An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables

Based on its vivid colors and exaggerated gestures, one is tempted to dismiss Academy Award Best Picture nominee Les Miserables as a cartoon. But cartoons have clarity of line and a sense of direction, not to mention momentum from frame to frame. This movie is more like the result of dropping the Sunday funnies in a mud-puddle: smeared with detritus and coming apart at the seams.

Start with the source. The musical itself, though much beloved by aficionados of Glee and Smash, takes Victor Hugo’s outraged critique of post-revolutionary France and turns it into a parade. While purporting to address the depredations and degradations of poverty, Cameron Mackintosh’s production was staged so elaborately that it depended on $150 tickets to keep it running. Thus there was the awkward matter of cheering gaunt poor people on the barricades from plush seats in the orchestra.

Happily even overpriced movies like this one cost only $10 or so to see, reducing the contradiction between medium and message. But director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and his collaborators have replaced that one difficulty with a raft of their own: frying pan, meet fire.

Continue reading “An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables”

UC logo

Having shared some very snarky jibes on a UC listserv about the new UC ‘logo’  that Mark deplores, I’m now feeling some remorse.  As a piece of graphic design, I think it’s not a success on its own or for its purpose. But it’s not a replacement for the seal, in fact the designer says “our goals were two-fold: first, to reinstate the systemwide seal’s authority and gravitas after years of casual, indiscriminate use; and second, to create a coherent identity that would help us tell the UC story in an authentic, distinctive, memorable and thoughtful way” and these are not silly or trivial objectives.  And as an erstwhile architect and current designer of non-physical environments, I am sensitive to the long, sad history of people who should know better lambasting new stuff–from the Eiffel Tower, that was universally despised for its first forty years, to Wagner’s music and Bird’s (maybe Byrd’s, too, back in the day), to the Nude Descending a Staircase–by making fun of it because it’s easier than making a fair effort to engage, and because dissing something gives you a quick hit of feeling superior and sophisticated.

As a mea culpa, here are some serious comments about the project and the design. Continue reading “UC logo”

Unmusical chairs and Chinese whispers

A fine image of the dilemma of authority in China.

The preordained successor to Hu Jintao at the top of the government of China, Vice-President Xi Jinping, disappeared for two weeks in early September, cancelling a meeting with Hillary Clinton. He’s back in circulation but no official explanation has been offered. A mid-level insider, the former leader of Hong Kong, has offered that Mr. Xi hurt his back engaging in some sport or other. Possible; but so are the conspiracy theories that it was a last-minute power struggle.

Why else should the date of the Party congress – in October! – to ratify the handover not been fixed? The guy responsible for the logistics of assembling 2270 delegates must be tearing his hair out and wishing he’d never pushed for the job. The sabre-rattling and demonstrations against Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islets have probably been orchestrated by somebody, though they may rebound on the whole leadership.

The visible confusion and sense of dangerous undercurrents made me think of this work by the Chinese artist Shao Fan from 2005, in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

“King chair” by Shao Fan, V&A, London

Photo JW

Continue reading “Unmusical chairs and Chinese whispers”

Io triumphe

The ecstasy of winning.

Jessica Ennis crosses the line to win the final 800m race of the heptathlon, and the Olympic gold.

Photo source: AP

The transformation of her pretty-girl-next-door face at her Pindarian moment of triumph reminds you of something else, doesn’t it? Gian Lorenzo Bernini  got there first, in his audacious Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome: Continue reading “Io triumphe”

Bad for art

What can it mean that a pastel drawing sells for $120m?   The economic function of this object is to create value inside the head of people looking at it; if it’s bought on speculation for resale, that function has to be anticipated for a subsequent buyer someday. It’s not copyrighted, so the value has to be the excess of value over that created by a good reproduction, of which there are lots in circulation.  At 5%, it has to be $6m per year to justify this price, or $684/hour working 24/7, four times that 9-5 weekdays. The odds that it will be on display anywhere on any terms every hour of every day forever are pretty slim, so let’s go with 2200 museum hours at $3K/hr.

How many people can be really looking at this piece at once; it’s not very big.  Maybe four, each of whom has to find it worth more than $10/min.   There are certainly people who would pay that, but if they are spending two minutes each, we need 120 of them every working hour, or a quarter million a year, again forever.  No, it’s not the greatest work of art ever made, whatever that could mean, and not in the top thousand despite its poster appeal and legs as a meme.

This transaction is completely ludicrous.  It properly exposes the whole culture of fine arts to ridicule as a game of poseurs, ignorant speculators, and predators that has nothing whatever to do with what paintings are about, or what art does for us, and that it should be a front page story as a serious event  does a little bit to damage the quality of everyone’s engagement with art.



We’re having a big religious weekend in Judeo-Christian circles.  Jews are celebrating their deliverance from slavery, but of course nothing is simple for the Jews, so we get to argue about inconsistencies and errors and missing pieces in what presents itself as a very detailed instruction manual for the Seder. And try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey of growth and capacity-building.

Christians are celebrating their more general salvation, conditioned on the sacrifice of one person (God is a lot less bloodthirsty in the New Testament) and Christ’s resurrection to eternal life.  This is the most important Christian holiday, but for some reason the secular culture gives it much less support than it does to Christmas, so a Moslem or Hindu tourist might reasonably infer it to be a celebration of new threads, lately evolved to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs. The public celebration is mostly held in drugstore aisles, with less salience than Hallowe’en, and setting children to poke around under bushes for hidden eggs.

