Monday, July 28, 2014

Who Else Likes the Music of Sir Michael Tippett?

Glowing reviews of a posthumous recording of Sir Michael Tippett's final composition The Rose Lake called it a radiant, accessible piece, crowning the career of a venerable maverick composer whose imagination seemed to grow more fertile with age.  But then Sir Michael Tippett disappeared from discourse.  Even in 2005, centennial of his birth, all I saw of note on the internet were a staging of his oratorio A Child of Our Time and a sneering article warning us to avoid any celebration of the composer whose music is best forgotten. 

How could he fall so suddenly?  I'd received a Tippett newsletter for years, telling of planned concerts and productions of his operas.  I'd been to Houston Grand Opera for the premiere of his opera New Year, where the excited little lady who gave the pre-show talk promised that anyone disenchanted with recent HGO premieres by minimalist composers Adams and Glass would be delighted by Tippett, a "maximalist."  I'd read an issue of Musical America devoted to his works, and two of at least three books about him published in the 80s and 90s.  Atlanta's premier classical record store brought in the first two CDs of a projected series of Tippett's complete works -- but the series did not continue after his death.

How could he have been so fascinating and important one decade, passé the next?  It seems reasonable to think that either we were all wrong before, or the world is missing something now.

The truth, I'm afraid, may be found in the offhand judgment of a musician friend.  Tenor McCarrell Ayers told me that he'd sung Tippett for church (probably the Magnificat).  "It was all right," he said, his voice trailing off a bit, "but in the end, it just was more trouble than it was worth." 

[Photo:Double Concerto my intro to MT, still my favorite]

I know what McCarrell meant by Tippett's "trouble."  I bought the score for his 1965 cantata Vision of St. Augustine to play it myself because no recordings were available.   But I gave up after page one.  Triplets are okay, but doublets? quintuplets?  Tied?  With dotted rhythms?  Grouped across the bars?  When a recording came out at last, I listened eagerly, but couldn't follow the music in the score.

Other snippets of Tippett's music printed in Ian Kemp's biography Tippett: The Composer and His Music (Oxford Press, 1987) look almost as daunting, but I know the sounds, and they are worth the trouble.  Here are a few favorites:

Tippett's second symphony begins as a classical head-banger, an ominous double-bass chugging along under the importunate chatter of high strings -- before we lift off into spacious meditation.  (I like the first symphony, too, a friendlier piece.)

His biggest hit is A Child of Our Time, an abstracted retelling of the event we remember as Kristallnacht.  When Tippett wrote the piece, Hitler's regime was spreading its influence across the channel.  The text combines Jungian theory ("The world has turned to its dark side... I must embrace my shadow") with the structure of a Bach oratorio.  Where Bach would insert his arrangement of a familiar Lutheran hymn to sum up a segment of the story, Tippett used Negro Spirituals.  It's a great idea, though it means that we have a chorus of German Jews singing "Nobody knows the trouble I seen, Lord, nobody knows like Jesus."  Excerpts are viewable on YouTube.

The Concerto for Double String Orchestra begins with a jaunty theme, interlaced with counter themes and inversions.  As many times as I've heard it, I'm still surprised at any given point in the piece by what I hear in the layers of the texture.  The slow movement, sweet and melancholy, also takes us to some surprising places of arid, stringent dissonance before coming home.  The finale feels joyous without losing that tinge of melancholy.  Just before the piece ends, a new theme rises up out of the mix and plays like a benediction over all.  (By the way, in all my years of symphony-going and public-radio- listening, this is the only piece of Tippett's that I've ever heard outside my own home, and that was just last year.)  I find many postings of this piece on YouTube.

My composition teacher Dr. James Sclater, who introduced me to Tippett's music,  admired Tippett's brazenness.  "He does just whatever he wants to!" In his copy of the score for Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra, Dr. Sclater had marked more than a dozen musical "gestures" in the first movement, each in a different tempo, for a different subgrouping of instruments, to see how Tippett mixed and matched those in a kind of mosaic.  Instead of building to a big finale, the movement simply stopped mid-line.  Dr. Sclater was amused and amazed.  I enjoy the effect, too.

That mosaic effect was something Tippett developed for his great opera King Priam.  In the first new article about Tippett that I've seen in years, Tippett's longtime partner and musical champion Meirion Bowen writes in The Guardian  "How King Priam Saved Michael Tippett."  Tippett's reputation had been that of a fuzzy-headed intellectual and musical dilettante, until the success of Priam in 1963.  

I've seen the opera on video, and I've listened many times to David Atherton's hit recording, and I can attest to the interesting effect Tippett achieves by fragmenting the orchestra into subgroups, each assigned to a different character.  Two moments stand out.   At the end of Act One, after Hector's slaying of the Greek hero Patroclus, Troy's exultant victory anthem is interrupted by a spine-tingling war-cry from the Greek camp offstage, led by the voice of Achilles.  I was lucky to see Tippett's handwritten score under glass in the British museum, opened to that exact moment.  The other beautiful moment is accompanied just by guitar.  King Priam, disguised as a beggar, enters the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of his slain son Hector, and both of the men sing for their lost loved ones. 

