Sunday, July 28, 2013

Movie Review: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Directed by Jay Roach. 1997.

If you can recall America circa 1997 you can probably recall Austin Powers. Mike Myers' breakout role as the randy International Man of Mystery was more than a movie, it was a craze. So charming was the titular spy, in fact, and so long could movies stay in theaters and the public consciousness, that everyone seemed to adopt Austin's playful, naughty vocabulary. You can lament that Oh Behave! and Yeah Baby! carried popular cachet, but who wouldn't trade in Bootylicious for Shagadelic and Honey Boo Boo for Austin Powers? Nostalgia aside, I did worry a bit when I popped in the DVD. Would Austin 'Danger' Powers charm again, and coax laughs after sixteen years of aging into fuddiduddiness, or would he seem a juvenile relic?

Well, my verdict is in and it wasn't close: Austin Powers is actually a good movie. A very good movie, and for a lot of reasons.

Foremost, there is a basic simple structure and the movie sticks to it. Frozen in 1967 and defrosted thirty years later to defeat his nemesis, Austin Powers is a fish out of water. The script wisely keeps Austin front and center the whole time and doesn't take detours. It also successfully uses this premise, Austin's acclimation to the modern world, as a prop for jokes, creating a sense of unity. The film's other prop is Austin's untamed libido, the spark for love and conflict with his sexy-but-stodgy partner, Vanessa Kensington. That's it, but it works. Modern comedies looking for a model could do worse.

It would be trite and cruel to say that the gags and jokes in Austin Powers simply "work." First, every joke in the movie, I believe, works. No, they're not all equal, but there's an ebb and flow to the laughs which climaxes in each scene. Take a simple one in which Austin Powers squares off in a poker game with the No. 2 henchman of his nemesis, Dr. Evil. In this brief scene, you get: 1) Austin introducing himself as Richie Cunningham (a play on his fish-out-of-water status), 2) the anatomically-sounding name of No. 2's secretary (a play on the Bond tradition of suggestive names for the femme fatales), 3) Austin's grammatical jumble of "allow myself to introduce. . . myself (a play on words), 4) and the climax of Austin staying on five in blackjack, a joke set up at the beginning of the scene. Again, there's a flow and peak to the humor that make a pleasing pace.

Also, notice that each of those jokes is a different kind as well as degree. Another scene illustrates this variety even better.

Austin and Vanessa have been captured by Dr. Evil and, in spy-vs-spy tradition, enjoy a last meal with the villain before being put to death. On the one hand the scene plays like the staple from Bond movies where the villain lays out his grandiose plan, but the kick is that Dr. Evil's son is at the table and the kid is hassling his father about how he should kill his enemies. The result is that the dynamic of the spy plot is constantly jilted by the familiar sight of a domestic dinner-table squabble. Another scene is equally effective using this contrast. There, Dr. Evil attempts to discuss evil business with the henchmen at headquarters, but the failed henchman he just sentenced to death is screaming in agony downstairs. The scene upstairs is played like a board room meeting in which Dr. Evil is trying to pitch a proposal, but the tone is constantly upended by the screams coming from downstairs. Both of these scenes are peppered with smaller jokes, but the attention to tone and the subtle subversion is effective.

Another secret to the success of Austin Powers is how it sets up its jokes for the payoff. Sometimes this is simple, such as when the literally-named No. 2. causes a walk-on Tom Arnold some confusion as he overhears Austin fight an assassin in, of course, a bathroom stall. Other times the set-up is elaborate, such as the finale. Here we have half a dozen jokes climaxing at once in an orgy of humor. First, we have the Femme Bots: mechanical robots which can seduce and kill any man. In a lesser movie they'd simply be introduced and exploited for a quick joke, but their earlier introduction gives their appearance kick. Second, we have Austin's own infamous irresistibility. Third, after Austin's sexual slip up, Vanessa is on the watch for his infidelity. Fourth, the scene is treated as a dance number. Fifth, the context is the preposterous one of Austin doing this to save the world. Sixth and lastly, we have the running gag of Austin's chest hair, which takes on a life of its own here. These individual lines all blast off in the hilarious climax of Austin out-mojoing the Femme Bots by a striptease in which he vamps about in his Union Jack knickers to I Touch Myself.

There are plenty of other jokes in Austin Powers, too, from the escalating proof of Austin's ownership of the Swedish Made Enlarger Pump, to the two "accidentally" censored nude romps whose choreography to the Blue Danube waltzes suggests an elegance belied only by the visual innuendo and ever incipient nudity. Don't forget about the plain jokes, from Mama Cass' death via ham sandwich to Mr. Bigglesworth, from Dr. Evil's rolling chair too, of course, Austin's groovy vocabulary.

All of these jokes are stitched along the central threads of the spy satire and Austin finding his place and love in the modern world. Unlike its sequels, the latter is handled pretty gently and the movie finds a genial tone between laughing at and with Austin. We don't laugh so much at him as at the incongruity of his expectations and reality. By the end, we're surprisingly happy for Austin as he decides to be a one woman guy for Vanessa.

In short, Austin Powers is a blast that fulfills the promise of the swinging opening where all London is swept up in the magnetic spy's irresistible mojo, all the way through to the Man of Mystery's little apology for liberty: "now we have freedom and responsibility, and that's groovy baby!"

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Case of Anthony Weiner

New Yorkers are __________ that Anthony Weiner is running for mayor. Your choices are: outraged, insulted, stupefied, or shocked. They're all correct, of course, and they're all irrelevant as far as I can tell. Why? Because disgrace is a fickle condition.

The word implies the status: a fall from honor. So to fall from grace you need to have some to begin with. The worse your crime, the more honor you'll need. Only by this calculus can many of history's Great Men come out smelling so good. Julius Caesar may have exterminated Gauls, but that little paragraph of "reforms" that comes at the end of the text book chapter makes it all better. Napoleon might have plunged Europe into war, but the Napoleonic Code was so progressive. In American history, Lincoln suspends habeas corpus and fights a war against Americans, but he supports the 14th Amendment. Wilson lets the Versailles Treaty get well out of hand, but he dreamed big: a League of Nations.

John Adams is an interesting case. He passed the abominable Alien and Sedition Acts, but all he did for the better was avoid war with France. Priorities.

Bill Clinton is another interesting example. Here we have an unremarkable administration led by a man who is charged by the House of Representatives with perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton would seem to have had no capital to expend, right? Well, not in terms of objective accomplishments or virtues. He did however benefit from his own charisma and the appearance that the charges against him were motivated by political maneuvering and not the law. His case suggests that by honor and dishonor we don't mean anything necessarily involving virtue so much as favor. For many, Clinton never fell from grace and to this day people casually throw around how he was impeached simply for sexual impropriety.

Which brings us to Anthony Weiner, everybody's favorite politician-cum-photographer, portraits a specialty. Why has Anthony Weiner sunk to Caligula's popularity level while Slick Willie's a hit everywhere?

First, he didn't do anything exceptional which might have let this miasmatic funk waft by. The emperor is deflowering virgins? Well, it's better than civil war, and oh look at the pretty buildings!

Second, like Eliot Spitzer, Weiner looks like a loser. People will tolerate, it seems, dishonest and even abusive behavior, but one whiff of the pathetic and you're out.

