Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Q.Q.F. File: Lillet

One of the neighborhood wine and spirit stores is featuring Lillet in the window. The bottle and display are visually attractive, and so I decided to sample this book because of the cover. And what a lovely find it is.

Lillet is an aperitif wine from Bordeaux, created in 1887 by the Brothers Lillet. It was part of a whole fruit-and-herbed flavored quinine-based cocktail wines movement. The original, Kina Lillet, was apparently very bitter, but the quinine content was only reduced as recently as 1985.

Kina Lillet was the basis of Bond's tribute to Vesper Lynd, when he finally names his libation for her.

"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."

"Oui, monsieur."

"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"

"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.

Bond laughed. "When I'm...er...concentrating," he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."

-Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

The modern Lillet (no longer Kina) is bitter enough for my taste. It is tangy and thicker than dinner wines, and to be served well chilled.

But what I like most about it is a sentiment on the label:

"It can be enjoyed anywhere, on any occasion; however it is perfect for those special times when day turns to evening and evening turns to night!" [bold emphasis theirs]

A specific wine for a specific day part. I love the idea of marking the transition from the day--with its toils and cares--to evening, and evening to night--with all the possibilities that await there, as the French soul knows very well.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Remembering to Remember

I admire the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. I can only pray and vote to give them leaders who are worthy of the enormous responsibility of their blood.

And I can remember those who died in service to this country with some thoughts beyond the weekend barbecue.

We say the horror of war. The daily killing machine that is Iraq is a fact completely beyond those feeble words. So I turn to the World War I English poets--those who fought in the trenches and lived to tell the world of horrors it had not yet heard detailed so clearly—-for a grounded picture of reality.

A surprising theme unites these poets: that the pomp and ceremony used to honor the dead is a mockery of sorts, because it obscures the truth of their violent, painful death. These WWI soldiers were coming out of the Edwardian England inflated with the Empire and the idea of “dulce et decorum est, pro patri mori”—what a glory it is to die for your country.

We are on the other side of the dividing line of modernism, so we don’t have the full extent of that naivete over the glory of war. But it is always important that we don’t let the tributes from the living overshadow what exactly happened to those who have died, and why.

Robert Graves served in the Royal Welch Fusilliers. He was so seriously wounded at the Somme that his family was informed that he was dead. He did recover, saw some more fighting in France, and then returned to England. Here he imagines a Bugler thinking that if he dies, “dead in the gas and smoke and roar of guns,” he doesn’t want someone playing over him.

The Last Post

THE BUGLER sent a call of high romance—
“Lights out! Lights out!” to the deserted square.
On the thin brazen notes he threw a prayer,
“God, if it’s this for me next time in France…
O spare the phantom bugle as I lie
Dead in the gas and smoke and roar of guns,
Dead in a row with the other broken ones
Lying so stiff and still under the sky,
Jolly young Fusiliers too good to die.”

Wilfred Owen served in the Manchester Regiment. He wrote this poem while recovering from shell-shock at a hospital in England. He returned to active service, and was killed at the Sambre-Oise Canal, at age 25, one week before the Armistice was signed.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

G.K. Chesterton was 40 when World War 1 began. He was recruited by Charles Masterman for the British War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House. But he had his own ideas of the inequities of war. Here he echoes the height of classic English poetry to tell off those in charge.

Elegy in a Country Churchyard

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today . . . .

Here's a salute to all you impassioned fans of Star Wars. I'm not one of you, but I like listening to you.

Fans of all degree must go to Edward Copeland's anniversary Star Wars Blog-a-Thon. It is an impressive, interesting collection of essays from that galaxy.

I have a tiny contribution to the collective knowledge. I was just watching BBC International, and the newsreader was reporting on the anniversary festivities in Los Angeles. He then blithely said: On a survey last year in Great Britain, 400,000 people answered the question of "religion" with: Jedi.

Oh those wacky Brits. But may I also suggest that this factoid--at the beginning of this Memorial Day weekend, which has such painfully deep resonance this year--shows that American popular culture is not forced down the throats of the world in the name of capitalism (although people certainly make money by it). But first off, it is enjoyed by people around the globe because at its best, in hands as skilled as George Lucas, it taps into human universals and longings.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sopranos Watch: The Wild Ducks at Coole

All the attention to the end of The Sopranos may seem extreme, or ridiculous, or both. But I like to think of it as an updating of the crowds who waited on the dock in Victorian New York to get the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop.

