Archive for December, 2008

Favourites of 2008: Movies

December 31, 2008

As usual, these are films I saw during 2008, not necessarily films first released this year.

Last year I picked as my favourite film the monastic documentary Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence).  This year I am picking another film set in a monastery: the Russian film Ostrov (The Island).  Set in an Orthodox monastery in the frozen wasteland of northern Russia, it tells the extraordinary story of a “holy fool”, a monk whose eccentric and even absurd behaviour is a trial for his brothers, but whose sanctity is deep and real. This man lives a life that seems to have stepped from the pages of an early Christian hagiography; he is a companion for St. Anthony or St. Brendan.  He himself is nearly inscrutable, yet he has penetrating psychological and spiritual insight — as does the film itself.  Like the lives of the monks, Ostrov is saturated in the language of the Psalms.  It is at times gloriously funny.  And filmed against a background of an austere, snow-covered desolation, it is very cold and very beautiful to look at. Since I saw it I have been unable to put it out of my mind, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Which could be a problem.  The film was originally released in 2006, and is officially now released on DVD.  I have been unable to find a store in Canada that sells it, however — not even amazon.ca or chapters.indigo.ca have it available.  Neither our public library nor our university library has it.  Our local we-have-everything-under-the-sun video store does not have it. Nonetheless, I urge you to try to see it.  (I cannot say how I acquired it, lest I incriminate myself.)

I will also name three other films.  I finally saw Casablanca for the first time this year, and it was excellent.  Would you believe that I had it mixed up with Gone with the Wind?  I was startled when it ended so much sooner than I had expected.  I have mentioned before that due to an aesthetic defect I usually do not enjoy old movies.  This was the first time I had seen Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman on screen!  Well, I am obviously a film idiot, but even that did not prevent my discerning the quality of this touching love story.

I watched Clint Eastwood’s World War II double-bill, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which recount the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima first from the American side and then from the Japanese.  The first film focused on the group of soldiers who were famously photographed hoisting the American flag after their victory; it seemed to me to lose its way dramatically. It is the second film, Iwo Jima, that has stayed with me. It kept the focus much more intently on the battle itself, and especially on a sympathetic and not very heroic Japanese soldier caught up in the fighting.  The film, though told from the Japanese point of view, critically examines the behaviour of both sides, and finds nobility and disgrace on both.  The Japanese honour code, which provoked them to commit suicide rather than surrender or even retreat, is portrayed as having been a major factor in the Japanese defeat.

Perhaps the best-reviewed film of the year, and one which is rumoured to be in the running for a major Oscar, was the animated Pixar film WALL·E. Intrigued by the positive response from critics, I made a point of seeing it. The first act of the movie was excellent.  Its bravely unconventional narrative — with almost no dialogue for long stretches — indicated that Pixar was really trying to do something memorable and special.  The closest animated analogue I can think of is Fantasia, not because WALL·E and Fantasia are similar to one another, but because they are both so different from standard animated fare.   Unfortunately the second act, which took dear WALL·E to space and into a human space colony, did not sustain the elevated tone.  Instead, the movie lapsed into the quick-witted, frenetic atmosphere of films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. — not bad in itself, but still a letdown after what had preceded it.

Biggest disappointments: I watched, and watched again, and re-watched Lawrence of Arabia.  The repeat viewings were because I kept falling asleep.  Even my keen personal reasons for wanting to see it – namely, that I was myself going to Jordan to see those amazing landscapes – could not sustain my interest.  I found myself quietly hoping that Lawrence would die of thirst.

Encounters at the End of the World is a film by the famous documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog.  Filmed it Antarctica, it explores the lives and motivations of the people who work at Antarctic research stations.  It is largely a showcase for people to say dumb things in front of a camera.  Herzog chimes in with pretentious and dumb commentary.

Brideshead Revisited could have been really great, but the filmmakers botched – perhaps intentionally – the central storyline, and ended up with a good-looking but lurid melodrama.  It wasn’t all bad, but fell far short of its potential, and ought to win an award for worst adapted screenplay.

On the principle that if one can’t say anything nice one ought not to say anything at all, I have nothing to say about Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Favourites of 2008: Music

December 30, 2008

These selections are drawn from music to which I have been listening in 2008, but not necessarily from music first released this year.

Popular music

It seems that with each passing year the amount of popular music to which I listen decreases.  I find that most of it is simply not interesting enough as music to hold my attention.  Nonetheless, a few albums did catch my fancy.

