Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La La Land Honors Traditions, with Affection

Original movie musicals were most popular in the 1950s, at the same time that classic jazz was at its peak of popularity.  In La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle honors both traditions.  The movie is his answer to a question posed by a synth-jazz musician "Keith" (John Legend) to acoustic jazz purist "Seb" (Ryan Gosling):  "How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?"

Part of the answer lies in relating the tradition to the audience's experience.  Seb draws Emma Stone's "Mia" into understanding what he loves about jazz by relating it to the dramas that she loves, likening it to friends engaged in lively conversation.  The director draws his millennial audience into the idea that the world can be musical by panning through an L.A. traffic jam, driver after driver jamming to his or her own soundtrack from car music systems. It's not much of a stretch when frustrated drivers emerge from their cars to merge in a song-and-dance number that animates the interstate as far as the camera can see.  Other dances and songs start from characters' movements and dialogue; after a dance duet ends, Gosling naturally does a little soft-shoe as he walks away alone.

Those of a certain age will recognize the sound-stage setting from Singing in the Rain, the dance duet in a darkened park from The Band Wagon, and an art-inspired dreamscape from An American in Paris.  The story, in fact, is boiler-plate, familiar from iterations of A Star is Born and the recent Last Five Years: "Mia" dreams of acting; "Sebastian," dreams of playing piano in a jazz club of his own; they support each other until the divergence of their two careers threatens the relationship.  (See my reflection on The Last Five Years.)

But Chazelle puts a contemporary spin on those traditions.  It's not just the cell phones, the fashions, and the occasional four-letter word; it's also playing with time, wrapping different strands of the story around a single incident, so that we come at it from different perspectives (another element shared with The Last Five Years).  Composer Justin Hurwitz, with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, aims at a sweet spot between the kind of "specific" songs that fit the moment and the more generalized imagery of pop songs - focused on dreams,stars, and how everyone is looking for love*.

The exceptional song,  Hurwitz's favorite, is "Audition," a hint of what could have lifted this movie from pleasant homage to be a stronger, more "revolutionary" updating of the tradition.   Hurwitz cites Emma Stone's live - in - studio performance for why he loves it, as the song is specific to the character and the situation in the way he consciously avoided elsewhere (see his interview with Lambe).  "Mia's" future career is on the line when she is asked to simply "tell us a story."  Unsure what to say, she lights up when she begins to sing her aunt's story of an impulsive leap into the Seine in winter, and she grows in confidence as she adds to the story.

Chazelle missed an opportunity to create a musical scene even stronger than "Audition" when Seb, flying in from out of town, surprises Mia with dinner by candlelight.  It starts as a romantic, happy occasion, but dissolves into rancor over Mia's complaint that Seb is away so much, and his protest (totally justified, I think) that he has been away providing for her.  This scene is the dramatic heart of the movie, and, if Chazelle, Hurwitz et. al. had reached beyond the MGM tradition to what has developed on Broadway in Sondheim and in The Last Five Years,  this, too, could have been a musical number to integrate the musical style with the dramatic story.

Still, it's clear that the creators of this movie and their stars love what they're doing, They have fun.  There's no other excuse to build a song-and-dance number for Mia and her roommates' preparations to party.  No one could expect Gosling and Stone to measure up to Astaire or Charisse in their dancing, but they move with spirit, precision, and apparent ease, while the camera does most of the dancing for them - swirling around from above, or taking the dancers in silhouette across a starry sky.  The dramatic scenes are as real as they can be, even when Stone plays her character playing another character for an audition: it's a remarkable demonstration of the actor's craft.

Besides, the two characters are so appealing that we want their romance to succeed. For the same reason, we want the movie to succeed.

And so it does.

*(Stephen Sondheim, meticulous tailor of songs to situations, explains how rock 'n' roll's displacement of show tunes from the top 40 freed Broadway composers of the pressure to write "hits".  See my article about his conversation with pianist Marian MacPartland.) 

Lambe, Stacy. "Exclusive: La La Land Composer on How Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone Influenced the Award-Winning Music."  ET Online.  December 12, 2016.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Rejoice in the Lamb, Christopher Smart's Cat, and My Dog

Christmas Eve, finding no script at the lectern where I stood to lead the Prayers of the People, I improvised to fill the blank in the Prayer Book's petition, "I ask your thanksgiving for ___."   For my dog Mia came to mind before I resorted to phrases more appropriate to the occasion.

That first thought shows how my personal faith was shaped by composer Benjamin Britten's choral cantata Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), setting portions from Christopher Smart's book-length poem Jubilate Agno (ca. 1760).  I first heard it at age 16, when I was emerging from scornful teenage atheism.  Through decades of Bible study, theology books, services and sermons, my inner principle for discerning among doctrines, unconscious before now, has always been, "Does it go with Smart?"

