Archive for March, 2011

Comedy on film

March 29, 2011

It seems that it has been a long time since I saw a good comedy on film. Good comedies, I know, are rare, but at least part of the seeming scarcity might be attributed to my sweeping ignorance of good films in general, comedies included. I love to have a good belly laugh, and I wish I knew more comedies that could provoke one.

May I ask your advice? I would very much like to hear about your favourite comedies, with perhaps a word or two (or not) about why you like them. For the record, my favourite comedies to date are probably these, each of which I can watch again and again in a spirit of contented delight:

That list is in alphabetical, not ranked, order, but it is fitting that Groundhog Day is at the top, for it is my overall favourite, and the only film on the list that qualifies as deep comedy. As is evident, I am not a great enthusiast for black (that is, dark) comedy; Fargo, as great as it is, was left off intentionally. I want to laugh heartily, not uneasily.

I have only just now realized that The Hudsucker Proxy is a Coen Brothers film. I had no idea. And it was co-written by Sam Raimi. No wonder I like it so much.

Note that the oldest film on the list is Spinal Tap, from 1984. This reflects my general ignorance of, and slight allergy to, older films. I have tried Dr. Strangelove, and I have tried Blazing Saddles, and I just couldn’t get through them. It’s my fault. I am willing to try others.


Steiner: Nostalgia for the Absolute

March 28, 2011

Nostalgia for the Absolute
George Steiner (CBC Publications, 1974)
61 p.

These were Steiner’s Massey Lectures, given in 1974. The basic argument he presents can be briefly stated: despite the waning influence of religion in Western culture, the secular would-be substitutes for Christianity, which he calls “mythologies” on account of their world-defining ambitions, are nonetheless constructed in its image. They owe more to it than they would like to admit.

“The major mythologies constructed in the West since the early nineteenth century are not only attempts to fill the emptiness left by the decay of Christian theology and Christian dogma. They are themselves a kind of substitute theology. They are systems of belief and argument which may be savagely anti-religious, which may postulate a world without God and may deny an afterlife, but whose structure, whose aspirations, whose claims on the believer, are profoundly religious in strategy and in effect.” [emphasis in original]

This unconscious aping of the model set by Christianity he attributes to a “nostalgia for the absolute”.

The particular “secular religions” under consideration are Marxism, Freudianism, and the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss. All, says Steiner, are deeply involved with myth and myth-making, and the thought of each pivots around analogues of the Fall, original sin, and salvation. Each offers a vision of the nature and history of man against an eschatological horizon. Each spawned a kind of church, as well, with foundational texts, standards of orthodoxy, interpretative disagreements, and consequent anathemas.

The receding tide of religious faith has also let the riff-raff loose on our Dover Beach, and Steiner devotes a chapter of the book to the many varieties of pseudo-science and the occult that have found space to build their little castles in the sand. Alien abductions, clairvoyance, astrology, and the whole rich stew of such things are, to his thinking, especially inept but telling responses to the weakening cultural authority of the Christian religion.

In his closing pages Steiner argues that all of these attempts to supplant religion have been inadequate. The only body of thought that he believes capable of succeeding in this mighty endeavor is science itself, and, in particular, he contends that only the selfless devotion to truth that animates scientific practice can possibly serve as an adequately defensible moral ground for secular life. But this vision too (he rightly acknowledges) is troubled. For all of its many great successes, the scope of science is — and, there is reason to think, always will be — too narrow to really serve as the principal foundation for society. This is precisely why Marxism and Freudianism, for instance, arose. Each claimed for itself the mantle of science, and cloaked itself in scientific language, but in substance neither was actually scientific, because the deep issues each addressed were not amenable to scientific treatment.

Furthermore, although a devotion to truth might well serve as a personal foundation for something like a religious life, it is far from clear, worries Steiner, that it can serve as a cultural foundation, and this is so because, apart from the Christian religion, we have little grounds for supposing that truth is allied with goodness and beauty. Jesus said that the truth would make us free, but is that true apart from the truth that he proclaimed? Might it be that the truth about us, as revealed by a materialist science, destroys our belief in human freedom, or in human equality, or in morality, or in the meaningfulness of goodness, beauty, and – yes – even truth and reason? If this is so, we cannot afford to be devoted to science above all else.

While this last reflection is, in my opinion, worth thinking over long into the night, I am not sure I can say the same for the earlier argument that Steiner presents: namely, that a notable feature of modern ideologies is their similarity to Christianity. Perhaps he has a point when he considers the content of these ideologies, but he is less convincing when drawing structural parallels between the two. True, these secular movements formed around important texts, and different schools of thought emerged, and there was in-fighting, and so on. This bears a broad resemblance to Christianity, I suppose, but, ask yourself, how else could things have been? In a literate culture books are obviously important, and clarity about ideas is an abiding passion of the West, as is a devotion to the principle of non-contradiction. These facts are enough to account for the basic structural features of the intellectual and social movements under consideration. The claim, therefore, that these “secular religions” are structural copies of Christianity appears to put the emphasis in the wrong place.