Pride of place goes to Bob Dylan’s two-disc collection of studio outtakes and live recordings Tell Tale Signs.  Even the stuff Dylan leaves off his records is better than what most people put on theirs, so it is good to have these songs collected in one place.  I know that not everyone has been enamored of this set, and in truth I could have done without some of the live tracks in which Bob’s singing is frankly abysmal, but when it’s good it’s really good.  “Red River Shore”, “I Can’t Escape From You”, and “Cross the Green Mountain” are the highlights for me, the first of them especially is one of the best songs he’s written in decades.  I also like the acoustic versions of some familiar songs that were “amped up” (and so, generally speaking, “dialed down” in my estimation) on their official album releases.  One of the best appreciations of Tell Tale Signs that I’ve seen comes from Andy Whitman; I am in agreement with him.

Another album released this year that I really enjoyed was Sam Phillips’ Don’t Do Anything.  First of all, I like the idea of not doing anything, so I was in sympathy with her from the start.  Second, these are smart, carefully constructed songs that generously repay close listening.  I’ve admired Sam Phillips since the early 1990s, but her last three albums (Fan Dance (2001), A Boot and a Shoe (2004), and now this one) have been especially outstanding.  She has been honing her songwriting craft, trimming away all excess until what remains is lean and potent.  The songs are as enigmatic as ever, but that’s just encouragement to listen to them again, and she’s got a superb band behind her that provides nuanced support. (promotional video [for some reason the sound in the video is boxier than on the disc])

Finally, this year I acquired Close Harmony, a big collection honouring the recorded legacy of the Louvin Brothers.  Their music making always drew on the deepest roots of country music, and few expressed that tradition better than they did.  If sweet country harmonies, tragic ballads, and plaintive gospel songs are to your taste, you must hear them.  For me, this collection has been very enriching. (video clip)

Notable: I suppose everybody knows that Guns N’ Roses finally released their album Chinese Democracy this year.   I’d not say this is properly-speaking one of my favourite albums of the year, but I did notice it.  Their last album of original songs came out in 1991, when I was in high school, so it has been a long wait.  Despite its dumb title, Chinese Democracy is actually pretty good.  From the beginning Guns N’ Roses were better than just about anyone at straight-up rock and roll, and while this album doesn’t have the energy and spontaneity of Appetite for Destruction (I imagine it is difficult to be spontaneous when you’re spending $1 million to record each song), nor the sweeping ambition of the Use Your Illusion albums, and though none of its songs have the catchy hook of “Sweet Child O’Mine” and nothing breaks from the gates like “You Could Be Mine”, Axl Rose shows that he is still deserves his rock n’ roll credentials.  His trademark banshee squeal is unfortunately quite moderated on several of the songs.

Classical Music

Maybe it doesn’t really belong on a classical music list – it has more in common with the Louvin Brothers than with Leonard Bernstein – but it is on a classical label and is sold in the classical section at the store, so I’m filing it here.  I am referring to The Elfin Knight: Ballads and Dances, an album about which I have written before.  It is a collection of English folksongs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (primarily), sung by the wonderful baritone Joel Frederiksen with accompaniment from a subtle and very musical band on traditional instruments.  The songs are pure gold.  This is the disc I listened to more than any other this year. (Music Note; eMusic clips)

Another disc I wrote about earlier this year was the dismally-titled Heavenly Harmonies.  There was nothing dismal, however, about the music or the performances.  The young British choir Stile Antico put together a really engaging and intelligent program of music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis designed to highlight the contrasting musical traditions – roughly speaking, Catholic and Protestant – that existed in Elizabethan England.  The contributions by Tallis are sturdy and tuneful, and beautifuly sung, but the real glories of this disc are the elaborate Latin motets by William Byrd.  This music has been sung and recorded many times, but seldom as well as it is here. (Music Note; eMusic clips)

Last year for Christmas my darling gave me a box containing Riccardo Chailly’s cycle of the Mahler symphonies, played by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.  Over a period of several months I listened to the entire cycle, and it was one of the great musical experiences of my year.  These recordings have been widely praised, not only for their intense musicality, but for the amazing clarity and presence of the sound.  They really are spectacular to behold.  It is the only full cycle of the symphonies by a single conductor and orchestra that I have heard, so I cannot really say how it stands up against Bernstein or Bertini or Tennstedt, but I can say that I’d have no qualms about recommending it.