My favorite portion begins:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
Britten gives these lines to a boy soprano, the voice written to sound in rapt wonderment over the organ's impression of a cat's capricious movements, darting about, stretching, and circling a string of rapid notes "seven times round".

Smart begins every line the same way, purposefully invoking Biblical poetry. About Jeoffry, he continues:
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
So Smart suggests by these lines, and others that follow, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present and active in all of creation, and that salvation can happen apart from Creeds or Sacraments of the Church. In my evangelical phase, I'd have derided that as borderline pantheism, or "sloppy agape"; but my bedrock experience told me that Smart is right, and all the judgmental doctrines I'd accepted from teen Bible studies smashed to pieces on Smart's view.  Yes, he was put away for religious mania, calling to people in the street to kneel in prayer with him, but, as Dr. Johnson remarked, "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else" (quoted in Karina Williamson, "Christopher Smart," at

Now, on the matter of God and pets, I find little in scripture.  Cats don't turn up in the Bible, to my knowledge, aside from some lions and tigers.  Dogs, when I find them, skulk around unpleasant things -- Jezebel's gruesome death, prophecies of doom, and Jesus's harsh response to the Samaritan woman (but see my reflection Jesus and Dogs).

C. S. Lewis once responded seriously to the question, "Do our pets go to Heaven?"  It's been thirty-five years since I read his essays in God in the Dock, but I recall the gist of his answer as, "I can't say for sure, but I cannot imagine a Heaven without them." Amen.

Writing these thoughts in bed on Christmas morning, Mia beside me asleep, lightly kicking me with her back paws in pursuit of some dream squirrel, I re-read Smart's line, "For there is nothing sweeter than [Jeoffry's] peace when at rest."  I appropriate Smart's feline thanksgiving for my dog Mia, pictured in many moods at left:  "For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God."

You may be interested in my earlier reflections connecting dog with God: Blessing of the Animals (Oct. 11, 2014), and, Dogs are Poetry (January 4, 2010).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Gospel for Educators
from Forward Day by Day

[image:  The parable of laborers in the vineyard, from a book published by early blogger Desiderius Erasmus, 1536] 

Following the daily scripture readings in the Book of Common Prayer, I read commentary from the quarterly booklet Forward Day By DayWritten by Richelle Thompson, managing editor of Forward, the short meditations for November were particularly well-crafted, and sometimes seemed to be aimed directly at this Middle School teacher.

Here are highlights that might be collectively called A Gospel for Educators: The Bible on...

...grading:  Thompson writes, "Even as a child I felt badly for the good son" whose prodigal brother seems to get the attention.  Considering his story along with the parable of the vineyard laborers who receive the same wage whether they worked ten hours or one, teaches Thompson "that our idea of fair is perhaps not God's."  Instead, she concludes, "The question is not whether I deserve more than another, but whether I receive what I need."   (reading of 11/10)   When a colleague mocked the coach who gave everyone a trophy, and, by extension, any teacher whose kids get mostly A's, I should have reminded him that "trophy" comes from Greek for "nourishment".  A school where most kids are starved, or losers, isn't a school where I'd want to teach. I tell my kids they all earn credit (from Latin, trust) for completing their work on time, the best they can do, however many drafts that may take; grading (from Latin, step) one student's work above another's is of value to gatekeepers only.

...teen angst:  "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness" (James 1.19-20).  James wrote to ancient churches, but Thompson applies the lesson to those dealing with "the whiplash emotions of teens," too.  We must listen well before we react to our "challenging, independent and precious teens," for their sake, and for the sake of our own spiritual growth. (reading of 11/11).

... developmental psychology:  Paul writes, "Like a master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it" (1 Corinthians 3.10).  Thompson had always focused on Jesus as the right foundation, but this time followed Paul's thought to its conclusion, where he pictures others building on the foundation with "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw," each life like "a giant parfait, with different layers being built by and with different people."  This reminds her "that our work is part of something bigger, our ministry a piece of the whole."  (reading of 11/22)  For this middle school teacher, it's a reminder that little Johnny may not "get" what his classmates all seem to understand; if I only prepare the foundation for him to get it in a later grade level, I've done well, and he's done well.

