Friday, March 25, 2016

Allegri's Miserere: Turning Up All Over

There is so much sublime music for Easter, I can barely talk about it. The Renaissance composers saved their most brilliant writing to word paint the holy mystery of the Triduum-—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

One piece is famous beyond the small circle of church music: the Allegri Miserere. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that goes between the simple chant melody of Psalm 51 (50) and cascading quartets, with the soprano going up to a high C, one of the highest notes a human voice can produce.

Its popularity is augmented by its intriguing, something-out-of-Indiana Jones like history. It was written by the Sistine Chapel composer Allegri around 1630 for matins during Holy Week on Wednesday and Friday. On penalty of excommunication the score was never to be seen or shown outside of the Chapel choir. The ornamentation was never written down at all, but passed along from singer to singer.

Audiences were allowed to attend matins even back then, and it became known as a “must-hear” for the elite, particularly those on the original Grand Tour of the 18th century.

Enter the 14-year-old Mozart, in Rome in 1770, during Holy Week. When he hears the Miserere, he decides to write it down, note for note, from memory. He goes back on Good Friday to double-check his work. (It's comforting that even geniuses need to double-check things.)

He shortly after encounters Dr. Charles Burney, the British church musician and musicologist. Somehow the piece passes into his hands, and he publishes it in 1771 (it seems excommunication was now off the table). The piece that is performed today was permutated over the centuries—-sometimes by design, sometimes by out-and-out mistakes of transcription—-so it is not very close at all to what Mozart heard. But what Allegri’s Miserere has become is still an exceptional musical experience that captures the imagination of most who hear it.

In the Movies and Onstage
I have sung the alto part numerous times, so I am privileged to know it very well. I heard it recently in two very surprising places.

One was me finally watching the John Woo movie Face/Off, with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. At the end, at the funeral for the director whom Travolta has killed, we see the funeral procession, and the music is the Miserere. (While it is so closely associated with Good Friday, Psalm 51 itself is used for Catholic burial.) Suprisingly, it is not listed in the Wikipedia write-up for the film, which does list other classical music that is used. How could they miss it?

The other instance was in the play The Seafarer, the Irish play by Conor McPherson (more about it here). The play is set on CHRISTMAS Eve. They turn the radio on at one point, and there we hear the Allegri Miserere. Very strange. With so much great Christmas music available, why would Conor (who is also the director) choose that? If anyone knows how to reach him, I would love to get an explanation for this.

Here is the performance by the exquisite English group The Sixteen, with the words below. (The high C comes around 1:45 minutes in and is repeated every other verse.)





Miserere Mei Deus
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

14 Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

(Reposted and updated from 2008.)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Grand Marshalls of the St. Patrick's Day Parade In a Yeatsian Gyre: From Violence to Peace

W.B. Yeats had a complicated/poetic view of the forces of history. Forces being the important word.  Not surprising, since he was born in 1865 into the tail end of the Protestant Ascendancy, which began in the 17th century with "the political, economic and social domination of Ireland by a minority of landowners, Protestant clergy and  all members of the Established Church (the Church of Ireland and Church of England) wiki."

Yeats experienced the shift in the declining power of his Protestant heritage as Parnell and Home Rule grew stronger in 1880s, at the same time Yeats discovered and fell in love with Irish Fenian Mythology, going back to ancient, pre-Christian mystical Ireland. That love became the basis of his earliest poems in a career that evolved and matured brilliantly and gave us some of the most distinct, bracing, extraordinary English sentences of the 20th century, including

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer"

History goes in cycles for Yeats. And that popped into my head as I experienced a small piece of history come full circle surrounding the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.

I've been catching up with some of the details of the 255th edition of Parade. There will be less protesting, as our LGBT sisters and brothers are allowed in the line of march. Very Christian move, I say. And Pontifex just tweeted "No one can be excluded from the mercy of God. The Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected," so that clinches it.

And I learned that the Grand Marshall is Senator George Mitchell, one of the architects of what's known as the Good Friday Peace Agreement signed in 1998. (Like all things having to do with Irish/United Kingdom politics, it's complicated. You can read more about it on wiki.)  It hasn't been perfect, but it restored sanity to the cycle of violence that had overshadowed 20th century Irish lives for the decades known as The Troubles (in an even more active way than the centuries of British rule had done).

During this same time, it popped into my head to look back through the letters my Dad wrote to me when I was away at University in Southampton to see what he might have said about St. Patrick's Day 1983.

