“Christian Music”

… doesn’t include Byrd, Tallis, Taverner, Josquin, or Hildegard. That’s sad.

I mostly manage to maintain a philosophic attitude toward the capture of the word “Christian” by a combination of the most extreme fundamentalist Protestants, the blow-dried mega-church entrepreneurs, the Gospel-of-Wealth hustlers, the folks awaiting the Rapture, the Christianist politicians, and the sort of people who start up “Christian” dating sites and who produce and consume “Christian Pop” cultural artifacts and performances.

After all, I’m not a Christian. If the respectable Christians can’t, or don’t want to, defend their brand name, what’s it to me?

On the other hand, as long as the word “Christian”retains its positive connotation, it’s generally A Bad Thing to have it captured by fools, fanatics, and scoundrels. And it’s a mark of a degenerating culture to have its dominant religion so thoroughly dumbed-down.

Aside from that, though, I have to confess to a completely personal grievance when it comes to “Christian” music. As it happens, I’m a devotee of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance Western European choral church music. I don’t believe an Afterlife, but if it’s true that Byrd’s motets are “the soundtrack of Heaven” I’m going to be really, really sorry to miss the movie. Seeing a “Christian Music” section in a CD store or music website and knowing that “Christian Music” excludes Hildegard, Josquin, Taverner, Tallis, and Byrd makes me very sad.

Toys and art

This week I was trapped in an aluminum tube with the movie, Mr. Magorium’s Magical Emporium. This is a piece of fluff that wastes Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman on a deeply vacuous story about a magic toy store, and how you can do anything you want if you only believe, and how accountants and grownups who work for a living are boring and need liberating by authentic people, like children, in touch with joy and love…I could, in Dorothy Parker’s immortal words, fwow up. In this movie, the toys are cast in the role usually given to Italians; actually the kid is eerily being the grownup for infantile adults, a little like the doomed hero of “The Rocking Horse Winner”.

What I realized later, though, is that it is not only a cheap piece of kitsch, but also inadvertently illustrates the problem I discussed in a post before Christmas, which is the way we are dumbing down kids’ environment by giving them toys that can’t really be played with, but only played in the sense that one plays a CD. In the whole movie, I recall only one scene in which any kid is actually playing with any of the zillion toys in the toy store at the center of the story, or anywhere else, and that scene involves an adult and a child playing dress-up parts with the help of a bunch of no-tech hats.Instead, the toys, with gee-whiz special effects, play by themselves and the kids watch. A bunch of balls fly up in the air…but no kid ever catches or throw a ball. Flying things zoom around. Dolls wave their arms. Everything lights up and flashes and turns colors…but the only thing the kids ever do is watch and speak the line “oooh!”, and sometimes the line “aaah!”. The juvenile lead actually interacts with a ball once…but it’s a room-sized playground ball that autonomously chases him and squashes him (no harm done) against a wall. The movie is playing the audience, in exactly the wrong way, and the toys are playing the kids. Good toys don’t come alive, they make kids come alive!

It’s cynical, manipulative and finally profoundly sad.

Everything old is new again

I saw the forgettable but reasonably charming food movie No Reservations (2007) in an airplane last week, and again tonight because my daughter brought it with her on a DVD labeled Ratatouille (2007) when she came home for Thanksgiving (I liked this version better, but more for the winking bank-shot references Pixar excels at – the classic for me is the Boston accent of the lobsters in Finding Nemo – and animation wows). Somehow, the romantic leads had become French, the cute kid a cute rat, and the whole thing moved to Paris, but everything else was pretty much in place: the young man who defrosts the ingenue just gets an Italian mother instead of an Italian cuisine resumé. Even the ratatouille on which the plot hinges comes up red, white, and green!

It turns out the recipe is traceable to a German movie called Bella Martha (2001) where, yes, the romantic lead is Italian (No Reservations explicitly credits itself as a remake). The more Italians I get to know the more impatient I get with this Northern stereotype of them as uncomplicated joy-living children of love and nature, put on earth as an antidote to Germanic-Anglo-Saxon inhibition (even E.M. Forster, a humane and insightful writer, was guilty). Barzini put paid to this nonsense more than forty years ago, but some myths are too cuddly (and condescending) to die, I guess.

The other striking meme of movies like these is the need for the authors to tie themselves in knots to refute fundamental facts of the context. Ratatouille is totally entangled in the contradiction between the philosophy of its eminence grise that “anyone can cook” and the plot’s dependence on the fact that, no they can’t!, and the idea of cooking as an enormously refined, specialized, and competitive elite enterprise, not to mention the reality of rats in the human world. Finding Nemo had to “sivilize” the sharks into a twelve-step program that would obviously lead to their starvation; The Lion King just dances around what lions actually eat, namely most of the rest of the cast. Willing suspension of disbelief is one thing, but ludicrous upending of the structure of the natural world is maybe pushing it.

I wonder to what degree Pixar and Castle Rock realized they were plowing the same field at the same time. Will the foodie become a standardized genre like the western with versions, contra-foodies, and the like? Will kids be asking for aprons and toques for Christmas instead of cap guns? Who will be its Sergio Leone and its Eastwood?

Cinema news: OWALW on DVD

Oh! What a Lovely War, an extraordinary movie from 1969 that records the first world war as a musical using actual songs from the period and real historical speeches and documents, intercutting fantasy scenes on the (now destroyed 🙁 ) West Pier at Brighton with “realistic” battle footage, is just recently available on DVD ($13 at Amazon). This is a flawed masterpiece, with emphasis on the latter; an all-star production (both ways: most of the many important parts are played by stars, and most of the stars of British cinema appear to be in the cast) , a powerful and bitter anti-war message with Brechtian irony and humor, echoes of lots of other historic movies (for example, Olivier’s Henry V, with its cutting from stage to realism). It’s notable for registering the real horror of violent death (cf. M and its famous rolling ball scene) without showing it at all, triggering our own imagination by the occasional appearance on screen of blood-red poppies.

And of course bitterly relevant today, even if what we’re embroiled in in Iraq can no longer be called a war.