Thursday, December 30, 2010

Video Games and Art


I should preface this by saying that I do not consider myself a gamer. There are maybe four video games that I've really gotten into.

Roger Ebert has famously and repeatedly written that "video games can never be art." To my knowledge, he wrote most extensively about that subject here. I've been thinking about his article for a while now. He makes some good points, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to agree with him.

For Christmas I gave my brother some popcorn in a New Orleans Saints tin as well as The Hunger Games.  He sent me a text the other day, "Guess which of your presents I finished." I texted back that he must be done with the popcorn. For one, he has a voracious appetite for popcorn. He was also really busy working on a major project, so he didn't really have time for the book. Also, I suspected that when he finished the book he'd have a lot more to say about it than just "I'm finished." Turns out, he had just finished the popcorn.

But then I thought about his phrasing a little bit more. One does not "finish" a good book like that. It sticks with you, it gets in your head. After I read Dune, I couldn't look at a glass of water the same way for months. Every year when April shakes up what remains of winter, it brings me back to the first time I read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I'm not "finished" with those books.

But before I thought of either of those examples, I thought of an example from a video game—Final Fantasy VII. Every time I sit at a campfire, I always think of the scene in that game where the group is seated around a fire in Cosmo Canyon, and I think Barret says something about how the flames pull out deeply rooted memories. Then I started thinking about how the music and images of that game have stuck with me years after I first played it.

Central to Ebert's argument is that video games cannot be art because you beat them. You don't beat a novel or a painting or an opera. Well, I think it's safe to say that I did not really beat FFVII. It's one of the few games I've played through, and I must have played it start-to-finish half a dozen times. I play it for several reasons. First of all, it's fun. But it also looks beautiful, there are some fascinating characters, and the plot is sprawling and involved. And aside from the usual themes of life, death, and love, the game also explores the significance of colonialism and environmentalism, and identity and memory. It gets real.

But Ebert has bigger issues with video games. He writes, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and [sic]poets."  I have several problems with this. First, comparing art forms is a little silly. "Show me a piano sonata with character development as profound as even a low-rate novel!"

There are bigger problems, though. In the linked article above, he counters the argument that video games should be spared scrutiny because the medium is in its infancy. Ebert cites the beauty of cave paintings and the sophistication of early cinema. But the real test of art is time. We just can't know now if a video game made today will be timeless. I know that must be a hard pill for a film critic to swallow.

And now I'm actually going to get to the heart of the matter. Art is not like gold. No matter what we think of gold, whatever name we call it, whatever form it's bent in to, it will always be gold. It's as unchangeable as any other element. But the definition and properties of art are entirely dependent on what we assign it.

I'll turn to Prospero's last soliloquy from The Tempest. At this point in the play, Prospero is reconciled with his brother, the king, Ariel, and Miranda. Yet out Prospero comes to tell us that whether he returns to his home in Naples and is absolved is entirely up to us. He says, asking for applause:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

I don't think Prospero is just talking about his fate, or the fate of the play itself. This was the last of Shakespeare's plays, and I think Prospero is speaking about the entire body of Shakespeare's work and fiction in general. Prospero is trying to clue us in that the fate of any work does not lie in itself, but in how others perceive it. The author's intentions and best wishes are inconsequential if the audience wholly rejects what they have seen. The opposite is also true. I doubt that Shakespeare intended for his works to have the kind of force and presence that they have today. There was just no parallel in his age, aside from religious texts, to what his influence would become. And on top of it all, plays weren't considered art in his day.

There may come a time when we see video games in an entirely new light. I don't think Pong will ever be looked at like the Epic of Gilgamesh, but maybe Final Fantasy VII will be considered to be on par with "Le Voyage dans la lune." And some educated and refined people may never develop a taste for even the best video games. But that's okay. Lots of people don't like opera.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Contribution to NaNoWriMo

"Once upon a time there was a lovely little sausage called Michael, and it lived happily ever after."

It's semi-autobiographical.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Inception

A lot has been written about this movie on the interwebs, and theories about the mechanics of the plot abound. I have no new theories about who was dreaming when, how limbo works, how effective Cobb's totem is, and all that other stuff. The first two or three times I saw the movie, that's what I focused on until I accepted that whether Nolan intended it or not, the whole thing was a meta-dream experience for me. I can't make total sense of my dreams, and I couldn't make total sense of the movie. Instead, I'd like to look at the movie as it examines my favorite subject—death.

For anyone writing in English, death and dreams are inseparably linked. That's just part of our literary heritage. There is something of death in dreaming and something of dreams in living. "Come heavy sleep, the image of true death," writes John Dowland's anonymous lyricist.  "Our life as a dream, our time as a stream glides swiftly away, and the fugitive moment refuses to stay,"  says Charles Wesley. Conrad writes, "We live, as we dream—alone." Donne writes, "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally." And of course, "What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause," says the Dane.

Think about it, when the characters died in a dream, they either woke up or plunged into an infinity of thought and further delusion.

What if Mal was right, not about if Cobb was still dreaming, but that existence as we know it, in any form, is not what it seems—that we are somehow shut out from the larger context of reality? Cobb accused his projection of Mal of being a "shade." (As an aside, there's a possible Dante reference there. He's in the deepest sphere of the dream, discussing his treachery, and he sees a shade. Hmmm.) But don't we feel like we are shades of ourselves, that we are never fully what we are? I think we all sympathize with Iago when he says, "I am not what I am."
It's only when our lives intersect with others we love that we really get a sense of how much more there is to things. It's like what Cobb said to the projection, "I can't imagine you with all of your perfection, all of your imperfection." Somehow, that realization clues us in that we have not emerged as our full selves. Don't all of us feel like we're part of something greater, that the weary life of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow isn't the summation of what we are? When we look at the timelines of those we love, there's an acknowledgement that the time and events are real, but only a shadow of the truth.

And how do we know anything? How do you know, really know, that right now, as you're reading this, you're not really asleep? The totems are worthless in the film. (Cobb's wasn't even his to begin with, and I'm convinced that whether it spins or falls is meaningless. At no point does he spin it and it stay up.) Likewise, any tricks about pinching ourselves or reasoning our way through the physics of a dream are wholly unreliable. I can't tell you how many times I've had a flying dream and was convinced it was reality. No amount of pinching could persuade me otherwise. I've often even been confused as to whether events I remember where dreamt or truly experienced.

