Posts Tagged 'the dark knight'

A few items of special (read: “geeky”) interest for sale

Howdy — with twenty-five days left before we have to be out of our house in Bloomington (with it being somewhat up in the air when precisely we’ll land in Boston), I have a few special items for sale that it may be easier to deal directly on rather than wait for somebody to find them on Amazon. (I also have several books that I’ll devote a blog post to shortly, but I’ll start here.) All serious, conscientious offers will be, well, taken seriously. If interested send me an e-mail — rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

Update, 11 July 2014: I have listed all of these on eBay. Links to the eBay listing are with each item.

The items are:

  • Batman Original Motion Picture Score, Composed by Danny Elfman. Expanded Archival Collection, La-La Land Records LLLCD 1140, Limited Edition 2 disc set, 5000 printed. eBay listing.batman 1989 expanded score

 

 

 

 

 

  • Batman: The Animated Series, Original Soundtrack, Music Composed by Shirley Walker. La-La Land Records LLLCD 1082, Limited Edition 2 disc set, 3000 printed. eBay listing.BTAS score

 

 

 

 

 

  • The Dark Knight Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Music Composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Warner Bros. 511104-2, 2 disc Special Edition. eBay listing.TDK special edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Akira: The Special Edition. DVD, Pioneer 11537. 2 disc special edition in tin case. eBay listing.AKIRA Special Edition DVD

 

I think I need to be concerned

Some thoughts on the Justice League rumors

Both of my regular readers might have some inkling that Christopher Nolan has been one of my favorite filmmakers of the last twelve years, that on the whole I’ve loved his Batman movies, and that Batman has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was probably six or seven.

A Justice League movie is an idea that people have been circling around for several years. There was the TV pilot in 1997 that a Google Image search shows to have been pretty ridiculous looking; the animated series from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini was awesome, but I’m guessing that Cartoon Network in the long run decided it was backwards-looking and chasing after an audience made up of the wrong age group. I never watched Smallville, but the pictures that I saw made their Justice League look low-rent to say the least. After Batman Begins and Superman Returns there was talk of George Miller making a standalone film with a totally different cast (like Armie Hammer as Batman and Common as Green Lantern); obviously that never happened, and since then, non-Batman standalone films seem to have been the plan, but I can’t say that there has seemed to be an overabundance of confidence in those projects. Neither Captain Marvel (I refuse to call the character “Shazam”) nor The Flash have really gotten anywhere. Green Arrow was supposed to be the hero in a villain-centric prison-escape film called Supermax, but that went nowhere. Superman Returns showed that there was still something of an audience somewhere for Superman movies, but it wasn’t a solid enough hit to maintain confidence in Bryan Singer’s vision. I didn’t hate Green Lantern, but for a movie that had as its fundamental premise somebody with a ring that they could use to build whatever they could imagine, it seemed to be pretty unimaginative. Wonder Woman has had a infamously troubled path to the silver screen, with even Joss Whedon not being able to put together a package that could convince studio execs to pull the trigger (and then there was a TV pilot a couple of years later about which, it seems, the less said the better).

After the success of The Avengers last year, Warner Bros. predictably announced that they would be making a Justice League movie their priority after The Dark Knight Rises was done, but whatever idea that seemed to be pushing that forward fell apart a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been left with Batman being apparently done for now, Man of Steel still being something of a question mark, and a consolation prize of a version of Green Arrow presently on TV who is clearly the poor man’s Batman, but he’s still pretty scrappy and reasonably enjoyable to watch.

Then, last night, a rumor started circulating that even got picked up by Forbes: after the demise of the most recent iteration of the Justice League idea, Warner Bros. has handed the reins of the DC film universe over to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Christian Bale likely in the mix to come back as Batman and Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel300, and Watchmen). Nolan is producing Man of Steel, and a version of the Justice League rumor was going around about a year ago, but Nolan seemed to intentionally distance himself from the concept in interviews.

Is it true? I have no idea. My guess is that nobody wants to miss out on the money that Marvel Studios is raking in with their cinematic universe, and that if Christopher Nolan plays his cards right, he’s got guaranteed budgets and creative control for all of his personal movies going forward. How do you reconcile such a move with the end of The Dark Knight Rises? I’m not overly concerned about that; surely that’s an opportunity for creative storytelling. It’s entirely possible that it’s true right now in the sense that it’s the idea they’re trying to make the deals for; a denial down the road may mean only that they couldn’t get everybody to sign on the dotted line, not that it wasn’t what they were trying to do. (My plan B: Bruce Timm produces, Christopher Nolan directs, Paul Dini writes. It’ll never happen, but that would be my dream team.)

