Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving, 2011

In this year's Thanksgiving list, thanks for inherited wisdom, some if it wrought from philosophical rigor and some culled from simple reflections on long lives. These are reflections not on the great philosophical problems but simply on living, and they are thoughts which grow ever dearer to your aging and still humble blogger. 

On Life and Living

The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline, but is, rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.
-Glenn Gould

There are those who have insisted that art is superfluous to life, and again those others who contend that life has no meaning without art. My view is that life is art, and that living is in fact the greatest and most difficult of arts.
-Yehudi Menuhin

Principio caelum ac terram camposque liquentis
lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra
spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus
mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.

O rus, quando ego te aspiciam! quandoque licebit
nunc veterum libris, nunc somno et inertibus horis,
ducere sollicitae iucunda oblivia vitae!

Vita humana prope uti ferrum est. Si exerceas, conteritur; si non exerceas, tamen rubigo interficit. Itidem homines exercendo videmus conteri. Inertia atque torpedo plus detrimenti facit, quam exercito
-Marcus Portius Cato (The Elder)

Omnibus in rebus voluptatis maximis fastidium finitimum est.

Nescire autem quid ante qua natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum vetuerum cum superiorum aetate contexitur.

Do your duty–never mind whether you are shivering or warm sleeping on your feet or in your bed, hearing yourself slandered or praised, dying or doing something else. Yes, even dying is an act of life and should be done, like everything else, "to the best of your abilities."
-Marcus Aurelius

One should make a return to those with whom one has studied philosophy; for their worth cannot  be measured against money, and they can get no honor which will balance their services. . .

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.
-J. R. R. Tolkien

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Movie Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. 2011.

I waited for something to go wrong with Crazy, Stupid, Love. I waited for a parade of quirky people instead of characters I could relate to. I waited for gratuitous sex and profanity. I waited for the movie to settle into a comfortable genre and adopts its cliches and tropes. I waited for a tidy ending to wrap things up. None of these cropped up to plague Crazy, Stupid, Love. I like this movie. I like this movie? I like this movie? From its first to its last shot, I do.

Most admirably, this movie is not lazy. It works and it works hard to avoid the trappings of romantic comedies, to maintain a tone between drama and comedy, and to maintain reasonable situations. It begins as a serious drama with an opening simple, short, and sexy. At dinner Emily tells Cal she wants a divorce. After a tense car ride we think we have the genre pegged: divorce drama. It's Kramer vs. Kramer.  Yet the film is not a serious drama, not wholly anyway. Cal and his wife get divorced and the kids visit him, still chatty and perky. Maybe this'll be a wacky comedy where the dad becomes so wonderful and zany that everyone loves him. It'll be Mrs. Doubtfire. Then Cal meets Jacob, a slick and smooth-talking ladies' man who offers to tutor Cal. He picks out sharp clothes for Cal and teaches him how to approach women. Ahh, it's Hitch. Then the new life blows up in his face one night at the most awkward parent-teacher meeting I've ever seen. So it's Alfie. Right? Well, we'll see.

All the while Cal's journey is intercut amongst subplots which include his son's crush on the babysitter, the babysitter's crush on Cal, a coworker's crush on Cal's wife Emily, and Hannah's limbo, Hannah who managed to resist Jacob's charms because she thinks her lawyer-boss-boyfriend is going to propose. Oh, it's Love Actually. Right? Well, it never gets mired in one of them and it does not try to be all of them, but rather Crazy, Stupid, Love uses these other genres as it passes through them, building to something bigger as it tries to find some place new and significant for its characters, and us.

Driven toward the risky, the foolhardy, the crazy and stupid if you will, everyone really does seem to be at the mercy of love. The constant exhortations and paeans to love from Cal's son, Robbie, succeed in casting some sense of love as the force behind everyone's antics and the force to which everyone must bow. The filial advice eventually spurs Cal to reclaim Emily but in a twist so silly and convenient as to be worthy of opera, all goes to hell in a spectacle equally operatic. Ah ha! It's going to end with the "big silly even in which everyone comes to their senses" right? Wrong. Deftly handled the scene is short and maintains a tone so very hard to strike while completing no fewer than three purposes. It has 1) to weave together the different threads, 2) to close out the action of the scene itself, and 3) cut off certain possibilities whilst opening new ones, but not so many that we throw up our hands and feel like anything can happen or that the resolution is being arbitrarily prolonged.

