Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mostly Mozart, 2013: Closing Night

Avery Fisher Hall. August 23, 2013. 

It is often boasted that the arts are for everyone and likewise touted that more young people ought to attend concerts and too that music brings people together. This is at least partially rubbish, and I would like formally to wish the two young women who jabbered to their mortified boyfriends during six of the night's twelve symphonic movements, some period of banishment to the most beshitted pits of Tartarean hellfire and there to enjoy the tantalizing torment of hearing, amongst the rattling chains and spinning wheel and serpentined fury, the echoes of Elysian peace and, now and then, some fading chord from spurned Parnassus. (Henceforth known as The Curse of the Philistines.)

What those philistines missed was an agreeable if flawed performance of Mozart's final three symphonies by the Mostly Mozart Orchestra under the baton of Louis Langree. The same strengths and shortcomings pervaded all the symphonies of which the minuets came off the strongest. There, Langree's firm strokes brought the dances to shaped and lively, if not nimble, life. The syncopations of the G minor menuetto were especially off-balancing thanks to the basses who weighed in heftily there and the whole night. Sometimes their energy supported the piece, as in the their responses in the E-flat finale and their snarling kickoff of the G minor's 1st movement exposition fugato, other times they swallowed the other lines as they did at points in all the fugal sections.

Right on target the whole night, though, were the winds, especially during Symphony 39. There, whether for their spot-on dynamics or  punctuation during the first movement, for floating aloft the fleeting canonical passages of the andante, or cheekily chiming in during the symphony's finale, they earned their section's special applause. The songful lines of the menuetto were especially soft and sweet.

Though the fugatos lacked the ideal separation between voices, Langree brought off the slow movements of the last two symphonies with a special romantic fullness which didn't collapse into languor. The concert was well worth hearing these two slower movements, often hurried over in favor of their flashier bookends, treated so well. Concluding, the Jupiter finale traded in some articulation for exuberance, but not to the point of laxity. The movement's themes were well-shaped and thwacking around until they joined each other in the great polyphonic coda which brought deserved smiles and vigorous applause.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Artwork of Middle Earth: Three By John Howe

John Howe is today most famous for his collaboration with fellow illustrator Alan Lee on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, but both artists have for decades illustrated the fantastic realms of J. R. R. Tolkien. I imagine there's a special pleasure in bringing Middle Earth to visual life, chiefly because of the coherence of the geography and its importance to the story. Tolkien crafted a combination of narrative and topographic detail which gives each place a story and story a setting. The result is an interconnected web of context which unifies place, people, and time across Middle Earth into, well, a world. The author's affection for this world shows through more strongly, though, in the minute details of time, texture, and color which describe everything from the mighty Numenorean towers to the hills and dales of the Shire. The result is a rich and exiting picture ripe for painting.

The following are my favorites from Howe's less known paintings, scenes from the Silmarillion. In each, Howe captures the plain narrative of the story, the details of the geography, and the emotional or thematic significance of the action.

The Fleet of Al-Pharazaon
Here Howe tells the story of Al-Pharazaon (Ar-Phharazôn), the last king of Numenor, and his prideful challenge to the Valar in which he sailed for their promised land, forbidden to men. Of foremost prominence are the king's vast sable sails, fully puffed and propelling its haughty golden prow through the sea. The sails cast a menacing shadow of azure–another heraldic color–on the water before it, contrasting the soft blues which pull your eyes back to the rest of the king's fleet and the setting sun, which brings your eyes back to those terrible sails which blot it out.

Slowly the fleets passed out of the sight of the watchers in the havens, and their lights faded, and night took them. . . and the Eldar mourned, for the light of the setting sun was cut off by the cloud of the Numenoreans. . . Ar-Pharazôn wavered at the end, and he almost turned back. . . But pride was now his master. . . [The Silmarillion, 278]

Morgoth's Forces before Gondolin
This is my favorite of the Howe's three paintings of Turgon's hidden city of Gondolin. At play here are the contrasts among the foreground, middle, and background. In the back we see the frosty veins running through the mountains as their peaks glisten in the golden sunrise. Yet for their size and beauty they no longer protect the city from Morgoth's forces, dark in the foreground. The dragon's limbs all arch menacingly toward the white city as troops pour into the valley's snowy mist that surrounds the white city. Both the mountains and mist pull your eyes toward the dragon who in turn points you down toward the city's citadel where all three colors and areas meet, connoting Gondolin's exposure and trapped fate.

The host of Morgoth came over the northern hills where the height was greatest and the watch least vigilant, and it came at night upon a time of festival, when all the people of Gondolin were upon the walls to await the rising sun, and sing their songs at its uplifting. . . [The Silmarillion, 242]

Fingolfin's Challenge
Clockwise motion directs all of the energy of the moment as Morgoth bears his hammer down on Fingolfin, the Noldor king who upon foreseeing the imminent destruction of the Elves in Beleriand, challenged in rage and despair the Dark Lord himself to a duel. Starting at the bottom, the craggy earth points up to the mountains on the left which lean toward the peaks of Thangorodrim in the right background and Morgoth in the right foreground, who points down to Fingolfin, whose shield points back toward the ground and completes the circle. This sense of motion puts great weight into Morgoth's blow as he swings Grond, blurred slightly to heighten the motion, onto Fingolfin. Yet the elven king seems prepared to resist the blow with a triangular, architectural, stability beneath his shield, a stability heightened by the parallel lines of his sword and shield. Notice too how Morgoth's bilious cape, feathered softly into the distance, seems ready to swallow Fingolfin, whose own cape defiantly splays out behind him as he prepares to wound the most powerful, the mighty and accursed of the Valar.

