Thursday, February 28, 2013

Take Fewer Pictures

This might seem an odd admonition. What could be so wrong with taking a simple picture?

First, consider what happens when someone takes a picture at, say, a party: the mood shifts from enjoying the present to imagining it as passed. To me it strikes a melancholy note when amidst feasting and merry-making someone whips out a camera. Memento mori.

Second and worse still, after I've squeezed out the obligatory smile for the camera, I start to wonder: am I in fact enjoying myself? Why am I here? What's with these people? With me? These are not the musings of a convivial guest.

Third, it reduces the occasion from an event undertaken for its own sake, whether taking in the sight of the Grand Canyon or celebrating a birthday, to an object, a picture, with a utilitarian end. You visit the Grand Canyon to appreciate the place firsthand and you celebrate a birthday because you care for a person. When you look at a picture, you're just trying to jog your memory to get one more emotional kick from the experience.

When thinking on this point I recall the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the lunar explorers, having stumbled upon the monolith and ushered in a new epoch, stop to take a picture with it. What an appalling gesture.

Last, photography lets us dodge the necessity of describing and writing about our experiences. Stopping to reflect on life helps us appreciate it more than documenting it with a tool. How much more stunning is a sight after you've stopped to reflect on its changing hues, sweet a song after you've learned the harmony, and tasty a meal when you've described its delicate sweetness.

Now these observations can easily be taken ad absurdum. No moratorium is in order. I've been known to take a few photographs and I have many friends whose picture-taking makes me no never-mind, yet living and reflecting seem the better habits.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Skyfall: Ten Frames

Back in our November review of Skyfall we briefly discussed the film's cinematography, outstanding not only for a Bond film but any action picture. In fact we seldom see such attention to lighting, staging, and color-palette in any mainstream feature. Yet Skyfall always keeps it simple, never venturing into distracting techniques for the sake of novelty or variety. The lighting and camera work remain ever at the service of the story, making it more, not less effective, and explaining why three people standing around talking in Skyfall is more interesting than all 88 minutes of Die Hard 5.

click images to enlarge

1. In this sequence, Bond has tailed an assassin up a Shanghai tower and having caught up with him, must pass through several glass corridors to seize his quarry. We've seen this setup many times before, but during the day. At night, the flashing fluorescent lights of the scrolling billboards not only adds visual energy and tension to Bond's silent stalking, but also tweaks the action, allowing Bond to camouflage amidst the shadows. The lighting also forces us to question which is the reflection and just how far Bond is from his target.

The simple silhouettes of the second frame and contrast of color in the third are typical of Skyfall.

2. The effect of this shot is so clear that one misses the technique: the three characters, standing at three different depths, form a triangle which contrasts the three arches behind them, also at three different depths. The blocking and set complement and amplify the tension of the exchange, a technique we see throughout Skyfall.

3. This is a bravura sequence, regrettably exploited in the trailer, and exemplifies how Skyfall keeps Bond front and center.

4. Another shot to take for granted, notice how the opaque lamps function as a middle-ground and how their solid, intense color and placement parallel to the characters amplify the tension of the exchange between Bond and Severine. 

5. Simple simple simple. This shot is very much like the bravura ones above, only Bond is no longer dominant even though he's front and center. Here, the parallel lines of the windows and servers draw our attention to Bond's newly diminished scale. Still front and center, but weak: an effective subversion. 

6. This is probably the most clever and symbolic shot of Skyfall. Notice how there is one reflection of Silva for every other character, and one of them is reflected right onto Bond, brilliantly reflecting the dialogue of this scene and, in fact, the theme of the movie. 

7. Classic, just classic.

8. An old trick at work here, with the motion of Bond's shotgun, angled back, and M leaning forward, converging on the space, the tension, between them. This in fact contrasts the dialogue of the scene in which Bond forgives her. The shot also reflects their differing roles and personalities, Q thinking and Bond ready to fire.

9. This was a clever opportunity for contrast, the burning mansion shining orange through the ice and the frigid black water beneath. 

10. I like the contrast of this face-off with Bond's left hand in his pocket and M's left arm in a sling. Will there be a conflict between the supposed desk-jockey and the agent? And what's in between them, on the desk, but the mission.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Architecture of Justice

This week I spent three days on jury service. It is of aesthetic crimes, however, that I wish to speak. The court sits a horrendous glass-and-steel monstrosity (lower right) next to its sibling, the Family Court, a horrendous concrete monstrosity (lower left.)

These buildings replace or expand their Neo-classical predecessors built 1914 (left) and 1934 (right).

