29 January 2011

Le Train-Train de la Vie

The MOPI pulls into Beynes.
All photos by WVM. Can you tell?

To ride the train in France is — among other things — to feel a spiritual con­nec­tion to Emile Zola, who saw in the locomotive a symbol of pro­gress and excitement. His novel La Bête humaine makes the case elo­quent­ly, and his home, in Médan, illustrates it: the house is located, much to the great author’s delight, next to a railroad track.

Even today, when means of travel beyond Zola’s ken (if not Jules Verne’s) are commonplace, the majestic power of a French train is awe-inspiring; even when the distant whistle of a train in the night has been replaced (in France, anyway) by a high-pitched honking not unlike that of a small automobile or large goose, the call to adventure is irresistible.

This appeal holds fast whether one is boarding a high-speed train (TGV, or train de grande vitesse) to a distant city, or a little commuter train to the next town over, to buy groceries. For one great wonder of French trains is that there are so many of them. The French enjoy a loving, personal, and psychologically complex relationship with their automobiles, and they seem to reassert the claims of empire every time they get behind the wheel. It’s a wonder these people have mass transit at all. And yet their trains are a wonder. They go where you need to go, frequently (except during strikes), efficiently, comfortably.

A French train doesn’t look quite like this anymore,
but it’s still lovely, in its way.

Even the little train between Beynes and Paris is a double-decker; I always sit on the upper deck, so that I can enjoy the view. Beynes is, as a friend once observed, the first stop in the land beyond the suburban sprawl that surrounds the capital, and by the time one arrives, one really feels one is in the country. The Department of the Yvelines is one of France’s breadbaskets, and the train passes by shimmering fields of wheat, as well as a state agricultural school in Grignon.

Soon we come to Plaisir, the principal interest of which is its vast shopping center, home to the Auchan hypermarket, Ikea, Picard, and a few other indispensable enterprises. As that list suggests, it’s not ter­ri­bly interesting to look at (there are prettier parts of town, farther from the railroad), and there’s something wrong with the tracks at the next stop, Villepreux–Les Clayes, such that the entire train lists severe­ly. I always lean the other direction, fearful that the car will tip over if I don’t. Otherwise, this stretch of the track is a good time to take a nap.

If the car is in good condition, I can do this quite easily: the seats are arranged to face each other, and there are little bars under each seat so that I can put my feet up — excepting when some punk kid has broken the bar, which is quite easy and apparently irresistible to do. Then the bar swings loose, and it’s harder to maintain a comfortable posture. (Of course, when the car is crowded, I must sit upright while four people’s knees vie for position.)

The station at Beynes

The aptly-named Fontenay-le-Fleury is next, although the grounds along the railroad track aren’t as verdant as they used to be, since a new housing development was constructed. Still, there’s a pretty park on one side, and a forest on the other, where I sometimes see deer and rabbits that watch me pass.

Coming next to Saint-Cyr-L’Ecole, historic home of a national military school, we are entering full-out urbanization, and only the parkland around the Château de Versailles, just beyond Saint-Cyr, will interrupt the subsequent array of dense construction that leads all the way to Paris.

Yet another thrilling view of the station.

Versailles is a hub, its Art Déco station serving several lines, with lots of tracks. Not long ago, the Beynes line (MOPI) changed tracks, and so we no longer get good views of the Château. But we can still glimpse it through the trees — on the way to Paris. On the way back (on the POMI line), we can’t see the Château at all.

When we get to Sèvres, we can glimpse the Eiffel Tower, and that mon­u­ment looms more and more prominently as we draw nearer to the Gare Montparnasse. Soon, the Parisian basin opens up alongside the train tracks, and we can see not just the Tower but also Montmartre on the far horizon, capped by the basilica of Sacré-Coeur.

Bienvenue à Montmordor!
Sacré-Coeur de Paris

At night, the Tower sparkles, and the basilica is lit up, too, its lantern like the Eye of Sauron surveying the territory below.* Our sense of ex­cite­ment mounts. Tourists on their way back from Versailles, small children with their parents or grandparents, they all begin to chatter now: Ça, c’est Paris! Although I say nothing, my heart does beat faster, too.

All this, for under 6 Euros!

Some passengers prefer to add to the excitement, by gambling. Con­duc­tors don’t check tickets on the commuter trains; instead, they board at random, in small packs, to verify that we’ve paid for the ride. The odds are good, then, that nobody will check your ticket and that, when you get to the turnstile at the Gare Montparnasse, you’ll be able to squeeze through without paying. So why buy a ticket at all? Many riders, es­pe­cial­ly young people, don’t. It’s touching to hear them try to talk their way out of the hefty fines, when they do get caught.

Yep, still the Beynes Station.

The commuter service that serves Beynes is called the Transilien, a nice play on words that evokes transit and lien (link), as well as the idea of crossing the Ile de France, which is the region around Paris. I think somebody knew that writers might take this train, some day.

But the most significant thing about the French rail system, whether it’s the Transilien, the RER, the TGV, or something else administered by the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), is that it is not mere­ly a means of getting from Point A to Point B — it’s a means of getting from Point A to Point B in France. With rare exceptions, train stations are located in city centers, with hotels, opera houses, and museums in easy walking distance. How could I possibly resist the call?

*NOTE: Though Tolkien wasn’t born when the basilica was planned, the Eye of Sauron is an entirely apt metaphor for a building con­structed by conservative Catholics to loom and keep watch over all those untrustworthy left-wingers in Montmartre, after the fall of the Commune in 1871.

The tit-for-tat continues between revolutionaries and reactionaries in Paris: the park below Sacré-Coeur is named for Louise Michel, heroine of the Commune.

