Turkey Day Mystery Science Theater 3000 Offering

Enjoy “Johnny at the Fair” and “The Rebel Set” riffed on by Joel and the bots.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that Joel Robinson is stranded on a spaceship with a couple of robots he made himself. A mad scientist and his assistant force Joel and the bots to watch really bad movies, and sell the results to cable TV.

Back in the 90s, Turkey Day often featured a 24-hour marathon of MST3K episodes run back to back. For this Turkey Day, I’m offering just a single episode (#419), consisting of a short and a feature.

The short is about a little boy named Johnny who gets lost at a sort of Canadian World’s Fair, and soon strikes out on his own. (“Haight-Ashbury, please!”)

The feature is a crime drama with a beatnik theme, starring Edward Platt (best known as The Chief in the old Get Smart comedy series). Probably the funniest thing is the coffee house populated by faux Beats, including a really bad poet. As robot Tom Servo riffs: “Cigar, cigarettes, Camus, Sartre, angst, alienation, Wittgenstein…”

One of the cute things about the robots is that they’re often like young children, placing Joel in the role of a parent. In the opening host segment, Joel is reading them scary bedtime stories like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, but they’re completely jaded and bored, so he has to look further afield to locate a book that will really frighten them. 😉

The series also includes something called the “Invention Exchange.” In this episode, Joel comes up with a paint-by-numbers kit for color field painters like Mark Rothko.

Please enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000 #419, and don’t eat too much turkey, Tofurkey, or other seasonal delicacy:

MST3K has a homespun quality — sometimes naive, sometimes unexpectedly hip. It was produced in Minnesota, and one of the identifiable modes of riffing is Joel breaking into his Minnesota housewife persona: “Oh, I never go down to the village. They’re too nutty down there…”

The show quickly became an underground hit, based partly on the motto (run during the closing credits) “Keep circulating the tapes.” Nevertheless, for those who prefer DVDs to dodgy VHS copies, DVDs are certainly available. #419 is included in the 4-disc set The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – Volume 12.


Of Further Interest

Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge
(featuring the MST3K skit “Civil Defense Quiz Bowl”

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The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant

A science fiction podcast from Lightspeed Magazine

UPDATED! Having known many vegetarians — including some who worked in or even owned vegetarian restaurants — I thought I would post this podcast of a story called “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant,” by Rachael K. Jones. You might say it’s about the difficulties of the restaurant business, and the problems caused by meat. 😉 [Click to listen:]

 

More specifically, it’s about a bunch of cyborgs who are fleeing human beings; only their stolen spaceship is a food service vehicle, so they keep getting pinged by human ships wanting to place takeout orders.

To buy time, the cyborgs try and fill these orders. Despite having no experience as cooks, they eventually manage to flesh out a menu and expand their customer base. This leads them to the cusp of a momentous decision: Should they really lam it back to the cyborg factory, henceforth to live only among their own kind? Or should they continue to perfect their culinary skills and scoop out a place for themselves in the restaurant biz, catering to the hopelessly illogical tastes of humans? It’s really something of a head-scratcher…

In the meantime, they must wrestle with problems of low morale and scanty resources. The personality conflicts so common among kitchen staff inevitably arise.

Despite my deadpan synopsis, this is a laugh-out-loud funny story made even better by narrator Claire Benedek’s masterful voice acting. She creates a convincing contrast between Friendly — the most human of the cyborgs — and Engineer, who becomes most obsessed with cooking.

Rachael K. Jones is a gifted storyteller with an ear for dialogue and an unflagging sense of craft. She knows how to mix it up, too. Perhaps funniest are the restaurant reviews which trickle in, helping the cyborgs tweak their recipes:

Like the chefs closed their eyes and dumped handfuls of ingredients onto the grill. But they didn’t charge me anything, so I’m giving it two stars instead of one.

This impressive audio offering is brought to you by Lightspeed Magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams. Click on their link to find out more about them, including their podcasts produced by Skyboat Media. Audio intro and outro by Jim Freund of Hour of the Wolf fame. Illustration by Christopher Park.

“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” is from Lightspeed #91, where you can also read the story in text format.


Sidebar: Unusual Foods and Dinners from Hell

Movie & TV buffs have already made numerous lists comprising this category, leaving me very little, ahem — meat on the bone. But here are a couple of items which seem to have escaped the going lists:

Michael Howard

Manchester: Hive of Industry

The Internet is all abuzz with this lighthearted tribute to Manchester, Mancunians, science fiction, and bees. But is the author simply winging it?

Last Tuesday was the one year anniversary of the tragic terrorist attack at a Manchester concert venue which killed twenty-two people and injured hundreds more. The day was marked by prayers, speeches, tears, floral tributes, and capped by a mass sing-along in Albert Square estimated at over ten thousand people:

I always think singing says more than sermons, but I did watch part of the services at Manchester Cathedral live via YouTube.

I had written something serious at the time of the event last year. But as laughter is also good medicine, I thought I’d post something funny about Manchester’s renewed identification with the bee as a symbol of– what, exactly?

An article in The Guardian suggests: ‘Peaceful but not to be messed with’ – how the bee came to symbolise Manchester. Apparently, Manchester’s cotton mills were once colloquially known as beehives.

The beehive in pop culture: a hairdo.

But neither industriousness nor spikiness seem the qualities which formed the iconography of bees after the 2017 terrorist attack. Rather, it’s as if the Mancunian hive mind suddenly hit on cheerfulness as a quality of bees. They don’t give in to despair or melancholia, don’t isolate themselves and pine. They stay together, fly right, and keep to their schedules. They carry on producing sweet honey.

A cute, cheerful bee courtesy the People’s History Museum in Manchester

Like Mancunians post May 2017, bees are also an endangered species:

And in a diverse city which can’t always agree on words, the bee may be a shared icon which transcends language, a visual code signifying oneness and positivity. In a city where people practice many religions (or none at all), the bee may have become a universal symbol for feelings that would otherwise get lost in translation.

But how does science fiction treat the bee, particularly bad or camp sci-fi? This pressing question, pondered by sages, is precisely what we’ll tackle in the clips below:

Before viewing our next sci-fi clip, let’s take a short musical break. After all, the lilting melodies of Rimsky-Korsakov might have a soothing effect on bees:

Bees! Are you soothed and sleepy yet? If not, perhaps the style was too vigorous. What we need is a more innocent, childlike approach:

Still not sleepy? Well, tonight’s Late Late Late Show happens to feature:

In response to such an eccentric artefact from the 70s, one can only wax philosophical and say: It be what it be…

Conclusion

Clearly, cheerfulness and industry are not the only qualities we can ascribe to bees. Their hive minds may strike some as a threat to human individuality, and their female superior culture can easily be twisted into a femme fatale meme.

Their industriousness might be given a murderous bent by the perennial mad beekeeper. And even the casual stray bee has proven a nuisance to Wimbledon competitors. But I think Mancunians have the right idea in staying busy and cheerful.

The Manchester Evening News reports that the Tree of Hope established after the Manchester bombing is now home to a colony of bees.

Bonus Clip
Potent Quote

“But I still don’t understand what motivated them.” –Captain Peters (Cliff Osmond) at the end of Invasion of the Bee Girls

MSTie Trivia

When riffing on The Deadly Bees, Crow T. Robot suggests these book titles:

  • How To Raise Bees To Kill People
  • Beekeeping for Lunatics
  • Apiaries for the Criminally Insane

Mike Nelson: Just for today I thought I’d communicate as the bees do.
Tom Servo: Bees communicate through movement and odour.
Mike Nelson: I’ll just be using movement.

MST3K’s Michael J. Nelson dressed as a bee, flanked by robots Crow and Tom Servo.

Souvenir Shop

This lovely bee girl ring as worn by Anitra Ford is available from manchestersouvenirs.co.uk. JK

Barnburner Encore
Riddle

What does this post have in common with the New Testament?
Answer: They’re both concerned with bee attitudes!

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The Immigrant with Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance

Although a comedy, this classic film from the silent era provides an iconic view of those arriving at Ellis Island and beholding the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Plus, Josh White sings “One Meat Ball,” and we also discuss Wayne Wang’s film Chan Is Missing.

With all the talk of Donald Trump and immigration, as well as the visit of French president Emmanuel Macron, I thought readers would enjoy seeing The Immigrant, that wonderful Charlie Chaplin short from 1917. A fine restored print with tasteful classical music and beautiful typography!

There’s a lot to admire here, including Chaplin’s incredible dexterity and comic genius (watch him do a full pitcher’s windup throwing dice!), as well as the expressive countenance of Edna Purviance. But amidst the laughs, the moment when the Statue of Liberty comes into view is still solemn and moving over a hundred years later. What a wonderful gift from the French people!

You might think a film made so long ago would be hopelessly archaic. But I like to pretend the film was made only yesterday by an ambitious film student trying to ape the silent era. Then I notice what a good job he or she did. The dining hall scene is fresh and hilarious, and there’s something about the way that people are herded at Ellis Island, with number tags pinned to their lapels, that comments on the assembly line quality of the newly minted twentieth century.

I’m thinking of another choice film about the immigrant experience: Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982). His first critically acclaimed film, it’s a mystery wrapped in a cinéma vérité portrait of San Francisco’s Chinatown and its diverse people and politics. The lead character is a taxi driver named Jo, played by the eminently likable Wood Moy (1918-2017).

Wood Moy plays Jo in Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing”

Moy was very active in the Asian American Theatre Company, and also had a small part in Class Action. In Chan he doubles as narrator and jokes about the F.O.B.’s — fresh off the boat — who in the modern era come off jumbo jets.