There's some subtle detail on the ground too, which seems not only rent by Grond's blows, but pock-marked and necrotizing due to Morgoth's insidious evil.

Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and swung it down like a bolt of thunder. But Fingolfin sprang aside, and Grond rent a mighty pit in the earth, whence smoke and fire darted. Many times Morgoth essayed to smite him, and each time Fingolfin leaped away, as a lightning shoots from under a dark cloud; and he wounded Morgoth with seven wounds, and seven times Morgoth gave a cry of anguish, whereat the hosts of Angband fell upon their faces in dismay, and the cries echoed in the Northlands. [The Silmarillion, 154]

In painting the scene of Fingolfin's brief success, Howe creates a moment of doomed hope which turns Fingolfin's courageous, impossible stand into a microcosm of elves' entire war against Morgoth.

Extra: The Door of Night
I couldn't pass over this piece which intersects with Tolkien's cosmology as well as the narrative of The Silmarillion. In depicting the door between Arda and the Timeless Void, Howe presents motion on three axes: the huge basalt walls rise up the Y, the dragons crawl along the X, and clouds move into the Z. Combined with the enticing diagonal color gradient, Howe has created a forceful sense of boundary most appropriate for the threshold of the world.

There it still stands, utterly black and huge against the deep-blue walls. Its pillars are of the mightiest basalt and its lintel likewise, but great dragons of black stone are carved thereon, and shadowy smoke pours slowly from their jaws. Gates it has unbreakable, and none know how they were made or set, for the Eldar were not suffered to be in that dread building, and it is the last secret of the Gods; and not the onset of the world will force that door, which opens to a mystic world alone. [The Book of Lost Tales I, 243]

Howe's illustrations are not only masterly but faithful to Tolkien's spirit and detailed descriptions. They're imbued with a grandeur which recreates at once both the sprawl of Middle Earth and the details of its iconic moments. As such they're among the most important and beloved works to spring from Tolkien's realms.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Keats' Bright Star

It's a trite saying that school is wasted on the young, but I can't otherwise explain how a precious poem, studied in one of my favorite classes, made no impression upon me whatsoever. At least, none of which I am conscious. In fact I'd utterly forgotten the miniature masterpiece, Bright Star, until a most charming girl just reminded me of Keats' swooning tour of sights and sensuality. Yet what did not, alas, appeal to my youth has captivated your present blogger, who has by now outstripped in years the poem's ill-fated author. It's less that fact, though, than the author's youthful creativity which confounds mortal readers. The work of most youthful prodigies, however meticulously laid, is largely precursor. We can understand a gifted youth writing counterpoint, painting large canvasses, and so forth, as mimetic facility. Then there's the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Bright Star, which possess if not sophistication, great expressive depth.

Keats structures the poem as a sonnet of a single sentence, apostrophizing and personifying the star at which he marvels. The apostrophe encloses a poem which might easily run away with imagery, instead creating a sense of dialogue and intimate space even though one party is silent. Because of that dialectical sense, then, it is a natural turn from discussing one party, the star, to the other, the poet. Similarly, the personification of the silent party, the star, lends to its activity a sense of agency and as such the star becomes a foil for the speaker. 




Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
___Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
___Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
___Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
___Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
___Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
___Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
___And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Line 1 Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

The aforementioned structure and sense is conveyed in the not only the opening line but its first word, the addressee, which pushes the lone image center stage without any context to shine. Keats then sets up the poem's premise: if only he were like the star. The poet follows not with similarity but difference, a series of vivid images describe how he would not imitate the star. This also sets up the contrast for the poem's volta at line 9.

Line 2 Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Lone splendour picks up the image of the star's isolated introduction in the previous line. Hung is a curious choice here, for unlike other possibilities such as floating, hovering, and the like, hung implies an agent, someone who did the hanging, and the passivity of what was hung. The image is then that of the star having been placed, with the creator hovering behind the image. It's easy to take aloft for granted, but it's the perfect word here, with its prepositional meaning of up and on and its adverbial sense of gentle loftiness.

Line 3 And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Keats now begins the personification proper, describing the star as watching, but there's more connotation and association in the line. Eternal on the one hand from hung picks up and augments the idea of passivity (the star is both far off and looking, not touching), which the poet does not want to imitate, and on the other hand introduces the idea of fixity, which the author will reveal he does envy the star. Apart serves two purposes, the first of completing the image of the star's open eyes, and the second of emphasizing the theme of the star's distance.

Line 4 Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The poet now likens via simile the star to one of mankind's secluded creatures: the hermit. Aside from its rhythmic flourish, the splash of French with Eremite calls to mind the Greek έρημία, solitude, loneliness, desert, which again picks up the theme of the star's passive solitude, but also, with its idea of desert and wilderness, sets up a visual contrast for the imagery of the next line.

