Monday, May 21, 2012

RIP Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I just found out about the great baritone's death on Sunday, while catching up on my Google Reader RSS feed; I've been so immersed in following the Cannes Film Festival. I grew up on Fischer-Dieskau's Schubert Lieder recordings, but heard him on LPs in a vast repertoire; he was the most recorded classical singer of any era, after all. If memory serves, I don't believe I was ever lucky enough to hear him in person; he sang live mostly in Europe (never taking the stage at New York's Metropolitan Opera, for example). His fellow singer Elizabeth Schwarzkopf called him "a born god who has it all." My favorite contemporary baritone, Thomas Hampson, has said:

Few artists achieve the level of recognition, admiration and influence of Fischer-Dieskau, and even fewer live to see, that influence realised during their own lifetime. Ushering in the modern recording era, he challenged our perception and processes of how recordings could be made, explored the possibilities of modern recording and exploited the potential for popularity of classical music; and all this while setting standards of artistic achievement, integrity, risk-talking, and the aesthetic ideal that became our new norm. Wherever we bask in the beauty of his tone, revere the probing, questioning power of his intellect, or simply wonder at the astonishing physical abilities through all that he has achieved in his long recording career, we must also pause and say THANK YOU to this great artist, whose legacy, like a great and bright star lighting the way for those who follow in his passion for singing, is exemplary in every way.

The British music critic John Amis wrote:

Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle, and that is just about all there is to be said about it.

Here are obituaries at the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the New York Times: 

And here is New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's initial reaction (his links are good, too): 

Anthony Tommasini pays tribute at the New York Times: 

Fischer-Dieskau was every bit as great an opera singer as a Lieder singer, equally good in Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Richard Strauss - how many could say that? And he was an inspired interpreter of Mahler as well. 

Not least among his legacies is his commitment to modern music. He was one of the three soloists for whom Benjamin Britten's great War Requiem was written (the others being Peter Pears and Galina Vishnevskaya). He was a tremendous Wozzeck in Berg's opera. In fact, he always took on the most challenging parts, such as Busoni's Doktor Faust and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. Aribert Reimann's opera Lear was written for him, and he sang the lead in the premiere of Hans Werner Henze's sublime Elegy for Young Lovers. No one else was so good in such a varied repertory. 

Here is a Schubert performance by Fischer-Dieskau and his great accompanist Gerald Moore, some 50 years ago:


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Shep Smith, You Go, Guy!

This has already gone viral, but I cannot resist giving my own "Attaboy!" to Shep Smith's blow for sanity:

Politics is weird, and creepy, and now I know lacks even the loosest attachment to anything like reality.

On her own show, Rachel Maddow was agog with admiration, and it is safe to say that the nation's intelligentsia (such as we are) was right there with her.

Monday, May 7, 2012

British Forthrightness

I get the Telegraph (U.K.) obituaries in my Google Reader feed, and I laughed out loud today when I spotted this:

Charles Higham

Bitchy biographer who tarnished the names of Errol Flynn and the Duchess of Windsor, among many others

Looking at the obit itself after that memorable tag, one sees:

His most sensational work was Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980), in which he alleged that the swashbuckling matinee idol was an unscrupulous Nazi spy and rampant bisexual whose appetites led him to Mexico for the procurement of young boys and who had affairs with Truman Capote, Howard Hughes and Tyrone Power — to name only a few.... 

The Flynn biography was a fairly typical example of Higham’s approach, and much of what he wrote about the rich and famous (particularly those who were no longer alive to sue) was regarded by many critics as the product of an overactive and self-serving imagination.

In his unashamedly self-promoting memoir, In and Out of Hollywood (2009), Higham presented himself as a sort of Chandleresque figure, dedicated to sniffing out other people’s darkest secrets. Yet as he admitted, he hated interviewing people for his books, and critics remarked on how much of his work was based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses.

....His Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life (1988) might have been more aptly titled “Fascist, Lesbian Harlots at the Court of St James”, suggested one reviewer, who went on to observe that for the Duchess to have been guilty of even half the peccadilloes attributed to her, “early on she would have succumbed to exhaustion”.

....Higham was not pleasant company. He had an irritating habit of insulting waiters in restaurants, and often sat at the table for 45 minutes before deigning to consult the menu.