I’m somewhat less interested in whether or not it’s true than a couple of other dimensions to the story. First, it’s evident to me reading comments on the various re-postings of the story that, bluntly, geeks have short memories. It’s no longer a novelty that an A-list auteur is directing a film based on a comic book with a big budget and an Oscar-winning cast, so it’s time to rewrite history so that the auteur in question is an overrated hack whom everybody has always hated (going all the way back to that second-rate piece of celluloid Memento) and whose contributions to the comic book genre of films have been miscast and mediocre at best, self-important trash at worst, and, really, even The Dark Knight was a second-rate Heat knockoff that mostly sold tickets because of the death of one of its stars. The Dark Knight Rises went off in a different direction than they’d hoped (tying off the arc of the cinematic character rather than opening up ways to tell more of the comic book stories), so now the guy everybody was drooling over when he was announced as the director of Batman Begins is persona non grata. Like I said, short memories, and I can’t really say that I get it.

The other thing that I find intriguing is the apparent article of faith in some circles that a Justice League film can’t work, that these characters fundamentally will look silly next to each other on the silver screen, that there are too many storytelling problems introduced by having Superman and Batman in the same world, etc. etc. Somehow these concerns are a non-issue when you’re talking about Marvel characters (The Avengers, after all, includes a Norse god, a chemically-enhanced supersoldier, and a genius gajillionaire in a wearable energy source that makes a nuclear reactor look like a 9 volt battery), but when it’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, it’s irredeemably silly somehow. Nobody’s really been able to explain why the DC characters are different, they just are, apparently.

Thinking about it, I’d like to toss out a possible explanation, and that’s one of generation. The DC characters, as the prototypical superheroes, inevitably are first archetypes of a sort and characters second. For the Golden Age characters, the basic point of reference is the circus, a common enough cultural experience in the 1930s. The costumes are all more or less based on the strongman/acrobat model; Batman’s not wearing body armor in Detective Comics #27, he’s wearing a leotard. The types of characters are all basically that, types — Superman’s origin is all of half a page in Action Comics #1, and the point isn’t to give him a psychology, the point is to explain why he’s got super-strength. He’s a strongman; Batman’s a detective and an acrobat, a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Zorro; Wonder Woman is a goddess, again in a circus performer’s costume; the Jay Garrick Flash is a combination scientist and and college athlete, dressed up as Mercury; the Alan Scott Green Lantern is basically a wizard-type of character. The alter-egos are also essentially types; Clark Kent is a reporter (the trappings of which very much date the character and are not easily transferrable to the popular imagery of journalism of 2013 — it’s more Matt Drudge than Cary Grant), Bruce Wayne is an aristocrat, Diana Prince a nurse — and the 1950s revamps of Flash and Green Lantern keep this going, with Barry Allen as a police scientist and Hal Jordan as the ultimate manly man of the 1950s, a test pilot.

By contrast, being a generation later, the methodology has developed somewhat, and while the Marvel characters all certainly have some basis in types — mostly the “scientist” type — from the get-go they’re made into more than types by flaws and deformity. Peter Parker is a geeky high school kid whose powers convince him just long enough that he’s better than everybody else for it to cost his Uncle Ben his life. Tony Stark is a genius weapons engineer and industrialist whose talents are turned against him. Bruce Banner set free his own inner demon. And so on. If, as William Faulkner once said, drama is the human heart in conflict with itself, then one can argue that the Marvel characters are fundamentally more dramatic.

From this perspective, the problem with the DC characters maybe becomes a bit more evident. The whole premise of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern is that he is supposed to be without fear; that rather makes inner conflict a tougher nut to crack, dramatically. (And the film was hampered by this problem — the cinematic Hal Jordan’s inner self-doubt, while perhaps more “cinematic”, completely undermined the foundations of the character. Ryan Reynolds did what he could, but the result was, rather than the human heart in conflict with itself, a movie plot in conflict with itself.) It also makes more sense why Batman has been the most successful of the various attempts, and in more than just one medium — of the Golden Age characters, he’s the one who actually has a personal internal conflict to resolve, and it’s an incredibly effective, primal one at that. Superman is much harder to make interesting in that regard; the 1978 film’s use of Jor-El and Pa Kent was a good storytelling move in terms of giving him an inner conflict, moral poles to bounce off of, and the trailers make it look as though Man of Steel will draw some of its drama from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel Gladiator, one of Siegel and Schuster’s key sources, so we’ll see how that turns out — but at the same time, there’s simply no reason for Superman to be wearing body armor.