Each design is typical of its time. The 1914 building is a mix of traditional elements, hearkening back ultimately to Greece and Rome. The 1934 building is stark and intimidating with an authoritarian overtone, although it ultimately nods to the past with its friezes, columns, and symmetries. The 1977 version is a $30,000,000 concrete slab, and the 2006 is just as ugly but carries the pretension of improvement. The design of this new building, unfinished but opened over-budget and over-time in 2007, however, comes with a philosophy. Architect Rafael Viñoly,

What interested me was transforming the public’s perception that the building represented an institution that was seen as closed and in need of protection from the community. The [new] building speaks to the participatory and the democratic nature of the judicial system and its fundamental and constructive mission in our society. [1]
One might append, "So I made it glass," which apparently fulfills the above criteria. Never mind that you cannot at all see inside from the ground floor, or into any court rooms at all. Never mind either any question of scale or form

I always find it interesting when you can't find a flattering angle of a building, when there's no place from which its shape and purpose feel unified and wholly expressed. My local church is like this. Two sides stand flat brick walls, one a vast pointed protrusion, and the fourth a series of stained glass panels, obscured by trees, oblique to the entrance, tiny doors beneath vast, brown, steel, rectangular columns. There is not a single point, and I have sought it, from which the exterior is intelligible. The Bronx County Hall of Justice shares this fate.

Above the jury room, whose design owes more to the "War Room" of Dr. Strangelove than the town halls of Franklin or Jefferson, sits, well, this (right). On the arc is inscribed,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
My take was that the chairs represent the jurors and the lone figure is the judge pulling the trigger of the crossbow of society, aiming at justice. Apparently, the lone figure is the accused and thus I have no idea what he's standing on. Also, the little doohickey beneath the lone figure reads "state" and "country," although I have no idea how its shape and placement fit in.

So why are the jurors on the bow? Does that imply some of them are further away from justice? Why is the accused so far away from justice? Aren't the jurors technically in the way, then, or are they leading him to justice? And what about the judge? What does the quote even mean?

To my understanding, the statement implies activity, motion towards justice, but individual acts can only occur at a finite time so mustn't they occur at a finite place on the arc? The only alternative is that the acts move along an arc, but if you're moving along an arc wouldn't you eventually hit justice and then start moving away from it again? Unless you stop at justice? Then why does that have to be an arc? Why is the piece titled Equilibrium? Does that mean there is an average of justice? How can there be an equilibrium if things tend one way? I give up.

Lastly, though, why didn't the artist give the figure of the accused some arms? I understand that he didn't want to portray any specific individual or group or gender, but everyone has arms. I mean, I guess some people don't, but some people don't have legs either. Hey, if you were sitting in that room for 13 hours you'd start thinking a few odd thoughts too.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On "Resources"

Why does it seem to me that people so often scamper after "resources" to help them complete their work. Teachers want pre-fab tests, students completed notes, administrators pre-made forms, and so forth. Just this morning I perused a new listing of "resources" for use upon the resignation of Pope Benedict. Shouldn't the priest know the prayers, I thought, and the choir director the music? Isn't it their job?

Those who claim to be learning seem the worst perpetrators. These alleged students love summaries, outlines, notes, charts, diagrams, examples, and the like. What they don't realize is the work of making such materials is the work of thinking and learning, that is, what you might call for the student his job.

Teachers might be worse, actually. Why should there be any such thing as a "text book" at all. Isn't it the teacher's job to explain the material, not just present an explanation of it? Isn't it his job to come up with examples and evaluations? Similarly, if it is true that the making of such materials is the process of learning, shouldn't the teacher have already made such during his own education? Could Luke have skipped his training with Yoda or was the learning in the doing?

Yet to make any of these observations is to be accused of forcing professionals to reinvent the wheel. Such a rejoinder of course misses not only our point about the process of education, that there are no shortcuts and that knowledge must be cultivated, but one more important.

Using prepared materials can lead toward an accidental homogenization of thought. Where everyone uses the same materials because they are convenient everyone starts to do things the same way whether appropriate or desirable. This problem strikes me particularly pernicious to education where the result is intellectual and creative standardization. The student invariably becomes the material and even the teacher, a fact not wholly avoidable, or lamentable. I think of the eclectic college professors and preachers who influenced Jefferson and Coolidge, the countless composers Mozart met on his tours, and of course Luke and Yoda. The results of such sundry learning are regions, states, schools, programs, and people with eclectic characters, each a curious and created union of minds. In contrast, centralization of the materials of learning, teachers and books, is also centralization of the stuff of learning, ideas, and such a homogenizing process strikes me both stultifying and dulling.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Important Things. . . According to Facebook