Third, Weiner is an easy target. He's not in office, so no one has to call for a resignation. There's no need for special laws or elections or procedures. We don't need to question the system. Everyone just gets to poke fun. Right now, amidst so many problems we refuse to deal with, castigating this man feels like an easy way to exercise power and regain confidence. We'll tolerate incompetence, corruption, deceit, and mayhem at every level of government, but his line we will not cross.

No, Anthony Weiner is not a great or virtuous man, but his failure should be at the ballot box. Meanwhile, the finger-waggers would do well themselves to take responsibility for the city and nation's runaway problems, risk their own fortunes and reputations, and suspend their incredulity at the audacity of a failed fool's hope.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Snowball of Progress

That aspect of conservatism which is simply a disposition toward preservation gives rise to much consternation for both progressives and conservatives. On the one hand, conservatives in simply preserving the status quo must preserve what they do not actually approve. On the other hand, progressives must concede they too need a conservative disposition if they are to preserve progress. Ideology naturally determines just what each person wishes in particular to preserve, but testifying that disposition often trumps ideology is the fact that both sides wish to preserve nearly every political policy.

It is thus the position in 21st century America that we find ourselves in a state of legislative torpor, not due to a natural democratic deadlock, but the fact that we can't both infinitely preserve and progress everything. Everything which has been added to policy at the national level is sacrosanct. What was once added as an experiment or a measure for the moment is now eternal policy. Moreover, it no longer satisfies conservatives or progressives enough to conserve, for even reductions in the rate of increase are viewed as regress.

Of military matters, we went from debating the prudence of a standing army to mainstream politicians regarding as "dangerous" any upset to the surveillance state. Regarding economics we have failed WWII era planning still gumming up commerce and a near-century of the Federal Reserve presiding over the dollar's decline. If you want to End the Fed, though, then you're some crazy old cook. In education, academic perfection was attained for mankind back in the hoary antiquity of 1979. If you admit to skepticism of The Department of Education you might as well confess you want to grind up the Parthenon friezes.

The irrational origins of the social services are as forgotten as the debates which surrounded their passage. They passed so they're permanent. Conserve progress. There's a telling line in the BBC television program Yes, Prime Minister in which the naive private secretary to the PM, Bernard, asks Civil Service chieftain Humphrey Applebee about the progressive schools:

Bernard: Surely progressive education was an experiment which ought to be validated?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, Bernard, but not in-validated!
Never mind whether they were needed at the time or now, never mind whether they worked at the time or now: we have the programs. They're permanent. Resistance is futile. The states as bastions of experimentation? Pfft! Every program's a winner! Between the people who believe they are necessary and those who actually use them, the programs are popular enough to prove invulnerable to protest. One can no more propose change to Social Security than one can propose to chip away at the Washington Monument. History has been written.

Without the creative destruction of a free market constantly reallocating scarce resources to where they are needed most at the moment, leviathan stomps along, following its antiquated map. The conservatives and progressives have succeeded, contra both conservatism and progressivism, in enslaving the present to the greatest fools of yesteryear, a mind-boggling fact which prompted the following summation from Chesterton:

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
The result of programs accruing at such a rate and being administered on such a scale has had a twofold effect. The first is that the government has ceased to become a guarantor against aggression but a dispensary of rights with the Commander in Chief doubling as apothecary. The second result is clamor for the uses and services of the government even as its inefficiencies reduce the quality and availability of the product. The government has effectively crowded out both a marketplace of trade and the virtues of civil society. A fragment of Ennius describes the pernicious effect:

Cum debere carnufex cuiquam quicquam quemquam, quemque quisque conveniat, neget.
Since the rascal denies that anyone owes anything to anyone, let each one sue the other. 
To arrest the downward trajectory of commerce, politics, and civility, conservatives and progressives need to realize that neither disposition implies linear activity. Instead, both require prudent cultivation, a process always slow, often oblique, and varied with respect to person, place, technique, time, and tool. Not every good must find expression in government policy, and not every policy, even the good, need be permanent. The alternative is a Sisyphean punishment for both the foolishness of thinking politics permits the solution to all problems, and the hubris of believing you've found it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Just Plain Bad

The latest speech from the 21st century Cicero has arrived and it's a doozy. How long and boring and tedious it is!

It's all over the place, from attempts at epithets, "proud Maytag workers," stranded analogies, "the bargain began to fray," and inexplicable shifts in tense:
Technology made some jobs obsolete. Global competition sends a lot of jobs overseas. It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class.

We get some awkward ordering of phrases:
But by the time I took office in 2009 as your president, we all know the bubble had burst.
 Then there are plain old bizarre turns of phrase:
doled out bigger tax cuts to the very wealthy and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor.
You can dole cuts? "Smaller minimum increases?"

Strained connections:
And so what happened was that -- (applause) -- the -- the link between higher productivity and people's wages and salaries was broken.
A link between three things?

Don't forget pointless asides:
Or they'll bring up "Obamacare" -- this is tried and true -- despite the fact that our businesses
So what's tried and true? That they bring it up? Doesn't that imply that you were just lying?

Then there are the vast gaps in explanation:
we've got to continue to end the war in Afghanistan
So we've been ending it? When? How? When was the middle? When did the end begin? What constitutes an end? Can you in fact be ending before you've ended, or is there simply an end?

We get perhaps the worst antistrophe ever:
That's what we have to spend our time on and our energy on and our focus on.
"Let's see, which word should get the emphasis? Hmmm. I know, on, because words!"

Don't forget the plain old ugly: It does not require havingeverybody who's fighting to get intothe cornerstones of what it means. Oh the humanity!

Finally, there's the incomprehensible:
This growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity, this growing inequality -- it's not just morally wrong; it's bad economics because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what?
Nope, I'm not guessing anymore. I'm out of here.

Sum and Part

Daphnis ego in silvis hinc usque ad sidera notus
formonsi pecoris formonsior ipse.
–Vergil. Eclogue VI. 43-44

The connection between man and deed is a curious one, not nearly so obvious and finite as it seems. Philosophy asks if what we do is ethical, most often approach the question from the perspective of agency, focusing on ethics and effect. The natural sciences are concerned with cause and process. Similarly, psychology asks us why we do something and history asks who did what, when. There is between these pursuits, though, the strange phenomena of how deeds and ideas adhere to man, who exists as he fashions himself, as his deeds form him, and how he is perceived by others. None of these factors is predictable or permanent. What do we make of men, then, when each one is Proteus?

History hands down as it transforms. On the one hand, we inherit Heraclitus as the weeping philosophy and Haydn as the laughing composer. Cicero is the model republican, Pericles the model statesman. Like Cleobis and Biton, these figures are frozen in time and honor as epitomes of virtue. On the other hand, Julius Caesar varies from age to age. Is he the tyrant, the betrayed, or the commander? Why do some deeds seem to shake right off their perpetrators? Caesar doesn't take much flak for the Gallic War, Pericles for the Peloponnesian, Cicero for being pompous, Augustus or Napoleon for police states, and so on.

The famous, however, stand exceptions to the rule that it is man's fate to be forgotten by this world. Even we mortals style ourselves, though. Sometimes we identify with our profession, sometimes by our faith or ideas, sometimes by one virtue or other. We act one way with one person, and another with others. We wonder about or avoid our motivations. It is often noted that only the individual ever knows himself, but less so that there's an element of perpetual uncertainty even for that endeavor.

