Archive for September, 2020

Carol of the Bell-thoven!

September 23, 2020

We all know the “Carol of the Bells”, that jaunty but insistent carol that scampers along too rapidly for most of us to sing it. The recurring riff goes like this:

Ding dong! Ding dong! This carol is on my mind because I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s string quartets, and, having reached the late quartets, I’ve been listening in particular to his quartet No.15, Op.132. In the final movement, there is a segment that comes up a few times in which this same riff occurs in the cello part:

Admittedly, it is not quite the same: the first quarter note in each bar of the carol is, in Beethoven, split into two eighth notes, but I don’t hear that. All I hear is the “Carol of the Bells”! I have to say that this is driving me crazy. It’s like finding a hook from a Taylor Swift song in the middle of a Mozart symphony.

If you’d like to hear it yourself, I’ve cued up the sequence in this clip. You should hear it within the first 10 seconds.

See what I mean? Even if one seems to hear words of good cheer from ev’rywhere, filling the air, it’s still annoying as all get out.

Heywood: A Woman Killed with Kindness

September 16, 2020

A Woman Killed with Kindness
Thomas Heywood
(Applause, 1967) [1603]
65 p.

Thomas Heywood was a somewhat younger contemporary of Shakespeare who had a long and successful career writing for the London stage. He claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a maine finger” in writing over 200 plays, but the one that has survived into anthologies of the period is this one, A Woman Killed with Kindness, a so-called “domestic tragedy”. (We have seen another example of this genre before, in Arden of Faversham.)


The main thread of the play is about a woman tempted into an infidelity who, when her deed is discovered, is unexpectedly forgiven by her husband, but who is nonetheless consumed with guilt and (spoiler alert) dies. A secondary plot concerns a man who commits murder but is then ransomed by a man desperately in love with his (the murderer’s) sister. The only way the killer can conceive to repay this debt is to offer his sister to the man as a prostitute — an offer she fights to resist.

It is, therefore, a play very much concerned with the demands of conscience, and in particular with what happens to conscience when one is forgiven or otherwise evades punishment. Theories of punishment are various, but the leading thread in the Western tradition is that punishment is first and foremost retributive — the punishment is not imposed on the wrongdoer as something alien to him, but rather the punishment is what he deserves; it is what is due to him in justice, and to deny it upsets the moral order and, paradoxically perhaps, insults the wrongdoer’s dignity as a free, responsible being.

The play endorses this view of punishment. When she succumbs to temptation and is unfaithful to her husband, our adulteress stops and, in what I think would be a dramatically effective move in the playhouse, addressed the audience directly:

O women, women, you that have yet kept
Your holy matrimonial vow unstained,
Make me your instance. When you tread awry,
Your sins like mine will on your conscience lie.
(Sc. 13)

She is burdened by the weight of what she has done. Her husband responds with leniency, so she undertakes to punish herself, voluntarily starving herself. Her death is the endpoint of the downward spiral she enters, and afterwards her sister-in-law attributes her demise precisely to the mercy shown her:

All we that can plead interest in her grief,
Bestow upon her body funeral tears.
Brother, had you with threats and usage bad
Punished her sin, the grief of her offence
Had not with such true sorrow touched her heart.

And the woman’s husband concurs:

I see it had not; therefore on her grave
I will bestow this funeral epitaph,
Which on her marble tomb shall be engraved,
In golden letters shall these words be filled:
“Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness killed.”
(Sc. 18)

This raises all kinds of difficult questions. The harmonization of justice and mercy has been a preoccupation of Christian moralists down the centuries. When Jesus showed mercy to the woman at the well he prevented her being stoned, but we are not led to believe that she then went to another well and threw herself in. We can at least say this: for mercy to be just, the weight of the sin cannot be downplayed. Grace ought not to be made cheap. One must stand condemned before one can be ransomed. The play is putting its fingers on that tough knot where conscience, justice, and forgiveness tangle together.

