Thursday, November 28, 2019

Respectable People

Respectable people…What bastards! 
    - Emile Zola, The Belly of Paris (1873)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Danger of Indignation

Indignation and goodwill are not enough to make the world better.  Clarity is needed, as well as charity, however difficult this may be to imagine, much less sustain, toward the other side.  Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about social indignation is that it so frequently leads to the death of personal humility.  Once that has happened, one has ceased to live in that world of men which one is striving so mightily to make over.  One has entered into a dialogue with that terrifying deity, sometimes called History, previously, and perhaps again, to be referred to as God, to which no sacrifice in human suffering is too great.
            - James Baldwin, “The Crusade of Indignation” (1956)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cousinly Love

The Americans and the English are bound together at present by the ties of war, and by that sort of cousinly love which expresses itself in private by foaming at the mouth.
- Bernard Shaw, “Why Devolution Will Not
              Do”, The Irish Statesman, November 15,


Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Problem with Opinions

The problem with opinions is that one is stuck with them.
      - Susan Sontag, “The Conscience of Words” (2001)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Walk in the Rain

I find it good to be out this still, dark, mizzling afternoon; my walk or voyage is more suggestive and profitable than in bright weather.  The view is contracted by the misty rain, the water is perfectly smooth, and the stillness is favorable to reflection.  I am more open to impressions, more sensitive (not calloused or indurated by sun and wind), as if in a chamber still.  My thoughts are concentrated; I am all compact.  The solitude is real, too, for the weather keeps other men at home.  This mist is like a roof and walls over and around, and I walk with a domestic feeling.  The sound of a wagon going over an unseen bridge is louder than ever, and so of other sounds.  I am compelled to look at near objects.  All things have a soothing effect; the very clouds and mists brood over me.  My power of observation and contemplation is much increased.  My attention does not wander.  The world and my life are simplified.  What now of Europe and Asia?
- Henry David Thoreau, Journals, November 7, 1855

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Marxism & the US

Marxism in this country had ever been an eccentric and quixotic passion.  One oppressed class after another had seemed finally to miss the point.  The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having.

- Joan Didion, “The Women’s Movement” (1972)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Most Important Fact in All History

 The abject patience of the oppressed is perhaps the most inexplicable, as it is also the most important, fact in all history.
- Aldous Huxley, “Boundaries of Utopia” (1931)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Life at Sea

If I could have secured this advantage without the horrid prolonged trials that produced it, I might have gladly become a sailor.  I love moving water, I love ships, I love the sharp definition, the concentrated humanity, the sublime solitude of life at sea.  The dangers of it only make present to us the peril inherent in all existence, which the stupid, ignorant, untravelled land-worm never discovers; and the art of it, so mathematical, so exact, so rewarding to intelligence appeals to courage and clears the mind of superstition, while filling it with humility and true religion.  Our world is a cockleshell in the midst of overwhelming forces and everlasting realities; but those forces are calculable and those realities helpful, if we can manage to understand and obey them.
George Santayana, The Background of My Life (1944)

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Barbarian Invaders

A nation may beget its own barbarian invaders.
- Wilhelm Röpke, International Economic Disintegration (1942)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019


I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.  And yet, in spite of this, my relationship to libraries has always been an odd one.  I love the space of a library.  I love the public buildings that stand like emblems of the identity a society chooses for itself, imposing or unobtrusive, intimidating or familiar.  I love the endless rows of books whose titles I try to make out in the vertical script that has to be read (I’ve never discovered why) from top to bottom in English and Italian, and from bottom to top in German and Spanish.  I love the muffled sounds, the pensive silence, the hushed glow of the lamps (especially if they are made of green glass), the desks polished by the elbows of generations of readers, the smell of dust and paper and leather, or the newer ones of plasticized desktops and caramel-scented cleaning products.  I love the all-seeing eye of the information desk and the sibylline solicitude of the librarians.  I love the catalogues, especially the old card drawers (wherever they survive) with their typed or scribbled offerings.  When I’m in a library, any library, I have the sense of being translated into a purely verbal dimension by a conjuring trick I’ve never quite understood.  I know that my full, true story is there, somewhere on the shelves, and all I need is time and the chance to find it.  I never do.
      - Alberto Manuel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions (2018) 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Seattle Opera: Rigoletto

I saw a fantastic production of Verdi's Rigoletto at the Seattle Opera on Saturday.  Dark, brutal, completely engrossing. 

Director Lindy Hume has updated the action from 15th-century Italy to modern Italy, or, to be more precise, to what appears to be Silvio Berlusconi's Italy.  The Duke's palace is lush and stylish; TV screens adorn the walls, the doors are gold-plated, the seats are red velvet, the walls themselves are shiny dark marble.  The Duke's courtiers wear business suits.  Verdi’s 1851 tale of political corruption and sexual violence doesn’t feel dated in the least bit.