Jo is trying to solve the mystery of his friend Chan Hung, who disappeared amidst conflict between pro-Taiwan and pro-PRC factions over a flag-waving incident. Now, whether it’s Jane Marple, Sam Spade, Columbo, or George Smiley doing the digging, the detective genre has always been a perfect means to explore a multitude of characters, each of whom has an angle they’re working. The detective must sift through not just their stories, but their different cultural takes on reality.

The missing Chan Hung turns out to be a many-faceted character who’s described differently by each person Jo interviews; but in the course of the film we see the Chinese immigrant experience in all its richness and complexity, with rollicking humor, and a poignant look at the contrast between elderly Chinese and the “ultra-tasty dish” described in the song “Grant Avenue” (from Flower Drum Song). SPOILER CLIP:

If you live in the NYC area, you can see a film screening of Chan Is Missing at the New York Public Library at Chatham Square on May 5th. Further details here.

Coming back to The Immigrant, one can hardly watch Charlie Chaplin’s performance as a financially strapped diner without recalling Josh White’s performance of “One Meat Ball”:

In our present era, which seems dominated by the rich, powerful, bold and brassy, I take to heart the waiter’s hollered dictum that “You gets no bread with one meat ball!” Probably not a cry heard much at Mar-a-Lago, though there’s a Stormy Daniels joke lurking somewhere in the vicinity. It all seems quite remote from the Statue of Liberty (though Melania Trump is rumoured to own a designer babushka).

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

The Great Storm
Salvation – a short film exploring NYC snowscapes
Chyi Yu: Voice of Innocence Part 2

* * *

The Great Storm

From Charlie Chaplin to The Vicar of Dibley, the Great Storm meme has endured — sometimes in comic form.

I’ve had snow on the brain lately, due to the Beast from the East and Storm Emma, as well as nor’easters hitting here in the U.S. (the latest just in time for spring!). I’m still excited about completing my short film Salvation featuring people, sculptures, and horses in the snow. (My resources are limited, but with what I have I try to make a statement.)

There are many examples of snowstorms providing the dramatic or comedic focal point for memorable scenes from film and TV. A few that spring to mind are:

FILM

– The snow scenes from Fahrenheit 451 (original François Truffaut version), based on the novel by Ray Bradbury.

– The snow scenes from Slaughterhouse-Five, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

– The snow scenes from The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King.

– The snow scenes from A Dream In A Different Key a.k.a. Four Seasons: Utopiano, a film rarely seen in the U.S. made for Japanese TV.

– The snow scenes from Fargo, the Coen brothers’ quirky crime dramedy.

TV

The Honeymooners s01e24 “Please Leave the Premises,” where for refusing to pay a $5 rent increase, Ralph and Alice end up on the street in the snow.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show s01e08 “The Snow Must Go On,” where a massive blizzard leads to wacky election night coverage at TV station WJM.

Taxi s03e07 “Call of the Mild,” where hoping to enjoy a relaxing week in the mountains, the guys get trapped in a remote cabin during a blizzard, with no food except what they may or may not agree to hunt and kill.

Taxi s05e04,e05 “Scenskees From A Marriage,” where snow and freezing weather lead Latka (Andy Kaufman) to make a critical life-or-death choice which he must later explain to his wife Simka (Carol Kane).

Northern Exposure s05e10 “First Snow.” This is a bittersweet episode which deals with death but also finds joy in winter, as residents of the mythical town of Cicely, Alaska wish each other “Bon Hiver” (good winter) with the coming of the first snow.

Doctor Who: “A Christmas Carol” (2010 special). When snow finally arrives on an alien planet, it signifies an end to an era of uncharity. Though obviously a rip of the Dickens classic, this off-world Whovian holiday chestnut has a charm all its own and is something old Charlie never could have dreamt of (with a unique take on debtor’s prison). SPOILER ALERT: The ending with a carriage in the sky drawn by a grateful shark is truly wonderful!

Note that in moving from Northern Exposure to Doctor Who, we’re moving from magical realism to outright sci-fi. Next stop…

ANIMATION

The Snowman, a beloved children’s fantasy also prized by adults, and popularizing the song “Walking in the Air.”

The Great Frost, a lesser-known animated short based on a passage from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, and presented as part of the PBS suite of animations Simple Gifts.

This list is hardly exhaustive, but does get the (snow)ball rolling. If it’s cold enough where you are, you can sit around a warm fire and play at listing all the snow scenes you can think of from film, TV, animation, and novels.

I don’t propose to do a complete monograph on the subject, but am pleased to share two clips with you, from The Vicar of Dibley and The Gold Rush:

Season 1 of Vicar of Dibley was quite good. This clip is from s01e04 “The Window and the Weather.” After banter about the Great Storm (or Storm with No Name), Dibley residents must try and recall what the stained glass window destroyed by the storm actually depicted. One of the funniest scenes ever! Takeaway quote: “Bloody odd library with five thousand sheep in it.”

Marc Chagall’s “great load of arty-farty froggy nonsense”

At the moment, some episodes of Vicar of Dibley seem to be up on Dailymotion in decent quality:

http://www.dailymotion.com/thevicarofdibley

But there’s a catch: the lip-sync is sometimes off. The workaround is to view certain episodes in VLC or SMPlayer. In VLC, under Tools: Track Synchronization: Audio track synchronization enter a value of 0.450s. Or in SMPlayer, under Audio: Set delay… enter a value of 450. Then you should be good to go. (The Slimjet browser can also be helpful when dealing with Dailymotion.) For the truly geeklike, these two links explain how you can permanently fix a video with poor lip-sync using either Avidemux or MKVToolNix:

Here’s How To Easily Fix Lagging Audio
Fix Audio Delays Permanently Using VLC & MKVToolNix

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (first released in 1925) includes two of the classic snow scenes from early cinema. Chaplin was a genius, and it’s great that some of his films from the silent era are being restored to pristine quality. (I hope to post soon about The Immigrant.) I especially like the cabin teetering on the edge of a precipice, as it seems an apt meme for the Trump administration.

If you’d like to see the complete film, there’s currently an excellent print on YouTube here. It’s hiding among the many links which are either low quality, outright scams, or the dreaded talkie re-release from 1942.

Despite the snow, spring is bound to arrive soon! Until then, keep holding onto those springtime promises:

LINKS

The Snowman (YouTube)
Walking in the Air – Celtic Woman version (YouTube)
Simple Gifts: The Great Frost (YouTube)
A Dream in a Different Key – clip (YouTube)
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (Archive.org)

The Congressional Baseball Shooting, Big Murders, and Little Murders

There’s been no shortage of sad news lately. In “Terrorism Has No Religion,” I wrote about the tragic Manchester bombing. This was quickly followed by the London Bridge attack, and the (accidental) fire in a West London apartment tower yesterday — the same day as a shooting targeting members of Congress who were out for baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. Late in the same day, yet another deadly shooting at a San Francisco UPS facility.

I have in mind to talk mostly about the baseball shooting, making two main point: first, that some facts aren’t being faced which need to be faced; second, that some solutions exist which aren’t being discussed. Finally, since I’m a film buff, in contrast to all these Big Murders I want to talk about Little Murders, a film written by Jules Feiffer capturing that peculiar American proclivity for taking lethal potshots at one’s neighbors.

Regarding the baseball shooting, the most commonly expressed sentiments are:

  • Thoughts and prayers for the victims
  • The shooter was a lone nut.
  • If anything’s to blame, it’s overheated rhetoric.

What’s pointedly omitted is any discussion that however utterly wrong and misguided, the shooter may have been responding to actual policies, not just overheated rhetoric. Of course, that doesn’t make it right.

Causation is not justification, so in investigating a phenomenon we shouldn’t be afraid to look for causation wherever it may lie. The difficulty is that immediately after the baseball shooting, the Washington beltway — including elected officials of both parties as well as the mainstream media — closed ranks and indulged in a collective Kumbaya moment. “Sure we argue about politics,” they said, “But who could possibly take politics so seriously that they would want to commit violence over it?”

Not I, to be sure. I’m an avowed peace-lover. But some people, yes. People who are subject to policies which can be like death sentences for them, and who lack the tools or insights which would help them diffuse their anger at such unjust policies.

Was the French Revolution nuts in its bloodthirstiness? Maybe so, but this was aggravated by wretched excess on the part of the French aristocracy, who evinced a shocking indifference to the travails of their subjects.

Now, to foreshadow my discussion of Little Murders: it’s a black comedy which includes quirky characters drawn from New York City life, like an ultra-liberal minister who claims that “Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful.” The reason this is comical to gritty New Yorkers is that a kick in the head is hurtful regardless of how you feel about it, even if there’s no social media or 24-hour cable news to orchestrate opinion (and there wasn’t in 1971 when the film was released). You feel a kick in the head — that’s how you know it’s hurtful.

Let’s look at two mostly Republican policies which might have felt like kicks in the head to James Hodgkinson, the unemployed, mentally ill senior who began taking potshots at members of Congress, lobbyists, staffers, and Capitol Police — or to people like him.

First, there’s the American Health Care Act, which (if eventually enacted) would result in about 24 million Americans losing their health care. The Republican House passed it, then attended a victory party in the White House Rose Garden, with plenty of back-slapping and guzzling of Bud Light. (A tad ostentatious, don’t you think?)

This policy would certainly be a death sentence (or a sentence to bankruptcy and homelessness) for many Americans who rely on government-assisted health care for their very survival. Some of these may be diabetics who require daily shots of insulin (as my father did). But the cry of Republican House members was (metaphorically speaking): Let them inject cake.

