Friday, December 31, 2021

the annual year-end post

Like last year, this was a year of not going much of anywhere. Like last year, I managed two towns away from home, but the circumstances were different. During a brief break in the clouds in July, B. and I managed a brief driving visit to friends in L.A., and we stayed in:

Santa Maria, CA
Azusa, CA

This is the first time I haven't been out of California for the entire year in at least 30 years, probably much longer. In another world, we would have followed this up with at least one driving trip further away, but we have to live in this world.

Like last year, in this one I published 8 professional concert reviews. Also 2 survey articles on upcoming concerts. Five of the 8 reviews were of live concerts, the other 3 of streaming.

And I co-edited a volume of Tolkien Studies, contributing to the Year's Work, the bibliography, and a couple of book reviews; and I had one article published in another journal.

I don't expect much more of next year, or indeed any future year.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

historical statistic

Reading a comment about the shifting regional balance in United Nations membership in Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which was published just too early to catch the end of the Cold War, I decided to quantify this. Here's 1946, which is when the existing countries that were going to join had signed up, vs. 1989.

NATO and other Western Europe (yes, I know NATO is an anachronistic term in 1946. You know what it means): 1946 22% (12), 1989 12% (19)
Communist bloc (no longer a bloc after the late '40s, but again you know what it means): 1946 11% (6), 1989 8% (13)
Middle East and North Africa: 1946 15% (8), 1989 15% (24)
East Asia and Oceania: 1946 11% (6), 1989 15% (24)
Sub-saharan Africa & islands: 1946 5% (3), 1989 29% (46)
Latin America and Caribbean: 1946 36% (20), 1989 20% (32)

Note the numerical domination of Latin American countries in 1946, which formed the bulk of the independent Third World at that point, and the subsequent bloom especially in Africa but also Asia.

Item 2: Sticking with Latin America, I watched the new Disney animated feature, Encanto, which is set in Colombia (not that all the reviewers noticed this). Reminded me of The Princess and the Frog in that it's proudly ethnic and intensely colorful, and unlike some other recent animated films (hello, Tangled, Kubo and the Two Strings, Incredibles 2), they spent enough money on writing to acquire a substantive plot.
So yes, the animation is absolutely fabulous, not just in color and imagination but in movement (it's a lot more energetic than Frog), the subtleties of characterization, and the embodiment of the voices. It's about a family of 12 people and they're all major characters; there's an expository lump in the form of a song at the start introducing them all but don't expect to keep up.
The plot, though, by animated film standards is weird and confusing, and kept knocking me off-balance. There's no villain, and such blame as there is shifts around unexpectedly and not always apparently intentionally. (At one point the heroine seems to be the one causing the problems, but that can't have been intended, surely?)

Item 3: Here is a selection of actors (mostly) talking about their movie roles (mostly). Most of them are more interested in talking about how they got the parts than their craft, and they have a persistent tendency to skip over the movies I've seen, but it's still interesting.

Item 4: I rarely browse the fanfiction archives, partly because the contents are so dismal, but I found this gem: a script for an imaginary crossover episode between Gilligan's Island and I Dream of Jeannie. It's both funny and, I thought, true to the spirit of both shows while occasionally making a daring move.

Monday, December 27, 2021


Lisa of the Iron Tongue is pretty scornful of NYTimes classical critic Anthony Tommasini's refusal to pass critical judgment on composers of the last 50 or 70 years.

On the one hand, that's not exactly what Tommasini is saying, and if Lisa had read Tommasini's book The Indispensable Composers, which she ignored because it's for general beginners and she's not its audience, his position might have been clearer than it is in the abbreviated space of the quoted interview. I picked up a cheap copy of the book out of curiosity.

On the other hand, Lisa turns out to be exactly right in describing this as "a truly appalling act of critical timidity."

Tommasini omits recent composers, he says, not because he dislikes their music - he says in his book that he enjoys both the disparate pair of Britten and Boulez, and throws in Sondheim and Lennon to show his catholicity - but because "we are too close [in time] to say" whether the recent composers will take a "place in the pantheon" of the "indispensable and indisputably great," and that we are "too immersed in the exciting newness of the music to care."

In other words, he's claiming a wider perspective to judge older music that is simply not yet available to newer music, and this particular book is about the music that can be judged by that perspective.

But even leaving aside that much of this music is no longer very new - both Britten and Boulez came to public attention 70 or more years ago - what is that perspective that the newer music doesn't have? Surely Tommasini has ears and can make his own judgments as to what is great. But that's the point: he doesn't want to. What makes the "indisputably great" composers indisputable is that critical consensus on them has solidified (or ossified). He doesn't have to decide; others have decided for him.

That's what the newer composers lack, the consensus judgment of history. Tommasini doesn't say so explicitly, but he's frankly terrified of being recorded as making the wrong judgment. In the introduction to his book, he gives as an example of his dilemma John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Tommasini says it has some good music in it, but he finds it too long and slackly paced. But then, when Schubert was new some people considered his music to be overlong and slack, and they look pretty foolish today, don't they? On the other hand, you could praise a new composer who in the long run is completely forgotten. Tommasini doesn't give an example, but Bernard Shaw, who among other things was (indisputably) the greatest British music critic of his day, thought that some now-obscure German named Hermann Goetz wrote a greater symphony that anything by Mendelssohn, Schumann, or Brahms. (Here it is if you want to judge for yourself - to me it sounds like a few dozen other obscure middling-quality 19C symphonies I've heard, but I'm not Bernard Shaw.)

