Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

National Poetry Month 2013: Gods and Marble

April is National Poetry Month. As usual, I'm posting late and wanted to recommend the wonderful Favorite Poem Project.

This year, I thought I'd look at two poems involving the Greek god Apollo. The first one is better known:

Archaic Torso of Apollo
By Rainer Maria Rilke

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

That last line is unexpected and startling, and really makes the poem for me. It puts all that's come before in a new light, and suddenly, the poem captures the deep introspection that gazing at great art can provoke. Mark Doty discusses the poem more here.

Compare it to this one. (Coincidentally, I was introduced to it in a lecture by Mark Doty.)

Old Joke
By Alan Shapiro

Radiant child of Leto, farworking Lord Apollo,
with lyre in hand and golden plectrum, you sang to the gods
on Mount Olympus almost as soon as you were born.

You sang, and the Muses sang in answer, and together
your voices so delighted all your deathless elders
that their perfect happiness was made more perfect still.

What was it, though, that overwhelmed them, that suffused,
astonished, even the endless ether? Was it the freshest,
most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals

and scales whose harmonies were mimicking in sound
the beauty of the gods themselves, or what you joined
to that, what you were singing of, our balked desires,

the miseries we suffer at your indifferent hands,
devastation and bereavement, old age and death?
Farworking, radiant child, what do you know about us?

Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet,
he’s shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss!
but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers)

is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee,
on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,
pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there?

and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart.
Supernal one, in your untested mastery,
your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome,

and needing nothing but the most calamitous
and abject stories to prove how powerful you are,
how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly,

godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment
in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness,
if only because now she’s hobbling back to bed

where she won’t sleep, if only because he pees at last,
missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees
to wipe it up. You don’t know anything about us.

(Poem from The Dead Alive and Busy.)

The opening evokes the themes of the Homeric Hymns and their many later imitators. Apollo is presented as perfect, exemplary, transcendent – an object of admiration. The poem takes a sharp descent to the mortal world of indignities and vulnerability. After reading the whole poem and looking again at the portrayal of Apollo, I'm reminded of a line from Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, when Mozart complains about depictions of gods and heroes who "shit marble." It ties into an old dichotomy I've kicked around about the depiction of heroes, nicely illustrated by the two major film versions of Shakespeare's play Henry V, Laurence Olivier's in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's in 1989. Olivier's Henry transcends suffering, is more than a mere mortal, and shot in glowing Technicolor, he gleams in his armor and surcoat, proud and unflappable in the face of overwhelming adversity. Sometimes, this depiction is countertextual, but it's an understandable choice given the film's main purpose: boosting morale for the British during WWII. In contrast, Branagh's Henry is muddy and exhausted, and a hero because he struggles through his suffering to succeed, never transcending it outright. He'll give a fire-and-brimstone speech in public at Harfleur, and then collapse in private. Something similar is going on in this poem.

When I first heard/read "no one you would know, sweetheart," it got a laugh from the audience, but it sounded a bit harsh and bitter to me, as if this wasn't the happiest of marriages. But after reading the poem to the end, and reading it again, it's clear this is a marriage of warmth, intimacy and compassion. The couple doesn't even necessary "succeed" in the face of suffering; the point is, they're sharing it, and that alleviates it a little. This is the state of their lives, a far cry from the grandeur of Mt. Olympus. (Shapiro does a marvellous job of contrasting images.)

None of this is to exclude other readings of these poems. They make an intriguing pair, and I like and admire them both. Shapiro's poem isn't a direct retort to Rilke's, which in any case is about contemplating a work of art more than the idea of a god per se. Rilke's piece uses beauty as a launching point and captures a moment of solitary (and profound) reflection, while the core of Shapiro's piece is about indignity that becomes a shared moment.

(Feel free to share or link a favorite poem in the comments.)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Richie Havens – "Freedom"

RIP. This Woodstock performance is the obvious choice, but it's iconic and kicks ass. In some folk-rock documentary, one of the other musicians (I forget which) said that back in their Greenwich Village days, no one wanted to go on stage after Richie Havens, because he was so fantastic the audience would give all their spare money to him and there'd be nothing left over for the following acts. The man had longevity, passion and soul.

Jonathan Winters (1925–2013)

The most wonderful thing about Jonathan Winters' comedy was his sense of play. He was essentially a big (and brilliant) kid having fun. Several of the obituaries and remembrances of him mention this improvised segment with a stick:

Here's his website and obituaries from The Washington Post (plus a tidbit), The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times one and two. Appreciations include those from Chris Erskine, Robert Lloyd and Ken Levine. I'd particularly recommend Robin Williams' remembrance of him, "A Madman, but Angelic." Winters was one of the comedy greats, and made the world more fun. He will be missed.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Geek Filibuster

See the opening credits scroll for an explanation. This is why the term "nerdgasm" was invented. The actual episode (which only showed about 30 seconds of this tour de force) was also pretty good.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942–2013)

It's hard to adjust to a world without Roger Ebert, not because he was the most famous American film critic, but because he was amazingly prolific, ubiquitous, a talented and smooth writer, reflective and honest, and thus quite insightful. He had an extremely deep love of film, from the moviegoing experience to the moviemaking process to the medium itself, appreciating all its strengths, malleability and most of all, its magic. I didn't always agree with his tastes, but I respected his opinions, which he always justified. Ebert had his moments of pique, but for the most part his reviews were much more honest and fair than those of the "clever film critic" crowd, where a good quip and smug condescension can take precedence over accuracy and honesty. Ebert was fond of quoting Robert Warshow that "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man." In practice, this meant that Ebert typically related, in deceptively smooth prose (he made it look effortless), his personal experience watching the movie, and he was introspective, sharp, humble and eloquent enough to explain that beautifully.

