Thursday, March 29, 2012

Anonymous, Guy Fawkes, V

I remember when V for Vendetta first came out. My friends were all very excited about it, but for whatever reason I never saw it.

Then the "Occupy" movement and the "Anonymous" group came on my radar, with their signature Guy Fawkes masks. I decided to watch V for Vendetta since it was obviously and dramatically informing our political dialogue.

It's a fun movie, but it is a dumb movie. In the very beginning, it establishes Guy Fawkes as a hero and a martyr. Let's think for a moment about the historical context of Guy Fawkes.

England had been caught up in the Hundred Years' War, and towards the end, also trying to settle their own bloddy civil war, the War of the Roses. Henry VII unified the warring houses and finally put an end to the nation's internal conflict.

Then his son, Henry VIII comes along. A powerful king, but with his rejection of Roman Catholocism and the creation the Anglican Church, he set in motion decades of religious upheaval and persecution. His daughter, Mary I, became monarch and earned her title, "Bloddy Mary," by her vigorous pursuit and murder of Protestants. She had almost 300 Protestants burned at the stake in only five years. That kind of execution rate must make even Texas blanch.

Elizabeth I
Mary died and was succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth I, "The Virgin Queen," "Good Queen Bess." Elizabeth was a successful monarch. She got a lot done, but she was still pretty big on religious persecution, just in the opposite direction. She was unforgiving of her Catholic rivals, executing her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, and over 700 rebels in one go.

Clearly, these were rough times for England. On top of all of this, the plague was ravishing London, and the enormously powerful Spanish empire had its sights set on Britain.

After Elizabeth's death in 1603, James I took the throne. Like Elizabeth, he was Protestant, but he was not nearly as interested in religious genocide as were the two previous monarchs.

James I was the patron of Shakespeare, funding both his writing and his troupe of players. This was the era of Marlowe, Donne, and Dowland.  Milton was born in this period. Soon, the King James Version of the Bible would be penned and published, which would have an incalculable influence on literature and poetry for the next four centuries. The English Renaissance was reaching its zenith.

Britain, with its constitutional and parliamentary monarchy, was the only thing like democracy in the civilized world.

Now enter Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Contrary to what V for Vendetta would have us believe, Fawkes wasn't an anarchist. He wasn't a populist. He wasn't forward-thinking or even particularly radical (besides the whole "wanting to kill everyone in the government" thing). He was a papist in the true sense who wanted a Catholic king, subject to the Pope rather than to Parliament.

Let's consider the implications for Britain if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded. Shakespeare would have been out of a patron. In fact, he probably would never have been seriously published. The folio (his complete works) was published after his death. And if Fawkes & Friends had done as they had planned and murdered all of Parliament and the King, the whole nation would have been thrown to bloody chaos. In all probability, England would have become a province of Spain, and they would be in no position, economically, to care about the theatre or publish a bunch of plays by a recently dead guy. (I hope you, who have seen V for Vendetta, will see the irony of all those Shakespeare quotations. We wouldn't know anything about Macbeth or Henry VI Part 1, let alone Part 3.)

The same goes for Marlowe, Donne, Dowland, and Milton.

There certainly would have been no King James Version of the Bible. And before the scoffing atheists roll their eyes, I ask you to soberly consider the influence that book has had on publishing, language, literacy, and literature.

And perhaps most importantly, the only democracy in Europe would have been destroyed. No more Magna Carta. No elected representation. No possibility of a British colony in the Americas. No Declaration of Independence. No American Constitution.

Guy Fawkes mask from "V for Vendetta"
But Guy Fawkes is the hero of V for Vendetta and the "Anonymous" movement.

Let's take a moment to consider "V" himself. He promotes a prepubescent worldview of binaries: People are guilty or innocent. Either the government fears their people or the people fear their government.

I don't believe either the people or the government should fear the other, especially in a country like the US where "government" and "people" are anything but mutually exclusive. Congress should not be worried that any old maniac could murder them all if he's displeased with their performance.

And I'm sorry, but "V" is wholly unjustified in his torture of the Natalie Portman character.

He's not a hero, he's a vigilante. And as George Zimmerman has taught us, we don't need any more of them.