The final act is short enough to be thought of as a coda, but it in true dramatic fashion it does function to deliver the meaning of the story even though the plot can already be seen to be over. The final scene is a sweet but not cloying education in love, true to the characters and the title. Is love some overruling force, fickle and troublesome, but worth contending with? At the end, I thought so.

Crazy, Stupid, Love could have gone wrong in a thousand ways and at a thousand moments, but a painstakingly fought for tone, a thoughtful avoidance of cliches, and a planned large-scale structure support the great cast. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a pleasure.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Movie Review: Immortals

Directed by Tarsem Singh. 2011.

Spoilers within!

But first, a vocabulary lesson brought to you by the letter I.

pas·tiche [pa-steesh, pah-]

1. a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.

2. an incongruous combination of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; hodgepodge.

Origin: 1700–10; < French < Italian, pasticcio

The question is, I suppose, how incongruous. The image to the right ought to suggest the cornucopia of styles and tropes Immortals constitutes. This is not a fault by nature, but the relentless similarities distract, startle, annoy, and eventually tire. Let us first just list the obvious relationships to recent movies or uses of modern trends:
  1. the big wall/gate from The Two Towers
  2. the population retreating to a more defensible location a la The Two Towers
  3. the disfigured betrayer a la 300 & The Two Towers
  4. "man must stand alone" a la The Two Towers
  5. massive computer-generated armies a la Lord of the Rings
  6. angry bad guy with limitless army, a la Hero or The Mummy Returns
  7. animal helmets and scenes of gruesome violence a la torture-horror genre
These cliches and others make the film feel filled instead of rich. I would hazard the guess that the cliches result from the "If they liked it once they'll love it twice" mentality of producers. Worse, though, the similarities draw us into the present, a debilitating flaw for an aspiring epic of Greek mythology. 

And then there the general film tropes:
  1. reluctant hero
  2. destroyed village/murdered family a la Conan
  3. wise tutor
  4. pretty(!) love interest
  5. maguffin
  6. end of the world scenario
These cheap ploys are forgivable if the plot stitches them together with great skill. Does it? Sort of. The "hero quest" thread and the "finding his faith" thread sort of work. Maybe. Let us look at he hero quest.

At the start Theseus does not want to fight and refuses to join the local militia, yet he is apparently skilled in battle. Why might this be? Then his village and mother are killed. So he wants revenge. This makes sense, right? But his tutor counseled him in "living rightly." Does revenge seem quite so "right?" Even if we want to infer that the eye-for-an-eye treatment would be just, Theseus never says so. In fact he says he wants revenge. Maybe Theseus wants to defend others from this ruthless man? Well, contra the advice of his tutor, Theseus explicitly says he does not want to do this because they spurn him and his mother (his mother was raped and he is a bastard.) It is not like there is any subplot in which some villagers who once hated Theseus learn to respect him and Theseus learns to trust others. So when Theseus fights Hyperion at the end, he's only fighting for revenge as far as we can tell. Also, when Theseus rallies the troops at the end, spouting off a whole slew of values that they should fight for, we can only ask, "where  have these values been all along for?" He never mentions liberty or property or progeny or anything else before. Yes, these ideas are mentioned by Hyperion, but first, Theseus doesn't know that and second, Theseus still isn't living those values. So that's a big mess. I can't tell whether the missing sense is on the cutting room floor or whether the writers wrote themselves into a corner, but there it is. 