And at the heart of it all is the brooding, tormented figure of Rigoletto - a hunchback, an object of derision, and a jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua.  As for the Duke, he's a slimebag, a tyrant, gladly using his position to seduce/rape as many girls as he can.  And if a father complains about a violated daughter, as one does at the beginning of the opera, the Duke simply has him put to death on trumped up charges.  His courtiers, all male, encourage and applaud the Duke's behavior.  

Lester Lynch (Photo: Philip Newton)
But the nastiest SOB in the Duke's retinue is Rigoletto.  His cruel wit and viscousness, solidly buffered by self-loathing, have earned him the hate of all the couriers.  As the play opens, the courtiers have discovered that Rigoletto has a mistress - and a young and beautiful one, too.  True to form, they decide to kidnap her.  But she's not his mistress.  She’s his daughter, the innocent and sheltered Gilda.  Gilda is the joy of her father's life.  Yet she, too, has her own secret.  She's being courted by a handsome youth she met in church.  She loves him.  We know, though, that the lad is actually the predatory Duke in disguise.

And so the stage is set for operatic mayhem, though the carnage will fall almost entirely on the sweet and innocent Gilda.  The evil-doers - all men - will get away with everything while our defenseless heroine will be kidnapped and then raped.  After that, of course, the only way for her to set things right - according to the demented attitude of 19th-century theatergoers towards women - is for her to sacrifice herself out of love for her rapist and be brutally murdered.  And so she is.  Yes, it's all very fucked up.  By comparison the 18th-century was a paragon of sanity.  After all, at the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787) it's the philandering Don who is dragged into Hell, not his victims.  And in Cosí Fan Tutte (1790) sexual infidelity is treated as simply the way of the world; no one is thrown into a sack and stabbed to death over it. 

Liparit Avetisyant (Photo: Sunny Martini)

Press coverage of this production has mostly emphasized its political aspects.  It's "a surefire argument starter" The Seattle Times writes.  (I could argue with that but I won’t.)  The misogyny on display in Rigoletto will endure, according to The Stranger, "so long as we continue to uphold longstanding social and political norms around consent, harassment, and male power."  All very true.  But don't let the political chatter deter you from seeing this production.  Hume keeps her focus on the human drama at the center of this opera.  From the moment the curtain rises and we see a lone Rigoletto sitting in a darkened room while the stark and brooding prelude plays (Carlo Montanaro is the conductor), it’s obvious that we’re in the hands of a director of intelligence.  Even the sets tell a story.  The Duke's palace fills the whole stage, but the other locations - a bar, a bus stop, Rigoletto's home - are small.  They only take up a few feet on a stage consumed in darkness.  Outstanding work on the part of Production Designer Richard Roberts and Lighting Designer Jason Morphett.      

Madison Leonard (Photo: Sunny Martini)

The singing in Rigoletto is magnificent.  Lester Lynch is riveting in the title role.  He is as good an actor as he is a singer.  Dressed in ill-fitting clothes, he walks and lumbers about the stage clumsily, painfully.  Does he have chilblains?  Flat feet?  One cannot tell.  But Lynch conveys to us that Rigoletto’s deformity is more than merely a hump on his back.  Physical shame and psychological angst are his lot.  Gilda is such an idealized figure that it’s hard to find her believable, yet Madison Leonard does just that.  Hers is a thoughtful performance, full of restraint and depth.  The Act I duets between her and Lynch, played out in their dingy kitchen, are heartfelt and gripping.  These two have chemistry together.  They feel like a real family, never more so than when struck with tragedy.  Liparit Avetisyant, making his Seattle Opera debut as the Duke, was also noteworthy.  He looked as natural in a three-piece suit surrounded by cronies as he does when disguised as a student to win over Gilda.  In fact, just clip a name tag to his sweater when he’s in the latter role and he could pass as a some fresh-faced new college grad working at a tech company.  And finally, kudos are also due to the chorus of male courtiers who surround the Duke.  Whether tormenting Rigoletto, sexually harassing any available female, or sleeping off last night's orgy butt-naked on the sofa, they are a macho and detestable lot.  We even find some generals and clergymen in their midst (and no doubt PJ and Squee are in there somewhere, too). How one would like to see them all in handcuffs at The Hague.  If only.

Rigoletto will play at McCaw Hall until August 28th.

Thursday, August 01, 2019


History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now.  It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.
       - Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending 

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Seattle Center Murals

I was at the Seattle Center earlier today and saw a bunch of murals on the wood barrier outside of Key Arena.  I thought they were pretty cool, so I took some pictures.  And here they are...

