State of the Union

Why Does Beauty Matter?

Our lives are often happier when they are surrounded by beautiful things, according to a Friday article by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic. He references to a paper written by Abraham Goldberg, professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, in which Goldberg analyzed the tendencies and environments which tend to foster happiness:

The usual markers of happiness are colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth (especially compared to those around you), family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as outlined by London School of Economics professor Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. According to the Goldberg study, however, what makes people happiest isn’t even in the Big Seven. Instead, happiness is most easily attained by living in an aesthetically beautiful city. The things people were constantly surrounded by—lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets—had the greatest effect on their happiness. The cumulative positive effects of daily beauty worked subtly but strongly.

In an attempt to measure this daily happiness, George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, created an iPhone application called Mappiness when he was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. More than 45,000 people now use it, and the concept is simple: The app beeps twice a day and asks a series of questions, such as: How happy are you feeling? How awake do you feel? How relaxed are you? Then it asks another set of questions question to contextualize your situation: Who are you with? Are you inside or outside? As you’re answering these questions, the app tags your location via GPS, and the whole process only takes about 20 seconds. Deceptively simple, the answers to these questions provide a lot of information on happiness. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise (when endorphins are being released).

But the next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

The results of these studies present a few different, interesting components worth considering. First, they continue to affirm what New Urbanists have been saying (both here at TAC, and elsewhere): that the places in which we live matter, and that the cultivation of beautiful spaces has a very immediate impact on the happiness and flourishing of human beings. All the beautiful, place-related things listed in Goldberg’s study—”lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets”—are things that New Urbanists emphasize. Sadly, these sorts of spaces are currently limited to small portions of America. We have some cities that cultivate such an ethos—but living in these beautiful spaces is often egregiously expensive (Alexandria, Virginia is perhaps one of the best examples of this: it is a “super zip” city, according to the definition presented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart). The very environment that contributes most to the peace and happiness of human beings is only available to those who already have at least two other common attributes of happiness: wealth and career. And those who are not so well-established are often cut off, resigned to an ugliness that infiltrates and undermines their overall happiness.

It’s true, however, that there are other more important components to happiness—as noted by MacKerron, romantic and healthful components of life also have something to do with overall happiness. Interestingly, though, both things can be seen as part of cultivating a “beautiful” life. They fits with Roger Scruton’s definition of natural beauty, which he says is an item of intrinsic interest or value—something we can appreciate for its own sake. Cobblestone streets, for interest, are of little utilitarian value. They slow down and impede traffic, they’re less efficient and expedient. Yet, for some reason, we enjoy them. They have a value that transcends the immediate and pragmatic: they’re beautiful.

Similarly, romantic and healthful pursuits, though they often involve selfish motivations, are also usually sought and maintained for a greater good, out of a combined reverence and love that transcend the self. In his book on beauty, Scruton argues that pornography represents the “profanation” of the sexual bond, as it removes it entirely from the realm of intrinsic values, thus turning something inherently good into something inherently self-serving. But sexuality and romance that are sought as goods in and of themselves, to be cultivated and maintained with respect and reverence, can be seen as beautiful objects.

Thirdly, these findings on beauty’s connection to human happiness interestingly parallel modern literature, specifically the study’s emphasis on artistic pursuits. Two of the most popular books published in the past couple years, The Goldfinch and The Fault in Our Stars, revolve around this premise. Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch tells the story of Theodore Decker, a boy whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at a New York City museum. Theo survives the catastrophe, but carries emotional and psychological scars away from the ruins—as well as a small, priceless painting. The rest of Theo’s life, in all of its twists and turns, centers around this secret: that he carries a museum masterpiece with him wherever he goes, burdened yet blessed by it. As I wrote for Acculturated, the book is about beauty, despair, and our desperate search for meaning amidst the chaos of life. Tartt suggests that the only things that last are “beautiful things,” pulled from the wreckage and the fire of life. The Fault in Our Stars presents a similar dark nihilism and obsession with art (though in TFiOS‘s case, the artistic object is a book). Both point to art as our key to happiness in an ugly world.