Now let us look at the "finding the faith" thread. I admit this had great potential. You see, neither Theseus nor Hyperion believe in the gods. Theseus because he and his mother suffer and Hyperion because his family was killed by disease. Thus Hyperion wants to wipe out all life and Theseus. . . well that's where the similarity ends and the problems begin. You see Zeus announces that the gods cannot interfere in mortal affairs. Why? Who knows. Unfortunately we need some answer for the plot and we don't  get one. Thus even if the gods revealed themselves to Hyperion, do you think that he would be satisfied? Yes he might "find his faith" and then what? Hey you know what, maybe the writers could have thought of this

Now Theseus does find his faith. How? One of the gods flies down right in front of him and blasts someone to smithereens. Well it wouldn't take Demosthenes to convince him that the gods exist after that, would it? And then Zeus, after obliterating that god for violating Olympus' non-interference clause, promises it'll never happen again. How can he promise that? What's he going to do? Logically he can only promise that if it does happen again Zeus will be back to blast that guy too. So the gods won't interfere, just because they're not supposed to, but if they do Zeus'll blast them. Sounds great! I'll bet Theseus couldn't wait to get those offerings cracklin'.

"Just sign on the dotted line and then we won't simply not help you,
 but I'll personally dematerialize anyone who tries to do so."

Now just one more thing. Actually several more things. If the gods don't interfere, then why are they so secretive? Also, if they don't interfere, why pray to them? Why honor them? Just for thanks I suppose but thanks for what? Did they make man? In one Greek creation myth, yes, but this goes unmentioned in the film. This could not be inferred and had to be said. But if they're not going to do anything for you then you can't ask for help. And if they won't hurt you either, then there is no one to appease. So believing in them is basically just whatever you happen to believe as a creation myth and has no real bearing on anything. So Theseus doesn't find his faith so much as learn a history lesson. Translation: this thread is a mess too. 

A few miscellaneous problems:
  1. Where did Hyperion's army come from? Who are these people? Who equipped them?
  2. Where are all the Greeks? 
  3. Where's that wall and why can't Hyperion go around it?
  4. Why are the gods forbidden to interfere in man's affairs, but permitted to do so "indirectly?"
  5. If he didn't believe in the gods, why is Hyperion so certain the Titans exist?
  6. Why does everything have to look like Lord of the Rings?
I'm not going to discuss accuracy according to the myths, but a few points perturbed me:
  1. Why is it set in 1200BC, the approximate time of the Trojan War?
  2. Why can't they just call them "Hellenes" and the land "Hellas?"
  3. Why does the oracle's gift transcend the place and function like a superpower?
  4. Why did they have to call him Hyperion?
  5. Why are gods dying?
  6. Where's Zeus' thunderbolt?
  7. Why are the Titans human-sized zombies?
Lastly, some of the minor characters aren't clearly introduced or differentiated on screen. Likewise the locations are often unclear. I would understand if someone were confused about either. 

So let me explain what I think happened. The producers of 300 wanted to cash in on its success. Clash of   the Titans came out afterwards, though, so they got Tarsem Singh to direct to make it look different from both Clash and 300. On the one hand they wanted big battles between armies and on the other they wanted superhero-style fighting. They couldn't re-create either 300 or Clash so they combined them.  Hence the hodgepodge. 

What do I like? I like the gods. I like how they look like slick and youthful as opposed to the old, regal, aristocratic look they used to sport. They've shaken off the prettified Victorian crust and lost those gentle Renaissance postures in exchange for vivacity and awesome, unpredictable force. They look like the upstarts who would have provoked the Titans and started a war with them. I like their brushed-gold armor, unique to each god. I like that they rule from atop Olympus, looking down and I like that their presence among the mortals feels out of the ordinary. John Hurt was splendid. I liked the Greek in the beginning dialogue.

There was potential in the theme of "immortality." Maybe Theseus wouldn't find his faith, but would attain immortality through fame for his good deeds whereas belief in the gods would dwindle because they did not act to do good. Right? Well. . . Theseus does find his faith (sort of, as we said) and does do good, and is remembered, but they make him a god anyway. Well that ruins, oh I don't know, the title, that's all. It's called Immortals not Divinities anyway, the becoming-a-god part is unnecessary. See how that Socrates quote really doesn't work here? And now as a god presumably he subject to the "no-interference" rule, no? 