Some other pieces I'm fond of, even while I shake my head a la Ronald Reagan ("There he goes again!").  My mentor Frank Boggs sang Tippett's spirituals under Robert Shaw, and tells how the composer spoke to the chorale during a rehearsal.  "He spoke half an hour," Frank says. "We had no idea what he was talking about."  That's how Tippett was in some of his writings, all about archetypes and collective unconscious.  Along those lines, there's his first opera Midsummer Marriage with its allusions to Shakespeare and Mendelsohn.  Besides the wedding couple, there's a mechanic, a businessman, and a secretary, who encounter "Elders" (read "fairies").    The libretto loses me long before the wedding couple complete separate allegorical journeys on symbolic staircases up into intellect and down into feeling before they're "married" in one personality with something involving a Hindu god.  Someone gets shot.  I've never made it awake to that part of the recording.

Tippett's massive Mask of Time purports to take us from creation (Genesis and Big Bang) to annihilation (nuclear explosion) with texts by scientists and poets.  The booklet with the CD contains a picture of a little Latin American Indian child looking askance at the wild-haired Tippett crouching a few feet away from her, evidently trying to engage her in conversation.  I enjoy many parts of it, and I enjoy the variety in it, and I just have to smile at the composer's chutzpah.

I had mixed feelings when I saw the premiere of New Year.   Though the libretto takes us in a space ship to another planet, the central action takes place in a single-room apartment in a slum in an unnamed American city where a white social worker, half-sister to a black delinquent, is afraid to step outside to face the neediness of her violent society. The space ship, the time travel, the duet at a crystal fountain on another planet, all serve to give her the courage to open that door.   I remember her one-room apartment open like a dollhouse on rollers center stage, and I remember her hand on the door.  I remember how lovely the garden music was on that other planet.  And I remember one man saying to his neighbor at intermission,  "You know, my company's paying for this s--t."

Ice Break and Knot Garden, two of Tippett's other operas, are both intriguing in outline, but harsh.  Still, the orchestral gesture for the ice breaking on a Russian river -- and metaphorical ice breaking to free up our spiritual lives -- is etched in my memory still, many years after I last heard it.

Is Tippett's music, in the end, "more trouble than it's worth?"  Interviewed for a BBC tribute to Tippett in the week after the composer's death. pianist Paul Crossley admitted that the sonatas were highly idiomatic and hard to learn, but also "fresh and original."   A young composer tells how Tippett helped him when his own father told him "you haven't the talent" for composing. Tippett told the young man, "You do something because you want to, not because you're good at it."  Sir Peter Hall applauded Tippett's underrated "sense of dramatic space."  Asked once about his harmony, Tippett replied, "But there isn't any."   

Since Tippett is often compared unfavorably to his friend Benjamin Britten, I'm interested in this summation from a page that I tore out of The New Yorker sometime in the late 80s: While Britten composed "with sovereign economy," Tippett's work is "boundless with waste motion, with a wildness of search and frequent frustration.  But his is the larger -- the much deeper -- venture."  Both composers were gay in a time when laws forbade openness, but Tippett wasn't one to hide.  (He was a pacifist during World War II, and went to jail for it.)   This author relates the personal backstory to their music:
  • To put it crassly, until the death-haunted salutation of [Britten's final opera Death in Venice], what Britten knew and told of love retained a cautionary, feline guardedness.  Out of the same homoerotic source Tippett has harvested an utter liberality of defenseless love, and it is exactly that impassioned vulnerability which makes A Child of Our Time a thing so much finer than [Britten's] War Requiem.
We don't have to devalue Britten to appreciate Tippett's positive qualities of "utter liberality of defenseless love" and his willingness to think big. 

Spies with Heart: A Most Wanted Man

Reflection on A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn, based on the novel by John LeCarre. 

The "most wanted man" in the title of this spy thriller is Issa Karpov, Chechin rebel, escapee from Russian jail, heir to millions of dollars if he can get them from a bank in Hamburg, and devout Muslim.  Played by Russian actor Grigory Dobrygin, he is quiet, wary, and gentle.  The paunchy, gruff spy manager Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) speaks the essential truth about Issa to the refugee's advocate Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams):  "You and I both know, he's innocent."

The movie begins when Issa painfully lifts himself out of Hamburg's harbor.  Within hours, intrigue swirls around him.  He is the center of attention first for Bachmann's band of domestic spies, then for American diplomats (played by Robin Wright) German security officials, and an Islamic charity organization that may fund Islamist militants.  Richter tries to help him, once she has recoiled from  the scars that establish his refugee credibility.   Meanwhile, he waits. 

The director Anton Corbijn gives us striking visuals to set the witty banter among powerful people who don't trust each other.  We see sharp edges and gleaming surfaces where Bachmann meets officials, banker William DaFoe.  But Bachmann and his associates meet in grimy bars, lonely wharfs, and a subterranean warren of offices where desks are piled high and the bulletin board is layered with photos and clippings. 


