Monday, January 29, 2007

Lefty Snarkiness, continued

By Mitchell

I don't want to put too fine a point on this because, frankly, I have better things to do. But I wanted to add a couple of thoughts to what Drew and I have said earlier on this subject. The first has to do with Drew's point about childishness.

Drew sent me a link to this review by Susie Currie from The Weekly Standard of Christopher Noxon's book, Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grownup. The "rejuvenile" - someone who cultivates the tastes and mindsets of a much younger person - is the coming thing: according to Noxon, "[t]he most watched cable station among 18-to-34 year olds isn't CNN--it's CN, as in Cartoon Network." Skateboards, stickball, video games; they're all trademarks of behavior by those of whom we once would have said, "they're old enough to know better."

Remember when you used to tell someone to "act their age"? They used to get mad at you, it being considered an insult to accuse a person of childishness. Now, I suppose they'd laugh about it - they might even be proud. So I guess we shouldn't be surprised when we read juvenile tripe from writers like William K. Wolfrum. (I've read some of Wolfrum's other columns by the way, like the one wondering who was more dominating - Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or a woman who's apparently a known dominatrix. I'd guess his column on Limbaugh is pretty typical of what he's capable of.) As I've said before, I'm sure these guys think they're being very clever.

And now a thought of my own. We had dinner with some friends over the weekend and I asked the husband, who's a pretty knowledgeable guy about these sorts of things, why it was that so many people, especially on the left, seemed to be obsessed with writing such vituperative stuff, even when it was self-defeating to their own cause. He thought there were a couple of reasons; first, that they're mostly preaching to the lefty choir, who feeds on this kind of thing like sharks at a blood bank. They love this red meat talk, and they just pass it around among themseves, to keep their spirits up I suppose. They're almost cannibals of civility.

For the rest of the explanation he cited Arthur Brooks' new book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Brooks' thesis is that social conservatives really do give more than liberals. According to Brooks, in this review by Frank Brieaddy of Religion News Service,

The book's basic findings are that conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don't provide them with enough money.

My friend's conclusion: it's just possible that liberals write and talk the way they do simply because they're nastier people, and this kind of thing comes more naturally to them. Without the moral foundation that grounds social conservatives, liberals have fewer restraints, less of a sense of civility or charity towards others.

I should add here, in the interests of full disclosure, that I know some very liberal people who are the nicest, most generous people you could imagine; I also know some conservatives, religious people even, who can be very uncharitable. (Read the combox at any major Catholic blog site for evidence of that.) But as a broad generalization I think there's a lot to what my friend is saying.

And so perhaps we know more about why things are they way they are, even if we're not sure what to do about it. It may be wrong to stereotype, but we can only know someone by what they show us in public. As the old saying goes, "if the shoe fits,"...

The lefty bloggers like Wolfrum have a chance to prove us wrong, if they can. If they're not too busy being oh so hip and cool to care, that is.

The Art of Cruelty

By Drew

I’ve had some time to think about about Mitchell’s piece last week on the Limbaugh flap and how nastiness seems to be an accepted way of business in the blogosphere. It made Mitchell made, and it made me mad, too. Mitchell talks about its counterproductively in terms of how it alienates the reader, but I’d like to look at it from another angle, another type of alienation.

I got to thinking about it from the second reading in yesterday's mass, Paul's familiar First Letter to the Corinthians. Depending on how many weddings you go to, it might be a little too familiar, but worth pondering anyway:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

I was prompted toward this train of thought by Terry Teachout's recent excerpted quote from Marta Zahaykevich's “Critical Perspectives on Adult Women’s Development”:

"Love and work are viewed and experienced as totally separate activities motivated by separate needs. Yet, when we think about it, our common sense tells us that our most inspired, creative acts are deeply tied to our need to love and that, when we lack love, we find it difficult to work creatively; that work without love is dead, mechanical, sheer competence without vitality, that love without work grows boring, monotonous, lacks depth and passion."

So here we see the intimate connection between work and love. And it shouldn't be a surprise; we often admire those who have a passion for their work, and we seem too often today to connect the words passion and love. But even though I'm taking Zahaykevich's words slightly out of context, the point is still clear. "[w]ork without love is dead, mechanical, sheer competence without vitality."