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28 January 2011

David Kato & the Legacy of Colonialism

David Kato

The Ugandan gay rights leader David Kato has been beaten to death in his home, in what police are describing as a likely robbery but others insist is a hate crime. Like many African nations, Uganda has institutionalized homophobia and seems determined to crack down even harder: its parliament is currently considering legislation that would lead to the execution of homosexuals. This comes on the heels of a visit in 2009 by American evangelicals who, speaking to receptive crowds, may have given freer rein than usual to their anti-gay rhetoric, turning up the heat on an already raging fire. While the Americans disavow responsibility for an upturn in repression and violence, many Ugandan legislators are quick to give them credit.

These Americans are only the latest Westerners to fuel homophobia in Africa, and indeed the list is long of those who should bear responsibility, though many of the worst culprits are long dead. Black Africans are able to convince themselves that homosexuality is something forced upon them by Europeans — because, during the colonial period, it very often was.

The 19th century especially saw Africa carved up by European nations who imposed European values on and generally exploited African peoples. The resentment is still felt today, and it helps to explain Robert Mugabe’s durability in Zimbabwe: he blames almost everything on the British, and much of the time, he’s gotten away with this strategy.

European exploitation wasn’t merely economic and political; it was also sexual. Generations of fortune-seeking, empire-building European bachelors went to Africa and found themselves dusky mistresses, as the novels of the time confirm again and again: Africa was a place to do what a man couldn’t in Europe. Keeping a mistress in London, Brussels, or Paris was an expensive proposition, but in the colonies an ambitious young man of limited means could afford a small harem — or simply rape a woman when the fancy struck him.

Blame this guy: Cecil Rhodes

But if a man’s taste tended to buggery, Africa must have beckoned all the more strongly. Colonial society already dictated submission, and an African youth wouldn’t be able to blackmail or to press charges against the man who approached or abused him. (Who would believe a black boy’s word against that of a white man?) Mores being what they are, these stories aren’t often told, still less frequently recorded: if in 1894, homosexual love “dare[d] not speak its name” in Britain, then homosexual rape kept even more silent. But the resentment persists today, and it can be seen throughout the continent — even among leaders of comparatively tolerant South Africa.

Buggery became then a kind of symbol for the exploitation and abuse of the colonial period. It seemed the worst kind of rape, because it was perceived as subjugating and feminizing men. And it has been easy for Africans to believe that the sexuality, like the act itself, was unnatural, imported, imposed, and white.

Much the same could be said of Christianity, but many Africans in post-colonial times have been able to hold to their faith in a white God who promises to reward their suffering (later) and whose Bible takes a dim (albeit debatable) view of homosexuality. It’s because of this background especially that American evangelicals bear an extra responsibility for what they say and do in Africa, whatever their intentions may be.*

David Kato tried to make a difference in this poisonous atmosphere — in a very real sense, he wanted to move Uganda farther than ever from its colonial past, toward a more enlightened, open, and egalitarian future. It’s possible that the Ugandan police are correct, and that despite the threats Kato faced, from individuals and institutions high and low, his murder had nothing to do with his civil rights campaign or with his sexuality. But it will be hard to prove, and harder still to guarantee that no more Ugandan advocates for gay rights become martyrs instead.

The Independent Imperialist, Léopold II of Belgium:
African colonies were his property as a private citizen.
Léopold’s brutal regime horrified Mark Twain, who pointed to Belgium as a cautionary model: if the U.S. acquired foreign territory, Twain feared, Americans would be no better than the Belgians.

*NOTE: That the evangelicals in question still aren’t thinking before they speak can be understood from a statement made by Don Schmierer, as reported in the New York Times. While decrying Kato’s death, he also depicted himself as a victim, saying he felt he’d been “bludgeoned” by critics. Considering that Kato was killed with a hammer to the head, Schmierer’s word choice is regrettable at best.

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26 January 2011

The Big Social Bang Network Theory

Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons)

A recent plane ride afforded me the opportunity to watch, back-to-back, David Fincher’s film The Social Network, inspired by the founding of Facebook; and a re-run of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Having seen a few episodes of the series, I’d found much to admire in the dialogue and the casting, but regretted the stale plots, which, despite the originality of the characters, could derive from almost any other situation comedy. Now, at last, I understood why The Big Bang Theory doesn’t delve into the darker side of being a misfit genius: because then it would become The Social Network.

Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), Narendra (Max Minghella), and Saverin (Andrew Garfield)
discuss algorithms.

Both the movie and the TV show concern a freakishly brilliant, socially inept young man (respectively, Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper) whose behavior creates tensions with the other, intellectually gifted people around him. The young man’s naïveté and emotional dysfunctions are played for laughs in both cases, but the consequences are tragic (in the Aristotelian sense) in one case, purely comic in the other.

A question of class: The Winkelvoss twins are played
by Armie Hammer, great-grandson of tycoon Armand Hammer.

Both shows raise issues of class: the Harvard students in Social Network are constantly one-upping one another, just as Big Bang Theory’s brainiacs twit Penny because she is merely a waitress. And both raise issues of religion: all the good guys in Social Network are Jewish, while the bad guys (Shawn Parker, the Winkelvoss twins) are goyim*; in Big Bang, Leonard grew up in an Evangelical Christian home, while Howard incessantly reminds viewers that he’s Jewish, and Raj is Hindu. Yet, typically for American entertainments, neither show takes these issues very far: in both cases, the characters’ backgrounds are primarily spice for the dramatic stew, which is primarily composed of emotional conflicts.

Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Howard (Simon Helberg)

The real surprise in both cases is that anybody managed to make out of this kind of material anything that people would want to watch, much less find themselves able to identify with the nerdy characters. It’s possible that Big Bang’s plots are so conventional precisely because the dialogue is so smart, so far over the heads of most people in its scientific interests, literate vocabulary, flawless grammar, and pitch-perfect fanboy references.