Watching this movie has removed whatever credibility "Anonymous" and "Occupy" had with me. This is not the kind of informed discourse on which you should be basing your political and moral philosophy. This is a 14-year-old's empowerment fantasy. The petty bullying of "Anonymous" and the ineffectual groans of the "Occupy" movement are echoed in the kind of inane, misguided violence of the film.

It's a fun movie, but it's a stupid movie.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hunger Games Movie

Katniss and Rue, from my brother's art blog.
This is going to be more a stitching together of fragmented thoughts, rather than a formal review.

Here's how the movie starts: SHAKY CAM. So much shaky cam. You bring the cam, they bring the shaky. Shaky, shaky, shaky cam.

Shake it.

Wait, is that a rig shot? Nope! It's SHAKY CAM!

I like the idea, but they let it get a little out of control. I like how District 12 looks like it's straight out of Dorothea Lange Depression era photography, though.

I was not feeling the Gale thing, though. I mean, he was just kind of there, looking a little broody. I guess it's hard to show that he and Katniss were life-long pals without going into a really bad montage. But they had zero chemistry, and Gale wasn't awesome at that whole acting thing.

Although I do like The Hunger Games, I'm just going to come out and say it: these are some stupid names. Katniss, Peeta, Gale. Why did she think those were okay? I actually like all the Roman names, but they're the bad guys.

Once we got into the Games proper, the movie really picked up steam. Is it bad to be entertained by watching people being entertained by watching teenagers kill each other? Probably. But it was still fun.

I've come to the point where I really don't care if a movie is "faithful" to the book, I'm more interested now in if a movie works on its own terms and if it has any dialogue with its source material. For example, Woody Harrelson's Haymitch is not the corpulent slimeball he is in the books, but I thought the rugged, savage take on the character worked.

Also, I really liked Donald Sutherland as President Snow. Great call.

James Newton Howard was lazy with his score. LAZY. It sounded like stock music chosen at random. During a scene where Katniss is searching for Peeta, we hear some bizarre, out of place Spanish guitar riff. And the opening sequences where a woman is vaguely ooing at us did nothing for me.

And typically I'm not crazy about wearily sung songs in movies. The hanging song or whatever it is from the books wasn't working for me, although I really liked it in the books. My feeling is that if you want a female character to sing a heart-wrenching song, you need to do the Patrick Doyle/Kate Winslet combo.

Anyway. It's a good, fun movie. It was better than I expected, and quite entertaining. Actually, my hat goes off to how they put the whole thing together, and especially to how they handled the violence. It needed to be jarring, but they didn't make a meal of it. Bloody and savage, but not gruesome.

Good job, guys.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Orpheus with His Lute

I wrote a slew of posts made up of my philosophical ramblings about music, but I've been listening to a song by Ralph Vaughn-Williams that's made me want to ramble again. The song is "Orpheus with His Lute," and it uses lyrics by my good pal Shakespeare:

ORPHEUS with his lute made trees
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

Also, if you don't mind counter-tenors, here's a fantastic recording of the song.

Anyway, the text and the music have got me thinking again about how bizarre music is. I've argued before that music has no natural precedent. We can talk about the music of the spheres or the music of birds or the wind rushing through the trees, but these are all quite different from music as we understand it from a traditional Western paradigm.

Where does a melody even come from? Seriously. Once they exist, they seem to be inseparable from themselves and inevitable. It's kind of divine. With a good melody, it's impossible for most of us to imagine it being any different from how it is. Once formed, the idea of a melody (though not necessarily its individual parts) appears without beginning or end. At no point do we think, "Oh, the composer's not sure where to take this." It rolls along like Fate and Fortune's Wheel.

Music is the most magic-like thing we engage in. None of us really understands it. What makes D minor such a sad key? Why is a V7-I cadence so satisfying? We've discovered that Western harmony is based on actual physical phenomena, like the harmonic series, but we really don't know why that moves us. One of Shakespeare's characters asks comically, "Is it not strange that sheeps' guts [lute strings used to be made from sheep's stomachs] should hale souls out of men's bodies?" It is.

