Saturday, January 31, 2015

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

Directed by J. C. Chandor. 2014.

Pity the popular director. You might find your heart too hard to make room for Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese, but imagine the stifling layers of expectations that audiences heap upon their every movie, their every frame. No theme or symbol, sound or subtle comment is free a from dissecting comparison to their style. As you watch their latest piece you watch all of their movies and all great movies alongside. If you cannot pity the director, though, then pity the film-goer, bombarded by trailers, commercials, billboards, and award campaigns. There is liberty in anonymity for the director, and in ignorance for the audience. There is special excitement in the air, then, when you fold down your squeaky seat, nestle your soda in your hand, and sitting down to see a movie about which you know nothing, you wait for the language of film to unfold the story. It is a happy coincidence that every time I enter a movie in such blissful naiveté, I am not disappointed.

A Most Violent Year had me at its opening shot in which a man makes his afternoon run, stops, and turns around. Now even with the director unaware of me and I of him, we both know this gesture. Simple and clear, it is the whole story: Abel Morales is striving. For another movie this meaning would be the end of the shot's significance, a prefiguring of the plot, yet for A Most Violent Year this shot never dies. We know for what and with what and for whom and especially how–the how is the essence of the plot–but continually ask why Abel strives. It might seem an obtuse and overly subtle question because we observe an obvious story in which Abel struggles to grow his oil delivery business against the depredations of a corrupt city at the low ebb of its greatness, New York in 1981, but the why of a movie is its essence.

At one level of course A Most Violent Year is about Abel fending off predators from his fledgling company. Constantly at odds with him are the district attorney, who hopes to sue him for hiding funds, a cartel of competitors who are squeezing his territory, an unknown rival who is hijacking his trucks and assaulting the drivers, and finally the union boss who threatens a strike if he won't let his drivers carry guns. Yet as much as Able fights to preserve his business, he does so within a code of conduct, steadfastly refusing to breach his ethics even to preserve his lifelong enterprise and dream. He complies with the DA's investigation. He cooperates with his competitors. He seeks the police to protect his trucks. He refuses to arm his drivers with unlicensed weapons. Yet again and again at every turn Abel is stymied and subverted. No one cooperates and no one helps.

Scene after scene we see Abel pushed closer and closer into a corner until he has two days to pay of a massive loan and rescue his business. The tension driving the whole movie is the mounting burden on Abel wherein we wait for him to breach his code. Amplifying these external pressures is the strain from his demanding wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who as the daughter of a mob boss encourages Abel to break a few skulls instead of remaining within the boundaries of the permissible.

Much as we sympathize with Abel, we do grow with Anna to wonder whether he will ever prevail, if the nice guy can triumph. One evening Abel and Anna riding in their car strike a deer. Abel steps out and finding the animal writhing in pain grabs a pipe with which he will put it out of its misery. He stands there unable to commit until we hear gunshots and slowly realize that it is Anna who has remorselessly put the animal down. The sense is clear, that Abel is too weak, but the sense presents a false dichotomy: being unable to put down an animal and being unwilling to murder people and break the law are not parallel choices. When the couple returns home Abel forcefully but with great restraint chastises Anna for jeopardizing the family by carrying an unlicensed firearm. Her response that Abel is simply a wuss exposes her contradiction which we briefly shared.

Indeed Anna is herself a contradiction. She is at once supportive of Abel and then scourging him for his moderation. She desires the things which money and security buy, but is willing to risk their loss by flying off the handle. We see her both ruthless and nurturing, aggressive and patient. From her we see glimpses of both Lady Macbeth and Odysseus' Penelope. She ever lacks, though, any self-knowledge. Anna never comes to any greater realization, but merely waxes back and forth between extremes as her husband negotiates the family and business through the treacherous narrows.

The journey comes to a climax when Abel chases down one of the hijackers of his trucks and, interrogating the man, has the opportunity to kill him. Up until now Abel has been on the defense, a weak pawn progressing against prevailing and manipulative forces swirling around him. Before he had no power besides his resolve and virtue. Now he finds himself with the power of violence but also the potential to lose his moral authority. At length Abel relents and frees the frightened man who leaves him with a breadcrumb he can follow back to the culprit. Not only is Abel rewarded for abstaining from vengeance, but we see another contradiction: the violence would not have helped his cause. Moreover it would have damned it, as it would have before.

Parallel to Abel's success, though, is the path of one of his drivers, a young man named Julian, who after getting beat up in one of the hijackings is shaken to his core. Julian is afraid to go back out without a gun, but Abel responds with a moving heart-to-heart, part pep talk and part credo of courage and perseverance. Still fearful, though, Julian packs a gun and ,after pulling it in another attempted hijacking, must go on the lam from police. In the final scene, amid Abel's achievement overlooking his vast new storage complex and the New York skyline, Julian shows up, hysterical with fear and anger. He cannot understand how Abel succeeded where he failed. In another speech Able helps him see that it was his own weakness which failed him. Like Abel, he could have chosen another path, but unlike Abel, he gave into his fear. Here in fact the contrast between the men is most evident, for now when faced with the opportunity to lie and betray his virtue by flattering Julian to save his own life, Able remains firm and honest.