I bet our Victorian antecedents merrily explicated plot points and compared intricate ending scenarios while waiting for the bowlines to be secured and the cargo to come ashore, and who are we to think of ourselves as above those good people?

So as I straighten my corset, and with a nod to the genius of Dickens—who first demonstrated the power of the serialized narrative---I must now state: CHASE SAYS THE IRISH RULE!

Thomas Cahill wrote a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization—and it’s not a punchline. (It traces the work of the Irish monks, who wrote down history while Europe was being sacked and burned.) Now to that we must add How the Irish Saved The Sopranos.

Yeats, the Anglo-Irish mystic uber nationalist, arguably the preeminent poet of the 20th century, seems to be the blueprint to the end of the HBO tale of an Italian-American Mafia family. Chase invited Yeats into his fictional world with the episode called "The Second Coming," with all its explicit and implicit reference to the poem. But the Yeats/Chase thing may be much bigger than that, even beyond the lovely assonance of their names.

A gloss about the poet from the BBC site:

"William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin of Protestant parents. Separated by his background from the Roman Catholic majority and rejecting the materialist values of the dominant Protestant minority, Yeats turned from the beginning to pagan Ireland for his inspiration. He was also interested in esoteric mysticism, founding a society in Dublin to study Hinduism and Asian religions."

One side of the whole Chase/Sopranos phenomenon that I find interesting is the question of ethnic identity. I come from a Long Island town where the Italian/Irish thing was very strong. The Italians were the Gambinos, Joey Buttafuco, and everyone in the Knights of Columbus—the Irish were the Baldwin Brothers, Peggy Noonan, and everyone in the Holy Name Society. There were spirited tribal attachments on both sides—a sense of belonging, and a self definition by “not the other.”

Chase’s given name is DeCesare, or DelCesare, a very ethnic name. And yet his Wikipedia entry said he was raised in a Baptist family (well, it used to say that—it’s been deleted. Hmm). That’s an interesting background. Like Yeats the Protestant in the Catholic Republic, Chase was in a Baptist household in a Catholic Jersey town, with at least cultural Catholic heritage somewhere in his family. These fuzzy lines can leave a longing to be part of a well-defined group. It can also give insight to what it feels like to reject a closely or narrowly defined world, and seek the freeing power of the mystic. Tony, it seems, is a creative product of both reactions.

I don't know if Chase was unduly influenced by Yeats through the years, outside of the recent specific episode. But you can find some interesting Yeats/Chase universe overlaps:

The Sopranos begins with those blessed ducks in Tony’s pool. The ur source for that is Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole Park,” Lady Gregory’s estate.

“I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
. . . .
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold . . . .Their hearts have not grown old

"No Second Troy"
“Why should I blame her that she filled my days/with misery, or that she would of late/Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways
. . . .
Why, what could she have done, being what she is? Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Livia. Enough said.

"Easter, 1916"
"This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart.
. . . .
He too, has been changed in his turn
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."

There is no beauty in Tony. But he was transformed, utterly, beyond general vainglorious lout when he became a killer for life.

On the lighter side:

Words for Music Perhaps:

Crazy Jane and the Bishop
Crazy Jane Reproved
Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman

I have always wondered if Springsteen’s "Spirits in the Night" lyric was an echo of this Yeats series, especially since Yeats actually wrote : Words for Music

“Crazy Janey and her mission man were back in the alley tradin' hands
`long came Wild Billy with his friend G-man all duded up for Saturday night”

It would be beautifully fitting if this song is in one of the last episodes. Personally, I think that a Springsteen song should be in the finale.

Finally, in the montage for the last two episodes, there is a quick shot of A.J, and it looks like he’s in a marsh land, on his back, either in pain, or dead.

"The Stolen Child"
"Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
. . . .
Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than you can understand."

The poem is about the mythical side of Irish folklore, which played upon the imagination that there were faeries who would steal children. But it could be about any child taken away.

Chase’s readers will be out on the dock until June 3, waiting for the next installment. It is funny to think that we are wondering if Tony dies just as our great grandmothers worried about Little Nell. Of course, we have our modern Oscar Wilde and Chestertons on the subject as well.