The verse of A Woman Killed with Kindness is not particularly excellent, but it does have its moments. There is a nice scene, for instance, in which the characters are discussing card games and, according to this volume’s notes, engaging simultaneously in a long sequence of puns about adultery. I also noted, which may be of interest to collectors of the provenance of proverbs, that the saying “When the cat’s away the mouse may play” occurs in this play — though I’ve no reason to think it originated here.

Happy birthday, Arvo Pärt

September 11, 2020

If my calculations are correct, today is the 85th birthday of my favourite living composer, Arvo Pärt. Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir — the world’s pre-eminent interpreter of Pärt’s choral music — singing his setting of Salve regina:

I don’t think that this piece is one of his most successful, but it does have its charms. In the liturgy this hymn is sung at the end of the day, and Pärt gives his setting a lovely, gentle rocking motion, a little like a lullaby. Its repose is disturbed only in the phrase “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus”, in which it rises rapturously to a climax before settling down again for the final three-fold invocation: O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria. It’s a better piece than I’ve heretofore given it credit for.

Happy birthday, dear Arvo Pärt.

Favourite films of the decade

September 8, 2020

Remember the 2010s? About nine months ago, at the turn of the new year, film buffs the world over were busily compiling lists of their favourite films of the decade that was. Even I, though but a middling buff, thought to do the same, but there was that handful of film I thought I’d like to see, or see again, before writing my list. Then 2020 happened, and that handful of films is still, for the most part, unseen by me.  Since the film-watching forecast doesn’t appear likely to change in the foreseeable future, I think the time is right to post my list and move on.

And so, here they are: my favourite films of the years 2010-2019.


1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprise here. Standing head and shoulders above anything else on this list is Terrence Malick’s magnificent The Tree of Life. My love for the film is unstinting. I have written appreciatively, and at moderate length, about it here.

I would go as far as to say this: if (and I emphasize if) the first century-or-so of cinema has produced anything worthy to rank with our greatest artistic achievements — we are moving here into the realm where we contemplate The Divine Comedy or King Lear or Don Giovanni or the Sistine Chapel or Apollo and Daphne — then I contend that among our leading candidates must be this film, which marshals all the many resources of the medium to explore the highest thoughts and the deepest reservoirs of memory and feeling. It is a film that traces the tendrils of regret and loss to the place, deep down, where they terminate in reconciliation and redemption. It is a film that not even the fortified immanent frame of modernity is able to contain, for no film has better apprehended the mystery of being. It is great in its many specific details — that house underwater, that cry of anguish, that homily, that dance, that light — and great in its vaulting ambition — that universe! The Tree of Life is a glorious, colossal masterpiece.


2. Arrival
(Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

When I praised Arrival on a previous occasion I described it as “a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie”, and I can’t improve on that. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric film, beautifully shot, and elevated by a superb lead performance from Amy Adams. I wish more science fiction films were as thoughtful and textured. I love the slow pacing, the nuts-and-bolts approach it takes to its subject matter, the dreamy cinematography, and the strong currents of feeling that it quietly cultivates. Acknowledging that it is first and foremost a worthy work of art, not a “message movie”, some readers might be interested to learn that it has a claim to be, by a considerable margin, the most subtle and unconventional and, arguably, the most powerful pro-life film of the decade.


3. Midnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

Comedies sometimes get short shrift when accolades are being dispensed, so I am happy to have two excellent examples on my list.  Midnight in Paris is that rare thing: a perfect romantic comedy, and, even better, one in which “romantic” can be taken in a wider sense than is usual. It’s a comedy about love, to be sure, but it’s also about the romance of Parisian streets, of midnight strolls, of magic, of wonder, and of dreams come to life.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to greater literary achievements, who has come to Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) on holiday. Gil feels as many North Americans do when they go to Europe: that its streets and sites are touched with the glory of those great men and women, his idols and heroes, who trod those stones before him. For Gil, Paris is perfumed with the memories of the golden age of the 1920s, when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein lived there. When, during one of his midnight walks, a 1920’s-vintage car rolls up to the curb and he is beckoned inside, he cannot resist, and so the delightful story unfolds…

The film is about nostalgia, its pleasures and its pitfalls, and is suffused with a spirit of humility and appreciation. Allen’s neuroses are present, but more moderate and winsome than usual. (It helps that Allen himself remains off-screen, although Wilson does a pretty decent imitation.) Is nostalgia a failure to face the world squarely? Is it possible to really love the past in a way that doesn’t distort it? Are we all prisoners of our own time? And, if so, what are we to do with our affection and admiration for times and places other than our own? Big questions, but handled with generosity and wit. It’s a golden film.


