Spawn of Mars
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Favor the Heart Over the Tail
Hacksaw Ridge  Is an Amazing 40 Minutes
Tuesday, November 28, 2017 9:14 pm
Beware! Spoilers follow.

For its first hour or so, Hacksaw Ridge is very disappointing. For another half hour it is active, if not exciting. And then there is a scene that is transcendent; and the remainder of the movie is wonderful. 

If you haven't seen the movie yet, still do so. But a little advice: As soon as there is text on the screen noting that Doss died at age 87, stop the movie. What follows the note are snippets of genuine documentary — still shots and actual interviews — that, like all documentary postscripts to "true-story" movies, yank you right out of the wonder. And considering that the wonder of Hacksaw Ridge was great and long in coming, it's a shame to let it be killed at last.

The transcendent scene comes after the "active" half hour, after we've been watching Doss's company assault Hacksaw Ridge.

The combat is decently choreographed. There is a clear plot of advancing on bunkers and being driven back. Yet somehow it wasn't exciting. It was only agitating. Every death is sudden. The deaths accumulate like falling marbles. We're given no time to feel any loss. Even the overnight mid-combat respite in the foxhole was not especially anything. Perhaps I had been numbed by the first hour of the movie, but I kept waiting to be moved by the combat.

I will say this, though. The suddenness of every death made everything relentless. Thus, one could get a proper sense of chaos. And futility.

So when the company has retreated to the cliff's edge, and every able man but Doss has retreated down the ropes, the tiring brutality has been presented. When Doss looks back on the devastation, we at least know what we're supposed to be feeling.

Now, here's an important point about Doss. I'll touch on this again, but even in the disappointing parts of the movie, Doss is a solid and interesting character. It is established well that he is a godly and patriotic medic who refuses to carry a weapon. I believed everything about his courage and conviction. So when he looks back and starts despairing, I believed he was despairing. I despaired only because he did. In the chaos he has not been killing the enemy; he has been scrambling to save his fellows. Some he saved; some he didn't. He is crouched over the corpse of one he didn't.

There were so many he didn't. Though he tried so hard!

And despairing he says, "What is it you want of me?" He is of course speaking to God. He gazes on the field of failure and complains, "I don't understand." Finally he laments, "I can't hear you."

And across the shattered ground, out of the smoke and silence, someone calls, "Medic! Help me!" More voices say the same. There is even a cry of "Help me, Lord!"

The moment is so well constructed, that of course we infer that God has effectively spoken to Doss. And Doss hears. He no longer despairs. He rises and purposefully sets out into the devastation. The scene is simply transcendent.

Then comes a genuinely thrilling quest, as Doss seeks out the wounded and, one by one, brings them back to the cliff and lowers them by rope. The danger is acute, of course, because Doss is unarmed and will not kill. He must evade the scouting enemy. And even as he becomes exhausted, he repeatedly gasps, "Please, Lord, help me get one more."

I did wonder why no one simply joined him up on the ridge to help him. There had been only two sentries at the base of the cliff; but once the wounded men started appearing from above, others came to ferry them back to the base. To be sure, Doss's quest would have been less thrilling if it had not been solo, and I realize that his solo quest is what actually happened; but it did seem odd.

Still, it was thrilling. There was a heroism and excitement that I had missed in the earlier chaos of combat. Again, though that combat was good, there was something rote about it — much like the rest of the movie.

How I wished I could simply remove the rest of the movie! The last forty minutes — even after Doss's quest has ended and he returns with his company to take the ridge (and, not incidentally, heroically save his captain from a grenade) — deserved better than what preceded it.

The particular weakness of the first hour is exemplified by Doss's time in boot camp. It is one cliché after another, right down to the melting-pot-of-America cast of soldiers and the barking from the sergeant about not calling him "sir." The tension with the other soldiers, their bullying and such, reminded me of everything from Pvt. Pyle's troubles in Full Metal Jacket to any nerd's troubles in some 1980s teen comedy. It was flat. Even the scenes of Doss's wooing of his wife, or the scene of his drunkard, abusive father (in Great War dress uniform) soberly interrupting Doss's court martial to save his son, were just checking off Hollywood expectations. I wanted it all gone.