And lo and behold, he wrote all about the Grand Marshall that year.

From my Dad's letter to me dated March 19, 1983: 

"I was glad that you called St. Patrick's Day. We went to Mass but nothing else for festivities. We had a nice piece of corned beef and Grandma O' came down to join us. 

The Parade went well evidently, in spite of the controversy surrounding the Grand Marshall. I did not write about it because it bothered me, but a lot of dignitaries, organizations, and school bands boycotted the parade because the committee elected an IRA supporter as GM. 

His name is Michael Flannery--he is 81. He is the founder of the Noraid Society, which professes the help of families (widows, etc.) in Northern Ireland but which has been accused of supplying arms to the IRA. Flannery and several other Irish-Americans were acquitted last summer of such charges, brought by the US. Govt.

The worst part was Flannery made a comment to the effect that the Parade this year would show the Irish-American support for the IRA, which offended a lot of people, myself included.

I really feel if the Parade is going to be an expression or rallying point for political violence (last year Bobby Sands was the Honorary GM) then it should be done away with.

It is supposed to be, after all, an expression of love and honor for a man of peace--a Saint and a reflection of the Prince of Peace, Christ. 

Oh how we mortals can debase and denigrate the things that should be so dear to us."

I really never knew my father's political opinions. I had no idea he was so anti-IRA. He didn't share much when I was younger, and he died just when I was getting to be old enough to ask him about his views.

And by chance, I re-read his letter, after many years, on the year that someone he would have been proud of--a peace broker, a man who helped to heal all the destruction that the likes of Michael Flannery wrought in the name of loving Ireland--would be leading the line of march.  The gyre had turned far enough to spiral from violence, to peace.

What are the odds? Happy St. Patrick's Day to one and all (even the Irish curmudgeons who call it Amateur Irishman Day).

This video on YouTube is a real time capsule from 1983: a news report from some station, and then various functions during the week. 

Those who boycotted the parade in 1983 included Sen. Ted Kennedy, Former NY Governor Hugh Carey, Sen. Daniel Moynihan, and Congressman Tip O Neill, as well as John Cardinal O'Connor not reviewing the beginning of the parade, and various catholic school bands pulling out. 



Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscars 2016: "But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware"


I don't watch many films, partly because they flood me with so many references, so many cross connections, it's actually uncomfortable.  And while I leave film criticism to my betters, I offer some thoughts on a few films before the 88th Academy Awards.

*******

There are three Best Picture nominated films that are deeply connected for me: Brooklyn; Spotlight; Room. That's the order I saw them in. They are tied together in my psyche by the two forces of nature that is Irish Catholicism.

"For on the night he was betrayed he himself took bread, and giving you thanks he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

Brooklyn
Brooklyn is a stylized snapshot of the emotional, inner life of the Irish who left the Emerald Isle and crossed the ocean in near steerage like "bricks for the Grand City Hall in New York. " {If you're of Irish heritage, you'll recognize that line.}

Some find it saccharine, and I can see why. That early elegiac scene with Eilis Lacey on the boat to the new world waving to her mother and sister on the dock feels contrived and cliched, and yet true. Generations of Irish parents watched as their sons and daughters left for a better life.  That took an enormous emotional toll on those people, those families. This film gives us a chance to feel some of that heartache, despair, sacrifice.

Eilis's entry to the US is sponsored by a priest from her village who left for the States long ago. He is like a fairy godmother: he gets her a place to live, and a job, the 2 most crucial needs for an immigrant. It seemed surprising to me that such an opportunity would be given to a young woman in the 1950s, and that the priest who sponsors her is not sinister. Imagine. An Irish priest from the bad old days (as opposed to the recent bad days) who is not abusing the protagonist. And I don't say that facetiously.

The film weaves its visual tale of Eilis overcoming homesickness, falling in love with an Italian American, and coming to terms with the duality of being an Irishwoman in New York. It evokes the era with the precision and beauty of Mad Men. And surprisingly, Eilis is not harmed. For some reason I kept waiting for something terrible to happen to her. I assumed Jessica Pare's shop supervisor was going to be cruel to her, and I was completely surprised by her compassion.

As a film, I think it has the most resonance for, well,  people of Irish Catholic heritage.




TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT: FOR THIS IS MY BODY WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

Spotlight
The telling of the Boston Globe's exposure of the systemic protection of abusive priests within the Catholic Church is a superb film.

It captures the journalistic process of the sickening discovery of an evil reality with no gratuitous sensationalizing of the monstrous evilness of the criminals, both the offending priests and all of their protectors.