Feast of the Annunciation, 2011

March 25, 2011

Great moments in opera: La Fille du Régiment

March 24, 2011

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment is one of those diverting comedies that the Italian bel canto did so well. (Don’t let the fact that it is sung in French confuse you; this is Italian all the way down.) It is full of beautiful melodies and virtuoso showpieces, requiring two top-shelf talents in the lead roles.

The story, very briefly, is as follows. A young woman, Marie, abandoned as an infant and discovered by a military regiment, has been brought up in their care as the “daughter of the regiment”. She cooks and cleans for her “fathers”, and sings their regimental song with great virtuosity, to their paternal delight. It is intended that she should eventually marry one of the members of the regiment, though exactly who shall be her husband has not been decided. Enter Tonio, a handsome young man who falls in love with her, and, learning of the marriage arrangement, joins the regiment in order to qualify for her hand. It’s a love story, in other words. There is a sub-plot that brings a surprise at the end, but for me the heart of the opera is the romance.

All of the clips below are from a recent production starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. That is a dream team the likes of which does not come around very often. I am sometimes not enthusiastic about Dessay, but in this role she is terrific. Flórez, for his part, — well, more about him in a few moments.

Here is Marie singing the regimental song, an aria called Chacun le sait, chacun le dit. I have seen a few different productions, and in this scene the soprano is apparently encouraged to improvise quite extensively. Dessay’s is the best that I have seen; she is very funny and has plenty of spunk. English subtitles included.

At the end of Act I comes a sad song, sung again by Marie, lamenting the fact that she must leave both her beloved regiment and her beloved Tonio — for reasons related to the sub-plot. The aria, called Il faut partir, is incredibly lovely, and I can tell you that when I was watching this opera on DVD at home I began to applaud, there, in the middle of the kitchen, when the aria was finished. It’s a fine, fine performance. (A higher quality version, though without subtitles, is here.)

Now for Juan Diego Flórez. There is a very famous aria called Ah, mes amis that puts the fear of God into any tenor who sings this role. During the course of the aria he is required to sing not one, and not two, but nine high Cs. Pavarotti did it, with room to spare, in a famous Metropolitan Opera performance opposite Joan Sutherland, and it made him a star. And now Juan Diego Flórez is doing it too. Here he is, making it seem easy:

Before I sat down to watch La Fille du Regiment this week, I didn’t know much about it apart from a few famous arias. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a good-natured, very amusing story with a sweet romance at its center, and the music cheers the heart. I could imagine taking my teenaged daughter — not now, you understand, but later, when I have one — to see it at the opera house. It is made to please.

Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

March 19, 2011

Barnaby Rudge
Or, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty
Charles Dickens (Oxford, 1991) [1841]
660 p.

Having been forewarned that Barnaby Rudge was one of Dickens’ lesser works, I approached it with relatively low expectations. Perhaps partly for that reason, I found it pleasantly surprising and quite enjoyable. It is a “serious” novel, dealing with weighty and often dark themes; it contains an unusually large amount of unusually frank violence; the arc of the story culminates at a gibbet. And yet at the heart of the novel there is romance and a good deal of Dickensian humour, and it seems to me that those lighter, warmer elements carry the day.

It is an historical novel, which is a rarity for Dickens. In the background of the story — and in the foreground, too, to a considerable extent — are the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which, in response to a Parliamentary act repealing certain of the penalties that had been imposed on Catholics a century earlier, a Protestant mob under the leadership of Lord George Gordon wreaked havoc in the streets of London for the better part of a week, tearing down Catholic chapels, firing homes and public buildings, and battering down prisons. I have a special interest in the plight of Catholics in post-Henrician England, but I confess that I knew nothing about the Gordon Riots — not even that they had happened; for me, learning about this episode in English history was reason enough to read the book. Dickens was, of course, himself a Protestant, but he has no sympathy for the rioters. He paints them as opportunists and criminals who, for the most part, care neither for Protestantism or Catholicism, but who relish a good street fight and an easy robbery.