Can you imagine this appearing in a U.S. newspaper equal in stature to The Telegraph, which is not some rag (they have those too)? Sacre bleu! Equally good is another fresh obit:

Angelica Garnett

Artist and writer who was brought up in the Bloomsbury Group and married her father's lover

The illegitimate daughter of the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (conceived when Grant decided to take a rare break from his usual rampant homosexuality), Angelica grew up thinking that the art critic Clive Bell was her father (although her true parentage was an open secret among her parents’ friends). When she was 17 she was informed by her mother that Grant was her father, and then told never to mention the subject.

At the age of 24 Angelica married the writer and publisher David Garnett (known to everyone as “Bunny”), 50 years old and one of Grant’s former lovers. A serial philanderer, Bunny had lived with Grant and Vanessa Bell (whom he had also propositioned, though unsuccessfully) at Charleston, East Sussex....

Nobody told Angelica that she was about to marry one of her father’s former lovers....Their flirtation began while Garnett was still married to his first wife, and became “a courtship ... about which I had very ambivalent feelings” following his wife’s death from cancer. Angelica lost her virginity to Garnett in HG Wells’s spare room, and in 1942 they married. Vanessa, oddly, seemed to approve of her daughter having an affair with her husband’s ex-lover, but not of the marriage. Neither of Angelica’s parents was invited to the wedding.

Virginia Woolf was horrified, confiding to her diary the hope that Angelica would “tire of that rusty, surly old dog with his amorous ways and his primitive mind”. But no one supplied Angelica with the vital information that might have led her to call off the marriage.

The economist John Maynard Keynes made some sort of effort to warn her, but, like everyone else, failed to come clean about what the problem might be: “He sent for me or he had me to tea or something and he tried to talk about it, and warn me that it might not be a very good idea. And I wish I’d listened to him, really, but naturally I couldn’t because I was in love with Bunny.”

Love the specificity of "H.G. Wells's spare room"....I imagine that The Telegraph obituary desk must be a jolly place to hang out, not to mention going for pints afterwards and laughing uproariously well past midnight. Gotta love those Brits. I certainly do.

Friday, May 4, 2012

More on The Tree of Life

An obvious comparison that many have made is between The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have never heard anyone intelligent complain about "The Dawn of Man" sequence in Kubrick's film or say that they didn't get why it was there. When you have the whole film in mind, the thematic linkages are very obvious, and the way that the early sequence "enlarges" the later sequences should be easily grasped by almost anyone who has some experience of movies.

Even before you have the whole film in mind, while you are watching it for the first time, "The Dawn of Man" fits easily into the experience, in part because of Kubrick's thrilling match-cut of the caveman's bone to the spaceship. That moves any reasonably receptive viewer aesthetically; it is an example of what Hitchcock would call "pure film."

I don't get any similar sensation from Malick's history of the universe. Some will like that sequence better, some (such as me) worse, but in relation to the rest of the film, it feels like a "stand-alone," as my friend Saul Manjarrez put it to me.

The Sean Penn scenes and the conclusion on the beach offer different challenges. I found the contemporary scenes beautiful to look at, largely because of the effective use of low camera angles to convey the strangeness of the modern city. That does form a nice visual contrast to the home-town Texas scenes. But the contemporary scenes and Penn's very game acting in them, although clearly emotional, are also emotionally inarticulate - as I wrote earlier, I just don't think there is enough information in them. Surely Penn's obvious unhappiness doesn't stem solely from his brother's suicide, from one moment in his life. People do move on. It's as if the thirty years in-between his boyhood and his present didn't matter at all, that nothing happened during them, that he did not live them. Odd, to say the least.

The beach sequence is to my mind the least defensible part of the movie. I get it thematically, but it is embarrassingly trite. Watching it, I felt bad that someone with persuasive power hadn't talked Malick out of including it in the film. Sure, let the director film the sequence if he needs to get it out of his system, but let it stop there. I have not read any defenses of this ending that are even slightly convincing to me.

POSTSCRIPT: When I speak of the brother's suicide, I should be careful; it isn't actually stated as such in the movie. All we know is that he died. We are not give much information in this instance, either, to have any basis for understanding the event or the other characters' reactions to it. For someone who so obviously uses Freudian Oedipal concepts, Malick seems very disdainful of psychology in other ways. In several places, he denies us the data for psychological insight. All we can do is guess.

