Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Live Is Better

Is time speeding up? Can tomorrow already be Thursday again?

That means those creepy, I mean Mad, morons--oh, no,I mean Men--will be our portal to bizarro land, I mean Matt Weiner's brilliant idea of the early 1960s.

Tom Watson will be leading our Greek chorus this week over at newcritics, 10:00p.m. ET. We could use a few more tenors and basses. Spread the word.

See you in the comments.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Creative Differences of Note

There are people who contribute tangible beauty to the day, and others who drain it away. Since art is subjective, what actually gets produced onscreen, on tv, on the stage or in choir loft of a church is the result of power, plain and simple.

I’ve been a serious amateur singer since I met a choir director 20 years ago who taught me to read Renaissance polyphony. My ability to sight read the inner alto line with a voice that blends well ushered me into the fringes of the professional world of choral singing.

For the last year I have been singing in the choir of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi under the direction of Dr. Gwendolyn Toth. Gwen is an early music specialist who directs the group Artek. For 18 years she brought professional music to the 11:00 Mass on Sunday on 31st Street, with motets for Offertory and Communion and small orchestras for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter, as well as a free noontime concert series for tourists and midtown employess alike.

Just as I arrived at St. Francis, it seems that Gwen was being subtly and not so subtly pressured out by the pastor who had taken over two or three years ago. He prefers the sing-along hymns of Be Not Afraid to the glories of Byrd and Tallis.

And he has the power.

And so today was Gwen’s last day as director of music, bringing to an end an 18-year ministry. She invited back past singers who had moved on, and other singers she has met along the way. We were 40 strong, and the singing was transcendent.

Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus was a prelude, with its lovely setting of Psalm 42 following the stag in the forest: "As the deer longs for flowing waters, so longs my soul for you, O God." Offertory was Stanford’s Beati quorum via (“blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord”) with its exquisite 6-part dramatic chords that rang and rang in the vaulted space.

At communion was Elliot Z. Levine’s setting of the e.e.cummings poem, “i thank You God for this most amazing”—part swing, part spiritual, a pinch of Broadway.

The emotion that was surging through the singers about the end of this era poured out into the music, and the sound was alive with conviction and certainty. Simple sing-along hymns have a place in liturgy. And there are many Masses where that is the only music. But this one Mass, on Sunday, was special. It offered people an added dimension to grace. Music moves the heart in deeply mysterious ways—the genius of Renaissance polyphony, especially, has so many gifts to offer.

But only if the musicians and music are welcomed into the space.

After the recessional hymn, Gwen played those most spine-tingling chords in music history: the opening phrase to the Hallelujah Chorus.

The choral downbeat made my heart literally skip a beat it was so powerful. It’s a piece that professionals can sometimes mock because of its popularity and over-use. But not today. Today it was an explosion of group exuberance.

Gwen is a first-rate organist, and her playing was full and embellished.

The congregation was riveted in their places for this unexpected postlude, and they clapped and clapped and clapped.

It was a privilege to sing with such a group, and sad to witness its end.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men: By the Waters of Babylon

I like television with episode titles. Titles give support to the themes of specific shows within larger story arcs. They can be very straightforward, like “Evan” of Miami Vice, or more editorial, like “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run” from its season 2. They can be playful, like the Remington Steele titles that all used his name, e.g., “In the Steele of the Night,” and the all-time classics— “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Once More, With Feeling,” “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” “Better Living Through TV”—are the shorthand of television greatness.

Mad Men, following in The Sopranos tradition, has writerly episode titles that do not appear onscreen. Tonight’s episode title “Babylon” comes packed with a ton of associations, lots of them Biblical.

Psalm 137 sums up one thread: it expresses the emotional agony of the Jews in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar. Attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the psalm explains the sadness of being asked to “”sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” and says that the Israelites refused, hanging their harps on the trees. It ends with a revenge fantasy, repaying ye “Daughter of Babylon” for what she has done to us, by smashing the heads of her infants against rocks.

It’s a mournful expression of living in a world that is not your natural home. Paging Don Draper.

Then there’s always the whore thereof. Babylon that is. Lots of juicy stuff for Weiner and team to work with. Come back at 10:00 p.m. ET to join our silk pajama Greek chorus.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I am doing a little home improvement, in the kitchen. Not as involved as many do, hoping to keep the cost and confusion to a minimum. It is a privilege of the middle clases to be able to refresh one's living space. I need to pick up the prolific Witold Rybczynski's Home: A Short History of an Idea, for a little context and perspective. In the meantime, it's all about the Depot.

