Sunday, April 27, 2014

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules

Directed by Renny Harlin. 2014.

Let me say first that The Legend of Hercules is not a great, or good, movie. It is indeed a bad movie. It is not, however, worth only its 3% score on Rotten Tomatoes. A few factors explain the exceptionally negative reaction.

The first is that The Legend of Hercules really is a bad movie, and it's all too easy to pile onto a popular reaction. Second, LoH is a simple movie, and therefore invites the scorn of purported intellectuals. It's fun to feel superior, and a bad and simple movie is more of a lightning rod for self-righteous criticism than movies which are bad and complex, or perhaps are bad but polished. Finally, The Legend of Hercules falls into a form out of vogue in our culture, the pastiche. We today don't seem to like medleys, at least in film, rather we prefer clear and easy categories like the epic, serious drama, buddy-cop, and so on. This is not a preposterous preference, for all art needs some fundamental idea around which to turn, but a foolish consistency is not preferable to a clever fusion, or even an unsuccessful one. Michael Bay and Zack Snyder have consistent styles, not at all superior to Renny Harlin's hodgepodge of Gladiator, Spartacus, Troy, and 300. So how should we approach The Legend of Hercules?

As a simple, cheesy, crowd-pleaser, I humbly suggest. You want a love story? Check. Revenge? Check. Betrayal? Check. Gladiator fights? Check. Mythological miscellany? Check. Slo-motion stylization? Check. The only boxes not checked are the gratuitous gore and sex because the producers undoubtedly thought they'd make more money tricking teenagers into thinking that they'll see on the big screen what they watch on HBO. Psyche!

Yes, of course there's a lot wrong with The Legend of Hercules, but this movie is innocuously bad, not objectionably so. There's no offense in LoC's borrowing the 2000s-era style, 90s-era cheesiness, 80s-era camp, and the scale of the old sword-and-sandals epics. So we get a movie, and hero, that's part Gladiator, part Conan, part Samson. Sure, the writing, acting, sets, wardrobe, CGI, compositing, and sound design are all bad, but what do you want for a mere $70 million bucks?

What bothers me most about this movie is how little it uses the endless ancient sources for inspiration, especially given that film's hodgepodge style would have supported all manner of references. For example, Amphitryon walking in on his wife Alcmene and Zeus could have been quite comic, as could have been Iphicles, always one step behind, and indeed any of Hercules' canonical Twelve Labors. This movie in fact only draws on one, depicting the hero's battle with the Nemean lion as a random encounter encounter with an unlucky lion. They might not have had the budget to make many of the famous monsters, but they could have exercised some creativity and tried to bring some of the other stories to life.

The chief pleasure of the movie was noting the endless anachronisms, especially the Roman republican-era gladiatorial schools, amphitheaters, and battle tactics in in Bronze Age Greece and Sicily. There's also a puzzling statement when Hebe, Hercules' love interest, says that her mother is "now with the gods." Of course her mother is Hera, so that makes sense, but the movie portrays Hebe as mortal, so what's going on? There is also a reference to Satan, a character not only outside the Greek mythology but an anachronistic use of the Hebrew word which didn't mean "The Devil" as we mean today. But whatever.

There is some to like in The Legend of Hercules too, and a number of the fights are serviceable. In one shot he wields a sword charged up with lightning. The wide shots are cheaply rendered, but they're not done incompetently or without attention to style. There's a little bit of camp and what can only be a running joke in which the two adversaries, Hercules and Amphitryon, scream all the time. Nothing ambitious, but nothing awful.

In the end, The Legend of Hercules doesn't commit any new or heinous crimes and its references aren't to sources so excellent that you would rather watch the originals. As usual I'm always disappointed when a classically-themed movie doesn't live up to the richness of the ancient sources, but few, if any, ever do. Sure this movie is bad, but its 3% scores seems less a result of being an epic failure than being the wrong movie at the wrong time than.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. 2014.

spoilers noted below

How does the director of You, Me, and Dupree end up directing Captain America 2? At least the writing team, who penned Michael Bay's Pain and Gain, had written other Marvel movies, but when the producers, editors, composer, cinematographers, and casting directors have all been kept in the Marvel house, who thought to hire the Russos? Whoever did, give them a hand because Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a leap forward for the franchise and a novel, mature story in the Marvel universe.

Dispensing with the mythological setting of the Thor series, the supernatural dimensions of The Avengers, the outlandish sight of The Hulk, and Robert Downey's rakish charm that holds Iron Man together, Captain America was always poised to be the most grounded and sober Marvel hero, a potential Captain 2 realizes. The script steers clear of the conservative plot of the first installment, a plain old goodies-versus-baddies romp, in favor of a complex plot of intrigue, political maneuvering, and betrayal. We appreciate this twist for several reasons, the first of which is as variety. It's refreshing to see a sequel which doesn't simply ape the success of its predecessor. Second, the complexity feels like an escalation from the simple world of World War II's clear-cut good guys and bad guys into a world of operatives, secrets, secret sub-organizations, and moral ambiguity. Third, the complexity allows Captain America, essentially the sole survivor of the previous movie, to take center stage as a hero, who is a point of moral stability and historical continuity, and as a protagonist with whom we empathize as a man-out-of-time.

Direction and production support the shift as well. The tone of Captain 2 is essentially that of a Bourne movie, that is to say, it's predominately serious, poised on weary. Yes, there's lighthearted humor in the banter between Captain Rogers and Black Widow, and in the subplot about Captain America catching up on pop culture he's missed, but for the most part the Captain is taking pretty seriously the fact that people are out to kill him and take over the world.