Much of the snarkiness on the internet, and life in general, comes masked in the guise of humor. Sometimes it's actually presented as "humor"; most of the time it's usually the speaker or writer who fancies himself humorous, or at the very least as clever as clever can be. And one of my favorite forms of humor is satire (always a favorite on this blog). Satire is a difficult form of humor, though; more difficult than most people think. And so what one person cleverly thinks of as biting satire is most often heavy-handed witlessness; cruelty rather than subtlety. But to consider humor is to continue with the train of thought I've started.

Why is it that so many comedians are applauded for their jokes, rather than greeted with laughter? So often nowadays ideology has replaced humor as the benchmark of a comedian’s success. The audience applauds to indicate agreement with the comic’s expression, but they don’t laugh.

Now, it’s been my experience that most people can’t keep themselves from laughing at something that is truly funny. Try as they might, it’s going to slip out somehow. Conversely, the ordinary person has a really hard time forcing a laugh at something that isn’t funny. They might master the polite chuckle, the hearty guffaw that seems just a little too forced, but it’s rare to perfect a truly convincing fake laugh. Laughter is one of our most genuine, and least forced, emotions.

So it’s not that the audience tries to suppress their laughter in favor of a more respectful expression of their approval. They applaud the comic because they agree with his ideological point of view, but they don’t laugh because it isn’t funny. And therefore it becomes ever easier for the would-be comedian to sacrifice genuine humor in the search for the easier goal of approval. When you're speaking to a group of like-minded thinkers, approval is a whole lot easier to get.

"When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways."

As Joseph Epstein remarks in the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard,

I also grew up at a time when the goal was to be adult as soon as possible, while today - the late 1960s is the watershed moment here - the goal has become to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. The consequences of this for the culture are enormous. That people live longer only means that they fee they can remain kids longer: uncommitted to marriages, serious work, life itself. Adolescence has been stretched out, at least, into one's 30s, perhaps one's early 40s.

Back before the word “childish” got such a bad rap, it had a more practical application. Until early Christianity softened the attitude, children tended to be seen as miniature adults, measured in terms of the potential they suggested, the utility they could provide to the family and the society at large. To accuse one of being “childish,” therefore, was a practical judgment, suggesting a waste of that potential, a failure to live up to the hopes that one might have carried for that person.

And it is such a waste of potential – an immaturity in that gift – to squander it with excesses, with cruelty and derision, with that wanton craving to inflict pain and scorn. Snarkiness is the snack food that eventually starves creativity. Only when invested with love – love for God, love for fellow man, love even for the very act of writing – can the art that is implied in the talent of the writer truly come to a mature fruition.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for satire, for sarcasm, for the hard truths that sometimes can only be expressed through the absurd. This blog often specializes in that kind of thing. But it does mean that we have to examine our motivations, the development of our thought, the way in which we use our gifts. Do we use them to educate, to enlighten, to help others? Or do we use them to score the cheap shot, the rapier that draws a thin bead of blood across the cheek of our dueling opponent? As clichéd as Paul's letter may be, there's another saying that's just as clichéd, and just as true: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Writers like William K. Wolfrum and Mike Freeman (and yes, even Limbaugh at times) contribute mightily to the problem, but not so much as I see it to the solution.

And so I think this brings us back around to the beginning.

Can art truly ever reach its potential without love? Can a work that is filled with hate, scorn, the impulse and desire to dehumanize – can it ever rise above the status of mere infatuation? A dalliance, a trifling, junk food that temporarily sates the senses, but leaves one hungrier than ever in the long run.

The freedoms that we profess to cherish (unless they’re exercised by someone who disagrees with us) – freedom of speech, of thought, of action – are not entitlements but rights given to us by a God Who created us with free will, rights which beget responsibilities.

The ability to write, or paint, or sculpt or make movies or any of the other talents and skills which fall generally under the category of “art” is a gift. And therefore we have the responsibility, to God and to everyone, to exercise those rights in a reasonable manner. We have responsibilities to ourselves as well, however: the responsibility to be a good steward of those gifts which we have been given.

To the extent that we ignore those responsiblities, squander those gifts, we sink deeper into an alienation from God, an alienation from common decency, an alienation from our very humanity. That presents us with the problem and the solution. Which one do you choose?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Opera Thursday

By Drew

Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry for my absence recently; hopefully I'll be a little more consistent in the new year. Let's start it off with some opera.

Staging an opera is a tricky thing. The easiest way to get attention for it is by doing it poorly, and doing it poorly is easy enough. (If you need further evidence, check out this.) Which is why I found Robert Reilly's recent Crisis article so interesting.