When I act, then, is it the intellectual, the Catholic, the teacher, the man, the friend? Do I act from principle or as some grand whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Strangely, that which escapes man attains a unique grandeur. I speak not of natural phenomena such as caverns, sunsets, and great trees, but works of man which seem not to have been authored but rather in anonymity gifted into nature's domain. Consider the nameless medieval cathedrals and the chants which echo through the ages. How different is it reading Aristotle than Plato, the latter's thoughts being bound up in the curious character of Socrates whom we come to know while Aristotle's colorless, humorless treatises seem sprung from logic itself. (All for that quirk of fate that his other writings were lost.) How different is it to read Vergil in the context of 1) Vergil's art, 2) the politics of the early Roman Empire, 3) Augustus, and 4) the influence of other authors, than it is to read Homer, who reaches out raw but pure from the darkness. There seems such a freedom in the figures on those Greek jars, created not in some academic paradigm for a museum, but for living.

Like the ambiguities about ourselves, those of nature often do not obscure but refract and reflect us in our attempts not at analysis, not at use, but at contemplation. They invite not study, but a, if not pure then primarily, aesthetic experience.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Where Are My Eagles!

Skeptical eagle is skeptical.
I don't want to talk about the coma-inducing sentimentality of this ridiculous piece of music, and I don't want to talk about its musical development, or lack thereof. I don't even want to kvetch about how boring and repetitive the song is, or its jejune imagery and pedestrian vocabulary. I just want to know what's going on with the birds in this song. Is that so much to ask?

The lyrics:

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

The snare of the fowler will never capture you,
And famine will bring you no fear;
Under His Wings your refuge,
His faithfulness your shield.

First, how will we be raised up on the wings? Does the author mean on top of wings? Clearly not, because you can't be on top of the wings which must be flapping if the eagle is flying. So what he must mean is "by means of" wings, but how does that work? In this thinking we must be transitively moved by the wings, since the wings move the bird which move whatever is attached to the bird. That's an awkward conception given how we don't say that we flew by means of wings if we take a plane, or drive by means of wheels if we take a car.

The whole vehicle is important, though, be it plane, car, or bird, because you can't raise someone up by wings alone: what about the rest of the eagle? You clearly need the body because the wings couldn't fly without the body. He must mean the whole eagle, then, which means that wings is synecdoche for the eagle, which is already a metaphor. Yowza!

Yet more problems arise since birds lift by grasping with their talons. This can't be how we are to be lifted, though, since the talons grip by piercing. Ouch! Maybe then, we're tied to the eagles. If so, who's tying everyone to the eagles? Do we tie ourselves? Who unties us?

Hold on, now I'm in the palm of his hand? We just established that eagles don't have hands, they have talons! So what is His Hand then? It can't be a metaphor for the bird because it is capitalized and it refers to something which the bird doesn't have. It must simply refer to God, but then why are we talking about birds?

Anyway, things don't improve in stanza two. Where did the fowler come from and why is he coming after me? Wouldn't he be going after, I don't know, the eagle? Also, why would I get caught by the fowler? Am I likely to get caught in a trap for birds? If the fowler is Satan, then why isn't he going after the bird? Or if he's going after me, not being a bird, why is he a fowler? Also, considering how many people are picky about using archaic language at mass: fowler, really? Maybe the fowler could help tie you to the eagle, ever think about that Mr. Author? Then the fletcher and the archer could be the bad guys and the tailor can cut you loose when you land. Just a thought.

So now I'm definitely under the wings, but am I just present anywhere beneath them or am I sort of nestled under them? I can't be nestled if he's flying, but then how am I protected if I'm not nestled? If I'm just hanging what happens if  the archer shoots at me? Also, if I'm tied to the eagle, how is his faithfulness my shield? Can he untie me? How? Would he try to maybe bash me against a rock to knock me off? If I'm tied, though, wouldn't that make him crash too? Finally, where's the eagle going. Is it a migratory eagle?

Wait, is there one eagle or more? Am I tied to two eagles? Are they the same species going to the same place?

I'm so worried now, what am I supposed to do? Should we try different birds? Falcons, owls, swallows? Help!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

John Williams: The Asteroid Field

John Williams is likely the most known and loved composer of movie scores in the last forty years. He's probably the most popular composer outside the world of movies, too. When folks think about Williams' work, though, they likely think of his great themes, from the galloping Raiders march and unfolding grandeur of Jurassic Park to the languishing violin solo of Schindler's List. Rightly regarded for their concision and expression, these themes tend to overshadow other aspects of the scores, namely the sustained mood and motion, and the instrumentation. We can find these virtues in full swing in one of Williams' best pieces, The Asteroid Field, from The Empire Strikes Back.

N.B. Since we don't have a digital score here to which we can jointly refer, I'll be less discussing syntax than style, color, and effect. In lieu of bar numbers I'll refer to time codes in the above video.

The open strokes in the cellos set both pace and scene, with the star destroyers in hot pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. These strokes then proceed at first just underneath plucked strings, then underneath triplets in the flutes, then with splashes of brass. This slow, soft opening, the drift into the asteroid field, is then smashed by a forte unison whose exclamatory effect is amplified by the cymbals which seem to splatter the energy throughout space, an effect which is picked up and maintained by the reverberation of the percussion's angular theme. Next the brass enters, all halting and herky-jerky like the rickety Falcon hurtling through space.

Now we're flying every which way. (:20) First the brass throbs along, hurrying and fleeing past the cymbal's starbursts and around the percussion's twisty theme, given torsion and tension in the strings. (:40) Then way up in the orchestra debris starts to whistle by. At (:55) the brass seems as if it's about to break away but it settles into an equally hasty, nervous version of its figure. (1:05) Next the strings get carried away in a torrent of rising frenzy but at (1:12) the brass reasserts itself with a slowly crescendoing figure whose last note bursts with a clash of cymbals. Asteroid field indeed.

(1:20) Here the brass is back but the tension remains as the percussion frenzies away until the winds puff along a stubborn version of the percussion's first theme. At last the strings snatch up the theme and spin it into a sprawling brass forte theme (1:36) which soars gloriously through the stars.

(2:00) We are all rhythmic variation here, building and prolonging the tension until the next swooning release of the main theme, which comes not at the false climax of (2:25) but at (3:16) with more fanfare than ever. Here, the concert ending vanishes into miniature scampering and a final crash whereas the film version flows into Williams' gliding, celestial theme, warm and atop on the winds, which plateaus the tension of the movement.

In conclusion, The Asteroid Field is one of Williams' most exciting and effective pieces, with rhythm and instrumentation so effectively complementary that the effect is downright visceral. A triumph of suspense, and vitality, the work is suited to its visual counterpart that the cinematic combination strikes the primeval spot between terror and wonder from where we look, ever childlike, upon a grand, wide horizon.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yeah but. . . you know

The well of imbecility runs deep, dear reader, and in the latest demonstration of its inexhaustible depths the president has shared the following wad of wisdom:

"...if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws." -President Barack Obama, 7/19/13 [Link]
Foolishness is never more dangerous and dastardly than when disguised as wisdom and moderation. Here we have an incongruous analogy set up as a hypothetical test of a tangential issue presented as the vindication of unspecified criticism about the Zimmerman verdict. It's a good thing the president decided to, "let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those [legal] issues."