And yet, without the information provided by these scenes, that transcendent moment wouldn't have had any foundation. The quest would not have been credible.

The key mistake of Hacksaw Ridge is in making Doss's quest the tail of the movie. Every part is developed too much for its own sake, all equally weighted, as we work through one to another until we reach that tail. Instead the quest should be the heart, the beginning and the end, with everything else attached only enough to explain and illuminate that heart.

There is a great vignette of Doss as a boy, violently harming his brother and then, in his dismay, gazing upon an illustration of the Ten Commandments and coming upon Thou shall not kill. Yes, this vignette is in the disappointing first hour; but it is an exception to the clichés. It is also a clue to a better construction of the movie. Rather than progress conventionally to the combat (checking boxes as we go), decide what is most relevant about, for example, Doss's wooing and present some vignette succinctly. We need only enough information to achieve that coming transcendence. Hack off the rest.

Every vignette could be embedded in the narrative frame of the combat. Or, if that proved cumbersome, the vignettes could still be presented serially, but with each presenting a rather specific facet of Doss's character. Because, in the end, it is Doss's character that matters. One could radically not even name the other characters and still have a complete and powerful movie. Doss is just that interesting.

Even as it is, the movie is good. It succeeds at depicting Doss and his heroism. Ultimately, Hacksaw Ridge is that sort of art that completes it most important act so well, its many other shortcomings should be endured.

That's Where You'll Find Me
Maybe Dorothy Sings About the Wrong Thing
Saturday, August 12, 2017 12:19 pm
There's a misalignment in The Wizard of Oz.

What is its moral? "There's no place like home." Dorothy has found herself in a land over the rainbow, and yet her ultimate desire — the fulfillment of which she asks of the Wizard — is to return to Kansas. Near the end, Glinda prompts Dorothy to articulate the lesson that she, Dorothy, has learned; and Dorothy replies:
If I ever go looking for my heart's desire, I won't look any futher than my own backyard. Because if it's not there I never lost it to begin with.
This lesson, of course, accords with the narrative facts that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion each already had the thing he sought. The Scarecrow was already brainy; the Tin Man, full of heart; the Lion, courageous. And Dorothy, in Kansas, already had the place most free of trouble: her home with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. 

"There's no place like home" has certainly stuck. The phrase is a commonplace. And yet, in the movie, what is the initial counter-sentiment? That there is a better place "somewhere over the rainbow." And this does not persist as merely a phrase. This sentiment was given a song, a song used in the opening and closing thematic music, a lovely song that has been counted among the most popular and greatest songs of the 20th Century.

Nobody sings, à la Dorothy, "There's no place like home." There's nothing to sing.

In other words, the delusion that grips Dorothy, that there is a place where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, where skies are blue and dreams really do come true, is given the tremendous, emotional weight that only song can impart. While, on the other hand, the truth she finally discovers is presented in a brief speech — which, while not necessarily platitudinous, is certainly nothing worth humming.

This is a great danger in creating a work: That something tangential — or worse, contrary — to your theme is given a greater prominence, a better presentation, a more memorable form, than the point you are trying to make.

When writing, I have often worried about expending artistry on this or that small scene or second-tier character. I fear my reader will like my villain more than my hero, or find the collapse of my characters more interesting than their restoration. It is a hard thing to make the proper alignment; to best present what should be presented best.

Some contemporary critics of The Brothers Karamazov argued that the devilish points of Ivan Karamazov, as given in "The Grand Inquisitor" section, were more compelling, more substantive, than Alexei's Christ-like response. They argued that Dostoevsky had not really addressed Ivan's points. Dostoevsky replied (perhaps with some exasperation) that the entire novel was the response to Ivan.

One could likewise say that, however compelling may be Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it is countered not merely by some speech at the end of the movie, nor by some brief chant with ruby slippers, but by the movie as a whole. Perhaps. Whether The Wizard of Oz successfully establishes that there's no place like home is a bigger question. I'm not sure it does, beyond somewhat artfully asserting the point. In the end, the writers should have worked a little harder and come up with a compelling tune for There's No Place Like Home.