As it happened, it's Globe's new editor, Marty Baron, the ultimate outsider-- "an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who doesn't like baseball" played with searing humorlessness by Liev Scriber--who asks the team why they haven't followed up on the case of John Geoghan, a priest who actually had been accused of molesting young boys.  The small investigative  team who write under the special section of Spotlight is then focused and slowly uncovers the systematic reassignment of priests who their superiors knew had abused children, instead of calling the cops.

And it's Baron who insists that for the investigation to be effective, it all has to tie to the highest authority, to Bernard Cardinal Law. Which the team is able to do. Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo are all standouts as "real" people who have to come to terms with what until then had been the unthinkable.

Many of the reporters at the Globe are the progeny of the historic kinfolk of Brooklyn's  Eilis Lacey from County Wexford.

Only today I saw a tweet of a plaque from somewhere in Boston that reads:

"In 1847 alone, 37,000 Irish refugees landed in Boston, on the edge of death and despair, impoverished and sick."

It would take the clarity of the Boston Globe's reporting, the home-team paper, to help raise the consciousness of these people whose religion and its institutions were part of their identity.

It's been hard for me, for many, to reconcile the magnitude of the evil of the institutional church alongside the power and mystery of the Mass that Christ entrusted to it.

The Globe reporting ran in January 2002, just months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The numbness of those murders slid into the numbness of this other kind of evil.

Following in the years after 2002, when so much of the abuse came to light, and the millions, or is it billions now? of dollars of collective settlements were reported, a friend told me her sister was converting to Catholicism. She had been raised Presbyterian, not practiced, and was in her 40s.  I remember thinking, how can anyone be attracted to this institution now, to this overwhelming corruption. And yet, at each Easter vigil, there are people of all ages, races, sexual orientation, taking the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Oh yes, because, the faith exists outside of the institutional church.

Spotlight affirms that smart, talented people can still investigate parts of the world that others want to keep hidden. And that there are equally talented storytellers who can bring their work into the broad cultural space that is mainstream moviegoing.





In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took the chalice, and giving you thanks he said the blessing, and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

Room
When I heard Room was from a novel by Emma Donoghue, I wondered if she was related to my old NYU professor Denis Donoghue, and yes,  she is his daughter.

Professor Donoghue, a leading literary scholar of Irish, English, and American literature, is one of those innately literary souls, and I enjoyed studying with him immensely. I also enjoyed his memoirs, Warrenpoint, of growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland. Denis met and married Frances Rutledge, and they had 8 children.

From an interview with Emma about her mother: "I'm her eighth child (the runt of the litter, she used to say fondly) and it's her boundless, playful and unsentimental kind of mother-love that I tried to pour into Room."

Emma was born and lived in Dublin for her first 9 years and was sent to Catholic Convent schools. I have no idea what her faith is now, but the knowledge is in her DNA.

In 2010 she published a novel about an evil and depravity of sickening proportions.  A man who kidnaps a 17 year old girl and imprisons her in a suburban shed to rape her every evening.

After 2 years a baby boy is born. The captor lets the baby live, and time moves on.

When the film begins, Jack has turned 5, and we see the routine of their lives together. Ma, as we first meet her, is doing an extraordinary job of giving Jack as happy a life as possible. He has no context for their dire situation, and so he accepts, and he laughs and plays like any other 5 year old.  We learn that Ma must be teaching Jack literary classics, as he knows the story of Alice in Wonderland very well. The egg-shell caterpillar, the toilet paper roll maze, the daily run around the tiny shed: all speak to the ingenuity, creativity, and staggering love of this mother for her son.

Brie Larson and Jack Tremblay both give luminous performances.

But the evil is so pervasive.

Like the priests who prey on children.


TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT: FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT; WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.

It's hard for anyone to reconcile evil with an all-loving God.  Satan, Original Sin, all the explanations pale in the sight of horrifically hurt people.

And with so much pain in the different worlds of these films, a song drifted up from my memory:

"I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware"

Such a simple, melodic song from the musician we knew as Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou), who after a spiritual journey became Yusuf Islam back in 1978.  My BFF had an older sister, which is how Tea for the Tillerman came into my life, back in the day. I didn't know it was written for Patti D'arbanville, but the "remember there's a lot of bad and beware" struck me, even at 10 years old.

I love this line from Yusuf's Wikipedia entry: "Although his father was Greek Orthodox and his mother a Swedish Baptist, Georgiou was sent to St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School."