Back when I subscribed to Crisis (or crisis, as they put it), Reilly's monthly music column was one of the highlights of the magazine (along with Terry Teachout's movie reviews). Reilly's criticism was lively, educational, and usually took into consideration the world outside of art. And this is evident in his December review of productions of two operas, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich. Both operas received unconventional staging, and in both operas Reilly found something more to the story, something that told a far different story on a far larger stage. His opening paragraphs set the tone:

However, my first destination was Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a non-musical conference. There, I was told that 13 Slovenes die each day, while only nine are born. With a population of fewer than 2 million, Slovenia—the most prosperous region of the former Yugoslavia—is disappearing. Of course, the rest of Europe, old as well as new, is going with it. Why?

This is not a question I thought I would be addressing in an opera review. However, I saw the two operas mentioned with this question subliminally haunting me. As it turns out, they provided some insights into possible answers, because both dealt with disordered passions. Both featured heroines bathed in blood from the murder of their husbands, with whom they had fruitless unions. There are, so to speak, incipient population crises in both Lucia and Lady Macbeth if one extrapolates from their central premises. While this is hardly the point of either opera, it is nonetheless the result.

First up is Lucia, Donizetti's ttory of young love gone awry, with one of the truly great mad scenes in the annals of opera. Donizetti set it in the 17th century, but this production is transferred to a 19th century gymnasium. What were they thinking? you might ask. Well, whether it worked or not, they were at least thinking of something:

The military gym was festooned with ropes hanging from the ceiling, benches, and pommel horses. When Lucia entered with her maid, she began playing with these in a frolicsome, highly athletic way. One bench was placed over another and used as a teeter-totter. The ropes were made into a swing in which Lucia, played by French soprano Natalie Dessay, swung out over the orchestra pit. How distracting, I thought at first. However, the precariousness of what she was doing, while singing some very difficult arias, was clearly meant to convey Lucia’s immaturity. The same perspective was provided for Edgardo. The lesson was that extremes of passion are a product of immaturity and cannot provide the foundation for a future.

I can respect that, although to me it seems a little too precious. I understand that opera stories are often ridiculous enough, especially in bel canto. Sometimes you have to provide an explanation that makes the story more palatable for contemporary audiences who might have trouble enough following the mercurial mood swings that often appear in opera libretti. But at some point enough is enough, and you have to let the music tell the story. Did this production cross the line? Reilly thought not, but in reading his review I'm still not quite sure.

Of the two, I suspect I would have found the staging in Lady Macbeth more convincing. Shostakovich wrote the opera in 1936, setting it in 1860s Russia. For this production, originated in 2004 by Robert Jones, the setting has been transferred to the 1950s. Unlike some stagings where the producer takes liberties with the original setting, this seems less a gimmick, more an attempt to draw out an underlying theme of the story. As Reilly puts it,

Jones used the 1950s as a setting to reinforce the banality, the falseness, the disposability of everything. It also raised the interesting question as to whether Shostakovich himself would have set it in this era if he could have gotten away with it. Would he have shown it taking place in the Soviet Union rather than Nikolai Leskov’s short-story setting of 1860s Russia?

Even as it was, Shostakovich was taking a chance in telling this story, which he claimed was a “tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia.” Reilly points out that the setting could easily have been different:

Change that to: the destiny of a country, Russia, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of the Soviet Union, and we get closer to what we are shown. In 1936, it is lucky that the offended Stalin left the opera early and that all he heard was “noise instead of music,” as announced in Pravda several days later. Otherwise, had he seen it to the end, he would have probably killed Shostakovich for this subversive work.

There's more to this story, as there is to Lucia - rampant animal passions, betrayal, suicide and death. The stuff of operas. Ordinarily I'm pretty much a stickler for "original intent," whether we're talking about the U.S. Constitution or the stage instructions of a composer. However, in this case the changes seem less capricious and more an attempt to address the issues intended by the composer, to perhaps bring out an aspect that the composer himself was unable to clearly define at the time.

Ultimately the performance is the thing, and the question is whether the staging enhances the performance or distracts from it. In the case of Lucia, I suspect I would have been more distracted than Reilly was. It seems to me a little too much like Mitchell's experience with Orazi; you shouldn't have to close your eyes to visualize how the opera should have been staged. And I'm not sure I'm ready for the soprano swinging on a rope over the pit. I understand the statement the producer was trying to make - the immaturity of young love - but it seems as if there could have been less showy ways of doing it. I wasn't there, though, and Reilly was.