Again, the gods looked good, the introduction set an appropriate tone, and there were ideas at play. Unfortunately the script was a mess and the visuals were surprisingly conventional except for one shot of Freida Pinto's derriere which in all of cinema is probably the shot with a keister covering the highest percentage of the frame. The stock bits by their nature weren't interesting enough to be noteworthy and simply carried out their utilitarian roles in the story. Oh, and Mickey Rourke was just plain annoying as Hyperion. He was always threatening people, grumbling, brooding, and adding awkward pauses to his speechifying. It seems fairly obvious Rourke was trying to do here what he thought he was prevented from doing with his character in Iron Man 2. He was also always crunching and fumbling with these strange food chips, though he never appeared to be eating them. I guess this was supposed to be a masculine gesture, though I'm not sure.

Overall, it's hard to call Immortals a success.

What Could Have Been

I usually resist the urge to correct movies and suggest how they might have better succeeded because I appreciate how difficult it is to envision the final product. In this case, though,
the script beyond a doubt was not sufficiently thought out. They committed the cardinal sins of not asking, "Why is the character doing this?" and "Why is this important?" Also, given the richness of the source material, such lack is particularly egregious. That being the case, I offer a few scenarios, not corrections of what was but rather different premises that would have made more sense of the action.

Set-up I:

  1. Theseus is a disbeliever, but he tries to survive by himself.
  2. Hyperion believes in the gods, but hates that they do not help him. He wants to release the Titans to punish them.
Theseus may or may not find his faith, but he achieves the "immortality" of being remembered for something, any kind of excellence (arete) would suffice. In contrast, the following lines of Zeus from Homer could have been put into the mouth of either Theseus' tutor or Zeus to characterize Hyperion's fatal flaw:
How foolish men are! How unjustly they blame the gods! It is their lot to suffer, but because of their own folly they bring upon themselves sufferings over and above what is fated for them. And then they blame the gods.
I would jettison the prefatory quote from Socrates which is somewhat ham-fisted and does not seem to complement the story. As it is used, are we to interpret that the reward for goodness is becoming a god? The idea of excellence (arete) is entirely more appropriate than Socrates' saying, which prompts a more philosophical discourse the film cannot accommodate without even more revision.

Set-up II:

  1. Theseus is the man of piety.
  2. Hyperion is a man of arrogance.
This situation could include the gods as major potential players in the affairs of men could take two directions. On the one hand it could tend toward a Job-esque trial for Theseus. On the other it could work in the myth of the ages of man and portray Theseus' age a secular one. Hyperion could be written as the logical, war-like result of this lack of religiosity and/or piety. Perhaps Theseus has to persuade the others to be pious or maybe his piety saves the day at the end. In the later case the film could conclude with the same image (of the Titanomachy, it's most original one) it does now, only here it would be significant.

Set-up III:

  1. Hyperion hates that the gods interfere in the lives of men and wants to unleash the Titans to punish them.
  2. Theseus tries to stop him.
This set-up could re-institute the notion that either Zeus or Prometheus created man and could thus explain Theseus' piety. This situation would have much potential for weaving in the myth of the ages of man and some of the actual Titans.


Immortals lacks the simplicity, novelty, and clarity of purpose that made 300 noteworthy. Too it lacks the charm of the original Clash of the Titans and the sword-and-sandals epics it succeeded. Lastly, it lacks the plot and structure to make any significant statement. Immortals opens with a very Hellenic feel but the tone soon dissipates. The action is competent but I had quickly seen my fill of computer-generated armies and slow-motion smack-downs. Overall, there is enough to keep you involved as you watch, but once you realize that things don't quite come together, Immortals is pretty flat.


I looked at a few summaries after writing this review and they seem to suggest Hyperion intended to destroy the gods, in which case he obviously believed in them. I seem to remember him saying he didn't believe in them in the scene when he sets the priest on fire. I guess by "not believe in them" he meant that that they might as well not exist, but if that is so the scene was written and played all wrong. That said, other characters like Theseus and that idiotic political leader at the end clearly didn't believe in the gods: then why did they believe in the Titans? Who did they think put them there? What did they think Hyperion was doing? Who did they think made the bow, which they were pretty sure existed? 