Some of the visuals suggest the subtext of scenes, as banker William DaFoe, shaken by a demand to take courageous action, goes home to a glass house that seems a metaphor for both his vulnerability and the coldness of his marriage.  Ice cubes hurled to the flagstones punctuate the scene.   Richter puts up Karpov in her brother's spacious unfinished apartment.  Sheets of plastic hang to mark where rooms will be, making a maze of semi-transparent barriers through which the two of them gradually find each other in a relationship of trust on the border of love.

As my friend Susan observed early on, "It's Le Carre, so you know it's not going to end well for anybody."  Still, as the plot unwinds, we see the pieces of Gunther Bachmann's intricate plan fall into place. I've been left cold by other spy movies, where it was all about the plan.   Here, we're rooting for the innocent man and a whole community of people risking their lives to help him.   

Hell and the Kingdom of Heaven: Meditations by Fr. Frank Wade

[Responses to meditations by Frank Wade, priest and interim dean at the Episcopal National Cathedral, printed in the May-June-July 2014 issue of Forward Day by Day.]


"The kingdom of heaven," concludes Fr. Frank Wade, "is as real as our next conversation, as fleeting as our last one" (Forward 90).  Wade's meditation takes off from similes for the kingdom in Matthew 13: "It expands like a mustard seed or yeast. It is valuable like treasure or a pearl.  It is as diverse as a net full of fish...."  But is it a place on earth, or a place that we reach after death?  "My personal experience tells me that it is not about geography," Wade writes, but about "the relationship in which God rules." He explains:
I have felt its expansive joy, its treasure, and its scope when I let what I know of God rule me.  I have seen it melt away like mist when I have grabbed the crown and plopped myself onto the throne.
His other meditations align with this one to point us away from speculations about afterlife, as not unimportant, only not our current business. 

Wade considers the parable of the king's wedding feast (Mt 22:11).  For the king to reject the A-listed guests and to welcome lower-classes was reassuring to early Christians who "saw themselves replacing the Jews in God's favor" (66).  But, with the one guest improperly robed, the parable "takes a nasty turn."  Wade admits that the passage defies easy interpretation, but concludes, "God's generous inclusion does not reduce God's expectations or the consequences attached to them."

For Wade, the question of the widow's seven husbands (Mt 22:28) is "cynical coming from the Sadducees, who do not think there will be marriage or anything after death."  Wade admits that "those of us who not only believe in but also rely on life after death" want to know the answer, and he hasn't got one. But "the key is not information, as the Sadducees implied.  It is trust, as Jesus' less than complete answer implies."  The kicker for this meditation, though, is this lovely thought: "We dwell on the edge of mystery as surely as the unborn." 

Wade asks, if we could just "bask in the promise" of faith, then what "yoke" is Jesus laying on us (Mt 11:29)?  Wade distinguishes "belief" from "faith."  He cites the context of John the Baptist who spoke to the failure of the studious religious to recognize God's presence, and a passage about childlike faith, concluding,  "The experience of God is not usually found outside of belief, and belief is not usually entered through scholarly inquiry.  We trust God and then experience God.  That is the yoke" (69).

What else do we learn about the kingdom of heaven in terms of relationships on earth?  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they have neglected not just the "weightier" matters of law, but also "the others" (Mt 23:23).  Those weighty matters are justice, mercy, and faith.  The "others," Wade says, are those little things in community that make faith easier: hospitality and integration of faith with actions.  "The Pharisees," Wade writes, "made converts as petty as themselves" with their "self-serving" theology (71).

The end of the world comes up in readings for July 11 and 12, and Wade again refuses to speculate about it, wisely asking instead, "Why do we care so much?"  We long, he says, for "the end of the nagging doubt that distinguishes faith from certainty" and we look for "vindication, if not revenge" on those who've hurt us.  But life insurance and pension plans have taken the edge off our anticipation of the end of times, and now we are more likely to dread it.  Wade also asks why the gospel's writer(s) and editor(s) retained the saying, so obviously out of date, that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mt 24:34).  Wade takes this as sign of Matthew's good faith not to "filter" his writing.  Wade's kicker:  "Scripture both pre- and postdates us. The parts that seem awkward to us must be kept before us" (75).

When Wade gets to the saying about sheep and goats (Mt 25:32), he's uneasy.   The separation is "difficult to reconcile" with other things we know about God.  If we are to be judged "pass / fail" in the afterlife, does that mean that any good deeds of the "failures" will be forgotten?  That goes against other sayings of Jesus, such as the one that "the kindness of a cup of cool water won't be overlooked" (Mt 10:42).  Wade prefers St. Paul's image of life "as a building that is tried by fire," burning away the weak parts and leaving what's good (1 Cor 3:15).  But Wade concludes, "With or without my comfort, judgment is a reality.  What we do now matters later. What we do today matters into eternity" (79).