Visually the movie is dark and gray, with the only splash of color coming from the star-spangled outfit of Captain America himself, a pleasing symmetry between the story and style. Also like the Bourne movies, Captain 2 eschews extended fight sequences for shorter ones which punctuate the movie more often. This size and pacing give the movie a satisfying ebb and flow instead of an avalanche of action, and after the traditional heist opening the action scenes shrink down before they escalate up to the finale. The most noticeable stylistic shift from both the previous installment and its Marvel siblings is the realism of the violence. No, it's not gory at all, but we sense Captain America's power and the brutality of his blows. We're leagues away from zapping Nazis and romping around whacking aliens when in shaky close-ups and realistic sound we see Captain America breaking bones and pounding people into bulkheads. Without the cliche line, we sense that his power is a responsibility, a fact which silently reinforces the moral dilemmas of the plot.


That plot is worth talking about, too, much to my surprise and delight.  Captain 2 centers around the mystery of who infiltrated the global defense force S.H.I.E.L.D and killed Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson.) The reveal is traditional but handled with competence as we and the Captain discover whom to trust, which becomes the film's first theme: the necessity of trust in society. Can Captain Rogers trust Black Widow, with her checkered past and loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D? Can he trust Fury, with all of his secrets and machinations? Can he trust S.H.I.E.L.D members and operatives? Should he trust the members of the Security Council, both as individuals and as officials who oversee Fury? Does he trust council-member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) as an individual, as an official, and as Fury's old buddy who wants to avenge his fallen ally? The bottom question here is whether all the checks and balances, hierarchy, and bureaucracy can be so effective as to legitimize so much secrecy, dissimulation, and manipulation which make trust impossible. Do you trust individuals, the system, or the plan?

We hold all of these rhetorical questions in mind even before S.H.I.E.L.D is compromised. At that point, Captain America is off on an adventure to unravel the plot which fiends S.H.I.E.L.D's nemesis, Hydra, not only resurgent, but slithering its tentacles throughout S.H.I.E.L.D. The outing of the conspiracy though, done with a cliche writing trope which we overlook because it's done with a novel visual, puts a different spin on our question of trust. We learn that Hydra's first attempt to take over from within the Nazi party failed because the world pushed back against tyranny. Learning from that mistake, they've infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D so they can destabilize the world and make is so chaotic that citizens will run to a protector. "We learned that people need to give up their freedom willingly," says a member of Hydra. What a troubling thought: how and to what degree are S.H.I.E.L.D and the Nazis similar that Hydra could act through them both?

These two themes–personal trust and institutional trust–are developed in two contrasting pairs of characters. The first pair is Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. Fury believes in the tools of the spy and military trade as prudential compromises. He has no fanatical belief in control and secrets, but uses them because he thinks the end justifies the means. On the other side, Pierce wants to use S.H.I.E.L.D's vast resources not to react to threats as Fury does, but to prevent them by murdering whomever they deem a probable threat. Both men want the same power, in this case a trio of flying aircraft carriers with essentially unlimited surveillance and assassination ability, but have different purposes. Whom do we trust? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

On the ground we have the soldiers, Captain Rogers and The Winter Soldier, who respectively answer to Fury and Pierce. Rogers flat out disagrees even with Fury, to whom he reports, and perhaps only serves him as the lesser of evils. I was taken aback at the frankness of Rogers' dissent when early in the film upon seeing Fury's new fleet, Rogers says, "You want to put a gun to the world's head and call it freedom. This isn't freedom, it's fear." When Fury replies that he's preventing problems, Rogers snaps back, "Doesn't the punishment come after the crime?" This sudden interjection of and deference to the rule of law has teeth because it's in such contrast to the far-off reaches of spying to which they (and we?) have come.

Yet Rogers doesn't just follow orders. He thinks for himself and evaluates based on his own principles, in contrast to the Winter Soldier, who's being programmed by Hydra. The Winter Soldier is made an automaton to follow Hydra's commands without question, and the scene of his torturous reprogramming is a terrible visualization of what's taking place whenever we choose not to think for ourselves.

Alas, the plot has two endings, one to Captain America 2 and Rogers' story, and another to Captain America 2 as a Marvel movie. The first is superior and twofold, the second an unnecessary coda.

The first of the two proper conclusions to Captain America 2 sees the assent to Rogers' philosophy when the regrouped team of trusted S.H.I.E.L.D agents concludes that all the carries have to go. We still wonder, though, did the policy invite the men, or did the men invent the policy? Yet one scene belies an anarchic interpretation of the choice to scrap the whole program. When Rogers broadcasts across the S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters what Pierce has done and who has been compromised, one of Pierce's lackeys puts a gun to the head of the engineer who can go ahead with the launch. The little pipsqueak, though, stands up to the thug and refuses to proceed with the launch. There is in S.H.I.E.L.D as in any body politic, good and bad, and S.H.I.E.L.D like any group is no better than the virtue of those who inhabit it.

This scene, along with an earlier one in which the agents reassigned to take out Rogers demand to know whey they're hunting a hero, are a vindication of the Captain's own individualist freethinking. They're also a prelude to the self-sacrifice and trust of Rogers' final confrontation with his nemesis.