In our highest and lowest moments, I think we all feel that life "is a walking shadow." And it's then that those impressions "tease us out of thought, as doth eternity."


Friday, November 19, 2010

"When Lenity and Cruelty Play for a Kingdom": The Hunger Games Trilogy

At first, I thought this was a series on teen anorexia. Turns out, it's not. I've found it difficult to tell people the premise of the book without making it sound like something no one would want to read. Here are some points about the premise:
  • It's set in the future, but it's not overly-futuristic. It's not trying to wow us with how cool technology is.
  • It is a dystopian novel, but it is the least preachy dystopian novel I have ever read. I really think it has zero political agenda.
  • A large portion of the books details a fight-to-the-death gladiatorial competition between children.
  • Naturally, then, these are violent books, but not overly so.
  • This is a romance, and a darn good one at that.
These books are a breeze to read. I typically read slowly and like to take long breaks and think about things as I read. I'm not kidding when I say I think it took me a month or two to read Life of Pi. I read Mockingjay in about three sittings over the course of 24 hours. After about the midway point in each book, the writing becomes all action. Not a paragraph goes by without some monumental moment erupting in the reader's mind. The momentum doesn't allow you to stop and think.
     Something else I typically do when I'm reading is guess ahead about plot points. That was so fun to do with this series because my expectations were continually dashed, but not in a bad way. Anyone picking up this book would assume that the main character would be a participant in the Hunger Games, but it doesn't happen the way we would expect. From the very beginning, Collins plays with our assumptions and makes every turn a thrill.
     She spent most of her career writing screenplays for children's TV shows, and you can tell. The books obsess over the TV coverage of the Games and later events. But there is also a cinematic quality to her writing. I think making a movie of these books would be superfluous. I've already seen it, and it's great. Why do a remake?
     I started this review off with a quote from Henry V, "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." I felt that that became the main theme of the books, much more than centralized vs. decentralized government, justice, punishment, etc. The books are about morals and forgiveness. I like that.
     On the back of Mockingjay, there's a quote from Stephenie Meyer. Unfortunately for Ms. Meyer, this led me to compare the two authors. Whenever I criticize Meyer (which is too often), I always bring up William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He says what the problem is with the modern author:
     "He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
     That's got Stephenie Meyer's name written all over it. But now consider what he says about great writing:
     "The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
     "He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."
     That, dear friend, is The Hunger Games
     
So that's my general critique. If you haven't read the books, here's where you should pull out. Beyond this point, spoilers abound.
     
     Roger Ebert had this to say about Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice:
     "I felt an almost unreasonable happiness [at the end of the film]. Why was that? I am impervious to romance in most films, seeing it as a manifestation of box office requirements. Here it is different, because Darcy and Elizabeth are good and decent people who would rather do the right thing than convenience themselves. Anyone who will sacrifice their own happiness for higher considerations deserves to be happy. When they realize that about each other their hearts leap, and, reader, so did mine."
     The same goes for Katniss and Peeta. I struggled with the love triangle setup for the longest because I thought that Peeta was great, but Katniss was so undeserving. So I thought it was an absolute masterstroke when Peeta is essentially reset by the "hijacking," and Katniss has to earn his love all over again—she can't just rely on his altruism and an old crush. But in the end, they are both so good and wise and worthy. And how could she not choose Peeta, who was, without a doubt and at all points, the "gentler gamester?"
     


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sonnet 18

I never post my compositions on this blog, and I don't know why. They're probably a lot more entertaining than pretentious diatribes. Here goes a composition (one of the few that I've actually recorded):

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Historical Art

Every art has its own relationship with history. Literature is stuffed with allusions to previous works. Visual art, in a sense, preserves history by catching a solitary moment and freezing it indefinitely.

All music turns to the past. Once a melody has been written down, it becomes one of the most authentic ways to transport us back in time. The tint in a painting may fade over time, language changes over the centuries, but once we have a written record of music, it stays more or less the same. The harmonies in Thomas Morley's madrigals are the same as when he penned them almost five-hundred years ago.

Even impromptu must be conscious of its own past, since music is an inherently sequential experience. So even music that is created in the moment is still of necessity tethered to a history. Otherwise, the music would be nonsense.

As the craftsmanship behind making instruments advances, there will naturally be a few changes in timbre. Violin strings, for instance, are almost universally made of metal today in place of the older gut strings. But to the untrained ear, there is little significant difference in the sound. Of course every orchestra will play Beethoven's symphonies with a slight variation, but consider how much more similar every performance of Beethoven will be than the various stagings of any given play.

Musicians have to play the role of the historian. Unless they're performing their own composition, they must try to understand how the composer intended the piece to be played. Unlike a novelist or painter, a musician creates a unique moment by pure interpretation rather than inspiration.

In this sense, musicians must be connected to the masters of their art in ways that sculptors, poets, etc. cannot be. The entirety of their art is to be immersed in the work of the masters. One writer may read the work of another, but they are not a participant in its creation the way a musician is when he or she first begins to play. There is an intimacy that accompanies the practicing, memorizing, and performing of a work of the masters.

I think theater comes closest to music in this regard. In fact, I've recently noticed some shocking similarities between performing Bach and Shakespeare:

1—Both of them write exceptionally technically complex works. To be able to enjoy or perform the works of either, the audience as well as the performer need some training. It would be difficult to understand just the sequence of events in King Lear, let alone all the competing themes, if you had no previous experience with Shakespeare. This is not so for Moliere. And consider how chaotic Bach's violin concertos would sound to the uninitiated. In fact, the first time I heard that particular concerto it put me into a panic. I had to turn the stereo off because my ears were so overloaded. But once you have become used to each artist's style they are quite possibly the most rewarding artists in their field.

