Wednesday, December 4, 2019

What Does A Great Conductor Do? - Final Draft

(Play from where the link goes until hard cut at 19:33)

It's one of the hardest passages for a conductor. Near the end of the first movement of Bruckner's seventh symphony, a movement I've often imagined to be a depiction of heaven - the divine light, the play of angels on clouds, the ascension of the newly deceased to their reception into eternity.

It's almost impossible to hear properly on a recording, but getting this right in concert is the difference between noise and an array of musical colors that few other pieces could ever release. As the soul ascends toward the gates of St. Peter, the music of the strings and high winds ascends in tones higher, and higher, and higher, in the kind of longing and ecstasy that is Bruckner's alone among musicians. And in order to get a sense of just how high we have soared, the double basses and timpani intones a pedal point E in their lowest octave - as if to show how distant earth is from heaven.

But in most performances, you can't hear that low-E. Double bass is a very quiet instrument, and if a timpani roll gets too loud, it sounds like distortion. And yet in the performance I heard on Saturday night, the low-E was as pellucid as a triangle, yet the basses were not even playing. It must have been played by the tuba, though I couldn't see the tuba player from my seat. The conductor, Marek Janowski, must have rescored it, and it must be a ferociously difficult note for a tuba to play for so long, but orchestral musicians have much better technique today than they did in Bruckner's day. For anyone who knows basic orchestration, this solution should be obvious, and yet I'm not aware anybody had ever thought of it.

Nearly three years ago, I heard the legendary Daniel Barenboim conduct a performance of this symphony that was magnificent, but this particular moment dissolved in gibberish. Barenboim is a master of phrasing and voice leading and context, but no one ever hailed him as a master of technique. Yet Marek Janowski is such a master craftsman that he thought of a solution better than any thought up by Bruckner and perhaps any other conductor. This is the kind of thing a true maestro knows how to do.

Every concertgoer has asked this question for two hundred years: what does a conductor do? The answer is not so easy, because the job description of a conductor is so nebulous that a conductor can pretty much make up his job as he goes along. Think of it as a baseball manager or football coach, the low-key way that Joe Torre managed a team was almost the opposite of the high-octane intensity of Tony La-Russa. Both managers clearly were extremely successful, but their success depended on the responsiveness of the players they faced. Some workers are more motivated by bosses who let them figure things out for themselves, other workers require a boss who corrects their every move. Everybody is different, and success depends upon the organization's culture, and the director's ability to read the kind of boss their players require for the best results.

I was not a normal kid. During the two or three years of my childhood when I didn't long to be an orchestra conductor, I dreamed of being a baseball manager. As I got older, the more similarities there seemed between these two childhood obsessions. For better or worse, the performing arts have about the same success rate as baseball. Just as with batting averages, even the elite among musicians and actors will only get a hit 3 out of 10 times, and will only hit a home run one in fifteen times. In a lifetime, we all fail many more times than we succeed.

The recreative artists who give the appearance of universal success, like Carlos Kleiber or Daniel Day-Lewis, can only do so in artificial circumstances. They're so selective about their projects that there's no true sample size in their work.

Conducting is not a profession as rife with frauds as some allege, but there are many who are more mediocre than their reputations. A conductor great at every performance is a myth. Most good conductors, like any performer, have a couple dozen substantial works at most which they know well enough to excel, and everything else is a crapshoot.

And like in every profession, the best of all are almost never superstars. To be a superstar, you have to at least be good, but performers become superstars because they choose music that draws more attention to them than to the music. Yet music expresses so much more than sensory overload. I've heard Valery Gergiev give a Tchaikovsky 5 that could light up a whole city, and in the same concert he conducted Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture whose playing came so unglued I thought he'd stop the piece and start over. I've heard Yannick Nezet-Seguin give a Petrushka for the ages, but in subtler music like Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok, he exhibited no understanding of what makes the music compelling. I've heard Gustavo Dudamel do a Rite of Spring to wake up a continent and another Rite of Spring to put a city to sleep. The same was once true about Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan. The really great ones, who are always studying more music as a matter of course and can find the music in the music of any time or place, rarely become household names in any country except for the week they guested at your local orchestra if you've got a particularly robust public for classical music in your town. They're too curious about great music to keep playing the flashy pieces that make you remember them more than the music they conducted, if you've grown to love orchestral music, chances are it's because there was a conductor made it sing and dance without even drawing attention tot he fact that he was doing it.

Occasionally you get a musical genius up there like Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim who can find the music in anything, but the nature of genius is that their brains work differently, and they can't always transmit their extraordinary understanding. On any given night, Lenny and Danny could be as risible as they were magnificent the night before. Is a conductor like Barenboim more valuable than a conductor like Marek Janowski, whose revelations are very subtle, but who never fails spectacularly?

Any kind of musician who gives a performance worthy of the music they're playing on more than one in three nights is the most exclusive of exclusive clubs, and in the history of the entire of the conducting profession, there are maybe twenty-five names. Some of those are names that if you followed the classical world from a distance you might have heard: Claudio Abbado, Mariss Jansons, Bruno Walter, Thomas Beecham, and (cough, ahem) James Levine, and some are only known and remembered by the concert faithful like Charles Munch, Charles Mackerras, Rafael Kubelik, Ernest Ansermet, Eduard van Beinum, Ferenc Fricsay, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Herbert Blomstedt, Otmar Suitner, Igor Markevitch, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Paul Paray, George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Erich Kleiber... and perhaps the living names of five younger conductors who are less than ninety years old yet... And even those twenty-five names are not necessarily even the greatest, they are the great contact hitters - the ones who inspire great performances most often, but not necessarily the greatest performances. By my judgement, there is no higher 'batting-average' than Pierre Monteux, the Golden Age French conductor who could literally make great music from anything, but can I say with a clear conscience that he is a greater conductor than Wilhelm Furtwangler, the greatest home-run hitter in the profession's history who climbed and scaled to higher heights than any other maestro ever did? Of course not, there must be room on a list like this not only for Furtwangler, but other power hitters who strike out all the time too like Leonard Bernstein, Valery Gergiev, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Willem Mengelberg, Victor de Sabata, Simon Rattle, Nikolai Golovanov, Kirill Kondrashin, Neeme Jarvi, Leopold Stokowski, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Serge Koussevitzky, Klaus Tennstedt, Albert Coates, Yuri Temirkanov, John Barbirolli, Eugen Jochum, because when the Furtwanglers and Bernsteins were great, no one has ever been greater, even if they was too seldom at their greatest. And then, what do you do about a conductor like Carlos Kleiber, who in some ways cheated - he clearly got a hit at least one in two times he ever came to bat, but he conducted roughly 200 night in the last thirty years of his life, not even seven times a year, only conducted less than two dozen works, and almost always with the world's four or five greatest orchestras - it's like a hitter who spends all year preparing for the World Series, knowing that the best team will demand him, and that he can win the championship while only swooping in when it was time to claim the glory. So in short, what does a great conductor do? I

(go to the end of the movement and have this music play us out)

I have done a terrible job of answering the question. I answered it so much better in what was supposed to be today's podcast which was a tribute to the late Mariss Jansons, one of the very elite maestros of all time, it was friggin' great and then I accidentally deleted it more than half of it this morning without any chance of recovery, just before I tried to record it. So for the moment, what does a great conductor do? After more than thirty years of being fascinated by conductors and great classical performances, I still have no idea.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

For Mariss Jansons Part I

Firebird Finale

A recording is a moment in time, as much music in its natural habitat as a caged animal. Recordings cannot help but exaggerate interpretive mannerisms that in a live performance you forget as quickly as you notice them. But if a musician whose interpretation deliberately overstates the music will come across as mannered on a recording, a musician who deliberately under-interprets will come across as empty, generic, dull. The extraordinary qualities of Mariss Jansons, roughly as prone to exaggerate musically as a mountain to noticeably move, could never come through in recordings. Sometimes to a fault, there seemed to be no interpretation in his performances. He simply played the music, with absolute security, absolute care, absolute detail. In the isolation of recording, this process too often sounds plain; but live, it was magic. But while forever within the bounds of good taste, perhaps sometimes even inhibited by good taste, every Jansons performance was nevertheless, subtly, unmistakably different. Compare any two Jansons recordings of the same work, preferably on live recordings - as you're going through them, you might think you're hearing an interpretation that deliberately keeps itself out of the music, but from one recording to the next, everything is different - the tempos, the phrasing, the colors. Just take this example of three different performances of a Jansons specialty, Shostakovich 10.