As regular readers will know, 2008 was the centennary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen.  I listened to a lot of Messiaen this year!  Perhaps the most curious and delightful thing I came across in the course of my binge listening was a recording of La Fête des Belles Eaux.  Incredibly, this is the work’s first recording.  Messiaen composed it for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and the music was meant to accompany a water and light show.  Much of the charm of the piece – and a sure clue to why it is performed so rarely – comes from the fact that it is written for an ensemble of six ondes Martenot.  The ondes Martenot is one of those instruments, like the arpeggione, the sarrusophone, and (let us hope) the didgeridoo, that seemed like a good idea at the time, but which passed out of favour and into forgetfulness without leaving much of a mark.  Messiaen wrote for it frequently, but is probably the only major composer to have done so. In fact the ondes Martenot is not entirely obsolete, just awfully obscure.  McGill University in Montreal is one of the few schools to offer a degree program in the instrument, and so it is not surprising to learn that this recording was made in Montreal.  It is an electronic keyboard instrument that can alter its timbre, but it sounds roughly like a cross between a clarinet, an organ, a flute, and the dreaded Moog machine.  Here it sounds sleek and perky.  Those familiar with Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps may be surprised to hear how the quiet sections of La Fête des Belles Eaux anticipate the meditative, transcendent qualities of that more famous work. (eMusic clips; promotional video)

Finally, I am in agreement with Alex Ross that Andreas Scholl’s recital entitled Crystal Tears is one of the great records of the year.  Scholl is probably the leading counter-tenor singing today; he has a rich, pure voice that I find quite alluring.  This recital draws on songs by Renaissance composers like John Dowland, Robert Johnson, and William Byrd, and is filled out by delicate instrumental pieces for lute and viols.  Collections of this sort have appeared before, but Crystal Tears is distinguished by its intensely atmospheric recording, its feeling of unity, and the sheer beauty of Scholl’s voice. Outstanding. (eMusic clips; promotional video)

Favourites of 2008: Books

December 29, 2008

It’s that time of year again. Over the next three days I’m going to review my favourite books, music, and movies from the past year.  These are not “Best of” lists, for the obvious reason that I have not read, heard, or seen most of what there was to read, hear, and see.  They are just my favourites drawn from what I did encounter.

Last year in my “Favourites of 2007” post I predicted that the number of books I would be able to read would decline in 2008, and it did, but not as precipitously as I had expected. (The plunge is scheduled to resume in 2009.)   This list covers books I read in 2008, not necessarily books published in 2008 – in fact, none of these books were published this year.

Fiction

Far and away my favourite fiction of the year was Moby-Dick.  The power of Melville’s vision, the ecstatic prose, and the beautiful simplicity of the story were for me a dynamite combination.  Despite its many digressions and apparent superfluities, I found it engrossing from front to back.  (Book Note)

In the months leading up to our wedding I set myself the challenge of reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  This is a book that puts most others in the shade.  It is so big, so ambitious, and so competently carried out that I’m sure it is has been the despair of many an aspiring novelist.  Tolstoy has found a way to work nearly every aspect of life into the book: love, family, war, marriage, sin, death – everything.  I know that with a story of this stature once is not enough, but it is a start.  (Book Note)

A few years ago while hiking in Scotland we kept running into references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.  This year I finally got around to reading it, and I enjoyed it very much.  The friendship between David Balfour and Alan Breck was for me the central attraction of the story; they are one of the great duos of our literature. (Book Note)

Finally, late in the year I read Louis Hemon’s 1914 novel Maria Chapdelaine, about French Catholic peasants in Quebec.  Readers of Pride and Prejudice already know that it is possible to fall in love with a literary character, but Maria removes all doubt.  The story is simple but strong, just like the people it depicts.  An excellent book.

Nonfiction

On the non-fiction side I will start with Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a witty but probing exploration of how we think about our relationship to history, and of the personal significance of historical knowledge.  Not satisfied with that alone, it is also a profound meditation on love, and contains a beautiful re-presentation of the Gospel.  (Book Note)

This year was the centenary of Chesterton’s wonderful book Orthodoxy, and so I made a point of re-reading it.  I know that this word “orthodoxy” has a musty, cramped connotation for many people, but surely not people who have read this book: in Chesterton’s hands it is spacious and inviting.  Chesterton always found a way to combine wit with wisdom, but rarely do the two work as well together as they do here.  (Book Note)

The last two books I will mention were both published in 2007.  One is The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross.  It is a fascinating overview of classical music in the last century, from the hyper-romanticism of Strauss to the sleek and mechanical American minimalists, and everything in between.  More than just a history of music, Ross studies the music in context to see how the history of the twentieth century affected its music, and vice versa.  A dense but rewarding book.  (Book Note)

Lastly, I mention Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Robert S. Miola.  It took me about six months to slowly read this book, but it was immensely enriching, and I am sure it would be fascinating to anyone with an interest in Tudor England or the English Reformation.  Miola has gathered together songs, poems, pamphlets, biographies, devotions, plays, and essays from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, with a special focus on the lives and culture of English Catholics.  Their story has not been well served by standard accounts of English history – though that is starting to change – and Miola’s book certainly helps to open this world up to interested readers. (Book Note forthcoming)

Merry Christmas from All Manner of Thing

December 25, 2008

We come at last to the Feast of the Nativity.  I wish everyone a very merry and blessed Christmas!

