Monday, June 30, 2014

Things I Don't Get #4: Gilligan's Island Does Hamlet and Carmen

Perhaps no television program is better remembered for silly, cheesy gags than Gilligan's Island. Yes, there's appeal in its warm characters and their plucky attempts to get off their tiny Pacific island, but for a show that only ran for  three seasons and didn't have the opportunity to grow decadent or exhaust ideas, Gilligan had some preposterous plots. With guests ranging from cosmonauts to Zsa Zsa Gabor to the Harlem Globetrotters, from giant spiders to mad scientists, anything was possible on Gilligan's Island.

Yet one of their funniest bits consisted of nothing less than a scene from Hamlet set to the Toreador song from Bizet's Carmen. I don't know how this scene came to be in this show. Maybe it was an experiment or a gag on the part of the cast or writer. Perhaps there is some measure of cleverness in its mix of the serious and silly, high art and low comedy. At the same time though, there's an internal logic to the scene. The use of Bizet's song about the excitement of the bullfights makes an ironical commentary on Polonius' advice to his son for keeping his virtue abroad in France. Does it not seem to mock, and intelligently, the ridiculous Polonius? To boot, Alan Hale Jr., with his sweet-natured face in that bushy beard, isn't even a bad casting choice as the earnest, foolish Polonius. The scene is at once absurd and intelligent,  a clever staging of a serious play, cheekily acted, which is well-received by the characters within the ridiculous TV show. And it's all set to operatic music. Incredible.

It's funny too, and I can't explain that either. Maybe it's Phil Silvers' astonished eyes peeping from beyond the plastic shrubbery, the castaways' bamboo theater, Jim Backus' face as he hams up that last word, the sing-song end rhyme, or just the incongruity of it all (Gilligan as Hamlet!), but the scene is hilarious. Toréador, en garde!

I Took A Little Trip

So I took a little trip. Your urban blogger went as far South and East as he's ever been: to Kentucky. I present my impressions, the promise that blogging shall resume forthwith, and thanks for your patience.

10. Cars Are Liberating

Traveling by plane may be quite efficient, but there's something engaging and empowering about driving oneself in one's own car. Going where you like, as quickly as you like, and with whom you like, you feel acutely in control of your destiny. You also sense the power that's sending you on your way, whether from the growl of the engine, the bugs splattering on the windshield, or the wind roaring past. You can sense your surroundings and your place in them.

9. Driving in America Is A Privilege

Cities, towns, bridges, farms, forests, and trees, we've got it all, much of it beautiful. Moreover, you can drive among it all at your will, traveling from an urban metropolis, over rivers, and past fields fallow and thick-planted, all in one day. Fuel for you and your car is inexpensive and abundant, and today cell phone and GPS technology can get you out of practically bind in which you find yourself. America is the land not just of extraordinary but multifarious plenty.

8. America Needs Some Cardio

Perhaps it's because they rely more on driving than walking, perhaps it's the diet, but suburban people are packing a little pudge. This surely doesn't apply to many demographics, such as manual laborers, but the same types of people seem a tad hefty. I can't say with any certainty whether they're any more rotund than urban denizens, but I noticed the weight.

7. Tattoos  For All

Likewise, the tattoo phenomenon is not confined to cities. It's everywhere and I must conclude we're a tattooed nation.

6. Friendly Folk

When I walk about in the city I look up and around at people. I try to smile and acknowledge them, attempts which usually fail to elicit a response. Outside the city, people actually smile back. They make small talk and ask you about yourself. Parents let their children go about and the little tikes even say hello to you, a stranger, with an innocence you thought had vanished.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Spiral of Indolence and the Summer of George

The advent of summer is the twilight of education. Never is the profession of teachers or the tradition of learning in a poorer state. Teachers either hasten to finish the curriculum or strain to stretch the remaining material until the end. Struggling to grade final exams is always a huge tell of laziness: those who complain about it aren't giving any work during the semester. Then moments after the students flee and as administrators and secretaries settle into summer mode, the teachers are gone. What do we do? Where do we go?

It varies, but too infrequently does it wander into intellectual territory. Students would surely revolt if they knew their teachers had no intellectual inspirations beyond the bounds of their master's degree. (Here's a mean trick, kids: ask your teacher about the latest developments and literature in his field.) Yet the annual sabbatical otherwise known as summer vacation seems seldom to further serious academic advancement. Such intellectual infertility owes not to any illness within the profession, though, but to the simple fact that indolence is a heinous vice.

Indolence can and will suck down any individual who does not guard against it. Yet we need not quote fire-and-brimstone sayings about idle hands, but rather may look that model of modern man, George Costanza. The story of The Summer of George (Season 8, Episode 22) tells with blistering hilarity the sad and true story of indolence. With a season of severance pay from his employer, George settles in a for a summer's hibernation. He starts with high aspirations to reading and frolf, but when indolence sets in, decompression from the tension of work yields to decomposition. After he's wiped by 10:30AM, his muscles are so atrophied by months of extreme inactivity that a tumble down the stairs renders him paralyzed.
The physical and intellectual paralysis seems hardly an exaggeration. What to do? Inspiration goes a long way. I have busts of Aristotle and Schubert on my desk, and the fecundity of their minds is no small part of my inspiration, or intimidation, to stay parked in my chair and write. A little history helps too, for example knowing of Mozart's packed schedules and Jefferson's infamous 15-hour study days. It may seem preposterous to compare oneself to the greats, but we doesn't need to measure up to their genius, only the humility and diligence with which even their talents worked.

Sometimes, though, you just need to throw yourself into activity. Moodiness and ennui will set upon anyone and a blind leap can break the pattern when the will falters. Today, for example, I couldn't summon the will or interest to do anything, so I decided to vacuum the steps. Instead of coming away tired from heaving that hoover around in the heat, I was provoked to take up other tasks which I had forgotten in my idleness. Activity exhausts, but it is indolence which enervates.