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The American Businessman

In 1963 German journalist Hans Habe met Arizona’s Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.  This was his takeaway:  
Hans Habe
Here, I thought, stood an American businessman who, when he goes to sleep at night, does not dream of the Knights of Camelot or of Thomas Jefferson or even of Napoleon Bonaparte.  The hero of his dreams, in color TV, is the self-made man of America’s pioneering era.  Is such a man a conservative?  Perish the thought!  Conservatism implies the strict rule of law, respect for the existing order to the point of snobbery.  The American businessman, on the other hand, admittedly no snob, dreams of the Golden Age of disorder in which a man like H.L. Hunt, the richest man in America...could win his first oil well at a poker game.  He dreams of plain lawlessness to which, according to him, America owes her greatness, he dreams of...a form of government without taxes and without central direction.  Since we Europeans are accustomed to identify fascism with uniforms, the goose step and discipline of every kind, we find it very difficult to understand the fascism of the American businessman, who would only impose that minimum of discipline required to protect the economic chaos which he favors.  
      - Hans Habe, The Wounded Land: Journey Through a Divided America (1964)

Monday, July 01, 2019

Arts West: The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion

Went to see The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion, a new musical, at Arts West yesterday.  Bad.  Really bad.  It’s about Lee, a Seattle college student who discovers that she’s part octopus, or, rather, some kind of human-octopus hybrid.  See, back in 2000 Lee’s mom, a martial arts enthusiast, took part in Seattle’s octopus wrestling competition.  This was a real thing.  Local divers would go into Puget Sound and bring up the largest octopus they could find.  It was then weighed and returned to the water.  How a sport this exciting and action-packed ever died out, I’ll never know.  Anyway, Lee’s mom was its champion, but on her last outing things went horribly wrong and….well, it gets a little convoluted and I don’t want to ruin it for you.  The Last World Octopus Wresting Champion is part myth, part folklore, part local history, part fantasy.  And part love story as well (spoilers ahead).  Lee notices her cephalopod abilities when she falls in love with Nia, a fellow college student.  Nia soon notices that she, too, is able to transform into an octopus.  

With book, music, and lyrics by Justin Huertas (who got some help from Steven Tran), the main problem with The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion is its overall mediocrity.  The story isn't told well.  The characters are stage caricatures, they never approximate real people.  And the music, with the the exception of the song "Sleep Well, Love", is largely unremarkable and unmemorable.  An air of amateurishness hovers over this play and never leaves.  It need re-writes.  It feels like a work-in-progress.  Even the title is off; shouldn't it be called The Last Octopus Wrestling World Champion?  If this were a high-school production one would say "Wow, these people certainly have promise".  But it's not a high school production.  One expects more - but doesn't get it.

The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion will play at Arts West to July 28th. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Arriving in Vietnam

On the morning of the fourth day the dawn light daubed our faces as we came down the skies of Cochin-China*.  The passengers were squirming in their seats, not sleeping and not waking, and the air-hostess’s trained smile came stiffly.  With engines throttled back the plane dropped from sur-Alpine heights in a tremorless glide, settling in the new, morning air of the plains like a dragonfly on the surface of a calm lake.  As the first rays of the sun burst through the magenta mists that lay among the horizon, the empty sketching of the child’s painting book open beneath us received a wash of green.  Now lines were ruled lightly across it.  A yellow penciling of roads and blue of canals.
A colonel of the Foreign Legion awoke uneasily, struggling with numbed, set facial muscles to regain that easy expression of good-fellowship of a man devoted to the service of violence...
      - Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (1951)

* Vietnam

Thursday, June 13, 2019


Most people go through life using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had.
   - Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)

Friday, June 07, 2019

Seattle Rep: Tiny Beautiful Things

I recently saw Tiny Beautiful Things at the Seattle Repertory.  It was awful, just terrible.  Between 2010 and 2012 author Cheryl Strayed worked as an advice columnist for the website The Rumpus; her nom de plume there was Sugar.  She was very good at this job and soon developed a big following.  In 2012 she published a collection of her advice-column correspondence under the name Tiny Beautiful Things.  That book is the source for this adaptation by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

The play is set in Sugar's apartment, where she reads the letters which pop-up on her laptop.  Three people on stage act as the letter writers; they go in and out of various characters.  Sugar is a winning confidant.  When people present her with their life problems - adultery, depression, miscarriages, etc. - she usually responds with a story or confession of her own.  Her advice is exactly what one would expect - upbeat, affirmational, heart-felt, etc.  