Second, there’s the overturning by Donald Trump of “an Obama administration gun regulation that prevented certain individuals with mental health conditions from buying firearms.” That regulation affected “individuals who are unable to work because of severe mental impairment and can’t manage their own Social Security financial benefits.” Overturning the regulation means putting more guns in the hands of mentally ill people — just what we need.

We’re talking policy, not politics here. Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

So, these are two examples of policies which strongly affect people’s lives, regardless of any accompanying rhetoric. Overheated rhetoric is, no doubt, an aggravating factor in senseless acts of violence, but what’s driving some Americans (literally) nuts is government policy on issues like health care and gun safety.

Why did mainstream media miss this in the wake of the baseball shooting? Because many mainstream media figures aren’t directly affected by the policies in question. They’re well-paid, have good quality health insurance through their employers, and tend to live in safe neighborhoods where gun violence is not an issue — often the same neighborhoods (e.g. Alexandria) as politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Media people may argue politics left and right, but they’re often above the fray because they’re economically shielded from bad government policies.

I repeat for emphasis that causation is not justification. Nothing justifies the baseball shooting or any of the other senseless shootings that have become a grim daily feature of American life. But when looking at causation, we need to honestly face the fact that some Americans are being driven over the edge of sanity by policies which are insane. Like the proverbial kick in the head, these policies are felt directly and not swathed in abstraction.

God bless USA Today‘s Heidi Przbyla (and may the Lord send her some vowels real soon), but one reason she can’t comprehend what pushes someone like James Hodgkinson over the edge is that she lives in safety amidst the politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Her salary and benefits effectively insulate her from cuts to Medicaid, and guns in the hands of the mentally ill.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on Ms. Przbyla. She’s a perfectly nice person who takes liberal positions which I generally support. She happens to be a good anecdotal example because she lives in Alexandria and evinces the typically “shocked” reaction of people who argue politics for a living, but don’t live or die according to what policies the government enacts.

Unlike Heidi Przbyla, the people with cancer who show up at town halls and are mad as hell about losing their health care are fighting for their lives — literally. In spite of that I encourage them to remain non-violent, because taking potshots at politicians solves nothing and is morally reprehensible.

The shock of some politicians and media figures in the wake of the baseball shooting is expressed in the form of incredulity that the shooter could no longer see the targets as fellow human beings. He so objectified and depersonalized them that their lives meant nothing to him. But compare this with the real world effects of Republican policies concerning health care and guns. Is there a similar objectification and depersonalization which permits lawmakers to act with no empathy for the chronically ill and impoverished, and no empathy for the victims of gun violence? Does the sound of lobbyist dollars rubbing together deafen them to the cries of those affected by their policies? I’m reminded of a quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The struggle to be a true human being is the struggle to overcome tendencies in our society toward objectification and depersonalization. This moral duty does not fall solely on individual citizens, but also government institutions. When such institutions fail to respect the humanity of citizens, we should not be shocked to find that some citizens lose the ability to see the humanity of government officials. This is the underlying psychological reality behind the social media response to the baseball shooting that “what goes around comes around.” When you take away people’s health care and put guns in the hands of the mentally ill as public policies, some people at the grassroots level are going to go apesh*t. This effect is wholly undesirable, but not wholly unexpected.

We need to work peacefully toward a more compassionate society where people are fully valued across the spectrum. We need to believe in human dignity, respect people’s basic needs for food and medicine, and shape our government institutions so that they no longer appear as impersonal bureaucracies run for the benefit of corporations, lobbyists, and an economic elite. We need to make them fully responsive to the needs of all the people.

My take on James Hodgkinson is that at some point he hit his head up against a phenomenon known as “repressive tolerance.” At its simplest, repressive tolerance means that you can protest, write letters, carry signs, and talk till you’re blue in the face — but there are times in history when the table is run by the big money boys, who’ll let you blow off steam but won’t let you make substantive changes. Now, in truth, change does happen, but so slowly that it often appears as if nothing is happening at all, or as if the clock is being turned back, not forward. In his farewell address, President Barack Obama said:

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

This might be augmented by a quote from Max Weber that:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes.

This begins to get at the weaknesses of our education in civics. We teach people to believe that they can make change happen, but we don’t equip them to deal with failure, or the ineffable slowness of change, or its herky-jerky motion.

From emerging accounts it appears that James Hodgkinson had many flaws (aside from being a homicidal maniac). One of them was the inability to accept failure with equanimity. This points to broader spiritual issues.

Often, political people believe only in politics; but politics is limited in what it can achieve. Peace of mind can only come from spiritual practice. If we have even an iota of peace of mind, then the problems of the world will not seem so heavy and unmanageable.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

If the NBC report is any indicator, it seems that meditation is a technique which fosters learning, or creates conditions which make learning possible in spite of stress factors in the broader environment.

Peace Studies teaches us the value of Peace Studies! It’s a resource or tool in our toolkit that we didn’t know we had. As we realize its value, some form of Peace Studies will ideally be incorporated into school curricula at every level, and used to help solve particular problems like school violence.

With each new generation we have the potential to increase knowledge and wisdom. Children who grow up in schools where meditation and Peace Studies are part of the learning experience may also turn out to be better at handling stress and conflict in adult life.

Would this have made a difference in the life of James Hodgkinson? Would he still have become a crazed shooter? No one knows. But with better anger management tools at his disposal, his anger might never have metastasized into full-blown psychosis. Had he possessed an iota of peace and insight, he might have been able to laugh at his own failure to produce any tangible change through his political activities. In silence or “quiet time,” he might have gotten the insight that we are all part of the same human family, even if we sometimes quarrel.

Such insights are rare and precious. If we know of methods to share them, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do so, within reason. (I am not advocating aggressive proselytizing.)

The average cable TV service provides nearly 200 channels; but perhaps none of them offer any insight into living peaceably with one’s fellow human beings. Cable news channels run 24 hours a day, but do they have even 5 minutes of quiet time? We think of silence as awkward, something to be filled; but silence can be rich and fulfilling, a vehicle for growth.

The objections to this line of thought are built right into the NBC story. When interviewed, athletic director Barry O’Driscoll confessed his initial reaction:

I thought it was a joke. I thought this is hippie stuff that didn’t work in the 70s, so how’s it gonna work now?

But when the kids started meditating and stopped fighting, O’Driscoll become an ardent supporter of the program. Sharing quiet time became the new normal.

This lets me segue into a discussion of Little Murders. Although it’s a black comedy, one of its underlying themes is the normalization of inexplicable acts of random violence. That’s a perennial theme in areas of modern urban sprawl where no one really knows anyone else, and everyone double or triple-locks their doors:

***SPOILERS*** The film starts out as an offbeat New York romantic comedy, but after the female lead is killed by random gun violence, it turns into more of an exploration of the bizarre coping strategies adopted by surviving family members.

Though a commercial flop, Little Murders enjoys a dedicated fan base. It marked Alan Arkin’s directorial debut, and Arkin also plays the mercurial Lieutenant Practice, a police detective having a nervous breakdown due to 345 unsolved homicides with no motive, no clues, and nothing in common. It’s a bravura performance by Arkin at his wackiest. Donald Sutherland famously plays a counterculture minister with ultra-liberal views who manages to enrage everyone at the outlandish wedding ceremony he performs. Lou Jacobi also delivers an outstanding monologue as an eccentric judge haunted by his impoverished upbringing on the Lower East Side.

At the end of the film (SPOILER CLIP BELOW), the family is sitting around, depressed as usual, when widower Alfred (Elliott Gould) returns home with a newly purchased rifle. Slowly, the male members of the family gather round, becoming enthused about the rifle as an icon of power, liberation, and emotional catharsis. They no longer fight against the popular tide of random violence, but for the first time revel in it, throwing open the steel shutters, poking holes in the glass of the living room window, and egging each other on to take potshots at random passersby:

In the wake of this bonding ritual they become cheerful, giddy, and garrulous around the dinner table. In the film’s closing moments, the matriarch of the family exclaims: “Oh, you don’t know how good it is to hear my family laughing again! You know, for a while there I was really worried.”

Conclusion

It seems we’re faced with two very different possible futures: one which normalizes random acts of violence, and another which normalizes peace and insight. I would rather live in a world filled with peace and insight, where anger has less of a chance to metastasize into full-blown violence.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Thought of the Day: People Are Good
World Harmony Curriculum


Sidebar: Jo Cox

As it happens, the day I’m posting this is the one-year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. She was a British MP who campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union. Before entering Parliament in 2015, she had previously worked for Oxfam.

She was shot and stabbed to death by Thomas Mair, a white supremacist with ties to far right organizations. Mair was pro-Brexit and apparently viewed Cox as a collaborator and a traitor to white people.

In the argot of social media, Mair (now sentenced to life in prison) is an RWNJ or right-wing nut job, just as James Hodgkinson (killed in the shootout) was an LWNJ or left-wing nut job.

On the day she was murdered, Jo’s husband Brendan issued this statement:

Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo. Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous. Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.

According to The Independent, “More than 100,000 events will be held around the country to celebrate the life of Jo Cox on the one year anniversary of her death.” That huge number could almost be a typo, but I hope and pray it’s accurate.

Jo Cox

See also “Jo Cox, the Brexit Vote, and the Politics of Murder” in the New Yorker.

* * *

Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z” (1969)

Connecting the cultural and political dots, and revisiting a classic film by Costa-Gavras

There’s an old saying that a poem doesn’t mean, but simply is. The saying’s trotted out when folks in English class rambunctiously insist on extracting a prose meaning from a work of poetry — not unlike getting a furball out of a cat by using a brickbat. What’s implied is that poetry is a process, a way of seeing, and that it differs from prose. Try as one might, one may fail to transplant the life of a poem into some other medium.