We don't need to have something momentous to show for each day, but the disgust we feel at our indolence is a sign that we should make the most of our day even if we don't have the highest aspirations. Something, even the tiniest bit, is surprisingly more satisfying than nothing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Self-Knowledge Through Toothpaste

Some people get neater as they age, others sloppier. I was but a moderately organized youth, by my standards today, and I think my fastidiousness began as a reaction to the collegiate miasma in which I found myself. Yet one act of slobbery has always irked me: spilling toothpaste on the sink. "How does this happen?" I would wonder. Do they put too much on the brush or perhaps they miss the brush entirely? Does it ooze out of their mouths?

Furiously I would scrub away, sink after sink, year after year, finding more and more evidence of man's depravity. Gels and pastes, Colgate and Crest, spilled everywhere. Everywhere I would find the blight, besides its omnipresence at home. I never expected what has transpired this week.

On Saturday I spied some on the recently cleaned sink. Then Sunday on the floor, and then Monday on the rug. Tuesday outside the bathroom where only I had wandered. Then today on my bathrobe. I could no longer deny the truth that through all these years the toothpaste fiend was I!

Not all habits are so easy to spy, alas, but aging is a process of self-revelation. New circumstances and types of relationships teach you about yourself. You realize the types of things which bother and delight you, of course, but less obviously you see patterns in your emotions. Am I always grumpy after doing or receiving favors? Do I not like to hear of a certain person's success, complaints, or recreation? Do I get annoyed when people invite me to events, and when they don't? I really need a lot of praise, don't I? Gee I brought that up again today?

These are the sorts of questions we usually see psychiatrists ask on television and in the movies, but they really do seem of genuine self-inquiry. It's curious to me why such knowledge is so difficult to acquire.  It cannot be forcefully recognized or brought about by will or fiat, but has to evolve in the mind. It cannot be studied, but only seen. How strange and terrifying a fate that man might not know himself. If he simply could or could not, such would be easy to accept. But to possess the potential and be unable to cultivate it with any precision is surely a gift of curse. Indeed nothing may be so terrifying as the sight of someone who cannot recognize something about himself.

Finally, one wonders to what such recognition truly owes. Maturity, intellectual virtue, exertion, peace of mind, restlessness, revelation? Does one need philosophy to know oneself? Some examine themselves reflexively, others reluctantly. Some avoid it all together no matter the consequences. They're not all pleasant sights, these observations, and many are outright troubling, but one feels stronger and fuller in the examination. You look back at a former self which seems to have survived despite itself. He looks innocent and childlike. As its alternative is terrifying, it too is exciting and energizing to learn things great and small about yourself which, while not quite so literally as toothpaste, are right under your nose.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Snooki and the Wookie

Like men, empires, and cultures, works of art go through a period of debasement before they vanish. Its pure, primal origins are lost to history and the vigor of violent birth is unknown to the generations. What began imperfect but mighty, the uttermost strain of the age's greatest minds, is polished in the perception of posterity to a glossy memory which takes on a life of its own. It walks about a hero in a lesser age, but still a shadow of the greatness it held in its own primitive age. It is often then recast in a style which attempts to relive the greatness of the past. In the ultimate phase it passes, metamorphosed from original to classic, to commodity.

Star Wars is entering the final process of this transformation. The original was rough, following in a traditional which it surpassed to near perfection. It then turned classic when the movie became known to be great and its successors aped its ingredients. The prequels attempted to rekindle the magic. The name Star Wars is now but than a piece of intellectual property gobbled up the greedy maw of Disney. When it is regurgitated, as Star Trek was, it won't be the result of a tireless director working at the edge of his abilities to bring a dream to life.

The movie will have been run through screenings, test-groups, and market experts, to appeal to every human on this planet. Everything potentially sensitive will be sieved out and a chowder of pop culture will be poured in, disguised as bona fide Star Wars material. And then it will die. The new Star Wars may turn out to be a good movie, but it won't be an authentic one, and that's why it won't matter.

This end is not the fault of George Lucas, either, but the natural end of greatness. Mozart is not to blame for the tchotchkes bearing his likeness, Homer for the pedants picking at his old verses, or Monet for the screen-savers which pass his pictures like so many cheap digital photographs.

Because it is unoriginal, the new film has to justify its place in the Star Wars universe. Sure, the thousands of people who work on the new Star Wars might give it an authentic voice, but I think we overestimate their chances.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Things I Don't Get #3: Writing on Clothes

For all the reasons man may feel constrained, it seems impossible to me that he could find himself without sufficient variety of attire to suit his needs. Shirts and trousers of myriad material, color, and cut accommodate every condition of weather and circumstance and upon this he can layer a still greater variety of waistcoats or vests, finally tailoring-off the look with coats of the dress, frock, tail, or morning variety. This enumeration leaves out additional accouterments of style such as ties and belts, which come in multifarious variety and may themselves be adorned with still more regalia from clips and pins to feathers. Is this array of choices so insufficient that people find it necessary to write on their clothes?

I don't know when or where this sad spectacle began, but I propose it is an unwholesome look. Chiefly, wearing words makes your presence aggressive, to varying degrees to be sure, but aggressive nonetheless. It presumes upon strangers in society to read your message when in polite society words should pass in the course of conversation and according to the good sense of the parties, not by visual command.

Second, the body is not a vessel of expression (thought it can be expressive in painting and dance) and a man's presence should betoken just that, presence. No more or less. When I see my friend, I wish to see my friend, not any other idea however lofty.