An informal ranking based on anecdotal evidence.
  1. Pictures of animals
  2. Pictures of food
  3. Complaints about work
  4. Shopping!
  5. Complaints about the weather
  6. Memes
  7. Complaining about how stupid other people are
  8. Videos and music
  9. "Isn't ________ great?!
  10. Political outrage!
  11. "Going to the. . ." / "Just checked in at. . ."
  12. Pictures of themselves
  13. Pictures of random things they see
  14. Sports updates and statistics
  15. What they did today/plan to do tomorrow
  16. Working out!
  17. Quotes and polls
  18. Oblique insults
  19. Complaints about being sick
  20. Complaints about being busy
  21. Complaints about being bored
  22. Motivational statements/Self-encouragement
  23. Silly pictures
  24. Celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, et cetera
  25. Thoughtful, original commentary.

Sunday Afternoon Logic, Political Edition

There's a certain value in an unqualified, unreserved defense in that it leaves room for its opposite and thus also a dialectical synthesis.

Charles Krauthammer's recent defense of President Obama's drone campaign tests the credibility of this assumption. I don't intend to tackle this issue in toto, only Mr. Krauthammer's arguments here.

We have a problem right out of the gate. He begins by presenting two questions and two answers:

Q1: By what right does the president order the killing by drone of enemies abroad?
Q2: What criteria justify assassination?
A1: Imminent threat, under the doctrine of self-defense
A2: Affiliation with al-Qaida, under the laws of war.
To question his first answer: What is "the doctrine of self-defense?" That one can defend oneself? What about circumstances, proportionality, jurisdiction, legality, constitutionality, clearly-delineated delegated authority, accountability, incidental and accidental destruction, certainty of the facts, and so on? Is there no burden whatsoever on the individual defending himself?

To question his second: He states that
In World War II, we bombed German and Japanese barracks without hesitation.
What's the logic here? That WWII was legal and moral, therefore anything that was done to win it or during it or that helped win it was legal and moral? Or is his point that because there is alleged precedent, the present drone campaign is legal and moral? Or because, supposedly, no one complained then or complains now about what happened during WWII that no one should complain about the drone campaign? Could any of this be relevant?

His next premise is quite interesting:
Once you take up arms against the U.S., you become an enemy combatant, thereby forfeiting the privileges of citizenship and the protections of the Constitution
On being declared an enemy combatant, this may well be legally correct, but such does not mean it is either sound in principle or applicable without discretion. What's the difference between killing Americans and killing Americans? On losing the protections of the Constitution, such a premise is to say the least not self-evident. By what law other than the constitution can the Federal Government of America interact not only with Americans, but with any people? What other law is there for the government?

His next historical example is as curious as his first:
Lincoln steadfastly refused to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation. The soldiers that his Union Army confronted at Antietam were American citizens (in rebellion)–killed without due process.
What does this observation establish other than the American national government can kill you if you want to secede, regardless of whether you want to be an enemy?

Krauthammer's last point is perhaps the baldest:
In war, the ultimate authority is always the commander in chief and those in the lawful chain of command to whom he has delegated such authority.
So in his estimation, this authority is absolute? I'm not rushing to this conclusion, it's not one I'd expect from anybody, but without any qualifications it seems the case. There's no distinction between leading and planning, executing and creating policy. The president really is, in the immortal words of former president George W. Bush, "the decider." Worse still, the example to justify the authority is Lyndon Johnson? And it's Krauthammer's critics who are on another planet?

To conclude, I'm not pretending that no one can answer any of my criticisms here, only that it's incredible to avoid them. One can make many arguments for and against Krauthammer's points and my own, but to pretend any of this is obvious or clear-cut is. . . not helpful. It's significant that Krauthammer concludes with the contrast between "the war on terror" and "law enforcement." Which important word, I ask, is present in the former phrase, and absent the latter?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

Directed by John Moore. 2013.

It's hard to get your head around the idea of nothing. How do you hold in your mind the idea of a pure lacking, an utter and infinite void? Is there even such a thing in conception or space?

At long last we have the answer to these conundrums in the latest installment of the Die Hard franchise. This, dear readers, is no partial lacking but nothingA Good Day to Die Hard is the absolute zero of movies. Let us count the nothing.

First, the script spends not a single moment or iota of effort on characterization. So devoid is this movie of any differentiation or development of the cast that one can but broadly refer to characters. There is no description of the characters by way of exposition or even cliche and we can't infer anything about them from what they do because all they do is shoot or get shot at. They don't joke or argue or explain or reveal themselves in any way, so there's nothing to lend context to what happens to them, and so we don't care when something does.