Like this, really great films may have their subject matter, but what often makes them great is their way of seeing ordinary interactions between people and how the universe works. Yes, there’s a plot and dialogue, and there may be prosaic meanings; but there’s also a certain poetry to filmic images.

So if I tell you the 1969 film Z is a political thriller, don’t misunderstand or imagine it would bore you if you’re not much into politics. Like most great films, it transcends its subject matter by being about people and how the universe works. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when released nearly fifty years ago.


Still, I was drawn to revisit Z by a number of prosaic events: the election of Donald Trump, the investigation into political sabotage of U.S. elections, and the final run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French race for president, which is being decided as I write.

Then too, I have friends who visited Greece on a spiritual retreat over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation. Z is a French language film based loosely on political events in Greece during the mid-1960s. A French-Algerian production, it was nonetheless directed (and partially written) by Greek émigré Costa-Gavras, with music by Mikis Theodorakis, and Irene Papas in a supporting role.

The film also concerns what we now call “peace studies.” According to Radford University,

Peace studies is a broad, interdisciplinary activity, which includes research, reflection, and dialogue concerning the causes of war, conflict, and violence and the orientation necessary to establish peace…

We are aware today of population explosion, on-going climate collapse, diminishing natural resources, worldwide pollution from both toxic and non-toxic wastes, and the threat of massive, globally devastating wars.

People have realized, in consequence of these planetary developments, that we need to begin thinking about peace in a sustained and substantial way.

Reflection on the causes of war inevitably raises the issue of structural violence (unjust social and economic structures linked with extreme poverty and deprivation) and the issue of imperialism (dominant nations acting aggressively within the world system to promote their perceived national interests). This in turn leads us to ask why soldiers are willing to fight or kill strangers at the command of their governments, and hence to questions of socialization, biology, psychology, etc.

Within the peace studies movement there tend to be two broad approaches to questions of violence, war, and peace. One emphasizes the human individual and his or her consciousness and the paradigms by which he or she might be operating. Change toward peaceful behavior is often emphasized through education, consciousness raising, dialogue, … meditation, or other ways of influencing individual behavior in the direction of more peaceful relationships.

Jump cut to a speech by the pacifist leader from Z:

They hit me. Why? Why do our ideas provoke such violence? Why do they find peace intolerable? Why don’t they attack other organizations? The answer is simple: The others are nationalists used by the government, and don’t upset our Judas allies who betray us.

We lack hospitals and doctors, but half the budget goes for military expenditures. A cannon is fired, and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke!

That’s why they can’t bear us or our meetings and use hired thugs to jeer and attack us. Around the world, too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving toward progress.

But our fight is theirs too. We live in a weak and corrupt society where it’s every man for himself. Even imagination is suspect, yet it’s needed to solve world problems. The stockpile of A-bombs is equal to one ton of dynamite per person on earth.

They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths. But we will speak out! We serve the people, and the people need the truth. The truth is the start of powerful, united action.

The logistics of setting up this speech by the pacifist leader were mind-boggling. His supporters couldn’t get a permit, and every time they hired a hall the owner would later cancel to due government pressure.

After giving his speech, the pacifist leader was seriously injured in a further attack. A doctor told his wife: “I knew your husband. We were at school together. I wanted to go on his Peace Marathon, but it was banned.”

Jump cut to the testimony of Assani and Paule, Marseilles, 29 March, 2000:

We organize a cultural event each year called the International Peace Run which is open to everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world participate each year and France is the only country that has refused, several times, to grant passage to the runners. “Anti-cult” individuals follow the course of the race. This year they were in a car taking pictures. They intervene as late as possible on the eve of the event so it’s too late for us to do anything about it.

We organized a Sri Chinmoy concert in 1991 in the ‘Parc des Expositions,’ with approval from City Hall. When I requested approval to hold a concert in the same park in 1995, it was denied. The park managers told me: “We don’t have a problem with you. Last time you behaved decently and paid. But we can’t get approval from City Hall because you are part of this list.”

Last year we organized a concert in Paris. A friend told me, “The district City Hall called me. They tried to convince me you were awful people, but it didn’t work. Don’t worry.”

For other events, we did manage to obtain a stadium. The sports manager at City Hall is a real friend and he participates in our runs. He knows us so well he forgot we are portrayed as a dangerous cult and he gave us approval for regular races, once a month. So we started passing out flyers to invite people to a race. The next day a newspaper ran an article entitled: “The cult is running.”

http://www.coordiap.com/Gtemo04.htm

In Z, the opposition has to struggle against authoritarianism and mindless bureaucracy. But sadly, these things can thrive in both right and left-wing governments. That’s why I favour liberal democracies which genuinely guarantee (in both principle and practice) the rights of minorities, whether political or spiritual. France, in its idealized form, is such a bastion of freedom. But at times it has to struggle to live up to its ideals.

The past is dust, and perhaps the runners have made progress in recent years. I do not mean to single out France for criticism. It’s a beautiful country, and I greatly admire the French people for their intelligence, sophistication, language, and culture.

Yet, in recent decades France has seen the emergence of a type of forced secularism which tries to eliminate all forms of religion or spirituality from the public square, or from public expression. This stems from an extreme secular view which sees religion and spirituality only as a source of conflict, but fails to recognize in them a source of peace, compassion, and ideals of self-giving.

This problem is not unique to France, but is a tragedy of the modern world, in which the very real benefits of science and intellectual progress at times eclipse the spiritual aspect, which is also very real, essential to human happiness, and a natural part of life.

In France, this trend toward secularism has led to laws restricting religious garb. If you’re wearing a hijab, sari, or yarmulke, you might face (legalized) job discrimination, or be barred from using public facilities.

As an American, perhaps I’m naïve. While it’s true that religion can be a source of conflict, so can food. Trying to solve the problem of conflict over different religious beliefs by banning religion from the public square is like trying to solve the problem of people quarreling over food by starving them to death.

When it comes to the French presidential election now being decided, I believe religious and spiritual minorities will fare better under a President Macron than a President Le Pen. According to an article in The Guardian:

In her apartment in a northern suburb of Paris, Hanane Charrihi looked at a photograph of her mother Fatima. “Her death shows that we need tolerance more than ever,” she said. “Tolerance does exist in France, but sometimes it seems those who are against tolerance shout the loudest and get the most airtime.”

Fatima Charrihi, 59, a Muslim grandmother, was the first of 86 people to be killed in a terrorist attack in Nice last summer when a lorry driver ploughed into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks. She had left her apartment and gone down to the seafront to have an ice-cream with her grandchildren. Wearing a hijab, she was the first person the driver hit in the gruesome attack claimed by Islamic State. A third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims. But Fatima Charrihi’s family, some wearing headscarves, were insulted by passersby who called them “terrorists” even as they crouched next to their mother’s body under a sheet at the site of the attack. “We don’t want people like you here any more,” a man outside a café told her family soon after the attack.

Hanane Charrihi, 27, a pharmacist, was so irked to find that, even after her mother’s death, the so-called “problem” of Islam in France was such a focus of political debate that she wrote a book, Ma mère patrie, a plea for living together harmoniously in diversity. The far-right Front National gained a slew of new members in Nice after the attack and now Marine Le Pen’s presence in the final presidential runoff this weekend – after taking a record 7.6 million votes in the first round – has pushed the issue of Islam and national identity to the top of the agenda.

“I’m French, I love my country, and it seemed like people were saying to me: ‘No, you can’t possibly love France,’” Hanane Charrihi said. “All this focus on debating national identity by politicians seems like wasting time that could be focused instead on unemployment, work or housing.”

The runoff between the far-right, anti-immigration Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has seen heated exchanges over Islam and national identity. In 2015, Le Pen was tried and cleared of inciting religious hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. Macron has insisted that Le Pen still represents “the party of hatred.” He told a Paris rally this week: “I won’t accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam.”

This makes for a rather easy segue into Trump World and the Muslim ban. So easy, in fact, that I won’t waste much time on it except to say that right-wing populist movements, whether American or European, find it easy to paint targets on the heads of religious and spiritual minorities.

In reviewing Z for flickfeast.co.uk, Miguel Rosa writes:

Z is not an easy film to watch. For anyone who loves freedom, many scenes will feel like vicious punches to the stomach. Several times I shuddered at the injustices being committed with impunity. The film is not a celebration of freedom and truth, but rather an elegy for these important but fragile values. Costa-Gavras turned the tragedy of his country into a grim parable about something that can happen anywhere.

I’m afraid I only partially agree. I see tremendous idealism in Z. True, that idealism is dashed, but in such a way as to make the viewer long for truth and freedom even more strongly. Z is also filled with poignant observations about the human condition and the experience of grieving for a beloved person, plus rollicking satire on the officiousness and self-importance of military brass, who get their comeuppance in the end (or do they?).

Z is not by any stretch of the imagination a religious film, but it does portray the veritable crucifixion of a pacifist political leader (played so well by Yves Montand). That crucifixion does not mark the end of a movement, but the beginning of one — or at least its re-dedication. Indeed, the film’s unique one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “He lives” or “He is immortal” — was banned (as graffiti) by the right-wing dictatorship which took control of Greece in 1967.

With so much art and culture scrapped by the incoming junta, many left-leaning Greeks did in fact flee to France and other nations where the political and cultural climate was more hospitable. They told their story with passion, and became a force for positive change. In this sense they were like disciples of the crucified Greek parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis (on whom the film is based), spreading his message of peace to the Greek diaspora, not unlike the apostle Paul.

