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.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mini-Review: Thank You For Arguing

Thank You For Arguing. by Jay Heinrichs. Ch. 26

I don't know quite what to say about a chapter which begins with a leading quote that translates, "Quid multa? clamores," as "I brought the house down." The Latin is a self-satisfied remark from Cicero to his intimate friend Atticus (letter I.14) in February of 61 BC about a particularly quick comment the orator tossed off. The tendentiously-related English is from Ch. 26 of Jay Heinrich's Thank You for Arguing, in which Heinrichs purports to demonstrate the brilliance and utility of President Obama's rhetorical prowess. The gap between the English and Latin, though, speaks volumes. Namely, it says that the author is not serious about scholarship or precision, but is content to repackage serious work for lazy readers. I'll charitably assume this is the case rather than considering if the author hasn't done his homework or that the author of a book on rhetoric doesn't know Latin and Greek.

To cut to the chase, though, it's the title of the chapter, not the book, which held my interest in the store: Capture Your Audience: The Obama Identity: Steal the tricks of a first-class orator. Dear reader, that's one wacca away from full blown incredibility. Let's break this down.

Skipping over the introduction in which the author relives the glory of Obama's ascendency, the sloppiness starts. First we get the turn of phrase that "Aristotle wanted political speeches to be deliberative," which makes anyone who has read Book I of the Rhetoric cringe at the kitschy summarization of Aristotle's detailed taxonomy. Then, Heinrichs uses the word demonstrative, which doesn't explain to the reader what epideictic means in a formal, specific, Aristotelian sense. All political or demonstrative or forensic oratory be demonstrative in some loose sense? In fact Heinrichs goes out of his way not to use this word, saying on p. 30 that only academics use it because "they're just being demonstrative," which is his periphrastic way of saying people who use this word are assholes. I wonder what he thinks of people who write it in Greek! Third, he writes that "in a speech that seeks to bring people together, you want to get demonstrative" with no explanation. He's not wrong at all, but that statement tells us almost as little as his next, which reads, "Get to know demonstrative rhetoric'll become a better orator yourself." Manum de tabula, discipuli, the master has arrived!

Worst perhaps is his tag that, "This is rhetoric the way the ancients taught it." Well, I know what he means, which is that this is authentic ancient style, but besides the fact that it's not, he's using a modern example of use to prove how ancient rhetoric was taught. We don't have to get into the history of rhetorical manuals and progymnasmata, but this is sloppy.

Next he breaks then-Senator Obama's 2004 keynote address at  the Democratic National Convention into five parts: Introduction, Narration, Division, Proof, Refutation, Conclusion.

In the introduction, he praises Obama for "establishing his character" at the beginning of the speech by citing Obama's phrase, "My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely." How does acknowledging your presence on a stage establish character? It was obvious he was standing there. Those words don't describe, explain, depict, or evoke anything.

In his demonstration of Obama's narratio he explains that "a moral" links Obama's character with the American way. A moral what? He has three choices:
  1. the moral teaching or practical lesson contained in a fable, tale, experience, etc.
  2. the embodiment or type of something. 
  3. morals, principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct.
I can't find what "moral" could mean in the speech.

Next he writes that "the good orator uses the division to represent both sides." The division of what? What is "the division?" Does he mean the division of the speech in to introduction, facts and details, proof, and conclusion? Is the division a part of the speech? He says to "use the division to sound like you're more reasonable than the other side," which is so vague and incomplete that you have to question whether he knows  what he's talking about. At any rate, it's impossible for such an explanation to be of use to anyone, let alone a layman.

Even if we assume that by division of the speech he means its organization into exordium, narratio, probatio, and peroratio, how could one say as he does that, "the good orator uses the division to represent both sides," an exceedingly general statement.

Then he cites the use of a catalogue as "proof," in place of, say, direct evidence like witnesses and contracts, argumentation from evidence or example, or even an emotional appeal. A list constitutes proof. Wow.

After this he cites the following as evidence of the entire refutatio:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.
That's not bad, but it's not at all enough by itself to constitute a full-blown refutatio.

As far as conclusions go, fine, let's say the speech has one, if only so we can admit it's over.