The appeal of such a statement is more peculiar and particular, though, than the logic therein, for one must ask: why would such a sentiment appeal to anyone? From whence comes the need to find a systemic problem? Can't anything happen without being part of a trend, which the newscasters love to term a "disturbing pattern of events," that necessitates rethinking, reforming, and too often, infringements on liberty? Wouldn't you be glad if something bad weren't true?

Moreover, why do some people seek to prove that America is fundamentally flawed? It is one manner to admit that your home has flaws, even grave ones, for the purpose of admonishing it, but quite another to exercise with such alarming regularity a reflexive instinct toward disparagement. On the other hand, the contrast of heedless patriotism's motto "my country right or wrong" is of course an equally deleterious condition, but I find it harder to understand the repudiating tendency which Roger Scruton has called oikophobia. First, home is the natural seat of affection. Second, the facts prove otherwise, at least in the present matter.

Now I would be less inclined to allege that "some people seek to prove America is flawed" if they didn't demonstrate their inclination so ably in the deft disregard for facts we see exemplified by the president.

I would be more cautious to allege such if the president hadn't prefaced the above statement with anecdotes which we're not only supposed to take on faith, but from which we are urged to extrapolate general truths.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store...
There are probably very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars...
There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off...
These assertions are apparently meant to stand in lieu of factual, empirical demonstrations of racism's causes and effects. So we're supposed to concede that racism has created certain problems, but also, "not to make excuses for that fact." This is illogic masquerading as pragmatism.

Finally, I would be more likely to believe such people suffered from a mere lack of facts than an aversion to them if the president hadn't proposed pretty blandishments like collecting data on traffic stops, "resourced us training police departments" (N.B. "resource" is not a verb), and spending "some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys?"

As if those points are not incredible enough indictments of the president's lack of seriousness, he peppers them with a sudden doubt about overweening federal legislation ("I'm not naive about the prospects of some grand new federal program") and deference for federalism, ("Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government," remarks which could scarcely have less credibility.

Overall, the president's speech is sophomoric in thought and insidious in effect. Couched in a faux-casual flurry of "you knows," the speech pretends to walk a line of moderation and pragmatism even as it exemplifies and justifies the thinking which precipitated the problem. It will only compel those who already harbor foregone conclusions, just like the case it pretends to transcend.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Double Feature Review: Pitch Perfect & Sharktopus

To paraphrase musicologist Hans Keller, great art diversifies a unity. One of the principal challenges of art, then, is crafting episodes which both stand alone and reflect the whole. The essential challenge of this craft is threefold: he must depart, do something, and return. These miniature journeys are easily observed in the musical form called the rondo, which features variation episodes punctuated by a return to the main theme, announced at the outset. In the form called the fugue, the main idea is the fugue subject and the "plot," so to speak, is the many forms which this unity can assume. In drama, the episodes, called scenes, relate back to a plot which constitutes a main idea. This is an ideal toward which all great artists struggle.

Lesser works, as Keller observed, merely unify disparate elements, elements which may or may not add up to something significant. For example, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction persuasively unifies various stories by means of plot and style, but they don't add up to anything in the way the dramatic and philosophical symmetries of Altman's Short Cuts or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey constitute themes from which seemingly disparate rivers spring. Pulp Fiction, though, strives towards unity.

All forms are subject to degradation, though, and there are still lesser degrees of unity, the lowest of which allows each form wholly to dissipate into its constituent parts without any attempt at unity. Works at this level exist to fulfill the stock requirements of the genre, not to express ideas. Such insincere attempts at expression which merely model the forms of art are not unique to our age. Vivaldi's Venice knew too many thinly-plotted operas which were little more than vehicles for screeching sopranos and Mozart's Austria drowned in thousands of dry, drowsy string quartets. Our own age knows the phenomenon in the form of cheap genre movies.

Directed by Jason Moore. 2012.

Pitch Perfect doesn't care about anyone either in or watching it. No one involved bothered about doing anything new or with even a teensy bit of flair or variation. It has a weekend script which strings a series of stock elements along a plot for which it has so little concern that occasionally it skips the bother of scenes altogether, preferring to summarize the plot in narration or outright dropping action which nonetheless takes place and whose results we are forced to infer. This reduction liquefies the plot into something as complex and significant as the summary of a Chinese cookie fortune.

The movie of course does have the obligatory genre elements, namely, 1) adolescent angst, 2) spontaneous singing, 3) gross lowbrow comedy, 4) paternal finger-wagging, 5) rivalries, 6) a kinda-sorta romance, and 7) safe, oblique references to non-SWPL life, all played for cheap laughs.

There is no touchstone of direction or purpose, and certainly no attempt toward style or even tone. We only generously call it a movie.

Budget: $17,000,000 (estimated) 
Opening Weekend: $5,149,433 (USA)

Directed by Declan O'Brien. 2010.

At least Asylum Studios is frank about their motivations: they're gaming the system. The only fact I doubt from their remarks is that it takes so long as ten days to write one of their scripts. Just like Pitch Perfect, there's no plot to speak of, and while I wasn't looking for much, you need something. Jaws might have set in motion thirty years of inferior knock offs, but only because it perfected the formula. You had Chief Brody's awkwardness in suburbia, the interplay of the three men on the boat, and of course the looming presence of a giant killer shark, culminating in a man versus beast struggle. Sharktopus has many of the same parts, people running, people on the beach, people being eaten, and so forth. Throw in some tech gizmos, a couple of jerks to give the hero some grief, and a pretty girl, and I guess you have a movie. Unlike the terrifying Jaws, though, there is no effect because the parts are so incongruous. 

On the one hand these movies are a clear cash grab, but on the on the other we get a whiff of Duchamp's urinal. There's a challenge to art somewhere in the audacity, not of defining these pieces as art, but of throwing them in the ring with art. Lowbrow adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars demonstrate that with enough skill you can turn even junk and old stiff models into veritable entertainment, at least. These works, though, aspire neither to craft nor effect of any kind. They are vestiges of Western art: evolved, but impotent. Most people look at such movies with a light heart, but I wonder if we ought not be at least a little offended. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Art of Not Having An Opinion

While swimming in the jury pool with my fellow citizens earlier this year, I found myself waiting long whiles with them in an auditorium festooned with televisions. At the time, everyone was following the trial of Oscar Pistorius, who was accused of murdering his girlfriend. Whether out of interest or deathly boredom, people freely gossiped about the courtroom drama. The ad hoc popular verdicts were unanimous in affirming his guilt, a fact which troubled your humble blogger who found these extra-legal pronouncements quite disturbing, coming as they did from people who might imminently serve on a jury.

Hours later, though, many of these same mystics and prognosticators sat with me in the courtroom for some pre-selection procedures. They asked me a good many ways whether I would be able to remain impartial: do I know anybody at the court, do I know anybody who's been involved in the case, and so forth. Then the defense reminded us about holding to the facts of the case, and the prosecution about the burden of proof. None of these reminders shattered my conceptions, but they were presented with a degree of seriousness, in an environment of such seriousness, which, combined with the gravity and procedures of an actual trial, might have snapped a few folks from their penchants for armchair adjudication. I'm not generally sanguine about the popular penchant for remaining focused, logical, and objective, but with enough prodding, it's not inconceivable.