SatanBack: Timberlake

The Social Network includes simultaneous lawsuits, so there must be some conflict, and conflict equals drama — but still — we’re getting excited about a bunch of college nerds playing on their computers here, and it’s easy enough to know how the story turns out. (Wikipedia goes on for pages on the subject.) What counts, ultimately, is the relationship between Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and that’s what makes the movie entertaining.

Conflict and tension: Galecki and Parsons

We are left to surmise that the boys in Social Network might have gotten along better had they been subject to the civilizing influence of women, as the Big Bang boys are, and indeed we’re given to understand that Zuckerberg acts primarily to impress the girl who dumps him in the movie’s first scene, whom he is still forlornly pursuing at the movie’s end. The other women onscreen are barely characters, wheareas on Big Bang Theory, a woman takes center stage: Penny (Kaley Cuoco) serves as nanny to the boys, and sleeps with one of them, connecting them physically to the world beyond their computer screens.

Civilizing influence: Galecki and Parsons, with Cuoco as Penny

That The Social Network might have turned out happily with more active participation from women leads me to wonder what ideas Big Bang Theory might borrow from the film. First is the character of Satan, called Shawn Parker in the movie (and played by singer Justin Timberlake). The rerun I saw suggested that Star Trek: Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton is already close to filling that role, in recurrent appearances as himself, but why settle for annoying Sheldon when you could corrupt him? **

One more free idea, proven conclusively:
Everything is better with Christine Baranski.

I’d like to think that the success of the movie and TV show signals a new era, in which nerds are seen as sympathetic, and intellectual achievement is seen as exciting. This might indeed be the dawn of a new era, and the kind of winnable future President Obama seeks might be at hand. But then I look at the rest of the American cultural landscape — in particular at the low regard with which the sciences are held by so much of the political and religious establishment — and I return to my senses.

Hey, guys! I bet we could totally program this thing to play some kind of game, possibly a sort of ping-pong that we might call “Ping” or something, you know?

*NOTE: They are also litigious, so it behooves me to underscore that I am referring to the characters in the film, and not to the real-life people.

**I have other ideas, but the producers will have to hire me as a writer before I share them. So there.

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23 January 2011

The Grasshopper and the American Ants

There was once a Grasshopper who was possessed of the great gift of music. All through the warm summer months, and through the fall harvest, he played his merry songs for the ants who lived nearby. He played and played, while they worked and worked, gathering food and storing it.

Soon, winter’s chill fell upon the land, and the Grasshopper grew cold and hungry. Shivering, he went to the Ants and said, “Friends, I am in need! Will you please give me a portion of the food we have gathered, and a warm space where I might shelter myself from the wintry nights?”

“No damned way,” said the Ants. “We are eliminating government funding for the arts.”

“Come again?” said the astonished Grasshopper.

“Your music is non-essential, and in tough times, we must look first to our most important and immediate needs,” said the foreman of the ants, Number 6279-R, a big fellow with a broad, brown back.

“Non-essential?” the Grasshopper replied. “Do you honestly believe that you could have achieved the same results, had it not been for me? By playing my music while you worked, I eased your burdens. I helped you connect with your minds — and your souls — so that you didn’t turn into mindless drones, like those awful bees next door. I even played Katy Perry numbers for you morons!”

“What a giveaway! You’re an elitist!” exclaimed the crowd of ants, as if with one voice — but harmonizing, because the Grasshopper had trained them in choral music back in August.

“It’s true, he does know some catchy songs,” murmured one of the younger ants, Number 9762-W.

“Shut up,” answered his friend, Ant 5371-N.

“I spent years learning how to make music, and I paid almost everything I had, in order to take lessons to be an even better musician,” the Grasshopper went on. “And I had to take private lessons, because you already eliminated music education in public schools.”

“You should have studied accounting, too,” said Ant 4387-B. “As a backup.”

“Let private individuals give you food, if they are so inclined,” said the Ant Queen.

“Those other ants over by the hedge have got lots of funds,” suggested Ant 7321-P.

“It’s a freaking ant colony!” the Grasshopper cried. “We all rely on one another, whether you admit it or not.”

“Socialist,” grumbled Ant 6279-R.

“And if not for my art,” the Grasshopper continued, “you wouldn’t even know you were individuals!”

“You made your choices in life,” said wise old Ant 2198-A. “You were selfish and irresponsible, and now it is time to pay the price.”

“Selfish?” the Grasshopper said. He had begun to weep like the Drama Queen he so proudly was. “I was doing it all for you!”

“You can tell yourself that,” replied the Ant Queen. Then, turning to her guards, she said, “Throw out this malingerer! I am weary of him.”

And so the Grasshopper went out and got a job with a nest of spiders who specialized in web design, and he never played music again; one by one, the Ants were crushed the next day by a sadistic five-year-old human.


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20 January 2011

Elizabeth L. Dribben

Liz and Dan used to look just like this, honest.
I’m temporarily unable to post an excellent photograph of Liz in a Buffalo newsroom much like this one. Check back for updates, but in the meantime, Michelle Pfeiffer will serve our purposes. Liz always hoped that “Miss Pfeiffer” would portray her onscreen.

To hear Liz Dribben tell it, she was never anybody’s mentor. The record shows she was wrong, for not only did she foster and promote the careers of younger reporters both at CBS News and at Columbia’s School of Journalism, but she continued to do so even in retirement. I never came away from even the briefest conversation without a list of five or six contact names and numbers and Liz’s encouraging sign-off, “You never know.” Some thrilling project was always just around the corner for me, Liz was certain.

Still, when I told her that a couple of my female colleagues at CBS, in particular, considered her a mentor, she demurred. “No, no, no,” she said, “I never have had protégées. I’ve always looked out for myself.”

