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The mysteries upon mysteries of Lisbon

A young boy curious about his birth. A priest with the long past behind him. A countess who gets involved in a doomed affair and then trapped in an unhappy marriage. A count who commits cruelty out of frustrated love. A criminal who accidentally gets the chance of lifetime to change his social status. A vengeful society woman who manipulates others to anger the man she is obsessed with. They might look like the characters randomly selected from several different books, but they are all the denizens of one labyrinthine tale which slowly reveals how their lives are intertwined with each other more than we thought at first.

Ebert Club

#29 September 22, 2010

Marie writes: Club member and noted blog contributor Tom Dark took this astonishing photograph near his home in Abiqui, New Mexico. The "unknown entity" appeared without warning and after a failed attempt to communicate, fled the scene. Tom stopped short of saying "alien" to describe the encounter, but I think it's safe to say that whatever he saw, it was pretty damned freaky. It sure can't be mistaken for anything terrestrial; like a horse pressing its nose up to the camera and the lens causing foreshortening. As it totally does not look like that at all. (click to enlarge.)


The Rest is Noise

View image A resonant title.

"I am not interested in writing about music as a horse race with Beethoven or Charlie Parker out in front." -- Alex Ross, December 2004

I've just finished reading New Yorker music critic's Alex Ross's mind-bogglingly ambitious critical history of modern "classical" music, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century." It's 1) a biting, passionate, ironical survey of political, religious and aesthetic fashions and dogmas (from Richard Strauss to Stalin to Boulez); 2) a serial biography, and 3) an illuminating analysis of individual compositions and musical influences. And I'm absolutely dazzled by it. With incisive humor, Ross chronicles various circular debates (historical, personal, nationalistic, musical) concerning whether, at one time or another, a particular work or a composer or a clique was, let's see, too elitist, too commercial, too bourgeois, too fussy, too fascist, too socialist, too florid, too ascetic, too anal, too free, too beholden to state or other interests, too abstruse, too grandiose, too formal, too casual, too programmatic, too old-fashioned, too melodic, too atonal, etc., etc., etc.

And this was just over last century, when, say, Stravinsky and Shostakovich were hailed and condemned as all of the above -- respectively, sequentially, cyclically, and/or simultaneously.

I came across some inspiring remarks Ross made at a 2004 symposium called "Shifting Ears: A Symposium on the Present State and Future of Classical Music Criticism" (see John Fleming's article in the St. Petersburg Times here). People tend to think of modern classical music as a rarified, elitist realm and movies as a popular industry/art form. But the perceptions are relative: There are big marquee names, big studios (labels, distributors), and major league international venues/festivals in classical music just as there are in movies. And there are academic, niche, or "experimental" circles in both worlds. Ross and John Davidson of Newsday proposed some ways of approaching music that, I think, work just as well for movies. Among Ross's estimable propositions: # "We're all fighters in a strange guerrilla war in which the object is not to defeat an enemy but to win a place at the table. This doesn't mean you give up objectivity and become a PR agent for the business. It means, instead, that you write with more urgency, more immediacy. The writing itself becomes crucial. Language is our secret weapon."

# "Classical music has an actual audience and a potential audience. I try to write with both fanatical and unconverted readers in mind. The trick is in finding a language that intrigues both."

# "Nothing is more off-putting than the critic who puts down one kind of music in order to praise another. There is no need to mention Britney Spears until such time as Ms. Spears writes her first piano quintet." [This reminds me of Robert Altman's late-life conviction that he and the studios who once hired him were no longer in the same business, and that neither was interested in making the kinds of movies the other was interested in.]

# "If the big orchestra is playing the same repertory ad nauseam, I don't have to complain ad nauseam. Instead, I can seek out youth orchestras, new-music ensembles, chamber groups playing in inner-city schools. Critics can take the lead..."

# "There is nothing shameful in unchecked enthusiasm. If I walk out dancing on air, I say it in the review, even if my colleagues smirk." "The Rest is Noise," without necessarily intending to do anything so specific, also provides a welcome perspective on year-end critical/historical summaries, polls, and the illusions of meaning we sometimes try to impose upon them, without much real evidence beyond our own hunches. (That -- and not commonplace snarkiness (!) -- is what I was attempting to convey with my loopy, switchback sentences in the post below, about the results of the Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll. What direct cause-effect meanings can be teased out of any snapshot consensus, whether it's a popular election or a secret ballot by committee?)

Ross has posted a paragraph from Marcel Proust on his blog ("The man who saw everything") that I'm tempted to quote in full because it's so hilarious in this regard. Instead, I'll just quote most of it. Ross introduces it as a comment "on the politics of style in twentieth-century music [and] the limits of a teleological interpretation of music history" -- but, you know, it could just as well be about movies:


Your brain, dog butts, and the quantum movie

View image Superbad-position: I don't know what this photo has to do with this post. I just think Michael Cera is a genius and his face is hilarious.

Excerpts from two pieces I've read recently that to me (of course) get at the essence of movies, and how we perceive them: First, a paragraph from Jonah Lehrer's introduction to his book "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" (look for the madeleine on the cover!), a most enjoyable volume dedicated to the proposition that the arts understood science long before science did. (Lehrer, the 26-year-old author, is described in the jacket blurb as a Columbia grad and Rhodes Scholar who "has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Erik Kandel and in the kitchens of Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin." His book includes chapters on Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.) Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can't be quantified or calculated, then it can't be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn't how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of the matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.On the other hand, the mind is what the brain does. We just have no way of knowing how or why. But this paragraph speaks directly to experience of all kinds, including vicarious or representational ones -- and to my conviction that valid criticism of any kind needs to be both empirical (drawing on specific examples) and aesthetic (a subjective attempt to explain how something feels). Blanket terms like "beautiful" or "ugly" can only be defined/refined in this context. I think of it this way: A dog's butt doesn't smell "bad" to a dog. And poop doesn't offend a dog's sensibilities. Canine responsiveness to scent is roughly 40 times greater than ours, so perhaps you could say that dogs can smell "past" the limitations of our olfactory abilities to detect something more fully dimensional (the way some people savor the flavor of stinky cheese, perhaps). Or, they just like stink, in which case we may consider them to have bad taste. Or, maybe, admire them as perverse primitivist punk rebels who enjoy wallowing in filth for the sheer animalistic pleasure of it. Or would that be anthropomorphizing them? If only dogs could explain what and how they see and smell and hear and feel...

OK, moving on to number two....