what they assumed they couldn't or didn't want to change. We admire the resilience of one man who while his body was tormented kept his spirit free.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Face Reader

Directed by Jae-rim Han. 2013.


The Face Reader has all the makings of a great epic. A grand, operatic opening sweeps us back into Medieval Korea where we find Nae-gyeong, a peasant with the remarkable ability to peer into a man's heart by reading his face. Nae-gyeong is manipulated by everyone in the land who hopes to use that gift for his own advantage. All Nae-gyeong hopes to do, though, is see his son happy and successful, an impossible task because of his father's disgrace which still stains the family and prevents any of them from gaining a post in the government. Throughout we have some light comedy in the antics of his bumbling brother-in-law, a struggle for the throne, and the underlying question whether you can really know what's in man's heart. All the makings, but success?

The opening scenes roll out with a leisure that bids us to settle in. A beautiful woman and her servant walk up to a hillside house where they find Nae-gyeong, the greatest face reader in the land. The woman is the wily chief procuress of the most popular house of courtesans and she proposes that Nae-gyeong use his skill for her and earn some money. When his son runs off in the hopes of becoming a government minister under a false name, Nae-gyeong decides to take the courtesan's offer and sets out with his brother-in-law.

General Kim Jongseo
Nae-gyeong slowly moves his way up the social ladder, helping the courtesan and her circle until his skill catches the attention of General Kim Jongseo, whose service he enters and whom Nae-gyeong helps rid the province of corrupt magistrates and ministers. These scenes find a balance between the humor of the pair's bumbling, the gravity of General Kim Jonseo's attempt to reform the government, and the fun of seeing Nae-gyeong show off his face-reading skills. They also scaffold up to the highest level of political intrigue wherein the mortally ill emperor seeks Nae-gyeong's skill to rid the kingdom of an unknown man who plots a coup against his young son who'll succeed him but be unable to fend off a vicious usurper.

Prince Suyang
The subsequent scenes initially play well, with Nae-gyeong and the loyalist Kim Jongseo scouting for the would-be assassin. We feel the passage of time and the loss of surety as the emperor's passing leads to a period of uncertainty and danger wherein the nation, which hangs on governmental administration, will inevitably fall to either the wise Kim Jongseo or ruthless Prince Suyang. Here the movie was poised to round its circle and comment on its main idea: the crown prince, now the adolescent emperor, still trusts Prince Suyang because he has a trusting face, and so Nae-gyeong concocts a plain with his old friend the courtesan to give Suyang a facial mark which will signify to the young emperor that the man is evil. At the same time, though, Jongseo seems to have committed a terrible crime while the heretofore evil Suyang seems a man of his word. Can a man's face lie, and his heart change?

Apparently not, contra the trailer, and the next act bounces around through confusing nocturnal intrigues and subterfuge, none of which advances so much as prolongs the resolution of the succession question. Here The Face Reader bounces back and forth a bit too much among the machinations of Prince Suyang and his three chief henchmen, about and for whom we don't especially care.

Finally General Suyang seizes the throne and asks Nae-gyeong one last time whether the face reader sees in him the visage of a great king. When Nae-gyeong replies in the affirmative that one day he will be a great king, Suyang in offense at the shrewd response strikes down Nae-gyeong's son. This is a terrible and meaningful if not per se tragic turn in that all of the political maneuverings of the emperor, General Kim Jongseo, and Nae-gyeong have failed and the evil man has won.

When Nae-gyeong reflects on his failure to protect his son and stop Suyang, he finally realizes that his folly laid in seeing the waves and not the wind that moves them. The seasons were changing and he could not fight the winds. This is not an ending either prepared or expected, but it is not an abortive gesture. At first I found it unsatisfying, that the script hewed close to history at the detriment of the drama. Now I find that the ending casts an autumnal, elegiac tone back on events which turned out to be the end of an era; a fitting conclusion, for who can see the end coming? Too, The Face Reader takes a longer, closer look at the personal suffering inflicted by tyranny, dynasty, and political unification in the story of Nae-gyeong and his son, unlike Yimou Zhang's more popular Hero, which glosses over the suffering by gracing the sacrificed with its titular epithet.

The Face Reader is not perfect. It's a tad too long and gets a bit bogged down in political intrigue, but it is thoughtfully made and by turns beautiful, comic, gentle, and full of meaning.

Monday, October 14, 2013


The philistine is one of the most curious species of our happy hominidal tribe. Sure, Erectus might impress with his haughty posture and Neanderthal may wow as the new man wanders his valley, club in hand, but for all these two brutes have fascinated scientists and pulp directors and authors, they do not fascinate me because they rose to the modest heights of their limits. Even they had wondered enough to paint their caves. No, they have my respect but not my interest. Their and our relative however, the philistine aka homo ignavus, perplexes me with his sensate indifference to his world and ultimately himself.

The most obvious characteristic of the philistine is an ignorance which resembles stupidity but in fact is simply a lacuna in his reference. This lack of tutoring is less about education, though, than about protection and conservation. No one appreciates Bach because of a predilection for counterpoint, Caravaggio because of a love of shadow, or an English garden because of a deep desire for symmetry. Instead one approaches them as an initiate who has grasped some sliver of secret knowledge and taken a step into a larger world. The philistine differs then from his wise brother simply in being asleep. The tutor's task then is less of education in the modern sense as in the ancient of ducens, of bringing up. The role of tutor is less to instruct, i.e. to equip, or to inculcate, i.e. to impress upon, than to protect and cultivate. It is of course a terrible irony that schools accept tuition from parents in exchange for exercises in "beating the SAT" and getting, "college ready."