On the other hand, I sat down at my desk yesterday morning beneath such a Vesuvius of thesaurus-emptying, fact-averse vomitus that I found sole consolation in the fact I had yet to take my shower. I wonder if people realize how insulting it is to speak about matters on which not only are they inexpert, not only which have they not studied, but with which they have not even bothered to acquaint themselves, and then, furthermore, to voice that uninformed, unexamined opinion with all the trumpets-and-drums pomp can muster, and then, crowning their abdication from reason and decency, to dare and criticize anyone who refuses to lap up their piddling blather.

I know it's shooting fish in a barrel, but look at this nonsense in response to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. It is simply staggering how much ignorance, and inelegance, you can squeeze into 150 characters. Do these people want someone to set them straight? Does Ice Cube want someone to ask him what he could possibly mean by alleging that a whole city wanted Zimmerman acquitted? Do Chris Rock and Nicki Minaj know that 911 operators can't order you what to do, and they are not police? Does Michael Moore know his inverse hypothetical proves nothing? Does Mia Farrow equate patrolling an area which the police were apparently unable to, with "hunting?" Does Evan Rachel Wood think that every single instance resulting in death is equivalent? Do Omar Epps, Chris Brown, and Rico Love think all crimes involving guns are equivalent? Does Russell Simmons think that every instance of discrimination ought to be illegal, qua discrimination? Does John Cusack not know what a tragedy is, or does he think a fatal flaw was involved? Does Olivia Wilde think we can just "demand" a better justice system into existence ex nihilo?

As preposterous as these claims are, though, I've heard the same from people I'd heretofore thought predominantly reasonable, but who this time clamor in accord with their more famous counterparts in stupidity and hate mongering. These folks simply can't compute the fact that this case doesn't support what they think it does, which is that murder is legal, any particular people are racist, or the justice system is broken. The case, in fact, demonstrated very little: that a jury, given specific evidence and specific burden of proof, was unable to convict Zimmerman of specific charges. With no ulterior motive, one must find specific fault with the evidence, burden of proof, or criteria for self defense in order to find fault with the verdict. Stefan Molyneux did a fine job of assembling the facts of the case, but even his scrupulous video was greeted with familiar, unreasoned responses, in many cases because people see the verdict as the outcome of variables other than the evidence, namely unstated, unknown, and nefarious motives of Zimmerman, the jury, and the police. These are pitiable people tyrannized by their opinions.

There's an instructive lesson about prudence in Tom Hooper's 2008 miniseries John Adams in which Thomas Jefferson, already acclimated to the Parisian world, asks the recently arrived Mrs. Adams what she thinks of the Gallic character. Mrs. A. declines to answer on the grounds that she couldn't possibly form a just opinion in so little time, a denial which prompts Jefferson to tease that she has already done just that. Finally and to the chagrin of her silent, onlooking husband, Mrs. Adams coyly notes that even if she had, she'd not announce her opinions until experience had confirmed their wisdom or folly. Prudent advice from a lady worth the title, and how better off would we all be to follow the example.

It's not easy, though, because we all harbor preconceptions. Sometimes those thoughts are arrived at by reason and principle and sometimes they're heuristic haphazards that we've patched together. In either case, every time we encounter a new situation we're tempted to shoehorn it into our existing view and see it as yet another example of something we already know. To some extent this is necessary because we can't reevaluate every situation as if we've never seen it before, but on the other hand we need to exercise humility and prudence when the facts don't fit. It is better to educate oneself in silence than to speak out in principled error, or worse, shameless grandstanding.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Odi et Amo

Some attain immortality by doing great deeds, others by getting swept up in the affairs of great men. It's unlikely we would remember a fourth-rate crook like Gaius Verres had Cicero not so ferociously denounced the fool, nor would an obscure archbishop like Hieronymous Colloredo be remembered but for getting under the skin of a certain W. A. Mozart. Lesbia, as her lover called her, we know for her affair with the greatest poet of his age, Catullus. Her reputation fared somewhat better than those of Verres and Colloredo, who were both eviscerated to rags, but we generally remember her as the woman not who loved, but who tortured Catullus. Lesbia is not the inspirational Muse that Simonetta Vespucci played to Botticelli, inspiring thoughts of a perfected beauty to be contemplated and never defiled, but the spark of Catullus' very earthy passions of love and hate.

We really do owe to the ancient lovers a great debt, though, for the poet's pains bore one great fruit: a poignant, poetical crystallization of that curiously close kinship between love and hate.

That brilliant single couplet of poem 85, odi et amo, gets the glory, but Catullus 85 is best seen as the culmination of thoughts more fully explored in poem 72.

Here, Catullus begins by retracing his affair with Lesbia.

1 Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum,
2 -----Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere Iovem.
3 dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
4 -----sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.
5 nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
6 -----multo mi tamen es uilior et levior.
7 qui potis est, inquis? quod amantem iniuria
8 -----talis cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.

The first two lines are a miniature masterpiece describing the good old days, a couplet structured around dicebas and te, which set up the two parallel, sequential indirect statements describing Lesbia's promise.

On the one hand Lesbia once promised that she loved Catullus alone (1), and on the other that she didn't prefer even Jove to him (2). It's a simple, even slight, notion which only someone head-over-heels could have taken to heart. I wonder just when and why made this "promise?" To coax her reticent, junior lover, maybe? In flagrante delicto? Or maybe, perish the thought, the poor, proud boy, as she ushered him out the back door, paused at the threshold and asked how much she loved him, to which she replied with invisible irony, More than Jove, darling.

Perhaps, though, Lesbia did make this promise a full-hearted confession to Catullus one afternoon in some sacred lovers' grove and for a time at least, truly meant it. Either way, Catullus seems to have thought the love both permanent and binding, seeing how he interweaves the thoughts. Notice how solum...Catullum (Catullus alone) surrounds te nosse (you knew), how Catullum runs into Lesbia on the next line, and how nec prae me (not before me) literally precedes velle tenere Iovem (you wanted to hold Jove.)

3 dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
4 -----sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.

The word order of the next couplet is a twofold contrast. Instead of discussing Lesbia's promise we move on to Catullus' love, and instead of interweaving the thoughts, they are simple and linear. I loved you not as a crowd [loves] someone, but as a father loves his sons and sons-in-law. The contrast within the couplet is between vulgar, public, and temporary effusion, and heartfelt, private, and perpetual love.

5 nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
6 -----multo mi tamen es uilior et levior.

The third couplet opens with a brutal contrast, continuing the parallelism in the hexameters of leading with the main verb giving action to te (Lesbia) but viciously subverting the meaning. We move from Dicebas...te (you were saying... that you) to Dilexi te (I loved you) to Nunc te cognovi, Now I know you. All of Catullus' love seems to shatter and we expect a torrent of vituperation, but the poet twists our expectations by returning immediately to the thought of his love, which is not diminished byt amplified in impensius uror (althought I burn more strongly.) Catullus leaves us hanging at the end of line 5 and then drives home his point:

6 -----multo mi[hi] tamen es uilior et levior.
6 -----by much to me you are cheap and meaningless. 

This is the final evolution of the second person characterization of Lesbia:

Dicebas...te - you were saying that you...
Dilexi...te - I loved you
te cognovi - I know you
es vilior et levior - you are...