Tommasini doesn't want to risk making any judgments that might get overturned by history. Now that's timidity. He reminds me of Michael Kinsley's parody of Hugh Sidey speaking on Agronsky & Co.
HUGH SIDEWALL: ... These are all very, very difficult challenges for the nation. But as for what comes next, we just can't say, Marvin. It's too early to tell.
MARVIN JERKOFSKY: I see. Well, tell me this, Hugh. If, as you seem to suggest, you know nothing about anything, why do I pay you to drone on week after week on my show?
SIDEWALL: Well, you know, Marvin, that's a very good question ... But there are no conclusions at this point, and we'll just have to wait and see. It's hard to say. No one knows for sure. Any guess would be premature.
JERKOFSKY: Hugh, do you have any brains left at all?
SIDEWALL: I don't know, Marvin. We just can't say.
Lisa points out that when Brahms died in 1897, the Times "didn't hesitate to go out on a limb and say that he'd be taking his place among the titans of music." But if some 19C Tommasini had been writing the obituary, I suspect he would have chickened out. For all those who hailed Brahms as great in his own day, there were others who thought his work was a load of old fudge. (His Fourth Symphony got some terrible reviews when it first arrived in the US.) For that matter, there are still respected critics with a strong distaste for Brahms. The difference is, now there's a consensus judgment of history that Brahms is great.

But there's another answer to Lisa's implied question, how would you have judged Brahms at his death, or in 1920?, that she'd probably abhor more than cowardice. And that's the answer that I suspect would have been given by Tommasini's NYT predecessor, Harold C. Schonberg. What I think Schonberg would have said is something like, "Sure, Brahms was recent then. But he was also Brahms! It's not hard to judge the greatness of a true giant even if he's right next to you. It's the pygmies of today who are harder to judge."

This attitude, that greatness is purely a feature of the past, is exuded by Schonberg's book The Lives of the Great Composers, published in 1970 in the midst of his tenure at the Times. I got this book when it was new as a present from grandparents who knew of my budding interest in music. I read it avidly and it was the source of much of my basic knowledge. It covers a lot more composers than Tommasini (about 70 rather than 17), and as the title suggests it's more biographical, but it doesn't stint on critical views, and Schonberg is not afraid to give them. It starts with Bach and Handel, but the only then-living composers included are Copland ("the urbane, respected symbol of a half century of American music" - high praise for Schonberg), Stravinsky (who may "end up living more for what he did to music rather than for what his music did to the majority of his listeners" - what damning with faint praise), Shostakovich ("Not until there is a major upheaval and reorientation in the aesthetic and political thinking of the Soviet Union will the country produce music that has any chance of survival"), and Milhaud ("Very little of Milhaud's music remains in the permanent repertory"). (What about Britten? He is only mentioned in passing in the Puccini chapter as evidence that any post-Puccini operas "have not been able to establish themselves," so much for him. Boulez is mentioned frequently in the book, but only as a polemicist.) Schonberg's last chapter is on the Second Viennese School, whose then-current influence he notes.

But then there's a postlude saying flatly that "it seemed apparent," here in 1970, "that there was a hiatus in the mighty line of powerful, individualistic composers that extended from Johann Sebastian Bach through Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg." And next to Tommasini's timidity, that's about as sweeping a dismissal of anything contemporary as you can imagine.

In a revised version in 1981, Schonberg adds an opening chapter on Monteverdi and a concluding one on newer music, mostly focusing on serialism but also giving due attention to Messiaen, Cage, and Carter. But despite his conclusion that audiences react well to minimalism and neo-romanticism, and that the composers have personality and talent, which is what he says he wants composers to have, he still insists on closing with the same insistence that there's "a hiatus in the mighty line." You can't argue with somebody in the grip of a preordained conclusion.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

lost in the lottery

I don't gamble, I don't even know what most gambling terms mean. If someone says "6 to 5 odds", for instance, I'm not even offhand sure how to calculate anything from that. All I know of the rules of card games is what I've picked up from the poker-playing scenes in Donald Westlake novels, and apparently nobody plays that form of poker any more.

Consequently I don't play the lottery either. I'm actually rather morally opposed to the lottery, because all that payoff money (and the money going to public services) comes from what is functionally a tax on the ignorance and financial desperation of poorer people (and the greed of richer ones).

But I don't believe in taking moral positions to the point of sanctimoniousness, so if someone hands me a free lottery card, I'll accept it. One of our nieces brought a pile of these little cardboard cards to Christmas and handed them out. They're called "Scratchers". You take a coin and scratch off the coating on the front of the card to see if you've won anything.

The instructions say "Uncover a [candy cane] symbol to automatically win that prize. Uncover a [holly, I guess] symbol to win DOUBLE that prize." So you uncover nine little boxes each of which has a symbol none of which, of course, are the two winning ones.

So I guess that means I don't win anything: but why, in that case, is each symbol accompanied by a dollar value in large print? It's meaningless if I didn't win it. Are you supposed to think, "ooh, I almost won that amount if only the symbol had been right"? That'd be a pretty doofish reaction. The symbols didn't come up at random; they're printed on the card.

