Monthly Archives: November 2005

November 19, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

directed by Andrew Adamson
screenplay by Andrew Adamson, Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
after the novel by C.S. Lewis (1950)

My self-assignment here has been to talk about every book and movie in the order that I experience them, but I’m going to make an exception and talk about this one right away, even though I have still to talk about The Haunting (old), House of Wax (new), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book), The Squid and the Whale, and Rosemary’s Baby (movie). But this one’s jumping the queue because I have the opportunity, here, to be one of the first people anywhere to write up a review/response to this thing. Not counting those types. Yeah, one of them already saw it, of course.

But let me emphasize that this was an extremely advance screening! The aint-it-cool dude reported that his screening, last Saturday, was announced as the first public screening, and I know that the child actors from the movie didn’t see it until Monday. I saw it on Thursday, in a really enormous theater with only a few people in it, many of them holding scripts. It won’t be released for another three weeks. Pretty exclusive stuff, right??? I want to thank all those who made this possible. Thanks, Jon.*

That said, I found the movie intensely unpleasant. Really, really bad. That’s my review. You heard it here first!

There are two principal problems: first, with the material, and second, with the production itself. Or really, there was one problem, which was that the problems with the material and with the production amplified each other. The mismatch between style and content was, to me, near-nauseating.

There are gonna be three types of audience for this movie – 1. People who love the book and know it backward and forward. 2. People who read the book when they were in fourth grade and don’t remember it too well – that’s me! – and 3. People who have never read the book. Then for each of those there are the subcategories, a and b: people who are pleased by the “Christian content” and people who are not. Mark me down as “put off.”

When I was a kid, I only read the first two books in the series, I believe, or maybe the first three. Whatever I read, it was with rapidly diminishing interest. I remember liking the setup of the first book: when you pushed past the fur coats in the magical wardrobe, you found yourself in a snowy, mysterious forest where a lamppost was lit. But the fun of that, you’d think, would be the contrast between fantasy-land and life, or the excitement of this portal between them. Or, in the Alice in Wonderland vein, just the sheer craziness of what could happen in that fantasy-land. Well, after a few chapters of playing the fun correctly, the book veers off in an epic direction that was a complete disappointment to me in fourth grade. The kids start loving – I mean, really loving – this heavenly magical lion, and they get all excited about being kings and queens and fighting in an army of mythical creatures… By the end, they have forgotten all about the wardrobe and even about their real lives. I only had room in my heart for one exposition per book, at that age; it was unthinkable to me that I should care about what happened within Narnia in and of itself. And I didn’t understand why the kids in the story did, either. And how dare they forget their parents and love a lion instead – a fairly aloof one, at that. It was almost nightmarish.

Well, now, having found out a bit more about C.S. Lewis and these books, now I know why the kids loved a lion instead of their parents, and I also know why I didn’t understand it at the time – because that lion is an example of a type that did not figure in any of my other childhood reading, though it certainly does for many other children. He is a Savior, with a capital C, and their love for him is religious love. Perhaps some will think that I am only revealing my own degraded secularity here… but I for one find depictions of this emotion, religious love, upsetting. It’s especially upsetting in this Narnian form, when it’s not depicted in the context of religion, but just as a way of relating to, say, a lion. It’s very hard for me to see it as a heartwarming or stirring thing. It’s creepy. Because religious love is never reciprocal; it is not like love for a person who might well love you back in the same way. Neither is it a rational, justified love for something inherently admirable. It’s the love of cult members for their cult leader, it’s an affiliation masquerading as an emotion. It’s obligation so overwhelming that it can’t help but feel like it must be related to love.

I’m not about to go into whether or not this sort of thing is “good” in the context of religion, but certainly I’ve been brought up to think that it has its place there; in any other context, it sets off alarm bells. Who is this creep asking for pledges of undying devotion? How dare he conscript these gullible kids to fight in his army?

When a bedraggled, wild-eyed Father Christmas showed up and HO HO HO gave the kids marvelous, wondrous weapons so that they could go to war, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching some kind of sick, shameless recruiting film. Similar feelings when the evil wolves, taunting the eldest boy, tell him that they aren’t afraid of his sword because they know he doesn’t have it in him, that it’s smarter to listen to them rather than just kill them… and then, when he does the right thing and kills one (woo-hoo!), the holy lion tells him solemnly to clean his bloody sword in the earth, which he does while the music swells.** Yes! Feel the power of Aslan, dude! All the kids eventually get to kill fairyland creatures – that, says Mr. Lewis, is a real coming of age, of real moral importance.

This is all made much much worse by the fact that it walks and quacks like all the most excessive Hollywood schlock, maxed-out on CGI. The lion to whom these poor kids pledge their eternal souls (more or less) isn’t a real lion, or a puppet, or a man in a suit – it’s just another projection of that slick, shimmering ectoplasm that wolfs down entire movies these days. It’s not just that CGI looks fake and flat – it’s that it all clearly emanates from the same dead, digital no-man’s-land. Yoda wasn’t actually in the Star Wars prequels – instead, the CGI blob that ate the movies just formed one of its many tendrils into a puppet that looked like him. In the same way, part of me didn’t feel like there was any real Aslan in Narnia – there was just a lot of cartoon stuff. All the worse, then, that these kids wept over it and put their lives on the line for it.

All in all, the movie looked, sounded and felt exactly like one of those commercials for the Marines, wherein young men battle monsters and work their way through ridiculous CG landscapes in order to get a military uniform zapped on to them by wicked-awesome lightning. Videogame trash aesthetics in the service of dead-serious propaganda. It’s easy to say that Lewis is selling Christ’s salvation here; but from the movie, at least, it seems like he’s selling more than that – a moral mishmash of everything that to him seemed good, human, British, and necessary. Including going into battle with shiny swords. Seems like a classic case of confusing/conflating nostalgia with ethics. A dangerous fallacy and a common one – is there a name for it?

I was complaining about certain unsavory aspects of the story (Aslan is killed in a pagan blood-altar ceremony?? How did I miss that as a kid?) to a friend who responded by sending me a quote from a recent article; the writer pointed out that kids are generally oblivious to moral lessons in their literature and gave the example that C.S. obviously wanted kids to recognize Edmund’s wickedness in themselves – but kids never do. It’s a good point; that kind of presumptuous moralizing is so offensive that a kid can’t even conceive of it. So what do kids get out of these books? Atmosphere, mystery, that sort of thing. The warm British-y stuff that’s left over underneath the epic. I might have been annoyed with the weird misuse of those elements, when I was a kid, but I did recognize that atmosphere as worthwhile and fun.

Which is why this movie is so particularly inexcusably bad – because it absolutely gets the atmosphere wrong. Its technique is all schlock and smarm, studio-slick in the worst possible way. I had my first twinge of concern when the prologue (in a bomb shelter during the London Blitz) ended with a snap-bang power edit blackout on a door-slam – what was the point of that? I thought – and then a general sense of doom as the main title music kicked in with some synth drum loops and a bunch of “new age Hollywood poignant” chords rising one after another. What was the point of that? No point, it’s just all part of the standard playbook these days. That, the CGI, the whole deal – it’s just what movies are like! Didn’t you see Lord of the Rings? Just hire those guys and film it in New Zealand and it’ll be perfect. I cannot forgive their insensitive, second-hand approach to tone and atmosphere.

Andrew Adamson was the director of Shrek, which was also built out of borrowed, junky new-Hollywood gestures (slow-mo running from a giant explosion, etc.). At the time, I (and most other people, I think) thought they were making fun of that stuff – they certainly got away with it because they framed it that way. But at the time, one of my friends complained that Shrek seemed to him truly secondhand, nerdy and ingrown, and in retrospect, I think he may have been right. In Narnia, which has no claim to being a “parody” of anything, the bullshit is still slathered on suffocatingly thick in every scene. The final battle begins with a near-silent shot of the two armies racing at each other, whooshing into violent sound when they hit. You know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen it before. Like, on Xbox. The whole movie seemed to have been directed that way: “Yeah, then the wolves will, like, run at the camera and we’ll do one of those things where the middle one, like, jumps over it, you know what I mean?” “I totally know what you mean.” “Yeah, and then when he’s fighting this guy, he’ll like whip the sword around before he gets him with it, like, whop whop whop BOOM, you know?” “Totally.”

Production design was pretty good. Some CGI animals were better than others; talking animal effects were done well. The goat-leg effect was very nicely handled. Tilda Swinton did a good bad guy, I thought, actually playing the personality traits of selfishness and cruelty rather than just “being evil.” The kids were okay – the little girl had the heaviest screen-time-to-age ratio to carry and did a very good job. The other girl was very conscientious but didn’t seem to know how best to maneuever the big lips that got her cast in the first place. The “bad” kid, Edmund, had the right young Brit look and used it serviceably. The eldest brother, Peter, looked like Prince William and that was about it for him.

After the screening, the director, the producer, the four kids, the ice queen, and the goat man were all present. The ice queen and the goat man both made a point of referring to their own “bad acting” and sliding sideways out of questions about their thoughts on the film. Even the kids – who at this early stage of their long publicity tour were, we imagined, practicing their faux-interview skills on us – even the kids seemed reluctant to say outright that they liked the movie, though they eventually found their way into saying stuff like “it actually surpassed my expectations.” The youngest girl, Georgie Henley, was extremely composed and well-spoken for a 10-year-old, which of course got chuckles from the audience. I thought she was charming too, and also felt guilty that I was participating in this “isn’t that precocious!” response that was probably fairly demeaning to her. When asked whether she wanted to stick with acting as a career, she answered, seriously, “Well, I’m still very young. I’m interested in many different things – right now I just think of acting kind of as an option.” Everyone chuckled, even though this was a perfectly reasonable, intelligent answer. Georgie, I’m sorry. I’m also sorry that the movie is so junky, but you seemed like you’ll rise above it.

Tilda Swinton, by the way, had her hair dyed a violent, flourescent yellow and, in this context, came off as an alien visitor from celebrity-fashion land, possibly dangerous. Adamson, by contrast, seemed like a total long-haired tech geek. But that’s superficial of me.

One of his comments, I think, sheds some light on the movie’s horribleness. He said that unlike The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, this book posed problems for an adaptation not because it required cutting back but because it required fleshing-out: C.S. Lewis leaves important things unsaid and sketches his characters lightly. As examples of things that were added, Adamson mentioned various creature designs and the cracking-ice action sequence in the middle of the movie. But he missed the broader problem: Lewis didn’t create real characters or give us real reasons to care about them. The movie needed to show us something to get us involved; instead it dumps the same old garbage on us.

Ugh – I could just keep going on about this but I guess I should move on with my life.

Here is the only picture I could find of the first edition cover. Now, I’m not saying the movie should have looked like this illustration… but still, something to think about.


* It’s taken more than another whole week for me to actually write this and post it. Oops.

** Beth is telling me that, in fact, Aslan just told him to “clean his sword” (in the river, we must assume), and the next shot, of the sword entering the ground, was a cut-ahead to later, as he prepared to be knighted. Yeah, maybe. Whatever.

November 7, 2005

Why people don’t like math

Here comes another exercise in stating the obvious just because I happened to be thinking about it.


About a year ago, on a whim, I bought a nice “fifteen puzzle” (the boring granddaddy of all sliding block puzzles). I can’t say I play with it all that often (it’s the sort of thing that benefits from infrequency), but the other day I had it with me on the subway and was fooling around with it. The little booklet that comes with it is written in a sort of retro/quaint mode and, alongside the various challenges (1-15 vertically! 1-15 backward! Evens on top! Odds on top!) it encourages you to make up your own patterns and then see whether they’re possible or not. “There’s no way of knowing until you try!” it says.* Because, you see, not every conceivable pattern of 1-15 can be created with one of these things. Some of them are logically impossible to reach.

This was the crux of Sam Loyd’s infamous 1870s “14-15 puzzle” hoax-contest, wherein a $1000 prize was offered to anyone who could set the numbers in order, from an initial position where the 14 and 15 were swapped. It’s impossible.**

The principle, to the degree that I understand it, is that only positions that entail an even number of tile-swaps can be reached (unlike the odd-numbered single swap of 14-15). There are several ways of demonstrating this, some simpler than others, but, and this is the important thing, they all involve some sort of constructed argument, a la “since each move entails a shift of one blah blah, we can reason that only an even number of shifts blah blah meaning that the parity blah blah.” They lead us down a logical path away from our actual experience of the thing, toward a law that is perfectly correct and absolutely abstract, a law that I can just barely comprehend, much less hold in my head in any way that will affect my experience of the puzzle. The only real way to incorporate this law into my experience of the puzzle is to know that it exists but is, for my purposes, more or less inscrutable.

This is why the booklet cheerily tells us that “there’s no way of knowing until you try!” Because, though this is untrue, it is, unavoidably, the way we experience the puzzle. If you showed me a pattern and asked me if it was solvable, I would have to say that while math could answer that question, I personally could not. I would have to take recourse to wielding math.

This is not a problem. The problem is that, while the underlying law that governs the 15-puzzle is beyond what any person can intuit, the fact that there is an underlying law is absolutely clear. When you’re moving those damned numbers around trying to get two of them to switch places, you begin to feel with some certainty that some higher order is working against you. It is intuitively clear in an immediate, non-abstract way, that some kind of all-powerful law blocks your way. And – and this is the reason people don’t like math – nobody wants to believe that the immovable force in their way is a concept too abstract for the human mind to ever really process. It’s upsetting and unsatisfying, in exactly the sense that actually solving such a puzzle is satisfying.

Or take Nim, which I just played for a long time, getting creamed again and again and again by this stupid computer until I cheated and looked up how to win.

Play it for a bit. You know that something is going on here, some kind of principle – you can feel it! – and you can also see how self-contained and simple the whole thing is. Your gut tells you that soon you’ll figure out the strategy, like you eventually did for tic-tac-toe, and start winning. But you don’t. Why? Because you’re looking for something that has to do with moving the little circles, when in fact the real underlying principle involves bitwise XOR. That’s right, there is no simpler way to explain the underlying order of the game than to express the game state as an “exclusive or” operation applied to the positions of the circles converted into numerical values in binary. Once you view it this way, in fact, it’s not a game at all; winning becomes completely deterministic. Also, once you view it this way, you’ve stopped playing the game and started doing math.

The great horrible revelation that math offers is that the order underlying the universe is both knowable and totally unsympathetic. You can work it out on paper, but it will never fit in your head. A lot of people HATE hearing that. It’s so unsatisfying as to feel almost offensive. You’re telling me that when I felt like I was matching wits with some clever opponent, doing this 15-puzzle, I was actually matching wits with some kind of faceless, alien sort of truth that can only be hinted at in complete abstraction, with a bunch of numbers? You’re telling me that I’m supposed to shake hands with this creepy thing that can’t see, touch, or even think about directly?

The long history of bad early science is all about people making up theories that felt like they might be right – like, that maybe the world was made of, uh, heavy stuff, and wet stuff, and airy stuff, and I guess fire. That seems like it covers pretty much everything. Good guess, guys, but the correct answer would be that the world is made up of… well, actually the truth is so alien that it can’t really be described in normal language, but if you study for several years I can begin to explain it to you. Numbers are your best bet. Whatever that crazy stuff is, for now you should just know this: it’s indifferent to you and me, and it’s the correct answer. I bet it’s a relief to finally know the truth, huh?

The scientifically/mathematically-minded want to believe that the manifest CORRECTNESS of math and science are enough to win anybody over. But they are overlooking the fact that it is unsatisfying to the point of being disturbing, for many people, to think that the path to truth is the path away from actual personal understanding. This is why religions that offer no correct answers and no justifications can still flourish – because the wrong answers they offer are at least humanly assimilable. The human desire to make up superstitions is never going to be squelched – given the choice between believing that you might get cancer if you step on a crack, or believing that you might get cancer if the combinatoric matrix of all the molecules in the universe align in ways more complicated than anyone will EVER be able to express or comprehend, there’s really no contest. One might be correct but it is fundamentally impossible to believe it. Only on paper.

So: that’s why people don’t like math. The kid says to the math teacher, “I don’t want to do these integrals. I can’t relate to them,” and the teacher says, encouragingly, “Oh don’t worry, nobody can relate to them! They’re truth!” People don’t like math because it makes them feel hopeless and insignificant, and reminds them of their own mortality. No, I’m serious!

My point is that math and science educators need to accept that theirs will always be an uphill battle against human nature, that they are denying us the things that make us feel secure, and that real math and science education needs to offer some kind of philosophical perspective to help cushion that fall. I’m all for the fall, though.

Um, so here’s a little list of some of the good puzzle links.

MathPuzzle (heavy duty!)
The Sliding Block Puzzle Page

Let me close by saying that I, for one, always kind of liked math. But I have come to believe that this was a reflection of my personal way of dealing with the universe; as a child, I rarely felt the need to forge any kind of personal relationship to information to feel that I had assimilated it. People like me took math in stride – any kind of abstract manipulation just was what it was. But that tied in, I think, to my tendency not to try to make any sense beyond the surface of books or movies, just to accept them for whatever they were. I basically led a low-empathy existence. That kind of mental philosophy has its benefits and its shortcomings, and at any rate I’m in a rather different place now. But the people for whom empathy and understanding are linked, and there are many such people, can’t just dive into all those numbers; they’re frightening. Math teachers gotta understand that; that’s all.

* Or something like that. I don’t have it on me right now.

** And also, Sam Loyd didn’t actually invent it.

November 7, 2005

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

directed by Michael Winterbottom
screenplay by Martin Hardy
after the novel by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767)

After finishing the book just recently, obviously I had to see this.

With adaptations the question is always “is it a good adaptation?” This means: does the movie fulfill whatever fantasies are called to mind by the phrase “movie version of Tristram Shandy?” In this case I think that the answer is almost entirely yes. The main things I would want from a movie version of Tristram Shandy: visualizations of the characters and locations, and reenactments of some of the funny dialogue. Definitely there. My one reservation would be that the overall 18th-century “look” was just the same natural-light on-location-at-a-manor-house stuff that I’ve seen on PBS so many times, and the various actors never exactly disappeared into the parts, so I didn’t quite get that full feeling that I was getting to see it really happen. I just got the feeling that I was seeing a very charming performance of it. But that was good enough. Given the film-within-a-film construction (about which more in just a second), that kind of remove was probably appropriate (and/or inevitable).

Let me be clear: you get to see all kinds of stuff from the book that you’d want to see: the siege of Namur, Uncle Toby whistling Lillabullero, a slideshow of famous men with long noses, etc. etc. A good part of the long scene with Toby, Walter Shandy, and Dr. Slop preparing for Tristram’s birth is included, but what takes 100 pages in the book is here only a few seconds – as you might imagine – and I ended up worrying that as a result, a lot of the fairly absurd dialogue, quickly delivered, was probably flying over the heads of the audience members who hadn’t read the book. And I think that might have been the case. This movie is certainly going to be more satisfying to those who read the book first. But my moviegoing companion, who had not read the book, thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even though she said that she did indeed feel a little removed from it at the beginning.

So far, I have only been talking about the beginning. If you’ve read anything about this movie, you already know that it’s an adaptation in the Adaptation sense – after a little while, the movie veers off into meta-movie land and thereafter only returns to Tristram Shandy for brief interludes. The movie is, in fact, mostly about Steve Coogan (played by Steve Coogan), the lead actor in a movie version of Tristram Shandy. Yup, it’s one of those. But the lovely thing is that, just as in Adaptation, the movie-about-a-movie still has claim to being an adaptation of the source material, which itself is more concerned with “the making of” than it is with telling a story. Just as in the book, the meta- play is partly meant to get at philosophical issues of the interactions between life and its own representation, and partly just for fun.

In fact, as far as layering goes, the movie complicates things well beyond the book. The PBS-ish movie-within-the-movie is itself a playful affair, wherein adult Tristram walks into a scene of his childhood and complains that the child representing him is not playing the part correctly, etc. If carried out throughout, THAT movie could well have stood alone as a complete representation of the complexities of the book. But then the “real” actors are added on top of that, and then finally at the end we see the “real” real actors coming out of a screening room where they seem to have watched the meta-movie itself. I was reminded of, yes, The Muppet Movie, which is a movie about a bunch of characters in a screening room watching a movie about themselves wherein they come to Hollywood and make a movie about themselves. A similar kind of playfulness here, though it obviously creates a different emotional effect. It’s also worth saying that it creates a different emotional effect from the comparatively claustrophobic Adaptation.

The whole movie is played very mildly, emotionally low-key (just like actual on-set documentaries and, indeed, most real social life), and yet in a few key places flirts tastefully with having sentimental content. I thought this was exactly in keeping with Sterne’s worldview. That’s the other thing I would want from an adaptation of Tristram Shandy – something that captured that particular feeling of how the world is both delightfully and distressingly frivolous. A good deal of the screen time is taken up by chatty British humor and some Christopher Guest-ish deadpan character comedy, but the construction, and the grounding of Tristram Shandy, make it all add up to more than that as a whole. It’s really a sort of portrait of an everyman type, this Steve Coogan/Tristram Shandy/Laurence Sterne guy, a self-centered guy not entirely sure what is worth wanting, trying to figure out what kind of order can possibly be imposed on life. The closest thing to a dramatic plot involves him flirting with a production runner named Jennie while his girlfriend Jenny is visiting the set with their baby, and even that is played as low to the ground as possible.

It’s actually quite remarkable to me, thinking back on it, that a balance was struck that made all these elements seem to cohere and serve a worthy thematic purpose. I can see a thousand ways that a movie like this could have fallen apart at the seams. But somehow it all just felt right – so natural almost as to seem slight, while I was watching it. My appreciation for it has, I think, grown in retrospect.

Music was all borrowed from other movies, including several cues by Michael Nyman, whose smart/stupid classical/minimal style, which often rubs me the wrong way, was here exactly right.

I do however think that the title is ungainly, though I understand how they ended up with it (the movie being neither Tristram Shandy nor NOT Tristram Shandy).

I saw this at the New York Film Festival screening (which, at time of writing, is pretty much the only thing mentioned on the movie’s official website) and so Michael Winterbottom, the two leads, and some downplayed dude (I believe it was producer Andrew Eaton) came up on stage for a little Q & A thingy afterward. Actually, they first showed themselves when they stood up from box seats to receive applause, and I thought “Whoa, did they just watch their own movie so that they could listen to our response?” I think I would have found myself laughing louder had I known. My understanding was that after the first couple showings, filmmakers didn’t do that. Though I suppose that this was probably only the 20th showing, or something, so perhaps they weren’t quite completely fed up with it yet.

The Q’s were, as always, fairly embarrassing. It must be some kind of principle of self-selection at work – Q & A session questions seem always to be either 1) eccentric and/or ornery, 2) not questions, or 3) questions that have already been answered. In 2000 I saw Woody Allen give what was being promoted as a “rare” Q & A session to promote Small Time Crooks, during which he was 1) asked where he got the glasses that appeared in one character’s apartment (A: I don’t know) and 2) badly told one of his own jokes from his stand-up act of 35 years ago (A: Yeah). I wish there was a 3) so that I could round this out, but I don’t recall any more; I just remember cringing through the whole thing.

For Tristram, the ornery question came from a guy who asked “This obviously wasn’t the book, why didn’t you just film the book?” and then when given the expected answer, pressed the question again with obvious irritation, and then grumbled audibly when the director wrapped up his second version of the answer. The 2) non-question came from a woman who told everyone what she thought the “womb” sequence meant. The moderator did her the favor of turning this around in his on-mike rephrase, as “basically, what was the meaning of the womb sequence?”

At this point, it occurred to me that I had a question to ask, so I raised my hand, and got called on, but as I started to speak I was cut off by some guy shouting out 3) a question that had already been answered. Namely, were any scenes actually improvised? The moderator had started things off by asking that very question. The answer, by the way, is pretty much, “just the obviously-improvised silly conversations that bookend the movie.”

Then I finally got my chance. I’m leading up to this like my asking a question was a big event, but, well, for me it was. For those three seconds, I ran the risk of annoying everyone in Alice Tully Hall, not to mention some minor celebrities whose movie I had just seen. For a non-famous, non-performing-in-Alice-Tully-Hall guy like me, having that many ears on you at once is a rare occasion, and primitive social-structure instincts come to the foreground. It’s hard to fight that inner law of conformity that says: When there are 700 people present, you will not call undue attention to yourself. So, sad to say, that sort of moment feels significant both before and after, even though it adds up to nothing.

Well, it does add up to my getting an answer from Michael Winterbottom, so, in order to turn my moment of glory into a public service, and also to hopefully exorcise the moment from my brain, where I keep running over it (apparently just to be really really sure that I did not make a 700-person faux pas, which I obviously did not) – I offer you the exchange in its entirety, as best I can remember it:

Me: How do you see the Jenny character as relating to the original book?

Moderator: The question is how the character of Jenny as she appears in the movie compares to the character from the book. I guess that’s a question for Michael.

Beth: (to me, quietly, during the pause) There are two. [i.e. there are two characters named Jenny in the movie, so my question is perhaps ambiguous]

Me: (full voice) Either one, really.

[I then proceed to be distracted from the answer because I worry that it sounded like I was saying that the question could be directed to “either one” of the men on stage – though there are four – and that maybe saying “either” about four men made me sound crazy and people are annoyed with me, just as I have been annoyed with pretty much everyone to ask a question thus far]

Winterbottom: Well, Jenny in the book is his wife* and Tristram is really writing it all to her. She doesn’t actually appear, but there are these sort of apostrophes to her scattered through the book. When Sterne wrote the book he was just a parish priest, he wasn’t famous at all, and then the book was a huge success [he said some other stuff here, while my mind was racing distractedly] and he would leave his wife at his house in Sutton-in-the-Forest**, and he took a place in London and began to spend all his time in high society. And he dealt with a lot of the same issues that would come up for a celebrity today. So there are connections there, just not necessarily to the book.

I had asked because I felt like the sad/creepy possibility of romantic unfaithfulness that hung over the character in the movie was not really something that showed up in the world of the novel, and I wondered whether they had intended it as extrapolation from or contrast to the book. But it makes some sense that it both seemed foreign to the book and yet was intended as relevant to Sterne’s own life – his unfaithfulness to his own wife was apparently a blind spot for him. Here’s a related dumb anecdote that has been reprinted in several places. For all I know it’s completely apocryphal:

Sterne, who used his wife very ill, was one day talking to Garrick in a fine sentimental manner, in praise of conjugal love and fidelity. “The husband,” said Sterne, “who behaves unkindly to his wife, deserves to have his house burnt over his head.” “If you think so,” said Garrick, “I hope your house is insured.”

Garrick = David Garrick (1717-1779), actor, playwright, theater producer.

* Apparently, though not necessarily. In fact, Shandy ends one chapter by pointing out that we are jumping to conclusions if we simply make the obvious assumption that she is his wife.

** Of course, I don’t actually remember him saying that, but that’s where Sterne lived, and I trust that Winterbottom got it right.

November 4, 2005

North By Northwest (1959)

directed by Alfred Hitchcock
written by Ernest Lehman

On the big screen! I strained to find details that I had never seen before; I wanted to believe that projected from real live film, the movie would seem newly rich and luxurious, that I would be seeing it “for real” for the first time. But of course I’ve seen it for real before. If anything, the image on the old print we saw was duller and muddier than the one on the DVD.

Furthermore, I’m not sure how much this movie benefits from the big-screen treatment, at this point in history. We all know that it’s a rollicking tale of adventure full of crazy spectacles – like a man being run down by an airplane! – but when it comes down to it, those few famous spectacles weren’t exactly characteristic of Hitchcock or of this movie as a whole. For me, the big screen accentuated not the excitement but the 1959-ness of a movie that, for pure sensory impact, can’t actually compete with any of the much, much more flamboyant movies made in the past 45 years. Somehow, on the small screen, I can still watch this movie and think it’s exciting without having to make any serious historical acommodations. On the big screen, I felt like the compact and almost stage-y quality of a lot of the movie had been stretched too thin. I was forced, to my dismay, to see some of it as exciting in an old-fashioned way, rather than simply as exciting.

Of course, my willingness to see North By Northwest as evergreen is only something I acquired at some point in my teenage years. I recall that when I first saw it, at a young age, I found some aspects so dated as to be inaccessible. The opening scenes, in particular, irritated me. “Why is he being such a jerk?” I asked my mother, as Cary Grant snapped and chattered smarmily at his secretary, lied to get a cab, and generally acted like a jerk. “He’s supposed to be funny and charming,” she told me. Well, now, of course, I see it that way. But there’s a fine line between insufferable and charming, and I guess I had to learn a few things about 1959 before I could know where to place that line.

Oddly, when I first saw it, I think the thing in the movie that most thoroughly impressed me was the moment when Cary rubs a pencil on a pad of paper to see the indentations left by a message written on the previous page. Nowadays, that moment strikes me as one of the goofier examples of Ernest Lehman’s penchant for treating cornball stuff like it’s incredibly clever. (“What possessed you to come blundering in here like this? Could it be an overpowering interest in art?” “Yes, the art of survival!”) But at the age of 10, or whatever I was, I thought that pad-and-pencil thing was great – just like Encyclopedia Brown! Nothing is cornball the first time around.*

Another reason I like seeing familiar movies with audiences is because it allows me to see the otherwise-hidden “laugh points” that define a movie’s rhythms. On the other hand, it can be isolating to see an audience laughing at something that has long since ceased, for you, to be laugh-related. I remember a filmmaker/teacher of mine once saying that she was always a little taken aback when she heard laughing in response to her film, because she had lived with it for so long that she had to think to remember why people were laughing. This is, interestingly, not at all the case with live theater, where the actors have to engage with the jokes every time they tell them. At least up to a point. Maybe in truly long-running shows, the performers start to feel like they’re performing some inscrutable ceremony, with responsory laughing as part of the text.

I remember being stunned when a friend, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark with me for what was, for her, the first time, laughed at the end of the opening sequence when it was revealed that Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. I couldn’t believe I knew anyone who was still able to sniff out the truffle of that particular laugh, buried so deep under the pile of general cultural exposure. I felt something similar, on a smaller scale, when I watched North By Northwest with an audience.

Does it make me an anti-social creep that when the audience laughed heartily at “I feel heavyish. Put a note on my desk in the morning: ‘Think thin’,” I felt like something was going terribly wrong?

Another case of feeling anti-social: right after Mrs. Thornhill said “Roger, pay the two dollars!” the awful guy behind me leaned over to the girl he was with and said, in a little nerdy voice that you’ll have to imagine, “That later became a very famous line that people would say.”

To the degree that this guy was saying anything at all and not just grandstanding for his date, he got it wrong: “Pay the two dollars” is the refrain from an old vaudeville skit wherein a lawyer fights and fights a two-dollar fine for spitting until he gets his hapless client sentenced to death. This skit was apparently well-known (and appeared in the 1946 movie of the Ziegfeld Follies), and so we can assume that Roger’s fine is not, in fact, only two dollars – which would be beyond absurd, considering that he is being accused of stealing a car, driving drunk, and causing damage to a police car – but rather that Mrs. Thornhill is making reference to the line as a way of saying, simply, “just pay the fine instead of fighting and making it worse.” The punchline-y music, however, suggests that Bernard Herrmann, for one, didn’t understand the reference. Perhaps neither did Hitchcock. I just read online that Ernest Lehman talks about all this on his DVD commentary track, which comes as news to me. I thought I’d watched it all the way through but none of this sounds familiar. Guess I’d better watch it now.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I recently lucked into some unpublished movie score materials, including this beloved score. My reaction to seeing these notes on the page was just the opposite of my reaction to seeing John Williams’ scores; whereas there I was impressed by by how much thought and effort went into effects that are just barely noticed, here I thought, “wow, this music, which is so impressive in the movie, amounts to so little.” I’d known it before – in this movie in particular it’s really in your face – but it was really driven home: Bernard Herrmann just takes simple sequences and extends them to fill however much time is needed. You’d think that upon seeing the score, you’d find out that, sure, it’s based on a simple sequence but it’s been subtly adjusted to sync up with the movie. But nope. Most of the time, he just does his thing without making any accomodations to the screen action. Check out this cue (wherein Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau secretly confer right under Cary Grant’s nose by calling each other from opposite ends of a row of phone booths):

It’s truly, in every sense, musical wallpaper. And yet the effect is so strong, despite the utter indifference of this music to the specific action onscreen. Sometimes continuity, the mere impression of coherence and intentionality, can be the most important thing for music to impart to a movie. I already understood this principle and I was still taken aback by how incredibly bare this music is. Because the effect isn’t one of bareness at all; just as, in a room with patterned wallpaper, one almost never thinks, “this pattern is so spare!” Almost any pattern at all seems rich and enveloping.

Another thought about Bernard Herrmann: his style is the intersection of Richard Wagner and Aaron Copland. When you think about it, it’s amazing that those two composers even have an intersection, and Herrmann hits it consistently. I haven’t heard very much of Herrmann’s non-film output (in particular, he wrote an opera on Wuthering Heights), but it seems like his works didn’t come close to exhausting the potential of this particular stylistic niche, which is such a intriguing synthesis of the romantic and the anti-romantic. I’m not sure that’s a style that I personally would want to write in, but I’m be very curious to hear someone take a shot at it. I generally am attracted to styles that try to achieve a synthesis of sentiment and, simultaneously, disdain for sentiment. As are many people my age, I think. It’s in the air these days. And isn’t the score to Vertigo exactly that, in its way?

I think Stephen Sondheim said that in writing Sweeney Todd he took Bernard Herrmann’s style as a model…and that work has gone on to be seen as a uniquely successful high/low synthesis. Of course, Sondheim clearly thought of it as a kind of special trick, a pastiche, because he’s never really turned back to that style.** But it still seems ripe to me, as are most of the many rashly abandoned branches on the musical family tree. The question, as always, is not whether a style has inherent potential but whether you can talk people into listening to it. Sticking something in the background a movie is, of course, a good way to talk people into anything. As the Coca-Cola people will tell you.

* Nothing I can think of, at least. I’m only talking about cornball, here, not to be confused with kitsch, schlock, or trash.

** Well, maybe in Passion, sort of.

November 1, 2005

As promised: Prometheus light show!

Several months ago, I promised a “multimedia presentation” to accompany my comments on Scriabin’s Prometheus. Well, here it is. Thanks for your patience.

The rambling below was meant to precede the show, but I’ve been advised that that’s not the way to do things, so here you go. Click on the picture of Scriabin’s pathetic personal 12-bulb doodad below to see the animation in a new window. It might take it a second to load the music clip. Yes, it just starts in the middle of the action like that.


Okay, so, now that you’ve seen that – to recap: the piece is scored for piano, orchestra, and “light keyboard,” the last of which is an imaginary instrument, notated like an organ, that produces colored light. The part for this tastiera per luce is a single staff at the top of the score and contains two voices*: one very slow (each note generally lasting for an entire section of the piece) and the other somewhat faster, generally moving whenever the harmony changes.

These notes (if read in the normal way, i.e. as musical notes and not colors) correspond to the harmonies in the music. What I just said is only very roughly accurate, but right now I don’t feel like going into technical detail about how Scriabin’s harmonic thinking actually works – I can hear the massed forces of the academy marching on the other side of that particular ridge. For our purposes let’s just say that every note in the piece is drawn out of a certain chord, which gets transposed all over the place, and every note in the luce part is what Scriabin thought of as the “root” of that chord, at that point in the music.

Why are there two voices? The faster-moving voice reflects the musical foreground; the slower-moving voice reflects the underlying harmony, a harmony which is not always necessarily being played, though it often is, at least in part. This is a lot like the distinction, in normal harmonic analysis, between the key that a piece (or section) is in and the chord that is actually being played at a given time. But the issue gets confused here because I’m talking about “harmonies” as opposed to “keys” – and because, like I said above, I’m not really talking about “harmonies,” – they’re really more like “scales” or “chords that are treated as scales.” Scriabin boasted, with good reason, that in this work, melody and harmony were indistinguishable.** “Tonalities,” I suppose you could say, though it’s a bit misleading. The extremely loaded word “set” is actually fairly appropriate to Scriabin, but I’m not going there.***

Whatever these harmony-ish things are, they govern the music, Scriabin identified them with certain notes, and Scriabin identified certain notes with certain colors. So those are the colors meant to be produced by the light keyboard: the colors of the two harmonies that make up the music at a given point; the underlying “what key are we in” harmony, and the moment-to-moment harmony.

I think I read somewhere that Scriabin intended the underlying color to appear as a sort of field against which the other colors would appear. I can’t find that quote right now, and maybe I just made it up. Anyway, it seems reasonable enough. I know for certain he said something about envisioning the lights as tongues of flame.

This multimedia presentation (read: cartoon) is basically the result of my being curious to see whether it would add anything to my appreciation of the music to see it with the intended colors. The colors you see in the animation are taken directly from the indications in the score (via Scriabin’s “color wheel” as compiled by Bulat Galeev and included in the Dover edition of the score), and handled with a little license, in order to suit the animation. The musical excerpt is from early on in the piece; it’s the first statement of the main theme in its extended form, the same material that will come back near the end with terrifying grandeur. All but the very end of the excerpt have the underlying pitch of B-flat: “Rose (or Steel).” Then, just as the excerpt is ending comes the shift to B natural: “Blue (or Pearly Blue).”

As you see, I put the “Rose (or Steel)” background through a lot of changes (some of which might be a bit much, I admit), and at one point it is overwhelmed by the foreground. But to my mind this is in keeping with the harmonic life of the piece, and hopefully the formal sense of the whole still reflects the formal progress of the piece more or less faithfully. Of course, the excerpt is so short (about 2 minutes out of the 23 in the piece) that you can’t really get a sense of form – the best I can hope for is that this all feels like one coherent “section,” with a new section about to begin at the very end, and with one very brief premonition of yet a different section popping up for a second.

My other motivating interest, here, is in the possibility that well-choreographed music visualizations might be able to actually elucidate the formal design of the music they reflect; Fantasia as actual music education, so to speak. Far too often (even in Oskar Fischinger’s work) the logic behind animation-to-music is not inherently musical. I tried hard to keep the “sense” of the music in the details of the choreography. But it’s very difficult not to let this stuff become merely fanciful… This is something that I think about a lot and I’ll probably be working up a few more of these things in the future.

I dunno, I have a lot more than that to say about my choices here and whether they are good ones, but maybe now’s not the time.

What this is: Animation to part of Prometheus, based on the colors prescribed in the score (at least by name), and attempting to reflect the music visually in a musically-relevant way.

What this is not: A realization of Scriabin’s light keyboard part and/or a visualization of Scriabin’s stated conception of the piece. If I had a team of really good animators, though, I would love to try something like that. If anyone out there wants to fund that project, by all means bring it on.

* For you non-musicians, that means two notes are playing at any given time. Although sometimes one voice takes a break, and sometimes the two voices coincide on the same note, but they are still notated as distinct.

** His boasting quote continues with a lovely image, at least in translation: “There is not a wasted note, not a wedge where a mosquito could get in and bite.”

*** But I do want to note here that a “normal” harmonic analysis of Prometheus – i.e. one based on the standard tonal system (which, I would argue, governs the way we hear the piece regardless of how it was constructed) would not, generally, name Scriabin’s notes as the functional harmonies. In fact, it would not always agree with Scriabin as to when the harmony was or wasn’t changing. So it is important to recognize that the light keyboard is not showing us “what the harmony is” in any traditional sense – the theoretical constructs to which the colors correspond are themselves totally idiosyncratic to Scriabin.