This photo of Grigoris Lambrakis marching alone in the banned Marathon–Athens Peace Rally one month before his death evokes the Christian symbol of the cross.

The re-enacted scene from Z

Fifty years after the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, anti-fascist Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by a member of Golden Dawn — a far right Greek political party. This brings to mind the saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but (like poetry) sometimes rhymes. The photo is striking, not least because it forms a pietà.

Another pietà, this one courtesy Doctor Who.

The best-known pietà, by Michelangelo.

I’ve seen a number of political thrillers, and none of them has the passion of Z combined with such brilliant directing, acting, cinematography, plus vibrant musical direction by Mikis Theodorakis, whose instructions were smuggled out of Greece (since he himself was under house arrest at the time).

Z IS is a celebration of freedom and truth. That the celebration is cut short in its final hours is but a bittersweet reminder that to establish anything resembling freedom and truth on earth is a constant struggle, and there will often be setbacks.

Despite being about politics, Z is one of the best art films of the sixties, an absolute must-see for a new generation which may not have heard of it. It’s a film belonging distinctly to the modern era, striking for its use of flashbacks and depictions of the same events from multiple viewpoints a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

For political junkies, the relevance of Z to today’s controversies lies foremost in the character of the inquest judge or magistrate (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). His role is similar to a special prosecutor or independent counsel. He’s a member of the ruling party, and is inclined to accept the explanation proffered by police that the injury to the pacifist leader was no more than a drunk driving incident.

As today with Trump and Russia, no proof of collusion, but plenty of coincidences! So will the magistrate have the determination and perspicacity to see the investigation through? Can he really be impartial, or will he bend to the ruling party? If he gets too close to the truth, will he be fired by the monarch like FBI director James Comey?

Another important character is the photojournalist (Jaques Perrin, who co-produced). At first he seems cynical and opportunistic (we hate him when he barges in on the widow, Nikon motor drive whirring all the while), but gradually he displays kindness and devotion to truth. His own investigation uncovers facts which he brings to the attention of the magistrate. In this sense, Z is like All The President’s Men and JFK rolled into one, but is better than either. It’s an extraordinarily decent film which only improves with repeated viewings. It has more passion than All The President’s Men, reveals a broader spectrum of humanity, has better character development, and unlike JFK never descends into needless vulgarity.

Another example of character development is the fig seller, Barone. We initially see him as a thug keen to participate in vigilante violence. Later we come to pity him when we find that he’s illiterate, powerless, loves his birds, and is desperately afraid of the police Colonel who manipulates him to do his dirty work.

The biggest question mark is always the figure of the magistrate, who seems impassive, unemotional, and skeptical of opposition claims. Yet, his legal training inclines him toward precision and objectivity. Had he been investigating Nixon, he would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the famed “Saturday Night Massacre.”

In the 1960s and 70s, as governments became subject to greater public scrutiny for corruption and malfeasance, an existing genre — the police procedural or detective story — was expanded to encompass the activities of journalists and prosecutors investigating government itself. Thus, Z is (among other things) a cracking good detective yarn with a plot twist at the end. Like most good detective yarns, it leads the viewer through different strata of society, from elite government officials, to a private vigilante group called CROC, to the daily lives of merchants and tradesmen struggling to survive, and (of course) left-leaning peace activists.

For modern day political junkies, another connection between Z World and Trump World is the bizarre speech given by General Missou (Pierre Dux) in the opening scene. He claims the nation is under attack from ideological mildew brought on by parasitic agents. With the arrival of beatniks, Dutch Provos, and pacifists, sunspots appear on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds. It’s a delightfully funny crackpot theory worthy of one of Trump’s political appointees to the Department of Redundancy Department (or the Veterans Tapdance Administration).

The passion and suasive power of Z is partly a function of the times it reflects: a point in the late 60s when there was still a strong streak of unalloyed idealism about the prospects for peace, and when it seemed much easier to tell the goodies from the baddies than it later became. The activists in Z aren’t perfect, but we like them because they’re courageous, idealistic, and genuinely committed to peace — even if they’re sometimes tempted to tear up the town out of sheer frustration. The demise of their leader leads them to deep soul-searching.

Then too, Z evokes archetypes from the 60s which no one who lived through that period (even as a pre-teen, as I did), can forget. As a twelve-year-old in June 1968, I stayed up all night watching reports from the hospital as doctors tried in vain to save the life of Robert Kennedy, who had been shot just after giving a victory speech in California, where he had won the presidential primary. I still remember the haggard face of Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz, who finally issued a brief statement:

So many of the figures who worked toward peace had great heart, and this theme is explored in Z through a heartbeat sound made by percussion instruments, and repeated reference to the strength and resilience of the pacifist leader’s heart, which continues to beat and refuses to quit.

Z had a super successful run in America, where it received Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing, and was also nominated for Best Picture. I’m sure that for many Americans it evoked all too recent memories of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of Z, using it as an excuse to branch out into other matters. But that’s what a good poem does, too. It narrows your focus to details about the human condition, and that narrow focus somehow possesses the ability to widen into a view which takes in the entire universe. Puzzling, is it not?

You can view the complete film in many places, including Amazon Prime and Netflix rental.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: More Z Apocrypha

Costa-Gavras on Z (brief WNYC interview)

“Lambrakis is gone, but his legacy lives on!” by Nicolas Mottas
https://www.opednews.com/Diary/Lambrakis-is-gone-but-his-by-Nicolas-Mottas-090518-795.html

Z, The Novel

The film is actually based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos (who is not the inventor of Vaseline):

Z, the novel, front cover

Z, the novel, back cover

(Definitely a bargain at 95 cents.)

CROC vs. KROC

In Z, the vigilante group used by the government to attack left-leaning pacifists is called CROC, or Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. Ironically, today there’s a KROC INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE STUDIES at the University of Notre Dame. (No, the picture on their home page is not a Cialis ad.) The pressing question per the film? Are they for football?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Film buffs have noticed that in the scene where pacifists hand out flyers announcing their new rally location, a large peace emblem covers a French signboard for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This was a 1966 “spaghetti western” starring Clint Eastwood and featuring senseless violence:

French poster for “Le Bon, la Brute et le Truand”

When the goons attack the pacifists, an injured man is seen lying on the signboard. A woman tries to help him up, but is kicked in the posterior. In retrospect, this almost seems like a metaphor for Trumpcare. 😉

This is not just movie trivia, but reveals the visual language used by the filmmaker to talk about peace vs. violence. Costa-Gavras is making a dark joke which we won’t get unless we identify the movie poster and know what critics said about the film.

* * *

Women’s History Month: Student-Teacher Decorum

Using scenes from the film Term of Trial to explore the topic of student-teacher relations…

Term of Trial is a 1962 film directed by Peter Glenville, starring Laurence Olivier and Sarah Miles. It explores the complex dynamics which develop between a teacher (Olivier) and the young student (Miles) he’s tutoring. Here are some scenes:

(Any problems with the embedded video, view directly on Vimeo here.)

Some questions for discussion:

– According to the film, what is the ideal form of student-teacher decorum, or is this question left open?

– What are the responsibilities of the student and teacher to ensure that no misunderstandings develop?

– One sociological theory is that reality is socially constructed. How does this apply to a situation involving disputed events? Expand, amplify.

– Can perceptions about decorum be influenced by pre-existing stereotypes about race, nationality, religion, gender, and age? Give examples where stereotypes about a teacher or student might influence how events are interpreted.

– A perceived breach of decorum may lead to judgments about the people involved, or even legal consequences. One set of moral and ethical values may clash with another. How are we to know who’s right?

– In daily social interactions, we constantly give each other cues which reinforce shared ethical systems without explicitly stating values. Cite examples of this in the film or in real life.

– Is the case made that society’s values differ from those of one or both of the film’s protagonists? Are any clues given about society’s values?

– When people develop hardened positions on issues and events, how likely are those positions to change in real life?

– Are social, legal, and educational institutions highly flexible in their responses to individual incidents, or is there a tendency for certain machinery to automatically kick in? Explain.

– In the mainstream media, many stories are couched in terms of victim and victimizer. Can you think of any examples?

– Once the roles of victim and victimizer have been clearly defined, do they ever change? Does this happen frequently or rarely?

– Are societal institutions better or worse than individuals at judging the truth about particular events? Justify your answer.

– In the film, what are Shirley Taylor’s motivations for accusing Graham Weir?

– Reconcile these two statements: 1. A victim should always be believed. 2. A person is innocent until proven guilty.

– In the film, why does Graham Weir (or the school where he taught) not sue Shirley Taylor for defamation of character? Is it out of kindness? Would such a suit be justified under UK law, and stand a good chance of succeeding?

– How does the modern Internet era affect the underlying issues? Suppose Shirley Taylor only made her accusations on Blogspot or Facebook? Would she still be liable under UK law?

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Suggested Reading

My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father
False Salon Story: What was said at the time
Define defamation of character
Mother faces paying £20,000 damages over Facebook ‘libel’
High Court Grants Judgement for libel defamation on Facebook
Internet platforms can assume the role of publisher and become liable for defamation
BBC Webwise – Social media and libel
Exposing libel myths surrounding Twitter and other social media
Canada: Facebook Defamation Case Awards Significant Damages

* * *

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!

Children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics?

