Friday, September 28, 2007

Mitchell's Guide to the Opera

By Mitchell

Last night was the first opera in our subscription series for the season – Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (or, as the Minnesota Opera insisted on calling it, “A Masked Ball.” Right translation, but I still think the title should be rendered in the language in which the piece is performed. Hence, Un ballo in maschera it is.)

As longtime readers know, every production at the Minnesota Opera is a cause for apprehension. Will we see an example of the notorious “Director’s Theater” about which we’ve written in the past? Would we see a ridiculous “re-imagination” of the story, casting it as a Civil War epic or, heaven forbid, a science fiction piece? What will they do next?

Well, as it turned out, this was a pretty straightforward adaptation of Verdi’s tale of the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden in 1792 The staging itself, a co-production of the Boston Lyric Opera designed by Allen Moyer and directed by James Robinson, was reasonable if not inspired. The performance featured show-stopping turns by the Charles Taylor as Count Anckarström, Gustavo’s loyal secretary and cuckolded husband who turns assassin, Jill Grove as Ulrica the fortune teller, and Nili Riemer in the trouser role of Oscar, the page; Cynthia Lawrence as Amelia, Gustavo’s love interest (and Anckarström’s wife), who truth be told was stolid and a bit shrill (especially in Act II's Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa, which should have brought down the house), and Evan Bowers as King Gustavo in a dependable if unaffecting performance. The orchestra, under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was dependable as usual.

With all this done, we can turn to the story itself, which is a marvelous example of the suspension of disbelief that grand opera so often requires. For you see, although Gustavo and Amelia are lovers, their love is apparently of the unconsummated type, though you wouldn’t know it from all the carrying on they do to other people and to each other. When Gustavo visits the gypsy fortune teller Ulrica in the final scene of Act I, she prophesies that he will be killed by the next one to shake his hand, whereupon he begins working the room, trying to find someone who will shake hands with him and prove the lie to Ulrica’s words. Well, these people aren’t stupid – especially the members of Gustavo’s court who actually are plotting to kill him. It’s left to Count Anckarström, who just then walks into Ulrica’s parlor, to take his friend’s hand in his. Bingo – I think we have a winner here! Or a loser, as the case may be.

Invariably, as Act II ends, the three of them – Gustavo, Amelia and Anckarström – wind up in the same place, with disastrous results. Amelia seeks to break the affair by ingesting an herb (recommended by Ulrica when she visited her) that would make her love for him go away; Gustavo follows her there in hopes of talking her out of it. Anckarström, naturally, winds up there as well, having followed Gustavo to warn him of the cabal out to assassinate him. The loyal Anckarström convinces Gustavo to return to town in disguise, to which Gustavo agrees only on condition that Anckarström escort this unknown woman, another of the king's conquests - the veiled (and thus hidden from view) Amelia – back to safety, all the while promising not to look at or talk to her. Got all this so far?

Well, Gustavo escape. Anckarström and Amelia are surrounded by the cabal. A showdown seems inevitable. And then, somewhat improbably, Amelia rips off her veil, revealing her identity to her shocked husband and stunned conspirators. (The opera notes suggest that her vail falls off in a struggle, but this certainly is not what happened last night.) Anckarström is angry and humiliated (and who can blame him?), vowing revenge on the king who betrayed him, and the wife who cheated on him. And what’s Amelia’s response to all this? Horror? Shame? Repentance? No to all three. Poor me, she sings. Will nobody show pity on my pathetic condition? Well, what did she expect? Was she one of those women who thought that by stamping her foot she could put an end to this childish sword play between her husband, defending the king, and the conspirators seeking to kill him? If so, she fails miserably.
It’s a grating moment, one reminiscent of Puccini’s eponymous heroine Floria Tosca who, while her lover is being tortured, has nothing more to ask then What did I do to deserve this? Like so many women in opera, it's all about her.

This continues into Act III, where Anckarström first vows to kill Amelia (who is still appealing for pity rather than forgiveness), and then turns his eyes on Gustavo, joining the ringleaders in their plot to murder Gustavo. And, as luck would have it, the king intends to host a masked ball that very night (get the title?), inviting both Amelia and Anckarström (who he is unaware has discovered the truth) as well as the conspirators (he rejects all warnings of the danger that faces him). Well, this plays right into the plotters’ hands – they can murder Gustavo, but because they’re doing it at a masked ball, no one will know who they are! In the meantime, Amelia is still busy lamenting her unfortunate position, thinking of her own misery even as she suspects of the plans to murder her lover.

Fast forward to the end. Everyone is at the ball. Amelia tries to warn Gustavo, but he’s resigned to whatever happens. Anckarström enters, finds Gustavo, and plunges a dagger in his back. Gustavo dies, but not before pardoning Anckarström, and making him ambassador to Finland. (I wonder if anyone else in the diplomatic corps knows about this method of advancement?) Anckarström, convinced now that is wife was simply imprudent (and somewhat insipid) but not impure, bewails his mistake, but takes solace in the forgiveness of his once and still friend. The curtain falls. Applause all round. Drive safely, have a good night.

As I say, you have to suspend disbelief when you’re talking about grand opera. With a few exceptions, you’re there to hear the music and admire the acting, not to try and make sense of the plot. And Un ballo in maschera is no exception. It remains one of Verdi’s great operas, one that continues to remain in the repertory worldwide. However, that doesn’t stop me from making one slight suggestion to the end of the story. It concerns the true-life ending to the assassination of Gustav III. Now, I’m in no position to give Verdi suggestions. (Nor is he, actually.) Nonetheless…

In reality, there was no forgiveness, no happy ending – at least as far as the conspirators were concerned. (In fact, Gustav’s own sexuality was somewhat suspect, so you might as well get rid of the love triangle as well.) In real life, Gustav’s brother Charles, after acceding to the throne, sentenced the conspirators to death (eventually commuting the sentence to perpetual banishment from the country). Then, to set an example for anyone who might get such treasonous ideas in the future, he then had Anckarström’s right hand (the one that held the gun) chopped off, beheaded him, had him drawn and quartered, and then put on display.

Imagine what a finish that would have made! Charles, who is an attendee at the ball, swoops down after Gustavo’s death, taking power. He orders Anckarström to be taken away and, as the guards drag him away (his heels leaving marks on the stage), Charles sings the final lament:

It was predetermined from the start, your presence here.
Your role in the gypsy's tragic prophesy is now complete,
Your name written in the Book of Fate.
It has now fallen to me to complete the last chapter in that Book,
Written with the blood of a traitor.

We hear Anckarström’s screams offstage as the torturers start in on him, the music comes crashing to a crescendo, and the curtain falls. Well, a guy can dream.

And anyway, if more operas ended that way, perhaps we’d have more young people at the opera.

Random Thoughts

By Mitchell

From yesterday’s NRO, Jay Nordlinger has this wonderful description of the liberal elite and their unwavering support for “freedom fighters” such as – oh, let’s say, Robert Mugabe (Jay’s example) or Nelson Mandela (my example, although it’s always dangerous to take on a living saint). Jay’s take:

In places like my dear hometown of Ann Arbor [home of the University of Michigan] they have, for decades, been celebrating African “liberation” leaders like Mugabe. And the only thing they have succeeded in liberating is people from their money, hope, and very lives.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Boy, I admire people who can right like that, whether I agree with them or not. In this case, I do.

Also at NRO, David Frum, with whom I disagree almost as often as I agree (but I still read him; see above for why) has this to say about one of the (many) areas in which the Bush administration failed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11:

It is the party in power - the party with responsibility for management of the nation's foreign affairs - that also bears the responsibility for sustaining national unity behind those affairs. Sustaining that unity often requires sacrifices of party doctrines and sharing of national offices. Over the years, I have offered some suggestions about some of the things Republicans and conservatives should have done to maintain the support of moderate Democrats and liberals.