With the mission completed and realizing The Winter Soldier is really his old friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers throws up his hands and refuses to kill Bucky. Rogers doesn't risk the mission or anyone else, but only himself by choosing to trust that his former friend, ally, and brother would come to his senses and not harm him. When Bucky pulls him from the wreckage of the carrier, this is Rogers' truest victory, the victory of trust over fear, and choice over force, the victory of Captain America.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

That Delightful Rest

The philosophy of Aristotle lacks little, but a gaping omission is a human face. There is no smart aleck Socrates with whom we may laugh and grow irate, nor can we spy a troubled soul, like Marcus Aurelius, behind the words. If there was a character, real or imagined, in the lost works of the Aristotelian corpus, the "rivers of gold" according to Cicero, then we are all the more at a loss, for Aristotle's work is decidedly not that of the mechanical, technocratic mind. His philosophy is not cold and calculating, and we'll find it warm and lived in if we peer behind the notational style. This is nowhere more evident than in the chapter of the Ethics on friendship where he defines a friend, in part, as someone before whom you might do something foolish and still not blush. Yet if this man from antiquity is largely lost to us, there as another face for the philosophy.

Cicero's own philosophical works make no boast of originality, the non plus ultra to the modern mind, but who wouldn't be content, christened "Rome's greatest Aristotelian" by Dante, of all? Unlike their Aristotelian origins, many of Cicero's works are structured not as treatises but dialogues, which give human faces to the dense and often obscure discourses which they summarize or critique. Still there are moments of genuine and unique revelation in Cicero's philosophy when he sheds a new light, filtered by years of study, personal suffering, and the struggles with nation he strove to save, on philosophy.

For me the most poignant of these moments comes toward the end of de Amicitia, written in the summer of 44 BC just before Cicero returned to Rome to launch his famous Philippics against Marc Antony. Here the statesman-philosopher re-imagines Platonism and Aristotelianism, especially the Lysis and penultimate books of Aristotle's Ethics, as a dialogue centered around Gaius Laelius the Wise, the preeminent author and orator of the generation preceding Cicero's. Laelius remembers his friend Scipio Aemilianus, i.e. Africanus the Younger:
Numquam illum ne minima quidem re offendi, quod quidem senserim, nihil audivi ex eo ipse quod nollem. [de Amicitia, 103. The Latin Library]
It seems innocuous enough, obvious even, but there's so much insight in these few words, insight only gained by personal experience. There's so much substance under that polished parallel style.

On the surface, sure, Laelius is saying the obvious that his good friend never said anything which offended him in the least, which he would have noticed, nor vice versa, but this is something we overlook today, I think. With our legal system which functions on the premise that the contest of contrary opinions will reveal truth, a pluralistic polity, and the economic necessity of competition, we perhaps let variety and rivalry get the better of us.

Of rivalry we often consider speaking our mind more than a right but a duty. How quickly do we feel that we'll be implicated if we don't speak up for, or against, something. How quickly do we offer unsolicited opinions simply because they're relevant, even if they're unnecessary. Who doesn't feel the urge to pile on when someone is being dragged through the mud? Laelius' point is of course that he and Scipio didn't offend one another, but surely some of that accord resulted from the prudential application of silence, or at least deferred judgment.

Of variety, how often do we hear platitudes about having rights to opinions, and rights to be heard, and so on. We forget, and Cicero reminds us, that the soul finds rest in the harmony of friendship.

The dialogue contains also in that euphonious and compact relative clause, quod quidem senserim, a subtle nod to the empathy implicit in friendship. Simply, we have to pay attention to how the other person feels, what hurts and delights our loved ones. We need to know that look in their eyes, they way they shuffle in their seats, the way they grow quiet, that tells us we've hurt them, and we have to care enough not to do it again. The very thought of that look, of that quiet, has to pain us so much that we need to avoid it. The dialogue of course is idealized, and it's unlikely anyone has not hurt his friend at some point, but we see the tempered wisdom of Cicero behind the ideal.

Finally, Laelius draws attention to the littlest things, minima, which always need our attention. How our friends cater to our little pet peeves, and how easily we take their considerations for granted. Maybe they let us tell the same story over and over, or they avoid a certain topic to which we are sensitive, maybe they curb their playful teasing, or perhaps they simply stopped slurping their soda for us, but the absence of these irksome bits gradually becomes an environment in which we can find ease, and ourselves, in each other. It's a rest so consoling, so powerful, that we feel it, moreover we can exist in it, even when the activity of friendship is broken off by distance, whether by travel or, as Laelius says about his lifelong friend, by death.

So in but a small sentence Cicero through the voice of Laelius reminds us what restraint, consideration, and appreciation are necessary to make, find, and keep that delightful rest we call friendship.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Classroom Nightmares

A new season of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is under way and this season I'm struck by how many problems these chefs and owners share with people in other professions, namely academics. Therefore a list, not meant to embarrass or admonish teachers, but to jolt them out of their complacency by outing the most common foibles in the profession.

1. Welcome to the Junkyard

Classrooms become warehouses for all of the junk teachers don't want to throw away: old furniture, microwaves, bookends, sets of old books, posters, globes, you name it–and always in dilapidated condition. Never mind old tests, piles of papers, and answer keys all jammed into folders and plastic organizers. Finally don't forget antiquated text books jamming the shelves. It all has to go. You don't want to eat surrounded by someone's junk, so don't presume your students want to learn surrounded by yours.

2. Purge and Clean

Yes, the custodians clean the building, but keeping the classroom clean and orderly is the equivalent of managing front of house at a restaurant. The room has to look kept and academic. The walls shouldn't be festooned with tape and decrepit posters, cork boards shouldn't be covered in staples, and your own desk shouldn't be covered with a decade of academic detritus. Some teachers like to post student work on the walls, a practice which suits only visual arts. Otherwise please realize the absurd fact that you're stapling tests to the wall, and desist. 