Here, however, Catullus opens line 6 not with Lesbia, but with his valuation (multo) and himself (mihi.)

The structure of the closing couplet encapsulates the whole of the poem, introducing by a rhetorical question Catullus' lesson: such injury urges lovers to love more, but to regard less.

What a delicious paradox: Catullus hates her for rejecting him even as that spurning betrayal inflames his ardor. As he values her less, he wants her more. It's a sentiment which has to be felt to be believed. On the one hand the rejection spurs furious outrage at the perfidy and indignity. It means nothing to be rejected by her. How could I ever have valued her highly?

On the other hand her faithlessness implants the secret suggestion that somehow, in denying you, she's demonstrated that she has higher standards, a tantalizing and infuriating fancy. Every tricksy turn, then, inspires both hate and love, and thus the full weight behind Catullus' most famous lines.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
-----nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mission Impossible

Epimetheus at the Library

I don't frequent libraries for a number of reasons, chief among them that environments in which people are trying to keep quiet perturb me even more than noisy ones. Think of all that whispering, those clopping shoes, shuffling papers, the clearing of throats–ack! Recent trips to my local branch, however, gave me pause to think.

First off, it was tidy, relatively quiet, and opened promptly, though 11PM is pushing respectability. It was even, dare I say, cheerily operated. It was also cold, and as such operating as a sort of kook-refrigerator for the morning. Kooks? Yes, kooks, and I didn't draw the conclusion lightly, say, after the wheezy octogenarian read his papers or the couple quarreled over which happy partner bore the burden of filing their taxes. Neither did I chuff at the lady reading the Pathmark flyer aloud or my table neighbor who went into some considerable detail about his, how did he put it, motherfuckin' problem. Folks watching sports highlights on YouTube? de rigueur. I was positively thrilled by the strophic cachinnations of the children following all 1,600 verses of The Wheels on the Bus.

No, I came to my conclusion about the kooky nature of my fellow bibliophiles when, as I read a little passage of Latin, I overheard that distinct clatter of pills clanking into their plastic container. The contrast of experiences juxtaposed so much that I sat astonished for a moment. How could those two experiences, reading Latin and pouring pills, occur in the same place? Nothing I'd ever experienced let me bridge the gap. I wonder whether the woman was as shocked as I, perplexed why this fellow was reading Latin where she measures out her medication.

Truly did I wonder that, because those folks were all pretty comfortable there, whereas I wasn't. They were at home in this place, probably because their homes are not particularly luxurious. This library, on those days I visited, seemed to exist less for scholarship than as a refuge. In a way that's appropriate because the selection is pretty mediocre unless you're looking for the soundtrack to Hot Tub Time Machine, film classics like Au Pair 3, and the latest issue of Seventeen.

Would that the classics section redeemed the place but alas it did not. In one way I'm not concerned, though, because the classics are freely available online, more easily and cheaply by the day. On the other hand I wonder whether the absence of serious, weighty tomes has itself shorn the library of its grave appearance and thus its serious, academic purpose. It is no library, however many computers there are, if you can't feel the presence of Athena hovering behind the shelves. Libraries need books.

Now I can see the liberal kerfuffle bouncing its way toward me like some vast tumbleweed: the budget! Ah, the budget. If the first chopped dollar snatches the celery from grandma's Meals-on-Wheels, the second saved buck is sending Moby Dick gleefully into the incinerator. It's not a question of cost, however, so much of purpose. If the goal is to educate people, then the public should know how many classics and scholarly works are checked out and we need to consider whether the present lending models are achieving as much as, say, those of Amazon and Google.

Unfortunately, the name of any company sends shivers down the spines of liberals who fear imminent privatization like a libertarian comet steered by Mr. Monopoly. If the goal is education, though, we are fools if we opt for no more empirical standards than the much touted access and exposure, and frauds if we only adopt means of education which satisfy ulterior motives.

If libraries are about something outside education, like being havens for the poor, then that's a reality we should admit. Likewise if they're about catering to popular tastes. If they're about something else, though, if they're about being places of social quiet, about research and discovery, about interior liveliness and timeless excellence, then we ought to strive for that, and not tout as success what is in fact an afterthought.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Nothing about Snow White and the Huntsman adds up. Not one thing.

I don't understand how a budget of $170,000,000 produced this simmering mediocrity. Where did the money go? Not on the scenery, for sure. The whole movie was clearly shot on small sets, often with foggy backgrounds so there wasn't even any green screen work, and those sets are deadly dull. The Forbidden Forest isn't particularly forbidding if there's nothing in it. There are only a handful of effects shots fancy effects shots, though they are successful. We hardly see any people in the movie, and even in the bustling scenes of towns, battles, and other confusion I'd guess there are at most a few dozen people on screen. Did the whole budget really go to the cast?

So what's with the cast anyway? Charlize Theron is so noticeably absent from the final three acts that they cut back to her every so often just so we don't forget she exists. Chris Hemsworth works as The Huntsman, mostly because he fills the same stiff, chivalrous, mold as usual. Here he's a sort of yeoman Thor, sans hammer. And please don't think that an exaggeration, for while he may be "The Huntsman," he's inordinately handy with weapons. Either The Huntsman–no, he's never named– actually is Thor, or he just really hates animals. Poor Kristen Stewart, obviously cast because she's pretty and popular, was just tossed into this movie and given no character, script, or help of any kind. How awful.

Speaking of the script, where is it? Was there one? It seems like they just loosely followed the Fellowship of the Ring pattern, fleeing from place to place, but there's no distinct impetus or activity which moves anything along or alters the course of events. In sum: Thor is taking Snow White somewhere, they meet a few people on the way, they get there, and then they come back with a few guys on horses to try and take a castle. The lack of plotting isn't even that problematic or unexpected, not nearly as problematic as the sheer lack of words in this movie. The director cuts to people looking at one another, fighting, walking, but no one says anything. Often the camera sits on characters poised to speak after some important event, yet they never say a word and everyone just stands there in awkward, preposterous silence.

For such madness two scenes stand out, both at the cost of Kristen Stewart. In the first, Snow White is set up to give a little speech to the troops before the final battle. She's all armored up and wide-eyed and standing in the middle of the people, and they give to her all of three sentences for this climactic scene. Worse, one of them is very short and another unintelligible. How can you do that to a young, inexperienced actor? Twice! The second time, Snow White has been crowned queen and she looks up with portent. . . and says nothing. The camera moves from character to character and everyone just stands around looking at each other. Where are the words? This movie makes The General look like Annie Hall. Most curious of all is that this movie has no fewer than four writing credits. This script is maybe a weekend's work for one person, and it took four people to write it?

So what do we have in this movie? A witch, Charlize Theron, steals the throne of the kingdom and imprisons Snow White in the tower. When the queen realizes she needs Snow White's blood to preserve her beauty, which is waning extra-speedily due to her witchcraft, Snow White escapes so we can have a movie. The queen doesn't really do anything though. She's stealing the youth from girls which is clearly bad, but that's not really a plot point and it doesn't create a sense of tension or purpose. The queen is also not terrorizing the kingdom so far as we can tell. In fact I don't know whether there is a kingdom. We only see one little town, actually we only see one road. And it's a really ugly castle in an awful location anyway, so who cares?