It is sad that we are forgetting how to celebrate Christmas. This year I searched a half-dozen stores for cards with a Christmas theme, but without success.  Instead of the joyful greeting “Merry Christmas!” I kept hearing the banal “Happy Holidays” or even the nauseating “Season’s Greetings”.  This happens, of course, because the reason for the feast has been set aside by many.  There are deep and complicated reasons for that, and there are reasons too why what remains grows ever more frantic and shallow.  Various strategies are tried to invest the day with some lingering significance.  We are even told to do our duty and “stimulate the economy” by buying things.  But a feast is not about economic stimulation; a true feast stands outside and above the world of practical affairs.

The only remedy that I know is to celebrate Christmas myself, and to encourage others to do so as well.  And so beginning today, and continuing each day throughout this twelve day festival, let us rejoice and be glad, and meditate on this great mystery: that a king humbled himself to come among us as a friend and a lover.

The Nativity of Christ

Behold: the father is his daughter’s son:
The bird that built the nest is hatched therein:
The old of years an hour hath not outrun:
Eternal life to live doth now begin.
The Word is dumb: the mirth of heaven doth weep:
Might feeble is: and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls, behold your living spring:
O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace:
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring:
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than himself God doth not know:
Gift better than his God no man can see:
This gift doth here the giver given bestow:
Gift to this gift let each receiver be.
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me:
God’s gift am I and none but God shall have me.

Man altered was by sin from man to beast:
Beasts’ food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh:
Now God is flesh and lies in manger pressed
As hay, the brutest sinner to refresh.
O happy field, wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew.

– St. Robert Southwell (1565-91)

If you need a little help to get the celebratory blood flowing, this should do the trick nicely:

*****

In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

* * *    Luke 1:75-79    * * *

A song for Christmas Eve

December 24, 2008

Almost there!  Here’s Sufjan Stevens singing that old hymn of welcome, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”.  It appeared on his Christmas music album(s) a few years ago.

New symphony from Arvo Pärt

December 23, 2008

I have just learned that a new symphony by the wonderful Estonian composer Arvo Pärt will receive its premiere in January from the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Pärt’s last symphony, the Symphony No.3, was completed in 1971, so this has been germinating for a while.  I can’t say I have been really enamored of his symphonies before — the first two are crashing modernist works, and the third, though inspired by his immersion in Gregorian chant, was still written before his trademark tinntinnabuli style ripened.  Nonetheless, I like pretty much everything he has written since the mid 1970s, so I look forward to hearing Symphony No.4.

The score has been published in advance of the premiere, and I am told that it can be viewed here.  It must require Javascript though; in any case, I can’t see it with my current browser.  The Universal Edition page for the symphony says it is scored for strings, harp, and percussion, and is roughly 30 minutes long.

O Antiphons 2008: VII. O Emmanuel

December 23, 2008
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Gerusalemme liberata

December 22, 2008

Gerusalemme liberata (1581)
Torquato Tasso (Johns Hopkins, 2000; trans. Esolen)
502 p. First reading.

I sing the reverent armies, and that Chief
who set the great tomb of our Savior free;
much he performed with might and judgement, much
he suffered in the glorious victory;
in vain hell rose athwart his path, in vain
two continents combined in mutiny.
Heaven graced him with its favor, and restored
his straying men to the banner of the Lord.

So begins this wonderful epic poem about the battle for Jerusalem during the First Crusade.  Although not well known nor widely read today, it was not always so.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Gerusalemme liberata was a touchstone of European culture, with numerous paintings and at least ten operas (including those by major league composers like Monteverdi, Handel, Haydn, and Rossini) being based on its story.  It is easy to see why they found it such fertile dramatic ground, for it is full of marvelous characters, dashing romance and bravery, and many splendours.  Consisting of 15328 lines spread over 1916 8-line stanzas, it is epic in size as well as scope.