This was the only known instance of dishonesty in her long career, and yet it says something about Liz as a pioneer (which, as she would sometimes acknowledge, she indisputably was). When you’re blazing a trail, you don’t often look back to see who’s following you.

The Real Liz

Hired by CBS News in 1972 as part of a network-wide campaign to bring women into what had always been a male-dominated industry, Liz clashed often with her supervisors, who were, of course, men. She had been raised by a single working mother (an attorney, no less), and certain kinds of fights were in her nature: Liz wouldn’t back down on questions of fairness. She felt lonely and insecure sometimes, I know, but she seldom expressed those self-doubts outright; about other people’s prospects, her optimism was unshakable, and trumpeted from the rooftops.

This is a valuable quality in a producer of broadcast news, where the on-air talent may be privately anxious and publicly attacked. The reporters with whom Liz worked (including Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, Douglas Edwards, and Dallas Townsend) always knew that she had their backs, and the two with whom she worked most closely, Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, never had a more loyal ally. Even when those two big tigers disagreed, Liz remained squarely in both men’s corners.

For his part, Dan recognized the depth and sincerity of Liz’s confidence in him, and he tried to respond in kind. Long after she’d left CBS, he continued to hire her to write radio scripts for him on a freelance basis, and because I’d inherited a lot of Liz’s former duties as writer–producer, she and I worked together and became friends during this time. The result was a kind of nuclear fallout of loyalty, and the feelings Liz had toward Dan extended to me, as well. (Thanks for that, boss.)

Born to wield a microphone.

Although she was initially turned down for on-air work at CBS (her speaking voice was too deep, the ostensible experts told her), she was a born radio star since her college days at the University of Buffalo. Sitting down to the microphone with greater frequency as time went by, she eventually hosted her own program, One on One, for several years. Here she was able to conduct in-depth interviews with newsmakers, especially actors, playwrights, and composers.

She approached her subjects with impeccable manners (“Mr. Sondheim,” “Miss Hayes”), thorough research, and matchless enthusiasm: the theater was her great passion, and she reveled in the opportunity to talk with artists she admired. (I’ve tried in some small way to follow her example in my own work.) She was one of the world’s great amateur authorities on Porgy and Bess, Irving Berlin, Paul Robeson, Elvis Presley, and her fellow Buffalo natives Katharine Cornell and Michael Bennett — but she never stopped asking questions, and she was always learning something new.

With some of her subjects, she also forged friendships, which is frowned upon in political reporting but permissible in arts coverage. One interview with French novelist Romain Gary turned into something very like a lengthy, unconsummated love affair. (She even took him home to meet her mother.)

Liz was a stickler for old-fashioned values:
Checked sources, good writing, nothing but the facts —
and flawless manners.

Once, when I was at Opera News, she interviewed me on WEVD radio, where she was a substitute anchor, about the upcoming Metropolitan Opera season. Afterward, she inquired knowingly whether I’d used talking points and note cards. No, I replied, I hadn’t.

I was startled by her vehemence. “Would you ever let Dan do a promotional interview without notes?” she demanded. “Why, with all his experience, would he need help that you didn’t?” She never interviewed me again.

Declining health meant that she couldn’t go to the theater anymore, but she insisted that I bring her the program for every play, opera, and concert I saw — and when possible, could I please bring a spare copy, for her personal collection? She told me plenty of stories about her family (including the legendary “Fighting Jew,” Sam Drebin, about whom she hoped to write a play), about her early days on local television in Buffalo, and about the people she’d worked with and interviewed at CBS. But mostly, she wanted to know what I was doing, and how she might help me to do it better. Years after blazing the trail, she was still clearing brush for those who came behind her.

The real Liz, seen here in an interview with Phyllis Diller in the late 1960s, is credited as the first female broadcaster in Buffalo.

She remained an obsessive clipper of newspaper articles, reading five papers per day and stubbornly squirreling away bundles and bags of print for future reference; when she was in form and still using the Internet, she’d send links to six or seven stories “of interest” every morning. Friends declared that she’d founded the Liz Dribben News Service, broadcasting around the world from the confines of her apartment, but the reality was that she never stopped planning for her next big story.

Toward the end, she slept a great deal and didn’t say much: when I observed that she’d been a more scintillating conversationalist in her time, she rolled her baby blues and gave me a rueful smile but didn’t snap my head off, as she might have done only a few weeks earlier. Then came days when I couldn’t wake her at all, but one morning, seeing her cell phone on the table beside her, I tried an experiment.

Being a pioneer ain’t easy.
In 1969, Liz was co-host of Buffalo’s top-rated local news program, host of her own interview show (Conversation with…), and a local celebrity. But when she asked for equal pay for equal work —
she was told to leave the station.

I dialed her number, and true to form, the hardnosed reporter couldn’t let a telephone ring unanswered.

“Sweetheart pussycat darling!” she said, a bit groggily but no less enthusiastically. “What’s the latest news? Are you in Paris?”

“I’m standing right in front of you. I’m going to hang up now so that we can talk.”

“Okay, sweetie. Keep me posted.”

Yesterday morning, when I saw her for the last time, she was sound asleep: dreaming, gesturing and murmuring, with long pauses while she seemed to hear an answering voice. I’d like to think it may have been the start of a new chapter in her career.

After all, she has waited a long time to ask George Gershwin about Porgy and Bess, and now at last she can.

And yeah, it’s true:
She looked just like this when she smiled.

“To be continued!”

-- Liz, at the end of almost every conversation
I ever had with her.

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19 January 2011

Study: Cheese Good, Experts Say

According to a study released today, cheese is good, being both tasty and delicious, as well as filling, when consumed in generous amounts over an extended period of time.