Third, consider the messages which clothing carries. Plenty of shirts are mere advertisements for brands, from Tommy Hilfiger to Coach, the pinnacles for social climbers. More and more though I've seen t-shirts–which are undergarments, for the record–with the names of countries on them. Now perhaps some element of national pride is involved, but I've seen people wearing shirts which suggest for them a highly unlikely genealogy. Why would someone who is not Chinese, say, wear a shirt that says China? Speaking of nationalism, what's the deal with flags on shirts and clothing with patterns of flags? If you're wearing a flag, be prepared to be strung up.

As far as sports attire goes, the only people who should be wearing it are the players. They wear the team colors so in the confusion of the game they can tell one another apart. Similar reasoning stands against wearing camouflage-patterns: unless you're hunting or hiding, it's not appropriate. The last fashion statement which needs flogging is that of college and university attire. Aside from the conundrum of why any respectable institution would sell hoodies printed with the school crest, we ought to remember that the institution is a school, not a cult. It's not a good fit for everyone and even if it were, why would you want to endorse it to strangers? Even if your alma mater is worth the title, why would you put its name on a shirt? Would you put your actual mother's face on a shirt?

Since the sorry status quote would seem to indicate we say the obvious, one especially shouldn't put writing over delicate parts of the body. Such a tasteless habit not only encourages what appears to be leering, and even justifies it it, but it invites attention which is often quite unwarranted, a nasty trap for those with the natural inclination to read what is before them.

How do we show support then? you ask. Well, men generally prefer the unorthodox arrangement of words into units called sentences, which are then published. Alternatively we verbally express ideas to willing audiences at select occasions and venues. If you are determined to make a visual statement, though, the time-honored means are buttons, pennants, and flags. Should you need to make a show of whimsy at a party, a mask might serve your humor with more dignity.

Yes, there is probably room for whimsical, worded clothing at casual gatherings of intimates, but we should reserve attire for the spare, dignified expression of the gentleman, who brings but himself.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Things I Don't Get #2: Michael Caine on a Bee

He was Lieutenant Bromhead at Rorke's Drift in Zulu and he was Canfield at the Battle of Britain, he was Alfie and Jack Carter and Harry Brown, Ebenezer Scrooge and Captain Nemo, and he's on a bee.

He fumbled his love-addled way through Hannah and Her Sisters, and he's on a bee. Batman's butler and the father of Austin Powers is riding a bee. Granted he's acted with muppets and he came out of the water bone dry in Jaws 4, but that's still Michael Caine riding a bee.

One of the worst things to happen to art has been the artist's transformation from humble craftsman, working for patron or employer, to primping auteur who answers to no one and expects unlimited praise and resources, but that's Michael Caine riding a giant bee. And I don't get it.

The Joy of Magnanimity

The Spirit of Chivalry
One of the wellsprings of man's genius is his inclination to maximize the good for himself while minimizing the bad. In industry we seek efficiency, using all resources to maximum benefit, and in medicine we seek to isolate desirable effects from those which harm us. Today, though, spurred by the prevalence and success of this thinking in economics and science, we try to avoid the undesirable in all walks of life. We haggle, finagle, reschedule, reorder, and litigate to get as much of what we want as we can, and avoid as much of what we dislike. So has disappeared the virtue of magnanimity, which bids us act not from a spirit of self-interest, for gain is not always the ultimate arbiter of desideratum, but out of beneficence which comes from great strength.

Literally great-souledness, magnanimity contains three characteristics: generosity, clemency, and fortitude. If we can presume that virtue is a prerequisite for magnanimity I would like to focus on these three features.

First, the magnanimous man is generous. Not because he is good but because he is bountifully good, he is able to be liberal in his giving. Now by giving I don't mean from fortunes, necessarily, but rather I mean good deeds. The magnanimous man gives his time, patience, and energies to those who need them. He gives from all of his virtues because he has cultivated them to a great bounty and can afford to share them. He gives from joy and bounty and does not cultivate debts. The magnanimous man is able to give from himself without regard for his needs because he has met his needs; to his own satisfaction, we must add, for magnanimity requires besides virtue, self-knowledge.

Second, the magnanimous man is forgiving. He is able to bear slights and inequities because he has pity for those who are facing the struggles which he has already mastered or which he realizes he has avoided by prudence or fortune. Magnanimity enables man to engage with and support those who wander from the path of virtue. He is lenient with punishment and is able to forego his deserved justice, equity, or remuneration.

Finally, magnanimity consists of fortitude. The character of the magnanimous man is imperturbable and his energies indefatigable. Of course these superlatives are not absolute, but rather I mean that the magnanimous man has cultivated his strength to a degree which surpasses the necessities of his life. He is able to forego pleasantness and take up difficulty because he is strong.

As The Philosopher said, magnanimity can magnify other virtues and requires them, but great-souledness seems to result after one becomes aware of the successful practicing of the virtues. The magnanimous man appears to act out of pure magnanimity for he endures the bad not because of piety, tolerance, or obedience, but because he is able to, and does the good not out of virtue, but because he is able. He converts with apparent ease his strength into benefaction.

Friday, June 13, 2014

It Could Have Been Worse

A strange quietude sets in during a president's second term. The opposition party falls silent, unable to excel their previous levels of hysteria or effect the desired change, they sit stolid but impotent. The party in power, however, is silent as well. Why could this be? Have they come to terms with their political sins? Are they full of regret? No, no, I say to you, dear optimist. We may enjoy a détente but there is no accord. Today, the vast majority of President Obama's supporters, I hazard, excuse or obfuscate his failings as follows.

The National Debt
How can you blame Obama for the national debt. Bush and Reagan did it too! It was actually Clinton who...

The Benghazi Affair
There's nothing to see here, this is a right wing conspiracy. If anyone was to blame it was Clinton, Kerry, or Rice, not Obama.

IRS Targeting
This is ridiculous. Stop watching Faux News. There were only a few people and the IRS went after democrats too. Ugh.