3. Nova et Mira

When was the last time you made something new? I don't mean slapping the test from the publisher onto the copy machine, I mean composing a new test. How about new lecture notes, worksheets, or quizzes? You're definitely not photocopying the same old originals again and again, right? 

It's not possible to remake everything all the time, but judiciously reuse, retype, and re-imagine old work. You're not the same teacher who made that material and the students it helped are long gone. Try something new, or at least update something. The more organized you are, the easier the task of revision.

4. Study Your Peers

Teachers abhor being observed and are perhaps the least competitive of professionals, whereas in every other field everyone clamors to observe and improve upon their betters. Chefs learn others' recipes, lawyers study each others' briefs, and everyone in technology viciously dogs each other.

There's always a bigger fish, someone from whom you can learn even if he teaches in a different discipline, and there's always something you personally can improve upon. If you think you've perfected something, you're stagnating. 

5. Poll for Feedback

Students are your pupils and parents are your patrons, so it might be a good idea if you ask whether they're getting what they want. Teachers feel accused and insulted when questioned, and no doubt many students and parents will try to game your system for points and prestige, but you have to address to their expectations to some degree. On the one hand the student has to meet the demands of the curriculum, of which the faculty is custodian and expert, and on the other hand the students and parents only chose your class or school because they thought it was worthwhile, so why would you want to disappoint them? You can have standards without refusing to accommodate students with different goals, expectations, and interests.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Holy is one of my least favorite words in our beloved English tongue. To start, the word has an undignified ring, for both wholly and holy are merely 'oly without that oft-unheard puff of air. It sounds like it should be a suffix, not a word of great philosophical and spiritual import, and listen to those sounds next to one another: oh-lee. Say it nice and quickly and it sounds like a siren! Holy is also considerably debased by its position in a variety of common curses and epithets, and for my money there's something unpleasant about a word so frequently appended to the likes of cow and mackerel.

Yet, sanctus, is word which looms large in my mind. Aside from its aesthetic superiority what a panoply of perfect meanings swirl about it: sacred, venerable, pious, ordained. How sanctus seems to contain all the other virtues. It is what we call sanctus that defines not just ourselves, but everything.

One musical setting of the liturgy's trifold sanctus bring out all of these meanings.

The Sanctus from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis emphasizes the mystical power of the word from Isaiah 6:3, its centrality and the reverence it summons from us. Beethoven achieves this in a few ways. First, his indication is mit andacht, rapt and with devotion. Second, he's returned to D, the home key for the whole mass. Third, he's eschewed bright strings for the more austere basses. Fourth, in m. 9-12 Beethoven creates a novel, solemn color palette of horns, trumpets, and trombones. Finally, the theme itself is intimate, with its own internal motion, that step and leap, that generates the whole piece.
We begin then not with confidence, but with the reverence which precedes confidence. Only gradually does that germinal theme, working its way up, graced by a trifold repetition in the brass, finally say in the four soloists, Sanctus. Beethoven repeats not just sanctus three times but the whole phrase, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

In the first repetition, the polyphony emphasizes the unexpected spreading of the word. From one to the other the delicate word spreads from voice to voice. Also, by the musician's power, the melisma, he's made san-ctus, of two syllables, now of three and thus equal to the tri-syllabic do-mi-nus, to which it naturally now seems cognate.

In the second repetition with their crescendo on the first dominus and sforzato on the second, the voices seem to realize the possibility of this momentous development, but back off with the somber, darker piano repetition of Sabaoth. Can our Lord be the Lord of Hosts?

In the third an final repetition, the syllabic pronunciation is timid declaration, as quavering ninths in the violas and cellos fade away over a drumroll. The ensuing movement comes an emphatic yes in the form of an ecstatic fugue on pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Review: Ten Latin Anthologies

Teaching Latin literature courses always runs into several conundrums. Chief among these, perhaps, is whether the course will be structured around one or a few large works, or shorter selections. The former approach has the advantage of encouraging in-depth discussion of an author, genre, or work, but it's easy to get mired in a long text which students cannot move through with great speed. The latter choice necessitates a compilation of texts, and so enters the anthology.

A few notes and exceptions. These are all aimed at the high school, or perhaps undergraduate, level, and thus do not any of them contain an apparatus. I exclude anthologies dedicated to specific collections, such as sacred, medieval, or historical works and likewise omit any text books even if they have a great deal of literature as does Keller and Russell's Learn to Read Latin. Finally, I've surely not compiled an exhaustive list and any recommendations are most welcome

I. An Anthology of Latin Prose [Amazon]
ed. D. A. Russell

This is one of my favorites of the bunch. Russell's compilation gives in selections of about fifty lines each a useful sample of Latin authors and genres. The text's chronological arrangement gives the reader a good sense of evolving style and the brevity of the selections highlights the variety. Russell's notes are minimal, and mostly confined to translating Greek quotations, pointing out omissions and contracted forms, and explaining idioms and less common meanings. There's no help with complex clauses and no glossary, but Russell's introduction is a good one to prose periods and rhythms. Its generous helping of Cicero covers the author's philosophy, legal speeches, public speeches, and letters.

The quantity, brevity, and variety of the selections suits a survey course for proficient students.

II. Cambridge Latin Anthology [Amazon]
ed. Ashley Carter and Phillip Parr

This more slender reader provides equal measures of prose and poetry, with both sections providing a few long selections and then a number of smaller ones grouped by kind. For example, the editors provide four 60-line selections of Ovid and Vergil, and then group a variety of Horace, Martial, and Catullus into categories of love, leisure, and so forth.