4. Brooklyn
(John Crowley, 2015)

Unlike some, or perhaps most, of the films on this list, Brooklyn has no grand ambitions and no particular sense of style. What it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan, playing a young Irish woman emigrating to New York in the 1950s, has a quiet but commanding presence, and that lilt is irresistible. I have a soft spot for stories about being away and returning home, and here, where it’s ambiguous whether Ireland or New York is home, that soft spot got prodded pretty often. It’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.


5. Love & Friendship
(Whit Stillman, 2016)

I’ve now seen Love & Friendship three times, and its charms have not faded. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter. It’s a film that has humour in its very bones, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, the music, and the tone. Everything works together.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially, with one notable exception, are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to his comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.


6. Gravity
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Action films are usually not quiet and slow enough for me, but I make an exception for this thrill ride, which opens with one of the greatest long takes in the history of cinema — 17 minutes of swirling, vertigo-inducing movie magic — and pursues its relentless way through a sea of troubles. The movie is like an arrow released from a bow: once begun, it stops at nothing until it reaches its target, and I can’t think of another action film that kept me on the edge of my seat so effectively. With just enough background to humanize the characters, and just enough symbolism to hint at deeper significance, I found it very satisfying, even on re-watch. Sandra Bullock, of all people, is terrific in the lead role, but the film really belongs to Cuarón.


7. Paterson
(Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Not everyone shares my liking for slow, quiet films, but I am optimistic that most people would appreciate Paterson, a slow, quiet film about a New Jersey bus driver with an avocation as a poet — or is it the other way around?  Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life. The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At the heart of the film is a beautiful portrait of Paterson’s marriage — a June and December marriage if there ever was one, but one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s an altogether lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart.


8. Phantom Thread
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. It is a love story, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. To be perfectly frank, it sickens and turns sour, leaving a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. But it appears on this list because I am trying to be honest, and nine-tenths of this were among the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft of the decade for me.


9. La La Land
(Damien Chazelle, 2016)

It’s a bittersweet picture; when first I saw it I tasted mostly the sweet, when next mostly the bitter, but in both cases I was left charmed and touched by this portrait of a pair whose course of love does not run smooth. Sebastian and Mia are caught between following their dreams and following their love. They can try to do both, but life is hard, and something has to give.

It’s a musical, of course, which adds a welcome splash of ebullience to what might otherwise be just sad, and the wonderful epilogue rings all the emotional changes you could wish for. It left me teary-eyed and elated, and that is a rare feat.


10. Personal Shopper
(Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Competition for this tenth spot on the list has been fierce. Bloodied and beaten films lie askew on the field, but rising slowly to its feet in their midst, a look of grim triumph on its face, is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, an alluring film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. Part ghost story, part study in grief, and part existential mystery, it makes it to this list mostly on the strength of several sequences that I simply haven’t been able to get out of my mind. I don’t think any other film I saw this decade involved me quite so thoroughly in its perplexing details, or provoked me to quite so many frame-by-frame re-examinations of particular scenes. It’s far from being a perfect film, and is in some respects downright vexing, but curiously satisfying too.


Honourable mentions: A Hidden Life (2019); Sudoeste (2012); Parasite (2019); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); First Reformed (2017); A Ghost Story (2017); La Sapienza (2014); Knight of Cups (2016); Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Animated: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); 24 Frames (2017); Winnie the Pooh (2011).

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go (2010); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014); A Quiet Place (2018).

Action: Inception (2013) ; Dunkirk (2017); Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Horror: The Witch (2015); It Follows (2014); The Conjuring (2013).