Line 5 The moving waters at their priestlike task

Against the deserted image of the hermit in the previous line, we now see the first object of the star's gaze, the earth's waters. Here the participle moving gives energy and motion to the object of the star's sight and thus also emphasizes the star's stillness. Keats then personifies the waters too, describing them not simply as moving but performing a priestly task. The mention of priest here picks up the religious connotation of Eremite above and then contrasts it: one task is sacred but secluded for the purpose of personal purity and the other sacred but active toward the end of purifying others. Keats may also have had in mind the contrast of kind between the hermit's spiritual mercy as almsman and the priest's pastoral works of corporeal mercy.

Line 6 Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Now Keats describes the waters' task as one of ablution, furthering the religious overtone. With round he not only details the motion of the water but outlines and thus calls to mind the shape of the earth, emphasizing its discrete unity as separate from the star. He also characterizes the shores as human because the land is man's only home, a description which again distances the star, inhuman since it's not on the land, but also the hermit in his desert distant from the fertile shore and the chaste waves at their priestly task, all foreshadowing the poet's amorous turn of mind at line 9.

Line 7 Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Before the star was watching the waters and now he gazes on one of the poem's most beautiful images, the new soft fallen mask. Keats amplifies the tension and effect of this image by enjambing the key modifier onto the next line:

Line 8 Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

What an image is revealed here, a new soft fallen mask of snow. First, describing the snow as a mask draws together all of the potential connotations and images we might have into one single one because a mask is a singularity. The effect, then,  is that of one image: a vast white mask. Second, the idea of a mask naturally conjures images of the human face, which in this case would be looking up at the star, concealing the earth. We ought not overlook those two little adjectives from the previous line either, new and soft, which now achieve full effect with the image of the snow: the star watches the earth slowly shroud itself in white. Keats concludes the image with contrasting images of depth and height, mountains and moors, united by alliteration.

Line 9 No —yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

The poet makes his point that while he does not wish to imitate the star's distance or passivity, he does want its steadiness and permanence. He achieves ingenious and economical effect with still. On the one hand still denotes stillness, emphasizing the fixity of steadfast and unchangeable. On the other hand, adverbially it means nevertheless, suggesting contrast from the activity of the previous lines. Keats envies the star because while it sees much change, it is itself steadfast and unchangeable, words which the poet also applies to himself as he becomes the subject.

The next four lines are an overflow of sensuous imagery.

Line 10 Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

The poet is not simply laying on or with his love, but pillowed, which connotes an image of him, or his head I suppose, airily, effortlessly laying atop her breast. The participle ripening gives the line its sensual edge, though, with its present tense urgency and connotations of ruddy, full health.

In keeping with the littoral imagery above, it's tempting to place the poet atop Venus herself, coming into being on the fertile human shore.

Line 11 To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Keats continues to paint the picture of his perfection with him feeling forever the rise and fall of his lover's breast, as if she's embosoming him from below. Forever doesn't just augment feeling with some handy alliteration, though. Moreover, the poet is so enthralled with the sight that he's carried away forever in it, and forever picks up the theme of permanence and begins the climax of the poem.

Line 12 Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Awake for ever parallels to feel forever above, amplifying the repeated word and accentuating the difference, which is the catch that he'll also be awake forever. It's that combination of love and sleeplessness which makes it a sweet unrest.

Line 13 Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

Still, still here picks up the same from line 8, and completes the scene describing himself not now as feeling but as hearing, and hearing not just her breath but her delicate tender-taken breath.

Line 14 And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

The last line offers the two alternatives in equal measure. In the first half ever picks up forever above, and in the second half death contrasts the preceding end-rhyme and thought of breath.

The contrast between the poet and the star is the impossibility of his hope. The star is permanent but impotent, and the poet may love but only for a time.

This poem is a sensual delight. Its chief pleasure is a vivid and increasing intimacy as the poem moves with flawless transitions from the firmament to the earth to the lovers. Keats' mellifluous, euphonious vocabulary brings to life the physicality of the moving world, the fixed star, and the impossible perfection of the lovers' tender repose.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Top Ten: College Caveats

Academia and education is in the news as usual, though attention has shifted from the alleged and perennial lack of funding to the notion of a higher education bubble. There are too many schools, education is too expensive, students have too much debt, students don't learn anything, and so forth. There is credibility in these and other arguments, but I'd like to point out a few less obvious caveats. With them I hope not to dissuade prospective undergraduates, but rather inform them so they can make the best choice. More specifically, I want to emphasize what it is difficult or impossible to know before attending.

10. Professor/Advisor Availability

There's no guarantee the professor you want will be teaching the class you want when you want/need to take that class, even if it's been advertised that he will be teaching it. You may or may not be able to put off taking it and wait for him, and it may or may not be worth taking without him. He might be on leave teaching somewhere else, on sabbatical, or pulled to teach another class. The same goes for your advisor.

9. Course Availability

You never know whether they'll be sufficient enrollment for the course you want/need, a variable which will impact smaller programs to a greater extent. Alternatively, the class you want/need might be extremely popular and either you don't register in time or so many people register that the class is enlarged to its detriment.