Nowadays when the Crusades are mentioned it is considered proper form to look at the ground, shuffle one’s feet, and mutter an apology, but Tasso will have none of it.  His tone is one of cheerful enjoyment of the adventure, and joyful appreciation of the courage, strength, and beauty of the warriors — on both sides of the struggle.  Indeed, while he naturally takes time to sing the virtues of Rinaldo, Tancredi, Godfrey, and the other Christian warriors, he is surprisingly lavish in his praise for Argante, Soliman, Armida, Clorinda, and other great Muslim champions.  This passage, which describes the approach of the two armies, gives a good feeling for his wide-eyed wonder at it all:

What a grand, wondrous thing it was to see
when front to front these two great armies struck –
in ordered ranks each marching company –
their trumpets blaring, summoning to attack,
with banners spread to the wind and streaming free,
and the plumes on their helmets’ crests blown back!
Armor and arms, insignias, colors bold
flashed in the sun in streaks of steel and gold.

The armies are now like a tall, dense forest,
they so abound with bristling spears held high;
the bows are drawn, the lances couched in rest,
the javelins shaken, slings ready to let fly;
and the horses too grow eager for the test,
confirm their riders’ rage as the camps draw nigh,
snorting and stamping, neighing, bucking round,
flaring their nostrils with fire at the trumpet’s sound.

Amid this beauty even horror is
beautiful, and with fear comes a delight,
and to the ear the sound is glad and fierce
from the terrifying trumpets blaring bright;
yet the army of the faithful, though the lesser,
appears more marvelous in sound and sight:
with clear and warlike songs their trumpets ring,
and brighter is the flash their weapons fling.

Though he has chosen an historical subject, and peopled the poem with some real historical figures, there is nothing slavish about his adherence to the strict historical truth, and nothing sober about his interpolations and additions.  The fantastic and the supernatural are here in abundance.  We read in fascination as our heroes encounter enchanted woods, wise old men, secret passageways, magical castles, prophecies, and all the trappings of romance and legend.  Magicians command demonic hordes and angels fight alongside the Christian army.  The central military story-line is generously supplemented with private romances and personal vendettas that add colour to the central characters.

Tasso writes self-consciously in the epic tradition, and is plainly aware of, though not evidently anxious about, the proximity of Homer and Virgil.  The excellent notes that accompany the poem indicate many points at which Tasso’s poem parallels or alludes to those earlier epics.  Epic has traditionally had nationalist connections; for both Homer and Virgil the poem is a story that brings unity to a people.  The fact that Tasso chose this subject at a time when European Christianity was crippling itself with internal divisions is probably not a coincidence.

This translation is by Anthony Esolen, whose translation of The Divine Comedy I have praised before.  He has aimed to provide a readable and natural English rendering, with as few archaisms and grammatical gymnastics as possible.  This has come at the expense of strict adherence to Tasso’s rhyme scheme in the Italian.  A Tasso-ian 8-line stanza has the rhyme pattern ABABABCC, but Esolen has committed himself only to XAXAXABB, though where possible, as in the poem’s final stanza

So Godfrey has attained the victory;
and leads, in the last light glowing in the west,
the victors into the city now set free
and to the place where Christ was laid to rest.
To the temple with the other chiefs goes he,
nor does he set aside his blood-stained vest.
He hangs his arms here; with devoted brow
adores the great tomb, and fulfills his vow.

he brings in the full complement of rhymes, to good effect.

For my own benefit, let me briefly note my favourite passages: Clorinda rescues Sophronia and Olindo (Canto 2), Armida seduces the Christian army (Canto 4), St. Michael fights alongside (Canto 9), Clorinda and Tancred in combat (Canto 12), the Christian army in the terrible heat (Canto 13), Charles and Ubaldo ride a magical ship to the Pleasant Isles (Canto 15), the final battle (Canto 18).

Esolen has called Gerusalemme liberata the greatest literary work of the Counter-Reformation, and I see no reason to deny it.  It is an enchanting poem.

[Gather your rosebuds while you may]
Look at the chaste and modest little rose
sprung from the green in her virginity!
Half open and half hid; the less she shows,
the less she shows to men, the lovelier she.
Now she displays her bold and amorous
bosom, and now she wilts, and cannot be
the same delight which was the longing of
a thousand girls and a thousand lads in love.

So passes, in the passing of a day,
the life of man, the fruit, the leaf, the flower;
spring may return, but these will pass away;
the green will fade, and youth will lose its power.
Gather the rose in the fresh of dawn today,
for this sweet time will only last an hour;
gather the rose of love as lovers do,
and love while you yourself can be loved too.
[16.14-15]

O Antiphons 2008: VI. O Rex Gentium

December 22, 2008
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

O Antiphons 2008: V. O Oriens

December 21, 2008
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
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