Documentaries: Tim’s Vermeer (2013); The Act of Killing (2012); They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).


Comments welcome!

Cicero: On Obligations

September 4, 2020

On Obligations
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 2000) [44 BC]
lx + 218 p.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in March of 44 BC, Cicero retired from Rome to wait out the political turmoil. For the previous few years he had been writing a series of broadly philosophical works, and he used his time in the country to continue that effort. This book, De officiis, was written in the autumn of 44 BC, and is addressed to Cicero’s son (also named Marcus Tullius Cicero).

For this volume P.G. Walsh has translated the title as “On Obligations”; sometimes it is called “On Duties”. The subject is moral obligation: what actions are required of us, particularly as concerns duties to fellow citizens and to the state? He structures much of the book to follow the treatment given this same subject by a Greek Stoic called Panaetius, who had lived a few generations earlier. As usual, Cicero sees himself as a conduit through whom Greek ideas can be made available to Romans.

The central dichotomy that structures the book is that between what is honourable or virtuous, on the one hand, and what is useful or expedient, on the other. Cicero is in the tradition of both natural law (“nature is the basis of law”) and virtue ethics. By “honourable” he means consistent with the virtues of justice, prudence, magnanimity, and self-control. (Note the interesting departure from the canonical list of cardinal virtues.) He compares these virtues, discusses their application using a variety of examples, emphasises the need for our actions to be governed by reason, and prioritises those to whom we have duties — in his mind, first to the gods, then to the country, then to parents, and then to others. Oddly, considering to whom he is writing, he doesn’t talk about obligations to one’s children.

Under the banner of “the useful”, he focuses mainly on means of gaining influence with others, through gift-giving, public service, and good counsel. His main purpose is to counter the view that what is useful is in conflict with what is honourable. On the contrary, he argues that the two are properly inseparable: what is dishonourable or unvirtuous cannot be really expedient except in an inappropriately narrow sense. (Sure, cheating my rival might seem to be expedient for some reason, but by doing so I would harm my soul and put myself in peril of the law, which would not be expedient in the long term.)

The final section of the book examines cases in which virtue and expediency seem to be in conflict. Is it acceptable to conceal the defects in something you are selling? Must we always keep our promises? Throughout, consistent with his leading principle, he concludes that the usefulness of unvirtuous acts is illusory. His great exemplar of an honourable man is Regulus, who kept his word and served the interests of Rome rather than his own.


To my mind, De officiis seems a fairly minor work of moral philosophy. Whatever value it has in articulating the foundations of moral conduct or for explaining the virtues would seem to be eclipsed by, for example, Aristotle’s Ethics. (I do not know if Aristotle’s works were known to Cicero.) Its content is sound, and its leading idea — that what is virtuous cannot truly conflict with what is expedient — is noble, but the idea is more asserted than argued. Likewise, the important idea that a common moral framework can be based on our common human nature is simply stated, rather than defended. Moreover, the book has a somewhat rambling manner, with asides and comments to his son included in the main line of the discussion. And whatever glories the original Latin prose may possess did not survive this translation to English.

But history has judged De officiis more kindly than I have; the book has been immensely popular over the ages. Pliny the Elder apparently counseled that it should be read daily until it was committed to memory. Christian writers appropriated it, and St. Ambrose even wrote his own De officiis based on Cicero’s. It often formed part of the curriculum for medieval schoolmen, and Aquinas cites it several times in his treatise on the virtues in the Summa Theologiae. Cicero’s classification of dishonourable acts influenced Dante’s structure of hell in Inferno. During the Renaissance it was Cicero’s most widely read book; both Erasmus and Melancthon prepared editions of it, and it was the good angel to Machiavelli’s bad in The Prince. Traces of Cicero’s influence run through Hume and Kant, but in the nineteenth century the popularity of his philosophical writings faded, and the popularity of De officiis with it. I cannot say I lament its late fortunes, although its value would be markedly greater were we suddenly bereft of the tradition to which it partly gave rise. Its sons were greater than it.