I guess there's something going on here that I don't understand, including the appeal of gambling. How much do these cards cost, $1 or $2 a piece? Did I get $1 or $2 worth of pleasure out of anticipation and scratching the card? I'd say not: it was barely worth it at free, except that I got a blog post out of it.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

secularly christmassy

It may be the last thing I do, but B. and I went to our traditional family Christmas dinner and gathering. Total of 16 people present, most relatives of our niece who hosted, plus one family trio of close friends. Included my brother and his girlfriend, who were the only out-of-towners, having flown in on Southwest yesterday. Everyone was vaccinated and boostered, so we had that protection at least. And as our online orders of antigen testing kits have come in over the past couple of days, we'll test ourselves starting tomorrow.

Dinner included turkey and prime rib, plus plenty of vegetative matter, including my specialty of roasted broccoli. After dinner we had a riotous "white elephant" gift exchange, which was successful and enjoyable by virtue of a requirement that all the gifts be edible. Everyone gets a random number; then you pick one of the wrapped gifts that all the participants brought one of each; or else (within limits) you 'steal' one of the previously-picked gifts from another participant, in which case they either have to steal from someone else or open a new gift in your place. B. wound up with a canister of peppermint bark. I sat in the middle but did not participate; if anyone asked my number, I replied, "I am not a number; I am a free man."

Friday, December 24, 2021

christmas eve

It's 7.30 Christmas eve and already thoroughly dark outside. (And inside: I'm working on the computer without a room light on, which I don't really need right now.) B. is off at Christmas eve vigil mass, so she won't have to go tomorrow which we intend to spend being secularly Christmassy.

I went down to the grocers at noon - usually I'm a bit earlier, about 11 am - to pick up the weekly grocery order that we'd submitted online for picking, and the parking lot was about as full and busy as I'd ever seen it. Took me close to five minutes to get out. Patience is a virtue.

A few nights back we did our quasi-annual drive around looking for lights that are festive and imaginative but not too overwhelming or flashy, I mean flashing. Were mostly in Santa Clara this year, and found some good ones.

So since B. was not practicing her violin in the living room tonight, I piggybacked on her watching of Star Trek: TOS episodes that she'd taped from a handy cable channel. Her marker was at the end of "The Doomsday Machine," Norman Spinrad's episode, so I rewound and watched that. Gripping story, good writing, good acting, like a lot of second-season episodes. My only question is, if they could beam Kirk back from the maw of the machine, why couldn't they earlier beam Decker? Or was it that he didn't want to go, and was frankly suicidal by that point?

I also remember that David Gerrold wrote that he was present for the filming of this episode, while waiting for "Tribbles" to come up. He says they were rehearsing the scene where Decker is telling Kirk about the machine. Shatner had a goofy grin on his face, and when William Windom as Decker mentioned its giant maw, Shatner said, "Its ma? Did you see its pa?"

If they'd kept that, it would have made three jokes in the episode.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

o to be a blogger

some holiday reading; or, 'clearing out the tabs, boys, clearing out the tabs'

1. What to do if you test positive.

2. I disagree with this language usage advice. Respondent prefers writing "Russia is the second most powerful country after the US" over "Russia is the most powerful country after the US" "because, when parsing [the latter] on-the-fly, the 'after the US' clause changes Russia's position from first to second." I don't find that anywhere as difficult as constantly wondering, when reading sentences like the first one, "So then what's the first most powerful country after the US?" (China, probably, but never mind that.) A comma before 'after' might help.

3. Someone's idea of the hundred best movies currently (as of last month) on Amazon Prime. I wouldn't watch #100 on a bet, but #1 is a superb low-key movie, an excellent film.

4. Someone who got back more from the Beatles documentary Get Back than I did.

5. A scholar from India of my acquaintance referred me to this inside view of what Indian nationalism is doing to Hindu culture and morality.

6. And another friend referred me to this takedown of a transphobic book.

7. And lastly, a bilingual seasonal pun.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

being who, or whom

I never watched I Love Lucy very much - its original run was before my time, and it never seemed to show up much on rerun schedules that I paid attention to. But I enjoyed what clips from it I saw, it carries cultural weight to this day, and I liked Lucille Ball in Yours Mine and Ours, which is the only movie of hers I ever saw. So I guess I was a reasonable candidate to watch Being the Ricardos, which showed up on Amazon yesterday.

It was an OK movie, not too frantic as Sorkin vehicles sometimes are. Although reviews have commented that all the characters seem to be feeling miserable about everything, I thought it shone in displaying how, despite their conflicts, Lucy and Desi have tremendous respect for each other's artistic talents. And not just performing: when Lucy is spontaneously rewriting the episode's opening scene during rehearsals, Desi is just standing there admiring her doing it. Too bad it comes to nothing in the filming: what is the point here, that Lucy was wrong after all?

There was one horrible anachronism: when the show's executive producer objects to sharing his title with Desi, he says that he is the showrunner. Clang! The term "showrunner" wasn't invented until the late 1990s, to resolve ambiguities about the spread of the term "producer", which is exactly what he and Lucy are arguing about in that scene. They could have used the term, they just didn't have it.

As for the performances, I'm sorry, I didn't buy Nicole Kidman as Lucy. She just doesn't seem to fit the person, and I don't see her as a great comedienne, however much the script tries to sell her as perceived that way. Javier Bardem, however, was a perfect fit as Desi.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

no tests

I'd seen various references to at-home do-it-yourself covid virus tests, but until yesterday nothing about what they consisted of or what they actually were. Then last night I saw this evaluative article of several brands, with their names and instructions on how they're used as well as where to buy them. As it's from Wired, a media outlet I've actually heard of, as well as being written soberly, I thought I could trust it.

