Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Art of the Score

Film Week at the Philharmonic. 2013.

Some will bristle at the premise: why pay a pretty penny to see an old film with live music? It's a question that charts the gulf between cinephiles and audiophiles. To the film maven, movies are sculpted, perfected time, trimmed into a narrative shaped in sight and sound. Its finished, recorded status is part of its essence. Yet for most of music's history, it lived only in awakening from the hibernation of the score. Film's mix of sight and sound, though, bridges the cinematic and musical worlds to permit a synthesis of film's completed visual worlds with the frisson of music's fleeting vitality.

The marriage is not only an ideal one of virtues, but one of supplementing limitations. On the one hand, pure musical expression tends toward the abstract while even opera and musical theater are limited by the demands of the sets. On the other, film's recorded nature can make it rigid and subject it to the vicissitudes of production circumstances which aren't ideal.

Film Week at the New York Philharmonic was an exploration of these features of music and film, pairing films with live performances of their scores. In the first performance, Alec Baldwin hosted us through selections from six films from Alfred Hitchcock with Constantine Kitsopolous making his NY Philharmonic debut conducting Murray (To Catch a Thief), Herrmann (Vertigo and North by Northwest), Tiomkin (Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder) and Gounod (Marche funebre d'une marionnette.) What strikes first is the full, almost voluptuous, dimension of the music. Perhaps I noticed this more because it's not music I'd ever heard these scores in person, but it was as if hearing many of them for the first time. From the swooning Wagneresque Scène d'amour of Vertigo to the hefty swagger of Gounod's march, the music moved with an energy it imbued to the visuals and narrative.

The Carousel Scene from Strangers on A Train is a good example of a scene coming to new life with live music. Here, composer Dimitri Tiomkin mixes a dramatic symphonic score with carnival music for a shocking mix of tone, timbre, meter, and style as two men brawl over a runaway carousel. The shot is also ingeniously composed, with visual activity along three axes of the frame, and alternations among them. What came across most from the night of Hitchock, though, was the multiplicity of styles across the films, a directorial feat our host aptly sketched for us. Hitchcock reached across styles and forms to find the precise musical complement to the scene, with the result of almost indivisible expressive impact. Whether it's the swaying violins and crashing brass of Vertigo's theme, the playfully scampering tune to which Cary Grant outsmarts his pursuers in To Catch a Thief, or Hermann's bravura narrative finale to North by Northwest, we hear brilliant music incorporated to visuals, with excruciating editorial attention to pacing, into a thrilling whole.

If the theme of the Hitchcock night was drama, the theme to the screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was rhapsody. Not in the music, of course, but in the music's role in shaping by sheer force Kubrick's contrasting four episodes of grandeur. While within scenes we see complementarity between sight and sound, the heroic grandeur of the monolith's arrival and the waltzing grace of space travel, it's the features of music qua music, the naturalism of its shapes and rhythms, which persuade us that the episodes form an equally natural, that is true, whole, even as they progress into increasingly distant realms.

Here too the live music brought the visuals to life. The resonant, sonorous echoes of Also sprach Zarathustra reverberated as motif like never before throughout the film. Most of all, the tortuous dissonance of Ligeti's Kyrie disoriented with the clarity of the inner parts.

Alex North's unused score to 2001,
on display in Avery Fisher Hall.
I can't pass over a curious non-musical feature of the 2001 performance, though, which was the voluminous humor Friday night's audience found in the film. Fighting monkey's? Chuckle-worthy. The death of an astronaut? Outright funny. HAL bargaining for his life? Hilarious. Maybe people feel the need to participate and so they ooh, ahh, and laugh. Maybe they have a sardonic sense of humor. Maybe they just missed out on the terrible grandeur of the movie. In any event, it felt quite unwarranted. During the credits the audience adopted the honorific of applauding the notables in the roll, a gesture which quickly degenerated into clapping ironically for people who weren't famous. A sophomoric end to a transcendent experience.

Nonetheless, a splendid night: fine performances, an enlightening synthesis of mediums, and a vindication of live performance.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Movie Review: Populaire

Directed by Régis Roinsard. 2012.

If Populaire were only a riff on Pygmalion it might be a little banal. If it were only an imitation of the sugary Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies, it'd be silly. If it were simply fashioned in the mold of competition movies where it all comes down to the last moment of the game, then it'd be formulaic. Instead, though, Populaire unifies and elevates these too familiar features into a sweet little package.