Cross-posted at newcritics.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tony Lays Waste

Three more Sopranos episodes left. There is amazing commentary from Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, and their cadre of posters. The water looks so fine and interesting, I’m jumping into the exegesis pool myself for the end of this historic, unsettling television creation.


It must be fun to be David Chase, and get to make very skilled wordplay that crosses aural to visual and back again. A 60-second reference to one of the demigods of English poetry in “Kennedy and Heidi” not only brings layers and layers of ideas to a TV show, it give us a reason to remember what distinguishes a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet: the ABBAABBA of the opening octet, followed by CDCDCD of the sestet, with a proposition, and then a turn.

The poem being discussed in the class AJ is auditing is Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Why is this one small piece of the whole so perfect?

"We lay waste our powers"
Tony is dumping asbestos waste into beautiful marsh land, and he ends up wasted on peyote.

“Little we see in Nature that is ours”
Tony started the series attracted to the ducks, but they represented a decency and goodness that were completely beyond his reach from the minute we met him

“For this, for everything, we are out of tune”

In the car before the accident, when Chris is fiddling with the radio station, Tony says, “What is this, the Make Believe Ballroom” a reference to William B. Williams’s old radio program. As much as Tony may be quoting “Comfortably Numb,” his real tunes are from an earlier era, before music became nihilistic and stopped making sense.

“Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn”

Kevin Finnerty had some idea of Christian redemption; Tony has given up. He needs to get away from the wake ritual of the Church, and enters the alternate universe that is Vegas, complete with the Devil on the slots. Wordsworth believed if we got away from human institutions, we would be able to encounter the natural order of goodness.

“So might I, standing on this pleasant lea
[or a canyon peak outside of the Vegas strip]
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn”

And that’s where we leave T this week: glimpsing the dawn light that he "gets" and being less forlorn for the moment, but a truly damned soul walking, looking part clown the entire episode with those bruises on his face. And he’s cackling, like a fool, like a demon.

Where does it go from here? No real predictions, but I fear for AJ.

Deep gratitude to anyone who can tell me what was with that mariachi music over the ending credits.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Coke It Is

The Monday morning routine is like any other day, except moreso, because it’s Monday. I cannot eat or drink before I get on the subway, so part of the routine is to pick up a muffin and a can of Diet Coke on the way in to work.

Yes, Diet Coke for breakfast. I love the smell of coffee, but I have a strange reaction to it: it makes me deeply thirsty in an uncomfortable way. But Coke—it sparkles and quenches. When it’s fresh, it’s a wildly satisfying, refreshing, truly rejuvenating elixir. It’s magical, cool liquid caffeine that snaps the brainpower into action. The day brightens and comes into focus as the bubbles trip over the tongue.

But there are Mondays when there is no Diet Coke on the shelf in the two places my feet are programmed to hit in the morning. And it happens fairly often.

The insult to this injury is the plethora of Pepsi and Diet Pepsi sitting on those shelves—completely untouched. Can upon can, bottle upon bottle, row upon row. Do the managers not get it: this is a Coke town, baby. They could easily double the Coke order, so when the delivery is delayed, there would still be bright silver and red cans available.

I have never met a Pepsi drinker in my life. Who are those people? In the double-blind taste tests in the 80s, more people chose Pepsi, but when the test drinks were labeled, Coke won, driven by brand loyalty.

I don’t believe in brand loyalty—something works for you or it doesn’t, and you’re loyal to your own reactions. How can anyone not tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi? They don’t taste anything alike. Pepsi is much sweeter—even on the diet side. It is cloying; end of story. (I do like the Pepsi commercial, especially the ones that are specifically about those fictional people choosing Pepsi over Coke.)

I know Coke can eat the paint off of cars. I know the mega-multinational has serious labor issues in Colombia and environmental issues in India, all detailed in the movement/website Killer Coke. It’s not all the fun and games of Cagney’s great turn as Coke’s man in West Berlin in One, Two, Three.

I’m a little surprised how current Coke remains throughout our culture: there was a piece in Slate this weekend, from Tim Harford, their Undercover Economist, about price rigidity and Coca Cola. Did you know that Coke cost 5 cents for nearly 70 years--from 1886 to 1959.

Coca Cola is a phenomenon from every angle. The company’s 2005 annual report states “of the more than 50 billion beverage servings of all types consumed worldwide every day, beverages bearing the trademarks owned by or licensed to Coca-Cola account for approximately 1.3 billion.”

