Monday, November 18, 2013

Theater Review: Betrayal

Directed by Mike Nichols. 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 17, 2013

App Review: Classics App Roundup (iOS)

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

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

I. Colosseum 3D

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

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

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

$2.99 each

III. Virgil Out Loud

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


Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Great Expectations

Directed by Mike Newell. 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A New Convention

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

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

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

The Present Mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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