If you are (or were) a fan of those confessional daytime TV shows - Jerry Springer, Maury Pauvich, Sally Jesse Raphael, etc. - then this play is for you.  It has the same earnest banality.  Someone tells Sugar their problem.  Then she relates an anecdote from her own life and delivers advice of TED-talk-esque depth - believe in yourself, you have more strength than you know, you inspire me, etc.  Then on to the next letter - and so on for an hour and forty minutes.  It's all very easy, neat, simple to digest.  But the more I thought about this play, the more I disliked it.  In no other art has the human condition been put forward more starkly than in theater, yet this play is little more than a parade of pat and facile answers to the difficulties of life.  And if you believe that theater has something important to say about being human (and I do) then there's something off-putting, even offensive, about Sugar's ultimately shallow responses in the face of suffering.  No doubt if we dropped her into the end of King Lear she'd tell the old duffer that his courage under his misfortunes is an inspiration to her, that his love is greater than his grief, etc.  If she popped in at the end of The Iceman Cometh she'd let everyone in the saloon know that the resilience they'd shown over the past few days fills her hope and optimism, and that, deep down, all of them, especially Hickey, need to learn to forgive themselves.  And I'm sure she'd have some uplifting words for Oedipus: "Don't be so hard on yourself.  So you have a thing for MILFs..."

Julie Briskman, Charles Leggett, Chantal DeGroat, and Justin Huertas (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Sugar is very candid and open about her own life but I'm not sure that serves her well.  At one point she admits that her grandfather sexually abused her.  Apparently he made her give him handjobs when she was between the ages of two and five.  This obviously fucked her up.  Years later, she dealt with this trauma in an unusual, and for me a very questionable, way.  One day when she was outside she came across a newly hatched bird that had fallen out of its nest and onto the ground.  She picked it up (which she knew automatically meant that its mother wouldn't acknowledge or care for it).  Then she put the little birdling in a paper bag and smothered it to death.  The writhing of the struggling creature against her hands somehow recalled grampy's flaccid penis.  Eventually the bird stopped moving.  This experience was cathartic for Sugar (though, one imagines, less so for the bird).  Although at this point, if I, too, may be candid, I had to ask myself "Is this really someone I should be taking advice from?"

The most powerful letter is one from a man whose 22-year-old son was killed in a car accident.  It’s a missive of pain, grief, and anger.  Effectively it constitutes a long confessional monologue, and it’s a genuine tour de force for the actor performing it.  Charles Leggett plays it in this production and, like a dog with a bone, once he gets hold of it he ain't letting go.  He stammers, hems and haws, pauses very pregnantly.  He's very good - and I do mean that seriously.  As the letter goes on, he starts blubbering.  Then everyone in the audience starts blubbering too.  How could we not?  Sugar starts to give him her advice, and soon there's more waterworks in the audience. It’s so sad.  And yet - thinking about it later - there was something cheap about the whole thing.  Cheap and sordid.  Like when they shot Old Yeller in the movie just to get a roomful of kids to cry.  Ultimately, it felt very manipulative.

Charles Leggett and Julie Briskman (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

So, with the writers I find fault, but I don't find any with with the actual production itself.  The actors are all very good.  It would be hard to imagine a better Sugar than Julie Briskman.  The moment she walked onstage the entire audience warmed to her.  I've already praised Charles Leggett as one of the letter readers; the other two - Chantal DeGroat and Justin Huertas - are equally good, even if they don't have quite the show-stopper that he has.  The set design by L.B. Morse wonderfully captures the ordinariness in which most of us live our lives (no matter how messy), and the lighting by Robert Aguilar manages to sculpt the action and provide a sense of variety to what is essentially a very static play.  Despite this play's shortcomings director Courtney Sale did a commendable job.

Tiny Beautiful Things will play at the Seattle Repertory Theatre until June 23rd.

Thursday, May 23, 2019


Intellectuals are the only group in society who are fundamentally international.  Everyone who believes in the intellect takes his place in the great family tree of the human intelligence in which those who have influenced him are his true ancestors, and these ancestors are from every race, every creed, and every condition.  I am all for regionalism, for decentralization, for the “goût du terroir” [local flavor] in our artists, but I think that nationalism, though it has proved the soundest and deepest instinct in this war, and is beyond praise as a sentiment when our country is in danger, is not one of the most forward-looking of human creeds.  It has won wars, but it has also made them, and it is to that love of truth which unites artists and scientists, that common belief in virtue and reason, that we must look for the perpetuation of peace and the prevention of wars to come.
      - Cyril Connolly, “French and English Cultural Relations” (1943)

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Nose of the Alligator

We drive to the French Embassy in a hired Daimler…The Churchills were the last to arrive and I was surprised to notice that when they enter, the whole room stands up as if they were reigning sovereigns.
Winston pays me lavish compliments on my speeches in the House and deplores my absence from it...He said that he had made friends with de Gaulle at last, whom he had found “much mellowed”.  He said that he had liked the Russians.  “The disadvantage of them is”, he says, “that one is not sure of their reactions.  One strokes the nose of the alligator and the ensuing gurgle may be a purr of affection, a grunt of stimulated appetite, or a snarl of enraged animosity.  One cannot tell.” 
      - Harold Nicolson, Diary, December 19, 1945