Here's the second subject of the first movement on his 90s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra with which I first learned this piece as a teenager. It seems to gradually get out of bed, give a barbaric yawp, then go back to bed.

Philadelphia (play to 7:03)

And now here's Jansons playing the same passage with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam nearly fifteen years later. Notice the ever so slightly slower tempo, those heavy vibrato-laden accents in the first violins on the offbeats, notice the extremely gruff 'staccato' or short notes in the lower strings. And just listen to the sheer singing velour of the Concertgebouw that Jansons lets off the leash all the way through. The differences are subtle, but the performances are completely different.

Amsterdam (to 7:17)

And now listen to the same passage a third time with Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony of Munich. This time the tempo's a little quicker, the dynamics are more contrasted without quite as many frills in the phrasing, the strings are clearly more prominent than the winds but the brass also cuts through the texture a bit more, and on this recording the dissonances of the inner voices peak through.

Munich (up to 7:42)

You might hear these differences, you might not. They're very very subtle, and yet for a certain kind of music nut this is exactly what we live for. Nobody but the best of the best can make performances that sound so similar yet so different. Jansons may have begun from the exact same conception each time, but however an artist prepares for the work they do, in the moment of creation, they have to respond to whatever realities make themselves manifest, and if it suddenly occurs to you that a different idea than your outline will work better at that moment, the work dictates that you have to change what you do.

This is no mechanical musician. Other conductors who deliberately effaced their interventions from of the music could sound incredibly calculated, as though their lack of personality was in itself an imposition of personality and they'd drilled the orchestra to the point that no detail was left to chance. Some of them were Jansons's mentors and musical legends in their own right like Herbert von Karajan and Yevgeny Mravinsky, both of whose music making was so oriented in precision and refinement that it seemed more the music making of awesome machines than humans. But Mariss Jansons's music making rarely felt anything but human, music made from the heart to go straight to the heart. In many ways, it takes far greater and more sincere heart to be understatedly emotional than overstatedly, which can always counterfeit grandiloquence for emotions that are not genuine. Far be it for someone like me to ever say that there should be no place in the world for histrionics, but loud primary emotions are generally rather simple, and often don't do justice to the complexity of our emotional experiences. Some conductors, like Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev, is so expressive that when we listen they channel our primal selves. Other, more subtle podium presences, like Jansons and Rafael Kubelik and Ivan Fischer, stint not at all on music's ability to express, but what they express requires you to pay a little closer attention, because the emotional journeys they take us on are not only subtler, but also perhaps more complex.

 I will never forget any detail of Stravinsky's 1919 Firebird Suite I heard from Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 2004. Knowing that it would probably be great, I moved up to the front row, right behind Jansons to see exactly how a master would do it. But it was a fruitless pursuit. On the one hand, nothing was out of the ordinary, just a masterful conductor with a masterful technique who knew exactly what dynamic and color he wanted from every one of the hundred musicians on stage and able to elicit it in the moment so that one detail added to every detail before it for the most absorbing possible experience one could have, he was not only conducting the orchestra, he was conducting us, and not through podium gymnastics but directly through our ears. So on the other hand, no matter how great I thought the performance was going to be, it was infinitely greater. On the other hand, I had no more sense by the end of how he did it than I did at the beginning. The Firebird Suite is not a particularly great piece of music unless it's played the way the Pittsburgh Symphony played it that Saturday afternoon, and that afternoon, it was an ecstatic spritiaul experience. Other maestros I regularly heard when I was living in DC like Valery Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov would leave everything to chance and counted on the mad scramble to inspire players through adrenalin. The gambit usually paid off, but Gergiev is the kind of conductor who so electrifies you that you think you're at a sporting event. Jansons is the kind of conductor that makes you think you're somewhere as intimate as a conversation by the fireplace with a close friend you haven't spoken to in ten years. Temirkanov has an intimacy closer to the Jansons way, but while to have heard Temirkanov at his best was to have nights in the concert hall of uncanny poetry and magic, to have heard Mariss Jansons at his best was the kind of artistic experience you have only a few times over the course of your life. At the end, you are a different person than you were at the beginning.

For Mariss Jansons - Most

Firebird Finale

A recording is a moment in time, as much music in its natural habitat as a caged animal. Recordings cannot help but exaggerate interpretive mannerisms that in a live performance you forget as quickly as you notice them. But if a musician whose interpretation deliberately overstates the music will come across as mannered on a recording, a musician who deliberately under-interprets will come across as empty, generic, dull. The extraordinary qualities of Mariss Jansons, roughly as prone to exaggerate musically as a mountain to noticeably move, could never come through in recordings. Sometimes to a fault, there seemed to be no interpretation in his performances. He simply played the music, with absolute security, absolute care, absolute detail. In the isolation of recording, this process too often sounds plain; but live, it was magic. But while forever within the bounds of good taste, perhaps sometimes even inhibited by good taste, every Jansons performance was nevertheless, subtly, unmistakably different. Compare any two Jansons recordings of the same work, preferably on live recordings - as you're going through them, you might think you're hearing an interpretation that deliberately keeps itself out of the music, but from one recording to the next, everything is different - the tempos, the phrasing, the colors. Just take this example of three different performances of a Jansons specialty, Shostakovich 10.

Here's the second subject of the first movement on his 90s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra with which I first learned this piece as a teenager. It seems to gradually get out of bed, give a barbaric yawp, then go back to bed.

Philadelphia (play to 7:03)

And now here's Jansons playing the same passage with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam nearly fifteen years later. Notice the ever so slightly slower tempo, those heavy vibrato-laden accents in the first violins on the offbeats, notice the extremely gruff 'staccato' or short notes in the lower strings. And just listen to the sheer singing velour of the Concertgebouw that Jansons lets off the leash all the way through. The differences are subtle, but the performances are completely different.

Amsterdam (to 7:17)

And now listen to the same passage a third time with Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony of Munich. This time the tempo's a little quicker, the dynamics are more contrasted without quite as many frills in the phrasing, the strings are clearly more prominent than the winds but the brass also cuts through the texture a bit more, and the dissonances of the inner voices peak through more.

Munich (up to 7:42)

You might hear these differences, you might not. They're very very subtle, and yet for a certain kind of music nut this is exactly what we live for. Nobody but the best of the best can make performances that sound so similar yet so different. Jansons may have begun from the exact same conception each time. But however an artist outlines the work they later do, in the moment of creation, you have to respond to whatever realities make themselves manifest, and if it suddenly occurs to you that a different idea than your outline will work better at that moment, the work dictates that you have to change what you do.