I read a Wall Streat Journal article a while ago that claimed to have discovered "the anatomy of a tear-jerker." It said that Adele's "Someone Like You" followed a formula that all the other "tear-jerkers" (e.g., Barber's "Adagio for Strings") have used. A couple of smug neuroscientists wrote that changes in timbre and register release hormones endorphins in our brains which make us simultaneously sad and happy. This really doesn't explain anything: timbre and register changes alone won't consistently produce those same effects. There is an art to composition and performance. It can't be quantified, no matter how many times you look at a ghostly fMRI.

As quoted above, the great poet wrote, "In sweet music is such art / Killing care and grief of heart / Fall asleep, or, hearing die." So often, I've coped with my greatest difficulties by playing music. Who needs therapy when you have the Bach cello suites? Then there's Schubert's great song:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf' entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir
Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

But why? Why do these sequences of ratios and heaps of sine waves calm our minds and soothe our spirits? I'm happy not knowing. Never knowing. We need some things to "tease us out of thought, as [does] eternity."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pi Day (Or, Having Trouble Getting Over This Book, Part 3)

I've written about Life of Pi twice already on this blog. Once here when I first read the book, and once here. But those were the feverish ramblings of someone who's just fallen in love. In a week and a half, I'll be presenting a paper, "The Trans-Textual Life of Pi" at BYU's English Symposium. I hope it's more…collected. My passion for the book has only deepened, but I think I'm able to discuss it in a more organized, less frenzied way.

I'd like to borrow an image from one of Shakespeare's sonnets to sum up my relationship with Life of Pi. It's about how the poet is aging, but the love between him and the beloved only grows stronger. "In me thou seest the glowing of such fire / that on the ashes of his youth doth lie." When a fire is just starting, it's super bright and there's lots of flames and smoke, and it's a whole deal. But when it gets hotest is after the flames die and only the coals remain. Anyway, I digress. I hope that I'm gradually moving from the flames stage to the coals with Pi.

Once I was having a conversation with my friend Joel about someone not liking Harry Potter, and he said, "But Michael. It's impossible for you to be objective about this."

My jaw dropped. "What do you mean I can't be objective? I don't own any stock in Harry Potter. I'm not on Rowling's pay roll."

"You don't understand how you are. When you like something, you just get so…you about it."

After some quick introspection, I saw that he was right. I get really passionate about the things I like. Once I get behind something, I'm all about it.

Life of Pi holds a special place in my personal canon as my favorite novel. I've never read a novel that has so informed my world view—spoken so dramatically to my most pressing anxieties, articulated so beautifully my dearest convictions, and transported me so completely into its story. The more I study its themes and structures, the more amazed I am at its scope, precision, and craft.

There are passages that are so charming and witty that I could not do anything but love them. Then there are lines of such compressed poignancy that I can barely read them. I'll never forget reading the book for the first time: the relief I felt when Pi finally got to Mexico, and the profound terror I felt as the novel turned the whole experience on its head.

And the events surrounding the book are so very important to me. It was the perfect thing to read as a freshly returned missionary from Toronto. It's led me to many new stories and books and people that have expanded my experience and my joy. And perhaps the kindest, most tender words I've ever received from my parents (or anyone, really) are those written in the copy of Life of Pi they gave me for my birthday, years ago.

The only other books that have had such a lasting effect on me are Shakespeare's plays and the Bible. The philosophy, events, and characters of Life of Pi have become so dear to me that they are essentially a part of my identity. I think that's what Joel meant when he said I couldn't be objective about anything that I like. My passions form such an integral part of me that objectivity becomes a fantasy. They become who I am.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Black is Evergreen, or "What's your favorite color, baby?!"

From the Hubble telescope
When I was young (we're talking first grade), I had a black T-shirt that had some crazy space scene on the front, complete with a robot arm clutching a flaming star craft. It was a hand-me-down. It was awesome. It was my favorite shirt.

I wore it every chance I could until one day, my teacher, Ms. Just, scoldingly remarked, "Ugh. Why are you always dressed in black? Is black your favorite color?"