So I’m one in 1.3 billion. It’s nice to be part of a group.

Update: So now it's Friday. And I'm sitting here with a stinking can of Diet Pepsi, because my two programmed morning delis are out of Diet Coke. I may have to start bringing my own . . .

Friday, May 11, 2007

Daydreaming of the Bond Men

For Quantum of Solace review, go here.

My history with the Bond men is simple: there was Sean Connery, and then it just didn’t matter (with a warm nod to George Lazenby). Roger Moore embodied the seventies in the worst way, Timothy Dalton just didn’t interest me, Pierce Brosnan always looked uncomfortable —-unlike his turn as Thomas Crown, which is a joy to watch.

I have finally caught up with the new era of Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, and I’m a fan—-thumbs way up for me.

Daniel Craig is sleek, modern, and focused. The general consensus on CR is that it is the gritty, darker, more realistic Bond, and that is true. But it’s Craig’s aura of authenticity that clenches it for me. He’s not playing at being Bond, he is embodying it from the inside, which matches yet updates Connery’s approach. And while Sebastian Foucan was an overt signal to the aesthetics of free running and its cousin parkour, I found that Craig’s whole physicality as Bond had the efficiency and beauty of economy of these modern arts. Bond is always meant to be alpha male in that uber-skilled way, but Craig is effortlessly convincing at it.

I didn’t really care what the plot did or didn’t do. Eva Green was good as the Bond woman. I loved the main theme music coming up at the end. One of those blasts of the familiar that connects you back to your history with the series as only music can.

The anti-Craigs are still rabid: danielcraigisnotbond.com is still going strong, with new flashes like “Edward Fox: ‘Daniel Craig is wrong for the role.” You’ve got to admire the depth of feeling of these guys.

Real Bond fans need to go over to Ross Ruediger’s cool exploration of the whole series in his 007 in ‘007. Start with the PreRamble.

Bond 22 is slated for November 2008. Mark your calendars now and go to the MI6 website for updates.

The Casino Royale movie trailer offers a nice desktop visit to that fantasy world. Sigh.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Wagner Visible

The sun is low is the sky, but still bright. I make my way through clumps of happy tourists and high schools kids looking for trouble, pass under the watchful eye of the media conglomerate AOL/Time Warner, cross the traffic of a congested city that crawls and honks with frustration. But it all falls away when you emerge onto the campus that is Lincoln Center, and enter a concert hall, where for the next five hours, the passions of life and love will be summoned in one of the strongest ways possible outside of physical contact.

The Tristan Project at Avery Fisher Hall on May 2 was a triumph of creative vision and the top professionalism of deeply talented artists. Elements one always seeks in live performance of any kind that are too often disappointing.

A concert setting of opera has elegance and purity, with the orchestra onstage and the singers in evening dress instead of costumes. The music—both the instrumental and the singing—has everyone's fullest attention. In this instance, that attention was for Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

A new element transformed the usual experience: A 36-foot wide screen suspended above the tableau—like a 2001: Space Odyssey monolith—that projected the work of video artist Bill Viola, commissioned for the project.

From the first, familiar, unstable chord, through the hours of yearning for it to please, please resolve, Bill Viola’s video is intriguing, stunning, wondersome. The interplay of water, fire, man, and woman illuminates and connects to the ideas of the opera without literally illustrating them. In the program notes, Viola said that he listened to multiple versions of the music, but then he put it aside and created his video from the libretto. “I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage, in the same way that a more subtle poetic narrative mediates the hidden dimensions of our inner lives.”

All I can say to that is, thank you Mr. Viola.

The new element had mixed reactions. The gentleman to my right, a devoted Wagner fan for fifty years, loved it as part of the experience. A woman in the row in front of us felt the video added nothing and was too much like having to watch television during the performance.

I had a little trouble at the beginning, getting into the rhythm of actively watching and actively listening. There were times when the singing was so deeply compelling—the Tristan and Isolde duet in the second act—when I literally forgot the video was there. Christine Brewer’s’ control and subtleties were that all-consuming. But at all other times the visual/aural experience was seamless, and at transition points—like when the figures fall into water that you thought were mirrors, or the fire becomes water—I realized I hadn’t breathed for minutes.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were magnetic. They were so good, the production so imaginative, that Allan Kozinn takes a swipe at the collective home team in his review in the NY Times: “The New York Philharmonic’s nearest efforts have been frothy musical-theater evenings, like “My Fair Lady” and “Candide.” That getting a production like this into Avery Fisher Hall requires importing it from across the continent is truly outrageous. But that’s the state of things, and it’s emblematic of the difference between these two orchestras.” Ouch.