Drone Warfare, Kill Lists, and Assassinating an American Citizen
This is war. Besides they were obviously guilty and Obama read like philosophy and stuff before making any decisions. 

Invading Libya
But he left right away. And he didn't invade Syria or Iran. Iraq.

Afghanistan Withdrawal
Well there are fewer troops, right? And that was the good war and we won, right?

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)
Are you kidding? This is his greatest achievement, like FDR and LBJ and Kennedy. Sure it had technological problems, but it's so complicated anything would have. Besides Canadians made it so it was really their fault. Kathleen Sebelius owned up to it being her fault anyway. It may be inefficient, but as long as it helps some people. It'll get better over time, anyway. 

Quantitative Easings (The Stimuli)
Like all the economists said to do this. Paul Krugman said to do even more.

Solyndra Financing
Come on that was like one company.

"Cash for Clunkers"
Again that was like one program and it wasn't probably even his idea.

Currency Inflation
Things are so expensive because the corporations are making so much money. 

Russo-American Diplomacy
Yeah but they respect Obama because he's so articulate. Bush was such a cowboy.

Operation Fast and Furious
Obviously that was all on Eric Holder.

NSA Spying
Eric Snowden hates America. And the CIA obviously went too far but that has nothing to do with Obama. 

Like come on this isn't Obama's fault. The Republicans don't want to pass laws and they're in the pockets of the corporations. The Supreme Court is full of extremists. Fox news and talk radio are spreading lies about Obama and the Koch brothers are funding all of these fanatical groups. Things might be bad but it would have been so much worse with the other guy. 

It would have been worse. Even when you manage to conjure your inner Cicero and persuade your liberal interlocutor that Obama is to blame for any of the above, it always comes down to that: it could have been worse.

On the one hand such denial is understandable–who wants to confront shattered dreams?–on the other hand we're locked in a cycle of partisanship which seems to be spiraling down to the fulfillment Mencken's prediction that at last the American people would get what they want and deserve in the White House: a complete idiot. Of course the knife on which we perch cuts both ways. If you doubt me just watch the face of a republican recoil at the mention of Al Gore. People feel safe when someone like them is in charge, even if that person is but nominally or apparently similar.

If so many people aren't even willing to reevaluate their support of a politician, what hope is there that a majority are willing to change their mind about actual policies? That sense–that nostalgia for the Bush era when things "just felt better" and the feeling that things aren't so bad just because Obama is running things–that cozy sense people get when "their guy" is in charge, is killing us.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Breaking Bad (Season 1)


It may be better to join a party late than never, but how does a show live up to five years of fanfare and notoriety? Moreover, how can it still manage to surprise when so many of its details, bits, and bobs have been revealed piecemeal over several years? Breaking Bad manages to surprise because from its first episode the writers outmaneuver our expectations. Watching the seven episodes of Season 1 it seemed as if every time I thought I knew what was going to happen, some unexpected variation played out. It's not as if we're being tugged in meaningless directions just for the sake of surprise, though, and in fact several episodes begin with their endings. We know how these episodes will end, just as we know how Walter's battle with cancer will ultimately end, but neither Walter nor the show are going to go down an easy or predictable path. Breaking Bad surprises us with the expected.

The premise, for the uninitiated, is that high school chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. The quiet, even timid man teams up with an old student to turn his chemistry skills into a nest egg for his wife, Skyler, and their children after he's gone, by cooking crystal meth. Yet from the outset Walter's path diverges from our expectation. In the first episode we think their meth-cooking outfit is going to take off and become the center of the show, but it's a complete disaster with such aftermath that it takes two episodes to resolve the mess. So instead of a light-hearted montage in which Walt and Jesse go into business, we find them holed up in a house wondering what to do with a corpse and the tied-up drug kingpin in the basement.

It's not just the plot, though, which subverts our expectations but the characters. For example, we expect Walt to adopt a devil-may-care attitude after his diagnosis, breaking out of his old timid habits. Now he does, but not how or when we expect. Walt doesn't suddenly become a different person after his diagnosis, but acts like Walt having been diagnosed with cancer. So he doesn't launch into a verbal tirade against the boor in the bank, but he does short out the jerk's battery at the gas station. Walt doesn't flip out on the teens mocking his son with cerebral palsy, Walt Jr., in the clothing store, in fact he walks out the back. Regression? No, rather he re-enters the front and using some knowledge of physiology and a lot of attitude, get the bully to retreat.

Likewise we expect Walt's partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman, to be a complete degenerate because of his coarse appearance and habits, and because he's a drug dealer and user, but when he returns home out of desperation, we see him in a new light. How childlike and vulnerable he seems sleeping in his old bed, still folded and clean like mom used to make, in his shabby clothes. When his father seems resolved to kick him out again, he finds Jesse setting the dinner table. He laughs to himself at his old doodles, especially an unflattering one of Mr. White, but then he flips it over to find a test which he failed and on which Mr. White had written, "Ridiculous! Apply yourself!" We're thinking of Walt as the role model and stereotypical inspiring teacher, until we remember that the role model is soliciting the student for drug dealing.

Even the supporting characters have depth and life. After his churlish display at Walt's 50th birthday party, we expect Walt's brother-in-law to be brutish lout. Hank shows off his gun and swigs beer, freely cursing and cracking crude jokes. In one early scene we think he's yelling at his wife, but it turns out he's calling from work where as a DEA agent he's chewing out some perpetrators. For all of his fratboy manners, Hank turns out to be a sensitive guy, worried about his family and willing to step in and say the honest, difficult things that need to be said. His wife Marie looks like a controlling self-centered nuisance, but she comes out at Walt's intervention to advocate for Walt's right to refuse treatment. Walter Jr. seems as quiet and reserved at his father, but comes out to call him a "fucking pussy" for being willing to lay down and die. Even a one-off character like Walt's old classmate and friend–who made millions while Walt went to teach–turns out not to be corrupted by his opulent lifestyle and is touched by Walt's sentimental gift. Or is he only so because he knows about Walt's condition?