Lady Macbeth may be a different story, one more to my liking. Far from a distraction, the staging seems to have brought out the underlying tensions in Shostakovich's story, much as heat drains the poisions from a body. It acted as an augmentation, an accessory, designed to enhance the story rather than detract from it. It was, in short, the kind of innovation that more producers should emulate - drawing attention to the story, rather than themselves.

But in the end this piece is perhaps about Reilly's column more than anything. And in that, let's go back to his opening premise - the relationship of these two operas to the dwindling birth rate in Europe.

Disordered sexual passions make for great operas, which can make explicitly clear that the price for these passions is death. But in life, these passions lead to something slightly less macabre—declining birth rates. In today’s Europe, the fruitlessness of sexual disorder is not blood-soaked drama, but the slow-motion disappearance of entire nations. In the United States, someone dies every 13 seconds, while a child is born every seven. [And I might add, although Reilly does not, the many children in the United States who die before they are given a chance to live outside the womb.] This does not mean that our passions are in good order. It does mean, however, that we are not going to disappear any time soon, and that there is hope that America, in the early 21st century, will not serve as a convincing setting for future productions of Lucia di Lammermoor or Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk.

Art can entertain, and should. It can also cause the mind to ask questions, to explore great issues, to enhance a life as well as keep it amused. Great entertainment entertains, but entertainment itself is fleeting. Art is, or at least should be, something more permanent.

In this piece Reilly asks the big questions, and he asks them well. It leaves the reader knowing more, and wanting to know more. It puts the works in perspective, not only as they relate to the performance, but to the world beyond, to life. (And let us hope that the conclusions he draws about America do, indeed, come to pass.) It is what art criticism should be.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Same Old Snark From the Left

By Mitchell

Well, Rush Limbaugh’s at it again. I didn’t hear the show; I’ll admit right upfront that I haven’t listened to Rush (or any political talk radio, for that matter) for nearly ten years. But here’s what he said.

There is a cultural problem in the NFL that has resulted in a total lack of class on the part of professional players… "I love the game of football, but after every sack players are acting like they've won the Super Bowl; they're prancing around with these idiotic dances… "Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.

Now, of course Rush is a polarizing figure. That’s part of his gig, why people listen to him, even the ones who don’t agree with him. Make that “especially” the ones who don’t agree with him, since so many of them have to resort to attacking Limbaugh in order to get any loving. Take William K. Wolfrum over at, who had this to say about the whole thing:

Just something to remember from Limbaugh: If you get hooked on pills, can't stay married to save your life, and like to pump your penis full of Viagra prior to trips to the Dominican Republic, you're cool. Wear a doo rag and taunt opponents during a game of professional football, well, you're representing a gang and are part of the decay of modern society.

Yeah, right. First of all, if you can figure out what any of this has to do with the central issue, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.

It’s not only Wilfrum, of course. Tony Kornhiser and Mike Wilbon of ESPN’s PTI pulled out the race card yesterday in their 15-second discussion. Rush was obviously in error. So obvious to them, in fact, that it reminded me of Pauline Kael’s famous (and possibly apocryphal) remark expressing surprise at Nixon’s 1972 win because “nobody I know voted for him.” It’s easier to dismiss the hard question that Limbaugh implicitly raises with a matter-of-fact smirk than to ask if there’s really anything to it. But what can you expect from a show that replaces insight with soundbites? Anyway, they’re both part of the MSM, so what do you expect?

And there’s Mike Freeman at CBS Sportsline, who says, “Please, Rush Limbaugh, do not let any discussion of sports ever leave your lips again. Each time you do, you sound like a moron.” Tell you what, Mike – if you make the same deal about politics, I’m all for it. Freeman says that nobody equated (the white) Mark Gastineau’s 1980s “sack dance” with the end of civilization. Of course, a lot of people did think it was the beginning of crassness on the gridiron, but perhaps Freeman’s just a young pup, too wet behind the ears to remember back that far.

(Note to all you guys: it isn’t really that hard to talk about sports for a living. Quit acting as if you’ve been gifted with some special insight the rest of us don’t have.)

I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. (First of all, I don’t get what any of this has to do with golf.) But, as I get older, there are apparently a lot of things I don’t get anymore. And yet, it used to be that the reason for having a discussion was to offer an opinion with the goal of converting others to your point of view, or at least for them to respect that opinion.

Nowadays has devolved into a verbal boxing match, with each side trying to score points by drawing blood, not even trying to persuade others, mindless of the damage their discourse is doing. Political punditry is one of those “don’t-try-this-at-home” things, where it’s extremely difficult to sound informed but really easy to sound stupid.