It’s an interesting concept, especially in a world that so often feels frayed and grotesque. But while beauty may be a necessary part of happiness, it is not sufficient for it. Though one of the first and most important ingredients in human flourishing, other important values must follow in its footsteps—namely, goodness and truth.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn explained this in his 1970 Nobel lecture. In his youth, he read Dostoevsky’s words, “Beauty will save the world,” and was skeptical. But with time, he realized that beauty plays an essential role in cultivating our understanding of goodness and truth:

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

In Solzhenitsyn’s conception, ideas that are not true or good will be ugly when we try to represent them artistically—and thus, their real force shines through. We see this very practically in our towns and cities, our art museums, our plays and films: there are many ugly, incongruent ideas in today’s culture. Their effect on the human person is not one of flourishing, but one of decay.

Solzhenitsyn believed our yearning for beauty is more than a mere aesthetic itch: it’s a siren call of the true and good, the other two trees we have decimated and ignored in modern society. Beauty is pointing us to them, and beckoning us onward. Our desire for New Urbanist cities, with their beauty and community, are part of a larger desire for the goods of community, love, fellowship, rootedness. Our desire for romantic and sexual love reflects a deeper yearning for companionship, camaraderie, unity, love, belonging. Our love of art reflects a deeper attraction to order, loveliness, and—as Delistraty puts it in his article, “surprisingly, hope.” Hope is what emerges out of art: which is why Donna Tartt and John Green (the author of The Fault in Our Stars) vest so much in it.

Beauty is a multi-faceted, mysterious thing that somehow brings happiness to humanity. Yet if we merely absorb its aesthetic pleasures without considering why we enjoy it, we  only receive bestial satiation from its presence. A deeper, more fulfilling realm of inquiry awaits us. We must plunge deeper into our understanding of the beautiful: to ask why it is necessary to human happiness, yet not sufficient. We must consider why beauty calls us “further up, and further in.”

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The Ethics of Disability Metaphors

From the teenage romance between an amputee and an oxygen-tank user in the box-office success The Fault in Our Stars to the conjoined sisters at the circus in the Kennedy Center’s Side Show, representations of disability and difference are prominent as of late. But as Christopher Shinn noted yesterday at The Atlantic, the recent plethora of disabled characters also has another thing in common: they are played by able-bodied actors. Once again, Shinn said, “Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”

Disability is often used as a metaphor for exclusion and subsequent triumph, themes easier to swallow when an actor twitches sensitively across the stage for two hours only to walk back calmly for the curtain call. So it goes exactly in the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at London’s National Theatre, currently showing in cinemas worldwide before it heads to Broadway in the fall.

Based on a popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” is a family drama packaged as a mystery. It is seen from the perspective of a teenager named Christopher with an autistic spectrum disorder that some reviewers have compared to Asperger’s syndrome. The production uses technical elements, from cool blue lighting to projected numerical graphics to dizzying synthesized sound effects, in order to communicate the experience of sensory overload that accompanies neurological conditions like Christopher’s.

Because this manner of presentation merely informs the audience’s experience of a rather simple plot—the titular incident is a quickly resolved mystery, and most of the second act is a train ride—the play, like the book, seems to run counter to the frequent use of disability as plot obstacle and metaphor for triumph. In fact, Christopher remarks that a metaphor “is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. … I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.”

But in the program note for the stage adaptation of “Curious Incident,” Haddon backtracked. Jane Shilling wrote in her review for The Telegraph, “His 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher, exhibits a constellation of quirks that are recognisably on the autistic spectrum, but his behavioural problems are also a metaphor for the solitariness of the human condition. ‘Curious is not really about Christopher,’ Haddon concludes. ‘It’s about us.’”

In navigating the ethical implications of work like Haddon’s, blogger Mary Maxfield suggested that the problem is not using disability as a metaphor, but using disability as a metaphor for the wrong thing. Christopher, a beloved son integrated into his family and school structures, does not fit Shilling’s metaphor for solitariness. Likewise, Haddon’s editorial “us,” unambiguously separated from people with physical and neurological differences, would have the value of certain lived experiences dependent on their contribution to a grander “human experience.”

As Shinn asserts, the inclusion of disabled actors and artists can bring lived experience rather than distant research to the table and facilitate the kind of responsible art Maxfield imagines. But a willingness to tell stories that are about disabled people for their own sake, rather than about disability per se, would be an even more welcome change.