“The benefits of cheese are clear,” said Dr. Jane Fondue, senior director of the Camemburger-Limbert Foundation for Advanced Studies in Raclette, Wisconsin. “A well-made cheese can provide the consumer with flavor and satisfaction, these being the twin measures of goodness we have identified through years of scientific research in our laboratories.”

Over a period of seven years, test subjects were fed a variety of different cheeses, including gruyère, bleu d’Auvergne, bûcheron, and morbier; while in a parallel test, blindfolded participants were fed chalk, paste, and small pebbles. Results showed overwhelmingly that cheese is better than all the control substances used in testing.

(A related report will be released later this month, showing that, following the initial test, subjects refuse to put anything in their mouths so long as they are wearing blindfolds.)

“I love cheese, because it is good,” one test subject, Konrad Will, told the Camemburger-Limbert researchers. “It is versatile, as well, since it can be eaten fresh or aged, and it can also be melted, whether by grilling, baking, or in a fondue dish. Also, cheese is good with a glass of wine.”

According to the data compiled in the study, this is a statistically good thing.

“Our findings show that cheese is good almost by definition, and it is especially good when it comes from foreign countries, such as France,” continued another participating researcher, Dr. Jonathan Feldstein. “The same cannot be said of small pebbles, for example, whether they are domestic or imported.”

However, he observed that some possible responses to the study’s findings remain controversial among other scientists and policy-makers.

“Ultimately, the goodness of European cheese may not lead to a significant change in U.S. foreign policy,” agreed Dr. Mark Dennis of the rival Livarot-Mongering Institute. “Moreover, certain health benefits of cheese are still currently debated, except in comparison with consuming large quantities of chalk, which clearly is not as good as cheese.

“Nevertheless, we cannot escape the indisputable scientific fact that I would like another piece of cheese.”

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17 January 2011

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes BONUS: A Forgotten Fragment

My exhaustive research on Scott’s Ivanhoe has uncovered the following fragment. Although the author ultimately chose to excise this passage from his text, it gives a clear idea of his singular sense of dramatic pacing and characterful suspense.

Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the morally conflicted Templar, has taken Rebecca hostage, with the intention to rape her. At first, however, he is so struck by her intelligence and beauty that he offers to take her as a mistress, making a comparatively honest woman of her (as a Templar, he’s a Catholic priest), if only she’ll convert. In a series of interviews, Rebecca pleads eloquently for her honor and shows Bois-Guilbert the hypocrisy of his behavior.

He never gets around to raping her, and the following passage may help a reader to understand why.

[Brian de Bois-Guilbert is speaking.]
“Enough, wretched she-dog, I’ll discourse with thee no more, for the generosity of my patience is bounded as this isle of Britain is girt by the sea, and with thy peevish repulsion of my advances, thou art come at last to the Sleeve that wraps itself ’twixt England and France, and the noyade of thy liberty is due. Nay, though the sands drop in the hourglass of my gentle humour, it were not the limitless sands of Palestine but a lesser number, and thou hast marked the fall of the last grain, Jewess.

“Understand me well: I am decided to take thee in concubinage, and were thy words like unto arrows, they would not turn me back, nor would they pierce the armour of my resolve. I shall have that which I must have, if not by sweet argument of reason, then by force of these my arms, that have seen combat with infidels mightier than thou. No more words, Rebecca, but deeds shall henceforth distinguish our intercourse, and the hour of thy submission is at hand. I shall be swift but not hasty; yea, as the falcon doth seize the sparrow in the welkin, so shall I seize thee, roughly and never to let thee go ’til I have torn at thy flesh with my talons and supped ’til I am satiate.

“Think not to cry out, for this citadel is remote from any who might aid thee, and for that thou art a Jewess and I a Templar, there is no Christian would defend thee against the claim of my desire. Mine own ears shall be as stones, insensible to all thine entreaty, and the blows of thy fair hands in protest shall but goad me as spurs to the palfrey on my terrible course. I’ll tilt with thee no more, I say, but trade my tongue for another force, and though my charger is mounted and my lance at the ready, I command the lists to challenge thee in combat main à main and at close quarters, ’til thou dost fall to me.

“Hear me, Jewess? I see thy sweet face doth blench; the black gems of thine eyes shine not, but hide themselves ’neath heavy veils berimmed with sable; a gentle snore escapes thy ruby lips. No matter: I’ll come back tomorrow.”

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16 January 2011

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, or Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’

Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) and Rowena (Joan Fontaine)

A reference in the notes to Trollope’s Barchester Towers prompted the realization that I had never read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, nor indeed any of Scott’s books since a youthful attempt to decode Donizetti’s Lucia by reading Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. That attempt ended in frustration: the novel struck me as deeply dull, and Lucy’s mad scene is dismissed in a couple of lines, perhaps the only instance of verbal economy to be found anywhere in the book. Now the editors of Trollope gave me to understand that Ivanhoe (first published in 1819) inspired a national craze for all things Anglo-Saxon, including in the present case the perspectives of the Thorpes and the fête hosted by Miss Thorpe. While many critics credit Ivanhoe with the rise of historical fiction, Gothic architecture, Pre-Raphaelite painting, and notions of chivalry persistent in 19th-century Britain, the book seems at the very least to be responsible for the otherwise largely inscrutable “Anglo-Saxon attitudes” in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (published in 1871).

Scott’s novel inspired all kinds of 19th-century notions.
Here, Ivanhoe pays tribute to Rowena.

In short, Ivanhoe is a seminal work by a seminal author, but my knowledge of it was almost entirely derived from the MGM Technicolor extravaganza starring Robert and Elizabeth Taylor; and from Edward Eager’s delightful children’s story, Knight’s Castle, which is itself inspired more by the movie than by the book. I determined to return to the source, and what I found is one of the most curious pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

Taylor-made: Robert and Liz, in the MGM movie.