2—Both of them write exceptionally emotionally complex works. Take the prelude to Bach's second cello suite. This is not a technically difficult piece to perform, especially when compared to his other works for cello. But in the wrong hands, this piece can be a disaster. We have virtually no dynamic or tempo markings for this prelude, so all expressions and articulations are left up to the soloist. That may sound like not a big deal until you start trying to interpret it yourself. The piece is not at all straightforward. It wanders and meanders around, held loosely together with the simplest of all themes: a minor triad. The prelude has to be judiciously examined measure by measure to see what the soloist wishes to bring out and emphasize. Consider the pause after the climax of the piece around 3:35 in this recording. How should the cellist play the next few notes after the pause? Yo-Yo Ma chose to more or less continue on with business as usual. But there are a hundred different ways you could play that measure, and each would show as much about Bach as it would the performer. Yo-Yo Ma's interpretation works for him and is frankly beyond reproach. But I choose to hold that first note a little longer and quieter to ease the listener back into the flow of the music.

The liberty of interpreting Bach is increased exponentially when one plays his organ music, since the registration is left completely up to the soloist.

Shakespeare's works have the same ambiguity and emotional flexibility as Bach's. He provided next-to-no stage directions, so an overwhelming degree of interpretation is left up to the performer. Is Iago laughing as he divulges his plots to the audience, or is he sneering? Is he amused or disgusted? It depends on the Iago. And just as a violinist could change the whole meaning of a phrase from the Bach partitas with the slightest variation in articulation, an actor can imply an entirely different world of meaning with a subtle shift in inflection. Think for a moment about the scene where Gertrude says to Laertes, "Your sister's drowned, Laertes." Laertes' next line is, "Drowned! O, where?" There are an almost infinite number of ways that Laertes could say those three words. Or, take a more well known example from the same play, "To be or not to be. That is the question." How on earth is an actor supposed to decide how to say those most famous lines? So much hangs on them!

3—Both Shakespeare and Bach cross over into each other's field. Shakespeare is the most musical author I have ever read. The man obsesses over sound and rhythm. And no one in the history of our language has done so much with word play.

Bach, on the other hand, is the most poetic composer I've studied. His use of numerology and musical symbolism is unparalleled. He crammed an astonishing amount of meaning into a measure.

To sum up, music, even new music, is always historical. Because of this historical dimension, musicians are linked to composers in an extraordinary way. They are the voices of these men and women who can no longer speak for themselves. The discipline that comes closest to music in its links to the past is theater.

——

Here are some different openings to Hamlet's soliloquy.










My personal favorite:




And, quite easily, the worst of the lot:


Monday, October 4, 2010

A Theory of Music: "Aujourd'hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d'être dit, on le chante"

This little quip is commonly incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, and often equally mistranslated as "Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung." But it's certainly worthy of Voltaire, and it's a quotation that has adorned my Facebook wall for years. I feel that is so much more true today than when I first put it up, and therefore, so much more relevant than when Volaire didn't pen it. I want to use this observation as an entry point to tackle an issue that has bothered me for some time: Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga). Then I hope to use her as a springboard to talk about a broader issue with music.


For the longest, I didn't want to dignify her with criticism. I thought that public interest would drift away and the nuisance would be silenced. Not so. She has not only grown in popularity, but in acclaim. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I'd like to say why I strongly dislike Ms. Germanotta.

1—She is a poor lyricist.

Where to begin? It's not just that her lyrics lack anything like poetic convention. It is true that they follow no meter, no rhyme scheme, no devices that mark even the most free-verse of poems. She makes no use of aliteration outside the irritating convention of repeating Ps (p-p-p-p-poker face, pa-pa-paparazzi). Now, I love it when Regina Spektor does this because I can feel a genuine love and fascination for pure sound in her voice and in her music. With Ms. Germanotta's music, however, it is a dead pulsation—a smashing of the unimaginative head against the proverbial wall. And when she does deal in words instead of just repeated plosives, it is all the more lacking. Aside from not being poetic, her lyrics are not sensical. I will supply you with direct quotations, and don't worry, there's no context to take these out of:


You know that I love you boy.
Hot like Mexico, rejoice.
At this point I gotta choose,
nothing to lose. 

[The website I pulled this from actually spelled it loose.]

I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it's free


Now, I don't think you necessarily have to make sense to write good lyrics or poetry. I honestly don't. Look at this bit from
The Wasteland


What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images….

I'm convinced that doesn't mean a blessed thing. It's total nonsense. But does it sound cool or what? Ms. Germanotta's work is utterly devoid of any of that verbal flare. And I don't hold everyone I meet up the standard of T.S. Eliot, but if you make words and music your profession.... But let's just hold her up to a songwriter's standard. Let's look at Paul Simon, specifically "Graceland."

There is a girl in New York City,
Who calls herself the human trampoline,
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying,
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Whoa! So this is what she means.
She means we're bouncing into Graceland,
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you're blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow.


Here are some lines that give insight into something beyond "disco sticks" or "vertical sticks" or "bluffin' muffins" or genitalia in general. It's a clever and quirky phrasing of that exposed feeling we all get after we've lost love. Speaking of love, real love, "true" love—a perusal of Ms. Germanotta's lyrics makes me wonder if she has ever loved. Is there blood that flows through her heart, or is her core only concerned with the circulation of hormones? No one can accuse her music of leaving out the more vulgar points of lust. It's crammed with penetrating pulsations and punctuated with oh-so-subtle innuendo. But what about those delicate sensibilities which give love its true character and individual meaning? What does her music tell us that a Victoria's Secret add could not?

2—She is a cripplingly unimaginative composer.

Her songs follow a formula: Goofy exposition, almost anti-melodic verses over a digital pulse, peppy screaming chorus, rinse and repeat. Every. last. one. of. them. As a performer, she actually has a strong voice, and apparently she can pound on a piano. But when it comes to actual musical creation she is slavishly devoted to that one style.

It's not that I dislike popular music. Look at The Beatles. There was imagination and ingenuity. True, it took them a while to
really get loose, but even their early hits are marked by a level of musicality and invention that leave Ms. Germanotta exposed and blushing. And I invoke Regina Spektor's name once again as an incantation protecting my mind and soul from Ms. Germanotta's music. Although Regina's music's style isn't as broad as The Beatles', the framework of each song is unique enough to reward repeated listenings. Also, Germanotta's harmonies could not begin to approach Regina's. The latter's are so refreshing and diverse. The former's are virtually nonexistent.

One last biographical note before I move on to broader topics. When I listen to some of her songs before she became "Lady Gaga," it hurts. Despite all her current personality-gymnastics, she was so much more an individual before her MTV days. I really don't say this to be mean, but it seems like her creative faculty has actually suffered since she decided to whore herself out as a "fame monster." I think there's a lesson in this that's slipping past the youth.