This is no mechanical musician. Other conductors who deliberately effaced their interventions from of the music could sound incredibly calculated, as though their lack of personality was in itself an imposition of personality and they'd drilled the orchestra to the point that no detail was left to chance. Some of them were Jansons's mentors and musical legends in their own right like Herbert von Karajan and Yevgeny Mravinsky, both of whose music making was so oriented in precision and refinement that it seemed more the music making of awesome machines than humans. But Mariss Jansons's music making rarely felt anything but human, music made from the heart to go straight to the heart. I will never forget any detail of Stravinsky's 1919 Firebird Suite I heard from Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 2004. Knowing that it would probably be great, I moved up to the front row, right behind Jansons to see exactly how a master would do it. But it was a fruitless pursuit. On the one hand, nothing was out of the ordinary, just a masterful conductor with a masterful technique who knew exactly what dynamic and color he wanted from every one fo the hundred musicians on stage and able to elicit it in the moment. On the other hand, no matter how great I thought it was going to be, it was infinitely greater. The Firebird Suite is not a particularly great piece of music unless it's played the way the Pittsburgh Symphony played it that Saturday afternoon. Other maestros I regularly heard when I was living in DC like Valery Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov would leave everything to chance and counted on the mad scramble to inspire players through adrenalin. The gambit usually paid off, but Gergiev is the kind of conductor who so electrifies you that you think you're at a sporting event. Jansons is the kind of conductor that makes you think you're somewhere as intimate as a dinner with a close friend you haven't seen in ten years. Temirkanov has an intimacy closer to the Jansons way, but while to have heard Temirkanov at his best was to have nights in the concert hall of uncanny poetry and magic, but to have heard Mariss Jansons at his best was to hear the kind of music making you hear only a very few times over the course of your lifetime. At the end, you are a different person than you were at the beginning.

To those few of us who care about these things, the names Temirkanov and Jansons will forever be linked in unfortunate ways. To us conductor nuts, the Leningrad Philharmonic will always be associated with Yevgeny Mravinsky, who inherited the orchestra during Stalin's Great Terror and lead it for a full fifty years until the USSR was at the point of collapse. Mariss Jansons was Yevgeny Mravinsky's longtime second conductor, and by many accounts should have been his successor. For whatever reason, be it anti-Latvian bigotry in Russia or that Temirkanov had the right friends in high places, Temirkanov, already a celebrity maestro with a magnificent perch at the Kirov Opera, inherited Russia's greatest orchestra upon Mravinsky's death, which he's now lead with distinction for an admirable more than thirty years. But Temirkanov thought little of Mravinsky, and while the orchestra is of course still excellent, the special Mravinsky sound of the now St. Petersburg Philharmonic is almost completely vanished


Monday, December 2, 2019

For Mariss Jansons - Beginning

Firebird Finale

A recording is a moment in time, as much music in its natural habitat as a caged animal. Recordings cannot help but exaggerate interpretive mannerisms that in a live performance you forget as quickly as you notice them. But if a musician whose interpretation deliberately overstates the music will come across as mannered on a recording, a musician who deliberately under-interprets will come across as empty, generic, dull. The extraordinary qualities of Mariss Jansons, roughly as prone to exaggerate musically as a mountain to noticeably move, could never come through in recordings. Sometimes to a fault, there was no interpretation in his performances. He simply played the music, with absolute security, absolute care, absolute detail. On recording, it too often sounded plain; live, it was magic. Other conductors who deliberately kept themselves out of the music could sound incredibly calculated, some of them were Jansons's mentors and legends in their own right like Herbert von Karajan and Yevgeny Mravinsky, both of whose music making was so precision oriented that it seemed music made more like titans than humans. But Mariss Jansons's music making was never anything but human, music made from the heart to go straight to the heart. I will never forget any detail of those final few minutes of the Firebird I heard from Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 2004. I moved up to the front row, right behind Jansons to see exactly how a master would do it. Nothing was out of the ordinary, just a masterful conductor with a masterful technique who knew exactly what dynamic and color he wanted from every one fo the hundred musicians on stage. Other maestros I regularly heard when I was in DC like Valery Gergiev would leave everything to chance and counted on= the mad scramble to inspire players through adrenalin. The gambit usually paid off, but Gergiev is the kind of conductor who so electrifies you that you think you're at a sporting event. Jansons is the kind of conductor that makes you think you're somewhere as intimate as a dinner with a close friend you haven't seen in ten years. To have heard Mariss Jansons at his best was to hear the kind of music making you hear only a very few times over the course of your lifetime. At the end, you are a different person than you were at the beginning.

The Animal Artifice of Bojack

Puns on Bojack

I hate puns, I fucking loathe them. When people call puns the lowest form of humor, they are being much too nice to this evil genre of pseudo-humor, which deserves to be sent to hell without a return address. Puns are the perfect display of humor for people who don't have a sense of humor, and think the world's feelings are too important to laugh at except when we make empty displays of cleverness, which is a shame because most of the people who employ puns as a humor substitute are not good enough at making puns to make decent ones.  

But Bojack Horseman raises pun to high art. Puns in Bojack are not for their own sake, they exist at the mercy of their story, to set the unreal atmosphere of Hollywood, which is already the strangest place on earth. If Hollywood, or Hollywoo, were portrayed realistically, we'd have no sense of just how strange this place really is. So instead, Hollywoo is portrayed through the ingenious masks of a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, a place where every denizen is so distinctly individual that they don't seem quite human, and their strangeness and extremity is reflected through their animal-like qualities. And in this way, Bojack Horseman clearly positions itself as a kind of successor work to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which itself clearly means to channel Chinatown in its portrayal of Los Angeles - in all its both superficial attractiveness and its dark, dark underbelly.

A lot of the very greatest TV shows, or at least the greatest shows in my esteem and a lot of others, like Mad Men or The Sopranos or Seinfeld, are extremely realistic. The reason that they can afford to be realistic is that the cartoonish elements of the characters come to us pre-exaggerated. The recently departed critic Clive James had the perfect line for this, as he did for everything else, that 'fiction is life without the dull bits.' In order to capture life as its really lived, we need to capture both what's realistic and familiar about life, and also what's strange. All lives need both solace and adventure in equal measure, and great fiction gives us this multidimensional vision of life as it's experienced. So in a work like Mad Men, the midcentury plumage of its ostentatious dress and sets and behavior that now seems strange takes care of itself. With The Sopranos, the reason they can afford to be realistic is even more obvious. The world of Jersey mobsters is already strange to the vast majority of its audience, so by recording their dark and often darkly comic behavior, The Sopranos could afford to focus amply on the ways in which the characters were exactly like us. And with Seinfeld? Well, the whole point of Seinfeld was to focus on the extreme minutia of everyday dilemmas and point up those trivialities of everyday life we take for granted. so if you're focusing on the most extreme elements of micro-realism, you need characters who are simultaneously realistic and believable yet also so cartoonish that you cannot imagine that real people would ever act that way, and there are no more extreme human cartoons on TV than Cosmo Kramer and George Costanza.

But shows like Bojack Horseman, or The Simpsons, or South Park deal with issues we think about every day. They are completely familiar to our experience rather than alien, so in order to be compelling, their creators are required to point up the ways that everything we think about is strange. South Park is produced so quickly that literally every episode past the first few seasons is tied directly to whatever the zeitgeist thinks about that week. We already know what we think about, so what we already think about has to be examined for how strange it is. The Simpsons? Well, The Simpsons is, literally at this point, the archetypal American family. In it's 1990s golden age, it examined over and over again the most recurrent, universal themes - not just in American life, but in world life, and do it in ways that are completely original. And now there is Bojack, Bojack is not about American life in nearly the same way, but it is about Hollywood, the element of American life that has dominated, some even troublesomely say 'controlled', American discourse for a whole century. Hollywood is so woven into the fabric of American experience that we take it completely for granted, we've even elected a two-term President who was a lifetime Hollywood resident. What we take for granted about Hollywood is that the people who control the discourse of this town are such atypical oddballs among Americans that there is no way that they will properly represent American concerns in ways that are good for anybody but them, and the ways they represent America are not even good for them.