Start with the title character, whose role in the plot is minimal and whose appearances are sporadic: Scott might just as easily, and more justifiably, have called the book Richard the Lion-Hearted or Brian the Templar — or, most aptly of all, Rebecca the Jewess. Even Wamba, the Saxon jester, has more to do than does Ivanhoe himself.

The plot that thrilled generations of readers is in constant struggle with Scott’s prose, which is verbose in the extreme. A character may typically take a long paragraph just to tell another to make haste, and my second-hand paperback edition provided very few notes (mostly Scott’s own, along with a thin glossary) to explain obscure terminology. (No attempt was made to explain the constant misuse of participles for past tense: “He sprung forth,” e.g.) Scott lards the story with “poetic” descriptions and song lyrics, and toward the end of the book, when poor Rebecca awaits her doom, Scott meanders off for several scarcely relevant chapters, sabotaging his own suspense. The resolution of the plot, hitherto relatively plausible, depends on one improbable death and an even more outlandish resurrection.

All-singing! All-jousting!
(Well, almost.)

In short, modern readers will find the odds stacked against them. And yet the damned thing does work. Almost against my will, I found myself caught up in the story, and this is largely due to Scott’s characterization, which in a couple of cases — notably the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter — proves quite compelling. We feel so strongly the injustices they suffer that we care about what happens to them.*

Having lived so long among Christians, for whom the height of courtesy is to address him as “dog” and not to kill him on the spot, Isaac has got something very nearly like a split personality. He’s timorous and groveling among Christians, but wily and proud among his own people. Rebecca has inherited only her father’s intelligence, not his fear; to this she adds a keen awareness of the world in which she lives. Illustrating this, her debates with the villain Bois-Guilbert are wise and well-spoken.**

Rebecca is also active, in a way that her foil, Rowena, is not: both are held captive, both are victims and the objects of unwanted passions, but at least Rebecca does something: she heals the wounded Ivanhoe, using means Rowena doesn’t possess. Presaging and reinforcing the ideal of womanhood that would be held up by subsequent generations, Rowena prays and suffers nobly, but mostly she just sits around and looks pretty.

The real heroine: Taylor as Rebecca
Scott suggests that Rowena is even prettier, but MGM won’t let us think so.

Indeed, the novel’s ostensible hero and heroine, Ivanhoe and Rowena, are also the least interesting characters, without even the broad brushstrokes Scott uses to paint Friar Tuck, for example, or the oafish Athelstane: those characters are unsubtle, but at least they’re entertaining. Not so our Saxon paragons, and it’s a testament to the Victorian reader’s stubbornness that these two, with only dull virtues to recommend them, were so exalted in the popular imagination. (That said, Scott himself notes that, when the novel originally appeared, readers already complained that Rebecca should have ridden off with Ivanhoe at the end.)

One leaves Ivanhoe amused by the quaint literary tastes of those who came before us, and we may wonder why 19th-century readers were inspired to emulate any part of this singularly violent society, in which robbery and hostage-taking are not only commonplace but the foundation of much of the economy. Scott depicts a failed government, a corrupt and oppressive church, and general lawlessness and injustice. Why did this look like fun to anyone? (Least of all women readers.)

Felix Aylmer as Isaac, with Taylor as Rebecca

In most respects, I don’t think Scott intended Ivanhoe as a blueprint, but it is clear he sought to combat anti-Semitism; his sympathy for his Jewish characters is impressively far ahead of his time, and he surely understood that Isaac and Rebecca are oppressed by the same kinds of prejudices that afflicted many (most?) Jews in his own day. If Ivanhoe was indeed as influential as some critics claim, then it’s striking that so many readers ignored the theme that was so important to Scott — since far worse oppression of the Jews was still to come, a century after his death.

And yet Scott’s tale did resonate in later years, and I wind up where I started: remembering MGM’s lavish post-war spectacle. Only a few years after the Shoah, Ivanhoe was dusted off, illustrating once again the nobility of the Jews, and demonstrating that the superior Christian isn’t he who oppresses a non-believer but he who defends her — as Ivanhoe defends Rebecca. This message might have done more good in the early 1930s, when Nazi policies began to take effect, and it might have been more useful still if Isaac had led an armed uprising. But as an after-the-fact affirmation — as if to say, to those who needed to hear it, “We did the right thing in fighting the Nazis” — Ivanhoe isn’t bad. Scott might well have been pleased.

*NOTE: To the extent that Scott intended the conquering Normans’ oppression of native Saxons to reflect Scotland’s politics in his own day, his point is largely lost to a modern American reader.

**It’s anyone’s guess why Bois-Guilbert indulges Rebecca’s taste for debate when he could be raping her. This long-lost fragment may help to explain matters, however.

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14 January 2011

Top 10 Composers

Bavarian Idol: Richard Wagner is heavily favored
to win at least once.

[From the Times] -- In our last installment, we narrowed our search for the all-time top-ten Western composers who could dance on the head of a pin; we reached an equally arbitrary and debatable number, thirty-seven, including luminaries who could not be omitted from any such list, such as Wolfgang Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, and Randolph Partain, surely the greatest Western composer ever to name his guest room after me.

But how to narrow the list, as we must, because after all, there is a limit to the number of composers who can fit at any one time on the head of a pin?

Must we eliminate Hans Pfitzner, on the grounds that he has a funny-sounding name; or Edvard Grieg, on the grounds that influential people dislike him; or Georg Friderich Handel, on the grounds that everybody likes him, and we want to be special?

Is Mark Adamo the cutest composer of all time, or does that title belong to John Corigliano — or can we require them to share it? And what weight do we accord to cuteness, anyway?

Ultimately, we must ask: what are we going to do with Charles Ives?