8. Courses Differ From Syllabus

This is an appalling bait-and-switch. There isn't always oversight over whether professors teach what is on the syllabus. Sometimes they simply don't care, sometimes they're not prepared, sometimes they're teaching someone else's syllabus and they're unsure, but in any case, you don't know until the class starts. Worse, the class can vary considerably from the syllabus.

7. Quality of Materials

Some departments and professors use poor text books. It's as simple as that. Coffee table books? Zinn's People's History of the United States? Seen both.

More commonly, some teachers simply teach the book; there's no expertly crafted curriculum of selected sources. Is that what you need, want, and are paying for: a tour of a text book? On the other hand I've had classes with beautifully eclectic selections and custom lectures, painstakingly prepared.

6. Professor Quality

This is obvious but it varies wildly, although it's getting easier to check this in advance.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Economics 101 on the Daily Show: Hard Hat Zone

Everyone has had the experience of explaining something to someone who's just not getting it. Maybe your intended student is misinformed and trying to reconcile other information, maybe he's just a little slow, maybe he's having a bad day. So you try other examples and explanations and variations until you get through. It's when you really don't get through that things get interesting. Am I unclear? Have I not understood the matter myself? Your confusion takes a curious turn, though, when you start to see that your interlocutor is not engaging your arguments but deflecting them, and thus you realize that you're bashing your ahead against a wall.

With that in mind, Rand Paul must have some headache after his Daily Show interview with John Oliver last night. Now before moving on, I'd like to admit that I don't like the Comedy Central news shows. The clever tag-team of John Stewart and Steven Colbert occasionally make me chuckle and they've pulled some enlightenment from their hats, but the operating principle behind their shows seems to me clear and twofold. First, appeal to the vanity of the twenty-something would-be intelligentsia. It seems the majority of criticism which the hosts level is directed at supposed stupidity, and likewise most right opinion presented as obvious. Second, the shows are invidious hits against the political right. Not universally or unilaterally critical, but calculatedly critical hits for making the left wing seem, at worse, the lesser of two evils.

Senator Paul's 8/12 interview is a good example of these three phenomena of obtuseness, obsequiousness, and nefarious selectivity.

After some cute salutary remarks, (1:35) Oliver gets to the heart of the left's conception of the right's objections to the Affordable Care Act by characterizing Paul's objection as "religious." Such a description translates, to an irreligious demographic, as a fundamental invalidation of whatever principled explanation might be offered. Paul chooses to dodge the constitutionality and morality play and focus on policy, a wise turn because the CC audience will not likely be persuaded by principled opposition of this kind, but it will be receptive to arguments that the bill simply won't work.

Next, (2:21) Oliver suggests the fact that a certain number of Americans are uninsured self-evidently demonstrates market failure. Before noting the senator's remarks, we may ask why anything should be treated as self evident, let alone this. Healthcare, which is now a political totem and catch-all, is not an unquestionable good in all circumstances for everyone nor an end in itself. As such, why should a lack of it demonstrate any failure at all, let alone market failure? Paul proceeds with an economic counter-example culled from his firsthand experiences, a prudent choice, from which he segues into the process by which insulation from prices raises costs.

In response, Oliver resumes his religiously-oriented characterization by calling Paul a "disciple" for smaller government. He then asks whether healthcare is not something where government should step in, suggesting an affirmation. The question again invites an ideological response which would again confirm the religious set-up, but Paul declines again, offering not prudential but economic arguments. Oliver also chooses here to re-clothe his previous question. He says that business has had decades of opportunity to insure people, and it hasn't, which again implies that people without healthcare are being denied healthcare, a point which Paul easily contradicts.

After that exchange, Oliver suggests that the free market's predilection for profit is at odds with society's goal of stopping people from dying. First, note the puerile characterization, "stop people from dying," which should read "promote health." Second, notice how the statement implies contradiction simply by putting different things next to one another. What is this, Elysium? If Oliver had said what his statement is tantamount to he would have been the subject of humor, and what he said is the fatuous assertion that two things are different and contemporaneous, and the one I don't like is the causal problem. Why are different goals "often at odds?" Just because they're different? This isn't a remotely credible statement, but it's treated as self-evident. Again, Paul responds with an economic, empirical example, although I think it is generally unwise to cite for liberals the Soviet Union as an example of socialistic failure because they often see the USSR as having failed for totalitarian, not economic reasons.

You can all but see Oliver's mind flipping to what Tom Woods calls the 3x5 card of approved ideas: the greedy free market wants profits over people, the right is religious about everything, the free market has been tried and it failed, and everyone wants what the left wants.

It is of course worthy of note that man Oliver characterizes as a religious disciple is the one offering empirical examples and it is Oliver who's offering solipsisms. Meanwhile, we're supposed to infer from characterization of republican disagreement, called "contempt" for Obamacare, is counterbalanced by the rational, democratic support and passage of it.