The organization chaffed at first, but it's a not imprudent compromise. The lengthy sections provide opportunity for in-depth study while the topically-arranged groups give room for comparing genre, style, author, and content. Unfortunately, none of the poems are numbered and there is no identification of the prose selections, a decision which strips the literature of context, especially given the scant introductions and nonexistent notes. There is bountiful help with vocabulary though, with long-marks, facing-page vocabulary, and a glossary. A teacher's handbook is available that contains notes and commentary. It's not so necessary for teaching these texts, but it might be useful for students who can't read without a little help. The teacher's handbook doesn't contain any translations.

Overall, this reader is a good compromise between poetry and prose, and lengthy and short selections, but its lack of notes (without the handbook) limits its utility for the neophyte and lack of quantity limits its use to the sophisticated reader. Also, the layout is relatively inefficient and with all the dead space, this 180-page volume doesn't have that much Latin.

III. Oxford Latin Reader [Amazon]
ed. Maurice Balme and James Morwood

This anthology succeeds the three-part Oxford Latin Course and is best viewed as a sampler of the most notable sections from the most notable Latin authors: Cicero, Caesar, Catullus, Vergil, Livy, and Ovid. The text offers copious historical introductions and extremely generous notes which quite often translate the Latin outright. There is plentiful vocabulary and a small appendix on scansion. This reader would suit a class of weaker students in which you wanted to focus less on the Latin, to some extent, and more on history, culture, and such, while still getting the students to work in the canonical texts.

Friday, April 18, 2014

On Cleaning

Among foibles and vices I've been fortunate to find pleasure in much that seems to plague modern man. I enjoy moderate, healthy, simple meals, eating being a burden so constant for man that I'm sure he would contract it out if he could. Ask anyone, though, and it's always the cleaning which attends the cooking that sends people to the convenience of restaurants. This seems to me quite absurd. Why is cleaning so bad?

The Need to Clean

Cleaning is in essence an extension of cura corporis, man's need to care for his body. It is as appropriate that a man care for his surroundings as it is he care for his person, and no less preposterous that he hire out someone to clean his home than, excepting infirmity, he contract out care of his arms and legs. The case of infirmity, though, we except precisely because it is undignified, and therefore there is dignity in caring for oneself. There is much to chastise in modern life' cosmetic primping and excessive fitness routines, but at least health and appearance are responsibilities we acknowledge. Life itself is the fulfillment of the responsibility (spondeo, to pledge) to care for oneself. Neglect is the default.

Yet why is there dignity in caring for oneself when one can certainly fulfill the responsibility without personally attending to them. It matters, though, that one sees to them himself because pledges cannot be contracted out. To pledge is not merely to agree, consent, or promise to fulfill, but to vow to be a sponsor, a commitment that cannot be offloaded to another. When someone contracts out this work we look at him in both pity and disdain, whether he's left to another the raising of his children or the comforting of his wife. With some less severity we look askance at the man who trusts his bodily health  tofitness gurus, vibrating belts, and diet pills, for he looks just as ignoble as the Roman, remembered by Seneca, who asked the slaves carrying him from his bath to his sedan chair, iam sedeo, "Am I sitting?"

Such is indeed decadence, a falling away from one's pledge.

It is likewise improper, though, to admit strangers into one's intimate world. Most of us recognize this applies to the body, although we can see the line shifted by the increasing popularity of fitness trainers, masseuses, and the like, to say nothing of sexual mores. As less and less is retained private, that is, deprived from the public sphere, and as we admit more people as intimates, it's not unsurprising that the personal element of personal property is lost. The home is more and more a mere place for stuff, and why should it be any more than that when the body of its owner nothing more either?

Beside obligations, though, hiring people to clean up after you, or clean you yourself, is an implicit admission of defeat, namely that you have failed at frugality. If you have more than you can yourself care for, you have too much. If you're so unhealthy you need help, you're sick. The Roman frugalitas and severitas go hand in hand, as do their opposites.

The Joy of Cleaning

There is another less admonitory justification for cleaning, though, and it's that cleaning is invigorating and exciting. Marcus Aurelius wrote, in Meditations 3.2, that the curious man takes a peculiar pleasure in everything, even in the humble and ungainly parts of nature. I never find this more so than when cleaning. How intricately all the parts of the car click and fold together, how gently curving the cool metal. Move the clutter from the desk and find the rich grains of the timber. Watch the spirits soak into the woody flesh, and even take delight in the little dings, remembrances of accidents and maybe a moment or two of frustration. Cleaning the bathroom might be the most inglorious of tasks, but watch a droplet of water bead on porcelain, the liquid clinging itself into a clear little dome over the smooth surface that holds the incipient sphere in suspension.

To make such observations is still to ignore the exciting paraphernalia of the cleaning trade. What a fun time in which to clean, with all measure of gadgets. What's not to like in vacuuming? These beastly machines, and not just shop vacuums but domestic ones too, have massive airflow, rotating brushes, HEPA filtration, extension hoses, and dirt sensors. Don't forget about all of the miracle solvents we have today, too. Ajax: not just for killing Trojans anymore.

Most of us can hone only a few special skills, but cleaning is an opportunity to sample the invigorating variety of nature and take pleasure its systems as we try to maintain our home among them. Nature might like to hide, but cleaning our little corner of this messy world makes an enlightening education of a necessity.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Frenzy

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1972.