His general approach dovetailed with what I've always been taught: a good critic relays the experience of what it was like to see a given film or play or other performance. Get familiar with a good critic, and you will have a reasonable gauge of whether you will like a movie, because you will know where your tastes diverge. Most criticism should ask three questions: What does this piece set out to achieve? Does it achieve it? And what is the value of its ambitions? (How worthwhile is it in the first place?) For instance, is a summer blockbuster a good popcorn flick? (Sure, it's not King Lear, but it's not trying to be, and there's room for both Shakespearean tragedies and lighter fare in the world.) Does it succeed on its own terms? Does it deliver the goods? Such questions are especially important for "genre" pictures that traditionally don't get much respect.

Ebert touched on these dynamics many times, as when he wrote:

The star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if "Hellboy" is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to "Mystic River," you're asking if it's any good compared to "The Punisher." And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if "Superman" (1978) is four, then "Hellboy" is three and "The Punisher" is two. In the same way, if "American Beauty" gets four stars, then "[The United States of] Leland" clocks in at about two.

The Washington Post obituary adds:

The best movies, [Ebert] said, challenged viewers' understanding of the world and forced them to rethink their opinions. But all movies deserved to be judged according to their own ambitions, from French New Wave films to dusty Westerns, he said.

"If you try to apply the same yardstick to the new Godard and the new John Wayne," he told Time magazine in 1970, "you're probably missing the point of both films."

A good critic "doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers," Mr. Ebert wrote on his blog in 2008.

And if his movie-reviewing shows had any lasting utility, he wrote, "it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them."

I'm not a fan of strident "I'm right, you're wrong" criticism, where egos run amuck and someone tries to "pull rank," even if occasional excesses can be excused. Far better, though, to aim for passionate-but-still-civil discourse, or to simply ask, "What did you like about it?" and "What didn't work for you?" Approach the arts that way, and then we're having a conversation, sharing experiences versus trying to one-up each other. Most of the time, Ebert subscribed to the same ethos – he was starting a conversation versus trying to have the last word.

The "two thumbs up" stuff was too reductive, but it did cut to the bottom line of what someone wanted to know – whether a film was worth seeing or not. In his reviews, Ebert gave far more context. For the most part, Ebert spared his acerbic wit for deserving targets, and wrote very entertaining (but fair) negative reviews of genuinely bad films. Still, as much fun as those were, I appreciate the writing in his Great Movies series more. Sure, Ebert was popular, and writing for a popular audience, but he really knew his film history, too. He was erudite without being snobby. As the best critics do, Ebert would articulate some part of a great film's appeal or magic, and make you want to either see it again or see it for the first time.

My dad was an avid filmgoer (and from Chicago), and in our family, Siskel and Ebert's show (in its various incarnations) was regular viewing. It was gratifying to see people actually talk about film and clearly appreciate it. Siskel and Ebert reviewed the big studio releases, but made a point of also reviewing foreign films, smaller indie features, and documentaries. Hoop Dreams might be the best example, but Siskel and Ebert championed many great films that would have been overlooked otherwise (I was happy to see Ebert pick Junebug for his Overlooked Film Festival, later called Ebertfest). As Ebert pointed out every so often, genuine discussion of films as films on TV is unfortunately fairly rare. Most TV film coverage comes in the form of glossy entertainment shows or actors appearing on talk shows. Occasionally there's an interesting tidbit, but such programming is about shilling the films, not evaluating them. (Tellingly, I once caught Ebert discussing this point on a small local arts show on the Howard University PBS channel. Ebert had left PBS and was fairly famous by that point, but he was still showing up to have serious talks about film, never mind the small viewership.)

It also would be hard to overstate Ebert's influence on a couple of generations' worth of budding film critics and other writers. (I know a few people who were devastated by the news of his death.) Roger became for many a kind of geek hero, a guy with the dream gig of going to the movies and writing about them, who wasn't the most conventionally telegenic but achieved success through his mind and writing.

I found a new respect for Ebert in his second life as a blogger, most of all because of the personal courage he showed despite losing his voice and most of his jaw to cancer. It took real guts to agree to the Esquire feature that chronicled all this, and it was an ongoing act of bravery and will that, rather than retiring from public life, he actually accelerated his writing and became quite adept at blogging, tweeting and the rest. When he dared to discuss politics, mostly out of a basic social contract, respect-for-humanity liberalism, he was subject to some vicious personal attacks, but he shrugged them off with good cheer. (Some good bloggers have covered the pieces attacking him since his death, but I'll refrain from linking them here.)