* * * * *

So what do I think should win Best Picture?

The Martian.





Saturday, January 23, 2016

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: Death Amid the Beauty


A cautionary tale about the beauty of the snow from 2010.



“Whose woods these are I think I know”

Central Park. The genius of Olmstead and Vaux's landscaped naturalness, an oasis of primordial power amid the world's greatest concrete canyon. Its majesty and magic beckons city dwellers, even on

“the darkest evening of the year”

when the city is being socked by a monstrous mixture of wet, heavy snow, sleet ice, rain, wind.

No equine is present in this tableau to give a harness bell a shake,
But there is some sense of cosmic mistake.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

That is our park, especially with the fairy land decoration of snow amidst its arboreal splendor of 80-foot high American elms trees.


“But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Robert Frost captured for the ages a man’s pause, hinting at the weariness of life and evoking a moment of ambivalence about the point of going on.

The man who was killed today in Central Park when a 100-pound branch fell and struck him directly had no such moment. He was walking through the woods on a snowy evening, and then he was dead.

If this tragic scene wasn’t poignant enough, he was walking on the Mall, through the Literary Walk stretch, where Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Friedrich Schiller and others stood helpless witness to his death.

A mighty tree branch, falling under the weight of snow and hitting one individual: you can almost see Death himself leaning on a power saw at the base of the tree, pulling his dark robes tighter around him as the sleet starts bouncing off his bones.

May this gentleman, at this writing not yet named, find peace in eternal rest, as surprised as he will be to be approaching the Pearly Gates.

 “How strange, I was just walking through the Park on my way home . . . “

I hope St. Peter gently fills him in on the details.



From the Archive: A Tale of Driving in the Blizzard Meets O. Henry

Here is a nesting dolls recap of recent blizzards in the Northeast.

We had a pretty big one January 25, 2014.  That reminded me of a post I wrote for the really big blizzard of February 2010. And that referenced an even earlier really big blizzard.


So, from 2014, via 2010, via 1983 . . .




Lance Mannion posted a photo from a Daily News feature showing vintage photos of past great snow storms to hit NYC. One of them unexpectedly illustrates a post I wrote during the huge blizzard of February 2010.

 * * * * * * *

Here is a New Yorker’s first-hand account I found of driving in the blizzard from Teterboro, New Jersey to Massapequa Park, Long Island. I like it for its detail of the great roads of the Metropolitan area and the sheer driving description. Though a city girl with no car, I love the roadways of Gotham and the car culture of the people who know them intimately.

Plus, there is a sweet O. Henry-like twist at the end.

“I left Teterboro (NJ) at 3 pm and the ground was already covered. The snow fell heavily (but fine)—about 2 to 3 inches per hour.

"I made good time to the GW Bridge, but then the back-ups began. We moved ever so slowly along the entire length of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (Ha!). After finally navigating a rise at the juncture of the CBX and The New England Thruway the way was pretty open to the Throgs Neck Bridge. It was difficult, though, because the road had not been plowed, and the snow was blowing and blinding and my windshield wipers were not working very well.

"The rise in the road I mentioned was part of the problem with the CBX and set the stage for the rest of the trip—many cars (the drivers really) could not climb even the slightest incline without skidding and getting stuck. Quite a few of them ended up perpendicular to the traffic flow.

"I took the Throgs Neck without a problem and the Clearview Expressway to Northern Blvd., where I got gas (Thank God!) This phase of the trip was relatively uneventful.

"Back on the Cross-Island things crept along. (I had thought about staying on Northern Blvd. but I new the further East I went the hillier it would become so I decided against it.) No one could get on or off the L.I.E. because the entrance ramp/incline was blocked by snow.

"We inched along, sliding and avoiding the abandoned cars. It was incredibly slow going.

"Finally, after getting up an incline near New Hyde Park road I saw another world---there was no backed-up traffic! Eureka! There were a few cars moving in front of me in a single file and I joined the procession. There was only one lane open (still no plowing, but some plows passed us on the other side, going into Queens), and with my windshield wipers not working at all by this time, I found it difficult to keep in line, but somehow I managed.

"This strange caravan wound its way to the junction of Northern State and Meadowbrook Pkwy and since the cars in front of me went on Northern State, I did too. Soon the three cars in front of me pulled to the side to either rest or clean their windshields or whatever. That left me in the lead!