In the next two readings, Wade finds good in one bad guy, and shares the blame with another!  Caiaphas, he notes, was doing the best he knew how to do (Mt 26:3-4), caught between the rebellious Jews and domineering Romans, trying to tamp down the revolution.  He was right to do so; Jews' revolt in 70 CE failed, and their temple was destroyed.  About Judas (Mt 26-21), Wade observes that he was no different from the rest of us.  "The opportunities for betrayal of our Lord" are "numerous": 
Words spoken or not spoken; unwillingness to see doors the Spirit opens for us or refusal to go through the ones we do see; forgiveness denied or hope trivialized; anger unleashed or grace restrained.  Jesus could have said "Truly all of you will betray me."
He warns us to remember that we are loved by God "in spite of" more than "because of" (81).

In the end, then, Wade has returned to the thought with which he first introduced the theme of judgment and faith:  Whatever the kingdom of heaven may be after death, our relationship to God begins here, in our relationships to others around us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Georgia Landmark takes me Back



[Top Photo: Approach to the Power family's cabin]

[Photo: from storage shed, left of the cabin]

[Photo: view of the cedar tree shading the cabin]
Pace Cabin and Hyde Farm, Cobb County
With other teachers, I toured an amazing place nestled in the woods in the vicinity of Powers Ferry Road.  I've known that road since 1970 as a place of suburban sprawl, all subdivisions and shopping malls.

But behind all that, the cabin built by Mr. Power and his family in 1845 remains.  Our guide has lived in this cabin since 1971, and has marshaled support from Cobb County Landmarks and Historical Society, county commissioners, and the National Park Service to preserve the area. 

We got some sense of her life there.  We felt the cool water freshly drawn from the well; we stood in the shade of the vast cedar tree behind the cabin; we walked half a mile to get to the neighbor's farm.

Good Fences Make Good Stories
Our guide, whose given name is Morning, waved to the place where the Hyde farm and the Pace farm met, where the two families worked together to construct a fence.

My literature-soaked mind skipped past Robert Frost straight to the wonderful stories of Wendell Berry.  He can be bitter about how we've traded independence and "brotherhood" in farm communities for debt and dependence on the grid.  One story in his collection That Distant Land comes to mind, telling how old Mat Feltner takes his annual walk around the perimeter of his property, a ritual meant for noting things that will need attention. For this last tour, every landmark reminds Mat of someone and something he loved -- and has lost.   Besides the emotional effect, though, we also get a strong sense of the daily and seasonal work needed to keep up a farm.  In Berry's vision, it's not just work for one's own comfort and security, but stewardship of land, a responsibility both solemn and joyful.


Morning herself mentioned "stewardship" several times.  She described some repairs she made to the roof, the limbs sawed off the cedar, the time she climbed down the well, her competition with numerous deer for the fruits of her garden, and the process of washing clothes and hanging them in the sunlight. I thought how her to-do list would compare to mine, which nowadays is likely to be shaped by email messages, calendar reminders, and impersonal interactions with people behind counters and steering wheels.

As Berry said, there are lots of trade-offs.  I don't suppose Morning gets to put up her heels with a martini in hand and Ravel playing in the background.   Still, when I got back into traffic and opened my mail and got word of two more meetings to go to next week, it was refreshing to think: it doesn't have to be this way.

(I edited and expanded this article for Cobb Landmark's fall newsletter, and posted it on this blog:  What "Talking Walls" Told a Teacher.) 


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Learning from Harold Prince: A Director's Journey

Responding to Harold Prince: A Director's Journey by Carol Ilson (New York: Limelight editions, 2000).

[Photo: Prince & Sondheim rehearse Merrily We Roll Along, 1981

Directing a musical, even for a middle school teacher, feels like coordinating ships in a dance:  Songs, accompaniment, scenes, costumes, sets, props, sound, light, publicity -- all these things must fall into place at the same time.  Add supervision of ticket sales, contracts, budgets. What it must have been for Harold Prince from his years of apprenticeship in the early 1950s to 2000, I can sense from reading Carol Ilson's study Harold Prince: A Director's Journey. 

No matter what kind of reviews he had after opening night, Hal Prince kept a level head.  He made it his habit to meet with a creative team the next day to discuss the next project.  Without a project, he feels restless.

It's fitting that Harold Prince's last big Broadway show (as of this book's publication in 2000) is Showboat.  Written in 1928, it was the first "serious" musical.  Showboat covered social changes over decades of US history, with songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein III that included the anthem of black endurance, "Old Man River."   Thirty years later, people with short memories would say that about West Side Story, which Prince co-produced, and others he directed, including Cabaret, Zorba, Follies, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. 
Yet being "serious" was never his aim.  He has, however, insisted on finding some "real" in a show -- often something broadly political -- that he can latch onto.  His collaboration with Stephen Sondheim and George Furth on Company was "all about" his own decision to marry.  After Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler wrote the intimate thriller Sweeney Todd, Prince set it in a vast factory to emphasize the dehumanization of all its characters during the industrial revolutionPrince's supreme success, Phantom of the Opera, really took shape for him when he connected the misshapen Phantom to the expressions of erotic yearning in a documentary about people living with physical deformtities. 