I know that "there's no place like home" didn't originate with The Wizard of Oz (however much the movie has claimed it). And I know that there is a very old and popular song with that very lyric ("Be it ever so humble..."). And so, yes, the writers, had they written a new song, would have been contending with a standard.

Could they argue they were alluding to that standard, which was possibly more well known in the 1930s, and therefore they didn't need to write their own? I suppose. But the allusion, if any, is weak, and still profoundly overshadowed by Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which resides right there in the work and not in some presumed cultural background.

Concert After the Fish-Fry
Arvo Pärt's Passio 
Sunday, April 9, 2017 10:48 am
I've been listening to Arvo Pärt for quite a while. I'm not sure how I discovered him. He is still alive and still composing. His work, since the 1980s, has been generally focused on the sacred, using chant and polyphony.

I don't know much about music. I know most definitions; I can follow a discussion well enough. But I cannot explain to you the difference between a harmony and a melody — not with understanding. And I cannot distinguish either in a work. I am stupid when it comes to music. Fundamentally I am sub-intellectual. For me, a musical work is either a good noise or it's disposable. 

Whenever I tried listening to Pärt's Passio, it left me cold. It's a setting of St. John's Passion verses. It's about the Passion of Christ and yet, as sound, it caused me no passion.

I shrugged it off. Pärt has always been hot or cold for me. One work is transcendent and always too brief; another is flat and not even worth finishing. So it goes, eh? No oeuvre is consistent; no listener other than fickle.

Well, this past Friday my parish ambitiously presented a complete performance of Passio. It was performed by our usual Sunday chorus and some local singers and musicians, all led by the parish's musical director. I realize that Pärt is not obscure (indeed he has even been appointed to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Benedict XVI) and I don't think my parish is filled with philistines, but the choice of Pärt nonetheless seemed unusual. I was curious how it would play out.

We were given programs and naturally, as the work proceeded, I read along. I had never actually done this with Passio before. These days I tend not to read along with any vocal works, except when I am specifically curious about the words. I seek only noise, after all.

As I read I realized that Passio is not meant to be listened to. Not as music. It is a reading of a text. I can listen to Bach's Johannes-Passion and never know what's going on and still enjoy the glorious noise. If you don't know what is being said in Passio, the musical carriage, the musical adornment, the musical shaping, will sound almost random. It may leave you cold. Its fundamental structure is not a musical form, like sonata; its fundamental structure is spoken Latin. No poem or song is involved.

And so, when you actually attend to the text, the shifts between chorus and soloists and instruments, and between this note and that, make sense. The words are not an excuse for the voice as another instrument; they are the impetus for everything. Only with the words in your eyes is there any music in your ears.

So is Passio even "music"? It's like a musical without any catchy tunes. Whatever specific melodies or harmonies there may be, I'm not tapping my foot or bobbing my head to any of it. Is that just the definition of chant, perhaps? But you can be carried away by Gregorian chant. Passio seems to be something else. It's a text that is not silent.

There must be a name for that.

An Interruption of the Wallpaper
The Emptiness of Rothko
Saturday, February 2, 2008 4:42 am
I am an optimist. I believe that foolish forms of art endure only so long as they are a means to self-elevation. Once it is no longer the Mark of the Smart Set to gush about a certain sort of art, that art will be abandoned. 

Modern art is foolish art. Yet it has been tenacious; here we are, in 2008, and people still revere someone like Mark Rothko. But then, modern art is also the cry of the decadent, and decadence takes a while to play out. Perhaps only at the final passing of our civilization will the noisome banalities be properly held in contempt.

Till then, some of us can keep our senses and call modern art what it is: Art with a capital F.