This morning I started checking pharmacy websites and found some listings. I placed a pickup order with a Walgreen's, which usually takes no more than an hour, but so far it's taken 10 hours and is still not ready. At B's encouragement I visited a couple local CVS outlets which proved not only to be out of the brand of test that the website said they had, but 1) they were out of every other brand too, and 2) they didn't even have a space on the shelf marked for that brand.

At least I found out where they keep them, which is different in the two stores, so I know where to look if I go back later. I figure that right now it's like toilet paper in an earlier stage of the pandemic. Meanwhile, B. has ordered some online so we'll see if they come.

Monday, December 20, 2021

they wish you a merry christmas

Remember the Korean singing group who sang the movie studio logos acapella? Well, they wish you a merry Christmas:

And keep an ear out for a famous melody making a guest appearance in the middle of "Little Drummer Boy" at 2.40.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

toasty weekend

It's been cold out - when we headed home at 10 pm last evening the outside temperature was 37F, which is about as cold as it ever gets at that time of night around here - and occasionally rainy, but we had a toasty outing in the form of the first live concert since pre-pandemic by Brocelïande, the Celtic/folk/medieval/Renaissance musical trio. It was a typical Brocelïande Yuletide concert, full of wassails and cantigas. The venue was a church out in the secluded Portola Valley woods, an acoustically ideal venue - I've been there before for classical concerts - with a huge glass window behind the pulpit displaying the thicket of redwood trees outside, lighted up at night.

This was the last concert on my schedule until January 20th, and we'll see if it's safe by then to go out at all. The pre-concert was our first opportunity for masked conversation with a few equally masked friends.

Where none of us were at was at the Worldcon in D.C. We'd given passing thought, quite a while back, to attending, but reading accounts by those there of the pandemic effect I'm glad we didn't. Having all one's meals as take-out from Chipotle doesn't appeal to me, let alone having omicron spread among the populace.

Then we have the victory of the Chinese bid for the 2023 Worldcon, driven by a large number of pre-con e-mailed votes from China. Rumors of these being ghost voters have been floating around, which puzzles me: the Hugo Awards have what seemed to me, back when I was administrator, to be adequate safeguards against ballot-stuffing; but the vote administration rules for site selection are different in some respects, and I don't know if this is such a respect.

Of the three Author Guests of Honor, all male, one - whom I hadn't heard of - turns out to be, if comments on File 770 are to be believed, an alarmingly belligerent Russian nationalist. Now I read that another, generally acclaimed for his Hugo-winning novel a few years back, turns out to be, in that same novel, a corrosive sexist, a flaw systematically removed by his translator.

So it's just as well that I wouldn't be going anyway - China is much too far away for my travel tolerance - even assuming that the country is letting foreign tourists in by then, which right now they aren't.

Meanwhile at home, the cats seem to have gotten over the neediness driven by the trauma of their visit to the vet, though Tybalt is still keeping up his already-acquired habit of following me around the house whenever he and I are both awake, getting in the way of things by forcing me to read my computer screen through a cat, for instance. I minister to his adorableness as much as I can, but there are limits. If I put him out of the room and shut the door he gets most distressed.

B. is reading a library book called Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol by Mallory O'Meara. I opened this at random and found an account of Ada Coleman, the renowned (it says here) bartender at the Savoy Hotel in London in the early 20C. I'd never heard of her, but I'd certainly heard of the Savoy owner who originally hired her circa 1899. His name is given as Rupert D'Oyly.

Well. The only thing I know about this story, and it's wrong. The name isn't D'Oyly, it's D'Oyly Carte, and it's unlikely to have been Rupert, who was still only an assistant at the time, but his father, the builder of the Savoy and better-known still as the original producer of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, who was then still alive and active. His name was Richard D'Oyly Carte, but he usually dropped the Richard and used D'Oyly as his forename of preference, not part of a surname.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

a unique feature

Here's something I hadn't come across in the previous 18 years: someone who actually likes the scene in Jackson's Return of the King in which Frodo junks Sam.

As I recall at the time, even among the most enthusiastic movie-fans this generated more reactions of "WTF?" than anything else in all 3 movies.

It doesn't work dramatically any better than all the other places in these movies where the plot is run off the rails and then has to be hoisted back on if the tale isn't going to depart entirely from Tolkien's, leaving the viewer puzzled both as to why the story ran off into this ridiculous by-way and by the lack of internal plot-based explanation as to why it then reverted to form.

This addition makes J-Frodo out to be a credulous fool (in falling for Gollum's maneuverings); and if Frodo could do this, it undercuts the whole basis of his relationship with Sam, which is based on an absolute mutual faith, no matter how cranky Sam becomes (and J-Sam is abominably cranky).

Lesson: don't try to add more "dramatic tension" to a story that already has quite enough; don't imagine that "dramatic tension" consists of the heroes losing their nerve (which is what happens in most of these scenes); and don't tinker with a story you (the filmmakers) don't understand.

Friday, December 17, 2021

concert review: Palo Alto Philharmonic

Normally I review for the Daily Journal once a month, and in December I'm usually looking for the rare concert which is not a Christmas medley, as I've had enough of those. I found one this year in the Palo Alto Philharmonic, an orchestra I don't often cover. But the program they put on (Strauss, Wagner, Respighi, Mozart) was entirely different from the one they'd had scheduled when I tagged this one three months ago (Zhou, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Ravel). This change was probably caused by venue problems. I don't know why their usual venue of a high-school auditorium at the south end of town was unavailable, but they wound up in a tiny quaint old stucco church in the older area, one of the few (it seems) churches in Palo Alto that I had not previously been to a concert in. There were no more than 26 players at once.