Unfortunately, Oliver's closing, honest question on healthcare–how we will judge whether "Obamacare" (Oliver's choice of term) is successful–didn't make the cut. It is available on the CC website's page of full interviews, though. Paul responds again with economic predictions rooted in facts principles, and again Oliver doesn't contest them. On not one point was there an exchange. Oliver concludes that the two won't see eye to eye on the matter, but he hasn't actually made any arguments.

I'm not suggesting that Paul's positions are unassailable, only that Oliver's questions towed the usual lines and there was no fruitful exchange, the show's usual pitfalls. The hipster and bohemian fervor for these shows as honorable alternatives to the mainstream eludes me. They do just as poor a job of informing you, although they're chock full of marginally entertaining cheap shots and juvenilia. They're only must-see if you need your ego stroked.

I imagined for a moment that the producers of the show read this article and decided to rebut it, and that they'd do it first by quoting, "They do just as poor a job of informing you," and then cutting to the worst moments of Fox and MSNBC. Then they'd quote, "they're chock full of... juvenilia," and the host would pull his pants down, feign indignation, and the audience would laugh. Doesn't that seem disappointingly probably?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elysium Revisited: Seven More Reasons It Failed

I was so baffled by Elysium's morass of tediousness that I neglected the following points in my review from earlier today. Without delay then, and still with spoilers, Seven More Reasons Elysium Failed:

1. The use of music in Elysium is doubly offensive. First, the soundtrack is just a bashing, booshing rip off from the soundtracks to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. In a number of pointless scenes, we simply watch activity of tertiary importance as the soundtrack clanks along trying to add a sense of urgency. There's also no visual complement or contrast to the music: it's just cobbled together.

Second and more grievous is the idiotic and ham-fisted attempt to characterize the people by music. The poor people listen to rock and roll and the rich listen to classical music, Bach in particular. What does this mean? That poor people don't need or want spiritual and intellectual uplift? That rich people don't listen to rock and roll?

2. The use of accents and languages is equally preposterous, with the residents of Elysium speaking English and French and the people on Earth, English and Spanish. So let's first admit that English is incidental here and only present because the director couldn't pitch a movie where everyone speaks French and Spanish. In a world supposedly grown from today's, when and why does French make a comeback? Why is it the language of Elysium anyway? Poor people spoke French when it was the language of high society, and poor Romans spoke Latin when it was, and so on. So? What's the point here, other than getting beaten into believing the director's arbitrary conceptions by his weighty fists of ham?

3. On Earth, people have colorful tattoos and on Elysium people have scarified tattoos. Neither is more meaningful or expensive or symbolic, so who cares? One might be inclined to brush these off as details, but they give us a number of close up shots of the denizens' tattoos on Elysium, so it's not unreasonable to ask questions. Why are they different at all? In fact, today tattooing has risen up the social ladder, so what gives?

4. It might seem illogical to call Elysium pretentious when it has so few ideas, but it is the simplicity itself which is pretentious insofar as in the absence of ideas, the presence of difference–between the people Earth and on Elysium–is meant to imply something. Not only is that something unstated and not hinted at, but it is impossible to derive from the context. Are we meant to imply inevitable conflict? Injustice? Malevolence? Subjugation? If so, the movie needed dialogue and ideas, even if it wanted the action to be open to interpretation. If the director wanted to be wholly dispassionate or lean documentarian, like say, Gus Van Sant or Werner Herzog , then he chose the wrong lead actor, plot, and tone. When we see Max, on the one hand he's a nice working guy, playing with the local kids, working, and trying not to fall back into crime even though he has lucrative skills, and on the other hand he endangers Frey and her daughter to save himself and then won't help them, until he changes his mind. The result is confusion, not an ending open for debate.

5. Max's world is overcrowded and unpleasant to be sure, but food is plentiful enough for him to be in perfect physical shape, he has indoor plumbing and electricity, and he has a job. Any sense of historical context has to put one's sympathy in context here as well. There's also public transportation and a police force, although the police are clearly aggressive. In fact, the one scene where Max is searched and detained had potential significance, but it never fit in anywhere. Who runs the police? Do citizen's have rights?

6. The administrators of Elysium use contemporary political jargon like illegals and homeland security. Is this supposed to mean something?

7. Why does the movie leave undeveloped the part where Kruger, the psychotic mercenary working for Delacourt, starts taking over Elysium? This would have been an interesting twist to Delacourt's machinations had they been more developed, but it's actually just a twist to keep Kruger around and in Max's way.

The above aren't even plot holes or inconsistencies, just ways in which Elysium didn't actually mean anything. A most disappointing and frustrating piece, Elysium is a sophomoric movie which, despite its pretensions, is unsure of itself.

Movie Review: Elysium

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. 2013.


I entered the theater late. I'm sorry, but it happens every so often. In the opening scene, a rock band performs in a stadium as a riot rages outside. As partiers revel inside, a young boy witnesses a mounted policeman lynch one of the protestors and, enraged, pelts the officer who chases after him. Perhaps it is because I was late and not yet settled, but I was taken aback at the sight. I felt perhaps that the heedless rock and rollers mimicked me as I watched the movie. Was I ignorant of or indifferent to some terrible crime on my doorstep?