Friday, August 10, 2007

QQF: The New Yorker Cartoon Contest

Update 8/12: Here's what I submitted:

"One small breakthrough in the lab, and he insisted he gets to go to Disneyland."

I have been repeatedly unloved by the New Yorker cartoon judges, but I will not give up.

Join in yourself. You can enter your caption here. I'm still thinking about mine. We have until Sunday night at midnight.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men

Tom Watson, editor in chief extraordinaire of, has asked me to sit in for him to drive tomorrow's live blogging of AMC's hot new series, Mad Men, at 10:00 p.m., ET. It's true, men in exquisitly tailored suits is something I know and care about . . .

But these men certainly make it hard. They are from the dark ages in the war between the sexes.

Whether you love or hate the series, I hope you'll join in the merry quipping, and be there when we find out the answers to the eternal questions for this series: Will there be any actual plot development? Will a narrative start to enagae us? Will we find out how Don procured a dog in the middle of the night for the daughter whose birthday party he walked out of . . . . We can only hope.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Shirts and Skins; Jets and Sharks; Horcruxes and Hallows

What the hell is a Hallow?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Didn’t that title bother anyone? It’s one of the most widely known books on the planet now, and the title has a word that I doubt many people can define.

And shouldn’t it be “deadly” hallows? “Deathly” sounds wrong there.

I wanted to see if I was the only one baffled by the opening salvo of the final Harry Potter book, and so I checked in with the astute guys at

"Deadly is more likely to mean capable of causing death.
Deathly is more likely to mean having some of the characteristics of death."

As for Hallows—that’s far more complicated.

Here’s a post from James M, May 3 2007

"Hallows" is most familiar to us in the phrase "All Hallows Eve", which gave rise to the word "Halloween." In this case, "hallows" means "saints". The part that makes it confusing is to put the word "Deathly" in front of "Hallows." "Deathly Saints" doesn't make much sense. It is curiously ambiguous, which is not a bad choice for a title. As Panjandrum said, another meaning for "hallows" is "holy relics" or "revered objects." It's not a common use of the word, though. Well, the word itself is not common, for that matter."

Then James. M quotes another poster (in May) about what hallows might have to do with the story. Apparently, if you are up on your Grail legends, things are a little more clear.

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read HP & the Deathly Hallows, stop reading here!

“A story where hallows play a crucial role is the grail legend, where the Fisher King is the guardian of the four hallows, which include the Grail itself, the serving dish (or stone or pentacle), the sword or dagger, and the spear.

There had been much speculation from Harry Potter fans about whether the grail legend might play a part in the final Harry Potter book, even before publication of the title, and a connection between the four founders of Hogwarts, their relics, and the four hallows in the grail legend has been suggested. It is known from the books that Godric Gryffindor's relic is a sword, Helga Hufflepuff's relic is a cup (chalice), and Salazar Slytherin's relic is a locket (pentacle), presumably leaving Rowena Ravenclaw's relic as a spear or wand.”

It turned out that Rowena Ravenclaw’s relic is a diadem, and in fact, a Horcrux, not a Hallow. And therein lies some of the novel’s weakness.

The largest plot points turned out to be Horcruxes versus Hallows, but these ideas were not deftly woven from book 1, but stuffed into the last 2 books (with a little backpeddling to include Tom Riddle’s diary and the Invisibility Cloak from book 2).

The seven Horcruxes are the receptacles that Voldemort used to hide pieces of his soul to remain immortal. They are created at the point of a murder, the ultimate soul-splintering act. He didn’t realize he had actually created 8 Horcruxes, that a piece of his soul went into Harry when he killed his mother. Each of these receptacles has to be destroyed to vanquish the Dark Lord. This whole little matrix was introduced in book 6.

But the idea of Deathly Hallows—which will allow their owner to defeat Death-- only comes into the story beginning on page 405 of DH with the tale of the three brothers. There are only 3 Hallows, not 4, so they don’t correspond to the 4 Hogwarts houses. They are the Invisibility Cloak, the Elder Wand, and the Resurrection Stone, which, in a twist, is ALSO a Horcrux, although Voldemort apparently had no knowledge of the Hallows.

Is everyone following this?

And everything hinges on the Elder Wand, although even the Wikipedia synopsis of that extremely important plot point is hard to follow.

Nothing here is as masterfully drawn as Tolkein’s world. And there is one of the all-time clunkiest of desperate expositions in the penultimate chapter.

But these criticisms miss the real gift of the series: the enjoyment of spending time with Harry, and with Ron and Hermione.