They did pretty well, especially in the balance of sound between sections and in not overwhelming the sound-carrying capacity, for an orchestra of 26 was a very large group for such a tiny space.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Christmas book booty

Here's the Christmas presents we got for a pair of grand-nieces, ages seven and five. A lot of books.

Presents for Ally and Auri

We didn't actually buy these. What these girls might want to read is not our expertise. We sent their parents a wad of money, and they went shopping, and sent us this photo.

One item that particularly intrigued me is the one labeled Raya and the Last Dragon, which I hadn't heard of despite its bearing the Disney logo. So I looked it up, and it turned out to be a Disney animated movie released earlier this year which hadn't come to my attention. So since we have the Disney+ channel, I watched it.

Interesting, he said, chewing slowly. It's another Disney ethnic badass princess movie, in fact it's got two of them battling for the same McGuffin, which (a few plot complications aside) they both want to do the same thing with, so the whole battle is actually a giant misunderstanding, which they figure out in time for the fuzzy happy ending. This ending makes no sense in terms of the opening setup, which I can only assume the filmmakers hope you only vaguely remember by the end.

The McGuffin is a jewel which the dragons had concentrated all their power into. This sounds disturbingly like Sauron's methodology for making the One Ring. Despite the more benevolent intent, this also has its dire consequences.

Disney formed the ethnicity by throwing bits of every Southeast Asian culture they could think of into a bowl and mixing them up. It works OK, and some of the animation is excellent: I especially liked the expressions on the face of the big tough warrior guy from Spine.

Oh yes, there's five kingdoms, each named for a body part of a dragon. One of them is Spine. Spoken aloud as a place name, it sounds like a Cockney on vacation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

West Side Stories

Despite receiving good reviews, the new Spielberg movie version of West Side Story is reported as not doing well at the box office. That's why I decided to go see it today (a nearly deserted matinee, like the one at which I saw Dune): both to contribute my mite towards its receipts and to see it on screen while I still could, as it's likely to disappear soon.

And to facilitate comparison, I streamed the Wise/Robbins 1961 film from Amazon first.

To my mind, West Side Story exists for the glory of its music. And for that, you don't want to see either movie. You want a good recording of the stage show, like the MTT/SFS live version I attended the concert of several years ago and snapped up as soon as it appeared on CD. The 1961 movie suffered from a crass and overblown orchestration that composer Leonard Bernstein hated, and the sound quality, though it won an Oscar, of 60-year-old celluloid is crude and tinny next to a good CD or LP. The new film's songs have quiet and tasteful orchestrations that, if anything, undersell the songs.

Most of the reviews are about the way the new movie handles the ethnic relations, so I'll let them discuss that and add only one thing, concerning the replacement of the character Doc with his (newly conceived, I think) widow, Valentina, who is played by Rita Moreno. A great way to honor this veteran of the earlier film, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody that having had Doc, a white man, marry a Puerto Rican serves as a precedent that undercuts the transgressiveness of Tony and Maria's romance. That's something that Peter Jackson would do, and there's few stronger negatives in film criticism in my vocabulary than that comparison.

Tony Kushner's screenplay is an astronomical-scale improvement on the truly sucky dialogue of the earlier movie, and Kushner does two other things I really liked. One is to set the marriage scene on a date on which Tony takes Maria up to the Cloisters. I took B. up to the Cloisters on our only trip to NYC together, and we had a wonderful time even though we were already married. The other truly admirable thing was to intensify and focus the character of Bernardo and his anger at his sister's romance. When Bernardo tells Tony at the rumble that Tony just wants to claim a "brown girl" (Bernardo's words) as his right as a white man, that really bites hard and shows what's generating the anger.

In the later part of the story, the build-up to the final tragedy, Kushner pretty much follows the existing outline, except that he sets "I Feel Pretty" immediately after the rumble instead of before it, an incongruity which destroys the building tension and may be responsible for my feeling that this movie, despite the superior dialogue, doesn't intensify that tension as well as the older movie does.

The dancing, choreographed by Justin Peck, is Jerome Robbinsy in general affect without being quite so intensely so as work by the original, and consequently feels less unreal in scenes like the opening gang walk and the mixer dance. Setting "America" as an outdoor street scene works very well.

The little man isn't giving a standing ovation but he is at least sitting up alertly.

Monday, December 13, 2021

concert review: Campbell String Ensemble

B. and I took an odd little outing this afternoon. Some of the other string players she's encountered in TACO also belong to a 25-member group called the Campbell String Ensemble, which takes the form of an adult education class at a local high school near to, but not in, the town of Campbell. Their final class of the term is given as a public concert, though they don't advertise this well, and B. had to make several enquiries to confirm it.

But to the school's not-overlarge auditorium we ventured this afternoon to find a printed program sheet, the houselights going down when the rehearsal ended, and introductions to each piece spoken by orchestra members not one of whom had any idea how to hold a microphone correctly and were consequently mostly inaudible.

For a totally amateur group, they had impressively good intonation, always within hailing distance of where it should be, but ensemble and rhythm could use work, despite the textbook-clear time-beating of the conductor, Anne Spector. The fugal texture in their rendition of the finale of Brandenburg Four was irresistibly reminiscent of a cat with a ball of yarn. Corelli's Christmas Concerto - the whole thing, though its extreme tempo contrasts were beaten into submission - went rather better.