The riots are the focus of the novel’s middle and final acts; it opens with a more conventional Dickensian scheme of young romances fighting against the obstacles bestrewing the course of true love. Here again, as he did so splendidly in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens gives us rousing portraits, in the persons of Joe Willet and Edward Chester, of virtuous and honourable young men, and, in Dolly Varden (“sweet, blooming, buxom”) and Emma Haredale, suitably attractive, demure, and faithful young women. The romance between Dolly and Joe is especially winsomely drawn; both are shy and inexperienced, and their love is conveyed obliquely, through dropped utensils, tangled shoe strings, and sideways glances. It’s lovely:

And did Dolly never once look behind—not once? Was there not one little fleeting glimpse of the dark eyelash, almost resting on her flushed cheek, and of the downcast sparkling eye it shaded? Joe thought there was—and he is not likely to have been mistaken; for there were not many eyes like Dolly’s, that’s the truth.

The fact that the Gordon Riots interrupt these sweet adventures in mid-stream does, admittedly, give the novel an awkward shape, even if the threads are eventually drawn together again and tied into pretty bows. Personally I did not mind, as I found the historical material engrossing, but the apparent disjointedness might account for the novel’s relative lack of popularity.

Another possible reason for Barnaby Rudge‘s neglect may have to do with Barnaby Rudge himself. He is, or is at least supposed to be, a sympathetic character: a young man who is, as we say, ‘touched’. His joys are simple; guile is far from him — so far, in fact, that he cannot recognize it in others. But there are a few problems. His character is not developed very thoroughly; he is, as Chesterton says in his typically enlightening introductory notes to the novel, an exercise in the picturesque: an eccentric young man, bedecked in bright colours and feathers, with a big black crow on his shoulder. He is almost more effective (and affective) as a still life. His tender-hearted mother fares better, but even with her example I found it difficult to really care for him.

A second problem with Barnaby is that, in his simplicity, he is caught up with the rioters and commits acts that strain our sympathy up to, and possibly past, the breaking point. I understand that we are to understand that he does not understand what he is doing, or at least does not understand the moral merits of the two sides of the conflict in which he is involved, and that this understanding is to soften our disapprobation and excite our pity. But, for me at least, the monumental obtuseness which I was thereby forced to attribute to him was asking too much.

This is not to deny that there are real and considerable pleasures to be found in these pages: valour, courage, virtue rewarded, wickedness punished, and sparkling, dark eyes. It is a fine book.

(Incidentally, March 19 is a date that pops up several times in the course of the novel; that I post this Book Note today is a nice coincidence — or is it?)

On screen: Hamlet (2000)

March 16, 2011

Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Ethan Hawke, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, and others.
Miramax Films (2000); 112 min.

Being a rather stodgy curmudgeon (that is, of conservative temperament) I normally prefer traditional productions of Shakespeare to modernizations, but this modernized version of Hamlet is one of my favourite Shakespearean film adaptations, and is certainly my favourite film version of this play. (The only other versions that I have seen, mind you, are Branagh’s and Zeffirelli’s.) It is a sleek, brisk telling of the story, clocking in comfortably under two hours, but it makes a remarkably strong impression, even considering its rather subdued tonal palette.

First, the gimmick: this Hamlet is not Prince of Denmark, but of Denmark Corporation, and Claudius is not king, but CEO. The whole film is set amid the glass-and-steel towers of a modern urban core; closed circuit cameras allow characters to watch one another; messages are dispatched through fax machines; Hamlet goes to England on an airplane; and, in a memorable sequence, he recites the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy while wandering up and down the aisles at a Blockbuster video store.

Director Michael Almereyda justifies the peculiar setting by doing some interesting things with it. Most obviously, he saturates Hamlet’s environment with images of himself — in mirrors, reflective glass windows, video cameras — which is a nice visual means of illustrating, and even augmenting, his morbid self-reflection. The cold, inhuman landscape of office towers has an alien, and alienating, feel to it, which contributes something fitting to the mood of the play.

The cast is pretty good. Bill Murray, as Polonius, lets me down a little; I always think of Richard Briers in this role (from Branagh’s film), and Murray lacks something in comparison. Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles, as Laertes and Ophelia, are very good. Pity the actor who has to play the prince, but Ethan Hawke is good for the role: he can, at the least, tell a hawke from a handsawe. He plays the role with a ruminative quality somewhere between apathy and stunned insensibility; several of his soliloquies are delivered as quiet, half-mumbled voice-overs. In his performance (and actually this is characteristic of the film as a whole) the emotional outbursts are kept to a minimum, adding extra punch to those that do happen. Overall, Hawke’s Hamlet comes across as something like a disaffected fledgling intellectual, ready with facile rejoinders and distracting syllogisms, and weary of the world. This is a legitimate interpretation; Hamlet is a university student, after all. Mercifully, there is little attempt in this film to honour the ‘Oedipal Hamlet’ theory.