Already eliminated: Domenico Cimarosa
Can you believe that, in a tough economy, with newspapers in jeopardy,
somebody gets paid to write this stuff?

Last time, we reexamined the Romantics, and we bit the bullet: we eliminated Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, leaving only Hector Berlioz, whom we’ll dismiss next time, because, I mean, come on; and Richard Wagner, because if we don’t wind up with him on the list, we’ll lose all credibility.

Ultimately, we will arrive at a definition of greatness — one based not merely a consensual opinion, but on a scientific scale. As you recall, we’ve put into place a data-based system to help us assess an individual composer’s statistical greatness.

After all, if we just blow names off the tops of our heads, we might as well be taking a banal cocktail-party conversation and reprinting it in The New York Times as if it were serious criticism — and who on earth would do a crazy thing like that?

Our scientific rankings take into account a number of quantifiable, measurable factors, including:

1. Number of CDs of the composer’s music sold within the past year;
2. Frequency with which the composer’s music is performed by orchestras in the top 10 cities in the U.S. and Europe;
3. Number of pages devoted to the composer in the Grove Dictionary; and
4. The composer’s penis size.

Liszt might have scored higher if he’d looked
more like Roger Daltrey and less like Abe Vigoda.

The chances of our coming up with any dark-horse candidates, any women, or any surprises are therefore eliminated immediately — and scientifically — making the process of selection as efficient as possible.

Using our scientific scale, we find that the candidates are currently ranked as follows, and if somebody put a gun to our head and forced us to name the composers on the head of that hypothetical pin, right now, the names would be these:

1. Richard Wagner
2. Johannes Brahms
3. Johann Sebastian Bach
4. Richard Wagner (again)
5. Richard Strauss
6. Johann Strauss, Sr. (due to his unusually large penis)
7. Ludwig von Beethoven
8. Gustav Mahler
9. Robert Schumann
10. (tie) Claude Debussy, Richard Wagner

Admittedly, this leaves us with a preponderance of Austro-Germans and of late-19th and early-20th-century composers, but them’s the breaks.

Thus far, Wolfgang Mozart is proving to be the Adam Lambert of our competition: beloved of fans and assured of a terrific career, but not exactly dominating the charts. So this time, let’s weigh the arguments in favor of eliminating him.

Mozart, the Adam Lambert of Western Music

Unfortunately, I’m out of space, so you’ll have to do this on your own.

Finished? Good. Okay, Mozart’s out of the running, for now.

Be sure to check this space next time, when Jan Sibelius makes a stunning comeback, based primarily on the size of his penis.

And in a few weeks, we’ll know for certain who the ten greatest composers of Western music are, and no one will ever disagree with us, ever again.

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12 January 2011

Chomet’s ‘Illusionniste,’ Disney’s ‘Tangled’: Moving vs. Animated

Dîner en famille: A scene from L’illusionniste

The opening sequence of Sylvain Chomet’s debut feature, Les triplettes de Belleville (2003), announced this animator’s distinctive vision: a “vintage film clip” of a vaudeville act that included cartoon versions of Charles Trenet, Josephine Baker, and Django Reinhardt, among others, before the eponymous Triplets took the stage. Clearly, Chomet understands something about what makes a beloved performer truly distinctive — and, as Triplettes continued, he went far beyond that, with a story that was as emotionally satisfying as it was beautiful and strange. In the heroic Madame Souza, we saw all the determination, self-sacrifice, and courage that we believe our grandmothers must possess, too. “Yes,” we think, “if I were kidnapped by the French mafia, my grandmother would not stop until she rescued me, the way Madame Souza rescues Champion.”

Illusion de beauté: In this sequence, computer animation adds
transparent ripples to water and puffiness to smoke.

For his second animated feature, Chomet has managed the trick once again, and although he’s working from a screenplay by someone else, its author is nevertheless a kindred spirit (however improbably so); the results are so original, so personal — so beautiful and so strange — that L’illusionniste stands as a worthy counterpart to Triplettes. Less laugh-aloud funny and sometimes darker, it’s suitable for children, and yet it should be of greatest interest to grownups.

Gee, your hair smells terrific:
Mother Gothel and Rapunzel share a moment in Tangled.

In that, L’illusionniste differs markedly from Disney’s Tangled, which I saw recently. While strongly showing the influence of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who’s in charge of Disney animation now, Tangled nevertheless feels generic, as if written by a committee — and one avidly in search of the right buttons to push in order to elicit a response from us. It’s not emotionally satisfying, the way L’illusionniste and the best Pixar movies are — but it is great fun.

Apparently boys refused to see The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s previous animated feature (hand-drawn), with consequences so economically discouraging that the studio opted not to call this retelling of Rapunzel’s story by its right name. Once you’re in the theater, this doesn’t matter much, and Tangled delivers a fair share of delights. It’s beautifully paced, and the 3-D animation (which I saw in plain old 2-D) is extraordinarily accomplished: not least of the film’s achievements is the creation of hair, the sine qua non of this story, of course, but as credible in the case of Mother Gothel’s graying/darkening curls and Flynn’s day-old beard growth as it is in Rapunzel’s streaming tresses.

Kiss the girl? The melody is different, yet the song remains the same.

But much of Tangled feels recycled, and you may sit in the theater ticking off a list of familiar tropes from other Disney movies. You forgive — to a point — this lack of originality on the filmmakers’ part, simply because you feel them searching their way back to whatever it is that makes an animated movie truly special. So you get bad parenting, always a Disney staple; a gang of lovable misfits (thugs here, as they were dwarfs, or alley cats, or mice, before) to help the heroine; child-friendlier liberties with a classic tale (Rapunzel’s boyfriend isn’t blinded, though he is stabbed); and songs by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). Even tiny details remind you of other movies: Flynn has precisely the same physique as Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric.*

Flynn (Zachary Levi) and Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) meet cute;
Pascal the Chameleon looks on.
(Why a chameleon? Maybe it’s the one critter Disney hadn’t already done.)