What makes Bojack Horseman work is that all the artifice and the glitz of its characters are clearly a cover for a very, very human emptiness and hurt, and Bojack graphs an extremely precise map of how that hurt spreads from one person to the next, one person passing on the psychic wound to the next like original sin.

It's not a perfect show, next to something like Mad Men or even The Simpsons, I think Bojack is sometimes a little too orderly in how it assumes that there can be penance and redemption done for wrongs and solutions for how to act more ethically, when there is so much evidence, on the show no less than elsewhere, that the sins of one's lifetime are crosses to bear for which there is no way to truly unburden oneself. But there is so much about Bojack that is right and good in how it represents bad. The evil, both unwitting and sometimes witting, at the heart of American prosperity is laid bare here as rarely ever done in any work of American fiction.

On note whose relation will be explained in a moment, I don't think Bojack's distributor, Netflix,  is a good development for television. Netflix clearly means to crowd out the market for 300 television channels that gave us this 20 year golden age, and caters so precisely and algorithmically to every demographic that no shows can spread their wings in a way that's truly experimental because it might alienate its target audience. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Netflix is cancelling its most successfully experimental show a couple years before the creators hoped to end it.

But the cancellation turned out to be a move so presciently correct that it was uncanny. I yield to very few people in my Bojack fandom, but aside from that stunning funeral episode last year, I couldn't help noticing that the show was losing a bit of steam. The cancellation forced the shows writers and animators to re-focus their aim. Every episode, every scene, now matters, and this bizarre, nebulous way TV shows have of extending their final seasons to two-shorter half-seasons that make up a larger final season seems to work incredibly well for Bojack in a manner it didn't really even for Mad Men. Every one of the eight episodes just released is among their best, and together they comprise a new peak. Perfect or imperfect, this, one of strangest television shows ever made, is also one of the best. I envy anyone who has yet to make its acquaintance.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Three Dead Critics - John Simon - Beginning



What's amazing about this truly brutal review is that John Simon was right; and not just a little right, he hit a bullseye on every target. Star Wars is infantile and a brutal dehumanization of the senses, it bespoke a terrible wind in the spirit of our time that so pedestaled machines over humans that machines became the center of human connectivity rather than human connection to other humans. Star Wars signaled the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, not just the short one that lasted roughly from 1967 until 1983, but the long one from roughly 1920 onward that allowed Hollywood to release quality products every week for sixty years with good scripts, good acting, and good production design without any one element of the movies' quality overwhelming any other.

And yet how is someone so right so obviously wrong? Star Wars is brutal and stupid and dehumanizing and everything else John Simon said it was, but if you have to do brutal, stupid dehumanization, you cannot ever do it better than Star Wars. It's the 24 karat gold standard B-movie in which the sublime stands right next to the absurd, the great next to the camp, and Alec Guinness -arguably greatest actor in film history, stands for an hour next to an eight-foot bear/dog whose only line is (do wookie noise). In other words, to make the most obvious declaration I've ever made on this podcast, Star Wars is fun. And Star Wars made our country take fun so seriously that it arrested the entire development of our country, and if you cannot find that phenomenon fascinating, your intellectual development is as stunted as the millions of people you accuse.

And was the artistic world which Star Wars wiped out truly that great? Perhaps, but John Simon certainly didn't think so, I've read it measured that over the course of his sixty year career he gave roughly 1 in 5 movies and plays he reviewed a good review. William F. Buckley, not exactly the font of generosity himself, once quipped that 'John Simon reviews movies the same way a pigeon reviews statues.'

.....

I don't know if John Simon was a truly wicked man, but he was a wicked critic, and not necessarily for the reasons people think.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Three Dead Critics - Introduction

I want to use the next three or more podcasts to talk about the extremely recent passing of three major writers, all of them critics, all of them kinds of giants of the eras immediately preceding our own whose writing deeply affected the way that readers of our parents' and grandparents' generations thought, and spoke, and decided,... and read of course. It should go without saying that they were white males as was the spirit of their era and every Western cultural era before this one, but it should also be self-evident that like every era, there were giant cleaves of thought, disagreements on what was considered the right way of thinking, of reading, of making art, of what was right and wrong. They embodied three ways to approach it - one generally great, one was generally terrible, and one brilliantly stupid. The usually towering Clive James, the often villainous John Simon, and the sometimes ridiculous Harold Bloom: and for this podcast, a role model, a warning, and a temptation.

I use qualifying adjectives on each them because absolute judgements are exactly where the temptation lies, and therein lies the critical madness that mistakes summary judgement for objective truth, a strong temptation to which I am extremely prone, and therefore like every human with extreme temptations, I yield frequently enough that it must be actively fought.

Part of the reason it's very, very difficult to fight against one's own summary prejudices is that, contrary to the spirit of our time, prejudices are inherent in us for a good reason, it's a necessary human condition that protects us against all manner of malfeasance, and prejudice against prejudice is its own prejudice that opens us up to all manner of exploitation. Do you really want to live in a world where we just assume that people with hateful beliefs, be they white supremacy or Islamic supremacy, fascism or communism, misogyny and homophobia or anti-nationalist terror, aren't willing to act on their beliefs with violent intent, or at very least support and give money to more violent activists than they? There genuinely are some issues on which a lack of prejudice is a mindset which you should make your exception, rather than your rule, and these prejudices go over three-hundred sixty degrees, and these people should sometimes, perhaps even often, be viewed as 'the enemy,' with no excuse made. Even if most bigots of any era clearly subscribe to one set of bigotries rather than the other, both must be recognized for the evil they are. And even if one must make alliances with one set of bigots to combat the greater threat, there can be no forgetting that these temporary allies hold beliefs that can convince them to cut your throat.

But this week, we're not dealing with issues of life and death. We're dealing with the arts, the space of human endeavor we reserve for complexity, for ambiguity; to ascertain what life is in its full meaning. And the arts are only a life and death issue because when a country or historical era insufficiently appreciates the complexity of the arts, it's a sign so often that they don't appreciate the full complexity of life, and are therefore prone to write off whole classes and races as the enemy simply for their identities, rather than their beliefs.

These are three critics who were probably at their most eminent in the 70s, an era that probably seems to my parents' generation like yesterday, but how amazingly different that era was to our own! Almost as close to a precise opposite as the world gives. It was an era when liberalism was the status quo and conservatism, not progressivism, was ascendent in extremis. The great threat to life, and it was a great threat indeed, was the beliefs of left-wing extremists, who threatened to bring the entire world to heel under a cold and monolithically grey dictatorship of fear, informants, sudden and permanent disappearance, and all in the name of giving the world a new and more equal birth of freedom. What more minor wars and dictatorships and breeches of civil liberty would, and perhaps even ought, be countenanced to prevent that?

If so many older people who are overwhelmingly decent in their personal lives seem impossibly, bigotedly, lethally conservative, please try to remember that they lived through the years after 1968, and the world seemed like a very, very different place. Even if Vietnam was a disaster, hundreds of millions believed in the wars like Vietnam for a reason - because Mao and Brezhnev seemed perfectly willing to blow up billions to ensure their dictatorial hegemony, both ideological and imperial. If 58,000 Americans died and 2 million Vietnamese, what a small price that was to pay compared to the payment that might have been. And if so many people in our time seem impossibly, militantly radicalized, and believe that our entire economic system need be overthrown, that a vague and nearly unprovable superstructure of white men exists to keep everyone else down, that American actions around the world are a force for evil rather than good, you have to be similarly tolerant of them if you want to live a decent life. My generation has come of age in the era of Global Warming when American dynamism has brought the planet to the brink of global annihilation. It hasn't occurred to many of them that the democratic dynamism of American auspiced capitalism is also our best hope of solving this crisis, but it's nevertheless true, global warming is fundamentally our creation, and it will primarily affect countries whose immigrants American conservatives are determined to keep out of America. America may be the solution to the world's biggest problem, but it's undeniable, America is also the world's biggest problem.