There's not even any romance between The Huntsman and Snow White. In fact there's so little dialogue and chemistry between them they could have shot the scenes separately and composited them together. I really think the plan was to put two attractive people on screen and just let the camera roll.

We do get a little humor, though, when the dwarves show up, inexplicably in the first rate cast of Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Brian Gleeson, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Nick Frost. I'm no expert, but if you're going to hire seven talented actors and presumably pay them money, maybe they should, I don't know, be in more of the movie! I mean they sing a little, they fight a little, and that's all well and good, but we're making a movie here, right? Can we at least try to do something special?

There actually are a few interesting moment in the movie. In one, Snow White is about to get bashed by a big old troll when suddenly the beast looks at her, is pacified, and walks off. There is almost some aesthetic or moral, well, idea at work here, as if she's so naturally pure and beautiful that even the ugliest in nature can see the perfection and will not harm it. In contrast we have the evil queen's unnatural magic which is aggressive and hated. The idea is completely undeveloped, but it's something that could have been with great result. The second moment of note is when the witch crashes into the ground as a pile of birds.

That's what you get for $170,000,000 these days.

This could have been a good movie, really, because all the pieces are here. They're just so badly handled, due laziness, incompetence, or haste, and the result so flat and lifeless–what a pity for a fairy tale!–that you can't even tell whether the movie fell apart or never came together.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Your Daily Pernicious Infusion

Drudge was linking the other day to the latest in a string of articles on preposterous  arrests and charges. Some allege a pattern of outlawing of just about everything, others see in increasingly SWAT-like tactics the militarization of police, and others see plain old brutality. I've always heard a lot about such issues in left and libertarian circles, but even the right, which is fairly quick to pull the anti-cop card, seems to be growing alarmed. There is plenty of literature on the important legal and moral issues but I would  draw two points.

First, police are not aliens: they're fellow citizens who, prudently or not, have been vested with a good deal of authority. I wonder whether police recruiters are doing enough to ensure they hire people with the proper disposition to be officers of the law, and whether they're following up with proper evaluations, for to every job there are both complementary and opposed dispositions. Also, it's quite possible that there are more positions than can be filled by proper candidates and no amount of funds or training is going to fix the problem because you can't give or incentivize character. The pool of ideal candidates for any job will vary from time to time, and employers across professions need to have the liberty to hire the worst and acquire the best as they see fit. Not everyone's good at his job and many jobs are dangerous when poorly filled.

How often, though, do we wonder about that: how well our friends and loved ones perform their jobs? Are they efficient? Respected? The thought that your friend or spouse is ineffective, or worse, at work is a surprisingly potent disappointment. We really ought to consider the needs of  our friends' qua professionals. As we noted above, not everyone is perfectly suited to their job and thus people often force a disposition, a tiring and stressful task. Police come home tired of having to be on alert, teachers tired of quieting children, managers of making endless corrections, and on and on. People need daily help, some complementary others supplementary, to get through their days, and such needs are all too easy to ignore.

Second, the public bears the fruits of its expectations. I've grown to think that, along with political caterwauling about crime rates, the fact that seemingly every night some variation of Law and Order precedes the 10PM news is having a deleterious, disquieting effect on our society. For my part, I've never flipped past either program without being appalled by the relentless fear mongering. I'm not sure whether you can spend two hours, maybe a few times a week, one speculating about fictional crimes and the next confirming them, and not grow a little paranoid. I'm not suggesting anything nefarious or the absence of criminal and dangerous activity, but Ii may simply be that in the absence of grave, imminent danger, man tends to seek some to give his activity purpose and import. Expectations seem to dictate much here.

For example, the NYC City Council recently approved of measures to increase police oversight, over the expected objections. Whether the council's reaction reflects genuine democratic sentiment I can't say, but there is a potentially troubling breakdown of trust here. Citizen's don' trust the police, who again are still their fellow citizens, neighbors, friends, and fellow New Yorkers, to leave the innocent alone, citizen's don't trust the mayor or commissioner to administer the police, the mayor and commissioner don't trust the people to hold them accountable as they see fit, and last but not least the people think a police force of such scale is necessary to protect themselves from criminals, criminals who are nonetheless fellow citizens as well. Troubling for sure, but I wonder whether our negligence and expectations have as much to do with the apparent breakdown as actual crime.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Another 4th

As we noted recently, holidays have a funny way of attracting as many naysayers and spoilsports as they do true believers. I don't mind the party-poopers so much because I myself am of two minds on holidays. On the one hand I prefer quiet solemnity to public pomp, and on the other, reflection to jubilation. The downside of reflection, especially on a day of celebration, is its liability to veer toward the pessimistic. Christmas brings fears of commercialism, Thanksgiving of waste, Earth day of arboricide. Things do seem to produce their opposites, and thus Independence Day naturally produces some loathing the loss of liberty. Is it appropriate?

By that I don't wonder whether it is honest to fear the loss of freedom: of course it is. Shouldn't, though, today as all holidays, be one of gratitude? Surely. Anyone anywhere with the slightest soft spot for liberty ought to mark the day with a little affection for America as people, union, nation, and project. The people prosper in myriad, unexpected and often untutored ways. The union circumscribes some behavior to preserve liberty. As a nation we've gone to bat for a few others. As a project the American undertaking has given everyone involved and everyone looking-on quite an education.

Surely enough, though, the other shoe falls and fearing for every cause which a free man might follow we despair for our liberty. Yet these fears, it seems to me, have a right to surface on America's Independence Day, for I can think of no day on which the Founding Fathers might have feared more for liberty than on the day they dissevered themselves from the mother country. They surely worried for their lives and property in the expectation of British suppression. They already knew the acrimony of self rule from the heated colonial conflicts among Tories, moderates, and liberals, between Levellers and aristocrats, between Diggers and capitalists, farmers and commercialists, among democrats, republicans, and monarchists, and seemingly every combination possible. What questions must have run through their minds. Who would run the war? Who would prosecute it? Who would adapt the state constitutions? How would they get along without British adjudication?  Would they be prey to other powers? What if the war were lost or, saddest of all, what if they had misjudged their readiness to govern themselves?

Familiar fears. It surely would have been easier to rush headlong or fall back, rather than prudently pave the way. While today's causes are often just we lay waste our efforts and selves when we allow any sudden gust of zeal to uproot prudence. For although we are a varied society of individuals, by dint of fate our fortunes are intertwined–more still, they have been interwoven over many years, and it is that calm with which free men walk with easy hearts among one another that bears the truth: peace finds a home not in the fool's inflamed romance with freedom but the prudent care of liberty.

Monday, July 1, 2013

TV Review: Downton Abbey

Written and created by Julian Fellowes. Seasons 1-3: 2010-2012

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. – W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming


I have often thought about that generation of Englishmen who broached the twentieth century. How many must have expected their privileged jubilee to carry on, how many that their antique virtues and traditions would preserve their world. Not even the soberest of them could have foreseen their culture's imminent twilight or its harbinger, the First World War. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is the pole of Downton Abbey, where things go on much as they have for hundreds of years. The tenants farm the land, the townsfolk sell their wares, the servants keep the estate, and the Crawleys keep up appearances. Don't snicker too much: Robert, his wife Cora, and his Dowager Countess mother, Violet, have their hands full keeping up appearances, i.e. doing damage control in the wakes of the Crawley debutantes, Mary, Edith, and Sybil. In fact, though he loves them dearly, no father since Lear had such luck with the suffragette, the backstabber, and the tart. How proud a father he must be, cleaning up after his daughters so they don't become the Crazy Crawleys of Downton.