Frenzy is remembered today as Hitchcock's next-to-last and most explicit film, but in our era of endless recycling and dulling overstimulation, we ought to praise its vigor and restraint. The septuagenarian Hitchcock brings, if not a new plot, a mature synthesis of dark comedy, suspense, and pathology which holds us more rapt than the all the gory whiz-bang special effects we can generate today.

Hitchcock keeps us interested by engaging, not overwhelming us. In every scene we are prompted to think: interpreting context, predicting motives, and even questioning our own reactions. At every step we evaluate, not in a struggle to comprehend but out of a desire to act, and in being so active are entertained by Hitchcock's masterful manipulation of our senses and expectations.

Frenzy has the thee cardinal traits of Hitchcock, the violent, the comic, and the suspenseful. The film is violent, but because of what understand, not simply what we see. It is comic not by levity, but by irony. Finally it is suspenseful not because of what happens but because of what we expect to happen. Extraordinary for a film of this genre, Frenzy requires an attentive and appreciative viewer, not to figure out the trite plot, mind you, but to experience the effect, which is that of grappling with the evil in man.

It owes to Hitchcock's genius, not banality, that such a lofty premise is explored by a murder mystery and not a tragedy, for not all murderers make principled stands on grand stages like the scaffolds of the guillotine and Pompey's theater. Some men, the pathological, make frenzied and inglorious evil in flats and the backs of trucks.

Hitchcock's subversive opening sets the tone with a jarring contrast of the grand and obscene. We soar along the Thames to a majestic score of regal pomp and we soon swoop down to a political rally. Here a politician, betokening the progress of his day, promises to rid the river of pollution and contamination. During his speech the crowd slowly peels away and turns to the river, lured by the sight of a dead body floating face down and with the noose of a necktie around her neck. The sight is a morbid reminder that not all foes can be conquered and that civilization coexists with barbarity. We should have known, though, for on our flight over the Thames a tug chuffed past us billowing black smoke, a nod to the director's introduction of evil in his 1943, Shadow of A Doubt. It's more than a nod, though, for the note gives the director's first and last great works a cautioning symmetry.

It won't do to discuss the plot of a movie whose genius lies in technique, other than to summarize it as the hunt for a rapist-murderer in London and the authorities' doubts as to which of two men is committing the crimes. It's Hitchcock's style and context that bring the story to life.

I. Characters and Psychology

First we meet Richard Blaney, a down-on-his-luck bartender who is promptly fired as the movie opens. Blaney is curt, boozy, and irritable. We want to sympathize with him, but he's just so damn rude, and with an air of exasperation about him as if he just can't muster manners any longer. All sympathetic bets are off, though, when he visits his ex-wife Brenda at her matchmaking business and resumes his old abusive habits. Verbally he's loud and accusatory, re-hashing old issues. He hulks around, pounding his fist. Still Brenda takes him out to dinner, to her club even, where he starts up again and even breaks a glass in his anger. The contrasts here, with Brenda in financial and social control and Blaney in physical control, is a disturbing one which will have a more disturbing parallel. After dinner we naturally wonder, especially when Brenda lets him bunk on her couch for the night, whether she'll regret it. After all it's a half-hour into the movie and there's nary a murder or murderer in sight, right?

The next day in Brenda's office Blaney's friend, Robert Rusk, enters seeking a match. Rusk is no longer the chummy chap who loaned Blaney money, though, smiling down over his flowery window box. We learn that he's a regular whom Brenda won't help because of his sexual predilections for women who submit to his violence. When she turns him down again we see in his posture frustration and in his movement aggression, a loathsome figure at once pathetic and fearsome. After she rejects his embarrassing come-ons, Rusk forces himself upon her and in the rape, the director plays out those contrasting tones. Rusk is physically dominating and yet feeble, and as he repeats the word lovely over and over again during the rape, it reminds us both of his power as aggressor and weakness as a slave to desire. Hitchcock also only ever shows us Rusk's shadow during his crime, on the one hand a trick to avoid the censor's cut, but on the other a subtle belittling of the man, as if he's somehow incomplete. At the same time as Brenda is violated, though, she maintains composure. She retains power and dignity as she recites prayer during the rape, with her calm and controlled votive contrasting Rusk's lusty and desperate repetition of lovely. Likewise she remains physically composed, still, as we see Rusk's shadow move up an down over her, contrasting again his power and impotence.

This is a frightening scene which lingers in the memory, and has perhaps forever soured me on the word lovely and the sight of actor Barry Foster's face, but it's the psychology which disturbs most. Subsequent generations have squandered and dulled our sight for horror, but Hitchcock's visual style, restrained by today's standards, tells a story which it forces us to finish in our minds. It demands apprehension, and therefore interest and sympathy, even more than the explicit.

Of the men, what's the difference between Rusk and Blaney? The more successful and seemingly adjusted is quite the opposite, and what keeps the unlikeable Blaney from turning into Rusk? Morality, nature, fear? In the end, both men are frenzied, Rusk during his crimes and Blaney always, although to a lesser degree. Only one is heinous, though. An unflattering verdict for man.

II. Major Details

Details make or break a movie, and anything which reeks of cliche, artifice, or falsity is the death-knell for suspense. In order to hold our breath we need to fear we might drown, and anything that strikes us as inauthentic sends us back to the safety of reality.

