Friday, October 31, 2014

Michael Daugherty, "Dead Elvis"

Just in time for Halloween, it's Michael Daugherty's terrific piece for bassoon and small chamber, "Dead Elvis."  Enjoy this whimsical piece, and listen closely for the refrain of the Dias Irae!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Met's controversial 2009 Tosca

By now, I suspect most people with an interest in this sort of thing have heard about the fiasco at opening night of the Metropolitan Opera: Luc Bondy's new production of Tosca, and what's wrong with it.

Some have commented on the apparent blasphemy of the production, with Scarpia rather sexually fondling a statue of the Virgin Mary during the Te Deum that concludes Act 1. And as the picture below demonstrates, while it’s true nobody knows for certain what Mary Magdeline actually looked like, I feel somewhat safe in assuming nobody ever painted her looking quite like that. I suppose Bondy could claim that his efforts to give us a new Tosca required him to make a clean breast of the whole thing, but I digress.

The thing of it is, I’m not even sure what Bondy did was intended to be blasphemous. Were he to argue that he was merely trying to demonstrate Scarpia’s monstrosity, I might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was probably just part of his larger effort to be provocative, to bring what he would call a new dimension to Puccini's classic.

While the bulk of the critics' appraisal of this performance has been, well, critical, there have been some who've welcomed Bondy's efforts to inject some new blood into what they saw as the moth-eaten Franco Zefferilli production which the Met has been using for the last umpteen-some years. The audience's loud reaction to the production is further evidience, they would say, of the public's unwillingness to accept anything that smacks of new and different. We're just too stuffy, it would seem, to appreciate great art when we're presented with it.

And this brings me to the point of this essay: the question of change. Opera has to change with the times; the theater is not static, but a living organism that constantly adapts to its environment - well, you've heard all the arguments.

Why do people purchase DVDs of movies? Is it to watch them once and then dispose of them like a cheap camera that's done its job? No – you have Netflix for that. People buy movies because they want to see them over and over again – they like the fact they know not only what's coming next, but how it happens. We watch our favorite movies, we know our favorite parts by heart, we delight in the anticipation of hearing “I’m shocked, shocked, to find gambling in this establishment” over and over again; we even nudge your companions as if to say, “Here it comes!”

At the same, however, you never stop seeing something new, even in a movie you’ve seen fifteen or so times. I have a friend who’s watched It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas for decades, and he still finds some little bit he hasn’t noticed before, something that gives him a fresher insight into the movie.

Does that prevent stories from being retold over the years, with different directors, actors and designers? Of course not. Technologies change, things that weren’t possible years ago have now become commonplace, insights – whether into human psychology, history, or filmmaking itself – allow us to try new and different things. Sound and color itself were major innovations, and they were put to good use when the silent classic Ben-Hur was remade in 1959. Sometimes these things work, sometimes they don’t, but often they’re worth trying.

And occasionally the new version is superior to the old – the 1959 Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars, and it’s difficult to remember anyone other than Charlton Heston in the title role. Batman Begins was a reimagination of the beginning of the Batman myth that introduced a much denser psychology into the origins of the Caped Crusader, and along with the sequel The Dark Knight helped elevate this morality play beyond the normal confines of the comic book.

But movies such as Batman Begins are often called “relaunches” rather than “remakes,” and for good reason. It’s not just a story that’s being redone: it’s an entire image of what the story represents. Batman Begins didn’t simply retell the standard Batman story – it became an entirely different story, one that simply shared some elements with the original (and subsequent remakes), but was far more original itself. It’s rather like calling the Ford Mustang a remake of the Model-T – sure, there are some parts that they have in common, an engine, four wheels, a driveshaft – but the new far outweighs the old.

A few years ago the classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate was remade. The decision to remake the movie was less controversial than it might have been, since there was full cooperation from the Sinatra family, but the movie itself was a bomb. The new movie borrowed the title and the general idea, that of a presidential candidate whose strings are being pulled by an outside group, but the entire focus was changed: the evil puppetmasters were not the Red Chinese, but a sinister multinational corporation. Better that they should have changed the name of the movie altogether and settled for being called a Manchurian Candidate-like film, then suffer the comparisions to the original that inevitably come with a remake. The same could be said for Planet of the Apes, Rollerball, you name it.

Opera is no different. I know committed opera fans who have perhaps half a dozen different recordings of the same opera. They have the Callas recording of Tosca, of course, but they also have Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballe, Renata Tebaldi - they all bring something different, some new shading to the role. And although many fans have their favorites, they savor the opportunity to compare and contrast, to debate the merits of each of the leading ladies and their supporting cast. In many cases they may even have multiple recordings of the same singer; there are probably at least a half-dozen different recordings of Callas - live and in the studio, spread over a number of years - and they can tell you how her voice changes over the years, how what she lacks in vocal power in her later years might be offset by her dramatic prowess, things like that. If you were to take that choice away - if you told people there was only one definitive version of Tosca - you'd have a lot of unhappy people.

This applies to the current Tosca, of course. As fabulous and well-loved as Zefferili's staging is, there's no reason it has to be the only one. There's room for more than one Tosca, if you make this important proviso: it has to be faithful to the text and to the psychology of the characters.

Case in point: Bondy's Tosca omits a number of nuances, gestures and the like. For one example, after Tosca fatally stabs Scarpia, she places two candles next to him, one on either side, and a Crucifix on his chest. Bondy omits these gestures. They're very familiar, as familiar as Hamlet carrying that skull while muttering "To be or not to be." One has to be tempted to make a change, just to be different if nothing else. But Tosca's Catholicism is an important part of her character. Her gestures with the candles and Crucifix are entirely in keeping with it. Remove them, and you haven't just tampered with a stage direction - you've started to mess with the character's psyche.

Another case in point: the stabbing itself. Traditionally, Tosca finds a knife or letter opener on a desk in Scarpia's office. As he comes to complete his "seduction," she stabs him with it. The killing is, in other words, anything but premeditated. If Tosca winds up getting hauled into court, she can claim self-defense. Bondy's production (as well as some others) portrays Tosca bringing the knife with her into the room. We then are subjected to her frantic begging with Scarpia, knowing the whole thing is a ruse if she's just going to stab him anyway. Not only does it mess with the character's motivation, it changes the entire dramatic dynamic: Tosca winds up looking even more manipulative than Scarpia.

Again, my point is that while some aspects of a production are there for no reason other than tradition (check out the many versions of A Christmas Carol to see what I mean), some of them are more than that - they play a crucial part in character development, the evolution of the story, what have you. When you start to tamper with that, for whatever reason, you're asking for trouble.

And that brings us to the ultimate question – does art exist as entertainment for its patrons, or does it exist for its own sake? A complicated question, to be sure, but try this on for size: if it’s functional, or meant to serve a purpose, it had better do it. If you charge money for it, it’s entertainment. If you display it for free, you can call it whatever you want.

Charging admission for a performance means that a piece has to serve a purpose, namely to provide entertainment for the patrons who purchased the ticket. It’s all well and good for an artist to talk about the purity and truth of his art, but if you’re going to ask people to fork over money to see it, you’d better give them something for their money. If you’re going to lecture them rather than entertain them, if you seek to provide education instead of (or in addition to) diversion, then you owe it to them to let them know up front. If your work bombs with the audience, and they stop buying tickets to see it, then it doesn’t matter what you call it, because we’ve already come up with a name for it: failure. Perhaps only in the short term (plenty of the operas we know and love bombed in their premieres), but failure nonetheless.

When that happens the artist has options: he can go back and make changes, trying to identify and deal with the shortcomings identified by the audience; he can withdraw the work altogether, hoping that a later generation will appreciate something that the current generation can’t (or won’t) see; or he can berate the audience for failing to live up to the standards set by the artist himself. It’s our fault, you see, for not recognizing the obvious genius of the artist, which is surely apparent – at least to the artist himself.

(In the same way we can say that any commissioned work has a purpose to serve, at least to the person who commissioned it. We can call a well-designed bridge a work of art, to be sure, but if it proves unable to support the weight of the load it’s expected to carry, then it’s a failure, no matter how cool it looks. And I suspect the taxpayers would agree.)

The inspiration for this essay began with the talk of blasphemy, and to drift off into other areas does not diminish the importance of that. Not only does the blasphemy appear nowhere in the orginial libretto, much of it runs contrary to the common sense of the story. Besides which, it's offensive for no good reason. Lord knows, we have enough in the world that's truly offensive without going out of our way to add more to it.

But I do have a larger point here, and it's this: it's perfectly fine to introduce alternative versions of a story, as long as you're willing to let the marketplace decide, and you don't insult the paying customers if they reject your version. There are two prominent opera companies in New York: the Met may be the bigger and better known, but for many years the New York City Opera was the more adventurous, presenting new works, new interpretations of old works, seldom-performed works, and so on. The two companies maintained a nice balance that way. If you wanted traditional, grand opera, you had the Met; if you were looking for something with a little bit of a twist, you went to NYCO. They both survived, at least until the recent economic downturn. But now that the Met is poaching, so to speak, on the City Opera's turf, what will happen? Good question.

It was with more than a touch of sadness that the Met retired their mammoth Otto Schenk production of Wagner's Ring Cycle last season. The Schenk Ring was classic, traditional, realistic. If you were looking for the abstract, the provocative, or the metaphorical, you were looking in the wrong place. With the exception of Seattle's opera, it was the only such Ring production left. Now that the production has been retired, we wonder what the new Ring will be like. We only know this - that one more option for the opera-going public has disappeared, and that the only alternative will be to retreat to DVD.

So to conclude: there's nothing wrong with change, as long as you don't destroy choice in the process. And if you don't like the Tosca that the public apparently likes, you're more than welcome to write your own Tosca, call it Zelda, and do whatever you want. It doesn’t even have to be better than the original – if it allows you to tell the story your way, and if it finds an audience that likes it, then it works.

Until then, if you're going to do an opera based on Tosca and you're also going to call it Tosca rather than Zelda, I’d suggest trying something more radical – sticking to the original story.

Originally published September 30, 2009

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Opera Wednesday: Gay and Britten's The Beggar's Opera

Continuing our theme of 20th Century opera on Opera Wednesday, it's Benjamin Britten, one of my favorite 20th Century composers, with his realization of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, as seen on BBC in 1963.  This is the complete broadcast, with the music performed by the English Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Meredeth Davies.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The shame of North Carolina

L ate last week, we started to find out the real scope of the academic/athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina, and it's ugly.  How ugly?  Try 18 years of fraudulent classes, mostly designed to enable athletes to remain academically eligible, eventually encompassing "thousands" of students.  If this isn't an example of the Scam of Higher Education, I don't know what is.

Over at Fox Sports, college football writer Stewart Mandel wonders what kind of punishment the university athletics programs face from this "shadow curriculum."  It doesn't seem to have been limited to the football and men's basketball programs, as is often the case (though they were the most highly represented), but in fact was pervasive throughout the entire athletic department.  And there's no chance that the academic counselors who put the jocks through these sham classes were unaware of what they were doing, as Mandel writes:

Jan Boxill, a philosophy professor whose formal title is director of the Parr Center for Ethics, steered women’s basketball players to Crowder [Afro-American studies office manager Debbie Crowder] and literally named their grade. “Did you say a D will do?” Crowder wrote to Boxill in an e-mail about one player who had apparently recycled an old paper. “Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs,” Boxill replied.

That this is a state college and not a private institution makes this even more sickening, because it means the tax dollars of North Carolina residents (as well as all of us, for that matter, insofar as Federal funds are routed to UNC) are paying for this fiasco.

The so-called Death Penalty, in which the NCAA can ban a school from taking part in certain sports, has only been administered a handful of times.  Even those who are most concerned about corruption in college sports have been reluctant to call for it, because it often winds up punishing innocent athletes for sins that may have been committed several years ago.  But in this case, considering the amount of institutional corruption involved, as well as the timeframe over which it's taken place, I think that the death penalty is the only possible answer.  As a matter of fact, I'd call it a good start - before any UNC sports program can compete again, let the university itself show that it actually knows how to educate and graduate students honestly.  When they can prove that, then we'll talk about bringing sports back.  If something isn't done to answer this disgrace, we might as well give up on any pretense of college sports; let's just make them professional minor leagues and leave it at that.

Friday, October 24, 2014

How the World Series has fallen!

We did not get Game One coverage of the World Series here in my part of South Carolina until 35 minutes into the broadcast, because of a Gubernatorial "glorified press conference" on our local Fox affiliate.  That meant when the game broadcast began, we were joined in progress as the Kansas City pitcher was in his opening tosses.

This was the same affiliate that pre-empted the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Fred's 250 presented by Coca-Cola at Talladega for an ACC gridiron match, not informing us of a tape delay until roughly 90 minutes before it aired.  By that time the results were known and the DVRs weren't set.  Fans complained on their boards.

And speaking of television history, did World Series games move to night over concerns over an FCC rule in 1971?  Remember in 1971 the FCC imposed a rule that networks could not program on Mondays to Saturdays the 7 PM ET hour under "Prime Time Access," a rule that lasted until 1996.  Local stations relied on 6 PM news broadcasts, and news broadcasts had expanded from 15 to 30 minutes (and now, often 5 PM 90 minute local news broadcasts are commonplace).  With an increased proliferation of West Coast baseball clubs (two in Los Angeles, two in the Bay Area, one in San Diego), the Noon or 1 PM local World Series game was no longer feasible.  If there was a Dodgers, Giants, or Athletics game (remember that the Angels and Padres were expansion teams, while the other three were established teams that had moved west), there would have been a 3 PM or 4 PM start to the game.  And a 4 PM start would mean if the game lasted extra innings, the 7 PM hour creep would have run into trouble with the new federal regulation, though it was exempt as sports runover, with stations invested heavily in syndicated programming for the 7 PM hour, it would have been trouble.  Could you imagine network daytime dramas not knowing if it will air because of a game's start time?

That was the primary reason for the World Series games starting at 8 PM since 1971, as to avoid Prime Time Access regulations.

[Editor's Note: Read this story at Awful Announcing wondering if the World Series might eventually wind up off broadcast television altogether, airing instead on Fox Sports 1.]

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Throwback Thursday: a truth about Corporate America

Lisbon: And you know what’s weird about these guys? None of them seem to give a damn. A colleague of theirs falls out of the sky and they seem OK with it. Is that guilt or indifference?

Jane: Corporate brainwashing. Turns them into robots. Grief isn’t productive, and that’s all.

Lisbon: I don’t buy that. People make up their own minds. You can’t brainwash them.

Sure you can. That’s what these corporate retreats are all about. It’s primitive brainwashing via group suffering. It’s like office karaoke or fraternity hazing.

Lisbon: How so?

Jane: When the individual is humiliated, their perceived value of the group is raised.

I went on a retreat when I got promoted to head of the unit. I mean, I wasn’t humiliated. I wasn’t brainwashed.

Jane: So you say.

- Patrick Jane to Teresa Lisbon, The Mentalist, written by Bruno Heller.

Originally published June 11, 2009

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Opera Wednesday - The Ballad of Baby Doe

Haven't done one of these in a long while, so as I surfed through YouTube, I thought I'd offer this clip of the great Beverly Sills from one of her signature roles, "Baby Doe" Tabor, in Douglas Moore's 1956 The Ballad of Baby Doe.

I continue to contend that we should look to underperformed operas of the past before we start commissioning new operas (and using precious dollars to do so).  Once upon a time (1956 to be precise), Baby Doe was a new opera.  So I'm not opposed to new commissions; let's just make sure we don't ignore what's already out there.  At the very least, it would be nice if the new commissions had staying power beyond the initial performances.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A decade - more than just dates on the calendar

I've remarked before, perhaps even on this blog, that I frequently get ideas from unusual sources, and it's even better when, as is the case today, I get an idea that has virtually nothing to do with the source itself.

Over in the comments section at Uniwatch ("The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics"), an interesting discussion broke out in the comments section as to how one defines a decade.  I know, doesn't seem to have anything to do with sports uniforms, right?  Long story short, the question arose as to whether the 1970 World Series falls within the '70s or the '60s.  Not as stupid a question as you might think; since there's no Year 0, most people know that the Ist Century ran from 1 to 100, and so on.  The 20th Century, therefore, began on January 1, 1901 and ended on December 31, 2000.  The question is, do decades operate the same as centuries?  Do the 1970s begin on January 1, 1971 or January 1, 1970?

From there, a commentator named Wiggle Man speculated that culturally, it is events rather than dates that determine a decade.  He suggested the following:

1930’s – Began with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929 (“Black Thursday”)
1940’s – Began on December 7, 1941 (“A date which will live in infamy”)
1950’s – Began on January 20, 1953 (Eisenhower’s Inauguration)
1960’s – Began on November 22, 1963 (Kennedy’s assassination)
1970’s – Began on May 4, 1970 – (Kent State) (I would also accept June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in)
1980’s – Began on January 20, 1981 – Reagan’s Inauguration / Hostages released).

Other commentators had different ideas; one suggested that the '60s actually started with Kennedy's inauguration, rather than his death, and that Kent State (as well as Altamont) are more indicative of the '60s than the '70s.  Others chipped in that '90s actually began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the "aughts" (2000s) probably started on September 11, 2001.

I find this kind of discussion exceptionally interesting.  (It's also proof that you should have an eclectic reading list; you never know what you're going to run into.)  I've maintained over at the TV blog that the early years of the 1960s actually are more properly understood as a continuation of the 1950s, and that the last years of the '60s more properly line up with the 1970s - in fact, I'd contend that 1965 might be the prime example of what the '60s would have been like had they not dealt with the JFK assassination (at the beginning) and the Vietnam War (at the end).  Many, if not most, of the mores and visuals of the early '60s (not to mention television programming, which was the point of my musing in the first place) would have been perfectly acceptable in the late '50s, and the late '60s are almost indistinguishable from the first few years of the '70s.

The point is, I suppose, every decade has its own tenor, it's own "look."  I think Wiggle Man is correct in suggesting that decades, properly understood, represent events as much as they do actual dates.   We can quibble with the specific events that signal the end of one decade and the beginning of another, but I think the calendar is perhaps the least important part of the equation.  Anyone out there have other suggestions?

Friday, October 17, 2014

The tragedy of the Church and its captain

For someone who is 1) Catholic, 2) a frequentor of the blogosphere, and 3) a writer, it is hard to ignore the ongoing drama being played out in Rome, or to keep from succumbing to the temptation to say something about it.  Fortunately, since the readership of this blog is relatively small, I don't always have to have an opinion on everything, and for those times when I do, I can usually do so without having to play up to my audience - to give them raw meat, so to speak, that confirms their own opinions.

Having said that, for those of you who've read what I've written about the Catholic Church in the last year or so, your expectations regarding my opinions are likely to be confirmed over the next few paragraphs.  My feelings regarding the current Bishop of Rome are no secret, nor is my concern regarding the direction in which the Church is headed.  This week's explosive Synod on the Family merely reinforces those concerns - concerns, I would add, that I don't pretend to express as fact.  That's another thing that distinguishes me from other bloggers, I think; while I have a high regard for my own opinion, I don't pretend to have some secret well of knowledge that makes those opinions tantamount to fact.  It's what I think, and while I believe it's an educated opinion, that's all it is.

The one great accomplishment of the Pope is that he's been able to create even more division within the Church than had previously existed.  The Church, at least the orthodox (or "conservative," if you prefer) part of it, has now split into roughly two warring camps: those who think the sky is falling, and those who prefer to say, "nothing to see here, move along."  Each side has its faults; the doomsayers often have the personality of Eeyore, while those who wear the rose-colored glasses seem not only breathtakingly arrogant but utterly dismissive of those who don't see things their way.

Earlier this week I posted on my Facebook page this video, suggesting that it summarized in a nutshell my feelings about the Church:

Now, I know this isn't about the Church, or religion (it's apparently about environmentalism), but it's got a catchy tune and the lyrics ring true to my feelings right now, especially this part:

Save me. Save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools
Save me. Save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools
Where's it comin' from?
Where's it goin' to now?
It's just a ship of fools

Or perhaps, I suggested, it was this one instead:

Crazy on a ship of fools
Crazy on a ship of fools
Turn this boat around - back to my loving ground
Oh no, oh no - ship of fools --

Now, I don't mean to suggest here that the Pope is a fool, because that would not give him enough credit.  Rather, I think Damon Linker has it about right in this column, excerpted by Rod Dreher, in which he gets to the heart of what he thinks is up with the Pope:

Francis would like to liberalize church doctrine on marriage, the family, and homosexuality, but he knows that he lacks the support and institutional power to do it. So he’s decided on a course of stealth reform that involves sowing seeds of future doctrinal change by undermining the enforcement of doctrine today. The hope would be that a generation or two from now, the gap between official doctrine and the behavior that’s informally accepted in Catholic parishes across the world would grow so vast that a global grassroots movement in favor of liberalizing change would rise up at long last to sweep aside the old, musty, already-ignored rules.

If this is true, it's a serious problem, not only for the Church itself but for those outside the Church who nevertheless look to Catholicism as the keeper of some kind of moral foundation, and indeed there's some evidence that these people feel the Pope has thrown them under the bus.  Regardless, this Pope is having an incredibly destructive effect on people within the Church.

So what does one do in such a case?  One person I talked with, recalling Ronald Reagan's description of being deserted by the Democratic Party, said that she didn't feel as if she was leaving the Church as much as that the Church was leaving her.  I don't think this will be an uncommon opinion in the weeks and months to come.  Dreher wonders what will become of these disenchanted Catholics, and speculates that while few of them will actually leave the Church, many will cease their active involvement with it.  I would add that for many Catholics who adhere to a traditional view of the faith, the the option they will pursue is, in some respects, the nuclear one: aligning with the SSPX, the traditionalist movement that, while in communion with Rome (at least for the moment), has such reservations over the direction the Church has taken since Vatican II that a schism may be inevitable.

And should that happen?  One suspects that the future, in that case, would be a small but vibrant counter-Church, whose members adhere to the Church's teachings without being in formal communion with Rome; a core of conservatives choosing to remain in the Church, denying up until the end that there's any problem at all (and then being shocked, shocked to find out that there is); and a formal nucleus of the Church that is more liberal, less grounded in theology, and so bereft of substance that it, like other mainline denominations, will be even less consequential than it already is. Not a pretty sight, and not the best thing in the world for a Pope to hang his hat (or zucchetto, as it were) to as his greatest accomplishment.

According to the teaching of the Church, the Pope is the Church's captain, entrusted with sailing her to safe port, keeping her away from the hazards that populate the ocean.  For that reason, this Pope reminds me not so much of his predecessor Paul VI (who presided over the implementation of Vatican II) as he does of an actual captain of an actual ship: Edward Smith, the first and only captain of the Titanic, who took a supposedly unsinkable ship and rammed it into an iceberg, sinking it on its first voyage.  A ship of fools, indeed.

Make no mistake, the Church and her teachings will survive, in one form or another.  It may well be that groups such as the SSPX will provide the remnant that will keep the faith alive until a different skipper takes over a rebuilt ship.  After all, Christ Himself promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church.  He did not, however, guarantee that there wouldn't be some rocky times ahead.  Remember, the Holy Spirit does not choose the Pope, but merely acts as an adviser to those who do.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Borgias, they get it wrong.  In our confidence about the ultimate triumph of the Church, let us not blind ourselves to the likelihood that with this Pope, they got it wrong again.  Very wrong.

Christ sought out fishermen, who presumably knew how to sail boats, because they were to be fishers of men.  He did not intend for those boats to be sailed to the bottom of the sea.  And so if we are sailing on a Ship of Fools, we'd better start manning the pumps.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Is art a masculine thing?

One of the more interesting blogs from a few years back, 2 Blowhards, had an article (which fortunately has been archived) which posed a most interesting question: "Why do so many American males consider arty and aesthetic matters to be faggy?"

It's an intriguing question, and a troubling one as well. You should read the entire article because Michael makes a lot of interesting points, but I'll pull out this particular section. After mentioning how in many other cultures the very "artistic" qualities we talk about are seen as masculine, Michael makes this comment:

Where does this aversion to aesthetics come from, historically speaking? My hunch is that it has less to do with Puritanism than it does with our history as a place where people who want to get away from traditional cultures come to. The real American man is felt to be the adventurer and the frontiersman -- the man who escapes the shelter, nay, the claustrophobia of female-dominated "civilization." By these lights, we're all little Huck Finns, forever investing our masculinity in our quest to light out for the territories ahead of the rest. Where a guy from another kind of culture might express his straight-guy masculinity within the parameters of his culture, we straight-guy Americans are masculine because we reject civilizin'.

I think this is particularly evident in the crudity we see so often in young males - the need to be a man is in such conflict with today's PC-enforced sensibilities that their rejection of civilizin' is expressed in a defiance of the most basic types of civilized behavior. Put another way, men don't seem to have much of an opportunity to be men anymore. We've stripped young males of so many opportunities to be masculine that a return to caveman-like behavior is one of the few avenues left. (As an aside, it will be interesting to see, as young women increasingly follow the crude behavior of their male counterparts, if there's some kind of shift of behavior from the men, searching for another way to be unique.)

You see and hear about the same phenomenon in the Church, for example: the preponderance of women in the pews, and increasing numbers of them in leadership positions within parishes. More and more often men speak of the "feminized" (not necessarily "feminist") church, as if there's something vaguely unmanly about religion. It's true that there was nothing unmanly about the early Church, so I"m not quite sure why things are the way they are, other than to say that they are. Perhaps it's the submissiveness required by a true disciple, possibly it has to do with the loss of ownership required when one opens the heart completely to Christ.

While we're at it, we might also wonder why so many of theses artistic endeavors are seen as the province of the liberal establishment, the arts and croissants crowd? Interestingly enough, it's an assumption shared by conservatives as well as liberals - that red Americans turn to NASCAR and country music while blue Americans own opera and literature. It's also one of the main aspects that makes the "crunchy con" movement so intriguing. Is there anything to the linkage between liberal politics and homosexual politics, that they share the same interests? Probably a subject that demands more time and study.

At any rate, what all these things share is a need for diversification among its membership. For years conservatives have decried the liberality of institutions such as the media, academia, and the entertainment industry. The answer has always been the same: if more conservatives were willing to go into those fields (setting aside, for the moment, the obstacles many of them face when they try), diversity would follow. What are you left with? Michael supplies the answer:

The fact that straight American guys consider aesthetic matters to be self-evidently gay becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it means that the aesthetic fields in America in fact become ever-more gay.

And that's not a good thing. In fact, it can become a propaganda tool. The young boy who shows an interest in classical music or interior decoration must be a closet homosexual - why not come out of the closet, show your inner feelings, be the "man" you're supposed to be. If you're told this often enough, might you not come to believe it? I am told, therefore I am.

Not only that, such lockstep thinking denies a difference of opinion, a contrary outlook, a unique perspective. Without that, you wind up with a uniformity of opinion that is neither honest nor intellectually compelling.

Michael's conclusion: "Wouldn't we all be a bit better off if the aesthetic fields had a few more straight guys in them?" To that I heartily agree. It is time to reclaim that which belongs to us, which belongs to everyone. Diversity, the mantra of the very patrons of these fields, would seem to demand no less.

Originally published February 16, 2007

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day, whether you like it or not

It's Columbus Day today, or as it's called in Minneapolis*, "Indigenous Persons Day."  This is all such dreck; to think that taxpayer dollars go to support a City Council that has time to delve into the PC naming of holidays instead of, you know, something important.  Do they actually think they're accomplishing something with this kind of stupidity?  Or perhaps they're making the case that government really isn't that important after all, that this is the kind of issue that they consider a good use of time.

*And California, I think.

There are many, many reasons I'm glad I don't live in Minnesota anymore, and this is one of them.  Actually, while it's only one of many reasons, so many of them spout from the same font as that.  I think one can go too far in allowing politics and ideology to shape where they live, but when this is the kind of garbage one has to deal with - well, I'm surprised that any conservatives live in Minnesota at all.

Let's face it - this is the only good reason anyone has for not recognizing Columbus Day.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Salome, when she danced

The movie Salome, starring Rita Hayworth, was on TCM the other night. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but it got me to thinking. We don’t really know much about Salome. Most of us think we know her from the Bible, but there she isn’t even mentioned by name, referred to only as the Daughter of Herodias. She’s starred in books, movies, opera – and yet, she was a real person.

Most of what we know of Salome, or think we know, comes from Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. It is here that Wilde creates the most familiar iconic images of Salome, elaborating on the scene from Mark’s Gospel in which, as a reward for her dancing, Herod offers to grant her any desire. It is from Wilde that we get the image of Salome as the teenage temptress with the sexually charged dance, leaving Herod drunk with lust (as well as wine). It’s this version of Salome that most people probably think of, and the version that appears in movies such as King of Kings (which actually uses bits of Wilde’s dialogue).

The best-known fictional portrayal of Salome is probably Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, which was based on Wilde’s play. The role of Salome is a particularly challenging one, insofar as it requires the soprano to demonstrate great vocal prowess while at the same time acting like a nubile teen, particularly in the famed Dance of the Seven Veils (usually performed by the singer, occasionally by a stand-in dancer). It’s a great role, and some of the greatest singers in opera have played it, with varying degrees of success (and believability).

There are other versions of Salome as well, but so much of our iconography comes back to Wilde, which makes the ending of Wilde’s play (and Strauss’ opera) all the more interesting. Wilde fleshes out Salome’s character (no pun intended), but adds a detail that is completely at odds with the historical record: her death.

The climax of Salome (again, no pun intended) features the dancer holding before her the severed head of John the Baptist on the silver platter, after which she proceeds to fondle and caress the head, finally delivering a passionate kiss to the dead head’s lips. Herod, who is terrified and repulsed by this act, orders his soldiers to kill Salome, which they do by crushing her under the weight of their shields.

Now, one is curious as to why Wilde chose to end his play in this fashion. It’s certainly consistent with Herod’s superstitious character – he does, after all, believe for a time that Jesus is John come back to life. But the real Salome actually lived into her 40s or 50s (depending on the account), dying between 62 and 71 AD.

So what might Wilde’s motives have been for introducing such a radical change into his play? There’s no doubt it makes for a great dramatic ending, as anyone who’s seen either the play or the opera can testify. And in a creative sense it does provide closure to a plot which otherwise wouldn’t have much of an ending.

Still, one is tempted to wonder if Wilde was trying to pronounce some kind of a moral statement at the end, with judgment being delivered on Salome for her heresy. We think often of Wilde as the sexual libertine, but in truth the ending of Salome seems much more in line with Joseph Pearce’s portrait of Wilde as a man with a constant fascination with Catholicism and its teachings. As Pearce says in his book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, "Once again, Wilde emerges in Salome as a Christian moralist par excellence." And certainly there does seem to be Old Testament justice being meted out in the end.

Heather Marcovitch, in Princess, Persona and Subjective Desire, offers that “Wilde saw Salome as the representation of all the unspoken impulses and desires in Donan Gray.” She suggests that Salome, seen primarily by Herod and his court as an object of desire, uses “power gotten from her persona to destroy the very system that imbued her with this power.”

Other scholars point to Wilde’s use of imagery of the kind favored by Israel's kingly poets “and that the moon is meant to suggest the terrible pagan goddess Cybele, who, like Salomé, was obsessed with preserving her virginity and thus took perverse pleasure in destroying male sexuality.”

There’s often a temptation to read either too much or too little into the thought process of artists, resulting in explanations that are either far too simple or exceedingly complex. And yet sometimes it is the simple or the complex that tells the true story of the author’s mind. Pearce suggests that Wilde’s term in Reading Prison, starting in 1895, was what broke him and forced him to come to terms with his life, and Salome predates that, in 1891. It’s frequently true that, prior to a conversion of any time, hints can always be seen in retrospect, and so it may well be with Salome. Whatever the reason for Wilde’s choice, Salome remains one of his most intriguing works, and the character he created one of the most intriguing in art.

Originally published May 4, 2007

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Abusive courts attack Declaration of Independence

When the United States Supreme Court overturned Constitutions declaring marriage as One Man and One Woman to force five states into the evil agenda of the humanists, the Founding Fathers could be easily angered by the actions of these rogues that, in 11 years, have imposed their ideology on half of the nation (and potentially more) through their whim.

In our fourth grade history books, we had to quote most of the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  One specific section holds true with these cases.

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

These activist judges overturning Constitutions have effectively become a tyrant.  When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered marriage redefined in 2003, other states struck back and imposed a check on these rogue judges.  Now, the judges are overturning the checks placed on these judges, effectively making them tyrants.  These actions are reminiscent of six grievances listed by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence:

(1) Obstructing the administration of justices (see the numerous Autogol strategies, where the administration of justice is obstructed by a whim).

(2) Judges dependent on the leader's will. (See court packing to advance the agenda.)

(3) Establishing new government offices (such as "human rights" panels used to enforce homosexual activism).

(4) Trial for pretended offenses (see hate crimes or supporting the Bible, not the state).

(5) Abolishing the free system of laws to make it an arbitrary government (in most cases, same-sex "marriage" is a byproduct of judicial mandates, or large cities using abuses that were developed by courts in Reynolds v. Sims to overturn the Great Compromise;  furthermore, when abolishing the Constitution to develop something they want themselves, that was abuse the Founding Fathers warned against).

(6) Taking away the charters, abolishing valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments (see the courts overturning Constitutions; the check on the judges has been overturned by the judges themselves -- our checks and balances system was designed to protect against rogue judges, so they strike back).

Ponder these points from our Founding Fathers when you consider the rogue activism today.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Jon Vickers on mediocrity

People will laugh when I say it, but I feel there has been for some years now a ground-swell of demand for mediocrity. They don't want excellence. We don't have positive heroes anymore; they're negative heroes. What do we attack? We've attacked all the great pillars of civilization. We take great heroes of history and so far as we are capable we snoop around in the excretia of some of these heroes until we find a flaw. So because a hero is not perfection, which if he was he would be God himself, then he's nothing more than anybody on the street.

Jon Vickers, 1981 interview

Originally published March 7, 2008

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Who is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and why is he saying all these stupid things?

Actually, I'm just kidding about the headline, at least partly.  I know well who Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, as do most of you, I'm sure.  But am I the only one out there who's tired of him? I think not, based on what I've been reading over the last few weeks.  I am tired of reading about his various misquotations, but that's just because it's hard to believe the guy's getting away with it all.  If he were a Christian, or a conservative, or a (horror of horrors) conservative Christian, the media'd be all over him.  As it is, you get to read about it here and there.

The writeup I linked to over at The Federalist gives a good summary of how he's quoted people who never actually said what he said they said, and RedState tells us about his (sort of) admission that he might not have gotten everything right in the past, but that you should believe him rather than your lying eyes, or something like that.

Look, I'll admit that I enjoyed his book on Pluto, but what else has he done for me?  His reboot of a legendary series, Cosmos, bombed - although I'll admit that the original series, which was acclaimed far more than it deserved, wasn't any great shakes either.  (I really should read this sometime.)  He makes ideologically-driven, suspect statements.  And this First Things article from a while back points out his flawed belief in "scientism" that permeates the series.

I've written at the TV blog about how we need more science as part of popular culture, and I have to at least applaud Tyson for that.  But how much stock can you put in someone who, in an age when information (and factchecking) is at anyone's fingertips, can't even produce an accurate quote, or one that's tainted by ideological overtones?  Can we really trust what he says on television?  For all we know there might be only six planets in the solar system.
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