My friend Robert Kennedy has suggested that the mother's example will always be with her boys. Jessica Chastain is indeed luminous, and does about as good a job of embodying an abstract concept like "the way of grace" as any actor could. Her message is joyful. It is curious, then, that the message seems not to have "taken" with the grown Jack. Penn seems miserable, about as far from leading a life of joy as a life-prisoner. Was the mother's message that weak in relation to the father's message? Is that what the movie is saying? It sure doesn't say much for the way of grace if that is true - doubly so if the second son did commit suicide, since one thing suicides uniformly have in common is that they can find no joy in life. If at least one or two of three sons can find no joy in life after having such a mother, what chance is there for anyone else? Roger Ebert finds The Tree of Life hopeful and positive, in part because of the imagined reconciliations on the beach. But I do not. Imagined reconciliations are not enough. For the movie to be truly hopeful, Penn's grown-up Jack should glow with an inner light. I don't see one.

SECOND POSTSCRIPT:  A lot of us read the suicide into the movie because of the suicide of Malick's own brother. Nothing in the movie contradicts that reading. Malick underlines the similarity of the second brother in the movie to his own youngest brother by including those scenes of guitar-playing. It was during his advanced guitar training that Larry Malick "broke his own hands due to pressure over his musical studies," and then killed himself (in 1968). In the movie, Brad Pitt's father expresses regret over not pursuing a musical career, and it is easy to extrapolate from the combination of information inside the movie and outside the movie that a father like that might indeed pressure his musically talented son. If Malick didn't want us to perform those combinations, he shouldn't have made the movie so closely reflective of his autobiographical reality.

By the way, Malick's other brother Chris "was badly burned in a car crash that killed his wife" - you'll recall that burns play a part in The Tree of Life, too.

(I had no idea that Malick was in the same American Film Institute class with David Lynch and Paul Schrader? The mind boggles. I wonder if the three men are friends.)

One critic I read suggested that the brother's death in The Tree of Life could have been a military death, but I don't think that's possible. During the Vietnam War and thereafter, the military services used Casualty Notification Officers to visit families with the bad news. (Up through the Korean War, telegrams were used.) Of course, the death in the movie could have been an accident. The reason for the death is simply not explicitly stated.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Culiacan Zoo

[Cross-posted from ZooChat.]  I am an American teaching at a top-notch Mexican university high school or "prepa" in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state on the west coast. Culiacan is about two hours from the popular resort of Mazatlan, also in Sinaloa. This is not a tourist town, possibly because it has a reputation as one of the two biggest centers of the Mexican drug traffic (along with Ciudad de Juarez). But it is actually a quite pleasant city to live in. 

The Culiacan Zoo is only a few blocks from my house, part of a larger park complex, and so I have visited it a number of times, including today. It is a charming and popular small zoo. The animals seem healthy and well cared for; I have not noticed any obviously neurotic behaviors. The enclosures seem generally appropriate, and are full of variety for the animals; there are no bare or depressing enclosures. The enclosures for the big cats could be bigger, but they are no means bad; there are ponds for bathing, plenty of material for climbing and playing, and places to hide and take a break from the public. The whole zoo is pleasantly shady, which is a good thing because it does get quite hot and humid here in the summer.

Here are some of the features and species you will find at the Culiacan Zoo:

Tigers (including a white tiger), lions, jaguars, leopards (very perky today; they looked great), cheetahs, caracals, wolves, hyenas

Chimpanzees, Geoffroy's spider monkeys, lemurs, Hamadryas baboons

A variety of smaller monkeys, including a separate house for titis

I have seen black bears before, but not today

Coatis, raccoons

A large hippo enclosure with a pair who seemed to be having a blast in their pond today

A kangaroo/wallaby enclosure that also houses giant tortoises and Patagonian cavies

The largest enclosure in the zoo includes giraffes, zebras, ostriches, multiple species of deer, antelopes, and wild sheep, and capybaras - not exactly geographically coherent, but pleasant

A flamingo/swan pond

A petting zoo

A herpetarium with a nice array of species, including many snakes and lizards and some tarantulas