Falling right out of the gate, A Good Day to Die Hard fails to set up John McClane. He's not grizzled or fed up or scarred or driven or anything so specific. There are no references to his previous adventures and problems and he doesn't say or do anything in such a McLanesque way that we associate the man in front of us with the NYPD hero of the past. As a result of this lack, there's no interest or tension in his relationships either. That John's son has some vague problem with him is not tension. Distrust, indignation, fear. . . some emotion caused by an initial crisis and then recalled creates tension between characters. Centering Die Hard 5 around John and his son could have created a nice parallel with the first and fourth installments in which McClane rescued his wife and then his daughter, so they really dropped the ball here.

Second, the plot itself generates no tension. Obviously we're supposed to care that nuclear material might make its way into sinister hands, and first we do at an intellectual level, but there is no sense of urgency about the potential and indefinite point in the future when this material might make its way somewhere and be used somehow. We don't feel that something terrible is moments because the script presumes our fear instead of generating it by dialogue, activity, rhythm, and tone. Speaking of which. . .

Third, the pacing is way off. There is no sense of motion, no ebb and flow, and so there is no sense of departure and arrival, that is, purpose. A Good Day to Die Hard lacks the cues which tell us whether things are ramping up or calming down so we never have any expectations to be fulfilled or subverted. The movie's just one big smear.

Lastly, this movie has no tone. It doesn't have an inconsistent tone, mind you, but no tone. It's not light-hearted or serious, satirical or polemical, suspenseful or spectacular. As a result we don't feel that anything belongs or stands out, or that anything should or shouldn't happen. This lack of atmosphere robs from every element a sense of context, and thus impact. Similarly, just as the movie's parts don't fit together with respect to tone, neither do they exist in the same genre. You might think A Good Day to Die Hard  a buddy movie, but there's no interplay between the would-be buddies, and you might think it's a shoot-'em-up, but the shooting isn't centered around novel and compelling firefights, it's just guns going off. So its genre is action, aka, activity. Hooray for activity.

Still, A Good Day to Die Hard has two problems as a generic action flick.

First, the action scenes lack finesse, novelty, and variety, consisting mostly of Mercedes Benz crash test footage. The activity is coherent but so mundane and familiar that it quickly grows boring, especially the opening chase in which the Mercedes Benz van flees the Mercedes Benz truck which is pursued by the Mercedes Benz SUV. It turns out bashing cars on closed courses and blazing guns in concrete bunkers is not as exciting as watching John McClane shoot, punch, bomb, trap, and infuriate terrorists throughout the ducts, offices, elevator shafts, unfinished floors, and roof of Nakatomi Plaza.

Second, the action doesn't center around espionage or a heist or some political intrigue, but starts off as mission to rescue one guy, then shifts to a mission to rescue another, then to stop one guy, then another. Surely a movie may contain a variety of transitional goals, but without a sense of a broad, important purpose, surprises in slowly unraveling some mystery, or satisfaction in achieving transitional goals, the movie is just one thing after another. In contrast, the original Die Hard combined all three elements. There, John's main purpose was to stop the bad guys, the transitional goals were to get the police involved and take out the lower-level terrorists, and the mystery was what the bad guys wanted and planned to do. It doesn't need to be complicated, it just needs to be something.

There's nothing–Hold on, I just remembered two things that happen in A Good Day to Die Hard: the bad guy eats a carrot and a Russian cabbie sings New York, New York. I stand corrected.

Friday, February 15, 2013

On Education

I couldn't have less respect for the decisions of committees and councils, let alone government ones, let alone ones stuffed with the PhD'd scions to "national policy." For that reason, I don't have much to say contrary to this article. Anyone with a modicum of common sense and any teaching experience will fund much truth in it, even if they're put off by the voice-crying-in-the-wilderness. What did bother me is summed up in the following:

Even the most distinguished and honored among us have trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy.
During my years in the classroom I tried to educate other adults about the realities of schools and students and teaching. I tried to help them understand the deleterious impact of policies that were being imposed on our public schools. I blogged, I wrote letters and op-eds for newspapers, and I spent a great deal of time speaking with and lobbying those in a position to influence policy, up to and including sitting members of the US House of Representatives and Senate and relevant members of their staffs.
Did it ever occur to her that the system is broken? What if it's not just one failed policy, "No Child Left Behind," but a systemic failure? That it is fundamentally and irreparably flawed, prey to corruption and insulated from correction?