This was also an era when writing itself was so very different from what it is today. There were far less writers, generally selected from a uniform pool of educated white men, but my god, they could make a good living! They were guaranteed a public! They not only were beloved by small cliques of like-minded lemmings and hated by opposing cliques, they were debated by people who disagreed, and often without rancor! They were engaged with! Readers were allowed to have ambiguous feelings and weigh their strengths and weaknesses.

So many of the best minds today should have been polemicists, but with the death of so many newspapers and magazines, how many could ever make their living this way? They therefore retreat to academia, where the job market is hardly better, but at least colleges are in no danger of folding. Rather than learning the necessity of entertainment, even on the printed page and in the life of the mind, they're forced to spend their time writing unread theses, and their recommendations for employment in the academic world depend upon their theses regurgitating their professors unread ideas. As never before, academia becomes a breeding ground for political radicalism, because why support the beliefs of a general public who rejects you?

We now exist in this weird twilight era when popular culture so subsumes what we used to refer to as 'high culture' that humanities academia has little idea what to study anymore. So rather than learn broadly through our three-to-five thousand year storehouse of knowledge, we live in an era of critical theory, where semi-philosophers, semi-activists, semi-public figures, ....semoiticians, and semi-bullshit artists pre-process the literary world for students, and show them how to view every facet of the mind's life through an ill-informed political refraction with such contradictions . The humanities have been reduced to political propaganda many, many times in history, and rarely did such perceptions do much political good except foretell massive instability in the world. The result is that millions of young intellectuals now inveigh against the evils of capitalism every minute when they're not joyfully consuming capitalism's cultural products by the thousands and insisting the world treat these products with absolute intellectual seriousness, and somehow they live this contradiction with no cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps all this is a straw-man argument, part of my mind is shouting against it even as I write all this down. But consider this: the segregation and mistrust in America between academics and public is statistically demonstrable to be at an all-time high. Just between 2015 to 2017, the end of the Obama era and the beginning of Trump, the level of mistrust of 'expert opinion' in the Republican Party has gone from 54% to 36%. Meanwhile, the Democrat level of trust in expertise in this time has stayed absolutely consistent at 72%, but polls show that Democratic mistrust has gone vociferously down since 1970.

The only explanation I can think of is decline of the polemical journalist in mass media, who can bridge the gap between academic and public, is the only explanation that circumstantially fits. The intellectual consensus that keeps a society away from civil conflict depends on widely read consensus publications hiring respectable, authoritative voices from around the political and cultural spectrum whom their editorial standards can ensure are well-informed and not conspiracy peddlers, who can pursuade a public, whatever their political orientation, think critically, whatever their ideological filter. The polemical newspaper journalist, be they critic or columnist, is often wrong, perhaps even usually, but their answers are almost inevitably wrong about the right questions. The lack of informed opinion is an enormous portion of precipitation for this crisis in American life, and therefore life on earth, and the reinstitution of informed opinion into widely read publications with genuine editorial standards is what will save us from this crisis.



Saturday, November 23, 2019

Mini-Cast #? - How to Be a Dictator

In a fit of manic fascination, I took out ten biographies out from the library, nearly all of which are well over five-hundred pages. After three weeks of Jewish holidays and an automatic renewal, I'm finally finishing biography #2 - Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I'm disappointed to say that it's a rather dull book which I've persisted with for fear of the precedent it will set that I can start still more books without finishing them. I don't know the actual figure, but I like to say that I read 400 books a year and finish seven.

Scholarly writing is, by its nature, a little dry. There are only so many ways to make a subject interesting to the layman when a scholar is beholden to the truth. The truth always conspires to make reality duller than we inevitably wish. There's usually no great conspiracy, no grand illumination, no sudden explicator which sets the truth out to us in a lacerating revelation of fire. Yet simultaneously, reality grounds a book to the point that our flights of fancy can weed out the true believers.

And yet the very dryness of scholarship allows pseudo-scholarship to easily masquerade. The dullest books in the world can excite a cult of the initiated who perceive thousands of meanings the rest of us with our mundane bullshit detectors would never perceive. If you hold your nose at a cult's behest, you can perceive an endless litany of hidden meanings in any text at all, and spend a lifetime uncovering them. Only a bought and paid for member of the cult would endure the endless tedium of conceptual jargon it takes to master in order to grow excited by the hidden meanings, and by the time time we have mastered everything about the cult, the cult warps our thinking about everything else. Smart or stupid, such texts must have something to say about the state of the world, so the sacred text becomes the filter through which the wider world is perceived to its most devoted readers. To the rest of us, there is often no more boring experience. I suppose, given whom we're talking about right now, the obvious example of this phenomenon is Karl Marx, but I could name dozens of other writers and thinkers for whom this process is equally true, and I'm sure many listeners could do the same.

But what I like about substantial biographies is that by their nature, they're generally as grounded in the mundane realities of the moment as any book can be. So if the subject is exciting, the biography gives ample opportunities for a writer to conjure exciting scenes. You would think that the most effective mass murderer in European history would give ample opportunities for this kind of scene-building, but no, this biography is completely concerned with the little details of Kremlin intrigues - who was up, who was down, why Stalin had this or that one shot. So told is this story from the inside that one often forgets that this clique killed up to 25% of their own population!

The service biography performs is to prove something scholars of all kinds have gone to enormous lengths to disprove - that Stalin was a dictator in every sense. who did not delegate unless it was something so time sensitive that he could not find a twenty-fifth hour of the day to figure out the policy himself. He controlled everything. He read everything. His instructions on every subject were detailed to the dotted i.

Stalin was just as evil as Hitler, and in many ways just as unstable a personality. But if he lasted decades longer than Hitler, no small reason is because he made himself a meticulous authority on every subject in the purview of a head of state. Hitler, as Montefiore notes and many before him, was a political gambler who gained power by daring the most enormous risks during a period when World War I left his opponents congenitally timid. Stalin, on the other hand, was a man who inhaled thousands of details before he made any decision at all. He ascended to power by being Lenin's General Secretary, basically a Chief of Staff, but as he was Chief of Staff to a Premier and not a mere President, he had no legislative or judicial oversight, and therefore much more powerful than any Haldemann or Baker, and also much more free to create his own portfolio, his own policies, and most importantly, his own staff. By the time Lenin died, so many of Lenin's advisors were Stalin appointments that by the time of Lenin's death, a majority of his inner circle owed Stalin their eminence, and therefore supported Stalin as Lenin's heir, even though Lenin warned in a memo against Stalin's election in the most ominous manner. And therefore, beginning with Stalin, the Communist Party's 'General Secretary' was the de-facto dictator, a precedent also adapted by China, Vietnam and Laos. It was also used by Mongolia until their communist dictatorship fell in 1992, and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, you probably know the rest of that story...

Stalin was many evil things, but his evil compounded itself exponentially by the fact that he absolutely was a genius. I had generally assumed it a myth that Stalin took it upon himself to personally guide the development of every major artist in the Soviet Union, but after reading this biography, there's no question: it's no myth at all. Most dictators, perhaps most politicians, fancy themselves intellectuals. But eyewitness accounts state that Stalin read something like four-hundred pages a day on average, probably not including government memos, and he was extremely eager to discuss his reading with the country's most distinguished intellectuals, whose work he of course watched like a hawk to ensure intellectuals came to the conclusions he desired. Intellectuals, probably out of Stockholm syndrome, consulted him all the time, and the more terrified they were of him, the more often they wrote him. Stalin, like a true Orwellian dictator, occupied their thoughts, and the more thoughts a person has, the more thoughts among them totalitarian can occupy.