The short playing time means that, inevitably, a considerable amount of material has been cut. Most serious is the deletion of the grave-digger scene (we are compensated, wittily but insufficiently, by a brief shot of a grave-digger gaily singing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”); the associated scene of Ophelia’s burial is correspondingly much modified. The riskiest interpretive decision made by Almereyda is surely his having Gertrude intentionally drink the poison at play’s end; her motivation for doing so is, I confess, quite unclear to me.

For the most part, however, the screenplay does justice to each of the central characters and to the play itself. This film had a limited theatrical release, earning only about two million dollars at the box office, so I believe that many people will not have seen it. If you enjoy Shakespeare on film, I recommend this adaptation; I am not aware of many that are better.

I saw a sign

March 15, 2011

I wonder what it says in Arabic?

This is a restaurant that recently opened in our neighbourhood. In fairness, I tasted the food and it is not only quite authentic, but tastes excellent as well.


March 13, 2011

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?

(From Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert)

Sunday night music in the air

March 13, 2011

King’s X is one of those rare things: an art-rock hard-rock band. (I am not distracted by the “artsy” prog-rock bands of the 1970s; I mean real art-rock.) They have been around now for almost twenty-five years, doing yeoman’s labour on the shady side of the spotlight, with a rather small but loyal following. There are just three people in the band, but each is an artist — not to mention a virtuoso — and they make beautiful sounds together.

Their first record was 1988’s Out of the Silent Planet, and for the next few albums they went from strength to strength.  In my opinion their strongest record was 1992’s faith hope love, which, with its thoughtful lyrics, gorgeous guitar work, textured percussion, and close, three-part harmonies, is some kind of miracle. Their music became more aggressive and, to my ears, less focused on subsequent records, and I confess that I haven’t kept track of them very closely for the past six or eight years. I wonder what I’m missing?

My favourite King’s X song is “Over My Head”, from their sophomore record Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. If only all rock ‘n’ roll were this joyous!

A live action video is here, but unfortunately it is not embeddable.

Great moments in opera: Jenůfa

March 11, 2011

After my underwhelming experience with The Cunning Little Vixen I nonetheless decided to try another of Janáček’s operas, and I turned to Jenůfa, written twenty years earlier. I listened to a very well-regarded recording led by Charles MacKerras, and I viewed a performance on DVD as well.

Jenůfa makes a sharp contrast with The Cunning Little Vixen, as it turns out. Whereas the latter was a barnyard fable full of fantastic effects, Jenůfa is a strictly, even grimly, realistic story. It is disturbing and dark, pivoting around an infanticide. Janáček doesn’t allow the darkness to completely overwhelm the opera though; before the curtain falls there are some few glimmers of light edging in around the corners. It is not finally a work of despair.

The opera’s subject matter, though undoubtedly upsetting, is not gratuitous. The infanticide that is the story’s central tragedy comes about not out of madness or bloodlust, but simply from an understandable desire to safeguard the mother’s future happiness, to which the child has become an obstacle. Everyone’s motives are, in a sense, admirable, yet this dead child is the result. In her defence, Jenůfa herself does not desire the death of her child; the act is done by her step-mother without her knowledge or consent. But, despite that difference, the parallels with our time are obvious enough. In this respect, the horror of Janáček’s drama can show us our own faces.

Musically Jenůfa bears a certain resemblance to The Cunning Little Vixen: it is through-composed, with little, if anything, that could be regarded as a conventional operatic aria. There are few big tunes to catch the ear. His setting of the (Czech) text is largely syllabic, perhaps in an attempt to give the music the rhythms of speech. The orchestral writing is lush and frequently beautiful. I actually enjoyed listening to the opera more than watching it because I found I could concentrate more easily on the orchestra’s contribution.

My favourite section of the opera is, rather unexpectedly, a setting of the Salve Regina (Zdrávas královno, in Czech). It is sung by Jenůfa during the opera’s middle act, as she awakes from sleep and prays for the protection of her infant child. In context the prayer is troubled by a dark irony, known to the audience, that the child has been killed while she slept, but as an expression of a mother’s love poured out in prayer and song, it is wonderfully effective on its own terms.

(I was unable to find a clip of this section, so I made my own. This is my first attempt to make a video to accompany a piece of music; granted that it is quite rudimentary, I nonetheless think that it turned out fairly well. The part of Jenůfa is sung here by Elisabeth Söderström. The commotion at the end heralds the tragic news of her son’s death.)

That is stunning. A more typical example is provided by the following scene, which closes the opera. The scene begins with Jenůfa’s step-mother, Kostelnička, confessing to the murder of the child; as she does so, the other principals — Števa, the father of the child, and Laca, Jenůfa’s fiancé — realize that they too bear some responsibility for the baby’s death. When Kostelnička is led away, Jenůfa is left alone with Laca, and a moment of tenderness and reconciliation closes the opera. Jenůfa is sung by Anja Silja; English subtitles are included.