Siren Songs

In my last essay on music, I talked about how abstract music is, how it is the most elusive of the arts.  I promised that I would write about some of the consequences attached to that abstractness. So I begin here by writing about the danger of music.

Because music is so abstract, it has the ability to directly affect our emotions without having to be filtered by our intellect. I think very few children understand the words when they sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," but they are still, without a doubt, emotionally affected by the music. And the same goes for instrumental music, as well. Oscar Wilde wrote, "
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." When you watch something like Hamlet, you understand why you feel sad. You've just witnessed the downfall of so many profound individuals. But not so with instrumental music. Why are Saite's gymnopedies so heart-wrenching? Why do Bach's Sarabandes feel like prayers?

Music is so powerful in this ability to directly access our emotions and spirits. That's why music is the indispensable messenger in film. We need the score to really drive home the emotions. The acting and the visuals are, of course, necessary, but without the music the film remains incomplete.

But as Uncle Ben says, "With great power comes great responsibility." Music also has the ability to manipulate our morals and ideology. It is the listeners' obligation, therefore, to remove themselves from the song and decide if they want that song's message to slip past their reasoning and affect their emotions directly. Take this song from "Uncle Kracker":


I'm not worried 'bout the ring you wear
Cause as long as no one knows
Then nobody can care
You're feelin' guilty
And I'm well aware
But you don't look ashamed
And baby I'm not scared...

We'll be alright if you don't ask me to stay

I'm confident that if this text were printed without the music, decent people everywhere would be appalled at the disdain for fidelity the song shows. But because the song is so catchy, nobody bothered to worry about the lyrics.

Tyrants like Mao Zedong, Stallin, and Hitler also used music to rally the masses and manipulate the mind of the people. Hitler relied on the great composers of the German tradition to spread his propaganda. Although he did not come up with the words, he certainly encouraged the singing of "Das Deutschlandlied," which was set to the music of Haydn. Hitler also aggressively advocated the music of Wagner with the deliberate intention of spreading anti-Semitism.

And if anyone doubts further the powerful influence music has on our minds, just consider the amount of music in advertisements.

So let's take this full-circle back to Stefani Germanotta. Are the messages of her songs something we want to influence our psychology? Forgive me if I oversimplify her work, but it seems that her overarching themes glorify a lack of restraint in sexuality. If this isn't explicitly stated in her jumbled lyrics, it's certainly hinted at in her music videos.

To tell us why unrestrained sexuality is a bad idea, I invite historians Will and Ariel Durant:

"No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group."

Thanks, guys. I was talking to my brother about this recently, and he said that "Lady Gaga's" music teaches girls that sex is a tool to get things from boys, and that it teaches boys that sex is something for them to take. He then said poignantly, "I don't think that her music will turn us all into prostitutes and rapists, but it could give us all the hearts of prostitutes and rapists."

I think that as a society, we should shun the "Gaga" incarnation of Stefani Germanotta. We should be much more careful about the music we listen to, since it has the power to exalt or eviscerate our minds.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Most Abstract of Arts

The great music theorists have written extensively on the mechanics of music--cadences, counterpoint, chord progressions, etc.  But I feel that there has been some negligence in regard to a more general theory of music.  So I'd like to start a series of essays that focus on the nature of music and provide a more philosophical approach than what has been traditionally granted this most ethereal and elusive of arts.  In this first essay, I will examine music's abstractness.

I submit that music is the most abstract of arts.  This does not make music superior or inferior to other arts; it simply marks one of its distinct qualities.  Pure abstractness is music's ultimately unique trait.  If we try to learn something of its nature by comparison to other arts, it stands to reason that the foundation of the examination should be in music's abstractness.

The other arts are largely representational.  Drama is the art of making an actor a passable ambassador of fiction.  His or her job is to make us believe, to some degree, that we are witnessing tangible reality.  If actors have not convinced us that what we are watching is a plausible reality, then they have, by definition, failed.  (By reality, I mean a performance that "holds water" within the realms of the drama's own universe.  A good performance of Peter Pan will convince us of Peter Pan's reality, even though he does not adhere to actual physics.)

And then the literary aspect of the play or film steps in.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, literature uses characters, settings and events that connect the audience to the portrayed reality.  And often the subject of drama or literature is actual events (Julius Caesar, Henry V).  Literature uses its own reality which must in some way be comparable to actual reality in order to convey a truth or message about actual life.

With the exception of Islamic art which intentionally depicts nothing but shapes and patterns, visual art is also highly representational.  Even "abstract art" signifies a signified in the actual world.  One could look at a purely abstract painting and perceive it to be a highly stylized image of a rose garden.  And still, the most abstract works still do not abandon shape and color.  A child may point to a deep yellow stroke and say, "That's the color of my school bus."  Visual art constantly reminds us and enriches our understanding of actuality.

These three arts (drama, literature and visual art) are all equalled in nature.  I doubt many artists would rush up to a vast sunset spilling across the sea, set their canvas in the sand and exclaim, "See!  Isn't mine better?"  And as the cliché goes, "truth is stranger than fiction."  The lives of real women and men are often just as inspiring as any epic and as complex as any Dickens novel.

But what is there in nature to rival music?  The first thought to come to mind is birdsong.  I invite those bird-lovers to listen to Bach's "Chaconne" in D minor and then walk outside to see if they can hear anything so magnificent.  The only equivalent to music I can think of is to hear the voice of a loved one, but while I cannot argue against the emotion that voice may bring, no one can argue that a lover's voice shares the technical and mathematical beauty of even the simplest folk song.  Not to offend any acousticians--the competing frequencies of a voice do have a kind of beauty.  But that sunset by the sea shares a beauty of composition and color theory that all great artists aspire to, whereas the acoustic structure of a voice is not even comparable to the linear development of a melody or the dramatic shifts in chords as they progress.  Music has no natural teacher--no one to emulate.

When I was discussing this idea with friends, someone argued that dance was as abstract as music.  I have two objections to that argument.  1) There are movements in nature which are just as thrilling as dance.  A group of running giraffes was one of the most elegant spectacles I have ever beheld.  2)  Dance is an attempt to make music more accessible and less abstract by giving it visual, tangible, human form.