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Seattle Opera: Carmen

Saturday evening was opening night for the Seattle Opera’s excellent new production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.  Set in nineteenth century Seville, it tells the story of Don José, a soldier who falls in love with the hot-blooded and dangerous factory-girl of the title.  Once they’re together Carmen easily leads the boy astray.  Soon he abandons the army and they both join up with a group of bandits.  Along the way Carmen hooks up with Escamillo, a bullfighter, and it's with him that she finds true love.  José is soon out of the picture, but not out of the opera, where his murderous jealousy will play out in the finale.  Also in the mix is Micaëla, a sweet, innocent girl (she loves our hero, of course) sent by José’s mother to recall her wayward son to his duty.     

Carmen is often billed as a tale of passion and wild sexuality.  It is supposed to have an air of eroticism about it.  Now I don’t doubt that for some viewers the tale of this impudent cigarette-girl may set their libido ablaze.  But frankly the lass does nothing for me.  Perhaps if you were a normal bourgeois male who saw this in 1875 her insouciance and female misbehavior would have provided just the transgressive spark to blast your Victorian-era lust to new heights, but a century and a half later this is tame stuff.  The opera’s original sexual charge seems to be much more centered around issues of class and power than around anything which goes on between the sheets.  As for Carmen herself, her tale doesn’t strike me as especially dissolute: she sleeps around but then meets a guy who wins her heart.  As the pop-song puts it she “fooled around and fell in love.”  No biggie.  In fact our twenty-first century sensibilities are more likely to be offended by the fact that her boyfriend engages in the senseless slaughter of animals rather than in Carmen’s hussy past.  

Ginger Costa-Jackson and Rodion Pogossov (Photo Credit: Sunny Martini)

Part of this may be due to Bizet’s music: it’s lovely, memorable, a delight, the tunes are immediately hummable.  Listening to Carmen is the musical equivalent of walking into a candy store.  But the score hasn’t a trace of sensuality in it.  There are none of the vocal and/or orchestral surgings and climaxes that we find in Wagner or Puccini.  In fact Bizet’s music doesn’t even rise to the erotic level of the Barcarolle in Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann or the aria Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saën’s Samson et Delilah.  And perhaps that explains Carmen’s longevity; on the surface it seems risqué and naughty, but at its core - in other words, in its music - it’s clean-cut and unthreatening.  

And in the SO’s current staging it is also highly entertaining.  Director Paul Curran has wisely focused on the comic aspects of the opera.  The production is bright, colorful, at times even boisterous.  It is a lot of fun.  If there’s a children’s chorus in this opera - and there is - then it will be an adorable bunch of scamps singing and marching around the stage.  If some gypsy gals (or, “Bohemians,” if you prefer) sing a song at the beginning of Act II which has nothing to do with the story, then Curran sets them up before an old style microphone stand and turns the whole thing into a song and dance routine.  Although never camp, one senses that tongue was not unacquainted with cheek in much of this production.  Escamillo the toreador, for instance, enters on a motorcycle and is dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a leather jacket - in other words, he's the Fonz from Happy Days.  As the story turns darker in the second half the staging becomes more sedate but never fails to dazzle.  The sets by Production Designer Gary McCann are vivid and eye-catching, full of bold colors, multiple layers, and diagonals.  His Act III set, which simulates depth of field inside a warehouse, is breath-taking.  

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Photo Credit: Sunny Martini)
Scott Quinn was set to play Don José on opening night but came down with a cold, so instead his place was taken by Frederick Ballentine, who did a fine job in the lead.  Rodion Pogossov’s Escamillo is energetic and lively.  His clowning around during the “Toreador Song” - I believe he steals a move or two from Chuck Berry - fit in nicely with the production's light-hearted tone.  Vanessa Goikoetxea is magnificent in the role of Micaëla.  Her rendition of the Act III aria Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante - in which Micaëla admits to her own fears in attempting to save José - was deeply moving.  Its vulnerability and beauty really constituted the emotional heart of the drama.  And as for Carmen, Ginger Costa-Jackson is superb in the role.  She has played Carmen many times before and will no doubt continue to do so.  The role seems custom-made for her. Her dark and smokey, yet powerful, mezzo-soprano voice adds just the sultriness the part requires.  Decked out in red for much of the night she dominates the stage not only vocally but physically.  Carmen is only as alluring as the actress who portrays her and Costa-Jackson enchants.  