A king vultures exhibit

A very large, multi-level, well-designed flight cage (including a pond) with a wide variety of parrots (including a thriving colony of hyacinth macaws), toucans, ground fowl, and waterbirds

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some Notes on The Tree of Life

I watched The Tree of Life over two evenings - the first hour on the first night, the rest of the 139-minute movie on the second night. I watched it on DVD on a medium-sized screen, not on Blu-Ray on a bigger screen, and therefore not under the optimal conditions that cineaste friends recommended (not within my current ability to create). I posted an interim report after watching the first hour:

- I am not sold on the history of the universe sequence. I'm not speaking to its place in the overall structure of the film, which I don't fully know yet, but to its qualities in itself. Both the visuals and the voiceover feel trite to me. I suspect that Robert Bresson would be appalled by the tackiness.

- Half-way in, I sort of feel that the movie hasn't started yet. Although, the history of the universe sequence aside, it looks great.

- At its best, the spirituality of the first half of The Tree of Life represents a kind of country church naivete, touching but strikingly devoid of theological, philosophical, or intellectual content. At its worst, with its rote phraseology and celestial choirs, it suggests greeting-card Christianity.

- I say all that in the full knowledge that Malick was a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, majoring in philosophy, and is a published translator of Heidegger. Hmm.

- Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane shrewdly points out something I would not have noticed on my own: the Sean Penn scenes are the very first in any Malick movie that are set in the present. Lane says, " It is no sin to veer away from your own time—indeed, to stick doggedly to it can smack of historical vanity—but the suspicion lingers that Malick finds something distasteful in our current mores." In the first half of the movie, these contemporary scenes, although striking-looking, give me very little in the way of information to work with.

- Malick's writing of the voice-overs he is so fond of seems to have gotten vague and windy compared to the frequently marvelous lines that Linda Manz delivers so memorably in Days of Heaven. None of the language in the first half of The Tree of Life comes remotely close to such simple, powerful writing as the last lines of Days of Heaven: "I was hopin' things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine."

- Malick seems to want his movies to be all transcendence without connecting tissue, and he comes reasonably close to achieving that in Days of Heaven, but this time I'm not feeling it. Soaring flights are more impressive when a movie spends some time on the ground. Telling a story is a good way of accomplishing that grounding, but in The Tree of Life, Malick seems less interested in story-telling than ever.

- Like some other grandiose directors, Malick is notably weak in a sense of comedy. I can easily imagine the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 - or the Woody Allen of the period circa Love and Death - taking down The Tree of Life with some devastating one-liners. It wouldn't be fair, but in his super-solemnity, Malick kind of invites it. If you want to make do entirely without humor in your work, you had better be so impressive that no one thinks of the lack - you had better be a Bresson. Spiritually ambitious novelists like Dostoevsky don't do without humor - in fact, their comedy can be particularly cutting and intense.

- This is not an especially feminist film, is it? Jessica Chastain's mother is unrealistically perfect, in keeping with her symbolic function of representing "the way of grace" (a theme which Malick plops quite nakedly into the film instead of letting us figure it out on our own). She exists solely for the sake of her three boys and her husband, and has no separate status in her own right. I'm well aware that Malick had two younger brothers (one of whom committed suicide) and no sister, but in creating the movie, he might have challenged himself by putting a sister into the mix. With one, I suspect it could have been a richer and more universal movie, and Chastain's character might not have seemed as if she was being sacrificed on the altar of patriarchal continuity.

After viewing the rest, I wrote further:

The second hour of The Tree of Life is a lot better than the first hour – unfortunately, the last 15 minutes is bad. If I had been Malick’s executive producer, I know exactly what I would have done. I would have fought him tooth-and-nail on the following points:

- Excise the history of the universe segment, in its entirety. In my opinion, if you have to include the history of the universe to prove your story is universal, you’re in deep trouble as an artist.

- Excise all the Sean Penn footage, including the ghastly ending on the beach. It all adds nothing. This probably means the brother’s suicide goes, too – everything that lies in the future as related to the body of the movie. End on the car pulling away from the house in Waco.