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Carrie White Will Never Die: “Carrie: The Musical” at the Studio Theatre

Carrie is the only book I ever put down because I knew I was too young for it. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade and I was staying with cousins, taking the opportunity to raid their bookshelves. I flipped idly through the book’s opening, got to the shower scene (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), and–for once in my life–realized I was in over my head. The combination of nudity, menstruation, and sadism, all happening to kids just a few years older than I was, overwhelmed me. I’m not ready for this, I thought.

Part of Carrie’s power is that it’s a story about the universal experience of not being ready: for change, for moral responsibility, for life after high school. It’s a story which speaks to the boy sitting in jail, the girl staring at the pregnancy test waiting to see if the second line will show up. We treat youth as a Las Vegas of the soul, but what we do in our youth is as irrevocable as what we do everywhere else.

Spoilers for Carrie–the book, movie, and musical–below.

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Let Them Make Fonts

There must be millions of fonts in the world by now—carefully crafted since the beginning of alphabets, each featuring a swath of slants and shades, kernings and serifs. Yet people are always making more fonts. Is it time to stop? In a piece at The Atlantic called “Why Invent New Fonts?“, author Steven Heller discusses this question with a typeface designer:

House releases one new or revamped alphabet every two months, and “most of the type we draw is initially for our own use,” says Rich Roat, a co-founder of the Yorklyn, Delaware-based digital foundry. Carnival is made for headlines or display copy, and its thick and thin lines are certainly attention-grabbers.
… But given the huge number of typefaces already available, it’s worth wondering why more of them are necessary. Roat’s answer is common but logical: “Why do we need new music, new cars, new clothes?” In fact, type has become part of today’s digital and cultural consumerism. A fashion analogy works here. “Let’s be honest: You buy the Prada suit because the model looks so good in it,” Roat says. “We try to make beautiful things with our fonts for the same reason.”

Roat is right to see consumerism and stylistic preference in font creation and usage today. We like typography to fit our selves, or our businesses—and interestingly, it does offer us a broad palate with which to color our letters. When it comes to company or personal branding, typography can make a world of difference. The variations between New York Times and Garamond may be slight, but the differences between Times and Futura are quite striking. People who see the Facebook logo font can easily tell it apart from Google or Yahoo.Typography helps our eye differentiate between the brands.

Fonts are a form of both visual and literary communication: they capture our attention, and help us to feast on words’ beautiful presentation. They can increase our focus, influence our reading “mood,” or remind us of things like tax forms and picture books. There is often an aura either of dignity or whimsy that accompanies a font, and thus a variety of appropriate situations corresponding to each. Fonts are integral to storytelling and communication—they build our language, communicate our ideas. They draw or repel the eye, depending on their shape, size, and other attributes. Font choices can make or break a story. If we use an inappropriate font, to the story or situation, we run the risk of, at best, losing our readers’ attention, and at worst, opening ourselves up to mockery. This should be evident from the abuse that has been heaped on Comic Sans over the years—it’s quite easy for people to hate a font, or for a font to go out of style.

Nonetheless, each font is an artistic statement. It takes words, and turns them into art. It makes language beautiful to the eye as well as the ear. And despite the millions of fonts in existence, still others—each with their own variety of vintage and modern influences—enter the typographic world every day.

Perhaps eventually we will run out of new font ideas. There are a finite amount of possibilities in the ways we can craft a letter, after all—just as there are a finite number of notes on a piano, or a finite number of colors on a color wheel. But we haven’t stopped writing stories, composing songs, or painting pictures. So I think there’s room for a few more fonts yet.

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Geishas By Gaslight: Kobayashi Kiyochika at the Freer Gallery

Sumida River by Night, Kobayashi Kiyochika; Japan, 1881; Woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Robert O. Muller Collection
Sumida River by Night, Kobayashi Kiyochika; Japan, 1881; Woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Robert O. Muller Collection

The Freer Gallery named their show of wood-block prints by fin de siecle Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika “Master of the Night” (on display through July 27th), but night is ancient and Kiyochika’s work is distinctly modern. His prints show a world in transition. Some of the street scenes might almost be Victorian London; even the rickshaw used to pull a geisha through the night turns out to be a recent import, an innovation. Many of the scenes show people in traditional kimono mixing with bowler-hatted men in Western suits. This was Tokyo, the new capital city, hurrying toward the twentieth century.