To me, however, none of that says “won’t work on film”, it just says, “You’ve got to do it with the best filmmakers possible” — filmmakers who understand the archetypes they’re dealing with, understand what it is about those archetypes that people connect with, and not use artificial and false storytelling techniques to try to re-engineer the characters. None of it says to me “Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t all be in the same movie”, either; again, it just says to me that you need a filmmaker who knows exactly how each character fits into the story you’re telling. Zack Snyder seems to have a reasonable grasp of how ensemble casts in comic book movies need to work; again, we’ll see how things look after Man of Steel comes out.

Anyway, to me it seems like a good day when the big thing you have to complain about is that Christopher Nolan might produce a Nolan/David Goyer-written, Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movie. I guess we’ll see.

“Do you feel in charge?”

Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and so on below.

The UPS truck came yesterday. Thus it was that once Theodore was put down, I took a break from Cicero’s letters, and I told Flesh of My Flesh, “I’m making dinner, and then we’re watching The Dark Knight Rises.” The issue being, you see, that she hadn’t seen it yet. Skyfall was the first movie we had been able to see together in   since The Avengers, and that was just because for my birthday, some friends offered to watch Theodorus Rex while we went out by ourselves.

I very much enjoyed Skyfall, incidentally, and have seen it twice now; the transformation of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond into, effectively, the old James Bond, is complete. If one knows something about the history of actors who might have been Bond, the presence of Ralph Fiennes (as well as the reveal of him as the “new” M, who’s really the “old” M) is clever; he was one of the actors being considered back in 1994 to take over the role after Dalton declined to participate in what became GoldenEye. If I’m remembering a particular issue of Premiere sufficiently, the list before they finally circled back around to Brosnan was Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Neill, and Hugh Grant. Fiennes, then, as a former field agent whom we see take a bullet and fire off some of his own shots, takes on some real-life resonance, given that part of the idea with Gareth Mallory seems to be that he’s what Bond would have been if he’d just been a bit more respectable.

I liked the approach with Skyfall of “James-Bond-as-art-film”; we get a lot of Bond fighting in silhouette, and this can get a bit trippy, particularly when he’s silhouetted against lots of moving neon lights. Sam Mendes also seems to be trying to tell you something with how he frames shots; Bond is frequently centered in the frame, as is Javier Bardem’s Silva, but then, at the very end, when Bond is looking out over the city from MI6’s roof, it starts out with him centered only to have the camera nudge just a little bit right so that Big Ben is now centered. The point seems to be that Bond has finally decided once and for all that he’s doing what he does, not out of anger for Vesper’s betrayal, not out of the repressed trauma of his parents’ death, but for queen and country.

But I’m supposed to be talking about The Dark Knight Rises.

So, four and a half years ago, The Dark Knight took up a big chunk of my summer. I saw it, I think, nine times on the big screen all told, six of those in IMAX, and really what I did during July and August of 2008 was call up my friends and say, “Hey, want to go see The Dark Knight in IMAX with me?” I didn’t have much else to do; I had a French reading knowledge class I was taking, and I was working, but so far as I knew at that point, I was definitely not going to be working on a grad program anytime soon, and my wife was in Germany, followed almost immediately by her spending close to a month in Seattle after her dad was diagnosed with cancer. The Dark Knight seemed as good a way as any to kill time.

Obviously, my life has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I have other ways my time is occupied these days, thank God. Still, I managed to see The Dark Knight Rises four times on the big screen, two of those in IMAX. So, draw whatever conclusions you will about that — such as, for example, baby or no baby, PhD program or no PhD program, I’m still an unrepentant nerd.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent’s murders rather than have Gotham lose their knight in shining armor. The storytelling reason for this seems to be so that Batman takes on some qualities of being an urban legend, almost a Spring-heeled Jack kind of figure; I suspect that the practical, real-world reason is because it had been seven years since they started shooting Batman Begins, which itself required Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne over a seven to eight year span, and The Dark Knight was supposed to take place something like six months after Batman Begins while being made three years later. Everybody looks noticeably older than they did in 2005, in other words, and this gives them an in-story way to explain that.