Just before my winter hibernation, while foraging through YouTube looking for raw material for one of my mashups, I stumbled on these two vids:

Thank you to the New South Wales Centre for that inspiring presentation. 😉

Anyway, these videos do raise the conundrum posed in the subhead. On the one hand, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a children’s story by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, first published in 1989. So there’s that. On the other hand, when performing it these artists seem to let loose their natural craziness and touch on aspects of the human condition as well as political realities.

I suppose the spiritual lesson is that some people go on the spiritual quest with a pollyannish attitude, assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then, when they realize they’ll have to pass through various difficulties and that their nature will be tested, they end up running back to their bedrooms and throwing the covers over their heads! (I am not immune to this phenomenon.)

The political lesson is that just when you’re thinking “Oh no! They couldn’t possibly elect so-and-so,” suddenly you come face-to-face with a big orange bear and find that it’ll be living in your big white house for at least four years. The scream let out by Sophie in the first vid says it all…

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Compare for reference The Scream, by Edvard Munch:

the-scream-by-edvard-munchMore scariness for children: Count Floyd

Count Floyd (played by actor Joe Flaherty) was a regular character on the old SCTV comedy series which aired in the 1980s. I suppose he’s funny on his own, but it helps to know that at one time in America, in small towns with only one TV station, the same guy who was the newsreader was also required to do double duty hosting the Saturday kiddie show, which typically ran a B-movie of the monster variety (such as Invasion of the Bee Girls, which was hardly suitable for children).

So if there’s a sad, desperate quality to Count Floyd, it’s because he’s really a reserved newsreader forced to make a spectacle of himself by dressing in a black cape and pretending that the incredibly bad movies they send him (or sometimes fail to deliver) would actually scare a child.

count-floyd-06

Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), b. 1941

Such frightful multitasking was required even in large markets like New York, where John Zacherle (R.I.P.) came to ply his trade as a combination progressive DJ, weatherman, and “cool ghoul.” Not an unwilling conscript, Zacherle made a name for himself by combining horror, sardonic humour, and rock music, as in the 1958 novelty song “Dinner With Drac,” whose most memorable verse goes:

For dessert there was batwing confetti,
And the veins of a mummy named Betty;
I first frowned upon it,
But put ketchup on it;
It tasted very much like spaghetti!

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

Presaging the Donald Trump phenom, Zacherle actually ran for president in 1960, under the banner of Transylvania’s People’s Party. According to this New York Times obit, one of his gags was pretending to give lessons in conversational Transylvanian. (“The skull of my aunt is on the table.”)

Though less frightening than Nixon, he failed to garner the same popular support evinced by more recent political bloodsuckers whose names now drip from the headlines. By the way, has anyone checked Kellyanne Conway’s hotel room for vials of B-Negative? I’d also check the bedpost for bite marks. (There’s got to be a joke in here somewhere about lawyers who “pound the table.”)

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

For more on Zacherle, Count Floyd, and other purveyors of televisual horror, see fellow blogger The Impractical Cogitator here. Note that kiddie horror shows migrated to late night TV and were watched by adults. This helped pave the way for a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has elements of a children’s puppet show, but where most of the obscure references are aimed squarely at adults:

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

Children also watched the show and sent in drawings of Joel and the bots,

mst3k-kid-drawings_v05c

but I doubt many kids knew enough about the film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to glom onto the whole Richard Burton thing. Adults, on the other hand, were soiling their Underoos listening to a dead-on Burton impression interspersed with references to Gamera turtle — the main character in the dodgy Japanese monster flick being screened that week (MST3K Episode 312, Gamera vs. Guiron).

mst3k-joel-and-bots-watch-gamera

For comparison purposes, here’s Richard Burton from Camelot:

Conclusion

So are the characters in question children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics? The answer is D. all of the above! Particularly in the case of Zacherle, he no doubt had his schtick, but like comedian Andy Kaufmann perhaps needed to be a bit crazy to fully embrace and manifest it. This could easily lead us to a discussion of actors, artists, and sanity. I’m reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, about the notoriously mercurial Klaus Kinski. Also Richard Curtis’s sensitive portrayal of Van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.”

But perhaps it’s best to go out on a comedic note. After all, the marriage of horror and comedy gives us the comedy villain. The late Douglas Adams was a master at writing such, like the Vogons who torture their victims by reading them bad poetry. (I always credit my mentors!) Douglas also wrote for Doctor Who, his first effort being “The Pirate Planet,” where Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker vie to see who can take it furthest over the top. Memorable quote: “Douglas had a strange relationship with parrots…”

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

But one of the most entertaining essays on the comedy villain comes from an earlier epoch of Doctor Who, from the William Hartnell era:

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

Kinda makes you wonder whether Donald Trump has dodgy feetTake all those illegal aliens to the security kitchen, or I shall be forced to have Kellyanne Conway throw flowers menacingly on the floor. Or would flowers simply wilt in her hand, as with Beatrice in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”?

Oooh kids, it’s gonna be scary!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

More TV/Movie Trivia

The Count Floyd skit (embedded earlier) showcases a “scary” movie called Whispers of the Wolf, which is actually a parody of Ingmar Bergman films like Cries and Whispers and Hour of the Wolf. It apes many of the cinematic devices found in actual Bergman films. See also SCTV’s Rome, Italian Style, which successfully parodies a number of stylish Italian films from the 60s and 70s, including The Tenth Victim.

The “Rappacini’s Daughter” clip is from a 1980 television production starring Kristoffer Tabori and Kathleen Beller. Beller often played an innocent, and the contrast is striking here between her innocent nature and poisonous touch. In 1987, she snagged a role in Bronx Zoo, a TV series which was arguably the prototype for Boston Public.

Beller played Mary Caitlin Callahan (her parents should only plotz!), a vegetarian, non-smoking art teacher who rides a motorcycle, but still struggles with her Catholic roots. It was one of her more sensitive roles, and Beller herself said it surpassed 90% of her feature film roles. Despite being married to Thomas Dolby, she clearly wasn’t “blinding them with science.” The science teacher was Victor Ginelli, played by Peter Hobbs. After Ginelli died, gym teacher Gus Butterfield (played by Mykelti Williamson) took over his classes.

* * *

Walking on Eggshells, and Music Appreciation

What can John Cleese and The Avengers teach us about human psychology? UPDATED!

Dealing with difficult people is like walking on eggshells. This fact is known to teachers, therapists, ministers, and gurus. Some people are balanced so precariously that, like Humpty Dumpty, they’re bound to take a great fall. What can one then do?

Alice (Kate Beckinsale) wonders whether Humpty Dumpty (Desmond Barrit) should really be sitting so high up.

Alice (Kate Beckinsale) wonders whether Humpty Dumpty (Desmond Barrit) should really be sitting so high up.

Sadly, sometimes not very much. Owing to their rigid rules and canalized thinking, some individuals stand little chance of getting off the conveyor belt which they themselves have set in motion. They are, at least for a time, ill-fated.

Such is the case with Marcus Rugman (played by John Cleese), an eccentric “egg man” who lives in perpetual fear that his collection of clown faces painted on eggs will come to harm:

(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)

This combination of obsessiveness and fragility reminds me of the main character in Rain Man. A consultant on the movie, Dr. Darold Treffert, writes:

A variety of persons, especially Dustin Hoffman, felt that the portrayal of an autistic person, with all the typical associated rituals, obsessiveness, resistance to change and relatively affectionless behaviours might make a more interesting character for Raymond Babbitt, one the public had never really been exposed to on screen.

“Rain Man, the Movie / Rain Man, Real Life”

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

Dr. Treffert goes on to explain that the Raymond Babbitt character is actually a composite of autism and savant syndrome. In the earlier Avengers clip (from Season 6, Episode 11), Marcus Rugman exhibits some of the same traits in comic form.

the-avengers-linda-thorson-john-cleeseHe’s clearly a savant on the subject of clown faces painted on eggs, but his rigid rules for entry into his world, coupled with his utter lack of warmth, mark him as a character destined to take a fatal pratfall. Then, as John Steed and Tara King remark: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…”

Of this episode, French critic Gérard Dulapin trenchantly observes:

The diversion of childhood imagery to conspiracy Mortifier has already been explored during Nothing goes more in the nursery. If the fancy burlesque predominates, an episode like Maille to go with the taties had already introduced the absurd in season 4, appearing like a predecessor, certainly mezzo voce, of this one.

— Gérard Dulapin, via Google Translate

Among (possibly) interesting egg facts: There was a real-life egg man, Stan Bult, who did memorialize clown make-up on eggshells. And while the goose egg is understandably unpopular among men and women of sport, it is prized in clown egg circles for its crusty insouciance. According to a site celebrating International Clown Week:

The collection continued to be lent out after Mr. Bult’s death but sadly most of the eggs were destroyed in an accident at one such exhibit around 1965.

Clown Bluey became chairman of Clowns International in 1984 and resurrected Mr. Bult’s practice of recording clown members’ faces on eggs. This time a professional artist was used and the faces were painted on china-pot eggs instead of chicken eggs. Over the years, many of the lost older eggs have been reproduced, and new eggs are added frequently.

In the U.S. collection, the faces are hand-painted on goose eggs (more durable than chicken eggs), and decorated with various materials (such as clay, wire, felt, tiny flowers, glitter, etc.) to obtain as accurate a representation of the clown face and costume as possible.

Though failing to mention Stan Bult (thus inviting a clown fatwa), Salman Rushdie has his own take on egg men in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which — like all great children’s stories — is laced with jokes for adults:

Haroun noticed that among the crowd were many men and women who, like the man on the balcony, had smooth, shiny and hairless heads. These people all wore the white coats of laboratory technicians and were, clearly, the Eggheads of P2C2E House, the geniuses who operated the Machines Too Complicated To Describe (or M2C2Ds) which made possible the Processes Too Complicated To Explain.