Linguistic Testament to Music's Abstractness:
In English, as well as all the other languages with which I am acquainted, there is no one word to say that the sound of a piece of music is beautiful which isn't used metaphorically.  I will explain what I mean.  The word beautiful derives, obviously, from beauty, which is a primarily visual attribute.  Its application to music, then, is metaphorical.  The music sounds the way mountains look--beautiful, majestic, etc.  All the other senses have a positive and negative adjective to describe them: beautiful & ugly, fragant & foul, delicious & unsavory, comfortable/pleasurable & painful.  What can we say about music at a literal level besides "sounds good" or "sounds bad?"  We can talk of music being luscious, pleasant, striking or witty, but all of these adjectives are metaphorical, and they encode much more than just a positive or negative aspect.  It is as if music is so abstract that we cannot come up with a single word that describes it as being either positive or negative besides the generic good and bad.

Representational Music:
Once, I substituted for an elementary school music teacher for several weeks.  One lesson/experiment I did was to play movements from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals and have the children draw whatever animal they thought the music was depicting.  For every song, one or two students out of 25 would get it right, but more often than not, students (and home-room teachers) were dead wrong.  People guessed bluejays for "Elephants," and baboons for "Fossils."  Now, imagine if I had shown them pictures of those animals and asked them to draw what they thought it was.  Obviously, they would all be right without exception, unless by some odd chance a student had never seen a picture of an elephant before.

I feel confident that most educated people could spot Napoleon Bonaparte in a lineup, even though they have never seen him.  The portraits we have left of him give us a pretty good idea of what he looked like, even though they are not an exact likeness.  Were there any photographs of him, most people would be able to instantly identify him, because they had seen his other pictures.  But take Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.  It was written in reference to Napoleon, but without being told so in a program note, no one would be able to tell, even if they had personally known the emperor.  Similarly, if another piece were written about Napoleon, the subject matter wouldn't be transparent.  Even if the piece referenced Beethoven's third symphony, without being told the intent of the allusion, listeners wouldn't know if the reference were to Napoleon or Beethoven, or just heroism in general.

Conclusion:

What separates music from the other arts is its overwhelming abstractness.  To the uninitiated, music seems like sheer chaos that somehow speaks directly to the core of the human soul.  In later essays, I will begin to examine what that abstractness means in terms of the emotional, spiritual and intellectual effects of music.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Great Conversation


















I sat in my armchair
on a steamy day in early July.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got me drowsy,
and as I drifted into reverie
I caught the queerest glimpse of my bookcase.
Mr. Lewis (of the Clive Staples variety)
walked right out of his book
as if it had been a wardrobe.
He looked to his right, but it was empty.
(Conan Doyle had been nestled there)
So he knocked on Dickens' door to his left.
Out came Charles with some sausage
while Jack ran to fetch some tea.
Their dialog quickly turned to the French.
"Never could learn from the Germans."
"Quite right."
"Far too much garlic in their sausages."
Next door Dante and Homer enjoyed each other's company.
Homer launched into a monologue
he was rather proud of
about Achilles' shield.
But really his diatribe was about
passive
agression.
With beautifully declined nouns
Homer thought of what violent extremes
he would be forced to embrace
if he had to suffer through another sonnet
"for Beatrice."
Thank the Gods Petrarch moved down a shelf.
And who made this Italian the Eternal Judge
free to toss poor Odysseus
deep in the Inferno?
Meanwhile, Dante couldn't give a damn
about Achilles' shield.
He regretted not placing Homer
much farther down below limbo.
Clearly
he missed his pal Virgil.
At this point, Austen was kicking herself
for not being more diligent
in her Greek and Italian.
She could only guess at the sublime utterances
crammed with clandestine truth
issuing forth from those venerable lips.
Instead, she was swarmed
by those contributors to the 1,001 Nights,
exotic and wild.
And I employ not one ounce
of their skill for story crafting
when I tell you that
several of those sultry savages
pinched her prolific behind.
This thoroughly amused Douglas Adams
who sat next to Shakespeare,
both enjoying an excellent repartee
during the brief respites
the Arabs granted Jane.
Yann Martel was all too happy to be there,
but he had an odd way of showing it.
His nose was buried in a yellow legal pad,
trying to catch the natural wit
spewing from those two great wise-cracks.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach,
just one book over,
had her hands full trying to console Conrad
on the human condition.
"What could be more exquisite
than the rueful forgiveness from the wronged
to the offender.
In such a scene, how can we deny human greatness?"
"Can anyone know human greatness
if we can never know each other?"
Just to the right,
Tolkien was busy ignoring Conrad
and loudly complaining
that Lewis had suddenly turned uppity
after his talking animal show went leather-bound.
Clyde Pharr would occasionally try to talk some Greek Grammar,
but Tolkien just dismissed his attempts
with jabs about the superiority of Norse mythology.
And then Eliot sprang up from the shelf below.
He was born in an anthology,
so he had the nasty habit
of either
quoting people at themselves
or
intentionally speaking Sanskrit to Dickens,
Greek to Frank Herbert,
or English to Dante.
In fact, every time he saw Dante,
his pernicious habits mixed.
"Unreal City!"
he would say
with an American/London drawl.
There were several other discussions of note:
Victor Frankl spent quite a bit of time with Goethe.
Neal A. Maxwell and David McCullough
had a great time being insightful and polite.
Lloyd Alexander thoroughly enjoyed
his chat with Edith Hamilton.
I couldn't even follow
Tad R. Callister
and Phillip Pullman's
icily intense exchange.
Joseph Campbell and J.K. Rowling
found plenty to discuss.
Johann Fux and Tim Gautreaux tried.

And then as quickly as they came,
they all lept back in their respective books.

"What a loss!"
at first I thought.