But "real" and "realism" are not the same.  Prince wants to break scripts free of "realism."  He says that poetry is found in abstraction (315).  He learned this during a visit to a theatre in Russia, where V. Meyerhold's innovations were on display: cubes replaced furniture, curtains replaced walls, and light could isolate a portion of action on a busy stage (143).  Thus he transformed a prosaic murder mystery called The Girls Upstairs into a surreal clash of middle-aged couples with the ghosts of their pasts that we know as Follies.


Along the same lines, Prince abstracts a central metaphor in each production.  The cabaret itself became an image for the willful blindness of German society to the rise of the Nazis.  Prince implied a connection between that time and the show's time of  resistance to black civil rights in America.  For Company, the metaphor was Manhattan, an island where "you meet at parties through the friends of friends who you never know," as Sondheim put it in one of the songs that grew from the metaphor, "Another Hundred People."  Boris Aronson's set expressed the metaphor from another angle:  He saw cubism in the city's structure.

Everyone in the book who worked with Prince says the same few things:  He's so enthusiastic during rehearsals.  He never tells the actors what to think or feel, expecting them to do that work on their own.  He is clearly "winging it" during rehearsals, trying one idea after another, or occasionally giving up and leaving the direction to his assistants.  He expects people to conform to a vision he has, yet he also likes to be surprised by his actors and collaborators. 

That bit about Prince's "winging it" is a surprise.  I knew from other sources how many hours he spent with Sondheim and other collaborators discussing things, and I know how he had to watch his budgets.  There must have been tons of planning.  But the minute-by-minute progress of the show was free to develop within the larger framework.

I'm also struck by how many of the shows were flops.  Even some of the famous ones lost money, most notably Follies.

He exuded confidence for his collaborators, but he admits to feeling panic when rehearsal is about to begin.
Near the end, two negatives emerge.  Prince's innovations, such as his use of lighting and mobile scenery to achieve the film effects of close-ups and cross-fades, are now so common as to feel hackneyed.  Then, he rails against the system that has raised prices so high that there's no room for development of an idea.

Mostly, it's an inspirational story of Prince's developing principles that can guide all of us who work in theatre. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Richard Rohr's Falling Upward

Reflections on Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, read on Kindle. Also "David Brooks's 5-Step Guide to Being Deep," by Uri Friedman, in The Atlantic on line. Also NPR's All Things Considered, "The Three Scariest Words a Boy Can Hear,"  (i.e., "be a man"), interview with Joe Ehrmann, http://www.npr.org/2014/07/14/330183987/the-3-scariest-words-a-boy-can-hear 


"What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age." - Carl Jung. 


By "neurotic hindrance," does Jung mean the feeling that I'm letting down my late father if I don't make myself rich and famous?  It looks like it.  To me, "maturity" has meant rising to prominence in some field and securing the future with responsible planning. 


At 55, I'm startled to hear that "growing up," as I've received it, is just preparation.  But now that I've heard about getting beyond "grown up" in Ronald Rolheiser's book Sacred Fire (see my article "Beyond Growing Up"), I'm hearing that message everywhere.


Columnist David Brooks uses the phrase "being deep" to describe the maturity that goes beyond setting up one's domain and securing it for one's family. He cites a rabbi's analysis of the two stories in Genesis about "the resume Adam," charged to fill and subdue the earth, who is all about building and starting things, and "the internal Adam," charged with "serving" and "keeping" the Garden, who is more about asking why we're here.  Brooks defines five qualities that lead us to depth -- love, suffering, internal struggle, obedience (i.e., to a call, to someone else's need), and acceptance -- "unearned admittance" of others into a "transcendant community."  Reviewer Uri Friedman notes that these are mostly things that happen to us, not things that "self-help" can attain. Brooks's idea "inverts the reigning culture of self-help in this country."


Football pro-turned clergyman - coach Joe Ehrmann urges us to give up the idea that "being a man" is based on winning at all costs.  "Transactional coaches" yell at the kids, and the game is all about the coach's identity; "transformational coaches" foster "authentic community." Raised by a "tough" father to control circumstances and dominate others without showing vulnerability, Ehrmann realized the emptiness of his "manhood" when he could find nothing to say or do while his little brother died of cancer.  


Rohr makes much of the story of another strong man, Odysseus, whose entry to "the second half of life" is the gate to Hell, literally.  He's a conqueror, lord of the island of Ithaca, and successful navigator of his "odyssey";  but during a trek to Hades, he receives the prophecy that he must carry an oar, symbol of his sea-faring life's journey so far, to bury it where his achievements will mean nothing, among land-locked people who won't even recognize what an oar is.  There, he's to sacrifice a wild bull, breeding boar, and battering ram -- symbols of three energies that drive the adolescent male -- and settle there awhile.  What happens next in the prophecy, and in Rohr' analysis, gets pretty vague: Somehow, the old man Odysseus will return home and die contented among "his people." 


Rohr admits that his book is "useless" as a self-help book, echoing the comments about Brooks's "Five Steps."  We all know that first half of life well, because it's the subject of all the Disney movies and all the hero stories in comics and myths, and it's what celebrities say when they get serious: "you have to go for your dreams!"  Rohr and these other sources say, yeah, sure, but once you've done that, all you've got is "the container" for your life.  Wait, and the contents will come unforced. To go on a quest to find the meaning of it all would be just another ego-centric effort that will prevent attainment of the goal!