This is where I should mention that famous dictum from Thomas Carlyle in 'On Heroes' where he introduced the 'Great Man Theory of History' which states: 'Find in any country the ablest man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him; you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit."

In the Age of Trump, this theory begins again to look better than risible. If democracy ends up giving us an authoritarian anyway, who in their right mind would not give up an election or two to ensure that the dictator is at least competent.

Yet at the same time, intellect has many, many limitations. And there is no better example of this than Stalin - who famously said: 'Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.' Stalin and Lenin both were men of colossal intelligence, they understood that if they wanted to completely remake a society, they had to liquidate the people within it. But you cannot remake society without destroying it. How was Stalin to know how to properly arm for war against Hitler when he'd liquidated his entire general staff? How was Stalin to meet his farm production quotas when he'd liquidated the entire merchant class twice over who knew how to manage the farms? And how was Stalin to survive the sickness that killed him when he'd liquidated all the best doctors in the USSR? In so many ways, the greater the intelligence, the greater the capacity for stupidity.

Stalin was as meticulous as a human being becomes, but his pathological need to understand every detail was due in part to the grand sweeping theory of historical materialism that attracted him to the life of the mind to begin with. As the man who went further to put Marx into practice than any human being ever had, and I suppose ties with Mao for 'ever did,' he had to master the details that not even Lenin concerned himself with nearly as much. But when so much mastery and control is put into the service of an overarching theory so obviously wrong, the detailed mastery can only serve to warp people's lives still moreso, not less. And this is why the slow steady democratic progress governed generally by American or East Asian mediocrities still seems a preferable option to bet for humanity's progress in 21st century than the promotion of extraordinary men to the highest ranks in China. When even geniuses have absolute power, they have the power to get things absolutely wrong, and by dint of a genius's vision and planning ability, they will almost certainly make more and more costly mistakes than mediocrities ever do, because genius proves itself to be so by taking enormous risks and succeeding - but even in success, what a terrible price is paid. Stalin basically shielded his country from the Great Depression, but did so at the expense of mass population resettlements so that Russia's regional cultures would be broken down forever, and The Great Terror - called a terror due to the random arrests and permanent disappearance of nearly a million people over the course of a year. Stalin won the Great Patriotic War, what we call World War II, because he simply had the willpower to throw death at the Germans in perpetuity. 27 million Soviets died in the Great Patriotic War - one in six...

Some human beings have the capacity for greater achievements than others, but no human achieves anything alone. Stalin may have aspired to a greater collective greatness for mankind, but in its pursuit he created the most astonishing cult of personality since the 17th century Baroque sovereigns.   The pursuit of individual greatness requires people to take at least some measure of spotlight away from others, and the pursuit of individual's cult requires people to take some measure of life away from others, because those who survive need both to be perpetually terrified of what will happen to them if they don't worship the murderer, and also submitted into awe that this demigod of an individual with power of life and death over us can create works so great so long as you continue to  submit yourself to his will.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Mini-Cast # 17: It's Better to be Very Good than Great - First Half

Greetings from Northern Colorado. Your not always faithful podcaster wishes he'd been doing this podcast last January when he was in Kansas City and Austin, but as it happens, he was back in Houston this weekend, and has yet another podcast outlined in his mind from a visit to Houston museums. Talk about a niche market...

The sheer dynamism of Houston never ceases to amaze. There is no city I've ever been to quite like Houston - the city seems one giant highway atop one giant mall, with houses randomly sprinkled among the parking lots. The closest in our Easterners' area to its feel is New Jersey, but New Jersey is giant state-wide suburb where the development is a bit restrained to house residential spaces for so many millions who brave the train and traffic every day to the explosive upward-rather-than-outward development of Manhattan and Center City, Philadelphia. The development of Houston, with its absolute absence of zoning, is unlimited. The residential neighborhood in which I stayed, Galleria, is named for the sixty story building and mall built amid dozens of square blocks of housing. This is also the home of The Summit, former home of the Houston Rockets, which now functions as a 16,000 seat Lakewood Central Church, operated by the famous or perhaps infamous mega preacher Joel Osteen, whose fame spread still more dubiously wide by his refusal to open the church for shelter for congregation of Hurricane Harvey victims. And this weekend, the Lakewood Central Church was the hottest ticket in America to see Kanye West and his Yeezy choir performed his Jesus crap. And once your unfaithful podcaster heard from an uber driver that free tickets were being issued for the evening performance, he deluded himself for a half-hour into thinking that he might be able to score a ticket until the obvious truth he should have thought of was presented to him, that these free tickets were snapped up days ago and re-sold on the internet for 5000 dollars.

On that same day, your less-than-devoted podcaster had a chance to go to the famous Texas Renaissance Fair, a 55 acre town with 25 stages where nerds congregate over nine weekends AND weekdays with more than half-a-million individual attendees every year, a number of whom stay overnight to partake of festivities whom eyewitnesses tell me are as debauchedly pagan as you'd expect in rebellion from the ethos of America's most famously Christian state. Every weekend of the faire has a theme for shows and costumes, the weekend activities commencing and concluding with ceremonies of operatic spectacle. But after a weekend of alcoholic and barbecue consumption at a close friend's wedding, your podcaster feared for his life and turned the chance down for a day of rehydration.

Nothing in Texas is ever done by half-measures, and while I love Texas dearly, I also fear the shit out of it. I wonder if the diversity of Houston exceeds even New York and Chicago, yet while the dynamic flux of New York's racial tension produces a chickenhawk like Donald Trump perfectly happy to stoke racial resentments, the Trumps of the world sit atop their faux-ivory towers to provoke people of a will-to-action they'd never have the foolhardy fortitude to commit to themselves. The famous 'good-ol-boy' network of Texas is clearly alive and well, and the mechanisms of state can still gerrymander themselves well past the point that the true political orientation of 21st-century Texas is yet unknown. But part of what makes these aggressively white demagogues and their resentful constituents so dangerous is their dwindling number. I have no idea if there is truly any chance for civil war in America, or even if such a civil war would be anything more than a low-level conflict that could even be called a war rather than a series of skirmishes that only a small number of militias take part in. But the economic inequalities, the ethnic faultlines, the lack of regulation, the cultural glorification of violence in all manners of rebellion which now seem to be affecting certain kinds of progressives as well as so many millions of conservatives... It all does sound like the faultlines of a certain other period of American history...


Thursday, November 14, 2019

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

It makes me very sad to hear that Marin Alsop is on her way out. I wasn't always her biggest fan, but it's obvious that she never had the chance to show the extent of her strengths in exactly what she was best at. In all these messes we've had here, from the very beginning of her appointment, she conducted herself magnificently and treated us much better than we treated her. I don't want this to be the beginning of the end for the BSO, and maybe such an uncertain future calls for new leadership who can figure out a different approach, but I worry that these are not problems you come back from. It's just another indication that there's no room in modern America to let people in the arts and humanities make a decent living anymore - all but the most well-connected musicians, journalists, professors, artists, actors, writers, even teachers, are finding it harder and harder to make any kind of middle class living. This is all part of the social oil that lubricates a well-run civil society, once we all can't make a living anymore, what other jobs will be next?

Mini-Cast #16 - The Re-Arrival Part 4 - Final Draft

Warning: Here be massive spoilers.

So what then... what has arrived in Arrival?

Like I said last week, it's not a great movie by the metrics of Sarris and Kaufmann, or even Kael, but those critics judged for another era of cinema more influenced by vestigial literary notions from a pre-cinematic age, they wouldn't have understood this neo-romantic future - based on the metaphysics of the scientific age, though I truly wonder if many of their of the literary predecessors weaned on Milton and Spencer and Blake would understand it better than they. Many reviewers thought the movie ineffably moving and human - moving it absolutely is, it seems to levitate from beginning to end in a state of grace almost Christian. But human? Most definitely not. Even the surprises are unsurprising, the characters behave not as human beings but servants to plot devices. But what a plot...