We've already discussed the examples of the opening and the scene of Brenda's attack, but there are others, the most curious of which takes place when Blaney, before he's accused and before any murder at all, steps into a pub and the camera shifts focus to two men talking at the bar. They banter about the crime and the killer's psychology and when they ask the waitress for her thoughts she replies, "He rapes them first doesn't he?!" It isn't fear we hear in her voice, though, but a lurid fascination we also see in her widening eyes and her lips just unashamed enough to purse into a weak smile. That would have been enough, but then the two men lampoon her response and call the fact a "silver lining," and then Hitchcock raises the bar again, with the waitress getting a good chuckle out of the man's naughty response. This scene of the everyday person's cavalier attitude toward the violence they don't see or experience is more interesting, and off-putting, than most other whole movies and constitutes a theme throughout the movie.

In another scene, Rusk has dumped the body of his latest victim in the back of a truck hauling potatoes, but realized it holds a piece of evidence which might incriminate him. His realization is a work of directorial brilliance, a scene merely utilitarian to the plot–all it has to do is toss out a maguffin to get the antagonist to do something–which Hitchcock elevates to psychological horror. After disposing of the body Rusk reaches for his tie pin but can't find it. In fact he can't find it anywhere. Now Hitchcock could have shown Rusk's realization of where it was by showing him snap his fingers or some such gesture, or just having him remember and go find it, but Hitchcock shows us a sudden and brief flashback to the rape, from Rusk's perspective. We're suddenly and violently thrust into not just the mindset but the mind of the murderer, behind his eyes. We see in his perspective her desperate eyes, clawing hands, and the tightening tie, and are discomfited by being put into his position. The visceral impact, though, is heightened by the fact that these are Rusk's memories that we see. What a horrible thought Hitchcock forces us to think: imagine living with the fact and images of having raped someone. Imagine having those memories. Worse still, to Rusk those are just some of many memories.

III. Subversion of Expectations

It is ultimately Hitchcock's mastery of sub- and perversion which keeps us most hotly involved, though. There are numerous examples in the movie, but the most famous is in fact a whole scene taking place inside the aforementioned potato truck. Here, Rusk needs to reclaim the tie pin or risk being exposed. He makes his way into the truck and a scene of dark comedy ensues as he empties bag after bag of potatoes looking for his dead victim. When he finds her, naturally he has to get her out of the bag to reach her hand which contains the pin, and so he tugs and pulls on her body as potatoes fly everywhere. This sight unsettles by its juxtaposition of the morbid and ridiculous, fiddling with a cadaver in a pile of potatoes. Yet Hitchcock doubles down on the tension, for when Rusk gets to her hand, its rigor mortis clenches the pin in an unbreakable grip. The gross sight is then topped when Rusk decides to cut the pin out. In a classic Hitchcock twist, he tries to cut her finger off but fails, a fact which elevates the scene's 1) morbidity by exploiting the fact that we already pictured what we expected would happen when we saw the knife, 2) suspense by not letting our expectation get fulfilled, and 3) humor by the sight of the preposterous situation.

The most disturbing twist comes when the truck starts and pulls away. Now we begin to sympathize with Rusk as we would any underdog even as we see before us a constant reminder of his horrific crime.

The best testament to the maturity and success of Frenzy though, is that these three elements of characterization, contextual details, and subversion are so integrated. We don't see his technique or tropes, rather they disappear into the film's effect and therefore our own emotional response. Frenzy is an ingenious weave of the expected and the unexpected, with Hitchcock managing to engage us with both.

Like many late masterpieces of great artists, its story was fashioned conservatively in the old mold while the artist shaped it into something much greater than the sum of its plot. This is not to say that style has trumped substance, a charge often and easily hurled, but that style can produce substance. In the case of Frenzy, we see the form of a traditional murder mystery but the effect is a psychological chase which haunts long after the crime.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Central Park in Spring

Yesterday was the first of the vernal season on which the sun and wind could both agree to warm us in their springtime hands. The Central Park promenade teemed with travelers and citizens alike, all teased out of doors by the sun and sweet air. The trees, though, more budding than blooming, were not yet persuaded from their winter seclusion and so the lively mall at the heart of the city bathed in unhindered light.

Cyclists streamed through, dodging pedestrians, dogs, and strollers. The restful natives sunned themselves on the lawns while cameras, occasionally attached to fleshy humanoid stands, snapped pictures of the germinal fauna. Blowing about were bubbles of all sizes, vast but short-lived ones emanating from the sudsy ropes of the professionals and thousands of tiny spheres flitting up the woody canopy from the soapy plastic pistols of little kids. One squirrel, who had the distinct air of having overslept and whom I named Phil, scampered about the daffodils beneath a tree for twenty minutes before concluding, I assume, that his winter store had been stolen. Cave furres!

Down by Shakespeare and Columbus, violinist Susan Keser, The NY Violinist, played with aplomb a crowd-pleasing selection of romantic and baroque pieces with generous helpings of Bach and Vivaldi. She even played the solo to some recorded concerti, bringing a big ensemble sound around her fine playing. I also caught quite by chance a few magic routines by The Magic Bald Guy, aka Mick Stone, who brings hilarity to polished and delightful legerdemain. It's easy enough, I hope, to appreciate good technique and fun magic at a theater, but when the performer has also to woo and charm a crowd who can walk away at any moment, tune out passers by, and improvise humor, well you have to applaud that beyond the usual. Talented performers like these, whose work lights up the city with fun and flare, deserve not only thanks but a little coin too for so liberally sharing the fruits of thousands of toilsome, lonely hours perfecting their crafts.

Certainly I can't forget Willie G., The Poet of Central Park, self-proclaimed poet, I believe, who sells his poems in the park. With regrets I didn't have enough cash to afford one of his books, but I gave a small donation to his poetical cause and in thanks he gave to my girlfriend a poem about happiness. I haven't read the poem yet, but I'll be pleased to find it half as charming as its author. And kudos to Flicker photographer Pete Considine for his great shot of Willie.