"I was virtually driving blind. I sat forward as far as I could with my forehead practically pressed against the windshield with my chin on the steering wheel. Besides struggling to stay in the lane that had been traveled before (and de facto plowed) I had to be careful not to hit the abandoned cars. Grueling doesn’t begin to describe it. And it just didn’t end.

"The whiteout effect was so strong that I missed the turnoff for Wantagh Pkwy, which I had intended to take. I finally managed to cross-country (practically) at Hicksville Rd and make my exit. I was making progress when I ran into a snow bank on my left and the snow blew up and completely blocked my windshield so I had to stop and clean it off.

I must say it was quite an ordeal. I was really afraid I would not make it home. I finally did, NINE HOURS later. I had a triple martini.”

(As a point of reference, Teterboro to Massapequa Park is a 2-hour trip.)

Here’s the thing about this description: it’s not about today [the Feb. 10, 2010 blizzard]. It’s from a letter my father wrote me when I was away in England as a senior in college!

He wrote me letters once or twice a week, this being the world before email. My father was an expert driver-—I love the swipe he takes at the drivers who can’t keep from skidding (it’s not the cars, it’s them).

I thought of this letter today. When I pulled it out, I was shocked to see that the date of the blizzard my father is describing: February 10, (1983)!

Holding the letter in my hand brought me back to my flat at Southampton University, sitting on my bed reading it for the first time. He could not have imagined me rereading it in the 21st century. Nor did he know he would die two years after writing it. We know not the hour nor the day.

For the moment, I’m just happy to be reunited with his spirit and the storytelling of the ordeal during his February 10 blizzard.

* * * * * * * 

Back to blizzard January 23, 2016: And today happens to be National Handwriting Day. My father had beautiful, distinctive handwriting. Partly because he went to Catholic school, where penmanship was taught, and partly just his intrinsic hand. What are the odds?

The photo from Daily News that included the great 1983 snow storm.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pomegrantes: My madeleine to La dolce vita & the Zeffiro Villa, Sicily

Pomegrantes. I had pomegrantes as a garnish this evening with some lamb tacos, and they had the amazing effect of the Proustian "episode of the madeleines." 

I traveled to Sicily in 2008, which is mythically linked to Persephone and the fateful 6 pomegranates that Hades tricked her into eating. 

As the snow storm clouds gather over NYC, and you can feel the freezing moisture in the air, I dreamily think of the beauty and warmth of Sicily. From 2008:



Persephone first crossed our path in Rome, freed as she was from the block of marble by the hands of Bernini only to be captured by Hades and forced into the underworld. Some legends say that she was playing in fields on Sicily when the earth swallowed her up.

When her mother, Demeter, the goddess of all fertility, goes after her, she deprives the earth of its ability to grow food. Hades relents to the mother, and says Persephone can go, if she hasn’t eaten anything; he then tricks her into eating six pomegranate seeds. Demeter still strikes a deal with Hades: Persephone will spend 6 months in the underworld, during which her mother is sad and nothing grows, and then 6 months on earth, and her mother is so joyous that the earth blossoms into spring.

From Rome we went to Sicily, and one evening entered a Fellini film . . .




It’s dusk in July in Triscina, a small beach town adjacent to the great Greek temple site of Selinunte. Pre-dinner cocktail hour is commencing on the patio of a house that sits at the end of a public beach of beautiful, fine white sand.

A man appears in frame beside a bareback horse. He slowly leads the appaloosa into the water, gently deeper and deeper, until they both cannot stand. Floating man and beast, as the sun continues to set.

Next a pair of men appear, one older, with white hair, dressed in white linen, and a younger beatnik looking man, with goatee. They stand together on the bottom step on the public access beside the house. The younger man takes out a sheet of paper, and reads something aloud to the sea. Then they walk on to the beach, and away from the house.

Original man and beast then emerge from the water, cross the short depth of the sand to the same stairs and ascend, leaving the line of sight.

As the party reassembles on the patio, an ultralight--one of the man-in-a-flying chair marvels--buzzes across the water line right above our heads. We wave at the pilot and he waves back.

And, CUT. That’s a wrap.

Only, we weren’t in a Fellini film (from the later art years). It just felt like it. We were on vacation in Sicily. Intriguing, extraordinary Sicily, and all this actually happened within 20 minutes one sultry evening.

I didn’t know what to expect in the great island of the south. As a city dweller I was so happy to be on the beach for a week. I rented the Villa Zeffiro from Gabriella Becchina, whose family makes the exquisite Olio Verde products from their olive grove in Castlevetrano.