The barrier to the high forms of expression then, is not so high. The philistine of course asks then: Why do we need to engage with any expression at all besides our own? The response on the one hand is the utilitarian reply that the expressions of others help us cultivate and resolve our own woes. On the other, though, is the need to elevate human life to realm of the beautiful. Human life is fairly ugly even in its most beautiful moments. How ugly are not birth, sex, and death in corporeal terms? Who finds joy in the sight of the old and infirm? In a terrible fight with loved ones?

Yet art presents us the possibility of raising activity to, or perceiving activity in, the world of perfected ideals. Who would not call beautiful the birth of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, the intercourse of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or the death of Homer's Hector? How much beauty is there in the hands of Rembrandt's woman, and joy in the eucatatrophe of Mozart's Figaro?

These expressions signify as both human and sacred the experiences around which man's life turn, rendering them at once personal and universal. It is something human, or better something of human to partake in them as experiences, and something transcendent to see the activity elevated to the beautiful.

Yet all this talk of elevation and transcending is rather patently offensive to modern sensibilities and actually ripe for perversion, for high expression still implies a hierarchy. You need not think hard or long for an image of the cultural guardian who towers on an imagined Parnassus above his fellow man, or perhaps some misanthropic Hitchcockian villian, or worse. Instead, the role of cultural elite should take that form of that tutor which we discussed, conserving and cultivating high art and apprehension of it. What we have seen in the West today, though, is not the evolution of cultural elite into totalitarian guardians, or even upper crust bullies. We have not seen old ways mutate as the old Roman system of patronage, from traditions of pragmatism and beneficence into rent-seeking and degrading toadyism, but rather the elite taking on the ways of the popular culture. Far from their tailors' tutors, nobles have traded custody for celebrity, with what concern remains focusing on endeavors to improve physical health. We know the fear of disease and exercise our technological and economic powers by "declaring war on" them, but we cannot even contemplate our artistic impotence. We will not understand that creation cannot take place in slumber, and that awakening cannot be funded.

Does religion then point the way today? If instruction has replaced cultivation in education and the arts, what of religion? Should not the jettisoning of the old high forms, in practice if not print, have flung wide the gates? Where are the faithful now that the alleged aesthetic barrier has been lifted? It would seem that excluding the aesthetic has had an unexpected effect: without transcendent form, the beauty of the act relies alone on comprehension instead of apprehension. Robbed of its "poetry, mystery, and dignity" [1] it is now an intellectual enterprise. If you agree, of think you do, then you go to mass and as long as a few choice things take place, all is well. If you disagree, you disregard it as you do any unpalatable bit. The invitation to mystery, which might even persuade the skeptical more than the didactic, has been rescinded. The people are left grappling in intellectual terms with what, as Romano Guardini wrote, "Actually. . . is not difficult but mysterious." [2]  Exeunt.

It's a slick point of argument the moderns make which faithful philistines corroborate in deed: that it matters not what happens around the sacred acts. It's still mass. It still counts. Yes, of course it does. Theodore Dalrymple shares a thought about architecture which we might borrow:
Suppose you are in a restaurant and your meal is delicious. Suddenly the diner at the next table vomits copiously. Do you continue to eat with the same delectation as before, just because the food on your plate remains unchanged? [3]
No, plenty of its details don't render a mass illicit. So we pass over the disposable missalettes which render the words cheap and disposable. We pass over the microphones which distort our voices. We pass over foreign gestures from handshakes to unity candles. We pass over Bach for Marty Haugen. We nod off during ad libbed sermons. And in our arrogance we assume that because we understand the mass and because it "counts," that all is well. We look to our borrowed and reconstituted gestures and pretend that we see and feel what we think. Speaking of art and institutions in general, Roger Scruton writes how,
We're joined together to pretend. . . that we really are feeling the deep and serious things. . . even though underneath, the measure of self interest is taking things over. [4]
It's an easy leap, though. We believe in the faith and we're at mass. What else is there? I feel satisfied. I have the whole thing figured out. (The fault for empty pews and coffers, for listless immiseration amidst historic prosperity lies with the liberals, hippies, atheists, Sandinistas, and all foreign ills.) Instead of being awed, though, by the Cosmic Christianity of Titian, we're dulled by the soft kitsch like that of Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "painter of light" who boasted that, "We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand." [5] What a familiar argument. No mystery needed. Just add understanding, a few gestures, and poof! Mass? Faith? Religion? 

Never mind searching for the proper articulation of ideas, that'll frighten off the contingent of philistines without which the church will crumble. Never mind searching for receding meanings and reconciliations of life and faith, Roger Scruton again explains,
In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown. [6]
Rod Dreher in his recent Time piece, picked up on the same diversionary vibe of fantasy when he wrote about how, "The 'spirit of Pope Francis' will replace the 'spirit of Vatican II' as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith." [7]

Thus all faith and expression are smeared into a pastiche of smarmy coziness which can be molded into whatever shape we wish. The work of the progressives and conservatives is done: not the "triumph, yea the resurrection, of the Philistines." [8] The poor in spirit are pastured into dolorous ennui. The aesthetes recoil.  Exeunt.

Magnificat: Esurientes implevit bonis

[1] Waugh, Evelyn. Diary Entry, Easter 1965. A Bitter Trial. Saint Austin Press. 1996. p. 79
[2] Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. 1939.
[4] (2:46)
[5] Leung, Rebecca (December 5, 2007). "60 Minutes interview". CBS News.