But I continue to be intrigued by this whole issue. Why is it that people seem so eager to jump to such juvenile snarkiness at the first opportunity? They are cruel with an almost unrestrained glee, pausing only to sit back in self-satisfaction and contemplate the blood their words have drawn.

I suppose it’s part of human nature to show off, but I really don’t know why they feel it’s so necessary to do it outside their area of expertise. Maybe writing about things like golf isn’t “important” enough for them – they have to prove something to their readers, and perhaps even themselves, that they can be “profound” about the “vital issues of the day.”

But what they don’t get – and they really don’t seem to get it, the gentle lummoxes – is that most of the time people don’t want to hear them spout off about politics. Whether you’re a movie star, an athlete, what have you – even an Internet golf columnist – people get pissed off when you start pontificating like that, flaunting your ideology for one and all to see. It’s not just that they have to spout off on the issues, it’s that they seem to go out of their way to use the most inflammatory, personally crude language available, guaranteed to irritate as many people as they possibly can. As hard as it may be for them to believe, the public doesn’t really want to hear Tom Cruise talk about post-partum depression, or Barbra Streisand talk about politics, or Rosie O’Donnell talk about anything.

And so these “pundits” usually wind up doing themselves and their causes far more harm than good. As I said earlier, I haven’t listened to Limbaugh in years. It’s not so much that I disagree with his POV, it’s just that he’s been saying the same thing for year after year. Nothing changes with Rush; a show from 1992 might be interchangeable from yesterday’s program, save changing a few names here and there. And most of the time he’s preaching to the choir, one I left a long time ago.

But you read something from guys like Wolfrum and suddenly your sense of justice gets riled up and you find yourself actively taking Rush’s side. This isn’t anything new; liberals seem to have a unique gift for taking the infamous and turning them into underdogs by not knowing when to stop piling on. Remember Ollie North, anyone? (To be honest, the Republicans certainly accomplished the same thing with Bill Clinton by releasing that videotape of his testimony. Like a good horror movie, the unseen is usually far more ominous and frightening than the seen. But we don’t live in a subtle age anymore.)

Not only do you not win your readers over to your particular ideological POV, you wind up antagonizing them so that even when you do write in your “specialty,” you don’t have any credibility. Again, why would you want to do that? I don’t much like it when someone like Chris Matthews displays his ignorance, but at least that’s what he’s paid to do. I guess someone like Wolfrum throws it in for free.

So what gives? Well, the only thing I can think of is that William K. Wolfrum needed readers, and he figured the best way to get them was to attack someone bigger and stronger than he was, and get people to notice him that way. No surprise, I guess – Al Franken does the same thing. (Birds of a feather, eh?) But it works! Last night I Googled “Rush Limbaugh football gangs,” and Wolfrum popped up as number three. Well, good for him; he’d probably have to take even more potent drugs than Limbaugh in order to get that high some other way.

You know, the sad thing about this is that we wind up exchanging so many insults with each other that we don’t even start to ask the question as to whether or not there’s any merit in what Rush says.

Well, let’s see. Here’s a story that popped up this week. The lede: "Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph was arrested early Monday and charged with possession of marijuana, the ninth Cincinnati player arrested in the last nine months."

Nine players from one team in nine months: at that rate, Cincy could have the home-field advantage in the next remake of The Longest Yard.

I don’t know what kind of world Wolfrum and his buddies live in, but for a lot of ordinary people that kind of behavior sounds a lot like criminal activity. It’s the kind of behavior they don’t want to encourage in their kids, the kind that makes them afraid to go out after dark. And don’t think that Cincinnati is the only team with this kind of problem; we had a little issue like that here in Minnesota last year. Something about a bunch of football players and a pleasure boat, I think.

It’s too bad we’re so busy slinging mud that we can’t really talk honestly about the problem. We see the evidence of it every day, wherever we look – the wanton crime in urban areas , the “projects” that almost every big city has, the establishment of an almost permanent underclass when it’s so unnecessary.

As someone who works for a nonprofit in an urban area, I see what’s happening out there. I see a lot of young people that want to get out of it, escape it before it’s too late. So many of the odds are against them, but the biggest obstacle to making it isn’t the economy, the government, the “racist” white society that in fact wants desperately to see blacks make it in America. So often it’s their own peer group, a group that fears losing its influence. Where would “spokesmen” like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton be if they weren’t continually able to stress the “victimization” of blacks in America?. No, it’s not perfect out there. I don’t think anyone looks at these problems through rose-colored glasses. But there’s a sickness out there, and we’d damn well better do something about it before it’s too late.