This is one of Rothko's paintings, untitled, from 1958, part of a larger, unfinished series of murals, intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram's Building in New York City. It's like most of his "masterpieces": rectangles of color, arranged just so. Rothko's intentions — when considered with his actual work — are comical. He would speak about myth and intensity. "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on." His paintings were, he said, the "opposite of restful." What with the recent Holocaust and the existence of the atom bomb, normal depiction of figures and landscapes was out of the question. We had to choose instead a "pure expression of feeling." And thus... behold!

I don't know how to mock this painting of rectangles. It mocks itself. When Rothko says, "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them," I can only snort into my beer. If such as the above embodies a "religious experience," we can only imagine what sorts of explosive transcendence Rothko might have achieved had he used triangles or circles.

With his Seagram's murals, in particular, he wanted to inspire a sense of unending confinement, like being trapped in a passage. He wanted to "make those rich sons-of-bitches lose their appetites." Seagram's was paying him millions for the paintings, truly granting him a great compliment; and like all modern artists, he wanted only to discomfort and revile his benefactors. Using big brown rectangles.

Rothko, after having dined himself at the Four Seasons, withdrew from the project. "Nobody who pays those kinds of prices for those kinds of meals is ever going to look at a painting of mine." Yet what he didn't realize is that his art is perfectly suited for the walls of a restaurant. His paintings are each an easily ignored decoration; an interruption of the wallpaper. They are the progenitors of what I call Corporate Wall Art — those formless, shallow arrangements of shapes and color that imply nothing, and adorn the reception areas and cafeterias of businesses everywhere. Because Rothko's paintings lack depth of information — strained imputations of myth and feeling notwithstanding — they can only end as corporate wall art; and only our ever-deluded intellectuals can claim greatness for such emptiness.

Depicting Christ Anew
Encouragement From the Past
Sunday, May 27, 2007 1:54 am
How am I to say anything anew? For two thousand years, artists have been depicting Christ and what He was and is. Even if I am inclined — even if I am impelled — to express, in my fiction, an image of Christ, what fresh manner can I take? I am not clever enough; and my civilization is in its decadence: it offers no help; it has spent itself. At the end of our culture, all has been done and done. 

Or perhaps I am just not trying hard enough. You might think all has been done — and then you discover something. I discovered something. To be sure, this thing exists, is known, and, indeed, is more than three hundred years old and therefore rather far from fresh; but it has struck me nonetheless and made me hope, at least a little.

First, not the thing itself, but something else. Here is a detail from Rembrandt's 1646 Adoration of the Shepherds:
Consider how conventional it is. I am not disparaging it. I like it. The lighting, and especially the kneeling man in the foreground, give a great sense of people
around the Christ Child. But again, it is conventional: Child on display, lit by His own holiness, all but formally presented by His Mother.

Now, here is the thing I discovered, also by Rembrandt, also an Adoration of the Shepherds, but an etching from ca. 1652:
This doesn't have a spatial depth like the other work. You don't quite feel anyone moving towards and around the Christ Child. But there are other sorts of depth, and in this work the narrative depth is greater.
Look closely at Mary and the baby. They are bundled and lying beside each other. Joseph, off to the right, is wearing a hat. It is cold. Of course, having just given birth, Mary is tired. The baby is tired. Mother and newborn are wrapped in the same thick blankets, trying to sleep, while Father, reading a book, keeps watch. And now they are being disturbed. Look: Mary has raised her hand against the shepherd's light! There is no formality; no presentation. Even the holy light of the Child is subtle: It's not His light but the light of a flame that Joseph is reading by.

What so struck me about this work is how well Rembrandt depicted the humility of the Incarnation. The shepherds may have come at the prodding of some angel, and they may be primed to adore the Savior of Mankind, but what they have found, at least initially, is only a cold and tired little family. The fact that Rembrandt swaddled Mary... That, I think, is the most wonderful touch.

So there it is. It's been a while since I saw a fresh depiction of the Nativity. Sure, maybe I don't get out enough, and sure, this depiction is 355 years old, and surely at least 355 other people have noticed the aspects I have noticed. Still, the wonder and pleasure are there. An artistic depiction of Christ has surprised me. Whenever I wonder, "How shall I depict Him anew," I will remind myself of Rembrandt's etching and try a little harder.

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