Perhaps more importantly, did it ever occur to her to strike out on her own, to compete with the system and show the fools how it's done? To take a personal risk, and stand, for her ideas? Where does this unshakeable desire for national policy, for mass-scale solutions, come from and why are people so wedded to it?

I understand some folks, especially conservatives, feel obligated to justify or preserve the status quo, but I'm not suggesting we strike Thomism, Aristotelianism, Platonism, or any such ancient, august, and tried tradition from the course of learning. Instead I'm suggesting that 20th century pedagogical orthodoxy, progressive mandated government education, might not have been validated by its results, and that something else, maybe old and maybe new, might be worth trying.

Education doesn't have to be the state-funded, state-run, forced march through twenty consecutive years of teachers, classrooms, and tests, and you don't have to contrive some rosier version of the status quo as the ideal. Education can occur with friends, family, professionals, and part-time teachers, in libraries, businesses, and homes, and it can be discursive, inconsistent, and even incomplete. Teaching doesn't have to be a lifetime of lecturing the same classes. Education can be a world and, as the cliche goes, a lifelong path, instead of a committee-concocted czar-approved commodity boxed by politicians and sold to coerced participants.

Education can be any of these things, but it takes a lot more than tweaking around the edges of the bureaucracy. It takes creativity and risk, just like, well, learning.

If you enjoyed this brief, check out longer APLV articles on education.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Movie Review: Hansel and Gretel

Directed by Tommy Wirkola. 2013.

Hansel and Gretel is a success of modest ambitions, without a single engaging idea or novel technique in its 88 minutes, and yet I left satisfied. This might seem an unusual and inconsistent position for the author of this paean to excellence and the critic who nitpicked at the foley in Prometheus, but hear me. I could pan Hansel and Gretel as a cynical cash grab, a minimum effort to turn a weekend's profit, and well. . . yeah maybe it is, but hear me. You could pan it for its cheesy special effects and stock sets and weak-kneed plot, but hear me! By dint of fate, directorial might, or editorial genius, Hansel and Gretel holds together, mostly by not getting in over its head. For a first big-budget feature, Tommy Wirkola holds H&G together competently, far better than Peter Berg helmed last year's Battleship. So what does Hansel and Gretel avoid?

First, it avoids plot gymnastics by a lucid narrative and a simple backstory which neatly resolves. There are no long lost brothers who turn out to be the bad guy, no double crosses or double agents, and no pointless diversions to prolong the movie to the 90-minute mark.

Second, for a fantasy movie they keep the magic pretty low key. The witches fling some neat and icky spells, but the craft never gets out of hand. Similarly, Hansel and Gretel have some guns and gizmos, but nothing over the top, until the finale anyway. We don't get to the point, and every filmgoer can tell when a movie turns this corner, when you feel like anything can happen.

Third, the pacing works. H&G neither get bogged down in a twenty minute action scene nor cuts frenetically back and forth between the witch-hunting siblings and the townsfolk.

Lastly, we don't get too much of the supporting characters. Movies with light plots and thinly-sketched protagonists get overwhelmed with secondary characters. Hansel and Gretel has a sheriff and a mayor and a wannabe witch hunter who shadows the siblings, but we don't see them in every scene or every few minutes. None of them accidentally save or ruin the day. They add a little flavor. End of story.

Now we can talk about what H&G gets right.

First, I liked the witches. They're hideous, a refreshing turn after their prettification during the Harry Potter years, and there's even a surprisingly traditional line about how witchcraft (evil deeds) by nature corrupts the flesh. The director was also sensible enough to let the head witch (Famke Janssen) shift into human (i.e. sexy) guise, albeit with no explanation. I also liked that, excepting their leader, the witches don't talk. There's good reason to interpret this as the zombification of witches, the crones are pretty spry as well, but I prefer to understand that witchcraft has left their human faculties gnarled as it has granted them unnatural power. Call me old fashioned.

Next, the main cast gets the job done. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are a plausible if not dynamic duo, but both, especially Renner, manage a good comic timing. Too, I liked how they fought not just together but as a team who learned to fight together, although the action scenes could have exploited this more. Peter Stormare was over the top as the town sheriff and Finnish actress Pihla Viitala brought an enticing and subtle lustiness to her good witch, Mina. I even liked the troll, Edward. There was something simple and authentic about him after a decade-long deluge of CGI.

Finally, I'm glad the producers didn't soften up the movie to squeak under the PG-13 rating. There's gore, cursing, even a little sorceress skin, and although Hansel and Gretel doesn't take full advantage of its R-rated license, the movie doesn't feel scrubbed. Unfortunately the gore is not particularly well done or used, it's more like red CG mush, and clashes with the movie's otherwise jocular tone. Still, though, it's more honest than watching characters, having been riddled with bullets, laid down pristine on the ground.