Alas, dear reader, this is not the plot of Elysium. (And I did not arrive late.) What I watched and have just described the trailer to the new Metallica album which preceded the feature. What I watched and described is also and in every single way, superior to Elysium, which is the 68th and most catastrophically derailed movie I've reviewed.

Elysium's most notable feature is its tedium. In fact, my mind stretches simply to recall what happened. The tedium is the result of several factors. First, we know the story is going to end up on the space station, and as such the script needed to do everything possible to make us forget that up until the characters actually got there. At a minimum it needed to build a cast of interesting characters whom we could like or dislike, it needed to seed tension between them, and it needed interim goals for which they could strive. Second, the script needed to paint a world of rules, not just situations. Third, the plot details needed to make sense. Let's look at these problems in turn.

I. Characters

Matt Damon is a convincing everyman. Here he's fine and good as Max, a cleaned up ex-con who suffers an accident at work which gives him a few days to live. But even if I assent to the idea that he has the right to trespass on Elysium and utilize their private resources, how am I supposed to wade through all of these the half-baked considerations and identify with the character:

Up until the last moments, Max is only trying to save himself. At the end, though, and without any words or indications of any kind, he decides not only to try and save others but to sacrifice himself. Why did he try and save the girl? Moreover, why did he change his mind about saving her, having formerly led the authorities to her house just to save himself? As far as saving others goes, was he trying to save everyone else too and did he think he did? If so, why? Concerning himself, even if he healed himself on Elysium, what did he think was going to happen when he landed on a space station where the people in charge clearly had no qualms about killing intruders? Even if he would go to jail, he had said he never wanted to go back to jail.

The only other main character who receives any, well, characterization is Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who seems to be in charge of defending Elysium against the immigrants who try to fly in. She reveals her only motivation when, questioned by an inquisitorial board for torpedoing several incoming vessels of immigrants, she replies that she wants to preserve it for the children. That's it? Is this a joke? She then wants to orchestrate a coup to gain control over the board, which she deems too soft on immigration, by some chicanery with Elysium's computer systems. I guess everyone on Elysium wouldn't know, or wouldn't care? Does the computer decide who is president or was there an election imminent? Is the office of president permanent? What is Elysium's actual immigration policy and government? Delacourt was rebuked by the board, so she's apparently at odds with someone.

Are we supposed to infer ideological tension from two people with completely incomprehensible motivations?

II. Tension

Even though their ideologies don't compete as one might expect, perhaps there could have been some situational tension between them. Unfortunately, they never meet in the movie. So yeah. . . Instead, Max's nemesis is a psychotic agent whom Delacourt illegally used to hunt him down. Before continuing, though, isn't it well known that it's very hard to control psychotic people? Delacourt knows the guy's record and uses him anyway, so I guess she thought he'd listen, a fact of which she was so convinced that she, unwisely, walked up behind and started badgering him. Smart move! Anyway, the guy's nuts so he doesn't have any relevant motives. (Hence his absence in Part I above.) As a result, he's not so much a source of tension as the annoying guy in the way whom we know will get defeated. Thus, there's no tension.

Is there tension between Max and the guy carrying the data Max needs? No, that guy has almost no lines. How about between Max and the woman he inexplicably loves? Nope. She asks him to save her daughter, and he says no and leaves. Then he changes his mind later, maybe. Between Max and his partner? No. Between Max and the black market kingpin who hires him for the data heist? Nope. That guy never kills Max because Max has the data, and then he inexplicably decides to give the data away at the end anyway.

Are you starting to sense how these problems pile up into a big mess?

III. Interim Goals

There is simply not enough diverse activity leading up to the finale. Max's injury sets up a countdown of five days, after which he'll die. The script needed a bunch of small steps for Max leading up to arriving on Elysium. Instead, he gets the data and is captured and brought there in several short sequential scenes which just sort of list into one another, making the film both long and uneventful. This is not illogical, but it is dreadfully unsatisfying.

IV. Rules, not Situations

I'm struggling to find out just what's caused Earth's woes in this movie. The prologue tells us the planet is polluted and overcrowded. Somehow that has thrust everyone into poverty. Is there also an economic depression? Where's the connection? What happened? Why aren't there just tens of thousands of skyscrapers, or people living on the sea? Does the writer not realize how preposterous the notion is that the entire planet is out of room? Wouldn't anyone think to pool land and try to improve it? There are clearly police and there's no apparent disorder, so it's feasible. Perhaps there is no property? Are the people actually slaves or do they get paid? Somebody's getting paid because the factory owner says he's losing money, which means he's paying someone for labor or material. Can't the people buy things? Wouldn't that make an economy? Or do they import things from Elysium? Those planet-side clearly have skills. Can't they use their skills to benefit themselves in some way? They can evidently build spaceships.

On the Elysium side, who built this thing? The people on the planet? Again, did they get paid? Who makes all of their stuff? Where do they get their resources? Doesn't anyone work for the people on Elysium? Wouldn't that make a class system on Elysium too?

Are we really just supposed to put all of these questions aside?