And to top it all off, the artistic director Peter Sellars’s synopsis notes were bracing and insistently unsentimental:

Act 1
“Two damaged, angry, desperate, and hurt human beings are on a long trip in the same boat. Neither expects to survive the journey.”

Bravo! That’s telling it like it is.

[Just as an aside—Tristan and Isolde’s love is touted as the paradigm for a love so intense that it has to transcend to death. But as a plot point, they both drank a potion, which they thought was poison, only to learn it was a love potion. So this intensity is chemically, magically induced. Doesn’t that bother anyone? For me, it means that their depth of love is not something that mortals will experience in a natural life. Quel dommage.]

Like I felt at Minghella’s Madame Butterfly, the Tristan Project shows the future of opera. We can’t pretend that the visual semiotics of life haven’t been heightened since the rise of the art form centuries ago. If the music of opera stays wrapped in an old shell, if 21st century audiences can’t relate to the dusty trappings, the art will die. And as Peter Sellars and Bill Viola and Esa-Pekka Salonen have shown us, there is too much of value there to let that happen.

One practical note: the ticket prices for this were obscene. When I was at the Avery Fisher Hall box office, several people complained to the staff about how expensive it was. Something has to be done about that. This art can’t live across some sort of performing divide. The true audiences for opera come from every walk and manner of life--if you stand on line for tickets you will see that. We have to do better as a society to not allow money to rule whose life becomes enriched by this art form, and whose doesn’t.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

133rd Derby Day

The three-year-olds are at it again. In honor of the Queen and Prince Philip's attendance, let's say "darby" today.

Post time is 6:04 p.m. Post positions are here. And Tim Lavin of the Atlantic is blogging the day here. They say the field is wide open. My imaginary money is on Cowtown Cat, for very unscientific reasons.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Wagner of My Year

“In 2006 and 2007, Pluto will align with the Galactic Center three times, ushering in an unprecedented period of cosmic awareness and healing. Pluto’s conjunction with the Galactic Center occurs only once every 248 years.

How each of us experiences this transit will depend on our consciousness.” From StarPriestess.com

Which is all by way of offering some explanation for this being the year I take the plunge on Wagner.

Tonight Steed and I are headed to Lincoln Center to see the Tristan Project—the concert version of the great Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde, as envisioned by Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angelos Philharmonic. The performance is 5 hours (with two intermissions)—it is not for the faintheated. We were attracted by the idea of Viola’s work complementing the transcendence of Wagner’s music.

July will see us at Lincoln Center for what’s being called the rare Russian Ring. We’ve never seen any version of the Ring, so to see it with Valery Gergiev, director of the Kirov Opera, made it all the more compelling. You’ve got to love a city where one series for the performances sold out in 2 days—last July.

Wagner is a fathomless well that can be intimidating by the immensity of conflicting things you need to process about him: the staggering beauty of the music itself, the tantalizing intellectualism, the relentless anti-Semitism, the Tristan Chord alone, the mythologies of his worlds. It’s not so easily accessible. It could constitute a life-time of study. Yet study feels antithetical to the truest essence of Wagner. He had only the most minimal of formal musical training himself. He was talent personified, and I can only hope to find him on that abstract landscape—to let his work wash over me, to hopefully connect within me.

Two years ago Cadfael and I were on the Amalfi Coast, and we went inland up to Ravello. Wagner had summered there in 1880, in the Villa Rufalo, whose gardens he used for the model of Klingsor’s garden in Act II of Parsifal. The grounds are now the setting for the Ravello Festival, with that gorgeous stage that floats high above the water. [Their site has a gorgeous flash intro, worth a click.Pick a language to launch.] It was a thrill to ramble around what’s left of the old castle, to walk out to “terrace of the infinite”—those Roman busts that line the low wall on the grounds of the Villa Cimbrone (where Great Garbo honeymooned with Leopold Stokowski). Ravello is an other-worldly setting.

The experience of Wagner is other-worldly. It’s a way to break from the pedestrian cares of everyday life, to try to connect to the primal forces and truths of being human, if only for as long as it takes that last chord to completely decay.