‘Are you—?’ he began, and they interrupted him, for being Eggheads, they were extremely quick on the uptake.

‘We are the Eggheads,’ they nodded, and then, with looks on their faces that said we can’t believe you don’t know this, they pointed at the shiny fellow on the grand balcony and said, ‘He is the Walrus.’

‘He’s the Walrus?’ Haroun burst out, astounded. ‘But he’s nothing like a walrus! Why do you call him that?’

‘It’s on account of his thick, luxuriant walrus moustache,’ one of the Eggheads replied, and another added admiringly, ‘Look at it! Isn’t it the best? So hairy. So silky-smooth.’

‘But …’ Haroun began, and then stopped when Iff dug him hard in the ribs. ‘I suppose if you’re as hairless as these Eggheads,’ he told himself, ‘even that pathetic dead mouse on the Walrus’s upper lip looks like the greatest thing you’ve ever seen.’

As Haroun passed through the huge doors of P2C2E House, his heart sank. He stood in the vast, echoing entrance hall as white-coated Eggheads walked rapidly past him in every direction. Haroun fancied that they all eyed him with a mixture of anger, contempt, and pity. He had to ask three Eggheads the way to the Walrus’s office before he finally found it, after mazy wanderings around P2C2E House that reminded him of following Blabbermouth around the palace. At last, however, he was standing in front of a golden door on which were written the words: GRAND COMPTROLLER OF PROCESSES TOO COMPLICATED TO EXPLAIN. I. M. D. WALRUS, ESQUIRE*. KNOCK AND WAIT.

@CirrusStone tweet illustrating Walrus and Eggmen. https://twitter.com/CirrusStone/status/704173947797909505

Illustrator @CirrusStone tweets “I Am The Walrus” https://twitter.com/CirrusStone/status/704173947797909505

In Rushdie’s satire of good (or bad) government, the Walrus is the chief bureaucrat, and the Eggheads are the techno-geeks who actually run the place. As in The Avengers, Rushdie’s Eggheads are savants with not-terribly-winning personalities, kind of like Microsoft tech support peeps. (“You want to reinstall Windows? Okay, I’ll need a blood sample, your firstborn child, and you should take a half pound gefilte fish and swing it around your head while screaming like a chicken.** Then just enter these 42 lines of code at the command prompt.”) But I digress…

The second part of The Avengers clip sports a more cheery message: Two people who think they have nothing in common can manage to hit on a subject that lights up both their faces: Music Appreciation!

the-avengers-linda-thorson-music-appreciation

Actors Linda Thorson and William Kendall both agree that Bach, Hindemith and Brubeck are fab.

A more bittersweet exploration of the same theme is found in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, where Sandra Locke and Alan Arkin send each other muted signals:

(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)

And taking the premise beyond the edge of absurdity, there’s this classic sendup of “Mr. B Natural” by the Mystery Science Theatre gang:

There’s always a possibility that two people might manage to communicate across barriers which seemingly divide them, as when Linda Thorson first pokes her head in the door of the establishment where John Cleese keeps his clown egg collection. In David and Lisa, a 1962 film about mental illness, David (Keir Dullea) is afraid of being touched, and Lisa (Janet Margolin) speaks only in rhymes; yet their shared experience forms a fragile duet:

(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)

Conclusion

There isn’t any. This is one of those posts where I’m content to let things remind me of other things. Any wisdom to be found is in the journey itself, not the summing up.

Yet, like Marcus Rugman, we tend to spend a score or more years amassing a brittle collection of behaviours which comprise our lives, only to find that death breaks the shell we have so painstakingly constructed. Would it not be better to be more fluid and flexible in our approach to life, so that at the appointed moment we can dissolve gently into the wind? I am tempted to paraphrase the Christ, if I have the temerity to do so: This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but lay no eggs there.

Oh, and try not to prance about carrying a sousaphone…

Particulars

The Avengers episode in question bears the prolix title “Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…” Airing in 1968, it was written by Dennis Spooner, who also wrote for Doctor Who. If the succession of comic wardrobe changes at the end seems familiar (and somehow Whovian), it’s because Tom Baker went on to do a similar quick-change in his premier episode as the Doctor (though Spooner didn’t write that one).

Janet Margolin later co-starred in a number of films, including Woody Allen’s Take The Money and Run (1969). Keir Dullea had a major role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

*For further info on I. M. D. WALRUS, see the collected works of John Lennon.

**Recipe update: In response to reader feedback, please note that you can modify this recipe to use 2 pounds haddock and scream instead like a banshee. Be sure and split the haddock, though splitting haddock is rightly found under category “Ailments.”

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy Tells Two Egg Stories

The Ploughman Versus the Christ

There were two great artists from Florence — Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi. Once, when Donatello was quite young, he made a crucifix of wood and thought he had achieved nothing short of perfect perfection. He invited his dear friend Brunelleschi to offer his wise comment. Needless to say, inwardly he was dying for the best possible appreciation, which he felt he so rightly deserved. Alas, his dream-world was shattered to pieces when Brunelleschi said to him, “I see a ploughman on the cross instead of the Saviour.”

Donatello was utterly mortified by this unexpected criticism from the older artist. He said, “You are a great judge! But let me see you do it yourself. You say I made a ploughman instead of Jesus Christ. Let me see your masterpiece of the crucifixion.”

That very day Brunelleschi began working on his crucifix. In due course, Brunelleschi completed his sculpture. One day, by chance, he met with his dear friend Donatello in a grocery. Brunelleschi said to his friend, “Tonight you will have supper with me. Please do me a favour. I have bought these items and I have still more items to buy. Will you be good enough to carry these items to my house? I shall be coming home shortly.”

Donatello gladly complied with his friend’s request, carrying a few eggs and some cheese in his apron. Upon entering Brunelleschi’s studio, he got the shock of his life. Perfection incarnate was Brunelleschi’s sculpture of the crucifixion. Utterly amazed, he lost his outer senses and dropped the apron containing the eggs and cheese. Everything was smashed and all was perfect chaos before the immortal sculpture.

On his return, when Brunelleschi saw the great calamity, he said to his friend, “What is the matter with you? What are we going to have now for dinner?”

Donatello said, “Sorry, I have already had my dinner. Your supremely great achievement has fed me to my heart’s content. I feel sorry for you that you have nothing to eat. Now, listen to my sincere heart. The difference between you and me is this: you know how to make the Christ and I know how to make a ploughman.”

— Sri Chinmoy, from Transfiguration and Other Stories, Agni Press, 2007

sri-chinmoy-tranfiguration-and-other-stories

Perseverance, Patience and Self-Giving are of Paramount Importance

Once two partridges, a husband and wife, were going out on a trip. Before they left, the wife laid some eggs near the ocean. Then the husband said to the sea, “We are going on a sea voyage. You have to take care of these eggs for us. On our return, if we don’t find the eggs, then we shall empty you.”

The sea agreed to take care of the eggs, and it kept the eggs safe. A few days later the two partridges came back, but they could not find the eggs. They began screaming at the sea. The sea wanted to give the eggs to them, but it could not find them anymore. The birds cursed the sea and started emptying it. The husband and wife each began taking out a drop of water at a time, throwing it onto the land.

“We are going to empty you,” they said to the sea.

Some little birds saw all this and they asked, “What are you doing?”

The partridges replied, “We are punishing the sea. The sea is very bad because it didn’t keep its promise to look after our eggs.”

The little birds thought it was a noble task and they joined the partridges. After a while, some big birds took up their cause. They were very sympathetic and self-giving, and they also started taking out water drop by drop. This went on for days and weeks.

One day, the Conveyor of Lord Vishnu, Garuda, came and asked, “What are you doing?”

The birds said, “Can’t you see? We are emptying the sea.”

Garuda said, “You fools, how long will this take you? You will never be able to do it. The sea is very vast, infinite.”

But the birds answered, “No, we have determination and perseverance.”

Garuda was very surprised and said, “Let me show them some compassion. Let me ask Lord Vishnu to help them. If Vishnu helps them, then certainly they will be able to find their eggs. If the eggs are still in good condition, Vishnu will be able to return them. But if they are destroyed, he can do nothing for them.”

He went to Vishnu. “Vishnu, I have never seen fools like these. If you really care for fools, then will you do them a favour?” Garuda then told him the whole story.

Vishnu said, “No, they are not fools. They are showing the spirit of patience and perseverance. This is how human beings must try to empty the ignorance-sea, drop by drop. It is what the seekers must and should do. Ignorance-sea is very vast. If sincere seekers want to empty it to replace it with knowledge-light, then they have to do it the same way, drop by drop. So I am very pleased with those partridges. I am commanding the sea to return the eggs.”

Garuda said, “The sea wanted to give them the eggs but it misplaced them and feels that they are all destroyed.”

Vishnu said, “I am using my own occult power to show the sea where it has kept the eggs.”

He used his occult power and the sea immediately found the eggs and returned them to the partridges. Then Vishnu said to the birds, “Perseverance, patience and self-giving all are of paramount importance to fulfil one’s divine task.”

— Sri Chinmoy, from Great Indian Meals: Divinely Delicious and Supremely Nourishing, Part 2, Agni Press, 1979
sri-chinmoy-great-indian-meals-part-2

Special thanks to Priyadarshan Bontempi and SriChinmoyLibrary.com for providing a great storehouse of Sri Chinmoy’s works.

See also “An Adventure in Eggs,” by Ashrita Furman, plus televisual record.