Finally, it's very telling that Heinrichs sees this speech as being successful because it's all about Obama, even though it was supposed to get John Kerry elected. This is a clever way of avoiding the fact that the speech failed. Of course many great speeches, even the best, have failed to produce the outcome their authors had hoped, but to call either set of Philippics, say, failures is not the same as to call this speech a failure. Cicero and Demosthenes might have chosen poor tacks of persuasion, hypothetically, but they didn't fail by having the ulterior motive of aggrandizing themselves. So either Obama wrote a bad speech or he deliberately threw Kerry under the bus to promote himself, a fact about which "Cicero would be proud." Don't let that tack-on about Cicero being proud pass, though. Heinrichs uses his presumption of Ciceronian approval to justify an ulterior motive which he imputes to Obama, all to avoid the fact that the speech failed. Now that is some rhetoric.

Now Heinrichs turns his attention to some of Obama's other speeches, citing and praising a line from President Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address in which Heinrichs finds an instance of prosopopoeia. Literally "to put on a face," this device most properly involves adopting a persona through which one speaks, especially the guise of a deceased. More loosely some categorize under the umbrella of prosopopoeia the use of the historic present and the introduction as speaking of any absent party. Cicero's usages are perhaps the most famous, especially the instance in the Pro Caelio (s.34) in which Cicero, adopting the character of Appius Claudius Caecus, excoriates the infamous Clodia, his wicked distant progeny. As notable is the use in the First Catilinarian (s. I.7) in which he pleads with Catiline in the voice of the Roman people.

The difference in Obama's usage is that there is no layer of mimesis, no moment in which he puts on the mask of another. He is actually speaking for the people. Also, Obama uses we 32 times throughout this short speech, and as such no given moment nor the whole is prosopopoeia.

After a some preposterous praise not worth our attention, Heinrichs characterizes the following passage as "pure enargeia," Greek for vividness:
One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year-old boy lay dead.
That's vivid? A sentence with no imagery, told in the present tense, with no amplification by structure, and no characters? Heinrichs is at pains to paint this scene as vivid, pointing out how the unfolding story seems to "zoom in" on the details as it progresses. But the narration is bland chronological, that is to say, normal. How is this order "cinematic" and "pure enargeia?"

Compare it to Cicero's vivid narration of the night raid in which the lackeys of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily, attempt to steal statues from the square at Agrigentum. We may identify in this passage against Verres (In Verrem II.IV), devices such as the vivid present, pleonasm, characterization, impersonal verbs (emphasizing action), diminutives, sarcasm, the charge of sacrilege, humor, imagery, assonance, emphatic placement, and climax, which constitute enargeia. There is no enargeia in Obama's sentence in which he tells a story with no details or characters in a past tense.

Heinrichs is aware of Obama's tense problem, though, for admitting the story is in the past tense he hurries to say that "it's in the service of demonstrative rhetoric" and that its "secret" lies in that alleged cinematic narration. Since demonstrative rhetoric is concerned with praising or censuring someone and is concerned with the present state, it's hard to reconcile this sentence to the speech. Heinrichs seems by demonstrative to mean simply anything that has a point.

The remaining examples which Heinrichs points out are not misnamed as rhetoric but simply bland and unremarkable instances. Calling attention to them, let alone lauding them, is akin to praising Transformers for adhering to Aristotelian tragic theory because its action takes place in one day. Yet Heinrichs seems to know his praise of Obama's rhetoric is not on the firmest  ground, conceding in his closing paragraph that, "Soon after taking office, Obama toned down his demonstrative rhetoric, choosing to deal with pragmatic policies between campaigns." First, the time "between campaigns" is usually referred to as a presidency. Second, Obama spoke ad infinitum and ad nauseam during his first term. He also spoke poorly, but just as poorly as he ever did. It's not surprising that liberals want to remember a perfect honeymoon, though.