... looking for potential in the difficult student:  Zacchaeus the tax collector, collaborating with the Roman oppressors and cheating his neighbors, is doing well for himself at the time Jesus enters Jerusalem, but, "Something inside of Zacchaeus makes him want more (the name Zacchaeus, after all, means pure)."  He climbs the tree, sees Jesus, takes the hint to invite the rabbi to dinner, donates half his wealth to the poor, and pays back fourfold what he stole.  "Meanwhile," Thompson imagines, "the neighborhood grumbles about Jesus' choice for dinner companion."  She adds this prayer: Lord, help us be more like Zacchaeus, curious and earnest, and keep us from being quick - to - judge and slow to see you in every face and every place.  Amen.  (reading of 11/23)

... looking for potential in the difficult student, part II:  Taking her cue from Luke 19:40, "the stones themselves would shout out," Thompson observes, "Stones play a starring role in some of the biggest stories of the Bible."  Examples include Moses' stone tablets, the tribes' stone altar at the Jordan, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, Peter "the rock," the "first stone" that nobody dared to cast at the woman, and the stone rolled away from Jesus' tomb.   In Luke, Jesus tells us "that what is hard can be made flesh, what is mute can cry out, and what is inanimate can become life."  Thompson asks, "If Jesus can do that with stones, what can he do with us?"  I only add, what, then, can we do with the hard, mute, listless kids who choose the back row in our classrooms?  Thompson ends with Ezekiel 36.26: "I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."  (reading of 11/25)

... accepting help:  Thompson turns around the familiar line from Psalm 102:1, "hide not your face from me in the day of my trouble."  We're the ones taught to hide our faces in times of trouble, to "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps."  Thompson dismisses the bootstraps line as nonsense, giving Jesus' alternative to it:  "When we stop hiding our faces from the Lord in times of trouble, we can begin to embrace the weak as strong, the poor as mighty, and God as constant companion."  (reading of 11/18)

... teaching poetry:  Responding to a psalm about God's "holy mountain" from her Appalachian background, Thompson points us to great lines of poetry from scripture:
So many of the psalms use nature to describe our relationship with God - and God's relationship with us.  Listen to the poetry:   Mountains skip like rams and hills like young sheep (Psalm 114); rivers clap their hands, and hills ring out with joy (Psalm 98); the Lord makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us to still waters (Psalm 23).  Scripture seems to want us to feel the mountains in our blood, the wave of grain at our fingertips, the rush of an ocean's wave in our hearts.  God the creator of all invites us to be one with nature, to be faithful stewards of it, so that we might enter the gates of Zion from atop the holy mountain. (reading of 11/12) 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rough Waters: A View from the Nave

The central part of the church, where worshipers face altar, clergy and choir, is called the "nave" for a reason:  related to the word "navy," the name describes the room's traditional ship-like shape, and implies that we are on a journey together.  The metaphor calls to mind the Gospel story of the apostles in a boat on a stormy lake, freaking out until Jesus calms the waters.

It's a good metaphor for the way I've felt since I woke up around 2:30 this morning, as if waters are shifting around me and I'm insufficient to deal with it all.  Just a quick list of things that worry me as this day begins:  Mom's fretting about a move she initiated that now appears to her my scheme to put her away; anxiety that I won't have thought through all the ins and outs of staging the next scene in the middle school musical before today's rehearsal; guilt that I succumbed to plates full of artichoke dip and sweets at a reception yesterday, gateway to devouring gift cookies before bed -- and that I'm up three pounds since yesterday at this time; shame to discover that I forgot to pay my credit card bill last month and so have a whopping balance now; disappointment that every other cabinet choice seems to be ones least likely to teach our Adolescent-in-Chief anything that he doesn't think that he already knows; cold weather; sore throat; and, to wrap it up, dread that a social visit to Mom planned for this evening will turn out to be a futile confrontation.

Okay, rough waters, Jesus asleep in the stern:  Thank you to Forward Day by Day for reminding me of this metaphor this morning.  I'll do what I can and have faith in Jesus for what I can't fix.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Framing Memories of Ed Calhoun

Even with reflections in the glass of the reception hall's lighting, this photograph is striking.  Edwin "Ed" Calhoun took the photo around twenty years ago at the finish line to the Peachtree Road Race, capturing this moment when a Marine in full gear completed a run that he'd dedicated to fallen comrades.

At a memorial service in the beautiful mountain chapel at Big Canoe, GA, the family's three heartfelt, lovingly crafted tributes to Ed, the "fun uncle" and father, dwelt on his voracious appetite for life as his motivation for capturing so much life on film, with his penchant for "framing" moments.

I've known him as jovial host to me and adoring spouse to the lady who brought me into the Walker School north of Atlanta. (Read my tribute to Nancy Calhoun, delivered at the time of her retirement.)  Ed's family agreed: while he doted on family, cultivated his friends, and made friends of strangers, his love for wife Nancy was his core, from age 16 on.  The preacher took the title of his tribute from what Ed said to Nancy after a rough patch in their lives together: "Thank you for not giving up on me."  And his family remembered Ed's answer whenever someone asked how long he had been married to Nancy:  "Not long enough."