Why did Hyperion think the bow would let him defeat all 12 Olympian gods, including Zeus himself? And the Titans too. (Or did he think the Titans would follow him? If so, why?) And all of mankind! The bow is pretty awesome but still it's just a bow. One guy had it for a minute and quickly got overwhelmed. Also, I'm pretty sure Zeus could sidestep an arrow. Also, if Hyperion thought the Titans would defeat the Olympians, then he must have thought the bow would let him rule the Titans. Well if the bow would let him rule the Titans and the Titans defeated the Olympians then why not just use the bow to defeat the Olympians? 

I admit, though, that if Hyperion were out to get the gods from the get-go then his character would make more sense. His actions, though, would as we just saw make less sense. It also makes his showdown with Theseus make less sense since Theseus is not really fighting for the gods but for revenge. Even after some gods appear to him, why would Theseus fight for them if they neither created him nor would help him? 

There was also mention of Hyperion wanting to pass on his image and to do this he was sterilizing the men. What? What is this? What's going on? Just looking at various summaries and even the different trailers (which try to have it both ways), it's pretty clear no one knows what's going on here and I'm done trying to figure it out. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part III

In our first essay on Sacred Music we looked at chant and discussed some of the properties which make it uniquely appropriate for the liturgy. In our second essay we looked at one short section of the liturgy and examined its treatment by various composers. Now I would like to look at some of the choices a composer has when setting a text. In articulating and observing them it is my hope we will then be able to appreciate when composers make (and do not make) excellent and novel use of the resources at their disposal.

1. Declamation vs. Development

In setting a section of the mass a composer must choose whether he wishes merely to decorate the text or to develop the idea, that is, he must decide whether he will simply mention the idea or whether he will attempt to explore its meaning or describe. We might find a few examples to define the spectrum of choices. On the extreme of one side would be mere declamation, i.e., pronunciation of the text. Opposite might be a fugue, a dense development of the idea. In between might be plainchant, the use of sequence and repetition, and imitation. 

The texts of the mass, both ordinary and proper, provide various opportunities for the composer. Clearly some ideas seem suited to one type of treatment. For example, "Kyrie eleison," "cum Sancto Spiritu," and "Osanna" have traditionally been treated fugally and this seems both appropriate and acceptable. Why? First, they occur either at the beginning or the end of a section of the mass and a large fugal section is more suited as an introduction or conclusion than a middle. Second, the ideas are short and self contained and thus they are appropriate candidates for fugue subjects.  

Please let me note it is not my intent to map out the mass and suggest how each section ought to be set, but rather point out that the composer must first make certain considerations and then choose a course of action. The mass of course presents challenge and opportunity for composers, the greatest of whom have responded with genius. No theoretician could have predicated Bach's setting of the Crucifixus, which Forkel, Bach's first biographer, called a "crown of thorns." My reason in articulating these points is to suggest that good liturgical music will attempt to address them. Likewise when a piece fails to address these problems it will be seen to be proportionately lacking in affect.

2. Strophic vs. Through-Composed

A composer would then have to consider how he wishes to divide the text, if at all. For example, will it be  
  1. Through-composed, i.e. with unique music for each line but with little or no repetitions and doubling back.
  2. Broken up by line or phrase as seems appropriate to the composer
  3. Treated strophically, with each line or stanza set to the same music. 
Again, certain parts of the mass lend themselves to certain treatments. For example, one can compare Palestrina's through-composed setting of the Gloria in his Missa Papae Marcelli to Bach's setting in the B-minor Mass in which Bach carefully sets particular phrases to particular music. Likewise one might compare the traditional setting of the Dies Irae sequence which is strophic to Mozart's setting in his Requiem in which he groups the stanzas and then sets them.