The best performances were of a couple of pieces based on American folk fiddling, one of them by Jay Ungar. Also on the program were Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2, a favorite of mine; one seasonal carol (The Holly and the Ivy); and the obligatory annoyingly ecumenical entry of a medley of Hanukkah songs. I only knew one of the three and that not well. Well, the concert as a whole was enjoyable and I'm glad we went.

It being pressing towards dinnertime by the ending, we detoured on the way home to pick up take-out Chinese, cautiously proceeding through the dark and the rain which has made a reappearance locally this week. It's been quite a while since I've driven through both dark and rain at once. I do wish that "fake it till you make it" (or "till you see it") were not so necessary regarding lane markings in these conditions.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

yes, again again

The good fellow who's been watching his way through all the Hugo-winning (and Oscar Best Picture-winning, too) movies has reached Peter Jackson et al's The Two Towers. I responded to his enthusiasm for Fellowship here (with a link). I have less to say about his comments on The Two Towers because this time, he's figured out some of the problems with these movies.

This despite the fact that, unlike N., I consider The Two Towers to be the best of the set. This was the one which, when I went to see it at first run, I couldn't find an empty seat in the packed theater and watched it sitting on the carpet in an unoccupied wheelchair alcove, spending half the time marveling at the spectacle and grandeur, and half the time curled up on the floor whimpering in agony over everything else. That I still found it the best of the three movies should convey just how bad an adaptation the whole mess was.

(B. will say, "Wait a minute. We saw this together, and I don't remember anything about curling up in a wheelchair alcove." I didn't tell her this at the time, but with her was the second time I saw the movie. I had to see it again, because I couldn't believe my eyes from what I saw depicted on screen the first time.)

N. is properly critical of the adaptation of Faramir. J-Faramir, completely unlike his book counterpart, tries to arrest Frodo and Sam and take the Ring to Minas Tirith, and then inexplicably changes his mind and lets them go. I'd like to get into this from a couple levels, because I think it's the key to Jackson et al's failure.

I recently conversed with a man who said that listening to the film-makers' commentary on this scene is what finally enabled him to understand why the movies made the changes they did and forgive them. That's dismaying, I said, because I listened to the same commentary track and found it the final proof that the writers did not understand or appreciate Tolkien's book. To change a plot point because you consider it necessary for the adaptation is one thing; to change it because you can't figure out why the author wrote it that way is another.

What Jackson (or Boyens? I forget which of them was speaking, but I think both of them made this point) said is that, if the Ring is so powerful and seductive, it doesn't make sense for Faramir to avoid succumbing to its seduction. We lose a sense of the Ring's power, they said. Tolkien really fell down on that point and we can't figure out why, they said.

Boy o boy, they didn't read the book very closely, did they? Faramir himself answers this question, when he says, "I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee." His reaction doesn't diminish the Ring's power, it underlines it. Look, here's a weapon that could by itself win the war, a war which at this point the good guys are losing badly. And yet any good characters who have the power to wield the Ring adequately won't touch the thing. I think that avoidance conveys the danger of the Ring a lot more vividly than an endless series of Boromirs and Gollums falling victim to its lure would.

J-Faramir's lapse, for momentary lapse is what it turns out to be in the storyline, is illustrative of a continuing theme which is the movies' greatest continuing flaw. They keep having the good characters suffering failures of nerve. Faramir seizing the Ring, Gandalf socking Denethor in the teeth, the Rohirrim fleeing away from Saruman, Aragorn fearing he's too weak to be king, Frodo abandoning Sam in the wilderness because he no longer trusts him, Legolas having a nervous breakdown at the Battle of Helm's Deep (I bet you've forgotten that, but it's there), all seem to be serving the purpose of "humanizing" the characters by showing them as having weaknesses.

Jackson et al have missed the point and the structure of Tolkien's story. Gandalf and Aragorn, even Faramir and Legolas, are not the protagonists or heroes of Tolkien's story. The four hobbits are, or more accurately including Frodo in the first half: by Book 4, Frodo's burden has translated him beyond hobbit-kind, which is why so much of the viewpoint then focuses on Sam. It's the hobbits who suffer failures of nerve: see Sam fretting over what to do at Cirith Ungol, or Merry going nerveless at facing the Nazgul - which he does twice, by the way; I bet you've forgotten that too. Faramir and the others have already gone through any crisis of self-faith they're going to have before we meet them; and they've come out stronger for it. Their purpose in the story, from a structural viewpoint, is not to be the heroes but to provide noble figures, above quotidian heroism, for the hobbits to look up to and try to emulate. In the end the hobbits succeed at this (much of it shown in the Scouring, and where's that in the movie?). To excise this theme is to lose the moral heart of Tolkien's story.

There's further the problem of the half-hearted way Jackson pursues this. He wants to make his Faramir do something that Faramir would never do. But because Tolkien would never have Faramir do this, it changes the story utterly. But Jackson doesn't want to change the story, he wants to stick to Tolkien's outline as best he can. So he allows the story to run off the rails briefly, and then he has to wrest it back on to the rails by main force in order to continue with Tolkien's outline. That's Jackson's external reason, but he fails to come up with an internal one, so that's why J-Faramir's change of mind is so inexplicable.

This kind of problem happens again and again in the series, but especially in this installment. Aragorn falling off a cliff, also mentioned by N., though not involving lack of nerve is another example.