And for what would we put them aside, anyway? A guy with radiation poisoning, battling a sword-wielding psychopath by means of a pneumatic exoskeleton? For completely incomprehensible and impossible uses of technology, especially the obviously-misunderstood process of encryption? For Jodie Foster's continuously changing accent, and occasionally moving upper lip? For somebody shooting down an orbiting spaceship with a shoulder-mounted rocket?

For a farcical ending in which a computer program simply "makes everyone a citizen of Elysium," a preposterous solution which ends with flights of robotic doctors heading down to the planet? Even if Elysium had the resources to heal the whole planet, what about the overpopulation? What about the apparent economic collapse? Let's just pretend Elysium didn't exist and all of its people were back on the planet: what would that solve?

We also ought to note the peculiar lack of dialogue in this movie, which as one might imagine makes it quite difficult to know what they're thinking. So we don't. In fact, it's completely incomprehensible that anyone had the audacity to film a script so inept at establishing character, tone, tension, and context that its product is offensively tedious to the moviegoer. The only noteworthy question Elysium provokes is whether the yawning gulfs in comprehensibility originate in the writer-director's conception of reality or execution of fantasy.

Read our follow-up: Elysium Revisited

Friday, August 9, 2013

Presidential Rhetoric VI: John Quincy Adams

Welcome to Part Six of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of John Quincy Adams' inaugural address. The first presidential son of a president, John Quincy fittingly owes his considerable education, Classical and otherwise, to his father.

As a child he was instructed in history yes, but with a point of observing "treachery, perfidy, cruelty, and hypocrisy" which he "should learn to detest." Before his teens he delighted in Shakespeare, though in old age he confessed what humor he had missed as a child. Later, visiting Johnny at the Passy Academy in Paris in 1778, the father Adams would remark, "this child. . . learned more french in a day than I could learn in a Week with all my books." Years on when studying at Leyden, Johnny would receive from his father a gift of Terence in  both French and Latin, which the boy had of course learned by now de rigueur. From Leyden Johnny would write how he was "writing in Homer, the Greek grammar, and the Greek testament every day," although his father would write, outraged that the curriculum didn't include Cicero and Demosthenes, an inclusion upon which he insisted. Johnny's Harvard years, which he didn't reflect on with too much affection, rounded out his formal education, before adding to it an MA from his alma mater and joining the bar, age 23.

Let us see to what end the second presidential Adams' considerable intelligence, education, and experience met the occasion of his Inaugural Address, delivered Friday, March 4, 1825.

As usual, the speech is available via Bartleby, which we reproduce here boldface, with my comments following.

[A] IN compliance with an usage coeval with the existence of our Federal Constitution, and [B] sanctioned by the example of my predecessors in the career upon which I am about to enter, [C] I appear, [D] my fellow-citizens, in your presence and in that of Heaven [E] to bind myself by the solemnities of religious obligation [F] to the faithful performance of the duties allotted to me [G] in the station to which I have been called.

For his opening, Adams has folded all of his introductory ideas into one sentence. He begins with two parallel prefaces in which he identifies the occasion of his inauguration as [A] coeval, and thus of equal authority, as the constitution, and [B] sanctioned by his predecessors' examples, and thus sanctioned by tradition and excellence. Adams delays his appearance in the speech until [C], which coming after his prefaces about the history of the constitution and the previous presidents, gives the effect of Adams appearing at this moment, a subtle and effective instance of style mirroring content. No sooner does he introduce himself, though, than he addresses his fellow-citizens [D], smartly associating himself with the people and continuing the image of the speaker presenting himself to the people. Adams continues with overt religious analogy by identifying his oath as sacred [E], his duties as both [F] obligatory (faithful performance) and specific (allotted), and his election as democratic. [G]

The most succinct opening yet, Adams packs a lot of detail into a very small span with his Latinate and Ciceronian phrasing.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. 2013.

Roger Ebert once champed at the idea that Stanley Kubrick was once approached to make a pornographic movie. What might a truly great director have made, the late critic surmised, from a preposterous collection of cliches and routines. Guillermo del Toro might not be in the Director's Pantheon just yet, but I entertained a similar curiosity when I heard the maker of Pan's Labyrinth would helm a mainstream action movie. What subtext would he underlay, what mystery would hang about, what details would linger in the shadows. Of course he would hit all the basic action beats, right? Well, to Pacific Rim there's a good, a bad, and an ugly.

The good comes all upfront, and I'll admit for about 10 or so minutes I was pretty thrilled. We open with a classic suit-up montage set to Ramin Djawadi's rollicking score which is so ballsy and vigorous that I didn't care he basically reworked his Iron Man soundtrack. Then a huge nasty monster snarls up out of the ocean and as it's about to crush a fishing boat, a massive robot stomps into the frame. With no lasers, rockets, missiles, swords, or electronic gadgetry, the two behemoths slug it out in a bruising, brawling fistfight. I was in machismo heaven as the two gutsy pilots, electronically connected to each other and their Jaeger, coordinated their movements to pummel the beast.