And here is where the — ahem — EGGS TERMINATE!!!

* * *

Picasso and the Circus, Part 2

Connecting Picasso and the Circus with Sri Chinmoy, Elena Day, Jim Freund, Genevieve Valentine, and The Outer Limits

In Part 1, I embedded a video of Picasso and the Circus, where a little girl named Elena views Picassos in the museum, with cutaways to a modern-day Parisian circus. I closed by saying this makes me think of many things…

I sometimes listen to Hour of the Wolf, the sci-fi/fantasy radio programme started by the late Margot Adler, and hosted lo these many years by Jim Freund. I remember Jim saying that he loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis as a child, but when he reread them in adulthood the magic seemed to be gone.

Aha! I thought to myself. The books are the same, but what has changed? Consciousness has changed! This ties in very nicely with Picasso, who famously said that “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Unless we consciously try to cultivate childlike qualities, those qualities become lost to us — and with them so much beauty and joy!

Students of Sri Chinmoy put on their own amateur circus which has all kinds of crazy and colourful acts meant to bring out childlike qualities:

Madal Circus 1

Madal Circus 2

Madal Circus 3

Madal Circus 4

It’s called the Madal Circus, based on Sri Chinmoy’s childhood nickname “Madal,” which means “kettledum” in Bengali. Of the Madal Circus, Sri Chinmoy said:

Dear ones, Madal Circus gives me the utmost joy, purer than the purest joy. Our philosophy is progress, progress, progress, progress. Let us not change our philosophy! I am begging you to remain young, young, young. Only the young in spirit will realise God.

— Sri Chinmoy, from His compassion is everything to us

Sri Chinmoy drew millions of birds, including this green one which graces the cover of one of his songbooks:

Green Bird c.k.gBlogging is learning, and TIL that Elena Day (the little girl in the film) grew up to create and perform The Green Bird character in Cirque du Soleil:

She has escaped her cage, and desperately wants to fly. But she can’t fly away and join the circus, because she is too awkward. She remains trapped in the urban world like a marionette with tangled strings.

— The Green Bird, Cirque du Soleil press kit

This could easily describe certain former seekers I know who lost their childlike qualities and became spiritually “bankrupt.” 😉

Moving on… Sri Chinmoy wrote this song about a green bird which he translated into English:

O green bird of the blue sky,
Tell me, will you go with me, brother?
I am afraid to go alone
To my Mother’s Home
Which is on the other shore.
No capacity have I
To swim across the river of destruction.
Will you follow me?
Will you help me fly like you
To the other shore
Where my Eternity’s Mother is?

— Sri Chinmoy, from Supreme, Teach Me How To Cry songbook

See also this discussion thread on “Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music.” (I like connecting different sources like this to see what may be discovered by shifting from one frame of reference to another.)

Jim Freund, if you’re out there, I wonder if your frequent guest Genevieve Valentine — author of Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti — would enjoy this post. Her character Elena is perhaps darker and more dystopic than Elena Day’s Green Bird character, but it’s always fun to compare circus motifs and see how they pan out among different artists and genres. Reviewer Abigail Nussbaum notes that Mechanique opens with these lines:

The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

This forms a contrast with The Truman Show, which I recently wrote about. If we think of the faked city of Seahaven as a media big top, its illusions are rather high tech compared to those of Circus Tresaulti. In Truman there’s hope that one might escape from conformism and find a world more real, while the dystopic nature of Mechanique suggests that travellers in a dingy, post-apocalyptic world find little ultimate solace in the steampunkish illusions of Circus Tresaulti.

A memorable line from Mechanique reads: “You do strange things out in the world before you join the Circus.” Circus performers tend to live on the outskirts of the city, the outskirts of society, the outskirts of morality. Colourful characters who feel marked by difference may take refuge in a circus subculture where difference becomes a livelihood, a way of life, and ultimately the new norm. It was natural for a bohemian like Picasso to take an interest in the circus.

Picasso--and-friends

The young Picasso with his bohemian friends

I’ve written before about Chinese bohemian San Mao, and about the album Echo, which was a collaboration between San Mao, Chyi Yu, and Pan Ywe Yun. That album actually opens with a song which has a circus motif:

Of course, once one begins to tally up all the film, TV, music, and literature which dallies with some variation on the circus theme, the possibilities are endless. Only yesterday I happened on an old Outer Limits episode where a birdlike alien takes charge of a space ride and sends the ticketholders on a longer journey than they’d planned.

BirdmanThis campy trailer for “Second Chance” (The Outer Limits, s01e23) is highly evocative of the genre:

The no-star cast and noirish photography are refreshing in an age of overproduced technicolor extravaganzas.

Potent Outer Limits quote: “Maybe young people are the only ones who listen and understand. You can’t reach a closed mind.”

PicassoAndTheCircus_v8d_ShorterTwirl_anim_vdub

Joyce Hatto and Ethics

I began this blog by pondering whether ethics is masculine and spirituality feminine. If compassion and forgiveness are significant aspects of spirituality, they’re also qualities we tend to associate more with women than men. It’s not surprising, then, that the most compassionate rendering of the back story behind the Joyce Hatto scandal comes from Victoria Wood in her BBC treatment Loving Miss Hatto.

I’m working on spec on an article about Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe (known as “Barry”). There are some new factual developments concerning the U.S. side of what was a distinctly British scandal; but in this post I’m less interested in going over the facts than examining the ethics of loving (or hating?) Miss Hatto.

Wood’s treatment is based (very loosely) on “Fantasia For Piano” — Mark Singer’s definitive piece in The New Yorker. If you’re unfamiliar with the matter, that would quickly get you up to speed. The essence is that about a hundred classical piano recordings released under Hatto’s name turned out to be plagiarized in whole or in part from other artists. Head leper is William Barrington-Coupe, who had a dodgy past and is generally considered something of a con man.

Opinion about Hatto herself is more mixed, with those who knew her personally hoping against hope that she was unaware of the nature or magnitude of the fraud committed by her husband. Yet, by most accounts it was more than simple fraud; it was also a hoax (which has a somewhat different complexion than a fraud, implying an artistic playing with reality). And beyond either hoax or fraud, there remains the very real question of whether Hatto and hubby became potty in their senior years. Was the illusion that cancer-ridden septuagenarian Joyce nonetheless had a prolific recording career a form of folie à deux?

In real life, there are baffling, enigmatic, and pathological elements to the story; but sadly, to make a winning film for the Beeb, Victoria Wood had to simplify the characters and iron out many of their real world contradictions. What we get, then, is a sentimental love story in which both Hatto and hubby emerge as flawed but likeable characters. It’s them against the world, and we’re on their side:

The first of two trailers ends with Barrington-Coupe being arrested for failing to pay the purchase tax on radios he imported from Hong Kong. It’s portrayed as less of a crime and more of a typical Barry “muddle.” Joyce and Barry are middle-class folk up against a classical music establishment filled with “dessicated old shirt-lifters” (as Barry calls them). All’s fair in love and marketing, and Barry’s early mission is to “sell” Joyce as an international concert artiste to the great British public, despite her crippling stage fright and bouts with nerves:

Ethics 101 tells us that lying, cheating, and stealing from other artists is execrable behaviour; but Wood is not so much an ethicist as a romantic. In her research for the film, she plainly came to identify with Hatto and to find something heroic in her struggles. The very title “Loving Miss Hatto” may well be a defiant retort to the hatred hurled at the couple once their fraud, hoax, or call-it-what-you-will was unmasked.

Even in a country with socialized medicine, a multi-year bout with cancer must be an inconvenient and impoverishing thing. Wood depicts the couple as leading a modest lifestyle, but occasionally being able to afford cake due to the income from pirated CDs. She makes Joyce and Barry eminently real to us in the tradition of inversionist outlaw flicks like Bonnie and Clyde (to which she makes explicit reference) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The people victimized by the couple — conned, lied to, and cheated — are little seen and not given the same warm treatment.

Still, notwithstanding its upside-down ethics and inversionist outlook, Loving Miss Hatto is an enjoyable and sympathetic portrayal (though it would have been better at an hour than an hour-forty). I can’t help liking the film characters despite knowing that the reality was somewhat darker. If you don’t care to put your ethics in your back pocket, you can always watch The Great Piano Scam for a tougher appraisal:

 Michael Howard

Interesting Joyce Hatto Links

The Hatto-Howell letters:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Feb07/Hatto_Howell.htm

Promotion of Joyce Hatto — 2006 archived page:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Jan06/Hatto2_recordings.htm

Jed Distler Reviews the Lost René Köhler BBC Recordings:
http://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-13553/

Letter published on Overgrown Path blog:
http://www.overgrownpath.com/2007/03/joyce-hatto-other-story.html

Welcome!

Welcome stranger, are ye here for the festival? Seriously, my first post with real content is A Study In Contrasts, but you dear reader deserve a special welcome for finding your way to this blog. While ethics and spirituality are my prime considerations, I expect there’ll be plenty of excursions into music, painting, and poetry. That’s sort of a given with me. And if I can find a way to drag in wry commentaries from britcoms, I’ll probably do that too.

The way this blog is organized, many of the most important or “featured” posts will appear in a carousel of icons near the top of the home page. Sorry, no carousel music — the little hamster in the cage doesn’t know how to play the calliope yet. It’s a thought, though…

Anyway, you can click on the icons in the carousel to read the featured posts. Other (non-featured) posts will appear in sequence on the home page like they normally do.

Thanks for visiting, and if you’re someone who cares about ethics, spirituality and art, then tell a friend about this blog. Disguise your voice if necessary, or speak in code: