Now Playing: Lindisfarne--"No Time To Lose"
I've been at two jobs now for nearly a month, and find I have little energy to do much besides work and recuperate from doing so, my only day off being Sunday. As a result, there really hasn't been much to blog about (not that there usually is, but you know what I mean). I haven't seen any movies lately, mostly sticking to the reading and the music appreciation (the latter including something I've been meaning to do for ages--see below). My social life's taken a wee bit of a dive (naturally, within the first week of working I miss out because of my schedule on being an extra in a suburban cowboy spectacular and attending a horror movie marathon), but I suspected that would happen going in. It's fine, though, as I'm doing something new and learning new things. That seems to be going around a bit--one friend of mine is going to start sinigng at a local restaurant in the evenings and another just got a sweet teaching job at EMU. There's definitely change in the air, only partially cheapened by the floods of incoming students tramping past the house and making the rafters shake (quite literally) with the sounds of "beer pong," possibly the dumbest waste of time I ever remember seeing.* "As a result, I expect the blog entries will get fewer and farther in between, eventually leading to a desire to end the thing with some dignity. Until that happens, though, I suppose I should forge ahead as if things were normal." I was going to write that without comment, but the ongoing example of a friend of mine (and her lovely thoughts about my own stuff) has convinced me to keep it going, even if it does just turn into film/book/music reviews and recipes (as, oh, opposed to my thoughts on walking around a self-satisfied small Michigan city every day). Thanks, Margot.
The Tyrannicide Brief (2005): Geoffrey Robertson is an internationally renowned human rights lawyer practicing in Britain, one who's already written several books on the subject and has acted in several trials of high-profile nasties, most famously Pinochet and Malawi's Hastings Banda. In the course of unrelated research, he came across mention of John Cooke, a seventeenth-century English lawyer who wound up with the "dubious" distinction of prosecuting the treason case against Charles I at the close of the English Civil War in 1649. His instrumental role in the latter's conviction and execution made him a marked man on the coming of the Restoration in 1660, at which time he was hanged, drawn and quartered. In The Tyrannicide Brief, Robertson aims at nothing less than removing the "dubious" from the "distinction." The English Civil War (or British Civil Wars, as historian Trevor Royle termed them in his recent and excellent book of the same name) has been one of the most historically controversial conflicts on record: its legacy in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced both modern Britain and the United States, but its revolutionaries have always been looked at askance by succeeding generations. Parliament and its army of "Roundheads" established the groundwork for many of the liberties citizens in most functioning democracies presently enjoy, but they also numbered among their ranks fanatical Puritan killjoys and eventually succumbed to the temptations of dictatorship. Conversely, the Stuart monarchs obsessively fixated on divine right and made war on their own people to the tune of tens of thousands dead, but their alleged dash and the continuing appeal of royal glamour have helped to rehabilitate them in the eyes of posterity. "Roundheads of John Cooke's stamp are in short supply in modern Britain, where 'radical barristers' are contradictions in terms and former political firebrands kiss the monarch's hand on taking their oath of cabinet office or self-importantly stroke their ermine in the House of Peers. Monarchy still exerts its vainglorious magic, from Eurostarry princesses to feudal Suaid royals to the virgin-deflowering King of Swaziland." As the preceding passage from page 7 might imply, Robertson aims at restoring the honor and importance of the "English Republic" and its adherents, both then and now. With me, he's preaching to the choir (particularly with my own republic in such a worrisome condition, with another head of state who thinks the law beneath him), but it's interesting to see how he does it. Cooke was a notable figure not only in his fateful 1649 "brief" (which he took after many of his colleagues had fled to avoid doing so); he was also a legal and political thinker of political foresight, advocating reforms that would in some cases not come about for another three and a half centuries (if you live in Canada or Western Euope, anyway--we're still waiting on a few). Robertson's brief history of the war itself and its political repercussions is pithy and concise, and he clearly has fun with his cast of supporting characters, especially the lusty John Lilburne, soldier, politician, free-speech pioneer and legal cause-celebre. His central point, though, turns on the trial and execution of the king. In this undertaking he could conceivably be accused of anachronism (which he implicitly acknowledges), as there was little precedent for trying and convicting a monarch, even one who routinely violated long-standing laws and who arguably broke the presumed reciprocal contract between the monarch and people. Robertson sees Charles' trial as the ground zero for much of international human rights law, focusing on the similarities between Charles and present-day defendants like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, who were tried for pretty much the same thing (although in foreign-imposed and international courts, to be sure, however much they deserved it). His presentation of the trial as the beginning of a historical continuum gives his argument a force it might not have had otherwise, and reminds the reader that ideals have to start somewhere.
Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I remember seeing the ads on PBS for James Levine's ground-breakingly traditional (!) Met production of "the cycle", hosted (for some reason) by Peter Graves. It looked utterly daunting (as did opera in general) and I stayed well away, encouraged both by Wagner's dismal personal reputation and the accessibility of user-friendly orchestral excerpts. After getting interested in opera a few years ago, I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to deal with the thing, "warming up" by listening to Tannhauser and Lohengrin, as well as catching bits of Walkure and Siegfried on CBC 2 for the opening of the new Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. For one of the high-water marks of "Western culture," it's pretty good, actualyl. Rheingold, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung were from the classic Georg Solti recording of the early 60s, with Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, and George London as Wotan, while Walkure was the one I could have seen as a kid on TV, with Hildegarde Behrens as Brunnhilde and James Morris as Wotan. Considering all the ink that's been spilled over the meaning of the work, it stays fairly close to its legendary origins (as the Nibelungenlied, a medieval cycle of stories based, like the Arthurian legends which gave Wagner two other operas, on real-life events around the fall of the Roman Empire--Attila the Hun shows up as "Etzel"). Alberich, leader of the dwarfish Nibelungs, steals the eponymous Ring from the saucy Rhinemaidens, loses it to Wotan, who loses it to... for the next fifteen hours or so of listening time, everyone--gods, demigods, mortals--runs around trying to get it back and at the same time unwittingly (?) cause the downfall of the gods and the birth of human wisdom by the end of Gotterdammerung. As one might expect, it can be very heavy going, but there are some fairly sprightly passages as well. Brunnhilde's a terrific heroine that, like many in opera, is rather badly served by the other characters (and arguably by her creator), but has some great moments, especially her farewell to Wotan at the end of Walkure and her closing aria at the end of Gotterdammerung. The "evil" in the stopry springs more from the greed of gods like Wotan than typical "villains," but Mime in Siegfried does a pretty good job at injecting a little cackling, hand-rubbing malevolence into the proceedings, which I found pretty refreshing. The sheer length can be draining, but not if you listen to them as intended, on four successive nights (I got three but had to break for the last one due to work). I doubt I'll complain about other operas being long again--as far as Puccini goes, you can listen to both Tosca and Turandot back to back in the space of any of the last three operas in the Ring. As with most operas, I suspect it's better on stage, and hope to see it there one day, not just to say I've done so.
Phantom of the Cinematheque (2005): For the past four yuears, I've been going more or less regularly every Sunday afternoon to the University of MIchigan's Cinema Guild showings, stalwartly maintained by my friend Lou, who's finally decided to turn it over, especially after getting the teaching job mentioned earlier. The very last film (until new management sends out an email) was, fittingly enough a documentary portrait of Henri Langlois, film-lover par excellence and the man behind France's venerable Cinematheque Francaise, the national film archive and de facto global blueprint for film archives. It's a compelling story, especially for people like us who think little of gathering in a musty classroom--often on brilliant days outside--to watch obscure flicks. Langlois turned down making films for collecting and maintaining them, staying a step ahead of the Nazis during the occupation and frequently doing the same with the French government during the 1950s and 1960s. In the process he became a hero to the filmmaking community in France and throghout the world. His sudden firing by de Gaulle's government in 1968, largely at the instigation of Minister of Culture Andre Malraux, helped to spark the Paris riots later that year. Truffaut, Godard and countless others banded together to denounce the government's action and make Langlois' firing an international shame. Here was a man who stuck to his guns and did his best to live life his way and preserve cultural treasures, not just so they could stay preserved but so that people could enjoy and learn from them. Langlois' example is prety damn inspiring (especially in a world where the pressure to conform is often unbearably strong), and it was a great choice to round out a welcome Sunday tradition. And good luck, Lou.
*Although not quite as dumb as seeing a fight break out as a result (over "respect," if I remember rightly); that was glorious.