Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Virtue

an inquiry into anecdotal evidence

It is an annual goal of mine to attempt, throughout a year, to observe one particular idea in detail throughout the many circumstances a year will provide. This past year of 2011 I observed the ways in which people compliment each other and I must say the inquiry has proved rather revealing. This year I noted that people tend to praise others as "smart." Now I suppose I ought to make an anthropological caveat and explore the possibility that in my presence people might praise others as "smart" because they figure, incorrectly, that I am reasonably smart and thus would value intelligence in others. If this possibility has ever been true the fact would puzzle me. Why would one person possessing one virtue not recognize or value excellence in the others?

This question is, in fact, the essence of my inquiry. More specifically, where is this bias in favor of intelligence and what do people mean by "smart?" Let us attempt to answer the second question first and in doing so turn our attention to Aristotle.

We can observe that Aristotle makes a number of distinctions amongst the Intellectual Virtues, what we gloss over as "intelligence." In brief, Aristotle mentions 1) techne, what we might very loosely consider a particular skill, 2) scientific knowledge about universal principles derived from logical argument, 3) practical judgment, that is, the ability to judge the good for man in a particular situation, 4) knowledge of first principles, and lastly 5) wisdom, a combination of knowledge of first principles and reason.

As useful as these distinctions are, and their usefulness and the keenness of the mind who made them are revealed even upon the most cursory consideration, they do not seem at all akin to what people mean when they say "smart." Craftsmen are seldom referred to as smart and I have never observed "smart" to refer to anything so specific as formal training in logic. In fact in my observation I seldom nonticed "smart" used with any connection to particular knowledge at all. Of Aristotle's subsets of "intellectual virtue," nous, or the ability to observe first principles, seems to be closest to what people mean when they call someone "smart." Yet people tend to be unable to point to first principles that a "smart" person does know. How do you know he is smart then? They usually form this judgment based on a perceived readiness or cleverness in conversation or simply general competence, but not from serious consideration about the nature and degree of the person's intelligence.

This fact brings me to my conclusion about the significance of this last virtue, "smart." It is tempting to suggest that "smartness" survived as a virtue because as a society we value intelligence most and there may be some truth to this but I think "smart" survived simply because it was the easiest to corrupt and indeed it has been corrupted into a meaningless catch-all compliment. Most significantly, though, is that unlike all of Aristotle's virtues, it is not connected to action. It requires no learning, experience, or contemplation, unlike Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues. "Smartness" requires nothing of its possessor therefore it is a "virtue" anyone can have. You need to do practically nothing to get it and there is nothing you can do to lose it. It is an invented virtue to compensate for the loss of classical education (that is, Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues) and the social abandonment of Aristotle's Moral Virtues. Speaking of them, where did they go? When was the last time you heard someone (other than a warrior) described as courageous? Or anyone described as temperate or moderate, or liberal, or good-tempered? Instead people are glossed over with meaningless adjectives.

These vagaries are both, I would wager, accidental and convenient. They allow us to praise and condemn at whim without reason and consideration and worse they give us the illusion of being discriminating. They allow us to create a safe-zone around ourselves and others which cannot be breached. If you're "smart" you're smart and nothing can change that. You might be deficient in every other virtue, but you're still "smart."

Well, "smart" is not a virtue. There are in fact many others, though, all of which are worth perceiving, valuing, and cultivating. Perceiving is of course the first step but the second is perhaps even mor difficult: judging yourself and others based on these virtues. This is not something we like to do and it can be taken too far, but it is a necessary step toward a meaningful life in which people are better, are more, than "nice" and "smart."

10 Things to Remember Before You Tweet

Having just "unfollowed" someone on Twitter for the first time I thought I would share a few thoughts on what drove me to unfollow a blogger whose writing I often read and liked but whose Tweets had me regularly thinking what an unpleasant presence he had become in my feed. (The horror, I know.) So without further delay:

10. Don't act surprised or exasperated.
  • Superficial surprise is annoying. It is impossible to convey genuine surprise without context, context which cannot be provided in the space of a tweet. Likewise, avoid the "If. . . I'm going to. . .!!!!!" formula. 
9. Don't repeat yourself.
  • Unless it is the schtick of your feed, once is enough. If you're just being yourself on Twitter and you are always yammering on about something, you're annoying.
8. Watch your language.
  • Salty talk is seldom appropriate and even less often necessary. It is also hard to utilize in print and without context. 
7. Just eat.
  • I don't care what it is or where or with whom you are eating. It is not going to inspire me to get same and it's not going to help me prepare it either. Just eat.
6. People who. . .
  • Reasoning from the specific to the general is a long road fraught with problems. It is very unlikely that "All of the people who. . ." do anything, all do anything else. I know this is an exaggeration, but it makes you look shallow. Life is filled with little frustrations. 
5. Watch your feuding.
  • There have been some great public feuds: Cicero vs. Antony, Hanslick vs. Pohl, et cetera. Reflect wisely on yourself, your opponent, the topic, the occasion, and the venue before getting uppity.
4. Stupid!
  • This is the lowest form of insult and says a great deal, all bad, about your character. 
3. Stand there don't just do something.
  • Everything you do does not add up to something significant because they all happened to you. (See Aristotle's Poetics if you think that's harsh.)
2. Not really. Go do something.
  • The only thing worse than excessively writing about what you are doing is writing about not doing anything. If you are tired, sleep. If you are awake, do something. 
1. It is not so clever. Ever.
  • The Muses one day came to Ovid and made him an offer. They would make three of his verses of his own choosing immortal if he would let them choose three to cut. Thrilled, the poet left to reflect on his work. A short while later he came back with his choicest lines. The Muses too had their selected three to cut, the same three, in fact, that Ovid had selected as his best.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Handel: But who may abide the day of His coming?

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven greatly admired George Frederick Handel. That ought to be enough to convince the rest of us, no? It does not seem so. Praise of Handel usually takes the form of "appreciation" of "effects" and "craft" and "harmoniousness" rather than awe at inspiration. Indeed in our recent installment of our "Sacred Music" series we praised Handel for a most appropriate setting of a text in his Messiah. I myself commented on its "appropriateness" and not his genius. Well, here is something inspired.

In Part I of Messiah Handel sets the following text:
But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
To gain some appreciation for the task we may ask ourselves how we would set it? What tempo, meter, key, voices, and instruments do you use? What is the essence of the piece and what should it convey? What impression should it leave us with? Handel, appropriately, takes his cue from the source, the quotation's origin in the Book of Malachi.

Handel imitates the mood of the prophet with a setting for solo virtuoso. The detached longing of the opening andante yields to a sudden prestissimo as the speaker is seized in prophetic ecstasy, crashing and thrashing in a series of virtuosic leaps and runs. As is often the case with Handel this piece is moving in its simplicity and directness. Regardless of how often the piece was edited or transposed it demonstrates the composer's consideration of relationship between the form of the piece and the nature of the text and, in this case, a perfect marriage.

Kozena's performance, both musical and pantomimed, here is certainly channeling the prophetic and ecstatic current of the work. So does the direction with its extreme close up, a  direct and simple trick perfect for this piece.

Lastly, the opening images are provoking. This clip is from William Klein's filmed adaptation which features various videos contrasting and complementing the music. What is Klein suggesting here? Are the men in the opening charlatans? Does their presence suggest Malachi was also? Are the people fainting fools? Are we fools for being moved by Handel, or is it the artistic act that elevates, or creates, the true transcendent experience? Very provoking.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker

A gift is a beautiful thing. Whether of congratulation, commemoration, celebration, or thanks, a gift reflects a bond between people. The gift represents shared values, shared duties, and a shared life. Above all it reflects gratitude for the relationship for all it has been, as it has been, and as it endures. A great gift shares in both the uniqueness of the occasion and the uniqueness of both individuals. Thus to give a gift is to presume much and to give a good one requires a great deal of understanding and consideration. That I cannot help you with. Your gift must center around one or more ideas and I cannot give you those ideas. What I can and will do, however, is offer some advice on what types of items which, for refined folks like the authors and readers of this blog, might be vehicles of your ideas and appropriate tokens of your affection. So without further preface, consider these thoughts when shopping for your dear friend or loved one.

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker


Before buying any books first you must realize that any intellectual already has a substantial library. Your gift will take a place among many beloved books. It will be nearly impossible to select an appropriate book if you do not have any access to the library or do not correspond about your literary acquisitions. Supposing you know what he has, consider the following:

  • Complete an incomplete set or series.
  • Replace a worn edition with a new one.
  • Buy his favorite book in a beautiful edition from The Folio Society or The Easton Press.
  • He will have a particular interest. If he doesn't have one of the definitive books in the discipline, get it for him. Otherwise buy a new book in the field. If you don't have knowledge of the field then seek the help of an expert like a professor. If you're in a pinch open to the bibliography in one of them and select something from there.
  • In general, sourcebooks (compilations of primary sources), atlases, books of quotations, and books of pictures germaine to the topic are quite complementary. People often lack these books because they are busy reading up on the "hard" scholarship.
  • If possible, avoid paperbacks.
  • If the book has ever been reissued read the reviews to see if there is a preferred edition. Sometimes an edition merely contains fixes, sometimes a particular version might contain valuable notes, other times someone might have badly revised the work. Check reviews.
  • An unabridged dictionary in any language he speaks. 
  • Buy a pair or trio of books on the same topic (not necessarily a set.)
  • Beware reading aids. Lights, magnifiers, weights, stands, et cetera may or may not fill a need. Only purchase if you have observed a need for them. 
  • Book tassels and ribbons pair well with books, as do bookmarks. Consider a bookmark or ribbon related to the book and perhaps installing the ribbon yourself.
  • Make a custom bookmark.
  • Electronic devices may or may not be of use. They  work well for reading fiction but exercise caution if he uses books for scholarship since it is much easier to flip through a paper book.
  • If they are of fastidious disposition, they may delight in book plates or a custom embosser.
  • Fake books come in a variety of styles.
  • Bookends, preferably which relate to the books and/or match the decor.
Lastly, write a thoughtful note, in pen, in script, with the date and occasion, in the front cover (not on the jacket.)


Bear in mind that not everyone buys movies to own. Even people who love movies don't necessarily want to own them.

  • Recorded live performances, especially of concerts and operas. Do not worry about getting someone another version of the same opera. A connoisseur will appreciate the variety.
  • There are many unusual documentaries on specific topics. They may not be identified as "documentaries" or listed as "documentary" in the title, though, so begin your search at YouTube since people almost always tag documentaries as such. Search for whatever your topic is plus "documentary" or "lecture." There are plenty of unusual sets, series, and esoteric one-offs.
  • Classes from The Great Courses are excellent. (Best to get them on sale earlier in the year!)
  • As with book, buy a few with some common thread (not necessarily a set) and give them together. (But wrap each one separately and tie them together.)
  • As with books, consider filling a gap in a collection.
  • Often people buy movies which are re-released in better editions. Consider replacing an old version with a superior one.
  • Often people buy TV shows as they come out and then when the show is released in toto after the final season, that set comes with a gift. A gift the person who bought the show year-by-year won't have. See if you can find the gift separately (used.)
  • Search for a book of interviews with their favorite director or a biography/autobiography about their favorite actor.
  • Picture books about particular franchies, series, eras, et cetera. 


  • As with the above, do not be afraid to get another version of a particular work.
  • As with the above, look for new releases by a favorite conductor, performer, or ensemble.
  • As with books, consider pairing several together around a particular theme.
  • Operas and musicals work well because they are heftier than singles but not as costly as big sets.
  • Sets are a great idea. The Brilliant Classics sets are an excellent value, if of uneven quality.
  • Even if someone has many works by the artist or composer "complete editions" are still valuable since they will contain odd works that do not fit into other categories and which are for that reason seldom released. 
  • Works transposed for different instrument, from Wendy Carlos' synthesizing to the Swingle Singers' Bach to Albrecht Mayer on the oboe.
  • Get a copy of the score or libretto to go along with the CD.

  • Busts are always a good idea but they can be too big. Six to eight inches is ideal unless they have a great deal of space or want their space to feel like a museum. 
  • Instead of posters try a laminated print or a reproduction.
  • Wall-hangings are an excellent alternative to framed art.
  • Sculptures are risky unless you know the not only the item and the meaning behind it for the person but also the size, style, and potential place for it. 

Paraphernalia of Eccentric Living

  • Book stands, book ends, clocks, hourglasses, pendulums, letter openers, et cetera make good pairings. For example, an hourglass and a book on pre-Socratic philosophy, a book on physics and a pendulum. 
In General

  • In all instances do not be afraid to pair a modest giftcard along with something you picked out. 
  • Tickets to concerts or lecture series are always welcome, but beware scheduling. Some people are very busy, forgetful, careless, et cetera.
  • Beware kitsch. Mozartkugeln are cute. A life-size cardboard cut-out is not. 
  • Be aware of space limitations.
  • Some people have a propensity to break things.
  • Err on the side of beauty over utility.
  • Err on the side of old over new.
  • Err on the side of small over big.
  • Try to work in an element of contrast and humor.
I'll leave you with a few philosophical thoughts on friendship from Aristotle to guide you:
  • Don't overreach. Giving a good gift requires friendship and friendship requires time and familiarity. 
  • love = feeling. friendship = state of character. Mutual love requires choice and springs from a state of character.
  • Friendship is only possible between good men.
  • Good will is not friendship. Good will is to wish well but not to do. 
  • The nature of friendship is to felt toward a few. The nature of love is to be felt toward one.

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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