In the face of a plot this overwhelmingly mystical, the kind of fully realized and evolving characters one gets in Ozu and Altman would only get in the way. The point of movies like this is not the people, but the metaphysical states to which our minds are capable of ascending.

What makes Arrival much more than a mere gimmick is not the twist ending, it's the nature of the idea the twist ending posits - an idea whose baroque grandeur is matched by the romantic magnificence of the visual way it's conveyed.

The aliens in Arrival, the squid-like heptopods, communicate with a three-dimensional alphabet written on the air by the vaporous ink they secrete, an alphabet that looks much like Eastern calligraphy. Like Chinese and Japanese, their written language is pictographic, but the pictographs are so nuanced that when computers process the data of their language, each word seems to have potential to mean a dozen words, and the reason why is that their alphabet is so complex that each letter often seems to convey an entire sentence. A particularly knowledgeable listener will immediately hear the kinship in this idea to what's probably the most famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius. But this idea takes this Borgesian concept to its next logical step, and discovers a visual style to match its vastly magnified sublimity.

When we first see the aliens, they appear to us not in a sudden jerk of surprise to elicit a fearful reaction; rather, these grey beings gradually appear to us from an even grayer ether. Even on the second largest screen in the whole city, we can barely perceive their outline over a period of two minutes as the cinematography ever so gradually makes their outlines distinguishable from the cloudy mist. We don't know if we're supposed to fear these beings, but they are awesome and terrifying - as unfathomable to us as the divine.

As we begin to learn about them, their unknowability only increases. the stoicism of these beings seems eternal and unchangeable. They wait with seemingly infinite patience for a human to assimilate an understanding of their nature, and wait a while they must, because it is not only their appearance and communication that's different from ours, it is the nature of their identity and their very consciousness. The essence of their language would seem to be different at the root of consciousness itself. Even a linguist as capable as Amy Adams's character is no different than the rest of us, no human can process their memories except backwards; but Heptopod memories are not only of the past, but of the future. They do not move through time, they experience all time in present simultaneously, so therefore their memories are of both past and future. So just as advanced conceptual mathematics allows people to conceive of the world in vastly more complex terms, mastery of a language this complex allows people to conceive of the world in manners so much more complex than they'd be able to perceive without this language, so that by mastering it, one can literally predict the future. The last time I have been so awed by the conceptual thinking of a movie was twenty years ago in Darren Aronofsky's movie, Pi, in which a Jewish mathematician realizes he is on the verge of discovering a mathematical equation with a 216 digit answer that would allow him to discover the complete name of Yahweh.

This is all science fiction, and very much fiction. In no way should any of this be taken as science as we understand science, with its generally incontrovertible physical material. The philosophy and science this movie deals in is neither astronomy nor linguistics, it's metaphysics, pure philosophy, and probably not that complex either, as far as philosophy goes. But a metaphysician or a philosopher specializing in time and memory, trained in Plato and Kant and Heidegger and Bergson, would be much better equipped to appreciate this movie than any linguist or scientist whose training would prevent them from understanding that there may be states of being out there which transcend the scientific laws upon which they've based their life's work.

How similar the study of language and science is is a debate for another day, and a concept sloppily introduced at the beginning of the movie yet barely touched upon for the rest. But the promise which both fields of study hold out for us is transcendent possibility - the promise that eventually we will gather sufficient sufficient amounts of hard information, it will so upend some field of study, be it metaphysics, or metasemantics, or epistemology, or eternalism, that the entirety of humanity's consciousness will metamorphose into shapes of which our current selves cannot possibly conceive. For more than two thousand years, this was the transcendent possibility of the monotheistic divine. It's now the transcendent possibility of the science. Science is the first hard proof humans ever got that the extraordinary is possible on earth, caused by us rather than inexplicable invisible forces. Our ancestors strove to attain what they thought of as the divine kingdom, but with every new scientific development, we do not just come closer to the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell, we can become them, we can bring the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell to Earth, and while we still seem quite far away from understanding their consequences of the miracles we wrought, we can very much wrought feats which would have been thought divine miracles just two-and-a-half centuries ago. These possibilities are thoroughly exciting, and incredibly dangerous, but in an age when human ability to acquire information is compounded to the nth degree of the nth, we cannot possibly fathom just how much and quickly humans may begin to change. Human concept of eternity used to be an unchanging state, but eternity is now a state of eternal change and flux. Eternity has re-arrived to the human condition in reciprocal form to the previous eternity. No longer will science seem like something humans control. For better or worse, it is mankind's new god. By learning so much more about the world and the universe than we were ever capable of before mechanical computing, we have uncovered so many unknowabilities and will uncover so many more. The eternal, the mystical, the transcendent possibilities, have re-arrived to the human experience, but this time, the material that is transcended is not the divine, it is the material itself.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mini-Cast #11: Assassins



I've seen Assassins live twice, and both times the thought occurred to me: could we be arrested merely for watching this?

Threatening to kill a President is still a Federal Offense: a Class-E felony under United States Code Title 18 Section 871. It is illegal to make “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”

Personally, I think that’s a violation of Free Speech that can push insane people capable of mass murder over a parking ticket over the edge into willing martyrs. But during the era of the first Black president, perhaps these violations made a slight bit of sense. Now that we're living in the Trump era, well... let's just count ourselves lucky that this statute hasn't been used against any of Trump's enemies yet.

But whether you saw Assassins during the Obama era or the Trump era, you can’t see a creation as explosively relevant to our time as any work could ever hope to be, and not see that this work can change our world in the span of an eye-blink - and let's face it, that change could even be for the good, but it could very much be for the ill, and would probably be a world-shaking mix of both, But in an American era when nearly 300 million guns are held for private use, when Presidents of both parties are routinely compared to Nazis, when a day with mass shootings is practically the rule rather than the exception, there is no more explosively powerful work of art to our time. This is the rare work of art that does precisely what Plato warned against in The Republic. It practically puts the gun in assailant’s hands.

This unholy blast of drama could be written by Satan himself - it's America’s answer to Macb*th. It’s practically an incitement to terrorism and shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the American Dream was built upon dirt and shit, and does nothing to console us with any redeeming vision. The American Dream is real, don't believe anybody who tells you that it's a lie. But the America of people’s nightmares just as much the true America, and we’re all just fooling ourselves if we think America isn't and wasn't a cesspool of despair for hundreds of millions of citizens.

When Assassins premiered in the week before Christmas 1990, the mood in America was as happy as ever since the end of World War II. After forty-three years of worry that the Soviet Union could incinerate us in an instant, the Cold War was finally done with and we won. The Persian Gulf War was humming along (quote-unquote) ‘peacefully,’ its resolution in clear sight. It was the first moment since Vietnam that everyone but the most hardened Leftists agreed that America's exercise of power for good, not evil.

No American was ready for Assassins in 1990. The reviews were crushing and the show closed after 73 performances - respectable for any Broadway composer but one whose every work turned to gold. Broadway planned a revival for October 2001. I needn't tell you what happened...

What makes Assassins all the more effective is the musical irony, it has all the tropes of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and yet music that could just as easily be sung by Ethel Merman about the hopes of Okies working the land, depicts more than a century’s worth of famous terrorists - all of whom motivated by the fanaticism of the pathologically lonely, nihilists to take their place along the lineage of Edmund from King Lear to the Underground Man to the Joker, who want nothing more than to spread chaos and suffering. Fifty years before Assassins, Rogers and Hammerstein gave Oklahoma, a vision of boundless hope - in Assassins, the American Musical comes full circle with a vision of endless despair.