- Change the title to something less grandiloquent. Lose some of the over-explicit spiritual voiceovers - Jessica Chastain’s “way of nature, way of grace” monologue, and some of Hunter McCracken’s less natural locutions (“Mother, father, you are always wrestling within me,” etc.).

 - Re-edit the Texas sequences slightly to reinforce the sense of a story – or two stories, actually, McCracken’s coming-of-age and Pitt’s career disappointment.

What would be left would be an exquisite, 80-minute poetic feature, not flawless by any means, but awfully good and maybe even worthy of that Palme d’Or (which the current version, in my opinion, is not).

Some commentators have written that any such suggestions as I have made are equivalent to telling Herman Melville to cut all the extraneous stuff from Moby Dick, but that presumes that Malick is Melville’s equal as an artist, and I hate to disappoint everyone, but he’s not that. As I suggested earlier, he’s not Bresson either, nor Tarkovsky, nor Bergman, nor Kubrick. He’s not of that caliber; he’s not as robust as those directors. He’s a rather fragile talent who needs to be saved from his own gas attacks.

I stand by all of my earlier comments, pretty much. Jessica Chastain’s mother does show a little more mettle and individuality in the second half. I like the way the movie moves into Oedipal territory. Chastain is young, gorgeous, and very physically free with her boys, and given the lack of a sister for balance, that sets up a real tension; I’m glad this was explored. Brad Pitt is tremendous in his role, and the father’s sense of his placement in the economic scheme of things, which doesn’t come up in the first half, adds true depth to the second. I guess that part of my complaint with The Tree of Life is that it takes so long to get to its good stuff, which is often very good, indeed. The dinosaurs are just a delay, as too much of that first hour is.

Having flayed Malick for his lack of humor, I will admit that the scene with the DDT truck is in the nature of a sick joke, and a pretty funny one, too!

The scenes with Laramie Eppler (a ringer for a boy Brad Pitt) playing the guitar are affecting in a way that, strictly speaking, is extrinsic to the movie:

Malick had two younger brothers: Chris and Larry. Larry Malick was a guitarist who went to study in Spain with Segovia in the late 1960s. In 1968, Larry intentionally broke his own hands due to pressure over his musical studies. Emil went to Spain to help Larry, but Larry died shortly after, apparently committing suicide.

Malick is famously private and refuses to give interviews or answer questions about his family, but it would be disingenuous of him to take offense at viewers interpreting his movie in the light of information that is publicly available, and that the film seems to be in dialogue with.

Finally, it should go without saying that anyone interested in film needs to see The Tree of Life for themselves and make up their own mind about it.

POSTSCRIPT: Within my group, the question came up as to why I watched the film over two nights - my usual procedure these days. Not too difficult to explain. 

First, I put in really long days at my teaching job . Officially, my day goes from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM, but usually in actuality from 6:30 AM to 7:00 PM, and I get home at 8:00. I am wiped out at that point, and have to hit the hay by 10:00 at the latest in order to start all over again the next morning. I don't have a lot of time to play with - an hour of a film, or one TV episode, or a few chapters of a novel, is usually all that I am able to manage. It's better than nothing. Weekends offer more time, but I'm doubly wiped out by the weekend, and nap a lot on Saturdays and Sundays.

Second, I'm on - and will be on for the rest of my life - a prescription medication for which some of the side effects are diminished energy and fatigue. My doctors and I worked out that the optimal timing for my daily dose is late afternoon. If I take it at bedtime, I can't wake up in the morning; if I take it when I wake up, I fall asleep at work. So most of the time when I settle in to watch a film, the medicine is starting to creep up on me, and when I begin to feel that it is interfering with my focus, I call it a night. The DVD will still be there tomorrow, and I appreciate that.

My circumstances are just my circumstances, but who doesn't have circumstances nowadays? It's the New Global Economy. In Korea my hours were worse - 6:30 AM to 10:00 PM, every weekday. It's the price one pays for being employed at all - and at least now in Mexico, I have a good job, one that I like.

For every one person who is so fortunate as to be able to arrange their life in keeping with the demands of the Church of Art - usually someone comfortably well off as a result of the family they were born into (I know some such) - there are a thousand who would like to, but cannot. Given that I choose not to be in a relationship, not to have a family, and that part of the reason I opt against those is that they would cut into my intellectual time - well, I consider that I do my best.