Carmen plays at the Seattle Opera until May 19.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

That Common Earthling

It is quite apparent that there is an aspect of Darwin’s discoveries which has never penetrated to the mind of the general public.  It is the fact that once undirected variation and natural selection are introduced as the mechanism controlling the development of plants and animals, the evolution of every world in space becomes a series of unique historical events.  The precise accidental duplication of a complex form of life is extremely unlikely to occur in even the same environment, let alone in the different background and atmosphere of a far-off world. 
In the modern literature on space travel I have read about cabbage men and bird men; I have investigated the loves of the lizard men and the tree men, but in each case I have labored under no illusion.  I have been reading about a man, Homo sapiens, that common earthling, clapped into an ill-fitting coat of feathers and retaining all his basic human attributes including an eye for the pretty girl who has just emerged from the space ship.  His lechery and miscegenating proclivities have an oddly human ring, and if this is all we are going to find on other planets I, for one, am going to be content to stay at home.  There is quite enough of that sort of thing down here, without encouraging it throughout the starry system.
      - Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1959) 

Monday, March 11, 2019

SIFF/MoPOP: Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival

Saturday afternoon was the 14th annual Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival at the Egyptian theater in Capitol Hill.  This is a joint venture of SIFF and MoPOP.  Now, this festival may sound like fun - and it's true that every year it sells out - but, frankly, it is not.  In fact, it's brutal: sixteen films spread out over five hours with a sixty minute intermission.  Only a handful of these films are any good; the majority of them are dreadful.  It's a marathon of mediocrity.  And that hour intermission doesn't help, either; it should have been fifteen minutes.  In fact, there should not be an intermission.  There should be only two hours of movies, not four.  And if we narrowed it down to the movies that weren't dreck, we would have been in and out in about forty minutes.  Still, a handful of films were noteworthy.

In The Narrow World a gigantic alien craft lands in Los Angeles.  He hasn’t come to destroy us, or to warn us, or to even communicate with us.  In fact, he doesn’t do anything at all.  He’s a bit of a bum.  Immense and possessing insect-like wings, he goes to the beach in the mornings, and then goes to watch the airplanes take off and land at LAX in the afternoon.  That’s it.  (Maybe he’s here for the weed?)  The cinematography of him wandering around LA county is magnificent.  The Narrow World is in the mock-documentary mode, and two scientists - a man and woman - separately appear on screen, each attempting to explain the alien to us.  Apparently his complete indifference to humanity has greatly demoralized the earth’s population.  We just don’t matter to him - and that kind of hurts.  So far, so good.  In fact, very good.  The fifteen-minute film should have ended there.  But it didn’t (and here come the spoilers).  It turns out that the alien craft doesn’t really exist.  Those two scientists are actually lovers, and they’re going through a hard patch.  The alien is a metaphor for the man’s inability to communicate with his woman.  But the lady isn’t giving up on him.  She’s committed to break through and save the relationship.  End of film.  I sigh with disappointment.

From Norway comes The Restrictor.  In a society in which happiness is given out in monthly liquid doses, those who overuse it, or abuse the rules (no sharing of your allotment) are subject to punishment.  A nicely crafted film by Jade Aksnes.  Well-acted.  Good premise.  A bad guy you hate.  One may chuckle at the idea that a society in which people aren’t allowed to be too happy sounds like Norway today rather than in the future, but nonetheless this is a memorable and involving movie.

From Yves Paradis (wonderful name, let me add) comes the animated short M52, which was improvised over the course of a year, a new segment added each week.  There's not much of a story in it.  A figure pushes around a block in a strange landscape, another figure appears, they take some green pills, a tree grows, people have tea in the jungle with animals.  It all may be short on coherence, but you don’t care.  Paradis keeps you interested.  A strange but compelling ten minutes, as you can sense from the trailer above.  In all honesty I think it's best to watch this film when you’re stoned.

Also enjoyable is J. P. Chan's brief Cosmic Dental Associates of Clifton, NJ.  It’s a fake TV commercial about the fabulous astro-dental services available at this imaginary clinic.  If you have a comet flying around in your mouth, or remnants of the Crab Nebula are lighting up your teeth, then Cosmic Dental Associates can fix it.  Doctors and patients give their testimonials ("We treat you like family.").  Very funny and clever.