To this I would add: the administration did little, beyond appealing to the terrorist attack itself, to unite the American people. Now, one might think that a vicious, evil attack on home soil just might be enough to unite a country, but in these days we should know better than that. But think about it – the message was consistent: go about business as normal (just be careful and keep your eyes open), don’t let the economy suffer by curtailing spending, get right out there as if nothing had happened; in other words, don’t let the terrorists win by changing our lifestyle.

And yet, as anyone who is watching Ken Burns’ magnificent “The War” can attest, war is all about suffering and sacrifice. Not just in a political sense, as Frum points out, but on a personal level as well. Bond drives, rationing, doing without – all of it during World War II, all of it designed in some way not just for practical benefit, but to unite Americans with the suffering of their troops abroad, to give everyone a sense of shared mission. There’s nobody who would argue that World War II didn’t change our lifestyle – as, indeed, wars ought to, considering how much they change the lives of those who fight in them. It’s hard to get that same sense when our soldiers are eating rations and ducking to avoid bombs, while we’re pulling out a charge card and trying to avoid crowds at the latest sale.

Speaking of nothing in particular, you recall our piece last week about the religious symbolism present in the sci-fi series Doctor Who. Well, as we continue to work our way through the season, we came last week to a two-part episode, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” (good, wholesome names there). I won’t get too bogged down in the plot – suffice it to say that the Doctor and his companion Martha are on the run from yet another group of murderous aliens intent on taking over the universe, this time by possessing the body of a Time Lord (i.e., the Doctor). Naturally, the Doctor and Martha take flight, and for the bulk of the story we’re led to believe that the Doctor is trying to escape from the aliens, fearing for his life. The aliens have a limited lifespan, and if the Doctor can successfully avoid detection they will simply die away. It is only at the end – after the inevitable mayhem, death and destruction resulting in the showdown that we knew and anticipated – that we find out the truth of the matter. The Doctor ran not because he feared the aliens, but because he wanted to protect them. From himself.

Remember, if they didn’t catch him in time, they would die off. Instead, they forced the issue (as the bad guys generally do), and the Doctor was forced to act. Which he did in a ruthless, cold-blodded way (spoiler alert!) – one to be captured as a fleeting image in a mirror, one to be chained with steel forged from a dwarf planet, one to exist in an eternal vortex, and one to serve as a scarecrow, warding off other evildoers (remember, this is sci-fi). As the Doctor said, they wanted immortality – they got it.

And to me this seems to combine elements of both the Old and New Testaments, if you want to go in this direction. Old, in that the Doctor appears as the vengeful Old Testament God of Sodom and Gomorrah, delivering justice with a swift sword. New, in that, as Jesus suggests, we all wind up sentencing ourselves. We get what we deserve. The aliens chose immortality, as the fallen angels chose power. So be it. Their sentence was an eternal damnation, much as it would be for those of us who, offered salvation, turned our backs on it in pursuit of our earthly desires. We choose it, we receive it. I'd love to chew this over with Fr. Atkins!

NFL Cheerleader Restrictions - Here's Why

By Bobby

The National Football League placed a request to the 26 NFL teams with cheerleaders (six teams -- Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Green Bay, the New York Giants, and Pittsburgh -- do not have dance teams) that their squads may not warmup, stretch, or make any suggestive movements in the vicinity of the opponent's bench. This is a legitimate rule by the League to stop what has become a distraction in sports, and unfortunately, has turned professional sports venues into a brothel, with their cleavage-bearing, buttock-shaking, midriff-bearing simulated sex show set to hip-hop tunes from the latest thug artists blaring on the stadium.

It is sad that the NFL has had to stoop to writing a mandate, but when you turn professional sporting venues into brothels featuring strippers or Britney Spears-style performances, as we have seen with all 30 NBA teams, what does it say about our society when we now tolerate strip shows through a combination of MTV and what is being taught in the dance studios today totoday's youth? Even churches are not immune to the scandal, as many younger music leaders are pushing to replace choirs with teens who dance, often to the same suggestive moves or music, although without the raunchy costumes.

The League has made the right decision in starting to crack down on these professional prostitutes. Selling swimsuit calendars of these sex objects to pay "under the cover" bonuses to players or coaches which the team does not have to share its revenue with the other 31 teams has created an undercover market. This restriction is the first stop. The NFL needs to eliminate the brothel show on the sidelines with its suggestive outfits and the rest of its questionable antics by the "cheerleaders" who are nothing more than another outlet to draw more young 21-34 men who purchase the most alcohol and can turn these girls into sex objects. If you sell to that young crowd, you are ignoring the families. Why betray the family with promotions engineered for a young group of hormone-raging men who buy the most alcohol?

I remember years ago a now-defunct pop music festival admitted they wanted acts which catered to the 21-34 crowd, since they purchased the most alcohol. It seems professional sport is appealing to the high beer purchasers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Although not generally thought of as one of the moderns, Edgar Lee Masters (1868 - 1950) was part of the "poetic renaissance" that took place in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. Other names from this group were Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay. Good company.

A prolific writer, Masters will probably always only be remembered as the author of Spoon River Anthology. In her Introduction to the 1975 Collier edition, May Swenson describes the work thus: "All in the cast are dead - 'all, all are sleeping on the hill' of a Midwestern cemetery - and from their graves they speak their own epitaphs, discovering and confessing the real motivations of their lives; they reveal the secret steps that stumbled them to failure, or raised them to illusionary triumphs while alive; it is as if the darkness of the grave granted them reveletory eyes for a recognition of their own souls."

The style was plain and earthy, but it suits the characters of the Midwest well. These are the kind of people who cleared the land and settled the country. Their poetry came in the form of the oxen struggling at the plough, the cow grazing in the meadow, a newborn's wail in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter. The selection we look at is a recitation of the life of Masters' grandmother, here called Matlock.

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed -
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you -
It takes life to love Life.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wish I'd Written That

By Judith

"My own predilections have always been towards the Right. I like pomp, banners, divine rights, unreasonable ceremonies and ceremoniousness. It seems to me that when the world was a matter of small communities each under an arbitrary but responsible head then the world was at its best. If your community did not prosper you decapitated your chief. Till then he was possessed of divine rights. . .

"The literary man in England is usually predestined to the Left. Ranking socially with the governess and the butler - a little above it if he prospers, a little below if he is poor - he cannot, qua writer, be a gentleman. In consequence he tries to achieve importance outside his art."

- Ford Maddox Ford, Your Mirror to My Times

Monday, September 24, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

BULLETIN - Marcel Marceau, the world’s best-known master of the art of mime, died last Saturday in Paris at the age of 84. A moment of loud talking is being planned in his honor.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Let's All Go to the Opera

By Mitchell

It had been a while since the Minnesota Opera had gotten on my nerves, and I'd been wondering, frankly, what the problem was. Well, as it turns out, I needn't have worried. The new season starts next week, and our subscription correspondence included this bit on a group called "Out @ the Opera."

"Out at the Opera" (the @ ruined the link, so I'll leave it out here) is described as "The Minnesota Opera's new group for our friends in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Allies community. Join us for a peek inside the world of The Minnesota Opera with special behind-the-scenes access to the 2007-2008 season."

Now, understand this - what follows is in now way intended to be disparaging to homosexuals. In all honesty, I think the best way to get involved in any group - arts or otherwise - is to be part of a group that already shares common interests. No, this has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but it has everything to do with marketing a product and pandering to an audience.