The chief success, as you may guess, is not the plot. It will do no good to explain that plucky little Rose Pamphyle moves from her small French town into the big city after landing a job as secretary to insurance agent Louis. It says a little more that Rose, thanks to her father's typewriter and a cheery knack, types at phenomenal speed. Finally, if you can't guess by now that her boss Louis trains her to win a typing competition and in the process falls for her, then I can't help you. It's the style, though, that pulls these elements together.

First, everyone plays the movie straight. No one questions the usefulness of Rose's skill or the importance of the competition. The film doesn't edge into satire and remains faithful to its playful tone and focus on the main characters' special relationship. They believe it, so we do.

Second, the movie keeps a lid on the talking. Instead of suffering through chatty dialogue and the bubblegummy air-headedness we might expect from its Hudson-Day roots, or the filler and too-clever wit of My Fair Lady, director Régis Roinsard tells a great deal of Populaire through visuals. Glances, scowls, peeks, smirks, and no shortage of musical montages keep the film light and moving.

Third, the color palette is soft and bright, from Rose's dresses and, well, rosy hue, to the opulent interior of Louis' house to the golden glitz of the world competition. The one exception to this is a surprisingly erotic scene which owes its additional burst of ardor to a monochromatic twist. Another effective scene is easy to overlook since it's just one of the local typing competitions. It is in fact well composed with rows of typists in the center of a gymnasium and the crowds around. Everywhere a pleasing distribution of colors, mostly in the form of clothes, makes an otherwise still and sedentary scene subtly pop as the camera bobs between the center and perimeter. Simple and effective.

Fourth, Populaire keeps things subtle. Rose's father is a widower and a grouch but not monstrous. Nor does he conveniently disappear from the plot or storm back into it to fix or ruin anything. Instead, he recedes into the background and stays there, returning in a low-key, unintrusive way. In another scene, after Rose has moved in with Louis to train more efficiently, Louis stumbles upon one of Rose's misplaced unmentionables. This takes a briefly comedic turn as Louis attempts to return the apparel, but after he's inevitably caught, does Rose fly into a rage, setting up a momentous shift? On the contrary, it becomes sweet moment where the two accidentally reveal something about themselves. Another scene, in which the two must feign their engagement for Louis' family, functions much the same and as well.

Finally, the movie works with or without its fourth act, which does drag on a bit. Populaire was in the rare position where both characters could have gone on happily apart and true to their characters without making for an unhappy ending. Instead, the fourth act brings them to a not-so-inevitable place, although that's hard to begrudge.

It's far too easy to overlook how much attention went into maintaining Populaire's delicate whimsy: not overplaying the sight gags, sketching in just the right amount of history for Louis' romantic reservation, and keeping Rose's preposterous training amusing and not tyrannical. There's affection here in the details of both the direction and the script: cheeky glances, insecure posturing, a little forced encouragement from an old flame. Populaire is a charming, cheerful movie of subtle taste and air which you would be most fortunate to see with someone much like it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Political Campaign Alternatives: A Modest Proposal

Democracy is perhaps one of the most fetishized and least questioned aspects of modern political life. This is not so unusual insofar as a we live in a society where the individual is thought to have personal sovereignty and thus then the liberty to. . . well it gets a little hazy at that point, since democratic elections have been known to produce all manner of illiberal results which get blessed with the democratic imprimatur. At the very least, though, we acknowledge the right to voice concern over one's fate, even if we deny people the actual ability to choose it. This liberty, such as it is, then becomes Sophie's choice between the populist crimes and fantasies du jour. If you don't like those choices then you get branded with the scarlet letter reserved for puppy-kickers and seal-clubbers: you're anti-democratic. You don't love America. You can "take it or leave it." You can "Go to Russia." Your vote for those icky third-party candidates "doesn't count" then.

My favorite of these bromides is the assertion that if you don't vote then you can't complain, as if in not choosing to get poisoned I shouldn't complain when I get stabbed. To fuse Tom Woods and Stefan Molyneux: Choose your cage, citizen. Rejoice. Repeat. Because democracy.