If one thing is predictable in Breaking Bad, it is the domestic life. Perhaps it's not so much predictable as familiar and truthful. We can see when a character is going to say something which he'd kept quiet, try and level with his family, or simply say I love you. We see all the tells because they're authentic. That doesn't mean these scenes are cookie-cutter patterns. Take one which occurs at a family barbecue. We see in Walt's eyes that he's going to reminisce about when he met his wife, and as he does she starts to weep. We think it's sentiment and nostalgia until she loses control and excuses herself, when we realize that Walt has told her about his diagnosis, a revelation which we didn't see. When she gets up the tone and context of the whole scene–preceding, present, and future–changes.

All of this character development is occurring interwoven with Walt's battle with cancer and chemotherapy, his wife's pregnancy with their daughter, and his DEA agent brother-in-law poking around in places which will inevitably lead back to Walt. The plots move rather slowly because the characters stop to reflect, doubt, and be afraid. Walt doesn't want to suffer the treatments, make drugs, break the law, or sneak around, and each step of the way he's evaluating how far he'll go. Hank thinks Walt Jr. is smoking marijuana, Skyler doesn't know where Walt is sneaking off, and all the while Walt is cooking meth in Winnebago and making deals with psychotic drug dealers. The show is so engaging because the characters don't simply react to one another, but often act on information we know to be untrue or incomplete, leading to an array of conflicts which are necessary for other reasons but because they off-base, don't resolve anything. Instead we learn about the characters and their world in ways and times we do not expect.

Overall, Season 1 of Breaking Bad is an rich and prudently varied introduction to a promising show. It spends its time building characters rather than recklessly hurtling the plot forward and cashing in on cheap thrills. Breaking Bad is not at all the hipster-fodder I expected, and it's not interesting because its subjects–drugs and cancer–are taboo, but because we're anxious to go together with these characters down their tortuous paths. Not the light-hearted fare I expected, in fact quite a bit more.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Right Now, You Say?

I grow curious when and why particular news stories achieve popular attention. Most trends, being trends, go on for some time, yet they break into popular consciousness at particular times. Take for example today's concern over the "74 school shootings since Sandy Hook." The issue at large, violence, is no doubt relevant to many, but not much more so at the 74th shooting than the 73rd or 70th and so on. Yet it's only today's cris de coeur. Earlier this week libertarians were buzzing about police militarization and before that Jon Stewart's loyal viewers were especially incensed about SuperPAC corruption. Next week will bring another cause for concern. Why is man so easily stirred, yet so briefly?

Part of the conundrum lies in the fact that virtue is, alas, not habit forming. We are what we do regularly, to paraphrase Aristotle, and for the most part that doesn't paint a flattering picture. Eating, sleeping, working, cleaning, these are the things we carry on with each day. Not the stuff of legend, but I would argue that's quite alright. Daily life, done well, is hard enough.

The other part of our problem is that we think on too large a scale. We don't want to make our neighborhood safe, we want to "stop gun violence." We don't want to help our neighbor's son, we want, "universal pre-school." Yet these are goals unattainable by top-down managing and cannot be achieved in all places at every time. Problems cannot be tackled by programs, but by virtue.

Yet the news keeps coming and tapping into our sense of duty, bringing local news–for all news is local news–to our distant doors. We hear the news, express outrage, and go about our day. Now I don't disparage your average citizen here, for I believe people truly are concerned. Watch people when they take in a news report about a fatal fire or car accident. I'm convinced they're moved. Their dull lives, however, have rendered them vulnerable to that addicting feeling of concern which the news provides.

Watch Fox news for an hour. It's a magnificently proportioned symphony of instigation. Notice how they stitch in minor outrages amidst the major stories, and then pop little cheerful videos into the mix, just for a little variety. It's an emotional ride from scandal to catastrophe to horror, and viewers are addicted to the feeling. And Fox's is but one demographic, the same as MSNBC's only the former network is vastly superior at playing–or pleasing–its viewers. Every show and network has a variation, though. Comedy Central's Stewart-Colbert duo validates the intelligence of its viewers by mocking everyone else. CNN sells a sense of being informed by its bland repetition, apparently for traditionalists who still feel that you have to suffer for your education. In every case the news is just a vehicle for the sensation which its presentation provides.

Network television has finally perfected the paradox of education: that the educated feel good just for knowing, even when they don't do anything.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: How to Read A Latin Poem

How To Read A Latin Poem: If You Can't Read Latin Yet
by William Fitzgerald. 2013.

Figurative language, subtle connotation, obscure references, shifts in word order, omissions–there are plenty of barriers to comprehending poetry. There are more obtuse impediments to enjoying poetry–O mores!–but those are wailings and failings for another day. How do you enjoy a poem though, if you don't know the language in which it is written? More importantly, why would you bother trying to learn? It's not so hard to pick up even a tough book written in your native tongue because the risk is so low: if you don't like it you can put it down with no inconvenience. Yet how do you judge, other than by its hoary reputation, whether you should learn a language just to read its literature?

The last word of William Fitzgerald's How To Read a Latin Poem: If You Can't Read Latin Yet, suggests confidence in the reader and the literature. At least half of that faith is justified, as is Fitzgerald's implied faith in his powers of persuasion and demonstration. First off, don't let its soft Pre-Raphaelite cover deceive you: this isn't prettified Latin translation dressed up with florid explanations. In fact, the case is the opposite. Fitzgerald strips the Latin of as many barriers as he can so readers can get enough of a sense of the poetry that, hopefully, the Latinless will be inspired to pick up the poems on their own.