You know what? Rush Limbaugh is hardly the first person to suggest a comparison between athletes and criminals. How many times have you heard someone wonder how many jocks would be in prison if they weren’t on the playing field? Or refer to the NBA and NFL as “work-release programs”? A lot of people are sick of that kind of behavior. Are all these people guilty of race-baiting? Or do they just believe what their eyes tell them?

A lot of people – not just Limbaugh – think the gangs are the key to understanding the whole thing. Gangs like the ones Limbaugh talks about. Get kids away from the gangs and their subculture, they say, and you might have a chance. Traditionally, sports was one of those alternatives – but do we really want kids copying the behavior of thugs like Terrell Owens, Latrell Sprewell and Ron Artest? Do we really want some youth football team deciding that the nickname isn’t the only thing they want to copy from the Bengals?

I have a friend who’s convinced that the ghetto culture – or rather, “culture” – is destroying America. And I don’t mean to suggest by that comment that he’s a racist. In fact, most of the athletes he most admires personally – Walter Payton, Julius Erving, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods, many of the 1960s Green Bay Packers – are black. These, and many others, were and are great role models. So what happened? Well, you can make a pretty compelling case that the whole ghetto culture – drugs, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, rampant hedonism, lawlessness, willful ignorance, this whole “disrespect” thing – well, it hasn’t done a whole lot for the fabric of our country, has it? This culture has acted like a virus, infecting everything and everyone with which it comes in contact. Maybe we talk in clichés, but most clichés get that way because they’re true.

No, it’s not really a racial issue. But when whites bring it up, they’re accused of race baiting. When blacks like Bill Cosby take the ghetto culture to task, they’re called “oreos.” Naturally; it’s much easier to engage in namecalling than to provide comments of substance.

But I suppose none of this is as harmful to society as using Viagra, is it?

Now, I’ve said a lot here about civil discourse in America, or the lack of it. Could the same be said of Limbaugh? Presumably, and yet he seldom says anything that’s even remotely as cruel personal as the comments made by so many of his detractors. Furthermore (in a point that, I suspect drives his critics crazy), he’s often able to make his points with style, humor, and passion – trademarks his opponents frequently lack.

This whole question is one I’ve been pondering a great deal lately, especially as it relates to the blogosphere, but in regard to our culture in general. Could it be that the counterculture we’ve talked about has had something to do with the coarsening of America? And what other factors have been in play in this steady deterioration of the civil society? (Granted, coarse expression is nothing new in our political dialogue, but as the ordinary American gains access to wider audiences and easier communication, he seems also to be less willing to contribute restraint, practicality, a necessary set of internal checks-and-balances.)

These are all big issues and fascinating questions, ones that are not at all confined to academics and intellectuals. They can and should be discussed by everyone, and they can produce a lively, civilized debate.

But perhaps it’s asking too much of people like Wolfrum, people who find it much easier to engage in another round of old-fashioned name-calling, people who mistake snarkiness for style, cattiness for profundity, crudity and coarseness for populism. People who are only too eager to throw out words like “hate” with the barest conception of how deep and powerful a word that really is. They’re little men with little dreams, whose only chance at making the big time is to attack others and cut them down to their size. Maybe William K. Wolfrum is a good writer – maybe he even knows something about golf - but I certainly couldn’t tell it from this.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Film Meme

By Mitchell

Well, it's been awhile since we've done a meme here. Not because we haven't been asked, we'll add, but because we haven't had the time or the energy (more's the pity). But we recently got the movie meme from our friend Cathy of Alex, and this one looked too intriguing to pass up. With my Hadleybloggers caught between vacations and work, it seems this one is up to me. I can't guarantee I won't change my mind, but here goes (complete with links):

Your Favorite Film? Depending on what kind of mood I'm in, either This Sporting Life, Apocalypse Now or 2001: A Space Odyssey

Your Favorite Film Priest? Bing Crosby in Going My Way

Your Favorite Film Nun? Loretta Young and Celeste Holm in Come to the Stable

Your Favorite Religious Movie? Beckett

Your Favorite Comedy? The Producers (the original)

Your Favorite Action Film? Bullitt

Your Favorite Thriller? The Manchurian Candidate (the original)

Your Favorite Foreign Film? The Seventh Seal

Favorite "Alternative" Lifestyle Film? Mulholland Dr. (also a candidate for the most confusing)

Your Favorite Animal Film? March of the Penguins

Your Favorite Animated Film? Bugs Bunny in Rabbit of Seville

Your Favorite "B" Movie? Planet of the Apes (the original)

Your Favorite "Newer" "B" Movie? Gone in 60 Seconds

Your Favorite Black Comedy Film? (As In Humor) The Hospital

Your favorite Period Film? 1776

Your Favorite Biblical Film? Ben Hur

In your opinion, the most important film in Cinematic history? Birth of a Nation. The start of modern motion pictures.