I said no, and hastily decided that green was my favorite. But I really didn't like green. Blue was a good candidate, but my older brother had already taken that one, so it was off the table. I settled on red for a while, but I wasn't really feeling it. I eventually mustered up the courage to claim blue.

Blue and I were good friends for a while. It's the color of my alma mater and two pairs of my jeans.

But honestly, black is my favorite color, and I've only just recently owned up to it. Society has told me that gentlemen prefer blondes, but to me, dark is fairer than fair.

I love the texture you get in black and white photography and film.

I love the deep black of concert pianos.

I like Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets more than his "Fair Youth" ones.

And then, optically, in its own paradoxical way, black is a much brighter color than white. Black absorbs light, while white shows an aversion to it.

I prefer autumn to spring and sunset to noon. Have you ever gone to a matinee and realized that the reason why you probably didn't enjoy it so much was the timing? It's hard to invest in a movie or play when you know there's still so much quotidian weight left in the day.

Also, cities definitely look better at night, with all the buildings, monuments, and statues lit up by artificial light. And who doesn't look better in the moonlight? I'm not the biggest Byron fan, but I think he was on to something:

SHE walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

I like Frost a lot more than Byron, so maybe I should have started with him:

Robert Frost
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud –
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.


Let's face it: even the words associated with black—raven and sable—are so much cooler than ivory or pale.

And while I'm getting linguistic, the word black comes from the Old English blacc, which means black. There's the saying "X is the new black," but black will always be the black: old, current, and new.

I've started to buy almost exclusively black clothes. I'm as far as you can be from punk or goth, but I just like black. I always have. An acquaintance told me that if a child starts dressing in black, it should be a warning sign for parents. Perhaps it's a warning sign that their child is desperately awesome.

A black T-shirt is one of the most socially malleable garments, solely by it being black. Black goes with everything. It's fit for parties and funerals. And I feel that a monochromatic wardrobe is bold in a very assured, calm way.

Also, not all cultures have this thing against black. I'm told that in some Eastern cultures (e.g., Korea), black is the sign of good stuff, while white is the color of death. Unlike chess, in Weiqi (or "Go"), the black player moves first.

And even in the West, black isn't always negative. In Elizabethan England, it was a sign of wealth and social status. (The amount of black dye required to make a garment truly sable [such a good word, right?] was prohibitive for most people's budgets.) And even today, black is the color of classical musicians and formal parties.

So, anyway. Black is my favorite color, and I'm done apologizing for it. It doesn't mean I'm morbid or demented or troubled. It means I'm awesome.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Double, Double

Once, as a student in Berlin, I saw myself. Or someone very like me. He was standing above the subway entrance outside my favorite cafe. With an ever-growing sense of the uncanny, I noticed that he and I were the same height and weight. We had the same curly brown hair. We wore similar glasses, tweed coats, blue button-up shirts, jeans, and tan suede shoes. Oh, and our faces were identical. It was terrible.

“I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.” This was the defense of Edgar Allan Poe against those who accused his horror works of being too Germanic. I can’t completely agree with Poe.

One of the classic German horror tropes is the Doppelgänger, the “double walker.” No less than the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed to have seen his double on horseback as he was riding to Drusenheim. Goethe looked on the encounter with fondness. For a long time, I couldn’t understand him. A Doppelgänger is often an omen of impending death and doom. As one who has actually had a run-in with a Doppelgänger, I can testify that it is, at the very least, unsettling.

My encounter with my double sparked a fight-or-flight response in me. Our eyes met, and we held each other’s gaze for an uncomfortable length before I plunged down the stairs to the subway platform where I hid in the crowd and then behind a pillar.

Then he came darting down the same stairs. At first I thought I was paranoid, but it became evident that he was not there for the train—he was looking for me. He was weaving between pillars and people right up until the train came. I jumped on, still watching him through the window. Our eyes met again. He waved. The train rolled out of the station.

I’ve spent some time thinking about that encounter with my ghostly other and my varied experiences as a student in Berlin. If I may be allowed to wax philosophical, I’d argue that when we spend enough time in a foreign land, we become our own “double walkers.” We are still ourselves, but we’ve gradually changed the way we speak, dress, act, eat, and live. We aren’t who we once were. Initially that process can be jarring, humiliating, and terrifying.