Overall, Hansel and Gretel feels like an authentic, modest attempt at a genre picture from an up-and-coming director. We don't enjoy the richness of a complex plot, but we don't have to sit through the pretentions of a wannabe auteur either. It's silly and simple and uneven, but when the motley witch-hunting brigade set off at the end, I was glad I'd gone along.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Long Road

I was in my youth a terrible procrastinator, putting off everything from making beds to writing papers. Only rather recently did I learn to plan ahead and work on projects over time. That my own change of habit seems to have coincided with Pope Benedict XVI's Pontificate is surely coincidental, but not without meaning.

You see my own discovery was not one of utility or efficiency. I didn't learn to take the long path for the purpose of doing better work, although that would have been sensible. Instead I came to realize that I neither enjoyed nor came to a full understanding of the task when I pressed it out in an afternoon. Where once I had pride in my ability to work with little time, I grew to feel cheated. I could finish work and well, but I never lived with ideas until I learned to make a joy and journey of them.

I see in many ways a similar path and love in the Pontificate of Pope Benedict. What could result in the short run, I asked at the time, from Summorum Pontificum? (Much, but still more in time.) Of Anglicanorum Coetibus? (Much, but. . .) Yet theirs is not the path of revolution or reactionary restoration, but of building the good, slowly over time. It is the work not of monument building but of cultivation, and cultivation must be done over time for it consists not in conversion by intimidation or legislation but by inspiration, inspiration at the highest level by the mass, and at the human level by the serene, joyful, and abiding spirit of His Holiness.

The confidence he gave to those in sympathy with his spirit, Catholic in every way and open to all truth and love and beauty, will be seen not in any one, grand gesture, but bear fruit in good lives and beautiful things. To have had as Pope such a kindred, though far excelling, spirit as Benedict is to have been validated as an intellectual and scholar, as a man and humanist, and excited as a Catholic.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

When to Trash

Everyone who writes throws a great deal of his work away and so it must be. For my part, I trash a good number of posts because a topic which at first seemed of import or humor turned out to be dull. Often too I'll find an article or observation disagreeable, but in dissecting find it better than I thought. Destroying your work is a humbling and edifying experience, though, for doing so requires you acknowledge a failure of execution, conception, or perception. 

Yet there exists a special moment which will always tempt the author to exceed himself. The time is when he, certain of his writerly skills and canny mind, fishes for the extraordinary in the realms of the mundane. Whether there exists a muse to inspire the necessary insight or whether the Chestertonian talent can be taught or inherited, I know not, but the gift is much sought and seldom found. Still, though, this moment of unbridled confidence is not the author's most perilous. That moment comes when he finds a trivial detail which reveals, so he thinks, something grotesque about one of his enemies. How many writers, people could resist such temptation? 

Not enough. This week the bards of the internet stepped forward to squelch any remaining faith in humanity by discussing the artwork of former President George W. Bush. Please note I describe the discussion as faith-squelching not because no one ought to look at the paintings, surely the activity of any former chief executive is worth a momentary gander, but because they're unimportant. They don't reveal anything about him, the nation, or life. So why talk about them?

There is, I think, a desperate desire to resurrect the relevance of George W. Bush because he stirs up strong, positive feelings for many people. Yes, positive. The left prefers to remember a time when they took principled stands against corruption over sinking into the soul-sucking silence of their present sycophancy. The right remembers actually admiring a president (wisely or not) and having their guy in charge. A depressing situation to say the least. 

A good example of just how sad is a piece like this. The liberality I expect and pass over. Not every citizen of every republic wants the executive to return Cincinnatus-like to his farm. Too I ignore the lowly style with its inattention to euphony, rhythm, diction, and tone. Even the cheap shots don't irk me too much. We all have our moments. 

What gets is the grasping, the groping after any and every way no matter how trivial to eviscerate the man. When I read them I don't see vindication or validation in the heart of their author. Instead and with an audible voice I hear her saying, "I miss having principles. I miss feeling like this is right." She loathes Bush like an ex-lover, and like a tempestuous but authentic relationship she remembers it more fondly than the mire of compromises, half-truths, and excuses she's concocted to preserve the image of her new fairy-tale romance.