For all the missteps and absurdities of religion, it’s not a bad idea to take a weekend like this to reflect on big questions like the immortality of the soul, man’s place in the universe, and like that. Do we go to heaven; and what are we when we do?   Mark Twain gives us a hilarious take on what our traditional ideas of an afterlife heaven really imply, but no satisfactory concept to replace what he demolishes.  We do not readily give up the hope that we are engaged in something much longer than threescore years and ten: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

In my view Marvin Minsky put paid to the idea of a literal eternal soul with anything like a human personality simply by asking, in The Society of Mind, “does the soul learn?”.  But someone who combines the skeptical, cleareyed perception of humanity-warts-and-all of a Twain or a Bierce with more underlying kindness, and what I might call a lyric impulse, presents an eschatology I can get behind, along with a good model of immortality.  I think Forster gets this right.


Red Tails

A sweet distraction from a depressing GOP primary.

Rather than getting all aggravated watching the South Carolina GOP primary acceptance and concession speeches yesterday, I took my family to a nearby Cineplex to see Red Tails, the just-out inspiro-pic about the Tuskegee airmen.

Judging by the various Twitter feeds eminating from South Carolina, I made a brilliant decision. The movie audience was, well, the photographic negative of the GOP primary. Our family provided the ocular counterparts to Herman Cain, only slightly more conspicuous by my developmentally disabled brother-in-law, who was one of several people in the audience moved to occasionally become active participants in the dialogue onscreen. The movie was alright, predictably fun for what it was.

We stumbled into a surprisingly sweet moment for many of the families there, Continue reading “Red Tails”

Barack Hussein Obama

This video  is the most elegant iteration I’ve seen of the dialogue on the left about the President.  What’s so amazing about “Barack Hussein Obama,” written and directed by Jamil Khoury, is that both sides are treated with respect.  And what a shame that should be amazing!

Khoury is Artistic Director of the Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising, and this piece is a component of the company’s ambitious work-in-progress “Mosque Alert.”

The video is 13 minutes long.  Please make time to watch it.

Christopher Hitchens at His Best, on Anthony Powell

Because Christopher Hitchens’ oeuvre is both enormous in size and uneven in quality, it’s a challenge to sort his finest writing out from the bits that are merely barstool rants or contrarianism for its own sake (Like other people, I was always suspicious that when Hitchens was ripping into Mother Theresa or some other cultural icon it was as much a quest for publicity as a serious intellectual act.). I have developed my own rule for separating Hitchens’ wheat from his chaff: He is best read when he is praising someone or something rather than on the attack. I would cite as Exhibit A for my strategy this review of the work of the great Anthony Powell, whose fans include a number of RBC readers.

Hitchens quotes Powell judiciously and to great effect in his review, expertly diagnosing the author’s approach to writing and his connection to broader historical and literary trends. It’s a small classic of book reviewing, and gains from Hitchens’ warm tone throughout. Last but not least, I cannot wait to steal the line that a certain anecdote is “quite untrue but well worth repeating”.

WTF (music)

Rolling Stone has a list titled “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.  Not “…of the specific time and style of music my little world encompasses,” and “…where great means “even I sort of understand it, it’s got a good beat, nice to dance to”: greatest  of all time.  It is the kind of list made by an intellectually and artistically incurious hack who thinks music was invented just when he started listening to a single kind of it and never left, and of course such people have every right to make lists.  The mystery is why RS, which has some pretensions to deserving the attention of paying customers and serious people, would publish it.

The list is sort of interesting because of its wilful artistic tunnel vision and ignorance, and because there seem to be no women on it. But it’s most interesting because it wasn’t made by an overworked inkstained wretch in a cubicle under deadline, but by a long list of guitarists.  I have a lot better idea what’s wrong with popular music today: it’s because the musicians seem to be living in a sealed bubble listening only to people who (from any reasonable perspective) whose collective style and vision runs the gamut all the way from do to, um, re flat? It’s highly cautionary about, for example, academic league tables of economists made up by economists and maybe about peer review of scholarship the way we do it.

I didn’t go through the whole thing, because I got to 20 before I hit Les Paul and 21 before I got to Chet Atkins.  30 is Elmore James, for Pete’s Sake, and I bailed out because by then we still have not hit any of (in no particular order, and off the top of my head, and I am not a musicologist):

Andres Segovia, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Luiz Bonfà, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Mauro Giuliani, Niccolò Paganini, Rafael Rabello, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Byrd, Marco Pereira, Wes Montgomery, Carlos Paredes, Dino 7 Cordas, Narciso Yepes, Merle Travis, Christopher Parkening…

No women in my list either, blush. Here’s a page of women rock guitarists [link corrected 13/I/12], in partial penance.  There’s definitely something wrong with all these lists being so relentlessly male.

Comments are of course open to folks who want to hip the rest of us to your overlooked favorites, and since I have Paredes on my list (guitarra portuguesa) I’ll even broaden the scope to charango, très Cubano, ukulele, and cavaquinho. But no banjo, oud, lute, balalaika or mandolin; those are for another post on another day.