There is, however, something to be said for exercising one's will, if not for picking one's poison. One problem is that people have so many different criteria for what makes a good leader. Some people want businessmen, some rabble rousers. Others economists or reformers. Some want military heroes, others legislators. And so forth. The success of President Obama's carefully curated curriculum vitae is a good example of the dangers of credentials, so perfectly mixed was it to anesthetize moderates' fears of reform and stimulate reformers' hope for change. Everyone saw what they wanted and the perfection of the American experiment was at hand.

Alas, he's not been up to the task and citizens are no more prepared now than they have been thoroughly to examine the candidates. As a result, campaigns have degenerate into promises and administrations into quagmires. Thus, I offer a modest proposal which I believe will increase competition among candidates, drum up popular interest, and produce candidates of a higher caliber.

The Presidential Olympics

Round 1: Marathon
  • I'm not asking for a full marathon, but the president should be able to run a few miles in a reasonable amount of time without keeling over. 
Round 2: Feats of Strength
  • An American Gladiators style obstacle course designed to test their ingenuity, dexterity, and guts. 
Round 3: Academic Decathlon
  1. Math (Jeopardy style)
  2. Geography (Jeopardy Style)
  3. English Grammar (Quiz Show style)
  4. American History (Written)
  5. American History (Quiz Show Style) - This consists of information on present conditions including revenues, expenses, military capabilities and positions, economic statistics, foreign agreements, and so forth.
  6. Logic (Jeopardy style) - Candidates must spot the logical flaw in an argument.
  7. Economics (Oral Interview) - Candidates must explain various phenomena and prescribe a course of action.
  8. Economics (Practical) - Candidates must execute a prescribed business plan, and profit.
  9. Art (Guided Tour) - Candidates must plan and give a unique guided tour of an American museum, explaining ten works. 
  10. Important Concepts (Lecture) - Candidates must give 10 short talks explaining specific concepts from various disciplines. 
Round 4: Practical Arts
  1. Change a car's tires
  2. Cook a three course meal
  3. Clean one house, top to bottom
  4. Hunting/Target Practice
  5. Work five different 9-5 jobs in a week without getting fired
Round 5: Debate
  1. Declamation of the memorized Constitution & Declaration of Independence
  2. Deliberative defense, pro and con, of a piece of original legislation
  3. Ceremonial speech praising an American who has been dead for at least 50 years
  4. Moderated debate on select topics against other candidates.
  5. Moderated debate on select topics against a panel of experts. 
Round 6: Following and Leading
  • Follow a commander and then lead a group, through a series of tasks in the following environments: 1) kitchen, 2) classroom, 3) choir/orchestra, 4) sailboat/fishing boat, and 5) a military exercise.
Finals: Games
  1. Monopoly
  2. Risk
  3. Chess
This course would be timed and compressed into the space of one month, replacing the yearslong spectacle of campaigning. Some events would be timed or goal based, and thus objective, and others would be subjective and judged by democratic voting. In the cases of subjective events, this system would at least provide voters with something the candidate actually did, recently, and himself. It would also force candidates to acquire and perfect tangible skills before entering office. Finally, the failures would be educative, entertaining, and of course, democratic. 

We're Not Dead Yet. . .

Just enjoying some time off from writing. Posting will resume presently. 
Thanks for sticking around.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Heart of the School: Christian Humanism and the Liturgy

Christian humanism is liturgical. Its end is theosis, the deification of man. The Catholic school ought to have at its heart the worship of God in the liturgy, not only in the Mass but in the Divine Office. The liturgy ought not to be extraneous or a grudging concession, but the living, beating heart of the school. 

It ought to be frequently and solemnly celebrated.

Meditation and prayer should be taught; not the forms of prayer only but the mental and spiritual faculties necessary for true conversation with God.

Periodic silence should be honored; the form and meaning of ritual gestures should be demonstrated and explained with exactitude.

The liturgical year should figure largely in the classroom and in the school's general schedule; Advent and Lent should assume a sober, restrained character.

Easter- and Christmastide should be joyful with many opportunities for celebration, merry-making, and fellowship.

The liturgy is the school of Christian contemplation. 

The liturgy must throw off its dreary suburbanism, its reek of American middle-class philistinism, its fetish with the apparatus. There is ample scope for true diversity in worship, without the self-absorbed, amplified braying of a few "engaged" Catholics who punish a hapless congregation sitting mute in a naked auditorium. 