Aristocratic pretentions aside, Downton Abbey could have proceeded down such conventional soap opera paths, neatly laying out fodder for gossip while stringing cardboard characters along a pointless plot. Downton avoids these pitfalls by using the plot to depart from the archetypes of the pilot and actually develop the characters. We see Mary (left, center) evolve from a sneering prima donna who delights in cutting remarks and outshining her sister into a humbled spinster after a furtive fling with an exotic houseguest, to a tortured fiancé. Finally, she marries the presumptive heir to Downton, including the dwindling Crawley fortune, and she's eager to preserve what in her youth she had dashed off with indifference. Her husband, a distant cousin and middle class lawyer who's poised to inherit the estate due to Robert's lack of a son, follows a circuitous path to nobility. At first he promises that aristocratic life won't change him but slowly and surely, as he grows to love the family and appreciate life on the estate, he too wishes to preserve Downton.

Mary's youngest sister, Sybil, provides a contrast to her sibling because she does, in fact, throw away her noble life by running off not just with a commoner, not just Downton's mechanic, but a republican Catholic socialist. Robert's inability to dissuade his daughter from marrying Branson is the first sign that life isn't going back to the pre-war ways. It doesn't help that Branson is stubborn and abrasive, never choosing simply to decline an offer or remain silent but at every opportunity feeling it necessary to articulate his opinions about injustice. Yet Sybil transforms her husband from an angry rebel with a boulder on his shoulder and nothing at stake in life, into a husband, father and, while not in name, a Crawley. In an amusing scene, he meets Dowager Countess Violet, his wife's grandmother, who has invited him to dinner. After he voices his opposition to dress coats, the symbols of oppression, she promptly ignores him and has the butler dress the man for dinner; he can argue politics with Robert as much as he wants, but he's showing up properly dressed to dinner with grandma. After his wife's untimely death, he realizes that the family still cares about him and his child, and that he can fulfill his ideals by helping Downton's tenants instead of burning down the houses of noblemen.

All three men, Matthew, Branson, and Robert ultimately adjust to their postwar lives, moving from impotence to torpor to unity. They each, however, must concede what is now out of their control. Matthew can't control the fact that Mary is willful and sardonic, Branson can't control the fact that Sybil still loves and needs her family, and Robert must admit that he can neither control his daughters anymore nor run Downton alone. Finally, none of them can control the fact that they're all family now, Matthew and Branson by marrying into it, and Robert by adopting them as sons. There's a moving scene at the end of season three where the three men, having each found his place in the new world of Downton, rejoice together after a house victory in Downton's annual cricket game.

That's half the story, and while the other half live downstairs at Downtown they do so with no less interest and intrigue. Can we begin with anyone other than Carson, the Lord of the Staff? Every bit Lord Grantham's counterpart, the Head Butler Carson is the joyful keeper of traditions, or as he would say, standards. He deplores disorder and staves off any hint of slackening standards by a stern demeanor which holds earls, ladies, doctors, lawyers, and virtually everyone in check. He's a sort of walking constitution, making everyone upstairs and down think twice about whether their whim du jour is worth breaking tradition. Carson's not wedded to the past though, just rooted in it. However much he grumbles about newfangled gadgets, he doesn't mind that the "world change us," just not too much or soon or for the worse. He upholds the traditions and abhors poor form not as a Gradgrind but because he loves and respects the Crawleys, his family, and everyone's behavior on the estate points back to its lord and lady.

The house staff might be an even tougher lot to wrangle than their noble lords, though, with varying plots to replace, promote, embarrass, and court one another. Yet here too there's meaning and not simply vulgar utility. Anna and Bates both move from islands of maturity to friends who take solace in each other's forbearance, to agonized lovers, to parted spouses, and finally to reconciliation. The perpetually scheming Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien move from being allies to enemies until they both are transformed, O'Brien by a tragic crime, and Thomas by a love and a death.

All of these downstairs threads are interwoven through the goings on of the Crawleys with every manner of eavesdropping, flirting, framing, and miscommunication possible. It's quite a feat to jump around from thread to thread but writer-creator Julian Fellowes manages it so well you scarcely notice the switching. Likewise he's adept at tightening the tension on some and slackening it on others, always pleasing and confounding our expectations to keep us poised for more. Just as everything seems to be going wrong, one resolves, as everything seems to go well, something awful happens. Yes, you could probably condense all three seasons into one movie, but there's an apparent, persuasive reality to the character who unfolds over months and years and not within the confines of two or three hours. Certainly there is much which might be cut, from flower shows and missed connections to false alarms and untimely detours, but when so well done it's less bloat than too much of a good thing. Besides, who would want to give up any of the Dowager Countess' balloon-bursting quips, the endless taunting between O'Brien and Thomas, or Carson's regal decorum?

For a show which is a frank riff on the soap opera and miniseries model, Downton Abbey transcends both, the former primarily insofar as it situates its characters in circumstances to which they'll need to adapt, but also by allowing its characters to act not based on what they just did, but based on everything they've done. Downton exceeds the miniseries model by letting its characters change and not relegating them to the stiff conceptions the series started with. Most importantly, Downton exists in the larger context of a world in change and examines the transition from one where everyone knew where they stood to one in which you must constantly adapt.

This slow shift is subtly handled and the most revealing part of Downton. In the old world, the lord gave the orders and everyone followed. Yet Robert's wife and daughters no longer obey his word as law. The girls run off with different men, to varying ends, and they take what jobs they like. Two parallel scenes tell the tale: Robert and Carson each forbid their charges to be in the presence of a young prostitute whom cousin Isobel is letting work at the house, and each in turn is duly ignored. Dark times.

Yet the prewar days seem more and more distant. Before the war, young men and women felt they had to attract one another. Men had to be dapper, informed, and successful, while the women had to be charming, graceful, and deferential. Both had to be genteel. After the war and the suffrage movement, the young simply come as they are, under the premise that no one should judge or be uncomfortable just for "being themselves," as cousin Isobel says. It's the opposite of Carson's policy of strict standards. Finally, as the years roll on, the characters slowly drop the pretenses of discretion. Where once discretion reigned a supreme virtue, now candor rules and everyone more freely says what they feel when they feel it. The coarsening of manners and the liberation from tradition have gone hand in hand, with the result that instead of joining and partaking in company, everyone is aggressively themselves. Except with Carson, of course, the holding center at Downton.

Downton's not a dour place, though, and there's plenty of joy in children, romance, and the familial bonds which do endure. There's also plenty of fun in cheering for your favorite characters, from the daffy head chef Mrs. Patmore and her loyal little assistant, Daisy, to the honorable Bates, to poor Lady Edith, the middle child perpetually trying to raise herself out of spinsterhood. We even get a few running jokes, the best being the accidentally sloshed Mr. Molesley. In fact there's a rather Dickensian quality to the characters in their daily joys and plights, and ultimately it's these colorful, imperfect people we seek when we so eagerly return to Downton Abbey.