Rohr relates this to Jesus's dictum, "He who would be first shall be last." He also counts 250 times that the phrase "Do not be afraid" occurs in Scripture, and another saying of Jesus: "Why do you ask what am I to eat?  What am I to wear?" (Luke 12:23).   The second half of life is about letting go the stuff you built up in the first part. 


Maturity also means honorable discharge for one's "loyal soldier," that part of one's consciousness that goes to battle for all those standards and strictures that define right thinking, right religion, proper living.  Freud called this "the super-ego," a voice in our heads that we often confuse with the voice of God (location 1039 in Kindle).  But Freud says that the "super-ego" is a poor substitute for "real adult formation of conscience" (1054), because it resists change and growth in oneself; it's always trying to change other people.


Whoa!  May I observe that ALL of our political and intra-church discourse of the past decade has been reduced to the "loyal soldiers" of opposing camps attacking at each other -- and setting up barricades?


A more mature "conscience" would be inclusive, forgiving, and cognizant that "one size [of justice] doesn't fit all."   Rohr reminds us how Jesus tells his disciples to forgive "seventy times seven" offenses, to love our enemies, and to heal -- without quizzing anyone on their beliefs or behavior.  "Every time God forgives us," Rohr writes, "God is saying that God's own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us" (1148). 


Why should we imagine Jesus as a different kind of judge at the end of time?  Rohr quotes a professor of Church history who remarked offhandedly to his class, "Church practices have all been more influenced by Plato than by Jesus," by which he meant that we still prefer synthesis and resolution and certainty to mercy, grace, vagaries, and failure (1148 and before).  We prefer rules, hard and fast, to the give-and-take and unpredictable nature of "relationships."


The crucifixion is a supreme example of the necessary suffering that we must all go through.  It's part of the immature and ego-centric thinking to look upon the crucifixion as a "mechanical substitutionary atonement theory" (1273).  No matter how we prepare ourselves, suffering and sacrifice will come, and we have to be open to it to make something of it.


I've said that all this is a shock to me, but, as T. S. Eliot would point out, I've known this all along.  Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and every fantasy hero from Dorothy and Frodo to Luke and Beowulf have to leave home and suffer to achieve the purposes of their lives.  Perhaps the strongest image of achieving maturity late in life is King Lear:  Powerful, richly robed, respected, he's still an adolescent who just wants to play around with his buddies.  "Responsible" daughters and sons-in-law take charge, with disastrous results.  Lear reaches insight after he has lost everything, and, nearly naked, he gives his cloak to warm a poor beggar. 


Typing all this on my little laptop, in my ideal house, with a couple contented dogs curled at my feet, I wonder what giving it all up would entail?


Well, the Book of Common Prayer gives me this to pray every morning:  "...and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose."  Amen, I guess.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stephen Sondheim, Movie Star

Response to Six by Sondheim, directed by James Lapine for HBO Documentary Films, 2014.


For James Lapine's documentary Six by Sondheim, seamless editing gives us one anecdote told across sixty years of archival film, as Stephen Sondheim tells interviewer after interviewer about that afternoon when he was fifteen, and Broadway master Oscar Hammerstein taught him more about writing a musical than he learned anywhere else.  In his twenties, in black-and-white, he appears reserved until he launches into the story.  Then we see the animation and hear the delight that remain with him to the present day.  The face has changed, but Sondheim's voice -- in both the literal and figurative senses -- remains the same.


Anyone interested in Sondheim's career and craft will recognize all the material lovingly assembled here. It's roughly organized around six songs, but each song is a gateway into a stage in Sondheim's career, or into an aspect of his creative process.  We see Larry Kert in close up performing "Something Coming" with piano (and a leather jacket) on the set of a New York local Sunday morning TV program, and Dean Jones' final take of "Being Alive" in an extended clip from the 1970 documentary about the recording of Company's original cast album.  Thanks to YouTube, we hear "Send in the Clowns" spliced together from a half-dozen different interpretations (the egregious one being Patti LaBelle, who holds the second syllable of "you in midair" until the house goes wild), topped by a new performance by Audra McDonald with a classical guitarist. 


"Opening Doors" is presented as an accurate and affectionate picture of the life Sondheim led with his cohort of writers in the late 50s and early 60s -- Mary Rodgers, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Fred Ebb, John Kander.  It's directed as a kind of MGM musical / MTV video hybrid, the camera swirling around the three characters as they sing their rapid-fire conversation on a pastel-colored retro soundstage set.  Every phrase gives the actor some specific thought to project, illustrating how Sondheim gives his actors so much to "play" in face, gesture, and tone.


Even for the aficionado, there are a few surprises.  The prime example is a performance of "I'm Still Here." Written to be an anthem of survival for a diva past her prime, the song here is turned inside-out:  a youngish man sings to minimal accompaniment as the camera turns our attention to women in various stages of life as they react.  It's very uncomfortable, as the words seem to conjure feelings of loss and regret in the women.  In the end, it's very moving. 