Well, that was easy. Anyone else out there want to offer ideas?

Monday, January 8, 2007

Name That Tune

By Mitchell

How about some music?


The atmosphere at the Regal 20 in Brooklyn Park on Saturday morning was undoubtedly electric. When was the last time, after all, you saw a group of adults standing in line waiting to get into a movie theater? Or, at least, adults not dressed in some kind of sci-fi costume? And, to top it off, they weren’t even waiting to see a movie.

It was the debut of the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcast of the Saturday matinee, with a performance of Bellini's I Puritani (The Puritans). (Yes, I know the actual debut was last Saturday, but the bastardized – I mean, abridged – one-act English-language version of The Magic Flute doesn’t really count, at least if you’re talking about the full operatic experience.) And it had the feel of an opening night performance, the buzz of excitement from those waiting for the door to open. There were representatives on-hand from MPR, who were really forced to embrace the new technology even though it might eventually mean the death-knell of classical music on public radio. And nobody really knew what to expect from the whole thing – would it be like watching the opera on TV? Would the sound and picture be any good? Would the telecast itself move, or remain more or less static. What about the intermission features? And what of the opera itself?

First things first, and we might as well start with the star, Anna Netrebko. She was, in a word, terrific. As someone behind us said, watching Netrebko offer a thumbs-up to the cameraman backstage after act one, “she loves the camera, and the camera loves her.” Both very true. I hadn’t really heard Netrebko before, much less see her, and she really is something. True, there was a sour note near the end of act three, and some have critiqued her style as lacking warmth, but for the most part she was on her A game Saturday afternoon. She conveyed the impression of one who knows the camera is there, but doesn’t pander to it – she performed for those in the house, but at the same time framed herself perfectly within the screen.

Aside from Netrebko, the performances were steady, if unspectacular. But that is to be expected, in an opera that is centered around the soprano, who actually gets two mad scenes (although, as guest commentator Beverly Sills pointed out, the first one was actually only a little mad). The Met orchestra, led this day by bel canto expert Patrick Summers, was good as usual – the horns made an uneven entrance to the overture, but that was about it. One could quibble about the pacing here and there, but there is no question that the Met orchestra remains one of the best around.

Netrebko notwithstanding, I think the real star of the day was the telecast itself. After years of listening to the matinee broadcasts on radio, it was great fun to actually see what goes on at the Met, such as the very small broadcast booth from which Margaret Juntwait provides her commentary (although, as with baseball, it’s true that words can often paint a picture much more vivid than that provided by the naked eye).

Renee Fleming’s dressing-room interviews with Netrebko between acts were also fun – not necessarily breaking news, but quite interesting to actually see behind the scenes. (As was Beverly Sills’ comment that she personally preferred a lot of chaos and movement around her when she was in the dressing room, rather than simply being alone.) I think many would have enjoyed seeing the famed intermission opera quiz, but perhaps that’s for another show.

And speaking of Sills, it was delightful listening to her commentary before the opera and during the intermissions, talking about what it had been like to play the very role that Netrebko was now taking on, that of Elvira, the different approaches to mad scenes, and so on. (Not for nothing is her nickname Bubbles.) She was also charmingly blunt as to the shortcomings of Bellini’s plot, which was ridiculous even by operatic standards - a story about the battle between the Stuarts and the Puritans in Cromwell's England - but then, one doesn't particularly go to bel canto to enjoy the plot, after all. It's a showcase for the singers. (It was also fun to watch Juntwait, with one eye on the clock, trying to rein in Sills in time to return to the stage for the next act.

The telecast itself was anything but static, offering a variety of angles that gave the theater audience a view unlike any that could be had within the Met itself. (One source reported ten cameras were in use, including a hand-held one in the pit itself.) Shots of the musicians were so tight you could practically see the notes on the scores in front of them. The stage was seen at various times looking down from the top, looking up from the pit, from the wings – and yet seldom, I thought, in a way that was distracting, calling attention to itself.