Chief among these barriers which Fitzgerald helps the reader sidestep is the system of inflection. He spends some time at the beginning outlining the basics of morphology and case usage, but wisely doesn't explicate the entire system. If you get the idea that the endings change the meaning and can imagine the resulting possibilities for word placement, then Fitzgerald's explanations will carry you through. Despite this apparent evasion, the greatest strength of the book is Fitzgerald's ability to demonstrate the beauty and significance of the Latin word order. Liberated from the need to give full grammatical explanations, Fitzgerald is able simply to point to word relationships and thereby paint a lucid picture without jargon and caveats. Take this selection from his explanation of Horace Ode 2.10:
All the lines in this stanza are enjambed, and the sense tumbles from one line to the next in unpredictable ways. the main verb, 'loves' (diliget), comes, as usual, at the end of its clause, but it is emphatically emjambed to underline the oxymoron of loving middleness, and Horace's word order places love and lack into close proximity (diliget, loves; caret, lacks). (Fitzgerald, 105.)
Clear and precise, but not narrowly grammatical. For this reason in particular Latin students and classical neophytes alike will enjoy Fitzgerald's demonstration that there are dimensions to reading and writing poetry besides mechanics. In this respect How To Read A Latin Poem is a foretaste of the fun parts of reading Latin for those still champing the basics. May he inspire beginners to endure the latter for the former. Toward that end I think Fitzgerald's translations, which are literal but not so obtusely so that they obscure more than they reveal, encourage the reader to work through Latin, if only to match up the parts which Fitzgerald mentions. Likewise the brevity of the selections encourages readers to dive into the Latin rather than gloss over the foreign passages, resigned just to read the book as analysis. Leaning on his translation and with such descriptions, readers can begin to see the cascade of images and constellation of relations.

Yes, he discusses vocabulary, and I'm not sure if there's any more tedious part of teaching classics than running through the endless cognates and derivatives. Fitzgerald is prudent about this, choosing to prop up little umbrellas of meaning over choice words only when needed to explain puns, subtle suggestions, and the many words which fade in facile translation.

The highlight of How to Read a Latin Poem for advanced students and proficient readers, though, will be the commentary. It's rich and varied, with summaries of the basics neatly woven to frame more sophisticated discussions. From Chapter 4 on Vergil:
Yes, Furor is restrained, but he is not pacified, and the restraining power must exercise a savagery worthy of the victim himself. As the culmination of a speech forecasting the glorious future of Rome and the extent of its domination abroad, this picture of barely contained violence 'within' is disturbing to say the least. Is this Furor to be held in reserve, ready to be unleashed on the recalcitrant? (Fitzgerald, 167)
Fitzgerald is at his best, though, on the less famous authors, especially discussing the political science behind the psychologies of Lucan's Pompey, Caesar, and Cato and the furious Atreus of Seneca's Thyestes. On the latter:
...Atreus drives on to complete the second line with a command that expresses the final, impossible aspiration of power: quod nolunt velint. English cannot achieve the compression of the two juxtaposed Latin verbs, nolo (I do not want) and volo (I want); nor can it imitate the elegant chiasmus with which Atreus delivers his devastating theory of power: true praise (A) even falls to the lowly man (B) only to the powerful (B) false (A). (Fitzgerald, 209)
Finally he brings some just attention and affection for perhaps the most overlooked masterpiece, Lucretius' De rerum natura:
The sights and sounds of everyday Roman life have as vivid a presence in Lucretius' epic as the sublime expanses of the universe, but here both come together in a single image. Between the paving stones of a Roman road a vision opens up that reaches both down into the earth and up to the heaven in dizzying succession. (Fitzgerald, 238)
Moderate measures of grammar, history, psychology, comparative literature, and rhetoric make for a handy little book very much like advanced program notes for the opera. It has a lot of rich details to bring out the best of the texts, and just enough crib to carry you through the tough parts. Like a great opera, too this book features a cross-section of life: invective, satire, love, tragedy, myth, and epic.

Hopefully, though, students will approach it less like a cheat than as an invitation to a language and authors which Fitzgerald demonstrates are vital and exciting. How To Read a Latin Poem makes a great companion for high school classes and a valuable supplement to classes whose curriculum or teacher eschews discussions of style. It's an outright boon for independent students of any caliber. For teachers and experts it's a brisk and lively day's read with a colleague of diverse interests, learning, and insight. The presentation is perhaps a bit too consistent and its abrupt conclusion doesn't live up to the diverse and engaging opening which ranged from Catullus to Pope to Kipling to David Niven (in Separate Tables)but this is a great read. Mr. Fitzgerald's students are most fortunate.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

Directed by Gareth Edwards. 2014.


The art of the tease is not so different from the art of filmmaking. Each presents us with something enticing yet veiled and both proceed to unwrap their surprises at the perfect pace to maximize our interest and heighten the effect of the final reveal. H. L. Mencken invented for the finer practitioners of this art the word ecdysiast, coming from Greek's ἔκδῠσις for casting off. One wonders whether Mencken was punning the word's other meaning, which is to escape or get out. Nonetheless both meanings apply to filmmaking teases, for the more layers you take off and the more slowly, all the more perfect must be the payoff. Likewise the deeper you get, the harder it can be to keep sight of the payoff amidst all the distraction and buildup. Yet if that buildup and distraction go on for too long, we lose interest and sight of what we came for.

Alas, this otherwise competent and effective reboot of the beloved Godzilla franchise, has such an enervating flaw. The first forty-five minutes, though, are expert buildup. Yes, the opening credits remind us too much of Roland Emmerich's 1998 monstrosity, but how many ways are there to explain lizard mutation and atomic bombs? We meet a family with whom we empathize because the parents are Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, and we're led on a little mystery hunt trying to find out what really caused a nuclear plant failure. This is all just right and gets us just enough invested in the characters and backstory without getting bogged down in complexity or bored by banality. About an hour in, though, we've only seen a few fleeing glimpses of him via ancient skeletal remains and grainy footage from the 1950s. We're teased just enough and we are ready for Godzilla.