Christian humanism is liturgical, because Christian humanism is cosmic; it is a vision of the whole, and the liturgy is the sanctification of the beautiful whole, the cosmos. The liberal arts order things according to their place in the hierarchy of being. But the hierarchy of being is first and finally to be discovered in the sacred liturgy.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ordinariate Reservations

For my own personal edification, I'm doing a bit of writing on what I call Anglican Platonism. Ever since the Anglican Ordinariate was proposed, I've attempted to distill the essence of the Anglican patrimony. But I've given up on the Ordinariate being the institutional means of its continuation; that's not to say that I don't believe it won't be preserved in the Catholic Church. On the contrary!

But it won't be preserved at the bidding of a motu proprio or by the hand of the prefect of the CDF. The AP is a way of life, and its best elements have always come to light by means of a few friends working and praying in concert (think Methodism, Romanticism, Tractarianism, etc). It's not just a way of praying, but a way of doing theology and philosophy, of reading the Scriptures. Conscience, experience, and liberty figure largely. Greece is its spiritual master. Its liturgy is fundamentally Benedictine; its philosophy Platonic. Coleridge is its modern-day fons et origo; but Wordsworth, Ruskin, Paul Elmer More, Mascall, Farrer, Eliot (of the Four Quartets), George Grant, and Catherine Pickstock are no less exemplary.

Newman, Hopkins, and more recently, Aidan Nichols and Stratford Caldecott have made it a heritage of Anglophone Roman Catholics, but it has analogues in von Balthasar and in Ratzinger (whom we might provocatively call the first "Anglican" pope).

The problem of form in particular engages its attention; it eschews the mechanism of the English secular philosopher, and its robust poetic tradition balances English empiricism. Indeed, one might say that poetry and metaphysics share the crown between them (a bit of Platonic heresy, to be sure). The imagination is given a place of honor. It enchants the landscape, or rather it recognizes the enchantment already laid down.

Its parochial office enchants time: it is a religion of the twilight (Evensong beings its great liturgical contribution to the Christian world). And this is as it should be, for the world, though beautiful and delightful, is only a shadow and type.

These qualities can never be codified; they embody a particular way of living and attaining salvation. If they are to be made Catholic, it will only be because men and women continue in that way. The experts will dictate and the bureaucrats will push paper, but it is in the laity in whom we must repose our hope. It is our inheritance, to defend and exemplify.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Joy of Thanks

It's one of the less explicable facts of life that people seem to find the writing of thank you notes a tedious task. The labor in fact became a classic scene where people would tediously write out thank you cards until their hands hurt, classic until Hallmark et al provided us with prefabricated sentiment. (I mock, although you can still find and give suitable prefab greetings.) Both the tedium and the conception of thanks as an onerous task confuse me, though, because giving thanks is such a natural and beautiful thing.

Indeed, saying thank you is one of the first acts of manners which we learn. We learn it rather quickly, too, it seems, since in my experience children are very polite. Perhaps giving thanks is so easily learned because it feels so cutting to take without acknowledgement. Consider how awkward it feels to receive faceless charity. How much more do we long to thank someone who directed his life toward yours, even for a moment, and didn't stop to ask for anything. To strip the personal from the act of giving is quite obviously to dehumanize the act. Thanks also seems most appropriate at the personal level. Can one person feel gratitude toward a nation, however great the contribution? To whom does the state-welfare recipient give thanks: the beneficence of mankind? And for each man's pennies of sacrifice? No, it seems gift and thanks are most natural, thoughtfully given and lovingly received, at the individual level.

On the other hand, giving thanks is joyous, plain and simply, because all thanks are a form of praise. Religious services praise and thank God, secular festivals praise traditions and the bounty they bring, and personal thanks express gratitude for personal virtues such as charity, courage, and prudence. Yet too often it is this third, personal sphere which we neglect. We may sing our heart out at mass, march as proud patriots, but still fail to give thoughtful thanks to people we know. This is not exceptional in a busy world, but it doesn't simply coarsen relationships but deprives us of their joys.

I have found that reflecting closely on the person and our unique relationship always delights me and makes me grateful for their unique contribution to my life. Often I don't realize what they or their gift meant to me, or once meant or should mean, until I pause to give them thanks. Sometimes the thanks is a quick one on Facebook, other times it's a long email or card or even a gift, but I find more and more that that ingratitude is merely inconsideration, and that most of my thoughts find their happy end in a sense of joyful gratitude.