There's a further problem, which is that Jackson et al have not thought through what would have happened if Faramir had seized and kept the Ring. In the book, Denethor is pretty bitter when he learns that Faramir let Frodo go. He says that Boromir wouldn't have done that. "He would have brought me a mighty gift," and you know what that gift would have been. But Gandalf says it would not have worked out that way. "You deceive yourself. He would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son."

That's a chilling thought, and that takes us to Gollum, the treatment of whom is N.'s greatest praise of this film.

Well, no question, Andy Serkis is a great actor. His brief turn as the imprisoned mass murderer Ian Brady in the movie Longford is one of the most bone-chilling things I've ever seen on screen. A character like that needs to radiate evil, and Serkis's Brady radiates more pure evil per square inch than anybody. But he's equally fine as the foppish dancing master in Topsy Turvy.

But while Serkis understood these characters, he had a little trouble being Gollum. He's been quoted as saying that, in figuring out why Gollum made his "gollum" sound, he decided that Gollum was like a cat emitting a hairball. So J-Gollum talks like a strangulated cat. Can that be right?

And we also have this scene, praised by everybody and not just N., of the conversation between the two sides of Gollum's personality. Given Serkis's interpretation of Gollum, he acts this very well. The problem which everybody misses is in the writing and direction of the scene. The conversation is in the book, yes, but as usual Jackson et al totally misunderstand it. In the book it's an internal debate between two impulses within the same character. But Jackson frames it so that it looks as much as possible as if they're two people. Most astonishingly, almost the entire scene is cut as back-and-forth shots between the two personalities, as if they really are physically separate. And then at the end when Smeagol tells Gollum, "Go away and never come back," the direction to "go away" again implies that he's separable.

The result is that almost everybody, including myself above ("Smeagol tells Gollum"), writes as if they're two people. It feeds the mistaken impression that, as even Stephen Colbert has maintained, that Smeagol and Gollum were not the same being, but that Gollum was a different creature that Smeagol transformed into. That is not the case. Smeagol always remained Gollum's "real" name, and he would even answer to it in his better moods. Gollum was not an alien being that took over Smeagol against his will, but the manifestation of Smeagol's own character under the influence of the Ring. So it's erroneous to think, as Colbert does, that Smeagol had been a kind or friendly character. That doesn't sound like the Smeagol in Gandalf's report on the history of the Ring, or in Tolkien's letters, as I describe in the above link.

Two points specifically about the book. N. praises Tolkien for avoiding "middle-book syndrome," in which the middle book of a trilogy is mostly padding to get the characters through so many thousand words. I'd like to point out that this may be because Tolkien didn't write a middle book. He wrote The Lord of the Rings as one long book. It was divided into three volumes only by the necessities of publishing. And everybody since, not just Jackson, has mistaken it for a trilogy.

Lastly, N. notes that Tolkien "plotted out the movements of the characters against the calendar meticulously, and the fact that he has done his homework is modestly obvious." Yes, and that supplemental issue of Tolkien Studies we're about to publish will present the documentary evidence of Tolkien doing exactly that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

sell anything

When I saw the recent Green Knight movie, the one with Dev Patel, I bought my online streaming ticket from an online movie vendor called A24 which, like all online vendors from which you buy anything, thinks that means you're interested in everything they sell so they send you endless marketing e-mails.

I haven't turned that one off yet, because I thought maybe I might be interested in some other movies of theirs, though that hasn't happened yet. But I did just get another mailing from them about The Green Knight, touting this dour, somber movie as "A new Christmas classic." It says, "Get tickets and make merry today." Make merry? Did anybody at the marketer actually see the movie?

Also, it tells you that "The Green Knight Collection, including The Green Knight: A Fantasy Roleplaying Game, Green Knight Tree Face Pin, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Fantasy Genre Candle, and more now in the shop." Where is Stan Freberg when we need him?

Monday, December 6, 2021

cat trauma

Maybe our cats have PTSD. They went to the vet this morning, and didn't they howl, locked up in their cat carriers - all the way there, and all the way back too. (The late Pandora at least used to quiet on the return, having figured out that she was going back home.)

Now they're crying for attention and love, all the more so because both of us were out for a while this evening. (B. was at rehearsals for her orchestra concert in March; I was attending a student chamber music recital at Stanford: I usually enjoy these, but this time the anemic performances of powerful music were a bit much, or rather a bit not enough.) We're doing our best to console and worship the cats.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

reading without eating

More due to other health issues in the host household, I think, than covid concerns, our Mythopoeic Society group's annual Reading and Eating meeting was by Zoom again this year. That did mean our most faithful ex-member, now far out of state, could attend; all together there were, I think, 9 of us, which would have been small enough to spread out had we been there in person.

Readings ensued, but the eating was up to ourselves. I was actually still finishing lunch when the meeting started, so I kept my camera off until I'd finished. Best reading contribution: L. with a witty and imaginative poem of her own composition in the form of a Gorey alphabet. C. read a Charles Williams Taliessin poem in memory of A., and showed just how powerfully affecting this work can be. I offered something just a week or so out of date, Matt Taibbi's defense of Thanksgiving. And I didn't even have to print it out to read it.