On a similar note, the number of positive stories about Roger Ebert as a person is striking. Like his fellow Chicagoan and one-time drinking buddy Studs Terkel, Ebert just seemed to like people (most of 'em, anyway), and made a point of encouraging and helping budding writers and fans. He did far more than he had to. Read through Will Leitch's honest but painful story about attacking Ebert savagely and personally after Ebert had gone to great lengths to help Leitch. The way Ebert responded to this betrayal is really rather extraordinary, with a maturity, compassion and forgiveness that I sincerely admire.

This piece may seem overly rosy; I certainly didn't always agree with Ebert's judgments. But as I wrote for Andrew Sarris, for my money, if you truly love film and the moviegoing experience (and aren't too obnoxious), you're in the club; we are fellow travelers. Differences of opinion are inevitable, but in the club, they're minor in the grand scheme of things. Whatever his faults, Roger Ebert loved the arts and loved humanity, and understood how deeply those two are connected.

Finally, here are some choice quotations and links.

"Kindness covers all of my political beliefs," [Ebert] wrote, at the end of his memoir, "Life Itself." "No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

– The Chicago Sun-Times obituary.

"Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It's the only thing you can control."

– The Will Leitch piece.

To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

Ebert's review of The Village.

Mr. Ebert — who said he saw 500 films a year and reviewed half of them — was once asked what movie he thought was shown over and over again in heaven, and what snack would be free of charge and calories there.

“ ‘Citizen Kane’ and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream,” he answered.

– The New York Times obituary.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.

– Roger Ebert's farewell, "A Leave of Presence."

Ebert Himself

Ebert's Site (Reviews, Journal, Great Movies Series)

"A Leave of Presence"

"I Do Not Fear Death"

"How to Read a Movie"

"My Name is Roger, and I'm an Alcoholic"

"In the Meadow, We Can Pan a Snowman"

"Best lines from Roger Ebert movie reviews"

Funniest Roger Ebert Quotations

Ebert's Seven Most Shareable Quotations


Scorsese, Spielberg, Herzog and more.


Chicago Sun-Times (plus Chaz Ebert)

The Washington Post (plus slideshow)

The New York Times (plus slideshow)

The Los Angeles Times

NPR one, two, three

Chicago Tribune


Richard Roeper

Stephen S. Duke

Rob Vaux

Dan Zak

Ann Hornaday

Digby and Dennis Hartley

Roy Edroso

Self-Styled Siren


Christopher Orr

Aisha Harris

Keith Phipps

Brian Doan

Will Leitch's piece

The Onion

Open Thread Remembrances

The Washington Post

Balloon Juice

Lawyers, Guns and Money

If you wrote an appreciation for Roger Ebert not featured above, feel free to link it in the comments. See you at the movies.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

David Kuo

David Kuo recently died at the age of 44 from brain cancer. There's more in obituaries from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Americans United. He was the deputy director of the "Office of Faith-Based Initiatives" under President Bush, but became disillusioned with the administration because he felt that Karl Rove and others were cynically using conservative Christians they didn't really respect. He eventually quit, wrote a book about his experiences, Tempting Faith, and was attacked by the Bush administration for it. (He discussed this in a brief online chat in 2006.)

I had several political differences with David Kuo. The biggest was over the very existence and actual practices of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and the moral and constitutional issues it raises. As the ACLU points out, the Office's actual conduct has meant that "the government provides federal funds to religious organizations that engage in religious discrimination and do not separate their religious content from their social service work." (See the ACLU and Americans United for more.) He was also anti-choice.

However, I respected that Kuo, unlike many conservative, self-described Christians, talked about helping the poor and actually sought to do just that. Apparently, he was quite sincere about it, and was dismayed that more of his fellows weren't. Here's an exchange from the discussion linked above:

Washington, D.C.: Based on your experience, should religious social conservatives look elsewhere other than politics to pursue their convictions?

David Kuo: I think that for a season that is what they should do. In the book I advocate a "fast" for Christians from politics. Let me begin by saying that I believe Christians should obviously vote and Christian political leaders should stay in office and such things. But for the grassroots, those people out there who have been lead into thinking that just giving a bit more time and a bit more money to this politician or that one, they should take a step back and so should the whole Christian political industry. Instead of spending hundreds of millions on politics, spend that money on the poor for a season. There is much more to this and it can be found in the book and another snippet at www.beliefnet.com where there is a feature on the book and I am also starting a blog called J-walking - www.beliefnet.com/blogs/jwalking.

One of his last public messages was a request before going into surgery, and it generated many photos:

Favor? Do something outrageous today – give way more than reasonable to a homeless person, take the family out for an ice cream dinner ... and serve only ice cream. Call someone you hurt and ask forgiveness, call someone who hurt you and give forgiveness ... And send me a pic.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Fool's Day 2013

Happy Fool's Day! This time, in honor of the purity wars, I thought I'd feature an Emo Philips story I referenced last year:

(Given my nom de blog, the Italian subtitles are a nice bonus.)

Here's an animated version.