But the best film in the festival was Brian and Charles.  Like The Narrow World, this is also a mock documentary.  Brian is a lonely sheep farmer living in Britain and one winter when he was feeling very down indeed he built his own robot, Charles.  Charles is the strangest, most shoddy-looking robot you've ever seen.  His head is not quite aligned with his torso, his arms seem to be on different planes, he's balding.  And his personality isn't particularly sparkling either.  He's a bit daft.  But none of this matters to Brian.  Charles is soon his best mate.  The friendship starts to break apart - over, of all things, cabbages - but the two are reconciled in the end.  As we all know, relationships, even with robots, take work.  This movie, directed by Jim Archer, is hilarious and yet weirdly poignant.  It's like Of Mice and Men but with a happy ending and a robot and set in England and with cabbages instead of rabbits (so in many ways, as you can see, it's much much better than Of Mice and Men).  It stars David Earl as Brian and Chris Hayward as Charles.  The two men are also given the writing credits, which makes me think that this film was probably improvised by them.  It is inspiredly goofy, and, luckily, you can watch the whole thing below.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Describing a Nation

Distrust the description of every nation when it can be easily described.  If a people can really be covered by an adjective, you may be certain that it is the wrong adjective. 
      - G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News
              December 5, 1908

Monday, March 04, 2019

NLFF: Woman at War

Friday evening was opening night of the 10th annual Nordic Lights Film Festival at SIFF Uptown - a weekend of the best films from Scandinavian countries and islands.  Appropriately, it is co-sponsored by Seattle’s Nordic Museum. 

The premiere film of the festival was Woman at War, a winsome and first-rate Icelandic comedy/drama about, of all things, eco-terrorism.  The woman of the title is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a forty-nine year old music teacher, who wages a one-person war against the industries disfiguring her country and destroying the global environment.  Pictures of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela hang on the wall at her home so her actions are about as non-violent as a terrorist’s actions could be.  The film opens with her out in the Icelandic countryside bringing down power lines using nothing more than a bow and arrow and some wire. Her courage, resourcefulness, and prowess with the bow make her a worthy descendant of her Viking forebearers.  But in the midst of leading this double life, she is notified by an adoption agency that an application she submitted four years earlier has now been processed and there is a young orphan girl, Nika (Margaryta Hilska), waiting for her in the Ukraine. 

One of the charms of this film is the effortless and skillful way it juxtaposes the personal and political, the small and the large, the present and the future.  Nika’s mother and father were both killed in the recent fighting in the Ukraine.  Nika went to stay with her Grandmother, but was found alone in the apartment with the grandmother dead.  She has no one.  Inclined to wriggle out of the adoption at first, Halla’s heart melts once she hears Nika’s story and sees a picture of her.  This is a good she can do now.  Halla has a twin sister, Åsa (also played by Geirharðsdóttir), a yoga instructor of deep, if occasionally silly, spirituality.  Her greatest ambition is to secluded herself in an Indian Ashram for a few years and meditate.  “Save one person and you save the world,” she tells her more aggressive twin when she learns about Nika.  We know this touches Halla to the core.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir

Director Benedikt Erlingsson, along with co-writer Ólafur Egilsson, has fashioned a thoughtful comedy about politics, responsibility, and sacrifice.  In its own way Woman at War even raises that fundamental Philosophy and Ethics 101 question - what course of life is best?  That it doesn’t answer that question definitively is to its credit.  And don’t think for a minute that Woman at War is ever preachy or self-righteous.  No, no, no.  Erlingsson is too smart a director for that.  He tells his tale and lets the viewer find any deeper meanings if they choose.  In fact, my one complaint with this film is Erlinsson's addiction to a goofy joke that, to my mind, soon wears thin.  The film’s music, composed by Davið þór Jónsson, is performed by a trio consisting of drum, piano, and tuba.  It plays in the opening scene when Halla brings down the power lines.  As she makes her getaway, the camera pans with her as she sprints through a field and we see the actual trio there in the background playing the music.  It’s a nice whimsical joke.  But Erlingsson doesn’t let it go.  The trio keep popping up throughout the film - in Halla’s home, standing on the roadside, etc. - every time the music plays.  I found this distracting and ultimately cloying, though, frankly, the rest of the audience never grew tired of it.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and Margaryta Hilska

Geirharðsdóttir's beautiful leading performance is at the heart of this film.  It's not an easy task to make a terrorist sympathetic.  Most actors can do passion, but political passion, especially to the point of violence, is a whole other beast.  Believability is the issue; most actors are simply not convincing as terrorists, revolutionaries, etc.  (Some of them are scarcely believable as actors.)  But Geirharðsdóttir pulls it off.  We feel her commitment to her cause in every action. When Halla distributes her manifesto, literally throwing copies of it from a rooftop, the Icelandic government soon spins it to their own advantage.  Halla simply stares at the TV in shock, feeling completely powerless and even betrayed by the government's distortion of her message.  At the same time, Geirharðsdóttir manages to convey Halla's innocence in thinking they would do otherwise.  As Åsa, she has created an entirely separate character.  In that strange way of siblings, the sisters are totally different and yet very much the same.  In fact, this is as much a film about the bonds of family as it is about politics.  The beefy Jóhann Sigurðarson was also very good as Sveinbjörn, a farmer who shelters Halla when she's running from the authorities.  From their discussions we learn that they may have a common, and very randy, kinsman from the past; it turns out they may be cousins (or "alleged cousins" as Sveinbjörn puts it).  And, finally, there's the Woman at War's breathtaking cinematography by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.  Much of this film takes place in the Icelandic countryside, and Björgúlfsson's sweeping and majestic camerawork does for that landscape what Lucien Ballard did for the American West.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Seattle Opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