3. Soloists vs. Choral

An individual in an audience or congregation will invariably perceive a relationship between himself and a solo singer as different from one between himself and a choir.  If a soloist sings "adoramus te" or "miserere nobis" it seems as if he is speaking on behalf of the congregation. If a choir sings them it seems as if the choir asks as an extension of the congregation. Looking at the Dies Irae sequence is instructive here also. If a soloist sings "Mors stupebit" we empathize with him as a fellow man looking at death and the effect is dramatic. If a choir sings these words the result is more descriptive and we are more affected by the sight than any personal situation. The composer must then, if he uses soloists, be aware of this difference. 

4. Time

While the issue of the passing of time does not so much affect music for the liturgy as other non-liturgical sacred music such as oratorio we ought briefly touch on the matter. In principle we may say that in an aria time seems to be still as the music explores a given moment whereas recitative and drama push the action forward. Much like the difference between a fugue which explores a particular idea and chant which declaims it, the aria describes or explores the present emotion or situation whereas the drama or recitative conveys action. A fine example of this contrast are the contrasting and adjacent pieces from Part II of Handel's Messiah. Time seems to stop in the aria "Thou art gone up on high" as the soloist repeats and reflects on the idea. In contrast, the subsequent music for chorus conveys action: The Lord gave the word. Superficially the pieces might not seem different, but how much more reflective and personal (and longer) is the aria than the choral piece? How much more emotional and suited toward sudden flights of feeling?  

5. Detail, Structure

Lastly we must note that detail must be contextualized within a large-scale structure to be understood. Only if we know the language and rules of the composer and the direction of the piece can the composer convey a sense of departure, significant action, and return. This requires attention to structure within and among movements, that is, attention to and consistency in the:
  1. passage of keys within movements
  2. tonic keys of each movement
  3. thematic material if it is repeated
  4. instrumentation
  5. setting of music for soloist or choir
  6. meter and tempo
  7. four points mentioned above
  8. use of parallelism

In setting the mass a composer will make these choices whether consciously or not. If he is not conscious of the possibilites it is hard to imagine, even if the music is competently written, that it will suit the text or that there will be any unity of affect.

Next time we will look at a famous setting of a mass and see whether its composer paid attention to these five aspects.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bach's Cantatas as 21st Century Chamber Music

To those who wish to get to know these priceless works [i.e. Bach's cantatas] in bulk, [Albert] Schweitzer's advice is invaluable---to gather a few friends together round a pianoforte and sing them through. The inadequacies of performance are compensated for by the intimacy of common music-making. Let all the sopranos sing in unison the recitatives and arias for that voice, and so on. Afterwards the student, in the solitude of his sanctum, with the great score in his lap and the memory of the actual sound of the great music in his mind's ear, can attune himself to the spirit of the noblest master of all time.
W.G. Whittaker The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (Vol 1, pg. 433)

W.G. Whittaker's words are music to the amateur musician's ears. I have often wished to do just what he recommends, not only with Bach but with the Renaissance masses and madrigals I love little less.

The musicians who rendered the music in Leipzig's Lutheran liturgies might justly be called amateurs (a word undeservedly maligned and misused today): Bach's difficulties in getting his works adequately performed with the resources to hand are well-documented.

Bach composed in such a way to buttress his poorly-trained singers, doubling their vocal lines in the strings or winds. His vocal music, difficult though it is, is within the compass of an amateur's abilities. And with the help of a piano, to fill in the harmonic gaps, other instruments might be added as available. And although most of the Baroque instruments will be unavailable to the amateur, reasonable substitutions of modern instruments might be made, with due allowance for style and ensemble.

The Petrucci Library contains the complete scores of the cantatas, from the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, as well as vocal scores with piano reductions. In short, the musical resources are easily accessible. Go ye therefore and sing!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

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We hope Tumblr will be conducive toward us sharing our shorter, though equally brilliant, thoughts. It should also allow us to post miscellaneous items without cluttering this page which will remain reserved for longer articles. 

Movie Review: Contagion

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 2011.