Triscina does not see many Americans, nor even our British cousins. The southwest of Sicily has the strong African influence and the remnants of the great Greek civilization. In an homogenized world, it is still exotic, while the teenagers hanging out at night on the beach were beautifully eternal.
 
* * * *

Mary Taylor Simeti, who wrote the engaging Persephone’s Island, has her own take on the myth: “Persephone, the eternal expatriate, the goddess of unreconciled contrasts and alternate allegiances, chose to eat the seeds of the pomegranate, that she might enjoy two roles, two worlds.”

Nice idea, or just making lemonade from her abduction.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Life on Mars: A Telling Critique on Life and TV Watching Itself, and a David Bowie Homage


David Bowie died yesterday,  January 10, 2016. I wrote this post back in 2008, when I discovered the compelling BBC series Life on Mars in a marathon (that being the days before the present-day bingeing.) I am the age of those for whom David Bowie was truly the soundtrack of our lives. I will admit that by 2008 I had not connected with that towering talent for a while, since the days of dancing in clubs. And so reconnecting with Bowie was another thrill of finding this series and one of my personal memories when I heard of our enormous cultural loss.



I have this photo of the great Bowie above my desk at work, I have for years, and oddly enough, I found myself wearing a poncho this week. The seventies seep in wherever they can.

I ran into a marathon of the British Life on Mars one recent Saturday on BBC America, and I was enthralled. How great that Bowie's song could inspire an entire series, and such an imaginative one at that.

[Spoilers now.]

DCI Sam Tyler of the Greater Manchester Police gives a quick, clear exposition for the series in the opening credits: "My name’s Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up back in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."

It’s a tantalizing premise. Sam (John Simm, the Master for Doctor Who fans) walks into his police precinct, but it’s filled with typewriters and old style lightening, men in wide ties and leisure suits. To his cop colleagues, he has been transferred from Hyde. He starts to work cases—what else is he going to do?

The center of the show is his relationship with boss DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), and the clash of cultures, methods, sensibilities, and knowledge. The music, the writing, the acting, the storytelling are all stellar.

And the mystery. Things start seeping into Sam’s world. He hears voices of doctors. He hears his mother say she’s still with him. He hears deafening sounds. Which start to stack the deck to his being in a coma, but the suspense is very well played out.

And now for a word about the American version: for me it pales in comparison, but it may grow into its own solid new piece. I also agree with added issue of the American Sam waking up at the base of the World Trade Center. He didn’t have enough of the emotional response that anyone would have with that experience. For great discussion on this, pop over to Alan Sepinwall

Back to the Brits. What also gives the series its strength is the ending. For the whole series, Sam just wants to go home. This homesickness is a powerful, poignant part of his character. Finally, in a life-and-death shootout between his colleagues and the bad guys, he wakes up in the hospital. He has been in a coma. The series has been in his head.

Now we are all back in 2006. Sam gets out of the hospital, and returns to work to the wistfully distinctive strains of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s “Over the Rainbow.”

The coloring becomes cold blues and blacks, instead of the warmth of the seventies color palette. That visual sums up what he’s feeling: his friends, his life is back with Gene and the guys and WPC Annie Cartwright in 1973.

And so he walks out of a meeting, goes to the roof, and jumps. It is a startling moment of television.

He wakes up back in the action in 1973, between the cops and the bad guys.

I had two strong reactions to that ending. The first is an inverse-Hamlet fear. “There’s the rub.” How did Sam know he would get back to 1973? What if he committed suicide, and didn’t “perchance to dream?”

But more importantly, the theme of “living in your head” was a subtle subtext to the series. If real life is boring, you can create a whole world in your head that is preferable. And that includes the worlds we ingest while watching television. At the very end of the series, the Test Patern girl-—a British institution who popped up on various episodes-—appears with her clown, and leans forward and turns off the tv. That wakes us the viewer up. That puts the viewer back into 2008. We are all Sam Tyler.

Watching tv or a film is a reality, but it is also in place of reality. I never met a Sonny Crockett, but I was attracted to that character-—as I would have been to a man if I had met him--and wanted to spend time with him. And so watching Miami Vice on Friday night when it was first on was more enjoyable than going out.

All these ideas enriched the Brit Life on Mars. We’ll see if the American version offers anything more on the subject. (Update 2016: It did. Let's just say that it took the Bowie song very literally, 8 years before The Martian.)

Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?



And the character DCI Gene Hunt naturally lead to a spate of fan videos set to the great "Jean Genie."