The greater trouble is that the stakes aren’t quite what they should be. Mother Gothel is, after all, not Rapunzel’s real mother, nor even a wicked stepmother, and while Stephen Sondheim mined these characters’ relationship for emotional truth in Into the Woods, the Disney gang simply don’t manage any kind of comparable insights. Rapunzel’s relationship to her birth parents is so exactly like that of Aurora’s to hers (in Sleeping Beauty), and while the romance between Rapunzel and Flynn is often appealing, you keep catching stray elements from movies as diverse as Aladdin and Lady and the Tramp. Tangled ends up resonating with other movies, more than it does with our inner lives.

The brilliant Donna Murphy provides the voice of Mother Gothel,
the film’s most interestingly realized character.

Most American animated features are written by committee, as I say, and they feel like it; it’s something of a mystery how the storyboarding process at Disney ever did come up with fresh material and genuine emotions. Working this time with a collaborator — albeit one who’s been dead since 1982 — Chomet never panders to his audience in L’illusionniste. He never gives you the sense that he’s working according to a formula, or addressing the concerns of market-researchers, and his movie is a deeply felt expression of a uniquely personal perspective — even if it’s that of Jacques Tati.

Returned to life: Chomet’s vision of Tati

Tati created some of the cinema’s greatest comedies, evincing a pitch-perfect comprehension of the secrets of the great silent clowns: his films are mostly wordless, and the dialogue rarely (if ever) conveys essential information. Mostly, it’s background, reminding us that, in the modern age, we can’t escape the din of competing voices that never say anything of importance. Words are unnecessary, real truth is reserved for that which goes unspoken, and toward that end, Tati’s physical gags are a giddy combination of poetry and ballet.

Chomet has effectively resurrected Tati for L’illusionniste, which is based on an unproduced screenplay by the late filmmaker. It’s a bittersweet work, informed by the regrets of a father who, in the pursuit of his art, sacrificed his relationship with his daughter.** Chomet sustains the autumnal mood in the subdued colors and dour (albeit beautiful) Scottish landscapes. Most remarkably, he casts Tati himself as the Magician, the role he would have played had he been able to produce this film within his lifetime.

Master of illusion, or illusion of mastery?

Tati wrote L’illusionniste in 1956, between his two best-known comedies, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle, and long before the commercial debacle of Play Time (1967), after which he found it more difficult to pursue his own projects.*** Though Chomet’s Magician possesses all of Monsieur Hulot’s physical mannerisms, he lacks the irrepressible, sometimes inexplicable buoyancy that distinguishes Tati’s more-familiar character. Despite the similarity in appearance, the Magician is an altogether different fellow: trading Hulot’s jaunty pipe for a cigarette, and his indefatigable good cheer for wistfulness.

Down on his luck and unable to adapt his act to changing times, when rock’n’roll is edging out more traditional entertainments, the Magician encounters a teenage girl on a remote Scottish island. Naïve to the point of simplemindedness, she believes that the gifts he offers her are created by magic, not purchased from a store. She follows him to the mainland, and they wind up in Edinburgh, living (chastely) in a boarding house for vaudevillians. In the city, the girl’s eyes are opened to ever-more luxurious possibilities, which the Magician struggles to provide for her — without her ever grasping the concept of commerce or understanding that she is badly abusing his generosity.

A failure to communicate, with or without language.

Working long hours at humiliating jobs, cheated by his employers and by his agent, facing professional extinction, surrounded by vaudevillians even worse-off than he, the Magician never complains, yet he never smiles, either. He’s enough to make a young girl believe in magic, however, even while their alliance, as neither family nor lovers, is something more — not less — than it appears.

The movements of the Magician are only a shade less fluid than those of Hulot, but otherwise perfectly rendered; physical gags are actually somewhat more astutely timed than certain of Tati’s stunts were, in his live-action films. Computer tricks combine with exquisite hand-drawn animation, and the watercolor backgrounds eloquently match setting to story. The loopy minor characters, especially the residents of the boarding house, and the affectionate but unsentimental view of show business prove an ideal meeting-point for Tati’s and Chomet’s sensibilities.

Down on his luck: The Magician, moonlighting again.

In fact, while watching L’illusionniste, I understood just how Tati-esque Triplettes was. That’s especially true in the use of dialogue and music on the soundtrack. Here, the most loquacious character is the girl, and she’s speaking Gaelic — which might as well be Venusian, in these circumstances. Words are unnecessary here again, and it’s worth considering that the Magician’s goodbye note is contradicted almost immediately by action.

I probably take animated movies a little too seriously: after all, most of them are made because so many parents use them as surrogate babysitters, and because so many studios use them to generate merchandise. Yet every now and then, a really good animated picture comes along, whether it’s L’illusionniste or Toy Story. Such movies can tell us important truths about ourselves; they’re worth seeking out and supporting, and sharing with others.

*NOTE: The 3-D modeling does give Flynn’s butt an élan that Prince Eric’s didn’t possess. Remember, it’s only a cartoon.

**To most audiences, it may not matter whether Tati intended to describe the daughter he abandoned or the one he acknowledged.

***The construction of Tativille, the setting for much of Play Time, left Tati in massive debt for a decade.

As something of an afterthought, here’s a picture of the real Tati, for those who don’t know his work, demonstrating his phenomenal blend of grace and awkwardness. With his long, long legs (which you see so clearly here), leaning stances, and loping stride, Monsieur Hulot is all angles and odd rhythms, yet completely unaware that he doesn’t fit into the society around him. Hulot just keeps bouncing along (and, equally unlike the Magician, he usually gets the Girl).

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