So maybe I was wrong about when writers should trash their work. They should save and print it all. You never know when they'll reveal themselves. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Carnival of Peeves

Any man of a respectable age will find himself vexed by life's minor follies, an intelligent man much by many. These peeves eventually sum such a quantity that they plague the man en masse, a carnival of peeves. They begin to swirl around him in a kaleidoscopic display of transmogrifying irritations, combining and complementing and amplifying one another to the mounting terror of the man.

It is at this time the man diagnoses himself insane. Surely he has lost whatever sifts or diverts such tweaking gestures away from the fore of the mind.

Should chewing gum bother me? It's but a mild vice and she's your friend, a thoughtful, talented girl. . . but oh that endless, bovine mastication. And the smacking, the smacking, her saliva splashing as the gum squishes betwixt her chomping teeth. The smacking!

I could tolerate it, though, alone. Yet the phone beeps and bloops and regurgitates every digital blip programmed into its tinny insides even as the radio blares the techno remix and everyone's talking and the horns are blaring and this is preposterous. Vexation at such is no byproduct of priggishness or excessive perspicacity but of an intolerable affront.

Yet surely I can better bear the foibles of my fellow man. What then of people who repeat themselves? Every time you meet them, after the usual pleasantries pass, it comes: the story. It matters not the topic, the repeaters have them all. Whether on politics or jobs or sports they pin you with their ever-ready angle and gored by the inane protrusion you stand there helpless. Then someone enters. A friend and ally? If only. Now the newcomer must be caught up and so the story begins anew, only the new interlocutor finds the tale fascinating and begins to pepper Scheherazade with questions. She naturally grows thirsty and begins to drink her soda, sucking each swig's remainder from the lip of the can. Madness.

What of the theater's rubes and irritants? The shaky-kneed paper-crinklers and the people who suck their teeth at every plot point. While the gentleman invites by charm, these people ensnare others in their ravenous presence. Such foibles are not mild transgressions but destructive aggressions which claim more and more of the public space until an inferno of aggravation drives out every civilized man.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Penne alla Vodka Philosophy of Life

Taste the generic.
At some point within my lifetime, Penne alla Vodka worked its way from culinary obscurity into the dining mainstay. This is not to observe that the dish is by nature a poor order, but rather there exists something about the combination of ingredients and expectations of foodies that always makes the plate a hit. Regardless of the freshness of ingredients, the quality of the preparation, and the details of the recipe, everyone seems to feel treated well when served a plate of Penne alla Vodka. Invariably it seems like something, and for that reason it seems seldom well prepared. Why fuss over a stellar preparation? Forget it Jake, it's Penne alla Vodka.

This policy or tendency or what have you, of accepting and praising something just for being, just for vaguely, barely taking the form it ought, offends good taste and decency in every walk of life. Government officials demand credit for activity instead of success, employees pay for showing up at work on time, and students good grades for turning in work of any quality at any time. Even in the world of the sacred this thinking runs rampant: it doesn't matter what kind of music is played at mass as long as music is played.

Underlying this philosophy is the desire to fulfill a need or appetite instead of an ideal. It might be an ideal that the specific task by its nature must be done well, i.e. the celebration of a liturgy, or it might be a general appeal to excellence. The idea sounds old fashioned: anything that's worth doing. . . but it's older still and wedded to Western Civilization. Aristos. Excelsior.

It's not hard to see the result of abandoning such aspirations, a poverty of excellence, but a worse effect pervades in a stultifying effect on the spirit. It does a terrible, quiet hurt to the soul every day to see a thousand things done well enough. The world shrinks as the symmetries of beauty fade and nothing beside remains but the tyranny of utility.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mozartian Counterpoint: Addendum: KV.465

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | Addendum

String Quarter in C, KV.465

I. Adagio-Allegro

The String Quartet Kochel 465 enjoys the most fame of Mozart's six Haydn quartets due to its dissonant 22-bar opening Adagio. The infamous dissonance of the introduction, however, has passed from hot topic of 19th century disagreement, inciting critical feuds and even re-written editions, to bearer of dissonances "mild" and "unproblematic to describe." (Irving, 54) Of course Mozart's music, here and everywhere, needs neither rewriting nor description, but understanding and enjoying. Robert Greenberg has also pointed out with humor and truth, "Only mild, vertical dissonance? As compared to what–a cat on a cactus?" Indeed there should be enough harmonic and melodic dissonance for anyone, but we're here specifically to talk counterpoint.

KV.465. Adagio. 
Annotated by N. Vertucci.
Click to enlarge.