This bravura opening precedes a few suitably varied riffs on action cliches. Instead of walking us through the overused sight of a monster showing up and surprising everyone, Pacific Rim begins in the middle of the beast onslaught. It shows us a weary public, economic distress, waving political commitment: the tolls of war. I wanted to see more of these elements and had the threads been strung throughout, later scenes would have carried more import. For example, at one point, the Jaeger program is officially discontinued and the remnants carry on as a resistance with scant resources under their General Pentecost. These two variables could have introduced a lot more tension, say, if we acutely felt the lack of resources (like in Aliens) or tension in the command structure (Die Hard.) We also a see a surprisingly friendly look at a black market, which here sells the remains of the aliens (Kaiju) to the resistance for study. This was noteworthy, but it wasn't developed into a significant point that the governments had failed and the resistance was doing the job.

Pacific Rim also introduces another fruitful, if foolish, premise: the pilots share each other's thoughts when connected to the Jaeger. Yes, it's unnecessary and implausible, but I thought it had a lot of potential. I thought we'd see interesting pairs of people fighting together. Maybe some of them are criminals or scoundrels and they need to learn to work together or with soldiers who have no choice because they're not an official outfit anymore. Nope. The setup is exploited only once in a long, heavy-handed scene and then abandoned. There the two main characters, Raleigh and Mako, hook up to the Jaeger and we learn that Mako had a traumatic experience fleeing a Kaiju, so when "drifting" in the Jaeger with Raleigh the first time, she can't control herself. And then the second time they're linked everything's fine. Raleigh is not developed any better. Is he fighting for revenge after losing his brother, to save the earth, or as the movie suggests, just because it's better to die fighting? I'm not expecting profound character arcs here, but I don't think getting one clear motive is much to ask. Raleigh and Mako never really learn to work together, nor do we see what they have in common, so they don't feel significant as a pair.

Alas, the remaining problems with Pacific Rim are more problematic because the genre depends more strongly on these elements. First, every action movie uses an "or else" countdown to funnel the action towards a climax. Pacific Rim does this in two unsatisfactory ways. The first is the shtick that the Kaiju are coming at a fixed, increasing rate. This is fine for us, but it's handled as theory in the plot, so the other characters don't believe it. As a result, they don't move with an urgency which is felt outside of scenes, that is, structurally in the movie. For example, if the clock is ticking, we and the characters should feel trepidation every time a new wave shows up and a Jaeger team steps up to the plate to fight. Since it's just more of the same to them, we don't feel any escalating tension. The second countdown shtick is General Pentecost's plan to nuke the portal from where the aliens come. Unfortunately, we don't know why he's waiting and not carrying it out; there may be a reason, but we don't know it and so we forget about the plan.

Pacific Rim's second action foible is disobeying the Rocky Principle, which holds that we'll watch a main character get bloodied and bruised, but we can only live with it after he comes back and beats the living hell out of the bad guy. After the dismal losses in Hong Kong, the finale here had to be more than an underwater version of the opening. What I think the writers were going for, though, was the sense that the Jaeger program was deteriorating, and thus really couldn't succeed. Yet for that to work the story needed a clearer countdown scenario and a "fight in the shade" moment in which some troops fight to the death while others complete the secret plan (300Return of the Jedi, The Matrix Revolutions, Independence Day, among many.) Instead, it's kind of depressing to watch the good guys get pummeled, and even Raleigh and Mako's Hong Kong success feels murky and unsatisfying.

Fourth, any battle is only as good as the preparation leading up to it. The gold standard is The Lord of the Rings. Here, though, the excitement of the showcase Hong Kong battle is predicated on several factors which are not set up enough to serve as foundations for a payoff. Specifically, there's not enough lead into 1) how Raleigh and Mako make an effective team, 2) the sense of space around Hong Kong, 3) the fighting styles of the other pairs of Jaeger pilots, and 4) the strengths and weaknesses among the Jaegers, and 5) the plan of defense. As a result, the battle feels disconnected and there's no punch to the actions because they're not prepared.

Fifth, missed opportunities stick out like a sore thumb in any movie, but in one with so little development they're even more egregious. Pacific Rim has five central characters, none of whom are properly paired. The two quarreling hot shots should have learned to work together, the two old men should have washed down the gulf in glory, and Mako should have stayed solo and independent, pulling off the near-impossible feat, like her rescuer General Pentecost, of solo piloting a Jaeger. Instead we get an unsatisfying mishmash of pairings and a final scene which looks like the woozy, romantic finales to the old Bond movies.

Lastly, there a few too many gaps in logic. You can tolerate many such flaws in a fluid, confident movie, but they start to thud when they come too heavy and often. There's an analog Jaeger? It has diesel engines? Why are there no other military forces of any kind on the planet? If monsters are coming out of a hole in the ground, why not put defenses at the site of the hole? If the characters are sharing each other's thoughts, why do they talk to one another? How could a wall possibly have seemed like a good idea?

There are parts to like in Pacific Rim, like Ron Perlman as a black market Kaiju mogul, and some clever details, like a district built around the bones of a Kaiju and a pretty spectacular fight in Hong Kong, but these elements are unsupported by any significant, even passable, context, and thus flat. The monsters are fun and gruesome, but we only see them at night in the rain. In a few scenes I couldn't even tell how many monsters there were or whether they had been killed yet. What gives?

I really wanted to like Pacific Rim, but far from redeeming a silly genre, it limps along as B-movie.