*Spoiler Warning*

The structure of Contagion must have scared a few producers. Nothing else can explain why A-list actors fill the supporting roles of this movie. They are well-filled, to be sure, though not one is particularly distinct or memorable and none called for a particular screen talent or presence. Matt Damon, though, is an especially convincing everyman, even if he is just channeling the confusion from his Bourne blockbusters.

Still, I can understand a producer getting cold feet from Contagion. "You're going to kill off some of the main cast? Not  the disposable characters we construct to be killed off when we need to inject gravity into a sagging part of the story, but the main cast? And you're not dropping hints that they're going to die? And you're not going to bring them back? And you're going to front-load all of the tension of the movie? Steven. . ." Hence the expensive cast and hence some horribly cliché lines undoubtedly thrown in to fulfill audience expectations of a movie clearly sold as an "outbreak thriller."

Contagion's unconventional structure, though, is of far more interest than its stock "medical thriller" elements. The film begins innocently enough by emphasizing nothing in particular, which thereby draws attention to the ordinary: the touching, eating, drinking, coughing, sneezing, and fidgeting we do all everyday without note. Someone is sick, though, and all of our touching and playing leads to the outbreak of a flu-like virus. Matt Damon carries these early scenes of agitation and helplessness. Damon's Mitch Emhoff is plausible both in strength, for example when Mitch's wife collapses in front of the children in the kitchen, and in angry disbelief when doctors tell him his wife suddenly died, ". . .of something. We really don't know." This is, I think, how most of us might react to his predicament. We expect our ills to be cured or at least diagnosed. We rely on the closure of a scientific explanation.

Shortly thereafter the experts are brought in. They run around, get information, call other doctors, and so forth. Risking their lives they work and work as the outbreak continues. They work productively as newscasters speculate, random kooks come forward with pretend cures, and people start to seclude themselves. Then the doctors cure it. There is no setback, no conspiracy, no intrigue, no genius to be brought in from retirement, and no plant to be flown in from the Andes. There is no shtick and no pointless twenty minute diversion which results in them curing the disease anyway. They cure the disease and life begins to go back to normal. We retreat from the public chaos back into Mitch Emhoff's life in which the biggest concern is his daughter's prom date.

Does the pattern seem familiar? A minor event, a public outbreak, news reports, speculation, experts and cranks, and finally a cure and going back to your life? I would think so, though gladly we have witnessed nothing so severe. Contagion, then, more resembles a slice of our lives (one we probably never thought twice about) than any thriller I can think of. That such a plot seems in no way extraordinary is because of the tremendous success of modern medicine which manages to meet our unrealistic expectations, and this is ultimately the point of Contagion.

To be fair, Contagion drops a few plot lines but this feels appropriate. How many peripheral news stories, important as they are, fall by the wayside once the main crisis has subsided?

Dispensing with any extraneous plot lines and any postponement of the main line's resolution, Contagion is a tight thriller with a subtle and significant message. Moreover, to appreciate that message you need, at least a little, to reflect on your life and what you consider normal. Not too shabby for a genre which almost exclusively confines its ambitions to being "effective" (i.e. scary, thrilling, or tense) and seldom aspires to ask any larger questions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II

In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Top Ten: Mozart Works for Oboe

Sometimes my lists spiral into large projects. This is not one of those times. I offer only one word of clarification, that I restricted myself to one movement per work. I only mention those other parts of Figaro because the implied "and see other movements of the same work" is not so helpful for an opera.

Complaints/Suggestions welcome! (Did I miss anything?)