The Adagio divides into two sections of 15 and 7 measures, with the first section breaking down into units of 4, 4, and 7.
  1. 15 Measures
    1. 4 Measures
    2. 4 Measures
    3. 7 Measures
  2. 7 Measures
Section I.A begins with the cello vainly droning out quavers of Cs which fail to establish a tonic center because of the viola and 2nd violin entrances on A-flat and E-flat which create the A-flat major chord. The 1st violin then enters, but on A-natural, clashing with the previous A and contemporaneous G of the viola and forming a tritone above the 2nd violin's A. The polyphonic entrances of the upper three voices which bring these dissonances create a formless coming-into-being and the descending chromatic lines following the initial dissonances evolve a sinewy chaos. Yet at the same time the imitation by its nature creates a framework of stability.

Section I.B begins and functions much the same way with the same phrase rising up, though now a step below, a beat apart through the trebles over the now-descending bass line.

Section I.C breaks the symmetry with a chromatically ascending figure, again treated imitatively although not passing through the 2nd violin.

Section II. The final seven measures finally establish the tonal area of C before we enter the Allegro, although not without disruptive syncopations and passing dissonance.


In the exposition we arrive at the long-sought after C major with a leaping, bounding theme. The imitation throughout this section amplifies the lush energy and vertiginous activity of the theme and scalar figures.

Exposition. mm.41-47
The development section begins with imitative polyphony of the main theme over a descending bass line which proceeds, in reminiscence of the chaos of the Adagio, to tug the whole polyphonic jaunt down into a crash of highly disjunct, forte, accented figures.
Development. mm.113-118
Whereas the imitation of the exposition magnified the energy and motion, the imitation here intensifies the drama of the minor tonalities.

This is extraordinary music, not just for its radical harmonies but for its wealth of contrasts and expression. Mozart moves from cosmic chaos to bounding human exuberance and concludes in a fusion of the two. The complex harmonies and contrapuntal frames don't stand out as learned and instead all but disappear within the effect.

Soloman concludes,
[Mozart] composes states of ambivalence that do not unfold successively, but occur at the same time, achieving the effect of simultaneity by chromaticisms, rhythmic shifts, modulations, registral contrasts. . . Mozart specialized in the representation of amalgams of opposed affects, of beauty and sadness, of consolation and terror, of longing and anger, of pleasure and pain, teaching us what it may mean when the object of desire is simultaneously the source of fear. [Solomon, 203]

Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. 2007.
Greenberg, Robert. The Chamber Music of Mozart. The Great Courses [Lecture]. 2004.
Irving, John. Mozart: The Haydn Quartets. Cambridge Music Handbooks. 1998.
Mozart, W.A. String Quartet in C, KV.464Score via IMSLP.
Solomon, Maynard. Mozart: A Life. 1995.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Verbal Chivalry

No one likes being ordered around. The reason for this truth varies from a humble belief in one's own independency to raging and irrational egoism. Yet to embrace self-government is not to absolve oneself of any and all duties. Most people understand this and embrace their responsibilities to others, if not necessarily with gusto then with fatalism. In the ideal performance of the social play, however, neither the necessity nor the principle persists at the forefront. I say this for two reasons. 

First, no one likes being reminded of a bare necessity to perform a deed. No one likes being reminded they must do something under penalty of any kind, be that pain monetary, corporal, or what have you. Who likes being bossed around by someone with no authority? Second, no one likes being bossed around by someone with authority either. Does anyone care for a reminder that he ought to help his parents out of filial piety, or show up at work to honor his contract? All such prompts smack of moralizing or authoritarianism no matter how righteous the principle and equitable the exchange. It is simply man's nature, call it unruly or liberal, that any hint of compunction ups his dander. We accept duties, but we don't like to have them throw in our face. We engage in exchange, but we don't like being hounded by takers eager for their pound of flesh.

The solution is a certain circumlocution, a tacit appeal to virtue in the form of a question. Let us call it verbal chivalry.* For example, the parent or the boss knows he can invoke certain rights and even make just demands under an unspoken principle, but he chooses to make a request. In doing so he chooses to emphasize the individual's sovereignty and not servility, to treat him as an equal, or even superior, despite his legal or moral claim. Such an exchange has several beneficial effects. The first is a liberalizing one, encouraging people to interact as equals who willfully choose the good instead of like bartering traders or servants fearing punishment. Second, one develops a sense of gratitude rather than entitlement; how much sweeter is that freely given? Lastly, this exchange allows someone to choose the principle on which he acts. Someone might grant your request not because you have leverage but because he believes you to be a kind or good person. Leaving room for people to act out of pure and simple affection seems a fine way of preserving it.

This seems far preferable to, by accident or with purpose, wagging our fingers at each other.

* Credit for the phrase to Theodore Dalrymple in The Salisbury Review. [Link]