Then I realized that
in a sense,
I had just seen my life.
I take all those writers with me everywhere
and am always trying to make sense
of their great conversation.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Provo Dining Guide

Like many BYU Freshmen, I began my college career in the dorms called "Heleman Halls."  I didn't have a car, so I exhausted the on-campus dining options rather quickly and naturally and gravely underestimated the culinary wonder that one can find in this little college town.  Here are seven of my favorite restaurants that I've discovered over the years:

















Bombay House
Location: University and 400N (west side of intersection)
Price:  $15-$30

A friend of mine invited me to go out to celebrate with a string quartet after their concert (neither of us were in said quartet), and they chose this place.  I have been grateful ever since.  Fantastic Indian food, fantastic specialty drinks.  The atmosphere is enchanting, what with all the turbaned waiters, draped fabric and candle-light.  I recommend getting the appetizer sample platter, the Saag Shorba, garlic Naan, and then anything lamb or chicken.  They have three levels of spiciness for the entrées.  Their rice is phenomenal.  (Side note, "India Palace" is a less impressive clone of the Bombay House.  One of their cooks left and uses the exact same menu.  Atmosphere isn't as nice, prices are the same, but it's often less crowded.  So if you can't get into the Bombay House, there's a substitute.)
















Brick Oven Pizza
Location: Southwest corner of BYU campus
Price:  Comparable to other pizza establishments--depends on the number of fellow diners

I actually knew about this place before I even started going to BYU.  It used to be called "Heaps 'A Pizza," and my mom spent a few years of her childhood living in the basement of a house that was where their parking lot is now.  It has been a beloved haunt of BYU students for generations.  They make their own root beer which is a mellow brew with a piney twist.  It's quite good by itself and even better with their pizza.  I recommend their "Supreme Heaps 'A Pizza," which is the standard deluxe.  Their mushrooms are incredible.

























communal
Location: University and 100N (Northeast corner)
Price: Depends, but you could easily spend $40 per person

When it comes to fine dining in Utah county, "communal" is the champion--hands down.  The atmosphere is so pleasing and unpretentious with all the design and carpentry done by the owners themselves.  The waiters and cooks are unbelievably pleasant and well mannered, and the food is out of this world.  Their menu is constantly changing (daily, it seems) to fit what's in season as well as what new innovation they've cooked up that week.  communal's specialty is preparing a seemingly hum-drum dish like pot roast better than it has ever been done before.  I am convinced that mortal hands simply cannot cook a traditional chicken breast better than how they do it at communal.  It is cooked just long enough so that it's bursting with juices and flavored to perfection.  The same is true for their steak.  You think you've had good steak until you've tried theirs.  (This place can get pricey, but the steak is actually one of the cheapest items, because it's honestly not the greatest cut of meat, but I promise you won't notice.)  Oh, and I've failed to mention the significance of the name.  It's designed so that you order the appetizers, salads, entrées and sides separately, and then everybody shares.  I recommend going with about eight people and ordering everything on the menu.  Also, go there for lunch some time.  It's cheaper, and the menu is quite unique--they make their own ketchup, which is better than any ketchup you've ever tried.






















Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumplings
Location: Northeast side of University and 200N
Price ~$18

If you've never had "Hot Pot" before, then this place is a must--especially in Provo's obnoxiously persistant Winter.  Hot Pot (Huo Guo) is an eating experience that comes to us from Northern China.  In this, as in many Hot Pot establishments, there's a buffet with a plethora of raw veggies, mushrooms, meats, noodles, seafood (shrimp, fish, mussels and crab) and assorted varieties of tofu.  You take a plate to the buffet, load it down with what you want, and then dump it in the flaming-hot pot at your table.  You pull it out and enjoy when it's cooked!  There's also a freezer full of ice cream treats that come with the meal. I recommend getting a pot that is half-spicy, half-miso (like the picture above); that way, you can sample multiple flavor combinations.  Warning: the spicy may be too spicy for some of the locals.  But at the same time, it's a different kind of spicy than what they're used to.  Give it a shot.  Also, you can only get dumplings if you order them at least a day in advance.  I recommend the pork and chive dumplings either boiled or fried.  They are the best in Provo, without anything close to a rival.  Even and especially if you think you don't like Chinese food, you need to pay a visit to "Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumplings."



















El Gallo Giro
Location: East side of University, between 300 & 400N
Price: Cheap

This is my favorite Mexican establishment.  For starters, they have a cinnamon horchata that will blow your mind--don't even bother with the fountain drinks.  Next up, you cannot go there without ordering guacamole.  They prepare it fresh and table-side in a stone basin.  Their tacos are world class, and their smothered steak burrito is simply to die for.

















J Dawgs
Location: Southeast corner of BYU campus
Price: ~$5

J Dawgs is a local favorite.  It's a hot dog stand (and recently they've opened a restaurant adjacent to the original stand) with really high quality dogs and an infamous special sauce.  They have polish dogs or standard hot dogs.  They add all the traditional "fixin's" free of charge, and they also have drinks and chips for a little extra.  I've heard from fairly reputable sources that this was started by a guy who went to Toronto on his mission and fell in love with the quality hot dog stands in that city.  Having also lived in Toronto, and having sampled the stand-food of several of the world's great cities, I have to say his establishment measures up.



















Pizzeria 712 (pronounced "seven-twelve")
Location: State St. in Orem, in the back of those huge, unfinished condos.
Price: ~$15

Don't let the name deceive you.  It's not just a pizza joint.  They have pizza, but it's really innovative and gourmet and wonderful.  This place is owned by the same people who run "communal," and it actually predates the latter.  Like communal, the menu is constantly in flux, but with a few standards remaining constant.  For appetizers, I strongly recommend the short rib.  (I failed to mention this in my review of communal, but they've started slaughtering their own pork, which made a good thing even greater.  They do phenomenal stuff with bacon.)  Their cobblers are also always top-notch, and all their chocolate desserts are made with chocolate from the local Amano masters.  And this place is an insanely good deal.  They could easily charge two to three times what they do, and I would happily pay it.  Also, the menu is totally different for lunch: they have a triumphant assortment of panini sandwiches.  