Oboe by Grundemann, 1784
10. Trios from Symphonies KV.550-551 in G minor and C major

9. Adagio & Rondo in C, KV.617 - Adagio

8. Oboe Concerto in C, KV.314 - Allegro

7. Oboe Quartet in F, KV.370/3686b - Adagio

6. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in C minor, KV.388 - Allegro

5. Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, KV.491 - Allegretto

4. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in E-flat, KV.375 - Adagio

3. Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, KV.361/370a, 'Gran Partita' - Adagio

2. Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492
1. Piano Quintet in E-flat, KV.452 - Largo - Allegro moderato

Monday, September 5, 2011

Minus Virtue

Aristotle and the Neuroscientists

The NY Times is running psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker's review of the new book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Pinker's review is one of those pieces, of which the Times specializes in, that makes me wince. Not because it is poorly written or even wrong but because it is liable to leave the reader unacquainted with the deeper problems of the issue at hand with a facile, shallow, understanding of the topic while making him think he is at the cutting edge of thought. Unfortunately it is not quite so easy to critique a book review. Whose ideas am I critiquing? Those of the reviewer, those of the author, or those of the author as understood by the reviewer? I will persevere, though, because it is the impression the review leaves which is of interest to me.

Please indulge me, though, with a few minor points. First, Adam and Eve, Odysseus, and Augustine lived at different times. Agreed? Thus saying that "Ever since" and listing those figures is sloppy and, I might add, annoyingly so. Second, Pinker writes, "the very idea of self-­control has acquired a musty Victorian odor." If it rose in the 19th century (the Victorian era) then it was simply Victorian. If it declined starting circa 1920 then when exactly did it, acquire the "musty Victorian odor?" Did it come back after that? Pinker doesn't say. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the opening two paragraphs make a terribly sloppy preface to what Pinker really wants to talk about. Oh, and "a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist." Editor on aisle five!

Anyway his hastening to the 20th century is "rather telling," as I am fond of saying. Pinker passes over the time when not having self-control was considered a moral failing. Now it is not. Now it is a utilitarian "virtue" to be used to get ahead and ensure maximum efficiency in getting whatever it is we want. You strengthen it like a muscle and then gloriously resist temptation. This and the authors' advice about building it up is all well and good. It is, predictably, in concert with Pinker's own notions as he set forth in The Blank Slate. So what am I quibbling about? That he treats this shift as a historical and not a philosophical one. We will revisit this point at the end of our discussion.

Meanwhile, Pinker calls "self-control" a virtue. Is this appropriate? (Also, the title of the book is "Willpower." I suppose we should understand self-control and willpower as synonyms.) Let us first consider what he means by "virtue." In Aristotle, "The opposed virtues are virtues only because they encourage and help constitute a full rich life." [1] They are not the oxymoronic "utilitarian virtues" Pinker in effect calls for. Likewise acting virtuously requires 1) knowledge of your self and the situation, i.e. being virtuous and not simply foolhardy, 2) being virtuous for its own sake, 3) being virtuous out of character and not by accident or incidentally. If there is no particular good for man then it seems inappropriate to call these "useful habits" "virtues."

Let us now consider what "self-control" means. Unfortunately in the review the word is not defined, though it seems simply to mean. . . well I'm not so sure. It cannot simply the ability to do something, anything, since the gist of the article is resisting one inclination to pursue something else.  Interestingly, all of Pinker's and the authors' examples involve physical activity. Likewise the faculty is likened to a muscle which can be flexed to resist temptation. This is a most convenient analogy because it implies that self-control 1) is a faculty, 2) exists in one already, albeit undeveloped. In fact it is just as plausible that one is learning to do something he was not inclined to do at all, but that it is still necessary to do. Does one truly have a virtue before one exercises it, the same way an infant has sight before it is developed into acute vision, or in contrast is it acquired through habituation? The analogy disguises a question of great importance.

Self-control, then, seems inherently to be connected with bodily pain and pleasure. In this it seems akin to temperance, though temperance implies a mean and not just resisting. Yet Pinker uses the word "passions" for that which needs controlling. Yet surely we must distinguish between appetites and passions, the former occurring in individuals without any stimuli and the latter only after some conscious appraisal of a situation. There are then both bare appetitive forces and "deliberative decisions" and thus also a role for reason in virtue. Yet deliberation itself consists both in conscious reasoning and desiring a particular end. Pinker, though, derides the "ghost in the machine" and then glosses over the issue with the problematically vague, "mental entity." So your soul with reason and desire toward an end does not guide the passions, but your "mental entity" with your "self-control" does. This is neither a clarification nor an improvement.