Is worth noting here that Abel is the most oratorical character I have seen in a while, eloquently arguing his case before thugs, union bosses, attorneys, his wife, and his employees. In each case he presents both firmness and moderation, arguing from principles with such steadiness that he disarms all of his opponents, who fly off the handle and double deal behind his back, but never disagree or disrespect him to his face, save Anna. Surrounded by aggression and temptation, Julian remains level-headed, never betraying his calm or cause with outbursts, even faced with ruin and death.

Yet while Julian's fate ends in tragedy and Abel's competitor's ends in humiliation and defeat, Abel's moderation leads him to triumph, right? Since we rebuked Anna for lacking self-knowledge, though, perhaps we should ask the same of Abel. Certainly he understands that he wants success, but why? When his advisor Andrew (Albert Brooks) asks him why he is doing all of this, Abel responds, "I don't even understand what you are talking about." This reply is nothing short of shocking: can Abel, ever articulate and full of principle, not explain the chief motive of his life? The answer could be to preserve honor, to provide for his family, to prove his virtue–all good motives–but how can he not know? The question of his motive and self knowledge becomes the central one when the DA tells Abel in the film's last line, "I hope it was worth it."

This question turns the movie on its head: is Abel a hero or a fool? Is the finale his moment of triumph or a monument to his blind pursuit? Yes he succeeded, but we really should ask whether it was worth the suffering. If he suffered in pursuit of something foolish then it is no triumph, nor absent any recognition or self-knowledge is it proper tragedy. This is an ingeniously chaffing and stimulating if not fully satisfying conclusion in which we cannot fully get behind a moral man and his valiant pursuit because we know only its form and not its substance.

So deep is Abel's commitment to success, though, that it is worth considering it in the light of ἀρετή, or excellence. Perhaps in Abel's world, excellence is a virtue and end in itself. He certainly seems to play by a different set of rules than everyone else, so good and steady is he that at times he looks a magnanimous giant among men, so perhaps it is fitting that neither we nor anyone can see his hidden virtue. Within only himself then is his ἀγών, struggle, not only explained but justified and praiseworthy. Still there seems no way to reconcile the fact, a detriment to the drama, that Abel never struggles with his belief. Yes he has many opportunities to change his mind, but save one we never for a moment think he is tempted to betray his principles.

Nonetheless this is a gripping story. It is directed with a light touch that lets the acting and events move the story, and though that story does not stitch together to perfection, it is so rich that we can scarcely complain. Chandor's script has crafted a conundrum in the sinews of Abel Morales, the cause of whose unflinching and scrupulously moral pursuit is either a mystery or self-evident. We are left asking, quite uncomfortably: what good is the virtuous, even successful pursuit of the unexamined life?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: White Christmas

Directed by Michael Curtiz. 1954.

Today, the Eve of Christmas, is the anniversary of the birth of cinema's perhaps most overlooked great: director Michael Curtiz. It is a regrettable coincidence, then, that it is today so appropriate to discuss what is surely not his greatest movie, White Christmas.

The movie is not bad, per se, but then with a competent director helming a cast of Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, and Rosemary Clooney singing and dancing to the music of Irving Berlin, how bad could it be? Still, the film is a testament to two tenets of the performing arts. The first: when there is music, most people don't much care about the plot. Second, if you start well and end well, most people don't care or remember what happens in between. These truths are immutable, it seems, for even I came away from this slight picture with a favorable impression.

Those first and last shots, though, pack a wallop, both zooming out from a tableau. The first pulls back from a team of musical corporals (Crosby and Kaye) entertaining their division through Christmas Eve on the European Front during World War II. The slow zoom out is effective at slowly pulling us out from the faux-snow of their stage and revealing the flashing shells and burnt out landscape behind. We meet the permanently grinning Phil Davis (Kaye) and the restrained crooner Bob Wallace (Crosby) giving a moving send off to their beloved departing general. The direction here is spot on, a meticulous balance between gravity and cheer. Who would expect that ten minutes later Phil and Bob would be dancing in drag in a Florida nightclub?

You see, the two become after the war a singing duo which gets entangled with a sister act escaping a conniving landlord when Phil bails out the gals by giving his train tickets to them which leads to additional confusion until the foursome ends up in Vermont at the hotel run by their former general. Did you see that coming?

There's not much to say about the shenanigans and Phil's constant nudging of Bob and Betty (Rosemary Clooney) into an item. They certainly wouldn't hold the picture together without the musical numbers, which come varied and frequently as the team brings their show to General Waverly's hotel to drum up business. The numbers are flashy and the footwork and sets outshine the music, whose lyrics are especially ridiculous. More entertaining is the chemistry between Kaye and Crosby, the latter of whom plays a convincing straight-man, sober but not flat, to Kaye's boundlessly energetic finagler. They make a good pair, Bob indulging the buddy who saved him during the war and Phil trying to set his curmudgeonly, reluctant partner up with a gal to settle down. Rosemary Clooney was just right for the role, too. Always looking like she is about to say something you want to hear, we're convinced that her Betty could get the cool, but always gentlemanly, Crosby to pursue.

When the whole battalion shows up at the hotel to honor General Waverly and Betty returns, we're all set for the big Christmas musical revue which comes and doesn't disappoint. The final shot zooms out from a snowy tableau in which the foursome, clad in the scarlet outfits of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, sings White Christmas after the lucky pairs smooch behind the tree. That's not an unsatisfactory parallel, either. The opening shot pulls back from a set of false snow to reveal the horror of war around them and the final shot pulls back to reveal the peaceful Vermont snow. The opening shot honors the outgoing general in wartime and the final shows that he is remembered in peace. The opening shows the two bachelors, the final two incipient husbands with their brides-to-be. We begin and end with Crosby singing the gentle winter-tide White Christmas. I'll take it.

Things I Don't Get #5: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Toward the end of the holiday classic Meet Me in St. Louis, the Smith family is set to celebrate their last Christmas at home before moving out to New York. Young Tootie weeps from the fear that Santa Claus will never be able to find their house after they move, and to console her little sister, Esther (Judy Garland) sings the tike a comforting tune, the famous Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Garland and O'Brien are splendid here, the former showing a great versatility moving among the quite different songs of the musical-movie, and how truly sad Tootie looks! The song, however, flummoxes me.

We start off fine:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light
Next year, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.
Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.
Wistful, yes, but full of hope too. Put aside sadness, we are told, for we can choose to be happy. Now is no different from the happy days of the past because our loved ones are still here for us. Then bam! things go dark pretty quickly.
Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow, 
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
How did the Fates get involved in this? Did Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos (Κλωθώ, Λάχεσις, and Ἄτροπος), the Greek Μοῖραι, or goddesses of apportioning, who spun out, measured, and cut the thread of human life, really just show up in Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas? And this is the cheered up version?

Worse still is that this is how Esther tries to cheer up her sister? "Tootie, I know you're sad, but by the way there's no Santa Claus and ancient Greek goddesses control the world. They're coming to kill your family and they've also decided when you're going to die. Merry Christmas."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Louis

Directed by Vincente Minnelli. 1944.

If you want a classic proof of Roger Ebert's dictum that a movie isn't about what it's about, but rather how it's about it, you could find no better than Meet Me in St Louis, since Minnelli's tuneful Technicolor feature for Judy Garland could scarcely be less about what's happening on screen than the sense of life which animates the picture. That sense, cultivated by every detail of the movie, far outweighs the sum of its otherwise humble parts.

We don't particularly care, for example, with which cardboard neighbor each of the Smith girls ultimately pairs. Yes, Garland as the second oldest daughter in the family is charming and spunky, but there's no dramatic weight behind her adolescent pining. Likewise we don't particularly care whether the Smiths will need to relocate to New York City to accommodate their father's promotion because there is no substantial dramatic tension between alternatives. This is not the stuff of drama and we care less about them as characters than about their world, that is, home and way of life.

Meet Me in St. Louis makes this point not by plot but by sense, and the sense is that home is a good, beautiful place. This feeling is no afterthought or incident, either, but fostered by cinematography, music, sets, and setting.

Of visuals, the vibrant, vivifying Technicolor pops the colors of the scenes far beyond realism so that even the most bland details, even dirt roads and background lamps, seem to jump from their commonplace corners into the spotlight. This is not simply persuasion by beauty, though, but a play on the memory: how much of our recollection, especially of home, is of bright colors jumping forth. Who doesn't remember a green carpet, orange couch, or red lamp somewhere at home? This is the vividness of memory in the exaggerated tones, and it tells us that St. Louis is home.

The sets too amplify that intimate sense of homely charm: the window sill, the kitchen, the dining room table, the front porch, and so on. These are not grand locations, but beautiful ones nonetheless. The notable exception is the rollicking ride for the famous Trolley Song, in which the love-struck Esther swoons about her charming neighbor to the exquisitely-hatted ladies riding the trolley across town. Perked with bright colors and animated by the gentle cantor of the trolley around which the camera wings, it's a perfectly giddy scene.

The music is tuneful and pleasant, nostalgic even, and appropriate if not remarkable. Appropriate to what, you may ask. Well, the tunes are simple because they are the tunes of home. We don't have soaring virtuosity and overblown orchestration, but innocent simplicity. These are tunes for singing in the living room, not the concert hall, and as such there is an authenticity to the to the music and even modest lyrics like,
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.
Don't tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.
We will dance the hootchie-kootchie, I will be your tootsie-wootsie,
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.
Not poetry perhaps, but there is good in the simplicity of music for singing not with great skill about tragic ends and philosophical designs, but about home and family and uncomplicated love. It's music and sentiment they would have called gay, that is, full of light merriment and unmixed joy. The sight of Esther (Judy Garland) and her little sister Tootie singing Under the Bamboo Tree for the family in the living room isn't fraught with portent, but it means a lot as an affirmation of life, love, home, and family. My favorite detail in the movie comes when Esther mouths one of the lines to Tootie. I'm not sure if Garland actually was mouthing the line to Margaret O'Brien to help her, but I like to think that it's a song the girls sing for the family all the time and Tootie just can't get the words straight. It's a cozy intimate scene which contributes more to the purpose of the film than any of the plot.

That plot, though, is just an excuse to threaten the end of all this domestic glee by whisking the family off to New York City. The decision to stay in St. Louis could have been better prepared and dramatized by creating some necessity or desire for everyone to move so that they had a difficult choice between staying and leaving. We care that they remain not because of what they think but only insofar as staying preserves their way of life, of which we approve, and validates our affection for their home. I'm also not sure what to make of the fact that no one in the family seems consoled by the fact that they will indeed all still be together in New York. That dramatic and logical gap notwithstanding, life is not just big events, but thousands of little details. It means something to love those too and the movie's affection for them is vivid enough to persuade apart from the thin characters and plot.

The weight of the finale comes satisfactorily nonetheless, though, through the brilliant touch of setting the story at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair: what is a more joyful approval of life just the way it is than a festival? Too, the starry conclusion at the fair seems to make true the impossible fact that everyone's home is the center of the world. Meet Me in St. Louis is too sweet and honest to chastise for that fancy, just as we can only indulge and be warmed by little Tootie who in earnest innocence asks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favorite city?"

"Yes, indeed." we ought to say. It is no small thing to love one's home, and it's not a love that ought be broken or educated out of us, but cherished.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, 2014

Among the many gifts to education come via the internet–inexpensive books both used and new, sharing teaching resources, resurrecting forgotten books, and on and on–perhaps the greatest has been the ability to watch master classes and lectures. Everyone has enjoyed an eye-opening class or perky book which has piqued his interest in a topic, but there is something electrifying about a lecture in which you can see the erudition just pouring out of the speaker, the years of study now effortless bounty, summoned at will. Likewise the sight in a master class of a virtuoso tweaking a superb student's efforts into the beginnings of mastery, seeing the crossing of that threshold is inspirational.

Such education is the highlight, and perhaps if you'll permit me some uncharacteristic optimism, the redemption of YouTube. They contain not facts which could be reproduced in books or papers, but a profound and often intangible sense of the joy and greatness of the endeavor. Confining this list to the strictly musical variety, here are my Top Music Lectures and Master Classes.

Andras Schiff, on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas [YouTube]
Daniel Barenboim, on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas [YouTube]

Pinchas Zukerman, on Violin performance [YouTube]

John Tomlinson, on Singing Opera [YouTube]

Robert Levin on Composing Mozart [YouTube]
Carlos Kleiber, in Rehearsal [YouTube]

John Eliot Gardiner, Bach Cantata Pilgrimage [YouTube]
Robert Greenberg, on Everything [YouTube]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Review: Bachstock Marathon

Surprised the psychedelic vibe of Bachstock appealed to me? I am. The idea of naming a celebration of Bach's corpus of work–the apogee of spiritual, philosophical, and theoretical musical expression–after the deepest depths of sixties hippie-dom is not immediately attractive. The festival is more than its name, though, and there is little more rich than Bach, whose music WQXR has celebrated throughout November. Besides, and more charitably, I do like the idea of a season of Bach, of the music just filling the air for a time, and his music does in fact produce euphoria and despair, so you really could call it psychedelic.

The climax of the month-long festivities was Saturday's marathon of Bach's solo organ works at St. Peter's Church. From 7AM until midnight a troupe of organists consisting of Juilliard students and local organ directors led by organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs performed a nearly unbroken series of Bach's solo organ oeuvre. I managed to squeak into the 2:30 slot in which Benjamin Sheen, Assistant Organist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, performed on St. Peter's Klais organ. If other of the day's organists cherry-picked the famous pieces like the F Major Toccata and Fugue and the Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor, Sheen had the pleasure and Herculean task to play a lesser known masterpiece, Bach's Third Clavier Übung.

Sheen brought a vital clarity to the pieces, from the more fingery works like BWV.688 to the austere grandness of BWV.678. A projector trained on the keyboardists hands showed helpfully for the eyes what could not have escaped the ears: the blistering complexity of some of the fugues, double and triple and variously complex. The program changed Bach's ordering of the pieces for a more traditional variation among large and small scale, fast and slow, but this did not diminish the pleasure of hearing various figures come and go in different guises. The pairs, however, which Bach wrote on the same chorales, one setting with pedals and the other for manuals alone, were performed together, a contrast which shows not only the fecundity of Bach's musical mind, but the patience which sees all ideas worked out to their utmost.

The orchestration was especially pleasing and refreshing, casting new light on pieces to which we have become perhaps too accustomed by our favorite recordings. How exciting to hear a familiar piece anew, waves once deep and ruddy now bright and clear. What shone forth most though, was the variety. Influences French, Italian, and German permeate this "most-consequential compositional project for the organ from the years of [Bach's] maturity" [1] alongside the Bachian array of polyphonic artistry, themes of every shape and length, and sizes from the little duets BWV.802-805 to the Trinity of BWV.552a.

Even though I had stopped in for a mere 75 minutes of the marathon–for the absolute steal of $10 admission–I caught the fervor of what was really a one-day festival. Yes, I could have lived without the kitschier element, the "I got your Bach" t-shirts and puns on the radio, but there was a lot of merry, expert music-making. Too I found it a pleasure to see a festival with its namesake at the center, unlike that of a certain Salzburg-born composer.  It may have only been one church and one radio station, but with queuing lines, people buzzing about, web streams, and Bach's glorious music contrapunting to the ends of the eternity, it felt like Bach was everywhere, if only for a little while, and that's a dear satisfaction in itself.

[1] Horn, Victora. "French Influence in Bach's Organ Works" in J.S. Bach as Organist. ed. Stauffer George and May, Ernest

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Cars and Driving

Like many New Yorkers, I learned to drive later than my suburban counterparts. The delay owes in part to the ubiquity–if not efficiency or pleasure or reliability–of the city's public transportation as well as the density of metropolitan construction: when everything is close and you can go to and fro with relative ease, you're no so eager to incur the expense of a car. Too I lacked that adolescent distemper which seems to prise youths from home at the earliest possible moment. Lacking the impetus to escape, I settled, and working in the city, I naturally adopted the pedestrian antipathy toward drivers so common among New Yorkers. Antipathy, of course, in blatant indifference to the inconvenience I put upon friends and family to chauffeur me around. At any rate I learned to drive but several short years ago.

I admit to a certain trepidation about that examination. How infamous become the people who fail their road test, and what objects of scorn! What will people say if I fail, with my much vaunted knowledge? That I knew then and now without a doubt that each and every friend would have responded with charity mattered little when the instructor sat Sphinx-like in the passenger seat, recording my every error. Passing though I did, on the first try, when driving I have progressed but moderately beyond the anxiety I felt that day. My present concern though is less on of being judged than of harming.

Naturally most people don't live day-to-day in fear of their lives and like most people mortality is a fleeting philosophic concern to me, at best. I'm attentive to hazards and rather able to protect myself and avoid harm, and likewise I realize few people have the incentive to harm me. Yet put those same people in a car, with a few tons of steel and hundred horse power, and see how man is transformed.

On foot, we of course frequently bump into one another without much commotion or concern. It is even common for two people in attempting to avoid each other by stepping aside, continually to step into the other person's corrected trajectory, further stymieing each other in a comedy of manners. I always find that such mismatches buoy my spirits: how wonderful are we, so full of concern for our fellow men! Yet put us in cars and we would be shouting each other down, blaring our horns, and jockeying positions for the profitless patch of ground. Paragon of animals indeed!

The power of his car which he did purchase but did not, because he did not cultivate it himself, earn and which he therefore does not understand, is the Ring of Power on his finger. It magnifies his rage and avarice as it puts within reach otherwise inaccessible pleasure. Like the ring also, it can only be mastered by him who made it.

Man may possess many powers of speech, mind, and hand but these are all hard fought and in the suffering, in the vulnerability of learning, we grow to respect not only the skill we cultivate but also its fruits. Who learns to speak well learns to be moderate and not abuse, who learns to think quickly and discern learns patience, and who learns to gather wealth learns to be beneficent and liberal. Yet who buys a car learns no discipline but leaves himself to be seized with a mania, not to drive but be driven by a suddenly unfettered and untutored appetite. Multiple appetites in fact, and being appetites they can be sated but never filled. The motor vehicle 

The fact that there aren't more accidents is perhaps a reproach to my argument, as is the relatively affordable cost of insurance and the fact that roads aren't constantly tied in tangles of traffic. (Though they often are.) Too, much of my driving stress comes from the recklessness and brazenness of pedestrians, a brazenness which finds its origins in the certainty that judges and insurance adjusters will sooner find fault with the driver of two tons of combustion-propelled steel than the measly flesh and bones of the pedestrian. Timid drivers are of great danger to others as well, enraging speeders and moderate drivers alike. Just the thought of one nervous driver holding up a whole column of traffic boils my blood, as does the way in which the quite orthodox phenomenon of rain seems to throw some drivers into a confused tizzy. If we finally add the fact that clairvoyance and telepathy are now mandatory for all drivers, since if practice is any indication the use of turn signals is now optional, it's nothing short of extraordinary that there's anyone left alive at all.

I can seldom drive for five minutes, and sometimes not even around the corner, without witnessing behavior which is downright death-defying. I know not what fortune, skill, technology, or fate interferes with what seems to be certain catastrophe.

Yet the dangers and the variety of variables with which driving presents me is but one complaint, the other being that I find it unnatural and generally unpleasant to interact with the world by means of a car. It is natural and appropriate for man to interact with others by means of words and because of that need to learn to speak and write with skill. I enjoy the rules, traditions, and possibilities of discourse. Man being mobile, it is fitting and necessary to walk, and I do so with great pleasure. Yet when  I drive, for all the convenience it brings me and for all the possibilities laid open, I'm not at peace. I feel in a state of disequilibrium which ought not endure. When driving it is difficult to see people and they you, and it is hard to be courteous to others, however seldom the need may arise. (How precious is the wave of thanks!) Even with the windows down I can hear little but the buffet of air billowing by, and with the windows closed I can hear and smell nothing of my environment.

Worst of all is the way it temps me with easy power. Whatever skill I have of speech, any action must take some toll of effort. Every phrase must be turned, every argument structured, every twist of wit twined with foxy dexterity. Yet my car presents me with over 200 horsepower the ability to accelerate from 0-60mph in but a few seconds, all with the press of a pedal. Every word asks that I choose it with care lest I confuse or offend, but who cares about nameless, faceless drivers?

All of these admissions and admonitions seem a terrible betrayal of my car, to which I am irrationally attached. In it I enjoy a quietude and luxury far greater than most anywhere else I can find or afford. Its refined, conservative styling is, I hope, a reflection of its owner. I enjoy keeping it clean as I do my desk and books, with every manner of cloths and sprays. How the light glints off its speckled finish. How the dew beads on its waxed exterior. How I cracked the tire valve and watched it deflate before my eyes. Yet for all its inconveniences and burden, without it I feel stranded. Without it parked outside I feel constrained, even if I'm unlikely to go anywhere.

Like much of modern man's technology, the car is a much greater power than we realize. As such it requires discipline and sacrifice, and most of all prudence. Not exactly our strengths.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

Directed by Christopher Nolan. 2014.

*spoiler alert*

Christopher Nolan may be Hollywood's golden boy right now, but it still took guts to make Interstellar. First, it has for some time been out of vogue to make a science fiction film which is not also an action flick. Audiences don't want quibbling scientists, esoteric terminology, and the slow journey of experimentation. Second, the boundary between science fiction and other genres is so blurred that audiences don't know what to expect from sci-fi. Should it be sci-fi horror, like Frankenstein and Alien, highbrow like Bladerunner, lowbrow like Independence Day, or pure action like Aliens? Should it be funny like Men in Black, or gadgety like I, Robot? Should Will Smith be involved at all? If it's pure sci-fi, writers still seem pressured to veer into the extremely implausible, scientifically suspect, or downright fantastic to get one over on audiences which demand a surprise finale. Finally, the wake of landmark sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and even lesser pictures like Jurassic Park is a tough channel for new movies to navigate. How much do you forage ahead and how much do you look back?

That leaves Interstellar in a tough situation, but the Nolans moderate a prudent course amongst their myriad options. Chief and most far reaching among these choices is Interstellar's balance between the impersonal, abstract mood of 2001 and the warm, intimate world of Solaris. Between these extremes we have Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a pilot-turned-farmer raising his family in the near future. Cooper's a former pilot but not a retired one, though, for in this future there is no more flight, spaceflight, or advanced technology of any kind. This future isn't one of whiz-bang gadgets and nightly leaps in technology, but one in which old technology is scavenged, where kids aren't encouraged to enrich themselves but to farm for survival because dust storms choke off crop after crop. This is no economic depression, but the death spiral of the human race. We see the depths of human despair when we learn that teachers and school text books teach that the moon landings were hoaxes, a lie born not out of conspiratorial theorizing but from an inability to reconcile present suffering with past greatness.

Cooper hasn't bought into the self-pity though, and for all his inability to provide more than a windswept farm for his kids, he's defiantly optimistic. He encourages his kids to learn, but most especially his daughter Murphy to read and follow scientific rigor. Nolan reinforces this theme of education by luxuriating in shots of books. Cooper's library–dusty from the storms but not from disuse–holds everything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Stephen King, and we glimpse other familiar sights like Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein in the office of Cooper's mentor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine.) The message is simple: mankind has to learn and struggle its way out of this. Brand is trying to do just that, and he and his underground NASA remnant have constructed a craft to seek worlds outside our solar system via a wormhole which has opened up near the locus classicus of sci-fi space phenomena: the rings of Saturn. The mission is simple too: find the habitable world, and in passing through the wormhole, gather the missing data Brand needs to send his space stations into orbit and save humanity.

By the time Cooper is ready to blast off, the stage is set. We've seen the hopelessness on earth so we can appreciate the sense of escape which flight will bring and we've seen enough dust and crops to marvel at the interstellar wonder of the spacecraft. We're in the hands of a prudent director setting up contrast and scale. Chiefly, though, Nolan sets up structure by giving us more than a teary farewell between Cooper and his daughter. Interstellar becomes a saga, a generational struggle, because it is Cooper's departure which drives Murphy's own research to save Earth: as Cooper seeks a new home, Murphy tries to get mankind a ticket there. The unfinished business between the two also sets up a simple tension whose resolution holds the rest of the movie together. It is also ultimately the endowment of the past which fuels Murphy's success.

The second act is structured with admirable simplicity: three heroic scientists have already been sent on one-way trips to three planets on the other side of the wormhole so they can report back on which is most habitable. Whoever lands on a hospitable planet will be contacted and rescued so colonization can begin. The other scientists will die alone. Cooper and his crew need to reconnoiter with those explorers who report back that their planets are habitable, but that's easier said than done since they orbit a black hole which Dr. Brand's team has named Gargantua. This celestial phenomenon brings me to two points: one of satisfaction, the other of irritation. First is my pleasure at the apt appellation Gargantua, a name which conveys not only enormity by onomatopoeia and its association with Rabelais' titular giant, but also means in Spanish throat–an appropriate name for a well devouring space and time. My irritation is with the ongoing phenomenon of astrophysicists in movies explaining basic laws to each other. Nothing takes me out of a movie with such speed as the suggestion that dialogue serves only to inform the audience and is otherwise redundant in the world of the narrative.

That minor quibble aside, this act is the broadening of the film to a scope which few achieve. It opens with a tense action scene of exciting brevity in which the team must visit one of the planets which is so close to the black hole that on it time passes more slowly. The result is that the crew, and everyone back on earth, will age years in what are mere hours to the away team. This could have seemed a gimmick, but the actors react with such honest horror when the mission goes overtime that we buy into the high stakes. We also buy into the tension because we are distracted by the exotic and hostile environment of crashing waves. The windswept Earth, for its dwindling bounty, seems to call us home from this inhospitable, waterlogged world. What really sets the alien tone, though, is a subtle and brilliant touch: the water is shallow enough that the crew can walk on it, yet there are around them giant waves. The mere incongruity of the sight, of its impossibility on Earth, tells us something is strange and amiss. This won't be our new home.

The second planet holds a different surprise, for the scientist sent here, Dr. Mann (played by the dependable and underrated Matt Damon) was the purported best of the one-way explorers, an inspiration by the bravery of his one-way journey of sacrifice. He was also privy to and supportive of Dr. Brand's secret: the planetary scouting mission was a sham and a cover. Knowing his research to be a failure, Dr. Brand's real bet on humanity rested in the frozen embryos stored on Cooper's ship. There would be no rescue for the people on Earth, but mankind would go on, in some way. Mann's descent into madness sets a new vista for the movie though, for his inability to cope with his own death and dead-end on his barren planet conflicts with his matter-of-fact indifference to the deaths of Earth's population. So afraid of his lonely frigid death, Mann faked the data he sent to Earth so that in their expectation of visiting a fertile new home for humanity, the team would visit Mann's planet and rescue him, when if he had reported the truth about its destitution, he would have died alone. Aside from the tragedy of foregoing a magnanimous, heroic sacrifice, Mann demonstrates the incongruity of being willing to put the abstract cause of humanity's future ahead of the lives on Earth, but not ahead of his own.

Beyond this heinous flaw, Mann's sabotaging of Cooper's intended return trip, leaving Cooper for dead on the planet, and reckless endangerment of the ship housing the embryos all show him to lack the mettle for the mission to save humanity. Still, Mann thinks he's the one to do it and launches into a soliloquy about the future which is promptly cut off by his deadly and disastrous docking with the ship. The damage leaves Cooper and Amelia, Dr. Brand's daughter, in a quandary: return home in failure or find a way to make their own one-way trip to the final planet. Cooper is driven to return home and fulfill that promise to his daughter, while Amelia is drawn to the final planet, where she hopes to find not only a habitable world but her love, the scientist sent to scout the planet. The contrast between their motives, love, and the impersonal, empirical quest to save humanity represented by Mann is the final and ultimately greatest contrast of the movie.

Earlier in expressing her desire to visit her love's planet first, Amelia waxes philosophical about love and it being "the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space." It's not Plato, but it voices the ancient conception of love as a force which acts upon and through us. It is a conception of understanding rooted in receptivity and affirmation of life, not discursive fact-crunching rooted in empiricism. This contrast between ratio and intellectus becomes the core of the movie.

Unwilling to return home to death and in defeat, Cooper hatches a plan to use the gravitational pull of Gargantua as a slingshot to send Amelia to her lover and his hopefully fertile planet and himself through the black hole to gather Dr. Brand's data. Love and an unwillingness to endure the death of loved ones removed the impossibility of these tasks which proved impossible for Dr. Mann, whose stony-hearted ratio, willing to sacrifice the human race, was able to calculate only his own life.
What was for Dr. Mann a mere Herculean effort, and a failure, was a superhuman struggle yet possible for Cooper and Amelia.

Cooper's fate takes him farther and further, though, for besides his sacrifice he has not given up on the scientific facts which are needed to save Earth. Unlike Dr. Brand who lost faith in his theory, and therefore himself, Cooper has faith in both. His motive, though, is not the rage at the dying of the light which motivated and ultimately failed Brand, but love for the light. It is a love which demands in addition to reason, faith, sacrifice, and wonder, all of which we find in Cooper as he enters Gargantua, the black hole swallowing up the light for which he struggles.

When in the black hole the secret of the gravity waves, which will send Brand's space stations into orbit, is revealed to Cooper, we see the ratio penetrated by intellectus: fuller understanding through reason magnified by faith and wonder. Cyclical too is the manner in which Cooper is able to communicate via those waves the information to his daughter, earlier in time of course, the existence of the waves, mankind's hope and survival. As reason has gone through wonder into greater understanding, man has gone through suffering not to Herculean apotheosis, but back to man. Like 2001, the end is not in sight, only the journey. The sense of hope and wonder achieved by 2001's final image of extraterrestrial rebirth is mirrored here by man's rebirth in life on the space station in the very same orbit as Kubrick's star child. The best of Interstellar's movie posters hints at this thread to the heavens.

Man's fragile skein through time and space is joined by Cooper through libraries which bookend the film. When Cooper reaches the black hole's tesseract of space and time from which he can communicate with Earth, he finds the portal to his daughter reaches to their library. From the tesseract, then, a shape which seems in progressing out of itself to recede into itself, man reaches back into himself, the same and yet progressed and enduring. Cooper does not remain in the seemingly perfected vita contemplativa implied by the nexus of space and time in the tesseract, but returns back home, having glimpsed the wisdom which plays throughout the universe.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sub Corde

Inset of Mercury exhorting Aeneas
Tiepolo, 1757
Of all the wisdom in antiquity which we find in science and philosophy, of all the treatises and speeches, sometimes the most potent lies in the simplest expressions. Latin in particular, with its literal and visceral expressions, seems to cut to the heart of meanings which are in English buried in metaphor and, especially today, analysis. A recent occasion brought reminiscence of Vergil.

As every man in every dispute, I sat certain of my rightness. On the throne of moral superiority–it is a crown hard won and easily ceded–I was poised to let lose a torrent of self-righteous complaint. Why should I not? One reason is that while man's desire for justice may have deep roots in indignation, a sense of righteous reaction to the undeserved has probably toppled more friendships than empires. How often, even when there is indeed injustice, is our displeasure at being aggrieved stronger than any sense of inequity? Any honest man would admit his pride is more easily wounded than his sense of social justice, else he would be up in arms all the time and not just most of it. In fact Aristotle writes that the worst evils–of injustice and folly–are the least felt since their presence causes no pain. Worse than the self-deception, though, is how quickly indignation gives way to anger, if there was any honest indignation in the first place.

Most among the emotions does anger affect man's judgment. I can feel its creeping presence like a shadow shading over my mind as my control recedes. There is to the experience of growing enraged truly a sense of encroaching otherness, as if one is being forced from one's mind. Greek and Latin have ἔκφρων, exanima, and insania, which all convey the sense of being out of oneself, out of one's wits or out of one's mind as we sometimes in English say. Yet the advancing darkness of anger is never new and alone, it seems, but bringing with it every other slight you have ever experienced, as if anger itself has a memory. Too we once had commonly in English the phrase cherish wrath, a reminder like μῆνιν and memorem iram that we cultivate our anger lest it grow soft. We don't really want to forget.

Yet when we put down our desire, the feeling is equally physical. On this one occasion of my frequent displeasure I managed silence. Something in the eyes and voice of my interlocutor brought upon me an instantaneous wave of pity and with a gulp I kept an uncharacteristic silence over my tongue. The immediate effect was a feeling deep in my chest and I thought of my Vergil: curam sub corde premebat. In Book IV of the Aeneid, Aeneas suppresses his desire to stay with Dido and pushes his care under his heart. It's so literal and clear, so Latin, and Roman. There is no obfuscating explanation or psychologizing. It is not a metaphor for overcoming one's emotion but a description of what it feels like to do it. We often think ourselves superior to the ancients, but it is no small bit of wisdom to call a thing what it is.

Of course in subsequent days I fell back to mortal stature, indulging my inclinations as do we all when uninhibited. When I do so indulge, though, there is a faint sense of defeat and a reminder of how heroic it felt to swallow my pride, however miniature was my success. We are not encouraged today to look at the ancient heroes as role models. The literature in which they reside is to be admired and their world studied and remembered, of course. Praised even. Too their deeds should, scholars admit, provoke discussions and debate, but I do not recall anyone ever suggesting their lessons should inspire action. Maybe we are reluctant to apply the lessons of their grand stories to our small lives, or perhaps heroes wait to be invoked and emulated until dark times.

Vergil's contemporary in his troubled time, Titus Livy said the purpose of his history was to furnish examples for imitation and avoidance. He added that he hoped to show
by what kind of men, and by what sort of conduct, in peace and war, the empire has been both acquired and extended: then, as discipline gradually declined, let him follow in his thoughts the structure of ancient morals, at first, as it were, leaning aside, then sinking farther and farther, then beginning to fall precipitate, until he arrives at the present times, when our vices have attained to such a height of enormity, that we can no longer endure either the burden of them, or the sharpness of the necessary remedies.
Perhaps in an age when the word self is appended with approbation to every activity, discipline, and occasion, and when the marketplace and government seem set to satisfy every whim, Aeneas of all the heroes should be welcome.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Things I Don't Get #4: Cruises

The possibility of an Ebola outbreak on a ship is, among other things, nature's way of reminding us that it can perfect anything which we design. In this case, the reprisal is that even the most dreadful place to which people voluntarily locate can be rendered more insufferable. Bah on me, some say, for disdaining this popular vacationing practice. Let me count the ways of their error.

The most obvious source of discontentment with the cruise is what it lacks. What ought a literate individual think of a place with no library and where the only repository of knowledge is the instruction to log onto the wifi and locate the lifeboat? What of a place where you can't get live music that doesn't feature an electric guitar or a has-been third-rate pop singer? Live shows abound, some say, to which I reply that while I've always wanted to see Agamemnon performed on the Lido deck, it's surprisingly hard to find on these boats a show devoid of feathers, tassels, and dancing animals. Pindar writes in Pythian 10 that the happy Hyperboreans of legend live indeed without work and battle, (πόνων δὲ καὶ μαχᾶν ἄτερ) but also that their ways never lacked the Muse, (Μοῖσα δ᾽ οὐκ ἀποδαμεῖ τρόποις ἐπὶ σφετέροισι.) It is no vacation without them. Yet even if the Muses don't travel the high seas in search of vessels, surely I may be lured aboard by the sumptuous amenities of our floating paradises?

The food, it's always the food people talk about, as if the mainland lacks sufficient quantity and variety. This might be understandable since the sea air does seem to whet the appetite, but why does it have to be a buffet, the non plus ultra of engorgement? You can do little more to render food unappetizing than to present it in large quantities, so what kind of man salivates at the sight of trays of chicken legs, hundreds of cupcakes, and pounds of scrambled eggs? I pass over the hideous sight of people, queued up for their hourly feeding, ladling gobs of food onto their plates. If there is a grosser display of herd mentality than the sight of people flocking to the faintest whiff of food and grazing upon it simply because it's available, then I prefer ignorance. To those who champion the thought of fine dining at sea, it surely does not need to be noted that nothing is fresh on a boat which doesn't catch anything.

To this floating asylum, which is to me but a few roasting heretics short of a stop on Dante's infernal tour, we can add the criticism that the sheer scale of the vessel deprives you of the joy of sailing and the sea. It is in fact only on the perimeter of the decks that you might even notice you're on a boat. Is one's decadence such that he needs all the things which enjoys–and we won't criticize him again for his tastelessness–to be added to a boat so that he might occasionally choose just to take sight of the water? This is my chief criticism: the cruise has managed to render further indolent even the act of vacationing. It's not convenient enough to be relieved from the stress of work and pleasant enough to enjoy some special treat, but the cruise promises to spoon feed us from a floating smorgasbord.

Is it such a terrible crime, though, to gather one's favorites in one place? Surely I would enjoy a seaside, if not seafaring, symposium of classical music and languages. Perhaps my criticism of cruises, then, is one of economics: they are perfectly catered to the most vulgar tastes.