It may be impossible to leave this place disappointed. Everything is so masterfully done--the pizzas are fired in a real brick oven, the desserts are bursting with freshness, and the atmosphere is down-right charming.  These people know how to do food, and have mastered the art of the restauranteer.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Conviction
















I PERSONALLY BELIEVE
that U.S.
Americans
are unable to do so
because
some people
out there
in our nation
don't have maps

AND I BELIEVE
that our education
like
such as in
South Africa
the Iraq
everywhere
like
such as
and

I BELIEVE
that they should
our education over here
in the U.S.
should help
the U.S.
or should help
South Africa
and should help
the Iraq
and the Asian countries
so we will be able to build up
our future
for our children

Friday, April 30, 2010

Stream of Consciousness Summer Cinema 2010

It's that time of year again!  For those who are unfamiliar with my annual film festival, I begin with a film that I've been particularly impressed with.  Then I take an actor, composer, director, etc. from that film and pick another movie he or she is in.  Not all the movies on this list I consider to be good.  In fact, there are some that I've picked expressly because they are so bad.  This goes on for the entire summer.  Here is the tentative list:


The Fountain
Hugh Jackman

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Liev Schreiber

Everything is Illuminated
Elijah Wood

North
Alan Arkin

Jakob the Liar (also has Liev Schreiber)
Robin Williams

Fern Gully
Tim Curry

The Hunt for Red October
Courtney B. Vance

The Piano Lesson
Charles S. Dutton

HOUSE: M.D. (Season 2, episode 21 “Euphoria”)
Hugh Laurie

Sense and Sensibility
Emma Thompson

Stranger than Fiction
Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Dark Knight
Morgan Freeman

Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood

Space Cowboys
Tommy Lee Jones

 The Fugitive
Joe Panoliano

 Daredevil
Colin Farrel

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Jude Law

Sherlock Holmes
Rachel McAdams

Red Eye
Brian Cox

X-2
James Marsden

Enchanted
Amy Adams

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Kirsten Dunst

Jumanji
Jonathon Hyde

King Lear
Ian McKellen

Stardust

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel



Beatrice and Virgil is a brief little book full of surprises.

Like most of Yann Martel's readers, I came to Life of Pi first.  Like everyone else, I fell in love with the story, the character and Martel's writing style.  My enthusiasm was so obvious that I was soon gifted a collection of his short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  I was reading through "Manners of Dying" in that collection while I was on a plane last Spring.  A business-looking-man came up to me and asked if it was as good as Life of Pi.  I admired and enjoyed those short stories, but I was hesitant to give a simple "yes" to his question, because the short stories were so different in style, message and form than the novel.

To say that Beatrice and Virgil would not have been published if it hadn't been riding on Life of Pi is unfair.  Beatrice and Virgil would not have been written if it hadn't been riding on Life of Pi.  That was the first big surprise, especially given my experience with Martel's short stories--Beatrice and Virgil is in some significant ways at least a continuation of, if not a sequel to Life of Pi.  The former's protagonist is clearly a Yann Martel-like character.  He has been living off the success of his second novel--a violent work with a cast of animals.  Readers of Life of Pi will remember that the book began with Martel telling us how unsuccessful his first novel was, and how that lack of profit gave impetus to the Pi.  He then became a narrator for some chapters in the "Toronto and Pondicherry" section.  Although the protagonist of Beatrice and Virgil is named Henry, we know that he writes under a nom de plume.  Also, his third novel which would combine narrative and essay about the Holocaust has been rejected by his publishers--just like Martel.

And so, like Life of Pi, we begin to wonder what in the story is true and what isn't.  For example, Henry personally responds to all his fanmail.  If he didn't, he would think himself ungrateful.  Now, does Yann Martel respond to all of his fanmail?  Maybe he doesn't, and feels ungrateful about it.  I don't know.  My point is that because Martel obviously mixes real-life events with the sweet, sound lies of fiction, we can't trust Henry.  Or at least, I couldn't--especially when it came to Henry's judgement calls.  For example, he unexpectedly condemns and betrays the taxidermist/playwright because he realizes that he was a Nazi collaborator.  Henry irrationally concludes that because the taxidermist had sent him a short story about someone who tortured animals and then found redemption, the taxidermist felt no remorse for his previous life as a nazi torturer--and this despite him naming the donkey and monkey Beatrice and Virgil because they were his "guides through hell."  And there is no solid evidence that he was on that side of the Holocaust.  He could have just as well been a victim.  This honestly seems more likely, since the entirety of his play deals with how victims can talk about their experience.

If you have not been able to tell by my review, this book covers a lot of ground.  It's a short novel--fewer than 200 pages, and without chapters, it reads more like a short story, yet it somehow manages to delve deeply (at least in an emotional sense) into a variety of topics.  I find it ironic that a reoccurring question in the novel is "What is your book about?" since there is no simple answer for Beatrice and Virgil.  It discusses the process of writing, fiction vs. non-fiction, trust, the Holocaust, epistemology (especially concerning people), fame, communication and the societal role of arts.  (Among other topics.)

So we have a new chapter in this alternate-reality mythos Martel has made for himself.  It is certainly an inventive novel, brimming with insight and wit.  I don't think we have another living novelist as gifted and ambitious as old Yann, and so I eagerly await his next work, even though this last book asked far more questions than it answered.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Fountain


When this movie came out, I was out of the country, and it was not playing where I was. When I got back it wasn't on DVD yet. And then I just never got around to seeing it. Then one day I was sifting through trash on YouTube, and I thought, "I want to see just a few minutes of something truly beautiful." For some reason or another, the trailer for The Fountain popped into my head. I watched it, and then instantly added it to my Netflix queue.

When I saw Aronofsky's other movies, I always saw that he was talented, but I hated his choice of content. They always made me feel disgusted after I saw them. But at the same time, I always felt that in another life, he could have made one of my favorite movies. The Fountain is that other life.

The whole film is as beautiful as the trailer. And in a very real way, this was a pretty "feel good" movie. The emotions and revelations are complicated, and the sense of tragedy is always close at hand, but as the end-credits started to appear, I was filled with this inexplicable and renewed joie de vivre--something I never thought possible after an Aronofsky movie.

Enough with this experiential critique, though.

This film is polarizing. Lots of people hate it. I have to admit, a few of the images at the end are...jarring. They're quite grand, and if they weren't so profound, they would give me nigh-endless mocking material. Plus, the dissonance in the plot is unsettling even for me.

The Fountain tells three stories: One of a 16th century Conquistador in search of the tree of life, one of a 21t century scientist, struggling to find a cure for brain tumors so he can save his wife, and one of a 26th century somebody who's taking a tree in a space-bubble to a nebula surrounding a dying star. I know. It sounds like it has all the subtlety of a billboard, and all the restraint of Liberace. But it actually is full of subtlety. Aronofsky reveals image after image after image, but it takes a while for those symbols to sink in and for you to process their meaning, and then the meaning within the meaning.