Their desire to agree agree with and elevate their idol has clouded their judgment and this chapter of Heinrichs' Thank You For Arguing demonstrates what I've written elsewhere about reactions to Obama's rhetoric: if you already agree, you'll love it. Unfortunately, that's not the stuff of great rhetoric. Likewise, sloppy uses of terminology, sketchy examples, encomiastic editorializing, and imprecise explanations are not the stuff of great books. If you're looking for a sophomoric justification of Obama's greatness, though, this will surely float your boat. Thanks, but no thanks.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Sacrifice

Written and Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1986.

In some way the power of a great work of the cinema becomes part of you. Amadeus introduces you to an unforgettable character, 2001 immerses you in the vastitude of time and space, and Lawrence of Arabia sweeps you up in the sprawl of history. A simple movie like Mr. Hulot's Holiday can etch a tiny beach into your memory and a silly romp like Raiders of the Lost Ark can kindle your inner child. A satire or documentary can change the way you think, and a drama how you feel. I've never known, until The Sacrifice, a movie to change what you see. I don't mean see, though, as a metonymy for think (cogitate) or prehend (grasp) or discern (separate) but I mean literally to observe, to watch and keep. Tarkovsky's final movie, dedicated from the dying director to his son, is not about the world of calculation, but of the perfect, total sacrifice of love, and such love is not predicated on any recognition but the observation (seeing and keeping) that God is love, and the fullest love is the fullest sacrifice.

Yet modern man is closed to this sacrifice, and thus God and love, because he limits himself to the empirical, the perceptible, and the material. In faith, though, hope remains. The opening shot sets the stage of man's disillusion and promise: Alexander walks home from the shore with his son and friend. With his son he has planted a tree, and told his "Little Man" the story of a monk who on faith climbed a summit each day to water a tree which did one day blossom. To his friend Alexander confesses his feeling that he has waited his whole life for a reality which has not arrived. It's a rhapsodic unfurling of the story with Alexander walking along, Little Man loosely in tow playing with his lasso, and Otto his part-time postman friend cycling to and fro around them. When Otto dismounts, the men reflect in some frank philosophical speculation about demiurges, Nietzsche's dwarf, and the eternal return. This unbroken scene, over nine minutes, is also a microcosm of Alexander's life–ambling, interested, pale–and as such the cute prank which Little Man plays on Otto is fraught with portent: while the men talk the boy lassos the bicycle to a nearby tree, and after Otto starts to cycle away the bike halts and Otto goes flying off. A not so subtle suggestion: have we overlooked something in our search for happiness?

Alexander of course loves his Little Man and speaks volumes to the boy, himself mute after a recent surgery, about life and meaning. The father carries the son on his shoulders, walks with him, and holds him with tender arms. In the second scene, pictured on the poster above, Little Man sits on his father's lap and as a breeze blows through their shady grove Alexander tells his son how they came to find the nearby house in which Little Man was born: he saw it and fell in love. No calculation or benefit-analysis, just a sense of rightness. His son wanders off a bit, crawling around the roots of trees as Alexander wanders onto less happy topics, like the technical progress which has brought both comfort and standardization, but not satisfaction or spiritual health. Science, Alexander says, is in the service of evil, since sin that which is unnecessary. This would seem but ennui and speculation were it not for the beautiful sight of father and son under the breezy trees which persuades us that anything else is indeed unnecessary. He goes on and on until at last in disgust he says like Hamlet to Polonius, "Words, words, words." Mere words are no substitute for doing something significant.

In his preoccupation Alexander has lost track of his son, who sneaks up on him. Crashing into his father, the boy bloodies his nose and when Alexander sees what has happened, he collapses, just barely wheezing out, "Dear God what's wrong with me?" After he falls the camera cuts to a dream, black and white, of a destroyed urban square. No people, just gurgling water, and as the shot fades out we see the edge of what looks to be a spatter of blood. Whose?

The camera cuts back to Alexander thumbing through his birthday present, a book of prints depicting Christ. As we take in together with Alexander how the colorful paintings and images of Christ contrast the dream, or the reality, Alexander says, "Fantastic. What refinement." These are such choice words that we wonder, even of Tarkovsky and even in this masterpiece, whether they're wholly deliberate. A fantasia is not simply something which you see, but from Greek's φανταζω is something which appears to you as if presented to your consciousness, less cognitively than directly. Likewise in refined we find per-ficio, that is, finished, perfected.

Alexander goes on to say that the images are childlike yet meaningful and knowing yet virginal. How do these pictures seem to know and yet remain uncorrupted by the world? Alexander concludes that it's all been lost: we can no longer pray. Shortly later, he examines a map from the 14th century, reflecting how wonderful it must have been to have seen Europe like this. To him this old Europe looks like Mars, a lie if it's supposed to be Earth. Alexander longs to see with different eyes, to see the truth, but Otto cautions him with the image of a cockroach running around the plate, who runs that ritual, perhaps in vain, in the faith that "He could," but not seeking something so protean and chimerical as some "truth" which he can understand and master.

Tarkovsky would go on to write in Sculpting in Time (228), that,
Contemporary man is unable to hope for the unexpected, for anomalous events that don't correspond with 'normal' logic; still less is he prepared to allow even the thought of unprogrammed phenomena, let along believe in their supernatural significance. The spiritual emptiness that results should be enough to give him pause for thought."
The only alternative to faith and hope is the tortured pursuit of the truth without the ability to see it. All the while the two men carry the painting through the house, as if... as if what? As if they determine the truth, the choice, the path? As if they think they do?

After the roars of bombers interrupt the birthday celebration we learn that they were the attacks of a nuclear war. Slowly the family members lose their sanity and as they do Alexander sees the inevitable descent. Finishing the Lord's Prayer, Alexander asks for the deliverance not only of his family but also those who do not believe because they have not suffered, and those who have lost hope and the opportunity to surrender to God's will. Kneeling to God on the floor in his home, he promises to renounce and even destroy his earthly attachments for the sake of this petition. He will become silent, so that his son may speak. When Alexander stumbles back to the couch after his prayer, a coin falls from his pocket and rattles noisily along the floor. A symbol of his sacrifice, of its singularity or its smallness? Is it a gesture of banality after the heightened tone of the prayer?

In his subsequent dream, a pile of coins shaped like an arrow points the way to Little Man, but as the camera pans up (the opposite of the downward motion of the previous dream) we glimpse but his feet before he runs off. Then we hear the onrush of the jets whose breeze then blows open a pair of doors, revealing a path still sealed by bricks. The imagery here is vague but fruitfully so. It is vague not for the sake of speculation or nihilism–that is, endless legitimate interpretations–but for the sake of making the film an invitation to the audience to look and wonder where the sacred, where the significant, lies. Perhaps the coins are the sacrifice, Little Man the end, and the blocked door the alternative. Perhaps the coins are Alexander's life and Little Man is a path away from the inevitable blocked door of death. Perhaps coins represent calculation and point toward the door which technology reveals to be blocked anyway.

In cryptic, elliptical words Otto tells Alexander how to save his family: he must lay with the witch, who happens to be Alexander's unusual maid, Maria. We can accept this command as magical realism or we can understand the curious characters of Otto and Maria as possessing the sight which eludes Alexander and modern man. As Tarkovsky writes, "They move in a world of imagination," (Sculpting in Time, 227) not of empiricism, a world to which we see hints in Maria's eyes, deep with sensitivity, and Otto's fainting spells and secret knowledge of spiritual matters.

Trusting in Otto, Alexander sneaks out of the house to find Maria. When he finds her, though, he finds the need for more words, this time a story from his youth. The house in which he lived with his mother had a garden which was overrun with weeds. His mother would sit beside the window and look out into the garden, until she became ill and bedridden. At that time Alexander sought to cultivate the garden to his own taste and with his own hands and then show it to his mother to please her. When he was done, though, he looked upon his work and was disgusted by the ugliness he had wrought. He had done violence to the land and destroyed its natural beauty.

When he lays with Maria they rise above the bed, draped in sheets, liberated from pragmatism by the gift from God that was Maria's love.

When he awakes, the sun is for the first time bright and warming. Colors are rich and vibrant. Alexander picks up the receiver of the telephone, which had been ringing unanswered throughout the movie, and calls his editor. The boss is busy, the secretary says, but they're glad to have Alexander back. Is the boss more than just Alexander's editor?

Finding the world seemingly returned to normal, Alexander makes good on his promise to forsake his worldly belongings and attachments. In another long unbroken shot he burns down his beloved house and seems to go mad, but it is not the madness of frenzy but of elation, of the Holy Fool who has forsaken the world in sacrifice, for love, for God. As the house burns in the background Alexander runs back and forth, eluding the ambulance and paramedics who try to take him away. As he is finally driven off in the ambulance, Maria cycles away as well, pausing to see Little Man faithfully watering the tree as the monk did. The Little Man has inherited the ritual, the faith, and he may save himself and others as his father's sacrifice saved him.

The film ends with its beginning, with Bach's Erbarme dich from the Matthew Passion uniting the cycle of sacrifice and redemption. There is but one sacrifice, gift, and love–the full gift of oneself–and it is the fullness of this gift which transforms our sense of that harmony which is "born only of sacrifice" and which transforms the world around it (Sculpting in Time, 217.)  In so sculpting moments and meaning into this "poetic parable," this film itself becomes the glass through which we see not so darkly, but with a hint of the special sight which sees the beauty of the sacrifice.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Trigger Warnings

It's not an idea immediately attractive to anyone with antennae for liberty, putting warning labels on academic content, so it's no surprise that a proposal to mandate professors at the University of Santa Barbara place such advisories–popularly called "trigger warnings" in the online feminist community–has earned ire. The plan is unpalatable to me for a few reasons.

The now infamous proposition by UCSB junior Bailey Loverin suggests that the liberty to present, discuss, and debate in an academic manner and context should be subject to fears of inducing fear, of all concerns, is inimical to a serious pursuit of knowledge. It's hard to reconcile a tradition which in so many ways sees itself descended from Socrates, Western Civilization's great gadfly swatted down by popular opinion, with tiptoeing around sensitivities and preferring safety to hard truths. At least, though, Socrates was charged with crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth, not simply terrifying onlookers. While in public it is decorous to avoid even giving offense, and while offense is not inherently desirable in environments of debate and inquiry, there giving offense is considered worth the risk.

Moreover, the suggestions not only that students–learners and investigators of the world–would prefer not to confront challenging ideas but also that so many of them would so decline the challenge that a school requires a mandatory alert system, is one chilling to the spirit of inquiry and academia.

Nonetheless, a degree of common sense would easily ameliorate the situation. Sensitive students should investigate classes ahead of time and professors should, in private consultation with the student, advise them whether a given course or class would be appropriate for them. The situation in the classroom is not so different from that of dining, in which before the meal someone with allergies might ask whether a dish contains a particular ingredient. In both environments the individual's concern is not simply fickle but serious: panic and anaphylaxis. In both instances, though, we ought to expect that the individual with abnormal condition make the necessary inquiries. Unfortunately the presence of mandated food labeling laws suggests in which direction the debate turned. The result of oversight is always the same: conservative uniformity.

It's prudent and liberal to accommodate personal, private requests when possible and it's not unreasonable that a university should expect from professors a standard of concern for students, but the enforcement of such a law as Ms. Loverin's not only privileges sensitivity over inquiry but requires a criteria which seems destined to expand to compendious size. Each instance stifles the curriculum.

It should not be thought, though, that such a preference for inquiry means that discussions of sensitive topics should be frank or designed to desensitize, for to the contrary discussions should impress upon students the seriousness of the topic. Likewise I don't suggest that institutions of higher learning have no interest or responsibility toward accommodating student needs, but only that such a law as proposed is an illiberal and counterproductive means, injurious to the university's other goals, toward reasonable ends.

Ad summam, students should be responsible for their behavior and thus should inquire about curricula before hand, and professors should accommodate those inquiries. If laws need to exist to ensure such common sense and courtesy, then the higher education die is already cast.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Therapy vs Consolation

More of man's activity–more than any would care to admit–is centered around the Sisyphean task, not the grandeur of finding meaning, but of avoiding disruption. We are weak and construct easily punctured bubbles of tales, half-truths, and useful lies which allow us to float through unperturbed. Yet life is disruptive and threatens to break our bubble, and us. The problem is not, contra Camus, that the world is unreasonable, but that the world is not entirely reasonable. With more providence and poetry Boethius asked:

Omnia certo fine gubernans
hominum solos respuis actus
merito rector cohibere modo.
Nam cur tantas lubrica uersat
Fortuna uices?
(De consolatione, Book I Metrum 5, 25-29)

So much is ordered, yet man's life is so volatile. How to reconcile? 

The first path is that of transgression, avoiding the conundrum, called absurd, by confronting instead the norms which others have established in pursuit of order. For all its sway among intellectuals, this path seems little followed. You don't have to think that the Commendatore in Don Giovanni is sent from God in order to find passion a more cruel master than Fortune. On the milder side of transgression we have vandalism against mores. Whether it's Duchamp's urinal or tattooing, vandalism finds pleasure in the barbarity of degradation and leveling.

By far the most common path is that of therapy, by which man embraces what he hopes will cure his ailing incompletion. Some embrace political and social causes which they expect to usher in new eras of peace, prosperity, liberty, and so on, or they rail against causes so they may preserve the status quo. Some lavish on themselves material comfort as distraction, whether with food or expensive accoutrements. Some devote themselves to work, a productive if only diverting task. Some few people devote themselves to others, as charity or obligation.

This therapeutic mindset of our age is easy to summarize: the pleasurable is good and everything else is work. Hence, pleasure is therapy. People of course find different things pleasurable, see above, but it's no small coincidence that in the twilight of the gods we can see a surge in activities which people refer to as their religion: art, music, truth, love. Speaking of love, we mock the arranged marriages of the past, those set to preserve family fame and fortune, but still today relationships, romantic and otherwise, seem rooted the utilitarian balancing of strengths and weaknesses. How noble or romantic is this? Expedit esse amorem.

Yet the slightest admixture of effort and adversity results in that evil object, work. To avoid such an invidious burden, relationships become transitory and skills supplanted by technology. Character languishes amidst ease. While we didn't look up to their heroes, there is something of Nietzsche's Last Man and the antithesis of Camus' Absurd Man in this sketch. A tedious life.

The third path is that of consolation, which seeks neither remedy nor transgression but rather comfort. Today comfort has a softish connotation, conjuring images of ease and safety, but it in fact hails from Latin's con-fortis, with strength. Consolation consists neither in denying meaning nor in chasing perfection, but in forbearing  difficulty through virtue. It meets the world not with passions or faculties but virtuous character. To live so, with consolation but not cure, requires more courage and prudence than to live for nothing or chasing perfection.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alma Mater?

So I'm teaching Petronius again and of course in teaching satire one always must broach the question of whether a character is self-aware. Is Trimalchio aware of just how silly he looks when he wants his favorite gladiator painted on his mausoleum? Naturally not, since the fool lacks the self-awareness for necessary dissimulation. It's no small coincidence to this observation that I received the quarterly alumni newsletter from my alma mater, the reading of which spurred thoughts many and terrible.

 +1 Photoshop
First off, this is one polished turn of the press. It has the gloss of a European fashion magazine and such heft that I retain the Spring issue for summer mosquito-bashing, making it perhaps the most costly bug swatter in history. But is it effective! Yet the publication isn't just a defense against desanguination but a feast for the eyes too, and let me tell you I couldn't have cropped out the cover's background and rendered any finer clouds than the Photoshop master who crafted this masterpiece. The back cover is an ingenious display of diversity and it's doubtful any finer piece of fodder could be confectioned a more tasteless sample of politically correctness. The cover is only marred by the presence of the school seal, whose curling crest seems to me an invidious, serpentine presence. Yet I shouldn't complain about the seal which manages to cram several Latin words into a magazine which is otherwise content to cultivate the haute banal style of the moderately educated middle class.

Yet it's the language of Cicero and Vergil which titles the university's age-defining achievement: a massive fundraiser. One wonders why they settled on  Latin but I suspect it's because they thought it might lend an aura of dignity and authority to what is otherwise shameless whooping for money. The more significant gesture than the title Excelsior, though, is that the official slogan includes a translation of the Latin. It's not without humor and irony that they chose the more poetical and aspirational translation of ever higher, but which is the more depressing possibility: that they thought the poetical reading of the comparative adjective a meaningful twist, or that they didn't even realize what they were writing? At any rate, Latinizing their slogan lent more credulity to their cash grab than their English apologies, which ran from describing the fundraiser as "not gratuitous"  and "not unpremeditated," which explains about as much as the old woman dropping the necklace at the end of Titanic.

Speaking of an expensive exercise in a cosmetic facade which hides grotesque and negligent structural flaws that ultimately culminate in tragic immiseration, let's talk about the school's curriculum. Actually, let's not because 56 pages isn't enough space, it seems, in which to mention what one might learn. It certainly can't be the case that you would raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have a curriculum–aka the course of learning–whose only possible analogy is to running naked through an endless thicket of flaming thorns while chased by the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Then we shall mulch in the shade!
Let then the On Campus section clue you to university happenings. The environment is the theme of the hour, and not only did a nun speak about the need for the church to focus on ecological problems, apparently excluding the fauna of their school's flagellating curriculum, alas, but also a team of students planted trees by means of shovels which were made from recycled guns in violence-plagued neighborhoods. Because that's what terrorized people need: plants. Melt your swords into plowshares by all means, but don't plan on fighting off the drug cartel with a fern and your green thumb.

If that hasn't sent you to the enrollment office, do you want to be a part of Nelson Mandela's legacy of change? Do you want to find out whether empathy can help foster racial justice? Come on! Higher education "can lift people out of poverty," "education is the great leveler," and "the Jesuits really are the best." With all of this stifling political correctness–the president's letter even alternates the order in the phrase "men and women" each time it's used–I'm surprised they declined alumni in the masculine. It certainly can't be they don't know Latin, right? Right? Bueller?

Hold on to that gun before someone
makes a shovel out of it.
Alright, you're a hard sell. Time to trot out the superstars. Denzel Washington went there. Washington, known for such movies as Man on Fire, Inside Man, and Training Day, has been hailed as "the greatest role model"by the first recipient of the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship, who went on to proclaim her love for Barney the Dinosaur and Frosted Flakes. Next on the celebrity parade is Mary Higgins Clark, author of 42 best-selling suspense novels, the first of which dates from her famous pre-natal years and tells the story of a zygote which realizes it's carrying the child of a murderer. Alright fine, don't attend, but you'll regret it if you ever stumble upon a murder in a runaway freight train. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now I'm not saying that I can't take seriously a school who boasts "190% growth" in world-class faculty, cloaks itself in the cheap slogans of the day, softly peddles cheap liberalism, and demonstrates no serious, concrete academic program. Likewise I ignore its foolhardy abstract "devotion to humanity" and the hubris of wanting to leave students "able to shape the world." Instead I merely suggest that such doesn't recommend one as a nourishing mother.

She does have, though, the fool's penchant for self-revelation, if not awareness. Describing the results of a recent renovation, the magazine writes that, "the walls are the only thing remaining of the original structure." Most assuredly.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Contempt and Love

Moral philosophers are eager to suggest every which way we might become good people, but they seldom seem to get around to telling you what to do once you are a good person. Don't they expect anyone to try, let alone succeed? Perhaps they don't think that there is anything to worry about once you succeed at virtue, by which I of course mean act generally with approbation, since no one is perfect all of the time. Yet there seems a unique struggle attendant the adherence to virtue, and perhaps even to the attempt at virtue, and that is the development of disdain for those unsuccessful at becoming good people.

I haven't called them wicked because most often they are not. I'm not talking about disdaining dictators, murderers, and the like, which is very easy, but disdaining normal people who don't try or fail to practice virtues. Neither am I talking about intellectual virtue, for we can all comprehend that some people can't comprehend some things. How though should we feel about and react to people who harbor chronic character flaws and make no attempt to correct them, or fail at the attempt?

Let me give you an example and drop the pretense that I'm not speaking about myself. I work rigorously against a nature which is critical, finicky, easily-perturbed, controlling, conservative, proud, opinionated, stubborn, reclusive, anxious, indolent, petty, and derisive, among other faults. For eight years–yes, precisely eight, it's been a deliberate endeavor– I've tried to prune this thorny personality into a gentleman. I very much hope that I've at least made an improvement, but I'm at a point where I remember my old self and I'm not very sympathetic to him.

Moreover, though, I find myself unsympathetic toward those who haven't made the change. Freud wrote that we dislike people who remind us of ourselves, but for my part I find myself disliking people who remind me of my former self. Perhaps this is illogical, for it's certainly possible that such people have wrestled with other demons while I've tamed my less feral passions. Sometimes though you just can't shake the feeling that someone is congenitally–I was going to say congenitally bad, but I think the better word is weak. They lack the fortitude to improve.

There seem two ways to react to such people. The first is that to which I'm  immediately inclined: contempt. This is a word too strongly associated with hate, and it more correctly means to value little, from Latin's contemno. This is no power trip, though, because as much as the sight of such people inflicting their untutored personalities on the world fills me with disdain, that same low estimation is attended by feelings of great pity. We pity them because they don't deserve their burden–who can be said to deserve his character?–and because we feel that we've but narrowly avoided similar fate.

Yet pity is ultimately a feeling of pain, and it's no small coincidence that contemno can mean to avoid. Ultimately we wish to avoid such people. Aristotle's great-souled man is quite indifferent to inferiors. In contrast we take delight in seeing the good and it is the good which spurs us to imitation.

Of course ruling out erotic love, is there no affection these people may receive, no principle which may bind men to each other? How can we share φιλία or have an amicus without equality? Both Latin's caritas and diligo interweave the idea of esteem into the valuation. It seems there is no pure love, to use the overused word, for such people, but is there pure love for anyone? It seems always mitigated or predicated on estimation, eros, utility, similarity, equality, or some premise.

The only two remaining postures are humanism, a pure love for man qua man, and Christian agape. Yet humanism is still predicated on esteeming someone valuable as a human, to which one might rightly ask: so? What exactly might it be about the human which means we should love him? Consciousness? Our genetic similitude? Such are pretty cheap commodities and neither suggests, let alone demands, love.

Alone is agape lacking in estimation, for to love God does not imply that one finds Him in conformity with anything, but that one loves the beginning and end of everything. To love anyone in this regard then, is not strictly utilitarian or merely moral, but teleological, love as ultimate reconciliation. As such it is also love for being qua being, and thus the proper antithesis to hatred, the preference that something not exist, i.e. nihilism.

It is the father who makes men brothers, and it is the universality of this declaration which gives such profound weight to the finale to Beethoven's 9th, a work which has been rechristened in the 20th century as essentially humanist or at best deistic. Yet it is joy, man's pure loving reaction to love and an affirmation of life, that is the divine spark which makes brothers of men. In other words, Deus Caritas est. (Of course refining our understanding of caritas in the process.) In the encyclical of the same name, Benedict XVI wrote of that statement's, "Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny," saying that, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter [congressio] with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction [progressionem]." [Latin English]
1 John 4.16: Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ μένων ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐν τῷ θεῷ μένει καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει. / Deus caritas est et qui manet in caritate in Deo manet et Deus in eo. 
Love and joy, then, are not moral or principled acts, but the proper progression, or climax of life. Again fittingly, hatred and nihilism are the rejections and regressions toward nothing, from God and being.

This is a polarity we find again in the 9th Symphony from its chaotic keyless opening, itself suggesting a polarity with the hovering perfect fifth, to its ecstatic choral finale. The poem calls to song, though, not only those who partake in love by friendship or marriage, but all men who have all been given by nature a passion [Wollust] for life.

In the finale to the 9th, then, Beethoven summons all to fall in love under the lieber Vater, and combines the theme to joy with a gesture as simple as it is profound, a kiss to the world, in a fugue. The inexorable motion, rollicking rhythm, and overlapping of millionem and ganzen Welt and kuß seem to create that very joy of which it speaks. It's the fullness of this path from nothing to everything and the rightness, the properness of direction which we feel in joy which makes the 9th seem to transcend its Earthly parameters, calling us to partake in the divine spark which exclaims, Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!