But this is a gift. How often do we get to live a second life? Well, there’s a French proverb, “Apprendre une langue, c’est vivre de nouveau.” And I have found that language and culture are inherently linked. When we’ve spent enough time with a place that we start to speak its language, we’ve lived anew. When these opportunities present themselves for us to see the world and ourselves from a new perspective, we shouldn’t run from them.

As odd as it may sound, I deeply regret fleeing from my Doppelgänger. I hope to go back to that corner just south of Potsdamer Platz, outside Balzac’s Coffee. On some looming autumn evening, I hope to see him again. This time, I’ll offer to buy him a steaming mug of Belgian orange hot chocolate. I’m sure it’s his favorite.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Nightmares and Dreams

From The Iron Claw
One of the things I hate most in all the world is to listen to people tell me about their dreams. There's a quality to dreams that makes them real and meaningful to the dreamer, but we just can't express that quality to others. There's a great quote from Heart of Darkness that argues that our lives are the same way: "No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone."

I think that's true to an extent, although it's gloomier than how I would phrase it.

Lots of people talk about how great dreams are. The part of Inception I understand the very least is all the people who flock to that little den so they can get their dream fix. I hate dreams. I've had maybe half a dozen good dreams in my life. If I could choose, I would never dream.

To illustrate my point, I'm going to tell you about the dream I had last night. You won't like it. For one, no one likes hearing about other people's dreams. For another, I only have awful dreams.

I was driving down the interstate. My brothers were with me. My younger brother was still very young, maybe pushing nine. The road got more and more congested, but instead of slowing down, traffic kept speeding up. Think of how water shoots through a constricted hose nozzle. The medians kept coming closer and closer until there was just one lane. As the lanes lessened, my dread increased.

A nasty fog rose up, so I had to follow the tail lights of the people in front of me as best I could, but eventually the car in front of me got too far ahead. I didn't dare go any faster with the narrow winding road being how it was.

Without warning, I came to a part of the road that I couldn't understand. There were too many divergent lanes. I decided to hang right, but I instantly knew that was wrong. For one, there were immediately signs that said NO TRESPASSING and PRIVATE PROPERTY. But this was out in the middle of nowhere, and I needed to turn around, so I decided to drive just past the signs and make a turn in this lane to get back on the interstate.

As I was about to go into point two of a three point turn, I heard the back left door open, and a tall, middle aged man got in. His face was half hidden by a broad-rimmed hat, but I could see that it was badly mutilated and his fingers disappeared into bare bone claws at the tips. He put a gun to my head and told me to turn off the engine.

I did.

"You've screwed up now," he said. Then he started laughing. He told me that the old man would come for us.

He did.

The old man had the same sadistic air as the man in the car, the man with broad-rimmed hat. Although the old man's face wasn't deformed, his eyes were maniacal. He was obviously gleeful to find us. He told me that he'd be taking my younger brother, and we would wait in the car if we knew what was good for us.

I grabbed the old man's gun from his holster. It was a colt six-shooter. I pulled back the hammer and squeezed the trigger, but there were no bullets in the gun. Then I felt bone claws rip through the flesh of my face. The younger man had come up behind me. The older man laughed and said he was going to have his way with my brother. My older brother offered to pay them off, but the younger man laughed and said we could never afford it. I got the sense that this was a long-running operation, and their sneers betrayed a smugness that comes from security and practice.

I grabbed the younger man's gun from his holster. It was a colt six-shooter. I pulled back the hammer and squeezed the trigger, but there were no bullets in the gun. This time, though, I didn't bother waiting. I pistol-whipped the man in the broad rimmed hat across his already maimed face until he fell to the ground. Then I threw myself at the old man. His claws went deep into my shoulder, but I grabbed him by the waist and hurled him off the road, into a trench.

I pulled my brother back into the car, slammed and locked the doors, and then we drove off.

This ended much better than most of my dreams.

I've been on a Poe kick, and that was a man who loved his dreams. This is from "A Dream Within a Dream":

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand -
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep - while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

And along those lines:

Uns're Freuden, uns're Wehen,
Alles eines Irrlichts Spiel!