So when the giant monsters start terrorizing the globe–such creatures and happenstances are part-and-parcel of the Godzilla series, if you don't know–we are really ready for Godzilla. Then when Godzilla finally arrives howling his trademark atomic roar and the camera immediately cuts away, we're dying to see Godzilla do something. Then, when Godzilla and the other monster are finally in the same place and having slowly approached each other start to grapple, and the camera cuts away again, I start to get annoyed. After they'd pulled that stunt another two times, I began to lose interest.

At that point, relentlessly cutting away from Godzilla and without Bryan Cranston, the only interesting character left, the movie got bogged down in following Cranston's son, who was alternately trying to get to his family in San Francisco and carry out the military's inevitably flawed plan to stop the monsters. The subsequent scenes held my attention surprisingly well considering my frustration at not seeing Godzilla and my indifference to people who aren't Bryan Cranston, but they can't carry the movie when that movie is Godzilla. I wouldn't have had a problem with seeing less Godzilla if the other parts had been more interesting, and the director and producer are wise to restrain themselves not to burn out the franchise in the first installment, but the movie is lacking something. Godzilla needed a more sophisticated science fiction plot, more character development, more monster battles, or it needed to be shorter. They declined the first two choices because people don't care about science fiction or characters anymore, the third not to burn out the franchise, and the last because people would feel cheated of their pricy ticket.

Instead they teased us some more, which could have worked if the tease had been justifiable, like waiting for all the monsters to be in the same place, but once they're cutting away from battling monsters for rubbish side plots and cardboard characters they're just wasting our time.

There's a lot to like here, though, including a weighty opening, charismatic leads–gone too soon, but charismatic nonetheless–and a simple, intelligible plot that eschews the incomprehensible, scatterbrained complexity which sinks so many sci-fi and monster movies. We even enjoy a few subtle, affectionate references to Jaws, Kubrick, and Jurassic Park. Best of all, though, Godzilla himself is a smashing success. He looks, sounds, and moves as he ought to and so he feels like the old Godzilla even sans the rubber suit. As a result, the final battle retains the style and charm of the original monster brawls. Here Godzilla fights two monsters double-teaming him and they whack each other around until Godzilla whips out his atomic breath. This is as it should be.

At first I was disappointed that the King of the Monsters seemed shrunken to a cameo in his own movie, but now I appreciate more the director's restraint. We see a lot of destruction, but there is always a reasonable and consistent sense of scale, and we see almost enough of Godzilla. With a little trimming and retooling what we got would have been enough, but as the movie stands, we're lacking a bit. I think in an age less desensitized to action and more admiring of economy and tension, though, this movie will be regarded higher among its peers today and in the Godzilla franchise.

Overall, this is a solid Godzilla movie. Director Gareth Edwards delivers a restrained monster picture with affection for the franchise's not-quite-kingly origins–Jet Jaguar anyone?–at a time Hollywood is left and right resurrecting and exploiting franchises with no regard for quality. With that and our attention-deficient age in mind, Godzilla is commendable and entertaining.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Things I Don't Get #1: Applause

Concluding that we need a new series around the blog and that it should be of a kind which can go on indefinitely, I hereby inaugurate this series, Things I Don't Get.

I dislike applause, a dislike magnified not only by the popularity of the practice today, but also by the esteem which the custom has held seemingly everywhere and at all times. Imagine the sadness of your humble blogger not finding a single invidious reference to this hideous practice. There is no greater show of approbation, it seems, than to plaudere, to clap. We may cry O tempora! at foul times but may we say in sufficient despair when it is every age which knows such plight?

First off, through all its variations the sound of applause is cacophonous. Sometimes the clappers smack, sometimes they pop, they even wallop, a diversity owing to individual preference for clapping palm-to-palm, fingers-to-palm, and that rare spectacle, clapping fingers to the top of the hand. The thwackers are the worst though, emitting that infamous high-pitched crack which slices the air through to the ear. Ouch!

If the sheer sound is not enough to torment, though, why is the duration of applause always at the discretion of the crowd and not an objective standard or tradition? Applause, if it must go on, should go on for a specific duration like any reasonable approbation. Excessive praise with words is said to be servile, obsequious, and such, so likewise should we consider excessive applause in poor taste. I propose a tiered system of three, five, seven, and at most ten claps. Aside from accommodating a reasonable hierarchy and minimizing noise, this system would be easy to quantify. I can see it now:
Phil: How do you think the audience liked the speech, Fred?
Fred: Well, Phil, it sounds like he got about seven claps tonight which is three more than last time and two more than his competitor tonight. I'd call this a big win.
None of the usual unrestrained discord is ever enough, though. How often do we hear, most frequently at the insufferable spectacles of pep rallies–the horror!–the invocation to "make some noise!" We're told that we need to show support by making noise. You see, noise is support. Don't feel bad for having missed that apparent truth, for it eluded me too. Don't write a reasonable, even passionate, response after reflecting, or anything so characteristically humane, just make some noise of approval right away. Homo sapiens yields to homo plaudens.

Worst, though, is the contradiction between what and how we celebrate. Why should we celebrate an articulate speech with rabbling applause, a practiced, controlled display of art or sport with unrestrained noise?

No, it's not reasonable to expect everyone to go home and reflect in thoughtful prose about every occasion, but neither is applause is not the answer. If a noisy rabble befits beasts, then the gesture which most eludes man and requires the most practice should be with what he expresses honor and approbation, and that gesture is silence. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Sacrifice: Ten Frames

It's unusual that in reviewing a movie to select my favorite shots that I discover something wholly unexpected. What one usually notices in Tarkovsky is his dreamlike tone and somnambulant sense of motion. In watching The Sacrifice again, though, I noticed how often the characters are looking away from us and each other. The movie is about the sense of the sacred, and its characters look beyond their immediate surroundings for something more. Again and again they look beyond the empirical for something incomprehensible yet within, sometimes, sense. By their search they encourage us to do the same, looking beyond the film's plot to its sense of life.