This is a musical that depicted Sam Byck, who, thirty years before 9/11, attempted to hijack a commercial airliner so he could ram it into the White House. This musical that shows Charles Guiteau, the Christian fanatic who killed James Garfield, anticipating his death with all the ecstasy of a suicide bomber: according to the famous critic, Frank Rich - “you find yourself wondering if he’s expecting 72 black-eyed virgins as his posthumous reward.”


Is Assassins truly good enough to sustain a comparison to Macb*th or King Lear? I have no idea. What I do know is that like even the lesser Shakespeare plays, Sondheim’s words are like a hallucinogen in which you can immerse yourself to a consciousness altering state. The pure voluptuous pleasure of hearing so many ideas fly past you at light speed is something you can only otherwise get from Shakespeare and Mozart. Yes, Sondheim’s that good, and I envy anybody who has yet to fall in love with his work. This podcast will come back to Sondheim many times.

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, like Dickens and Beethoven, Chekhov and (ahem) The Simpsons, Sondheim always leads you home. Every dark moment is balanced with a light one, every lofty sentiment with pure vulgarity, every piece of realism balanced with surreal magic. It speaks to the mastery of this creator who holds a mirror up to Nature that Sondheim has the balance which you can only find in the very most immortal.

But while other works of Sondheim, with all their cynicism and heartlessness, can still hit you squarely in the feels, Assassins has pure acid and black bile in place of its heart. It begins and ends with the song "Everybody's got the right...", the right to happiness; and since everybody has the right, everybody also has the right to kill the President... Sweeney Todd, often called the ‘Great American Opera’, is similarly dark, but it’s just a warmup act for what we get in Assassins. In Sweeney, there is always a wink, a nod, something that assures us that this is all a fairy tale or a Grand Guignol melodrama, an enjoyably spooky nightmare. It pulls the cape away with a whoosh and shows it was all a joke. Assassins shows us a world where you can kid about the darkest subjects, only to pull the cape away again, and reveal to us at all that there was no joke at all.

Assassins is a comedy so black it ceases to be funny. It’s so light that half the lines in the musical could probably be interpreted as laugh lines, but the stakes are American History itself. Sweeney Todd makes the audience enjoy humanity's dark underbelly, but Assassins insidiously worms its way into our souls and eats away at our faith in humanity.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Mini-Cast #16 - The Re-Arrival Part IV

Warning: Here be massive spoilers.

So what then... what has arrived in Arrival?

Like I said last week, it's not a great movie by the metrics of Sarris and Kaufmann, or even Kael, but those critics were critiquing for another era of cinema more influenced by vestigial artistic notions from a pre-cinematic age, they wouldn't have understood this future - even if I wonder whether many of their of the literary predecessors weaned on Milton and Spencer and Blake would have. Many reviewers thought the movie ineffably moving and human - moving it absolutely is, it seems to levitate from beginning to end in a state of grace almost Christian. But human? Most definitely not. Even the surprises are unsurprising, the characters behave not as human beings but servants to plot devices. But what a plot...

In the face of a plot this overwhelmingly mystical, the kind of fully realized and evolving characters one gets in Ozu and Altman would only get in the way. The point of movies like this is not the people, but the metaphysical states to which our minds are capable of ascending.

What makes Arrival much more than a mere gimmick is not the twist ending, it's the nature of the idea the twist ending posits - an idea whose baroque grandeur is matched by the romantic magnificence of the visual way it's conveyed.

The aliens in Arrival, the squid-like heptopods, communicate with a three-dimensional alphabet written on the air by the vaporous ink they secrete, an alphabet that looks much like Eastern calligraphy. Like Chinese and Japanese, their written language is pictographic, but the pictographs are so nuanced that when computers processes the data of their language, each word seems to have potential to mean a relative infinity of words, and the reason why is that their alphabet is so complex that each letter conveys an entire sentence. A particularly knowledgeable listener will immediately hear the kinship in this idea to what's probably the most famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius. But this idea takes this Borgesian concept to its next logical step, and discovers a visual style to match its vastly magnified sublimity.

When we first see the aliens, they appear to us not in a sudden jerk of surprise to elicit a fearful reaction; rather, these grey beings gradually appear to us from an even grayer ether. Even on the second largest screen in the whole city, we can barely perceive their outline over a period of two minutes as the cinematography ever so gradually makes their outlines distinguishable from the cloudy mist. We don't know if we're supposed to fear these beings, but they are awesome and terrifying - as unfathomable to us as the divine.

As we begin to learn about them, their unknowability only increases. the stoicism of these beings seems eternal and unchangeable. They wait with seemingly infinite patience for a human to assimilate an understanding of their nature, and wait a while they must, because it is not only their appearance and communication that's different from ours, it is the nature of their identity and their very consciousness. These are not individual beings but a single collective being who can communicate the essence of their language by a simple touch. And the essence of their language would seem to be consciousness itself. Even a linguist as capable as Amy Adams's character is no different than the rest of us, no human can process their memories except backwards. But Heptopod memories are not only of the past, but of the future. They do not move through time, they experience all time in present simultaneously, so therefore their memories are of both past and future. So just as advanced conceptual mathematics allows people to conceive of the world in vastly more complex terms, mastery of a language this complex allows people to conceive of the world in manners so much more complex than they would without this language, that by mastering it, one can literally predict the future. The last time I have been so awed by the conceptual thinking of a movie was twenty years ago when the mathematician protagonist of Pi realized that he was on the verge of discovering a mathematical equation that would allow him to discover the name of God.

This is all science fiction, and very much fiction. In no way should any of this be taken as science as we must understand science, with its generally incontrovertible physical material. The philosophy and science this movie deals in is neither astronomy nor linguistics, it's metaphysics, pure philosophy, and probably not that complex either, as far as philosophy goes. But a metaphysician or a philosopher specializing in time and memory, trained in Plato and Kant and Heidegger and Bergson, would be much better equipped to appreciate this movie than any linguist or scientist whose training would prevent them from understanding that there may be states of being out there which transcend the scientific laws upon which they've based their life's work.

How similar the study of language and science is is a debate for another day, and a concept sloppily introduced at the beginning of the movie yet barely touched upon for the rest. But the promise which both fields of study hold out for us is transcendent possibility - the promise that eventually we will gather sufficient sufficient amounts of hard information, it will so upend some field of study, be it metaphysics, or metasemantics, or epistemology, or eternalism, that the entirety of humanity's consciousness will metamorphose into shapes of which our current selves cannot possibly conceive. For more than two thousand years, this was the transcendent possibility of the monotheistic divine. It's now the transcendent possibility of the science. Science is the first hard proof humans ever got that the extraordinary is possible on earth, caused by us rather than inexplicable invisible forces. Our ancestors strove to attain what they thought of as the divine kingdom, but with every new scientific development, we do not just come closer to the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell, we can become them, we can bring the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell to Earth, and while we still seem quite far away from understanding their consequences of the miracles we wrought, we can very much wrought feats which would have been thought divine miracles just two-hundred fifty years ago. These possibilities are simultaneously and thoroughly exciting, and incredibly dangerous, but in an age when human ability to acquire information is compounded to the nth degree of the nth, we cannot possibly fathom just how much and quickly humans may begin to change. Human concept of eternity used to be an unchanging state, but eternity is now a state of eternal change and flux. Eternity has re-arrived to the human condition in reciprocal form to the previous eternity. No longer will science seem like something humans control. For better or worse, it is mankind's new god. By learning so much more about the world and the universe than we were ever capable of before mechanical computing, we have uncovered so many unknowabilities and will uncover so many more. The eternal, the mystical, the transcendent possibilities, have re-arrived to the human experience, but this time, the material that is transcended is not the divine, it is the material itself.