So that was Central Park in yesterday's spring, at least in my corner. Squirrels and daffodils. Sun, music, and magic. Happiness.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thanks for All the Fish

New York is supposed to be a rough and tumultuous place. In my experience it has not been so and in these twenty eight years of Big Apple citizenship I can count on one hand the times I've been rudely treated. This number excludes, it goes without saying, curses and epithets hurled from vehicles en passant. Of course you never see an object with so much clarity as when it stands in relief, and hence these instances figure prominently in my mind.

I found myself amidst the third of these spasms of rudeness today, surprisingly at the venue of the city's great gem, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In retrospect my surprise seems unreasonable, for the unruly exist everywhere, but I like to think that great art has a humbling effect on the disposition, and what is rudeness of not the affectation of superiority? It was perhaps a naive thought, but I didn't expect Ugolino to be the most tortured in the museum today. Nonetheless today's experience, in which the group sales associate accused me of lying and threatened to inform my employer that my party hadn't given them sufficient warning for my party of ten, conformed precisely to the pattern of my previous encounters with exemplary rudeness.

The first shared trait is the presence of the raging party's inability to control the outcome. Today's ticket taker knew she couldn't turn away so few students with three chaperones and, as is often the case, impotence in one area expresses itself as aggression in another. The military strategist Sun Tzu struck upon this fact when he wrote that violent language is a presage not to attack, but retreat. As our inevitable entry pressed upon her, the taker grew more imperious, you were told, and admonitory, they'll be contacted, and scolding, as I just said, until at last she grudgingly acquiesced.

The second trait is that the affair was altogether frivolous. Even the dullest people know, it seems, when to be serious, but the timid heart makes a stand when the stakes are low. They plant flags on nameless molehills for petty glories, not Iwo Jima and the Hot Gates. In this case our party, which was barely large enough by their own standards to qualify as a group, could have easily split up into three small groups of four. What havoc would we have wreaked, we little platoons!

The third common element was the breaking not of morality, but policy. Policy, what the managerial mind confuses with law–ius, the fruit of jurisprudence–is quite handily defined as a definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency or facility. Unlike law which is inviolable because it is grounded, theoretically, in morality, policy exists for the sake of another cause. It can be broken if upholding it will contradict a higher cause or if breaking it won't undermine the cause for which the policy was adopted.

Take a few examples from my own profession, teaching. Having office hours saves me from constant interruption, but students are welcome to drop by. A grace period of two days prevents students from copying returned material, but I don't turn down good work from good students. As Aristotle shows, 1374b, these are circumstances of prudence, in which we arbitrate by equity and do not judge by law, considering more the man than the law, more what is meant than what is said, and the big picture rather than one detail. The museum's policy is obviously designed to prevent the exhibits from being swamped by large groups, a threat which we didn't pose.

I'll leave it for you to determine whether flash mobs of patrons are plaguing large museums today or whether the third largest museum in the western hemisphere can't handle facilitate, say, a few thousand patrons per hour. If the Met cannot, perhaps its custodians can contact the thousands of arenas, theaters, and schools which do this every day, most without two million square feet of real estate. I'll also not consider whether the inconvenience, and it's nothing more if it's anything at all, of showing up in a group warrants mandatory appointments and, by charging a mandatory special fee, an abdication of the museum's founding principle. Passing over that naturally necessitates I not inquire just how if at all the surcharge is spent to compensate for the alleged inconvenience of being part of a group. In charity I won't even wonder why school groups need appointments and other groups do not. Too I'll put aside–because I'm not agitated at all–a fact esoteric to this episode, how the same individual had previously informed me that she realized giving advance warning wasn't always possible and that it would be acceptable simply to show up a tad before the group and pay at the separate counter.  Finally, I won't in generosity even wonder about what mind would with such tenacious gusto and disregard for the obvious cling to such a policy. But I digress...

The final characteristic common to these outbursts was a sense of righteous indignation. These folks all felt entirely justified chewing out your humble blogger, a fact which should cause any balanced individual to pause. Mature people tend to react with moderation because they harbor some doubt about whether they're justified to react as they wish. There's a reason, though, that shooting first and asking questions later is called being trigger-happy, and that's because, as the phrase suggests, there is a mania attendant the abstention from use of senses and intellect. The Greeks had ἔκφων, literally out of one's φήν, or mind, but also carried away, without usual senses, or frenzied. (Speaking of which, a review of the brilliantly-titled late Hitchcock masterpiece, Frenzy, is forthcoming.)

We would be remiss to ignore the Latin origins of rude though, which are plentiful and revealing. The adjective rudis means both uncultivated and in its natural state. Of animals it means unbroken and of skills it means ignorant of. Is not the rude man, or woman, all of these things? Inattentive or ignorant of convention, unshaped by experience and thought, stuck in bad habits. The verb form rudo can refer with no small measure of humor to both the bellowing of an orator and the braying of an ass.

With no doubt the museum could issue an expedient and exculpatory explanation as to why their policy is both necessary and sufficient. With even less doubt will any external independent party be unable to corroborate their justification. The bottom line isn't museum policy, though, but that staff there, and in many places, have changed from old timers who judged by common sense over to the degreed, pantsuited, professionals who flashing their plastic badges prance through the morning line of patrons on their way to serve as the lesser stewards the greatest treasures, they less the patrons of culture than the patronizing custodians of peremptory bureaucracy.