Please pardon the quality of the shots, which are darker than the excellent Blu-Ray print I watched. I also missed a few choice shots, such as that of Alexander and Maria floating, because of my arcane capture process. Finally, please note that there are many pictures on the page after the jump. I got a little carried away.

click to enlarge images

1. Apart from any symbols and suggestions contained therein, this is a deceptively simple shot full of implicit motion. As we've seen elsewhere, here we find activity along three axes of the shot: the path down the center brings us into the shot, the shape of the sea's inlet gives us horizontal motion, and Alexander raising his tree is contrasting longitudinal activity. All of this motion, though, unlike the afore-referenced Hitchcock, is quite subtle. Here the inlet is in the distance, faintly ebbing, Alexander raises the tree slowly, and the path, along which nothing moves, curves just a bit.

How natural too is this sight of land, sea, and air, with man amidst raising up his faith in the future.

This shot continues unbroken from the first, with the mercurial Otto and his cycling replacing the z-axis motion of the path. Is there perhaps a subtle suggestion in that deviation too, perhaps that Otto knows something outside the usual?

2. Roger Ebert once referred to one of Janusz Kaminski's shots in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, as, "bafflingly simple," and I think the phrase applies here. A man sits with his son. Yet there is contrast of both texture and color from the woody stems to the pointy blades of grass to the mists in the background. There is again contrast of direction, with Little Man sitting across Alexander's lap. Finally, doesn't Alexander somehow look like one of the trees, shooting up from the earth?

3. From one of Tarkovksy's famous dream sequences, this desaturated shot steals our attention by fading out life's apparent vividness and pulling from our senses and connotations of the visual elements to create tone and suggest a different kind of sight. Something about the naturalness of the rippling water over the harsh manmade landscape discomfits us, as does the unnatural presence of this chair. It surely does not belong yet the sight of it calls to mind some kind of presence simply because we associate people sitting with the sight of chairs. But does it represent presence, absence, neglect?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Put Down that Missal

Sin and vice may be, well, sin and vice, but they can still be educative and bear an occasional sweet fruit. Take, for example, the sloth which led me to leave my missal at home when attending mass. In my meager defense I bus 45 minutes down to Holy Innocents in NYC and thus would carry the small but weighty tome with me throughout the mass and remainder of the day. Not exactly Spartan severity, I know, but enough to inspire such confidence in my memory and Latin that I'd consider ditching my cheat sheet.

That's what it is, isn't it? A crib, a crutch. The English is a crib of the Latin, in some cases of which the Latin is crib of the Greek, itself often a crib of the Hebrew. More significant, though, the book is a crib of the mass, it's a theft from your mind, a theft of the experience of knowing. It is good to know, thrilling to make the words intimates and enlightening to know them so well that you can bring them forth, and have them unexpectedly brought to mind, in the manifold twists and turns of life.

The alternative to remembering words, as far as the mass is concerned, is a contradiction. When we are forgetful of words we let their printed form work for us, referring back to us the meaning which we don't grasp. In the Phaedrus (275A) Plato called words ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον, a drug or remedy of remembering, not of memory.We've discussed this turn of thought before, but memory takes on a special role in the mass. The spoken words of the liturgy, the words in time not the words in print, are the mass. The missal is not the mass. To know the mass, then, you need to know the mass and be able to share in its unfolding.

The alternative is what we see most often, and surely do as well, and that is simply keeping pace with the mass. We follow, yes, insofar as we move in the same direction, but because the words are not ours we are cogitating as we go and thus not focusing our feeling. Now there is nothing at all reprehensible about such slight following, but it is not wholly satisfying. The exhortation of Pius X to "follow all that happens at the Altar" is well known, but its context is important:
You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the Altar.
The essential word there is associate, to make an ally of, and as such, to bind up with. We must be so bound up with the words that during the mass they may flow freely through us. The more we must out of necessity read and think, the less we feel in the moment.

The situation is not so different from aesthetic experience. We learn a great deal from analyzing scores and reading plays and to understand difficult ones we often read as we listen to a performance, but how much more vital is the experience when we've internalized the words and may simply experience them unfolding. Contrary to expectations, the mystery of their effect does not disappear by familiarization, but deepens. So many degrees beyond goes our experience of the mass.

Some common sense will illuminate the matter as well. Consider how often we discuss the memorial of the mass and the commemoration of the sacrifice, and making a memory of Christ, all with our heads ducked down into crinkly pages. Perhaps to make a memory we should keep one. How often in the Extraordinary Form of the mass do we look into our books as the priest says Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Even at a Novus Ordo mass in English people look to the page out of habit, or perhaps just to avoid eye contact with awkward celebrants and lectors.

In any event we cheat ourselves of more intimately praying the mass from heart and mind when we rely on external aids. It's not hard to memorize, even Latin. The Ordinary remains the same week after week, and even without study the patterns of even the canon find their way into the mind. The propers of course vary, but should we not remember of all things these stories and lessons, if not verbatim then at least with some detail? Finally, so much beautiful music shapes the whole mass into the most memorable whole that we couldn't ask for something which more commends itself to the intimacy of memory.

The alternative seems to me a constrained experience, limited by busyness and thought. My missal remains an indispensable book for preparation, but during the mass one ought to carry as much as possible only oneself in fullness. This is surely an ideal toward which we can strive, and I'm not suggesting everyone drop their missals and try to wing a sudden and perfect active participation from memory. Rather we ought to read and prepare in private, follow at mass with a missal as much as we need, but prepare to put it down and remember.