Another surprise is to see Sondheim's home movies, visiting the Forum and making the obvious joke. We see him walking around his Connecticut home, his standard poodles cavorting.  We see rare clips of Merman in Gypsy and Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music.  Sondheim is momentarily nonplussed when Interviewer Diane Sawyer asks, "Do you regret not having children?"  Another time, speaking directly to the man behind the camera, James Lapine, Sondheim expresses gratitude for their collaboration on Sunday in the Park with George, because it revived him at the point when Merrily We Roll Along had failed, "and people wanted Hal and me to fail."  .


I also prize a close up of Sondheim's face, in black and white, ca. 1965, during a discussion of Do I Hear a Waltz?  Book writer Arthur Laurents is telling the interviewer what Sondheim accomplishes in his lyrics, making each line tell.  [I quote from memory]  "You hear a song begin, 'When I hold your hand,' okay, we all know the rest, 'I fall in love,' okay, and we're ready for the next song. But not Steve...."   Sondheim displays no overt reaction to his friend's appreciation.  "No one else is writing like him," Laurents says.  The camera lingers on Sondheim.


In 1965, that was the face of a young man whose resume was already full of hits that are enduring classics:  West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Still ahead of him lay the writing of scores for shows that re-imagined musical theatre in a way that would have made Oscar Hammerstein proud. 


Thinking back on that young face, I'm reminded of the last words in the documentary, written by James Lapine, spoken by "George" at the end of "Sunday":  "Blank.  A white page or canvas.  ....So many possibilities."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Film of Odd Thomas Captures Voice, Spirit of Novel


That the film Odd Thomas went straight to DVD is no reflection on its qualities, which are those of the title character.  Created by novelist Dean Koontz, embodied and voiced by young actor Anton Yelchin, "Odd" is modest, funny, guardedly cheerful, interested in the people around him -- living and dead. Like the film, which got caught in a netherworld between lawsuits and distribution, "Odd" inhabits this world but can see into the world beyond. (Read my response to the novel.)


As in Raymond Chandler's classic "Marlowe" novels, the narrator's voice is more important to our enjoyment of the story than the story itself.   Critics who fault director Stephen Sommers for voice-over narration evidently miss Odd's charm -- except for the critic who thought it was too charming.  For me, the time reading and watching the story is like spending time with a kind and exuberant friend, whose patter doesn't cloy.  That said, Sommers keeps explanations to a minimum with flashbacks that really go by in a flash, and instant replay that refocuses us on significant clues that Odd has noticed. 


Aside from gory spirits, a foray into hell, and translucent demons that swarm like roaches, this really is a simple detective story.  Odd opens and closes a murder case in the first moments of the movie, when the mute young victim points to her killer.  The main investigation begins with Odd's premonition that a massacre is planned for Odd's sunny little town.  For clues to the who, what, where, and how, he searches a home, looks through files, stakes out a bowling alley, and examines a corpse at different stages of nausea-inspiring decay.  Mute spirits sometimes help him to find clues, and sometimes get in his way, but it's really a human-sized story for our humane lead character.  


Too bad for the critics who complain that it's small-scale and that it doesn't live up to their expectations of  apocalypse.   I, for one, stopped going to movies regularly when I got tired of seeing the entire planet threatened in every movie, and in the previews, too.  I've longed for a movie scaled to human proportions. 


Exciting series; delightful movie.  Spoiler alert:  I also start crying about five minutes before the hero does. 

Reflection on the film Odd Thomas, directed by Stephen Sommers, based on the novel of the same name by Dean Koontz. Anton Yelchin plays the title role; Addison Timlin plays "Stormy," and William Dafoe plays the police chief. Read my reflections on the Odd Thomas series here.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Bewitched Craft



[Photo: Agnes Moorehead, Maurice Evans as Endora,Maurice]

I remember clearly when a neighbor told my mom about this new series Bewitched, already a few weeks into its first season.   I begged Mom to let me stay up late (8 pm, I guess -- I didn't learn time until second grade!) to watch it.  I identified those characters with my family, and my sense of myself to this day owes something to that light-hearted show (see "My Mountain of Mystery").  I latched onto the word "warlock" spoken with the first appearance of the character "Maurice" (pictured above), and hoped to discover I was one. That's why I never read the Harry Potter books: that story was my inner life for years.