At the beginning Harry was funny and sincere in his attempts to learn about the magical world he was not raised in. His friendship with Ron and Hermione has the aura of the Musketeers’ deep unity. This desire for special friendship appeals to children, teens, and adults equally. Just ask the guys of Entourage.

One thing Rowling did right in DH is to set the trio off from the rest of the characters in a mission that bound them tightly to one another. We see them struggle and falter, give up for a bit then persevere, find moments of humor in the darkest hours—it’s a good read and a good yarn. And in its depiction of not giving up in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s inspiring.

Since we’ve been with them for 10 years, we know these three pretty well. That’s the joy of the overall series, as with any relationship. One of the best little scenes is when Harry and Hermione are trying to get out of the Ministry of Magic.

“Harry,” said Hermione, “how are we going to get out of here with all those dementors outside the door?”

“Patronuses,” said Harry. “As many as we can muster; do yours, Hermione.”

Hermione can’t get hers to materialize.

“It’s the only spell she ever has trouble with,” Harry told a completely bemused Mrs. Catermole. “Bit unfortunate, really . . . .”

It’s a sweet scene, and we are smiling and thinking the same thing as Harry. We know how talented Hermione is—since she first appeared on the train to Hogwarts in book one and fixed Harry’s glasses, she has done remarkable spells way ahead of her years.

The climatic Battle of Hogwarts has energy and British bravado: it has echoes of Gunga Din, and when the ancient armour get off their pedestals to pitch in, the spirit of Dunkirk.

As for the resolution of Harry’s plot: I assumed that he didn’t die. Rowling cheats the issue a little by giving him a near-death experience--like we’ve seen in countless tv shows—where he is given the choice of going back to earth, or moving on to the light.

Well, the Potter pandemonium is over. It brought a unique spotlight to the rare crossover world of children/teen/adult reading. The movies will now play out, while we wait to see if Rowling is a one-universe writer, or the next Agatha Christie.

Friday, August 3, 2007

QQF: Create a Simpson Avatar

This seems to be the week for confessions: I don't know Bergman's films, and I don't follow The Simpsons. Something about the animation just keeps me out. Lance started quite an anti-Simpsons zone at his place when he confessed that he HATES the Springfield family. It seems a lot of people have been carrying around this pop culture guilt, and they feel better now having expressed it. Mannion, that's quite a service you have provided.

I did see one whole episode, two years ago, the season finale, when Homer decides to convert to Catholicism. Marge has a dream that she dies and goes to the Protestant heaven, where everyone is playing tennis and sipping cocktails, but Homer and Bart are in the Catholic heaven, with the Mexicans and Irish and Poles all frolicking in ethnicity. Marge asks where Jesus is, and her Preppy guide says, "Oh, He's over there too"--which is a pretty deep gesture to the schism in Christianity.

I know, I know, that's what the series does well: actual ideas wrapped in pop cultural inanity. It still doesn't pull me in.

But, becoming a Simpson avatar is another matter. The Simpson's movie site is great. Go click thru and and you can make your own Simpson likeness. I'm takin' my avatar out for a spin. Have a great weekend everyone.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Ingmar & Michelangelo: Into the West

A quirk of fate: Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni dying on the same day. These deaths of old men—-89 and 94—-bring their work to everyone’s attention for a few blinks of the eye.

I have not seen the classic Bergmans. I’ve never felt drawn to his particular, highly intellectualized world, which Michiko Kakutani summed up as “a place where faith is tenuous; communication, elusive; and self-knowledge, illusory at best.” Many also find great beauty there. Maybe it’s a pleasure that lies before me. As for Bergman himself, at least he now has the answers to the questions of God that haunted him.

I have seen the usual Antonioni—-Blow Up and L’Avventura. (Although my favorite ambiguous b&w art film is Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad, whith those people walking endlessly through gilded, mirrored rooms.)

Steed took me to an event years ago at the Italian Consulate, where Antonioni was making a special appearance to talk about his work. The room was packed to the rafters with a very European crowd. The ambience of men in sleek suits and women in fabulous shoes was so utterly Italian that Steed and I started speaking to one another in that beautiful language. It was quite remarkable, and alas, an enchantment that dispelled when we left the marbled hall.

The Consulate gave out a stunning book of photos from the director’s career: impossibly beautiful black & white, behind-the-scenes stills, capturing beautifully dressed, cool, sophisticated men and women. I love its presence on my bookshelf. I look at those photographs when I need a sensibility shift from my own crassly colorful world. Sometimes I wish I could step into one of those scenes and live out my time there.

The directors have departed our shores, but their work continues to feed our imagination. You can’t ask for more than that.