Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Others have already remarked on the timeliness of Up in the Air, which meditates upon the efficacy of alienation, in our throw-away society, to help us survive a brutal recession. To its many positive reviews, I only wish to note its seamless interweave of documentary and dramatic filmmaking. I'd assumed the many "terminated employees" in the cast were actors, but later read that Jason Reitman interviewed people who'd been "let go" and asked them what they'd like to say to the human resources bureaucrats who gave them the bad news.

In the fifties, many low budget war films cut away from scenes that were crisply filmed in sound studios to grainy sixteen millimeter footage of actual battles. The effect was visually shabby, and worse, demeaning to the soldiers whose genuine peril was of less immediacy to the audience than that of the actors.

There is no such condescension in this film. The ex-employees movingly reveal their pain, distress, and sense of betrayal, with no sacrifice of their dignity. Indeed, only veteran actor Steve Eastin is called upon to become unglued. His virtuosity resonates with what so many in the film and in the audience have experienced. That's what we hire actors to do for us. It's what theatrical visionary Jerzy Grotowski taught is the holy mission of the actor.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas Visitor

It's not my holiday, but I've always enjoyed it. I actually like the bustle of Christmas shopping, especially when there are Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells. At school in the fifties, carols were part of our curriculum and I remember the words to them all. Once my class went caroling near my house where homes were lavishly adorned with lights, statuettes, and even a creche scene in a garage with live animals. The holiday movies are a treat, especially It's a Wonderful Life and George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge. And Handel's Messiah never ceases to surprise me with its charm and grandeur.

As long as I can remember, the faithful have deplored the demise of spirituality at Christmastime. The truth is that this holiday, which before Dickens was just an occasion for drunkeness and violence, is more spiritual than ever. For those of us who find inspiration in aesthetics, Christmas is the world's best blend of art and faith. And if we do not believe in a saviour, we can find holiness in childhood, which is what Christmas honors for us all.

Granduca Madonna by Raphael, 1504. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feasting on Light

Two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, there lived two scholars whose rivalry still reverberates. The patient, liberal, humanitarian Hillel is fondly remembered, while the strict, misanthropic, even racist, Shammai is reviled.

In one famous anecdote, a Roman soldier came to Shammai asking him to teach him the Torah (or the essence of it, assuming the soldier was an Aristotelean) while he stood on one foot. Shammai dismissed him as a fool, so the man went to Hillel with the same challenge. Hillel answered by coining the Golden Rule: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now, go forth and learn."

Shammai was Douglas to Hillel's Lincoln, Berger to his Perry Mason, Draco Malfoy to his Harry Potter.

In another famous exchange, Shammai taught that all eight lights of the Hanukkah menorah should be kindled on the first night and then diminished, one by one, each night thereafter. Hillel taught the reverse: start with one and then add. Hillel reasoned that it is our mission to bring light to the world, enhance it, and heal the world, rather than to witness its extinction.

Happy Hanukkah.

The Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Falling From Grace

If ever a week had a theme, it was this one. Tiger Woods lost his dignified image as a focused and gentlemanly athlete. Serena Williams was fined and placed on probation for her outbursts at the U.S. Open. The emirate of Dubai was revealed to be a kingdom built on sand. The Secret Service was tarnished by two gatecrashers who bluffed their way into the president's first state dinner. Mike Huckabee became the target of formerly adoring conservative bloggers because he was responsible for the release of the man who murdered four Tacoma police officers. And most important of all, Barack Obama gave a tepid speech in support of his escalation of our efforts in Afghanistan, drawing only qualified approval from those who support the war, and alienating him from a large part of his base.

I, for one, take no pleasure in any of these developments, and can only hope that the reputations of all will eventually be restored...well, maybe not Huckabee's.

Satan by Gustave Dore; an engraving for a 19th Century edition of Paradise Lost. Click on the picture for a closer look.