The three stories' protagonists share the same actors. Hugh Jackman is the Conquistador, scientist and rocketman. Rachel Weisz is the Queen and wife. (If she is the tree too, that's a lot of make-up.) The stories merge together, especially towards the end. This almost chaotic merger has sent a lot of critics and movie-goers off on innumerable tantrums. Clearly, the majority of the Conquistador's story is the novel of the wife in the 21st century. I haven't read anyone's review who doesn't agree on that point. The real question is how the 26th century guy fits into the picture. From the bottom of my heart, I say it doesn't matter. Linearly, it's not clear how the story connects, but it is perfectly clear how it fits in thematically and symbolically. If I HAD to pick sides in whether the 26th century story is "real," (Doesn't this sound completely stupid? NONE of these stories are real.) my gut says that the 26th century man is the same scientist in the 21st century who inadvertently discovered a cure for aging. But fretting over banal specifics like "what happened" in the story is not the point of the film.

The message I got from this was that the meaning of our lives is not derived from avoiding death. Life and death are intrinsically woven together and lend each other significance and meaning. The tragedy Hugh Jackman's character narrowly avoids is cheapening his wife's life by refusing to accept the beauty of her death. Death is not, as he falsely reasons, a disease.

Tom (the Hugh Jackman character) has to reach the same conclusion as our dear friend Harry Potter did when he became master of death. As Dumbledore explains, "The real master of Death accepts that he must die, and that there are much worse things in the world of the living."

The score for this movie is simply remarkable. The Kronos quartet delivers a stunning performance. I encourage you to download "Death is the Road to Awe" on iTunes and see for yourself. I'm always amazed at how moving Clint Mansell's melodies can be when they contain so very few notes. But oh, how it works.

And that's another huge compliment this movie deserves. Aronofsky had his budget cut by forty million dollars while he was making this. It dropped his budget down to $35 million. That must have been a HUGE blow. But the movie feels neither incomplete nor lacking visually. It's a down-right triumph.

The movie leaves me in the same contemplative and strangely comforting mind-set as Schubert's "Der Tod und das Mädchen." I think both are lessons on the merit of going gently into that good night.

(For a really well done comparison of The Fountain to 2001: A Space Odyssey, see this article.)

Scranton's Best Comedy















Virtually everyone in America is now familiar with the moderately sized town of Scranton, PA, thanks to NBC's wildly successful sitcom, The Office. I have actually been to Scranton. I was driving through there last summer and stopped for dinner only to get what was one of the worst waiters of my life. But I digress.

The Office is funny. I love The Office. But it is not the funniest thing that is coming out of Scranton. Scranton has been releasing itself on the digital world in a non-scripted format so outrageous that no one mind could conceive of such a thing. What exactly am I talking about? The Scranton City Council Meetings.

Dwight's now famous speech to the salesmen of Pennsylvania is not the most dramatic or hilarious speech delivered by a Scrantonian. No, Dwight must take a backseat to such raving luminaries as Ray Lyman and Sam Patilla. They're unstoppable. I have never seen such organized and vehement name-calling, slander, outrageous legal interpretation, or story-telling. It is so beautifully heated and incoherent. Really, it even gives the Taiwanese parliament a run for its money.

My hope for the world is that we will become just as familiar with Judy Gatelli as we are with Jim Halpert. Because this...this is real. Real it in its own beautifully inconsequential and hilarious way. I invite you now to discover the REAL Lazy Scranton:







These are just a few of the best. Keep watching!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

BYU's Production of "Tartuffe"



After I saw The Bakkhai at the University of Utah last semester, I have been kind of weary with and lacking faith in avant garde college productions of classics. My trepidations continued into the opening of Tartuffe. I had heard that it was a rather musical interpretation with a Tim Burton flare. (Tim Burton show-tunes would be my personal circle of hell, by the way.) But to my surprise and delight, the production was, by and large, a success.

Like most BYU productions, the set design and staging was mind-blowingly good. The walls of the main room were two stories high and comprised of frames of various sizes and shapes holding blank canvas. At various points throughout the play, the actors made excellent use of those frames by standing behind them with a light shining from behind, revealing silhouettes of the players. And although there was lots of music, it was almost exclusively back-ground music. (Occasionally a player might sing about two lines.) Plus, it was good music. It really fit the the mood of the visuals. And they made excellent use of the piano

My only real complaint with the whole Tim Burton vibe was the eye makeup. Everyone looked a little too much like Rocky Raccoon. But they did a fairly good job of avoiding the whole Goth/Hello Kitty aesthetic which comprises Burton's style. One writer for the Daily Universe commented that it was similar to Brett Helquist's illustrations for A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I think is a more apt comparison.

Of course, the best thing about any production of Tartuffe will be the lines themselves. There are some great zingers in the mix. (And Moliere is also amazing at the dramatic set-up in the play. I love how long it takes us to actually see Tartuffe. By the time he comes on stage, there has been so much expectation and tension about him. Also, I love how Tartuffe can almost convince us that he's not guilty of things we've just seen him do.) But I thought most of the actors had a very fresh take on the characters while still being true to the work. The maids were especially good. I thought that Tartuffe himself did an admirable job, but I do enjoy a morose Tartuffe more than a giddy one.

If you, dear reader, have happened to see both the Bakkhai production and this version of Tartuffe, you may think me simply biased or hypocritical, because one of the things that irritated me so much in the U of U's play is that everyone screamed ALL their lines. Tartuffe was also a rather loud performance. But the critical difference is that the former is high-drama in the classic, tragic tradition, while the latter is a farce. It worked for the BYU performance, because it knew what it was and what it was doing. The U's play was never sure if it was farce or tragedy, and never knew its limits. Tartuffe was sexy while the Bakkhai was whore-ish.

And finally, good on the BYU drama department for picking this play. I don't think it's an inappropriate pick for an institution like BYU (they started the performance with a prayer), but I do think it's risky. Tartuffe is deliciously irreverent, and I could hear audible manifestations of some of the audience's discomfort over some of the lines/events. But I think it's all in good fun, and the play, ultimately, has a pretty solid message. Well done, BYU.