The surprise in viewing some early episodes on DVD is the seriousness of the creators Sol Saks and frequent director William Asher (husband to the star, Elizabeth Montgomery) and its marvelous cast.   By the end of the series in 1972, we were seeing pretty much the same story every week (witch casts spell on Darrin but Samantha saves the day by explaining that it was all an idea for an ad campaign).  Here's a quick run-down on some moments that aren't funny or gimmicky at all, even though that Sixties laugh-track continues non-stop:
  • Husband Darrin (actor Dick York) is apprehensive about meeting his mother-in-law, who's a witch - ha, ha.  But he's the one who answers the doorbell when she's expected for dinner.  He opens the door, and there's Agnes Moorehead wrapped in some exotic shimmery thing, scowling.  The music goes soft with strings, and Darrin smiles.  Camera shifts to Endora, and her scowl softens.  They're cat and mouse for seasons afterward, so this beginning was a surprise. 
  • Same episode, just a minute later:  Endora fixes her own martini and challenges Darrin with rapid-fire questions:  What do you do, and why is it worth doing, and why are you preventing my daughter from being who she is?  Darrin keeps a tense smile, and tries to argue his perspective, that this is to be a normal family. "What's normal for you," Endora says, deadly serious, no laughs on the laugh track, "is asinine for us."
  • In an episode with the irrelevant title "A is for Aardvark," Darrin is bed-ridden, so Samantha magically arranges for the house to cooperate with Darrin's every whim.  With a little taste of power, Darrin embraces witchcraft, quits his job, arranges to sell the house, and plans a life of endless amusement.  Then there's a delivery at the door: flowers and a little engraved bracelet for Samantha.  He apologizes for how simple these items are: "I ordered them weeks ago."  With the camera tight on her face, Samantha bursts into tears as she smiles and thanks Darrin and pleads with him to see that this is all that matters to her, not the witchcraft or the fur coat or anything else. Nothing funny about this; and I'd swear Elizabeth Montgomery wasn't aware of the cameras or a script: it seems real.
  • There's nothing funny when Jack Warden as Darrin's client "Rex Barker," drunk at a dinner party, backs Samantha into a corner and gropes her just out of the camera's view.  She turns him into a poodle.  But when she tells Darrin what happened, he blames her and says she over-reacted.  Her indignation is not funny.  (I'm reminded uncomfortably of Elizabeth Montgomery's made-for-TV movie after the series.  In "A Case of Rape," she played a woman beaten and raped by an acquaintance, blamed by cops and husband for "asking for it.")
  • Actress Marion Lorne is "Aunt Clara," an elderly witch who can't do magic the way she used to.  The scriptwriters treat her character with care:  Samantha adores her, covers for her, and fiercely stands up for her when Darrin wants her out of the house.  When Aunt Clara causes friction during a visit from Darrin's parents, Darrin visits Aunt Clara in the guest room, intending to tell her -- nicely -- to clear out.  She dithers about her lovely door knob collection, and laughs and smiles.  He never says what he came to say.  Once the door is closed, Aunt Clara gets serious, and speaks to her luggage:  we're not wanted, we'd better leave.  It's not funny;  our hearts go out to her.
  • An episode "And Something Makes Three" is remarkable, first, because magic plays no part in the plot.  There's a disappearing swimming pool to excite the neighbor Mrs. Kravits in the first and last minutes of the show, and there's one of those wavy-screen visions, little witch children on broomsticks.  Otherwise, it's the story of Louise Tate's fear that her husband Larry (Darrin's boss, played by David White),  sixteen years married, won't be pleased to learn that she's having a baby.  Larry's a stock character, a suck-up to clients, obsessed with the ad agency, ogling younger women -- but his joy and a kiss to his wife when he learns her secret seem sincere. 
Aside from these specific episodes, I appreciate the decisions that the producers made from the start, casting Elizabeth Montgomery as the "witch," then surrounding her with actors of the vaudeville era. Everyone else seems to be playing a part on a stage -- wise guy, drunk, bully, glamour queen, haughty old lady.   She alone -- trained on screen, never on stage -- looks and speaks naturally. She focuses intently on the eyes of the person with her, not playing to an unseen audience.  Her makeup is subtle -- a huge contrast to the other women in the show -- and her clothing is appealing but plain -- even Tomboyish.   . 


Looking back on 1964,  I see how the creators picked up on the issues of the day, not for preaching, but just for resonance:
  • Samantha's father Maurice thunders his displeasure when he learns of his daughter's "mixed marriage," a phrase understood then to make the mortal husband analogous to a black man or some other ethnic minority. 
  • In another episode, Samantha carries a sign to protest stereotyping of witches -- which she calls a "minority group" -- mirroring the black Civil Rights movement of the day.  It's hard to believe that these episodes were filmed during "Freedom Summer," a year following Kennedy's assassination, in the year of the Civil Rights Act. 
  • Just a year or so before, Betty Friedan had written in The Feminine Mystique how men removed women from serious roles in society by setting them apart as magically "closer to nature" with their mysterious intuitions and unique power to give birth.  She made women aware how they had to suppress their education and talents to serve their husbands' careers.  Bewitched is that story, exaggerated just a bit.
  • Because the witches we meet are flamboyant men and women who hide in plain sight among "normal" people, there's a parallel to the world of gay men and women -- such as Agnes Moorhead, Paul "Uncle Arthur" Lynde -- involved and hidden in the world of entertainment.  "Why must my daughter hide who she really is?" anticipates the Stonewall "riots" of 1969. 
Finally, I appreciate the theme music credited to Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller.  It starts on a diminished chord, it incorporates the vibraphone used for magical effects in the show, it's perky, and it provides recognizable motifs for incidental music.  

Reflections on episodes from the first of eight seasons of Bewitched, originally televised between September 1964 and June 1965.