Kiyochika’s haunting, color-washed night scenes show him to be on par with Edward Hopper as a poet of artificial light. The show opens with his 1881 “Sumida River by Night,” in which far-off windows glow red, and their light glimmers on the dark river. Gray dusk, slender black trees, and two silhouettes, a kimono-clad and a man in a mix of traditional and Western clothing. Kiyochika’s skies are swathed in slate-blue, gray, and mauve; or they’re jewel-toned, like “Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight,” with its peacock or turquoise sky, glinting water, and drooping fronds. His moons are enormous, surrounded by halos of glowing red or white. He loves to portray light on water: light filtering through umbrellas and broken into shards on the pavement, light caught and gleaming in a river. “Rainy Moon at Gohanmatsu” is a title which gives the general mood of many of these pieces.

The perspective is typically somewhat remote. We’re observers, not participants. The people are usually silhouettes; if they do have faces, these faces are turned away from the viewer. The mood is one of longing, watching–a hushed, secluded feeling in which people mostly fail to connect with one another or with the viewer. It’s a nostalgic feeling, sweetly melancholy, with that characteristic modern edge of alienation. The rain which falls so frequently in these pictures not only lets Kiyochika play with light; it also isolates his people as they run past huddled under their umbrellas.

“Distant View of Ichinohashi Bridge from Sumida River’s Embankment” is a stellar example of this mood. In silhouette, two runners pull a geisha in a rickshaw along the riverbank. Although their running legs and forward-leaning bodies might suggest urgency, the moon glows serenely and from the right side of the frame yearning, curving branches stretch overhead. These curving lines soften the angular lines of the runners and make the scene feel quieter, somehow muffled.

Kiyochika depicted steamboats and warships—more light on the water, this time from cannon fire—and 1879′s propulsive “View of Takanawa Ushimachi Under a Shrouded Moon” shows blood-red smoke coming from a locomotive. The train’s headlights make an artificial dawn. Kimonos under telegraph wires, gas lamps partly hidden by crooked pines. Soot-gray clouds drift in the background. It’s easy to make a firefly-filled night out on a pleasure boat look beautiful, and this show will give you some lovely images of that; but Kiyochika was also capable of 1881′s “Taro Inari Shrine at the Akasuka Rice Fields,” in which a lone figure wanders away (or approaches) under a high full moon. The trees are sparse and bare, the buildings are falling apart, and there is only this small anonymous person under the starless sky. Read More…

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV”: The Story of Prince Hal

Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal and Edward Gero as King Henry IV in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 2. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal and Edward Gero as King Henry IV in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 2. Photo by Scott Suchman.

A prince sits disconsolately in a royal palace, alone—save for a stoic attendant. The prince tries, without success, to get a reaction out of the attendant by making funny faces at him.

Later, he sits at his father’s bedside, staring angrily and fearfully at the crown lying on the covers. He makes a face at the crown, and rebukes it for the weighty worries it holds.

The prince watches his former friends fade away from his life, as an image of England glows behind him—symbolizing a future of duty and difficulty.

These were some of the highlights of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV,” in which Matthew Amendt’s Prince Hal was truly the production’s strongest character. The company’s productions of Parts I and II are being played together at Sidney Harman Hall, and are worth seeing close together, I think, to help the watcher better follow the detailed plot.

Both parts must be understood within the context of their predecessor, “Richard II,” and within their larger tetralogy as a four-part series (“Richard II”, “Henry IV” Parts I and II, and “Henry V”). In “Richard II,” the king of England is deposed through civil war, and King Henry IV takes his place on the throne. But Henry is plagued by guilt over this past, and is determined to go on a crusade, to rectify any wrongs he may have committed in obtaining the throne. Unfortunately for his plans, an outbreak of regional conflicts force the king to stay at home: the discontent and discord quickly foment into rebellion. The main instigators of this rebellion lie within the Percy family, led principally by the young Henry Percy (nicknamed “Hotspur”), a noble but hot-headed young man.

Meanwhile, Henry IV’s eldest son Prince Harry (fondly known by his friends as “Hal”) is living a reckless, dissolute life under the mentorship of a fat and jolly knight named Falstaff. Though Hal knows that, at some point, he will have to take on the mantle of leadership and reform his ways, he is quite content to enjoy a carefree life with Falstaff and his tavern friends for the present. However, underneath Hal’s seeming jollity, there is a shadow of determination and brevity. Amendt captures this inner conflict brilliantly. He noted in an essay that his love for Prince Hal’s character started at a very young age: when he was seven years old, Amendt woke up to find half his face paralyzed. In the weeks of medical tests that followed, Amendt’s mother brought him comfort through an unusual gift:

My Mom, ever the good English teacher, in an effort to still the heart of a panicked, weepy little boy, introduced me to some plays she thought I might like. They featured a young Prince with two sides to his character, almost two faces, one could say, who struggles against all odds to live up to the expectations of the adults around him, who is simultaneously everything, and nothing, to the people he loves. The journey of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, from reprobate drunk to leader of the “band of brothers,” held me in thrall.

Amendt embodies this struggle, as Prince Hal develops from utter carelessness in the first act of Part I, to somber humility in the final scenes of Part II. It’s a remarkable development. Read More…

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Hideous Strength: “Degenerate Art” at the Neue Galerie

Leave it to the Nazis to make charity posters into advertisements for power-worship.

In the late 1930s the Nazi regime created a traveling exhibition which contrasted Fuhrer-approved artworks with “degenerate” works produced by modernists, New Objectivists, and other riffraff. The exhibition was a bizarre contrast to the book-burning and art-destroying we might expect from a totalitarian regime. Instead of preventing people from seeing the art at all, the Nazis encouraged them to view it—but sought to control the viewers’ responses by creating a context in which the displayed art would evoke revulsion or consternation. The totalitarian art was displayed with plenty of light and space, centered in the galleries or on the walls, while the “degenerate” art was crammed together and surrounded by graffiti-like reminders of the regime’s aesthetic judgments. The current show at New York’s Neue Galerie, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” showing through June 30, doesn’t completely replicate this heavy-handed curatorial approach, but it gives enough hints (and striking photos of the Nazi shows) that viewers can get the point.

And what’s perhaps surprising is how much you really can learn about Nazism from this art show. There are pieces which would puzzle contemporary viewers who aren’t steeped in the arguments over abstract expressionism and ideology: What’s so threatening about a sleek Bauhaus armchair? What did Vasily Kandinsky’s interstellar circles ever do to Hitler? But the overall picture which emerges from the Neue Galerie’s show is of a regime which worshiped strength and hated weakness. Although the Nazis reviled artists for “mocking religion,” the religion most clearly displayed in their preferred artworks was not the cult of Jesus but of Mars.

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“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Ode to a World That Once Was

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.

Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”

While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.

But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.

The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.

Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Read More…

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Richard Powers and the Blown-Up Cultural Narrative

J Blough / Flickr.com
J Blough / Flickr.com

Andrew Leonard has a fascinating, if discursive, profile in Salon of the novelist Richard Powers. In it, Powers registers a note of discontent with the proliferation of both pop-musical content—the “insane torrent,” as he puts it in his latest novel Orfeo—and all the digital mechanisms that deliver it today.

“Suppose you were born in 1962 and you are coming into your own and music starts to become essential to you,” says Powers. “You are right on the tail end of that sort of folk rock thing, but you are aware historically of how these guys were revolting in a way against the previous generation. And because of the nature of the distribution mechanisms that you talk about, where it’s two radio stations and one record store, there’s a saturation effect for whatever is in vogue and there has to be a countervailing cultural move just to refresh our ears. And that’s the start of punk.

“So you can see these revolutions and counter-revolutions and you can see a historical motion to popular music and it’s thrilling and you want to know what happens next. The state that you just described of permanent wonderful eclectic ubiquitous interchangeable availability — there’s no sense of historical thrust.”

Leonard sums up the point thus: “Universal ubiquity has blown up the narrative.”

There’s something to this, I think. Granted, I’m pushing 40; I’m not as hip to trends as I was when I was a kid, and certainly not when I was covering them for a daily newspaper. But the point is, it’s undeniably the case that it was once fairly easy for a casual music fan to keep abreast of the latest thing. Right up until the early aughts and the passel of “The [monosyllabic plural-noun]” bands playing neo-garage rock: that’s the last time I can remember there being some kind of identifiable “movement” in rock music.

Now there is no one thing.

As a caveat, I will admit it’s somewhat rockist to think along these lines. Just because Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or Robin Thicke aren’t trad-rock frontmen, why can’t they be seen as the vanguard of an eclectic dance-pop revival?

Point taken.

And part of the fragmentation that Powers laments isn’t even technologically-driven; it’s generational and racial. Much of what we would’ve called rock music 30 years ago now falls under the rubric of country music. It’s Top 40 for white people. It’s blues-based rock tricked out with splashes of fiddle and pedal-steel. (Bruce Springsteen astutely noticed this recently: “country music is kind of where rock music has gone, really, at this point … It’s basically kind of pop-rock music … It’s where rock music continues to have a certain currency.”)

So, a good chunk of the energy in rock-ish songwriting is devoted to the Nashville machine, which critics don’t take terribly seriously and hence wouldn’t bother to suss out trends that fit on the continuum of Powers’s reaction/counter-reaction “historical thrust.”

All that said, I suspect Powers is right. We’ve probably seen the last of swing-turns-to-bop or prog-is-wiped-out-by-punk cultural shifts in popular music. Powers seems to quite openly admit that these shifts had been abetted by self-styled tastemakers, who have seen a drastic decline in influence over the last 15 years. He argues unabashedly that the culture desperately requires those media filters.

I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Then again, I say that having come of age in a culture that had filters. I say I can do without them. But I was shaped by them. What about my kids’ generation: how will they know what’s good, what’s worth listening to, what (as a Clash fan would have put it) matters?

They’ll be free of a “narrative” imposed from above. Instead they will have the “insane torrent.”

Everything will be at their fingertips.

But perhaps they will miss greatness right under their noses.

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Folger’s “Richard III”: Something Rotten in the State of England

Richard III (Drew Cortese) / Teresa Wood
Richard III (Drew Cortese) / Teresa Wood

The Folger Theatre’s production of Richard III is the first production the institution has ever staged in the round. As the audience surrounds the stage, their eyes are all turned inward, to a center that cannot hold. But in this production, the complex character shattering under the strain of internal divisions isn’t the titular King; it’s the land he rules.

From his first entrance, Richard III (Drew Cortese) seems oddly unburdened for Shakespeare’s antihero. His limp is a loping skip, so exaggerated that I wondered if it was meant to be an affectation employed by Richard-the-character to discomfit his targets. However, that kind of artifice would be out of step with the unusual forthrightness of his spite in this production. Whether he’s seducing Anne, accusing the Queen, or ordering the execution of Hastings, he is quick and vicious, never charming or manipulative.

It seemed like the audience’s unique perspective was being carried over from his soliloquies and asides to the entire text of the play. We witnessed Richard’s naked contempt, even as he presumably presented a more flattering face to his targets.

But that hypothesis was disproved by Act III, Scene VII, when the audience was finally explicitly cast as Richard’s audience. As his accomplices, Buckingham and Catesby, whip up the Lord Mayor and the people of London to acclaim Richard as King, the Mayor stands in the aisle, and the audience represents the throng he leads.

There should be no asides in this scene, since any moment that Richard drops the mask and reveals his ugliness to the audience, he would also be revealing it to his subjects. However, this Richard continued to roll his eyes, sneer his lines, and exaggeratedly pretended to pray throughout the scene.

I began to wonder if I had been mistaken. Perhaps the audience had never seen a private side of Richard, and he really had been this snide and unsubtle to all the characters from the beginning. If this Richard can succeed—by pure brutality—there’s something rotten in the state of England.

“Richard III” is part of a tetralogy of history plays by Shakespeare that span the Wars of the Roses. The play opens in peacetime, as Richard informs us, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” but, in this production, the kingdom is not at rest.

When King Edward IV tries to mend relationships between rival factions in his court, all the nobles in this production openly scorn the attempt. A courtier kisses the hand of the queen and then pointedly wipes his lips clean once the king has passed on. The queen herself uses the bows of the nobles to humiliate them.

In the Folger’s staging, Richard isn’t set apart from the court by his vices, only by using his anger to orchestrate his own advancement, rather than waste it on fleeting insults, like the rest of the nobility. More than in most productions, there was no innocent foil to contrast Richard with. Read More…

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