There's already a perception that homosexuality is a dominant feature in the arts today (see this take we did on it back in February, when we looked at a 2 Blowhards piece asking the question,"Why do so many American males consider arty and aesthetic matters to be faggy?"), which makes me wonder why any organization would want to emphasize this perception, unless they wanted to make it even more so. Otherwise, they're simply playing up to their own stereotype. And why would this group be any more in need of "behind-the-scenes access" than any other? In fact, if you're going to try to appeal to a group that would seem to be underrepresented in the arts - that is, if you're going to try to play against your own stereotypical demographic - wouldn't that group be hetrosexuals?

Sure, it's true that the Minnesota Opera has a "Young Professionals" group, which either serves as a music education group or a classical dating service, I'm not sure which. And it's also true, based on some of the MO's performances we've attended, that they're desperately in need of a younger demographic. But if you're trying to expand your reach (and aren't all arts groups in that dilemma?), wouldn't it make more sense to try and appeal to people other than those that - again, stereotypically - already fall into your target market? (Drew adds, in passing, that if "Gay @ the Opera" really takes off, at least you won't be needing a young people's education program.)

And so it strikes me that the Minnesota Opera isn't really doing much to expand its reach by starting up a program that looks like it's pandering to a group that is already part of its major demographic. If arts organizations truly want to shake the perception that art is not masculine - in other words, if they truly want to reach out to new consumers and broaden their appeal - this doesn't seem to be a very smart way to go about doing it. And I'll finish up with a quote that Michael Blowhard had in his original 2 Blowhards piece: "Is this state of affairs a good thing? Wouldn't we all be a bit better off if the aesthetic fields had a few more straight guys in them?"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Just the Facts...Please

By Steve

All of us who play around with putting words on paper (or Word document) know that it’s not an exact science. We shy away from being too critical of others trying to make a living doing the same. But there do come times when you have to say something, especially when you find it in a newspaper that is supposedly doing straight journalism.

Case in point. Our local Strib ran a story (as I read it in its online version) on Tuesday. A sad, gruesome account about the disturbed man who admitted in court to killing a pet dog and taking part in the beheading of the poor animal. Horrible stuff, but could and should be reported, if only to show that there are shreds of justice and decency left in a pretty tattered world.

Then the story gets just weird, in terms of its description, anyway. The perp is in court, admitting to his heinous act. But we don’t just get the facts, we get much more. Here is the exact copy as it appeared yesterday in the Strib story:

“His voice — hoarse, slightly high-pitched and almost too soft to hear — was reminiscent of a debarked dog.”

What the... a “debarked dog???” In an apparent, close to nauseating, attempt to call forth the spirit of the deceased animal, we get what sounds like a high school sophomore’s attempt at Edgar Allen Poe knock-off.

I tried to be fair, thought maybe I was missing something, looked up my Merriam-Webster and found the only thing close to that word has to do with getting off a ship. I’m still open to correction, let me know if I’m still missing it.

As you can see from the online version that appears today, the "debarked dog" comment is nowhere to be seen. Apparently I wasn't the only one who noticed something was amiss.

Wordplay aside, what happens in this sentence is much more serious. We’re supposedly reading a newspaper account of a court-room scene. We end up with a weird editorial phrase that just makes you wince.

As my wise colleague said, “if you’re going to editorialize in a news story, at least make it well written.” That is strike one, strike two, Star-Tribune.

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Let's look at another song lyric today. A lyric is a special kind of poem in that you can't help but say it rhythmically, even if you're just saying it in your head. Often, there's an artist or band that is most associated with a song and that's the way you hear it, despite what the lyricist and/or composer intended. In this case, it's probably ok if you hear Frank Sinatra when you read this lyric, for Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics to many songs made famous by Sinatra and may have even taken his style into consideration when penning the words.

Teamed with composer Jimmy Van Heusen in the 50s and 60s, Sammy Cahn wrote some of the most beloved popular songs of the era, including "High Hopes," "Love and Marriage," and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." Sammy Cahn said of himself, "Lyric writing has always been a thrilling adventure for me, and something I've done with the kind of ease that only comes with joy!" Now there's someone who really enjoys his work.

This swingin' little number was a big hit for Old Blue Eyes and is known as one of his signature tunes. The lyric is structured so that the first, third and fourth lines of the verse rhyme, with a nice internal rhyme in the second and third lines. It gives it an up-beat and carefree feel that suits Sinatra beautifully.

Come Fly With Me

Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away
If you can use some exotic booze
There's a bar in far Bombay
Come fly with me, we'll fly, we'll fly away.

Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru.
In lama land, there's a one man band
And he'll toot his flute for you
Come fly with me, we'll float off in the blue.

Once I get you up there, where the air is rarefied
We'll just glide, starry eyed
Once I get you up there, Ill be holding you so near
You may hear angels cheer cause we're together.

Weather-wise it's such a lovely day
You just say the words and we'll beat the birds
Down to Acapulco Bay
It's perfect for a flying honeymoon they say
Come fly with me, we'll fly, we'll fly away.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Wish I'd Written That

By Drew

"If I were Elisabeth Hasselbeck, I would refuse to sit next to Barry Manilow. After all, "I Write the Songs" has officially been categorized as a war crime by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Here at home, even Wayne LaPierre supports legislation to declare "Mandy" an assault weapon deserving of a complete ban. This is not to say that Manilow hasn't been of service to his country, albeit inadvertently. Unconfirmed reports claim that Abu Zubaydah would not break, even with a bullet in his groin, until they played 15 seconds of "I Can't Smile Without You," whereupon he cried like a little girl."

- NRO's John Podhoretz on Manilow's apparent refusal to appear on The View if Hasselbeck was on the panel. Podhoretz might also have mentioned diabetic coma as one of the known side effects of Manilow's music.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Complex Relationship Between God and the Founders

By Mitchell

My friend Badda-Blogger drew my attention to a fascinating discussion over at one of his sister blogs, Anti-Strib. (For those of you not from Minnesota, this is a site dedicated to, shall we say, fact-checking the infamous Star Tribune.) One of their contributors, Ed (the token liberal, which shows that conservatives often have a healthier idea of diversity than liberals) has been on something of a quest lately to disprove the existence of God. (I may be simplifying this, and I don't mean any offense.)

In his latest piece, Ed reminds us of the existence of the Jefferson Bible, in making the point that most of the Founders were not Christians, and that therefore it is naive of us to suggest that they intended Judeo-Christian thinking to be incorporated into the founding of the nation.

Badda knows that I’m something of a buff when it comes to the Founders, so he thought I’d be interested in the discussion. Herewith my contribution to the combox - I'm sharing this with you in the hopes that you all can contribute further thought to the discussion in general, if not this aspect in particular. (A warning: Anti-Strib is, to say the least, colorful; for that reason, I don't generally link to it. However, I think their hearts are (mostly) in the right place, and I also think this is a discussion that should be engaged, in as high a level as we can make it.)

So, [I said] Ed does make some very interesting and useful observations in this piece. However, I’m not sure what the ultimate point is. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that a number (if not many) of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Franklin among them, were Deists. (About Washington we’re less certain; there’s a school of thought that Washington’s faith went beyond the passivity that’s usually associated with Deism.) And while it’s true that Jefferson wasn’t a Christian, it is another thing to ask whether or not he was a believer and answer in the negative.

I’d like to shift the discussion to Franklin on this point for a couple of reasons. First, I know a bit more about him. Second, Franklin is, in my opinion, the more interesting, the more brilliant of the two, as well as (arguably) the more significant in the early history of America. And I think that in looking at the Founders’ relationship with organized religion, Franklin is also the more illuminating.

Franklin biographer H.W. Brands recounts a story in which Ezra Stiles of Connecticut asked the elderly Franklin about his religious convictions, in response to which Franklin penned what he called his creed. "I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshiped. . . . That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this." As for Jesus, "his system of morals and his religion [are] the best the world ever saw or is likely to see. . . . I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."

As further evidence of Franklin’s complex relationship with religion, Brands relates the story of Franklin’s motion to open each daily session of the Continental Congress with prayer. In support, Franklin cited the biblical text, "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it," and added, "I firmly believe this." Without God’s aid, "Our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a by-word to future ages."

So neither Franklin nor Jefferson were what we would think of as Christians. (Of course, on that score it doesn’t really matter what we think; the opinion of the Higher Authority outranks us.) However I would contend, IMHO, that Franklin in particular could be called a believer. Not a believer in Christ per se, in the sense that he did not see him as the Divine Son, but certainly a believer in a Creator. And, with all due respect to Ed, who I think has added a rich dimension to the level of diversity in the site, I do think that this respect, combined with the intellectual thought to which Franklin gave the topic of religion, suggests that Judeo-Christian thinking does in fact appear in the founding documents and mores of this country.

Any thoughts on the Founders, out there? Feel free to leap into the Anti-Strib discussion. (Especially you, Cathy. . .)

Cross-posted to Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable

The Church of the Good Doctor

By Mitchell

We've noted before our long-time affection for the Brit sci-fi classic Doctor Who. Now comes a story from Cardiff, where an Anglican church announces a special Doctor Who-themed service. According to the story, "Teenagers and young people in their early 20s are being targeted for the "cafe-style" Communion service, with music and video clips from the hit series, at St Paul's Church in Grangetown, Cardiff." Fr. Dean Atkins, youth officer for the Diocese, says, "

"The figure of Doctor Who is somebody who comes to save the world, almost a Messiah figure. In the series there are lots of references to salvation and the Doctor being almost immortal. We are using the figure of Doctor Who as a parable of Christ."

Now, if this were a Catholic liturgy, we might be discussing some serious problems. As it is, considering the condition of the Anglican communion, using Doctor Who as inspiration might actually be an improvement. But seriously, outside of a liturgical setting, this becomes quite an interesting question, and one that has not been lost on this site. In fact, our friend Badda-Blogger wrote a special piece for us back in 2005 on the very topic of "Doctor Who and Symbols of Christ." (Please do go back and read this excellent essay.)

Throughout the series' nearly 45-year history, the writers have been somewhat ambivalent on the idea of organized religion, which is par for the course for most science fiction. However, religious symbolism such as that mentioned by Badda have often come to the fore - particularly in last season's episode "New Earth," which contains one of the most eloquent defenses of life by the Doctor that you're ever apt to hear on television, whether in a religious or secular context.

And so I think it's most worthwhile to continue this discussion, to examine the relationship between religion and popular culture (the science fiction series Firefly has also been noted for its many religions overtones). Just as this can aid our understanding of religion, it can also give depth and meaning to popular fiction, and provide an environment for serious discussion. (It can also introduce people to terrific TV series.) Just leave it out of the liturgical setting. . .

Sunday, September 16, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Simpson Seen Fleeing Vegas in Bronco
Former Star Says Robbery Accusation "Just a Misunderstanding"

LAS VEGAS - Former NFL great O.J. Simpson was spotted fleeing the city limits of Las Vegas , NV today, hours after police named him a suspect in an alleged armed robbery at a Las Vegas hotel.

The Hall-of-Fame superstar was spotted leaving the city in a white Bronco with license plates IM OJ, which eyewitnesses reported was traveling at an unusually slow rate of speed.

Simpson, whose only previous brush with the law was a 1995 acquittal in a double homicide, was identified as a suspect in the break-in, which occurred at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. The gridiron great was accused of having stolen merchandise belonging to sports memorabilia dealer Thomas Riccio. Simpson, however, insisted the whole thing was a "misunderstanding."

"I just want to set the record straight," Simpson said in a phone interview with Fox News legal analyst Greta Van Susteren." Speaking loudly to make himself heard above what sounded like the sounds of traffic, Simpson explained further. "After the success of casino crime capers such as Ocean's 11, 12 and 13, my agent and I discussed the possibility of my return to an acting career. What happened in at the Palace Station Casino was simply an audition for a role in the upcoming Ocean's 14 - nothing more than that. The whole thing is just a misunderstanding."

Simpson's comments to Van Susteren appeared to contradict an earlier statement he made to CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack, in which the former Hollywood star, who ironically played a police detective in the Naked Gun movie series, said he was researching a role in the upcoming remake of the award-winning movie The Sting. "I was there simply to gather research for the movie role - nothing more than that," Simpson told Cossack. "The whole thing is just a misunderstanding."

Van Susteren and Cossack are scheduled to debate the conflicting Simpson statements in an exclusive interview with Mary Hart on the syndicated program Entertainment Tonight. Viewers are urged to check their local listings for the time and channel of the show in their area.

In a late development, Las Vegas police announced that Simpson's whereabouts are unknown. They did confirm, however, that Kato Kaelin, currently co-starring in a television series based on the movie The Great Escape, was being interviewed as a possible material witness.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Crossing "The Bridge"

By Drew

Just to show you that there really is nothing new under the sun, Gerald at The Cafeteria Is Closed reports on this movement by some liberals to “reduce the carbon footprint” on the planet by depopulating – in other words, humans must die (off) so the planet can live on. Taking it one step further, there’s the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which suggests that “everyone in the world should stop having kids all at once.” As Gerald says, this is only the logical extension of such thinking. “Wouldn't it be only proper for people suggesting this (and heck, given a chance, they'd enforce it) to kill themselves and set an example?”

This was precisely the idea behind D. Keith Mano’s brilliant, disturbing 1973 novel, The Bridge. Long out of print (as is, sadly, most of Mano’s work; the best place to find them is a used book store), The Bridge is set in the dystopian New York of 2035, where civil war has resulted in a world run by a radical environmentalist/totaliarian regime. In this world, all forms of life – “down to the merest microbe” – are considered equal. All acts of aggression – even disagreement – have been outlawed. The absurdity of their thinking is summed up in the words on a plaque outside the now-deserted and crumbling Yankee Stadium, “Where, in an age of brutality and ignorance, men presumed to compete against their brother men.” (Interestingly enough, Mano didn’t anticipate the use of inclusive language – which shows you that 1973 was, indeed, a long time ago.) Mano demonstrates the ruthlessness, indeed the inhumanity, of such inflexible thought with this exchange between two prisoners of the regime, discussing the consequences that followed when all automobiles were banned:

"It was after the road breakers came. After my brother died because there was no car to take him where the doctor was."

"Lots of people died like that."

"They said thousands had died in cars. It was better that one man should die because there were no cars."

Despite these and other decrees designed to, as we would put it today, “reduce the carbon footprint,” a mass genocide continues, to which the regime’s response is stark, and final:

Whereas it has been ascertained irrefutably by the Council's Emergency Committee on Respiration that the process of breathing has and will continue to destroy and maim innumerable forms of microscopic biological life, we of the Council, convened in full, have decided that man in good conscience can no longer permit this wanton destruction of our fellow creatures, whose right to exist is fully as great as ours. It is therefore decreed that men, in spontaneous free will and contrition, voluntarily accede to the termination of their species. . . It is hoped bretheren, that you will donate your physical bodies to the earth in such a manner that the heinous crimes of murder and pollution committed by our race throughout history may in some small way find redress.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but one could almost imagine the names of some of our more prominent environmentalist/politicians being attached to a statement like that, don't you think?

From thereon in, The Bridge becomes something of an action thriller, with Mano's protagonist - the unlikely, but typically Manonian-named, Dominick Priest, who had been imprisoned for the crime of "competition" (playing chess) - on a quest to return to his home and his wife, a journey which will take him through a landscape run riot by decay, overflowing vegetation (remember, even cutting grass is a murdeous crime) and wild, feral animals, and regime officials seeking to enforce the Council's mandatory suicide decree, culminating in a harrowing crossing of the remains of the George Washington Bridge.

Ultimately, what Priest represents is the resiliency of man, the urge to survive, the quality which is the bain not only of the Council, but of totalitarian regimes throughout history. Priest is not altogether a likeable hero; Mano has chosen to portray him not as some kind of monastic crusader seeking to redeem the world, but as a man on a singular mission to live, with only a limited comprehension of the higher, existential meaning of life. As such, Priest is filled with all the foibles of man, and then some. This leads to a startling, indeed deeply disturbing (while at the same time somewhat satisfying) resolution, the consequences of which can be seen in an epilogue taking place years later.

Keith Mano has always been identified as a "Christian" novelist, and it is true that his Episcopal faith has made itself known through all of his books - from Take Five, in which a man slowly loses each of his five senses, to Bishop's Progress, featuring a confrontation between a lukewarm Episcopal Bishop and the devil, to Horn, a debate between the priest of an urban parish and a radical black leader. His most commercially successful novel, Topless, can best be summed up by the book's tag line: "Father Mike Wilson's having a bad day. He just found a headless body in his topless bar." As one might be able to gather from that last description, Mano's books have always been laced with a heavy dose of black humor.

It would be wrong to call these "comic novels," however, for the humor is mostly of the ironic sort, presenting a scenario that often borders on the absurd but merely serves as the setup for Mano's provocative probing, challenging questions on the meaning of life, and our ability (or lack thereof) to ascertain it. Religion - or faith, if you will - is never far from the surface but, despite that fact that most of Mano's protagonists are priests (in name or fact), the religiousity is not of the overt, preachy type that so often passes for "religious fiction" nowadays. It's more, as one critic put it, in the style of Waugh or Greene, probing into something deeper, and often darker – not just what it means to be a believer, but what it is to actually believe in anything.

Mano's books, while critically acclaimed, were for the most part less than commercially successful; he once recounted that his agent told him after his latest slow-seller that the only way he'd be able to get published again was under a pseudonym. His most recent novel, The Fergus Dialogues: A Meditation on the Gender of Christ, was published in 1998; since then, he has for the most part retreated from writing due to the onset of Parkinson's disease.

And that is a shame, professionally as well as personally, because in novels such as The Bridge, Keith Mano proved himself to be not only a provocative novelist but a prescient one as well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Well, summer certainly has fled here in the Twin Cities. With highs only in the 60s and lows threatening frost, summer seems like a distant memory, even though, technically, summer won't leave for another week and a half. However, weather doesn't always heed the calendar and so today's poem is about the end of summer.

It's a short little ditty. Hope you enjoy.

Oh, the author? That'd be me.


The happiest sound of summer deep
Is the cricket's evening song.
I listen and fall quick asleep
Serenaded all night long.

The saddest sound of summer late
Is the cricket in the night.
Too soon he's gone and winter's fate
Turns the world to silent white.

Britney Spears: Toxic Enough for a Summons to the Oval Office

By Bobby

Once again, the cult of Britney Jean Spears has struck again.

The no-talent former Mousekateer has become a porn star, as have many Disney Channel stars as they have matured. Witness the results of Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, and even the raunchy photos of Ashley Tisdale on her solo album to show the results of such porn starhood.

In reading reports today about the performance of Miss Spears, it was clear she made so many blunders that she would make a teacher or coach write the Oval Office summons at the stroke of dawn. Knowing now she refused to practise for the routine was outrageous, let alone her outfit, something that any decent singer, let alone the cream of the crop, would refuse to wear on stage. Would Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko , Bryn Terfel, Walter Cuttino, or Jami Rhodes ever sing a major piece that is hard to learn with just one practise session and to wear that type of costume?

Also hearing she was drunk while in practice was inappropriate. The only drink any singer should have when in practice is plain water – no colas, sugary drinks, juice, or booze. (Booze is for car engines, not humans! Target Honda driver Scott Dixon lost the IndyCar Championship by running out of booze in the last three-fourths of a mile Sunday!)*.

Can you imagine the organist and vocalist at a church set for a solo attempt to sing the piece without five practice runs, with the organist working on the music just once and never knowing about it, or coming in without having run the performance once at full throttle? It is as pathetic as the typical church solo some churches offer with a vocalist reading the lyrics (not sheet music) and singing secular tunes in a church (not sacred) to a karaoke machine (which many churches feature) that are just as bad as what that no-talent Miss Spears did Sunday night.

It was reminiscent of a commentary I made four years ago (before this blog), just after the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards (which had the Spears/Aguilera/Ciccone kiss). A friend who posts on conservative site noted to others, "I've never liked Britney Spears, she is a fake no-talent bimbo . . . but that MTV kiss was the capper. Enough to gag a maggot . . . "

I noted to her, "(Britney has) no talent at all. It takes work. She doesn't do it. A friend of mine lives in Winter Park (FL) and I think my friend could rattle the cage and annihilate Britney in a singing contest! As I said to another friend afterwards, I can beat Britney Spears in a singing contest (provided I work with my voice teacher and she picks the accompanist). That shows the patheticness of her "talent".

I woke up the morning after the MTV awards and did not know what happened that evening. After watching Brian Kilmeade outraged by the kiss on-stage at that awards show, I commented the kiss was troubling, and "Serena has sent a technical bulletin. Madonna (Ciccone), Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears have been called to the Big Red Truck after the MTV Video Music Awards."**

That was not enough for Miss Spears, who once again went over the edge Sunday night at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas.

MTV has shown how they are a notorious peddler of pornography, and how MTV influences even today’s youth showed this year with their performers and their attitudes. Compare Kayne West’s attitude after losing at the VMA to Dale Earnhardt Jr’s disappointment at missing the playoffs.

*1 Indy Racing League cars race on ethanol – which is the alcohol of all alcoholic beverages. Cars run on 200-proof ethanol – pure booze.

**The original reference was written in August 2003. The “Big Red Truck” is now known as the “Oval Office”.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Patriot Day

By Mitchell

Today is Patriot Day. (Not to be confused with Patriots’ Day, the Massachusetts holiday in April commemorating Paul Revere’s Ride, when they run the Boston Marathon.) At least it is, according to my daytimer. But have you heard much about it? I saw some flags flying at half-staff on my way in to the office, and of course you can’t really get away from 9/11 on the cable news networks. The testimony yesterday of General Petraeus was a reminder of what today is all about.

And yet, for all that, what is today all about? The war on terror is still going on, or so we’re told. The periodic terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere should remind us of that – but then, the Europeans have always been so violent. Every once in a while we get word of a potential terror plot uncovered and quashed, and we’re grateful for that.

We’ve got a war going on in Iraq, for sure, but even so it doesn’t quite feel as if we’re at war here in the homeland. There’s been no rationing, no rallies for war bonds, no sense of sacrifice, and most of all no shared sense of mission. We’re as divided now as we’ve been in a long while – liberal politicians against conservative politicians, anti-war conservative Catholics against war-supporting conservative Catholics. Father against son and son against father, one would assume.

I read this morning about, a group dedicated to the idea that the best way to memorialize the dead of September 11 is to do something good for others. Now, let me be the first to say that I think doing good for other people, particularly people we don’t know, is a wonderful idea. As a matter of fact, I think it’s such a great idea that we ought to do it every day, not just September 11. There was something in that terrible time, watching the horrifying images coming live from New York, seeing the anguish of those searching for lost loved ones, that made you want to do something nice, to be someone nice. And in fact, many predicted that a kinder and gentler America might come about as a result of 9/11. I suppose that might go down in history alongside the Titanic and the Edsel as far as predictions go. Nonetheless, there’s something about the idea of simple kindness that is very appealing, that shouldn’t be discounted. And yet –

Is this really what we’ve come to? Commemorating the worst attack on American soil, the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent people, by a homicidal maniac who’s still on the loose – by being nice? If you’ll pardon me for saying so (and this is with no offense to the founders of myGoodDeed), there’s something awfully Oprah about all this.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what we ought to do about the war on terror. I’m still not sure that Iraq was or should be part of it, although I’m equally sure we can’t just cut-and-run, even if we wanted to. From the get-go I’ve suspected that 9/11 somehow represented a Divine Rebuke to this country, one that has for the most part gone unheeded. And yet, as Drew mentioned yesterday, the lives of a lot of innocent people are at stake, and it’s the government’s job to do what it takes to protect them.

What I do know is that this country, and many of its people, lack a certain determination to see this thing through to the end. It’s been there ever since September 12, to be honest – at a time when we had the sympathy of much of the world, when much of the country was united in equal parts fear and loathing. That was the time, if there was any one particular time, when decisive action was called for. A demand to the Taliban ruling Afghanistan that they hand over Bin Laden in 48 hours or else. (And an assurance – no, a guarantee that they didn’t want to know what or else meant.) Some argue that we were in no position to act that quickly, that it took time for intelligence to determine exactly who or what was behind the attacks. But I recall that even as the clouds continued to swirl around Manhattan, informed speculation among pundits was that Bin Laden was involved. And besides, using the logic that has propelled us through Iraq, if the Taliban and al-Quada were really that evil a presence in the Middle East, we’d be able to justify an attack on them on general principle.

No, my fear is that we let the moment go, and it’s been a mess ever since. Had Bush requested and received a formal declaration of war in his speech to Congress, had he encouraged Americans to sacrifice and go on a war footing rather than arguing that “business as usual” was the best response – but then, one could go on and on in this vein. (Indeed, a couple of weeks after the attack I recall talking with a priest whose parish was near the State Fairgrounds, speculating as to whether or not there would even be a State Fair the next year – such a gathering of people would make a prime terrorist target, and at any rate the Fair traditionally had been suspended during wartime. Such an idea seems laughable now.) The war seems endless, and those in charge seem to lack any clear definition of “victory,” let alone the quaint thought of something such as unconditional surrender. And it’s doubtful that we are a stronger country than we were – our culture seems to grow more debased every day, our politics is more fractured and venomous than ever, and if there’s any real consensus on the direction to go, I have yet to see it. Perhaps in light of all that, doing a good deed for someone else is about the best we can hope to accomplish, pathetic thought that thought may be.

And so we return to Patriot Day, or Good Deeds Day, or whatever you want to call it. There will be a certain somberness about the day, as there has been each year since 2001 (though in decreasing measure each year). One should take a moment to commemorate the innocent dead in New York and Washington, and to remember those who heroically risked their lives (and in many cases lost them) to protect others.

But one should also remember that those who were behind this – the terrorists, the Islamofacists who seek to return civilization to the Stone Age, the rogue states like Iran, above all Bin Laden and his insidiously evil henchmen – are still on the loose, still looking for an opportunity, still doing their dance of death with the taste of blood in their mouths. This is the evil we face, the evil that men do. It is real, and it is present. And there will be a showdown – it is not a question of if, just when and where. It is for us to determine how we choose to respond. If we have the courage and the willpower to do so.

And in the meantime, another September 11 comes and goes, and we relive once more the images of New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Soon the snow will fall upon the ground once more, as the ash did from the collapse of the towers, falling as it did in the closing paragraphs of James Joyce's last and greatest story, "The Dead," as we all will be one day.


. . . His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Monday, September 10, 2007

On the Eve of September 11

By Mitchell

Try to Remember
From the musical "The Fantastics"
Music: Harvey Schmidt
Lyrics: Tom Jones
Book: Tom Jones
Premiere: Tuesday, May 3, 1960

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember
And follow.


It really is hard to remember what it was like Monday, September 10, 2001, isn't it?

Which Way?

By Drew

Kathryn Jean Lopez, who writes for NRO, sums up the conumdrum facing the Republicans in their presidential contest. From a conservative who isn't that wild about Rudy, but could see voting for him nonetheless:

At a recent Beltway party, a friend who is a devoted social conservative explained, and I paraphrase, "Even if abortion is legal in this messed-up post-Roe country, I can choose to not have an abortion. I can counsel you not to have an abortion. I can even choose not to hook up with anyone in the first place. But I can't kill the jihadists. I need the government to do that."

And from K-Lo herself, which is more in line with my own thinking:

The guy who will clearly stare down the jihadists will ultimately earn conservative votes. That may be Giuliani. For now, however, I'm holding out for a leader who comes with even more than that — the one who knows not only that we have a civilization to fight for, but also understands that marriage and the preservation of human life are essential to keeping that civilization going.

What those who most fervently believe the Iraq War is "unjust" often fail to understand is the depth of feeling that so many Americans have, that, as K-Lo's correspondent said, "I can't kill the jihadists. I need the government to do that." I suppose some would say that feeling was unjust as well; they might even try to make an analogy equating the "it's the government's job to keep me safe, regardless of the costs" type of thinking with things like, let's say, embryonic stem-cell research. ("As long as it cures my disease, it's the government's job to do it, regardless of the costs.") I'm sorry, but I don't buy that line.

And yet I'm no supporter of Rudy myself. As Mitchell wrote a few months ago, too much of what he believes in runs contrary to what we believe in. For in fighting to preserve the West, we have to look at what makes up that civilization, what makes it worth saving in the first place. Without that basic belief in the worthiness of human life, the magic of creation, it becomes that much less worth saving.

The problem, as I see it, is this: even if West does become "that much less worth saving," a lot of the people in it still deserve to be protected from those who would destroy that civilization entirely. And that's a hard one to reconcile. I sure don't have the answers.

What I do know is this: too many people, on both sides of the argument, approach it from the standpoint of 1) naivety, and 2) incivility. If we can get past those two obstacles, we might come up with an answer yet.

Friday, September 7, 2007

State Fair

By Mitchell

No, not ours, but the Iowa State Fair. Or, to be more precise, the Iowa State Fair of Rogers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical State Fair. It probably shouldn't be considered one of the duo's best musicals, but it remains a charming look at an Iowa farm family, the Frakes - parents Abel and Melissa, daughter Margy, and son Wayne - and their annual trip to the State Fair.

We're going to ignore the ill-advised remake in 1962, a vehicle for Pat Boone in which the story is shifted from Iowa to Texas and the focus moved from from Margy (Jeanne Crain in the original) and her budding romance with newspaper columnist Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews, in a very smooth - and mostly non-singing - performance), to son Wayne (played by Boone, of course; it was Dick Haymes in the original, who was also a better singer than Boone) and his infatuation with a band singer appearing at the fair (played by Ann-Margaret in the remake, and I'm afraid they have us there). The change not only of locale but of character emphasis fundamentally alters the whole story - it's best to just quietly leave it be.

But in looking at the original, we're going to venture deeply into what I like to call the "what-if" school of film criticism. You know how this works, where as the closing credits are rolling you project either what should have happened (particularly if you're like me, thinking that you always have a better idea than the screenwriters did), or what might happen to the characters if the story were to continue.

In this case, the impetus for "what-if" comes from yet another version of the story which appears as a bonus feature on the State Fair DVD, the seldom-seen 1976 TV-pilot for a State Fair series, an almost unwatchable piece of dreck that evidentally tried to capitalize on the Waltons-type of homespun family drama, with a dose of Dallas thrown in for good measure. The pilot plays its own game of "what-if" to disasterous results, namely: what if the marriage of Margy and Pat fails, and Margy returns to the farm with her troubled son in an attempt to put her life back together? (N.B.: In the pilot, the names of all the characters are changed, thus the Frake family of the movie becomes the Bryant family of the pilot, and Margy's name is now Karen. But we all know who they really are.)

Now, let's set aside for a moment the obvious fact that marriages formed on the basis of a three-day courtship are not necessarily built on the most stable of foundations. Since musicals depend on a certain suspension of disbelief, we'll play along. And so at the end of State Fair the musical, we're left with Margy and Pat embracing on the side of the road, a couple devoted to each other, preparing to head to Chicago and Pat's new job as a columnist (for the Trib? The Sun-Times?) Given that premise, there's no way in hell that this couple is going to split up. This is, after all, a girl that, in the opening song It Might As Well Be Spring, complains about the dullness and predictability of life on the farm and a future marriage to a high-school beau that offers security but little else. In the dashing and mysterous newspaperman Pat, Margy has found - or seems to find - the life she has yearned for. Add to this that by the time of the pilot they'd been married long enough to have produced a son, Tommy. Now, even if this marriage does end, how likely is it that Margy is going to split from Chicago - one of the most exciting cities in the country - for life back on the farm? Particularly if Tommy is the troubled child he appears to be in the pilot - silent, unsociable, a cruel streak, wondering why his parents couldn't stay together. No, if this kid's in that kind of shape, you're going to say in the big city, where he can get the help he needs.

Now, perhaps the writers of the pilot had conflict in mind - you know, make Pat a recurring character, show Margy going through the agonies of divorce, the inevitable custody and support issues, the tantalizing will-they, won't-they suggestion of reconciliation. But there's no evidence in the pilot of any plans to introduce Pat in the series - so, most likely, the split is just a plot gimmick. And if so, one asks why they felt the need to interject such a note of ultimate failure into the happy scene we see at the end of the movie? If you want to break this couple up, it would have made far more sense to simply kill Pat off. And not only does this present us with far more in terms of dramatic potential, it actually gives us a more plausible plot.

In fact, given the evident writing talent that Pat possesses, not to mention his investigative skill (no matter how many people there are on the crowded state fair midway, he's always able to track Margy down), it's easy to speculate that writing a regular column year after year would have become boring to him. He would have felt trapped, wasting his time, yearning to get back out in the field, covering real news, breaking stories. It's no great stretch of the imagination to see him wind up as a war correspondent in either Korea (if you take the time period covered in the movie) or Vietnam (the era of the TV pilot), where he could have died ala Ernie Pyle. Not only does this make more dramatic sense, it also introduces a sensible reason for Tommy's sullenness and cruelty to animals, as he tries to cope with the undoubtedly violent death his father sustained. He would have idolized Pat and thus, if the series had been successful, would have had his own issues with his mother dating, remarrying, etc. A cliché perhaps, but no more so than the ones which the writers of the pilot presented us. It also might explain why Margy would ditch Chicago for life back home (whether Iowa or Texas; take your pick), a place of certainties, much less violent than Chicago.

So in the course of a few paragraphs, we've come up with a successful - or at least credible - backstory that provides at least a little smoother transition from film to television. It didn't take much in the way of effort, but apparently it was still more effort than the writers of the pilot were willing to undertake. Which explains, perhaps, why State Fair remained a pilot, and never a series.


While we're on the subject, it should be noted that as far as I am aware, there are only two musicals that feature songs referring to a state pronounced Eye-Oh-WAY. The other is, of course, The Music Man, featuring Robert Preston as the immortal professor Harold Hill. (Again, it's probably best if we forget the 2003 remake with Matthew Broderick and stick to the original.) And, undeniably, the Iowa of Harold Hill and the Iowa of Margy Frake are one and the same state. Might we not expect to see the good professor somewhere at the fair?

As I recall, The Music Man takes place in 1912. (Which means you can play your own game of what-if, speculating on how many of the citizens of River City wind up biting the dust in World War I.) And although Robert Preston was 44 when he made the movie in 1962, I've always figured he was supposed to be a bit younger than that. Let's suppose Harold Hill (whose real name, as we find out from his former sidekick Marcellus, is Gregory) is in his late 60s or early 70s at the time of State Fair. Would it be so unlikely that he and his wife, the librarian Marian (Shirley Jones) would be spending some time at the fair, along with, in all likelihood, some kids and grandkids?

If you think about it, the lure of the the Midway and its hucksters (notably Harry Morgan, the conniving barker from State Fair) would have probably been irresistable to Hill, the reformed con man who I'll bet still has some fond memories of the good old days, before he settled down and cleaned up his act. So I'd like to imagine the Hill family (or whatever Greg's last name really is) somewhere in the crowd at the fair, having an ice cream or some popcorn, enjoying the exhibits and reminiscing on what a long, strange journey it's been, and how their state has changed over the years. Perhaps if you look carefully you can see them out there.

It's nice to think, at any rate, that these two movies inhabited the same state of Iowa. One actor even appears in both movies - Harry Hickox, who as an anvil salesman tries to blow the whistle on Hill, but by the time of State Fair has become a sideshow barker hustling people into a girlie show. (Well, both characters do have an eye for the trim ankle.) And if that doesn't prove that The Music Man and State Fair both come from Iowa, I don't know what does.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Coming Attractions

By Mitchell

College Football: Virginia Tech vs. LSU, Saturday, ESPN, 9:15 ET. Also known as the "Lacrymose Bowl," as national sweetheart LSU, courageous source of inspiration and healing for the citizens of Louisiana in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, takes on national sweetheart Virginia Tech, courageous source of inspiration and healing for the citizens of Virginia in the wake of the Virginia Tech campus massacre.

Yes, it's Mourning in American, even on Saturday night. Watch as the nation is torn by conflicting emotions, wracked by indecision as fans seek closure to what is sure to be a no-win situation in this showdown between two college powerhouses both ranked in the top ten in the polls, and number one in the hearts of Americans everywhere.

Will the Bayou Bengals, hosting one of the biggest sporting events in a post-Katrina Louisiana still striving to recover, be able to hold off the Hokies, carrying the hopes of an entire campus united in sorrow and grief? Will the corruption of Louisiana's elected officials be overshadowed by the incompetence of Virginia Tech's administrators? There's only one way to find out!

A nation struggling from dissention over the Iraq War yearns for inspriation, and yet someone's dreams will be shattered come Saturday night. Can't the game just end in a tie and leave everyone happy? Well, no - not since the NCAA introduced the tie-breaking overtime feature in an attempt to satisfy football fans everywhere who complained about tie games that left no one happy.

A game this big can only start with a a very special Oprah pre-game show. And make sure to stay tuned after the game, as Dr. Phil helps fans of the losing team cope with their devastating heartbreak.

Luciano Pavarotti, R.I.P.

By Drew

Pavarotti, who died Thursday after a long battle with cancer, was never one of my favorites - Domingo, whom I preferred, will come to be known (if he isn't already) as the great tenor of the era - but there's no denying his ability, nor his fame.

Pavarotti was larger than life - almost literally (which, I think, worked against the belivability factor in many of his supposed "romantic" roles, but then I'm no expert) - he had the talent and charisma of the opera stars of old, and also the ego and personality.

The original Pavarotti obit at CNN is almost a love letter to him, which I think is unfair, not to mention superficial. For Pavarotti was controversial - he frequently cancelled appearances (including what was to be his farewell performance in Tosca at the Met in 2002, which resulted in the debut of Salvatore Licitra), and was essentially fired from the Lyric Opera in Chicago because of his cancellation rate. He was often accused of "slumming" in the pop world with his crossover to the successful Three Tenors and his unsuccessful dabbling in movies (anyone remember Yes, Georgio?). As the obit on NPR pointed out, his fame in Italy was never as great as it was elsewhere (the prophet in his own home, perhaps?) and at La Scala they booed him when he cracked a note. A tell-all book by his former manager Herbert Breslin presented a less-than flattering portrait of the star.

But to point out these controversial aspects of Pavarotti's life is hardly an injustice - it is, really, the stuff of operatic legend, and it was this as much as anything that helped make Pavarotti larger than life. For he did have tremendous talent, and if he did spend too much time on the pop side of the crossover fence, he also brought opera to a lot of people who hadn't otherwise had much exposure to it. Add to that the scent of scandal, the whiff of egomania, the air of unpredictability (Will he show up in good voice? Will he show up at all?) and you have someone in the mold of a Callas.

And so if you're going to celebrate the life of Pavarotti, I think you need to take it in whole, warts and all, as the life of one of the greats, a singer whom the opera world will miss. It's been a tough year for opera, with the deaths of Beverly Sills and Régine Crespin earlier this year, and this will add to it. There are, I think, more talented tenors out there, and will continue to be. But talent is only one part of superstardom - there are many components that cause someone to transcend his field, and Luciano Pavarotti had them all.

UPDATE: Alex Ross, one of our favorite classical bloggers, has a very fine critical appraisal of Pavarotti here. He doesn't fail to acknowledge Pavarotti's style - "the beauty of the sound envelops you, but you’re not conscious of the artifice of art" nor does he shy away from some of the points I raised above:

The pity is that the Three Tenors and the crossover projects that followed had nothing to do with opera as theater. It became a matter of a big man hitting high notes with a smile. Some people have argued that the Three Tenors may actually have harmed opera: for a lot of younger people, the art form ended up looking like Eurokitsch, not something to be taken seriously.

Alex ends on a hopeful note; after commenting on opera's growth even without Pavarotti, he concludes that "we may be moving into a period where platinum-selling vocal celebrities are no longer needed. But a handful of bel canto arias will always be owned by Pavarotti."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Airline Sacrifices Goats to Appeal to "Sky Deity"

By Bobby

Steve may have been more right than he knew with his "goat sacrifice" story.

A song from the late Grant Cunningham warned us not to build our world around luck. Well, an airline has now killed two goats "to appease a deity" because an airplane was malfunctioning repeatedly.

That sounds like the adage of "in luck I trust."

The problem, according to media, was an electrical problem on the Boeing 757, but officials chose to kill two goats in front of the plane to appease the deity. An official at the airline responded, "The snag in the plane has now been fixed and the aircraft has resumed its flights."

Hmm, Steve?

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965) is probably one of the best known of the modern poets. Interesting, since the size of his output of poetry is comparatively small, having concentrated on writing plays and literary criticism. However, titles such as Ash-Wednesday, The Hollow Men, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and, of course, The Waste Land line the walls of the poetry hall of fame.

In 1927 he became a British subject (born in Saint Louis) and an Anglican-Catholic. It is with this in mind that we look at one of his lesser-known poems, A Song for Simeon. Christian symbolism abounded in his work after this period and his work became more suspect in the minds of those in the literary world who did not agree with his philosophy. The poem could as easily have been called The Prayer of Simeon. The poem is full of hope and sorrow, much like the life of any devout Christian. Would that our lives be as poetic.

A Song for Simeon

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children's children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat's path, and the fox's home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel's consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints' stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

No Bull

By Mitchell

Well, August was quite a month here. The month began with the 35W bridge collapse, and ended with a runaway bull at the State Fair. In between, there was a drought, tremendous storms, floods, and heat. It's incredible to think that it all actually happened in the space of 31 days.

There was something truly bizarre about this last story. I mean, how can anyone really keep a straight face when reporting about a bull escaping from its handlers at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday, running loose for about a block before it rammed a fire hydrant and died? Now, this could in fact have been a pretty serious story - the area in which the bull escaped is usually pretty crowded. People, especially young children, could have been trampled or gored. As one witness put it, "All we heard was screaming, and then we saw the bull starting to run after people, and then there was an old couple that got away just in time ... and then it started going after a stroller, but for some reason it just stopped," It was a tragedy waiting to happen, and it was fortunate that no one was injured, save the bull.

That being said, the fact that there were no injuries allows one to appreciate the utter absurdity of the whole thing. The press coverage is rife with unindended humor, as demonstrated in the Strib's story of the bull's "short visit to the State Fair." (Check out the headline: "Bull Meets Its Demise After Run Through Crowd at State Fair") "'It just turned on the fire hydrant, put its head down and hit it at a real good pace,' said witness Chris Fry. 'And when it did that, it just dropped.'" A fair spokeswoman said, "Even our fire hydrant is OK and good to go." I dare say that anyone who's seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon pictured above had to have that image pass through their minds within the first ten seconds of hearing the story.

Bishop Sheen once explained why a man slipping on a banana peel is funny. The humor comes even more from the anticipation, from seeing the peel on the sidewalk with the man approaching, than it does from the actual event. Anticipation - the mind painting a picture of what is to come - is what made the Three Stooges funny, what made Laurel & Hardy funny, what makes old jokes continue to work even after you've heard them time after time. And why do so many of us laugh when we watch the running of the bulls? There's just something outrageous about the image it paints. So forgive me if this seems callous, but the idea of a bull being killed after head-butting a fire hydrant is just too much. Go ahead and try it yourself. As one radio station announcer suggested, perhaps the bull mistook the fire hydrant for a matador's cape. Another wondered if PETA would file suit against the hydrant for having maliciously taken an innocent bull's life. The fact that pictures of the offending hydrant soon appeared online just compounded the absurdity.

The owners of the bull, understandably, were thinking more about their losses - someone figured they probably lost between $4,000 and $6,000 due to the accident. But they were more grateful nobody was injured - "Bulls are replaceable," the owner said. One hopes that someday even they might be able to appreciate how absurd the whole thing was. And that's no bull.

Labor Day

By Mitchell

We're back from an extended Labor Day break.

At NRO, the editors give us something to think about for Labor Day - the state of organized labor in the United States. I think most of us know that the union movement in ths country is, to put it bluntly, a scandal. The conclusion:

In ages past, when the worker’s lot was much worse than it is today, union leaders stuck to what they did best: collective bargaining and improvement of work conditions. They fought for the well-being of their workers, but frequently opposed government intervention in the workplace, understanding that a free market would create jobs and opportunities for all. Today’s labor leaders simply fight to preserve their power, often at the expense of both the workers they represent and the country as a whole. Unfortunately, their closest political friends hold a majority in Congress.

And just to be fair, there's this piece I wrote a few years ago on the flip side of organized labor: Corporate America. As I said in the summing-up, "Just because the company owns your time, it doesn’t mean it owns your life or your soul. That’s a message all too often lost on Corporate America."

Would that we had a Corporate America in which we didn't require unions. Would that we had unions honest enough to keep Corporate America on the straight and narrow.


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