I saw The (R)evolution of Steven Jobs on Saturday night at the Seattle Opera.  It was bad.  Unfortunately, the main problem with it is the actual subject matter.  Steven Jobs’s life is simply not interesting enough to serve as good matter for an opera.  What did the man do?  He designed some nice products, had a tempestuous relationship with colleagues, was a total shit to his family, got cancer, died.  A worthy subject for biography?  Sure.  An important figure in American life?  No question.  But it's a life short on dramatic material.  And even the few sparks you could generate are either tedious (office politics) or banal (marital spats).  In addition, the box office failure of two biopics about Steve Jobs are evidence enough that the general public really doesn’t care about him, despite the fanboy adulation of him in some quarters.  There is much that is good in this production but, like matter being sucked into a black hole, it can’t escape the gravitational pull of the nullity at the center of it.  

John Moore and Emily Fons
(Photo Credit: Philip Newton)
With music by Mason Bates and a libretto by Mark Campbell, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is pure hagiography.  According to Bates’s comments in the program notes, Jobs was “a visionary of Jesus-like charisma.”  No.  Structured in seventeen scenes, with an additional Prologue and Epilogue, TRSJ jumps around in the life of its subject.  We get Jobs unveiling the iPhone in 2007, then Jobs taking a calligraphy class in 1974, then off to 1989 when he meets his future wife, then back to 1986 where he abuses his employees and is kicked out of his own company, etc.  Along the way he encounters the spirit of his deceased Buddhist mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, who offers him platitudes about simplicity and the importance of being present in the moment.  Jobs, in turns out, was a devout Buddhist.  (Why is it that Westerners who adopt Buddhism are usually the biggest assholes of them all?)  None of this is particularly gripping.  Imagine if instead of Steve Jobs we were dealing with an opera about, say, Thomas Edison.  We would watch him invent the light bulb, and then the phonograph, and then something else; he’d abuse the people in his workshop; he’d fight with colleagues; then he would find peace with God.  Yawn.   

But, as I said, there are some very good things in TRSJ.  Bates music is a delight.  It surges and swirls, moving always, a beautiful combination of the traditional orchestra with electronic music as well.  Jobs sings about the restlessness of his mind and Bates brings that fully to life.  Nicole Paiement, in her Seattle Opera debut, conducted with passion and command.  The singing is uniformly good.  In the title role baritone John Moore almost never leaves the stage during the opera's intermission-free 95-minute running time.  His Jobs, so unlike the real one, is a winning and at times endearing figure. The aria in which Jobs imagines the computer as "something we play" was a show-stopper.  There was good singing from Adam Lau as Kōbun and Madison Leonard as Jobs much abused girlfriend Chrisann.  Emily Fons played Jobs's wife Laurene with great sympathy and tenderness.  Because this is an electronic score, the singers need to have their voices amplified.  While purist may amplify their voices in objection, this allows the singers to lower their volume and hence increase their emotional range.  Large and hyperactive, Garrett Sorenson as Jobs's colleague Steve Wozniak was fetching.  The scene in which a young Jobs and Woz stick it to the phone company by inventing a device that allows them to make free phone calls is one of the best scenes in the opera. When Woz later denounces Jobs, Sorenson brings to it all the rage and bitterness of Alberich cursing the ring from Wagner's Das Rheingold.  And that's appropriate because the spirit of Wagner, or Wagnerism at any rate, hovers about Bates's score.
John Moore and Garrett Sorenson (Photo credit: Philip Newton)
But the most impressive performances in the show were by set designer Vita Tzykun, lighting designer Japhy Weideman, and video designers 59 Productions and Benjamin Pearcy. TRSJ is an audio-visual feast.  Six large panels move about the stage, setting up scenes and projecting images.  Sometimes they show tranquil images of mountains at sunrise, at other moments images of circuitry, sometimes the circular ēnso figure from Japanese calligraphy which so enchanted Jobs.  Surrounding the stage are bars of light. These, too, are used to great effect.  When Jobs is fired from Apple the bars of light begin to flicker wildly and the images on the panel go out of focus and seem to break up; the trauma is conveyed to us strictly using Bates's music and audio-visuals. And finally, director Kevin Newbury is to be commended for bringing together all the moving parts in this production so smoothly and effectively.  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will play at the Seattle Opera until March 9th.
Adam Lau (Photo Credit: Philip Newton)