Provocatively, the most interesting camera angle was also the most curious, a shot from the rear of stage left that encompassed not only the singer, but also the conductor and the darkened theater beyond. It was a stunning shot, at least the first couple of times it was used (especially during the second act mad scene with Netrebko lying on her back, literally hanging over the edge into the orchestra pit), not least because it offered the viewer a sight that nobody in the house itself would ever have seen. You could simultaneously study the conductor, keeping one eye on his orchestra and the other on the stage; get the sense of the performer, looking into the invisible audience beyond the footlights; even get a glimpse of the stage rigging, the spotlights, the small monitors that can only be seen by the singers onstage. It was fascinating.

But it was also disconcerting in a way. After all, opera, like other forms of theater, is about enveloping the audience with the magic of illusion, introducing them to exotic and foreign lands where people communicate in songs rather than regular speech. The high-def picture and terrific sound provides that, in spades – you could see every blemish, every rivulet of perspiration. But being able to see the man behind the curtain, so to speak, sort of changes the perspective. Perhaps the Met figured since the audience was already one step removed, sitting in a theater watching a performance in another theater, the need for illusion wasn’t so important.

At any rate, it was a remarkable telecast, the kind of live theater that you usually only see in the theater nowadays. Bravo to the Met for putting this together, and high hopes for the remainder of the telecasts in the series.


Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany and at Holy Childhood in St. Paul the musical accompaniment to the Mass was Alfred Pilot’s Messe Des Rois Mages (Mass of the Three Magi). Now, I don’t know much about Alfred Pilot – Google searches doen’t come up with anything on him, and there don’t appear to be any recordings of his work. (So if you know anything about him, please let us know!) And this is a pity, for let it be known that the Messe Des Rois Mages is a wonderful piece of seasonal liturgical music that reminds us not only that we’re still in the Christmas season, but also of the joyous good news that is Epiphany. As near as I can tell, Pilot seems to be something of a French Vaughan Williams, incorporating familiar French melodies into the body of his Mass text (which is rendered entirely in Latin). This is most evident in two parts of the Mass, the Gloria and Sanctus.

The Gloria opens with the very recognizable “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrain from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a melody which is repeated several times throughout the first part of the hymn. Later on one can, if listening closely, detect a line, picked up by both solo clarinet and violin, which is strongly suggestive of the opening from “The First Noel.” The Gloria concludes with an adaptation of the happy melody from the lilting carol, “Il est ne le divine enfant” (“Now Is Born the Divine Christ Child”).

Likewise, the Sanctus opens with very familiar music – Bizet’s rousing Marcho dei Rei, the “March of the Magi” from the L’Arlesienne Suite No. 1. And march, it does – trust me, you’d recognize this music in an instant if you heard it; it’s found on most discs of classical Christmas music. For some reason, a march seems to me to be the perfect accompaniment of the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

This music is charming – the first time I heard it, I broke into several surprised, delighted smiles at hearing such familiar themes being used in a liturgical setting. In the years since, it has never failed to produce that same smile.

Which leads one to wonder just how well-known this piece is? Over at Amy Welborn’s blog, several commentators reported hearing a Gloria in the Christmas Mass of their respective parishes that used the same “Angels We Have Heard on High” theme. Was it Pilot’s Messe they heard? Hard to tell, since some also expressed the opinion that the words weren’t a very good fit for the music. Now, I don’t share that opinion myself, so there could be a couple of differences. Perhaps it isn’t Pilot’s music at all or, if it is, maybe it’s been translated into the vernacular. (Heaven alone knows what happens if you give people too much Latin, after all.) It points out, at any rate, how nice it is when the music director provides the name and composer of the settings of the Ordinary.

Alfred Pilot’s Messe Des Rois Mages proves that liturgical music need not be dolorous to be dignified, and also that it need not be Haugen-Haas to be joyful. Yes, Virginia, classical music does not have to be boring. And may we have more of it in the years to come, especially with the coming changes in the Mass.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Life Imitates Art

By Mitchell

There are few simple pleasures more satisfying than running across some ironic little bit of news that means something only (or primarily) to you. Take, for example, this wonderful tidbit from Jay Nordlinger's New York Sun review of a New York Philharmonic performance of Handel's Messiah:

As Ms. Blythe was about to sing a recitative, a cell phone played the "Ode to Joy," loudly. Right spirit, wrong composer.

Steve, all I can say is that you should have copywrited this post.

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