A gratifyingly large number of suggestions for next year's book discussion topics, instead of sitting around and looking blank when the question came up. Next up, in March: Maria Dahvana Headley's Beowulf translation.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

opera review: Cosi fan tutte

I'm not often at the opera, but I was up at the SF Opera last night for their current (this was the last of 5 performances) production, and I enjoyed it all the way through, which counts as a huge success for me and opera. Lisa of the Iron Tongue had called this "one of the best things you will ever see" and "one of the best-conceived, best-performed, and best-conducted Mozart productions of the last 25 or so years" and Mozart is one of the two standard-repertoire opera composers I've enjoyed before (the other is Rossini), so I decided to go.

The production was set in a country club in the 1930s. Unfortunately the venue, the War Memorial Opera House (that's WW1 it's memorializing) also dates from the 1930s, which is why I didn't suggest that B. come along, much though she loves Cosi. Physically navigating it was nightmarish enough when we were last there 20 years ago, younger and spryer. Though I think they've replaced the seats since then, which helps, but getting to the restroom ... my word.

On stage, though, all was bright and cheery. The design, the sets and costumes, were sprightly and imaginative. Scenes set in an exercise class or by the pool, with silly costumes and behavior by the chorus members; the first entrance of the previously dignified men (Ben Bliss and John Brancy) in disguise, slinking in with fur coats, cowboy hats, and waxed mustachios; or the women (Nicole Cabell and Irene Roberts) failing to play badminton because they're too depressed to hit the shuttlecock, were funny in themselves. When Despina (Nicole Heaston) appears in disguise as a doctor, she's in 1930s golfing attire and trailing a wheeled golf bag, because what else would a doctor be doing at a country club?

The music moved along vigorously, propelled by Henrik Nanasi's fine conducting and good orchestra work. (The opera orchestra here is certainly much better than the ballet orchestra.) The many arias and duets did not drag, as they could have; and the ensemble pieces - the part of opera I much prefer - absolutely sizzled in the first half of Act 1 Scene 2, which was pure genius from both composer and performers. I've never heard anything in a standard repertoire opera I enjoyed more than this rendition of these numbers.

The singing was powerful and expressive throughout, with only a slightly subdued quality in a few places revealing any weak spots. Could Don Alfonso (Ferruccio Furlanetto) have been a more powerful bass? Possibly. Don't ask him to play Il Commendatore, that's my only advice. He was good enough here as the puppetmaster. Top performing marks go to Ben Bliss as Ferrando; his tenor was the strongest voice in the cast, a gratifying thing to be able to say of a tenor; and he expressed emotion the most effectively in his arias. Everyone else was also good, though resemblances in costume, appearance, and voice meant I sometimes had trouble remembering which was Fiordiligi and which was Dorabella. The characters seemed to have a little trouble figuring out how to match up, too, even before the men go into disguise. I think that was part of director Michael Cavanagh's attempt to subvert the misogynistic plot, but for the most part this show came off as brushing the plot off, which is pretty much what one's forced to do.

Friday, December 3, 2021

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Guest conductor Simone Young roared through Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 like an Australian speed demon at Davies last night. She started fast and got faster, galloping through the finale as if trying to fit the whole movement on a single 78. Or perhaps she was just trying to get it over before the next time a cell phone went off, which happened frequently.

In sound quality this was a traditional Fifth, big and full-bodied, not like any of the crunchy emaciated things we've sometimes heard lately. Solos were pleasingly on-point, because this is the SFS.

Prior to that, Christian Tetzlaff waxed smoothly and eloquently through Elgar's Violin Concerto. But that's about all I can say about this performance of a piece which, like most of Elgar's major works, leaves me cold and uninvolved. Not so the usher at the main door to the seating section, who told anyone who would listen that this concerto always makes him cry.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Hanukah at home

B. and I are hermits; we rarely have anybody over to our tiny Minnipin Cottage. A few overcrowded book group meetings pre-pandemic were the only exception. Except that, when my mother was still around, we'd have her over once a year at Hanukah for latkes and matzo ball soup. One year we had B.'s mother over at the same time. That worked well and we would have repeated it, but they're both gone now, and except for one try a few years ago with B.'s sister and her husband - they liked everything, even the gefilte fish, which I doubt either of them had ever heard of before - which didn't really count as it was at their house though I cooked, we hadn't done it since.

But I've been trying to find more occasion to see my local brother and my nephew, so we had them over last night. (Sister-in-law is in health care and works evenings.) N. is now 6, 7 in 2 months, and easier to communicate with than I found when he was younger, He was hyper, didn't eat much, and was only happy watching endless animated time-lapse videos about the evolution of the universe (about which he's quite well-informed; even knows what a quadrillion is) which he kept insisting that I look at while pointing the screen of his tiny device in the wrong direction. But did we have a good elderly-uncle and very-young-nephew time? I think we did. N. wants to come back, which is a good sign, though we think maybe not as soon as he has in mind.

Meanwhile my brother J. was anxious about propitiating his son's moods, to keep him occupied, and himself ate some of everything and was on his best behavior. You don't want to hear stories about what he's like when he's not on his best behavior, which used to be most of the time, but we had good conversation. J. and B. are both Silicon Valley techies by profession which I'm not, so they could converse about computer chips, and when J. asked us why leftists are so upset with the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, it was because he genuinely wanted to know, not to troll us with objections as he does with philosophical topics like "If God is omniscient, how can there be free will?" Be assured, readers, that he got a substantive earful of an answer.

But whew, making room in our cluttered dining area for dinner guests and otherwise preparing everything was exhausting, so any thoughts of repeating this with B.'s sister will have to wait till next year, and then what takes priority?

The cats disappeared upstairs as soon as J. and N. arrived, and reappeared as soon as they left.