In the intervening years, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, letting the physical and mental damage he suffered as Batman settle in. He tries to become a philanthropist, but he finds out projects that can save the world also have the dark side of probably being able to destroy it, a realization which just drives him further into the shadows. Commissioner Gordon has been able to use the memory of Harvey Dent to lock up a lot of people, but the lie is eating away at him. It’s a status quo that’s, for all intents, a well-polished rotten apple.

Enter four characters who each stir up the hornet’s nest in their own way. Selina Kyle is a jewel thief who has taken a curious interest in Bruce’s fingerprints; John Blake is a young cop who sees that everybody is pretty much just going through the motions to keep everything looking nice; Miranda Tate is an investment partner of Bruce’s who wants to show him that the world is worth trusting enough to save it… and then there’s Bane, who is manipulating much of this (or is he?) specifically to force Bruce to get back into the ring as Batman.

A running theme of the movie — which goes all the way back to Batman Begins — is that of the “clean slate”. The express purpose of the League of Shadows, after all, was to “wipe the slate clean”, as it were, when cities got too big and corrupt by destroying them, which is the objective that Bane has inherited; Selina Kyle wants to wipe out her own past (there’s a MacGuffin of the “gangland myth” of a computer program that can do this, which it turns out that Bruce acquired to keep from being used; since the Joker had no traceable record in The Dark Knight, it’s possible that this is intended to be an oblique reference to him); Gordon, Bruce, and Blake are all living with accounts needing to be settled, and so on. Is a revolution how society ultimately has to pay its bill? As R’as Al Ghul suggests in Begins (and as Bane trumpets in Rises), is burning away the brush always the solution, and it’s just a question of scale? Can one man show a better way? One might not be entirely wrong to detect a Christ allegory with where Nolan and company end up with this question (albeit thankfully not in the somewhat ham-fisted way that Superman Returns did), but it seems to me that Plato’s cave is far more explicitly referenced.

Rises does a nice job of bringing things full circle back to Begins; the story keys off of R’as Al Ghul’s conviction in Begins that “Gotham must be destroyed”, and shows that just because R’as Al Ghul died, it didn’t mean the idea died. R’as Al Ghul left a legacy, and it’s a legacy Bruce has to deal with.

Incidentally, for anybody familiar with the comics, there’s only one way the character of Miranda Tate was going to make any sense at all, and if you’re paying attention, they telegraph her identity as Talia from the get-go. She talks like R’as (she has a line about “restoring balance” early on), and there are visual callbacks as well, like showing her good at building a fire, much as R’as was in Begins. A reward of repeated viewings, too, is noticing that the little girl in the prison stabs somebody in the back in one of the first flashbacks, much as the adult Talia does to Bruce.

There are other interesting references to Begins; there’s the explicit comparison of the prison to the well young Bruce falls into in Begins, but there’s also Batman walking on ice (apparently having learned to mind his surroundings after all), and the memorial statue of Batman unveiled at the end bears a striking resemblance to the nightmare Batman that Scarecrow hallucinated in Begins. Both Begins and The Dark Knight end with conversations about thanking Batman — Begins: “I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.” TDK: “Thank you.” “You don’t have to thank me.” — and while Rises has its own ending, it has its own version of this conversation: “Thanks.” “Don’t thank me yet.” It’s a little grace note that seems to say a lot about where Bruce sees what he’s achieved relative to his own ideals — in Begins the story ends with his ideals having won the day, in TDK his ideals have cost him dearly, and at this point in Rises it’s unclear whether or not he will even survive his own ideals.

The point of Rises, and I suppose of Nolan’s whole trilogy, is that in this story, Bruce Wayne isn’t trying to become a superhero, he’s trying to build a myth. As R’as says in Begins, “You have to become an idea.” The idea that there might be a big unstoppable demon that comes after you if you’re a bad guy, and you’ll never know who it is, is much more powerful than there being a human being who can be taken down with a bullet. In Begins he takes on the initial trappings of the legend, in TDK he sees a human being who he thinks could become the idea without having to pretend to be somebody else, only to see that person corrupted, and in Rises he has to complete the mythmaking by, effectively, dying and coming back from the dead — both so he can just be Bruce Wayne once and for all, and so that Batman can be that much more powerful. Along these lines, Bane is presented as sort of a counter-symbol to Batman; “No one cared who I was till I put on the mask,” he says.

Do Nolan’s films constitute a “definitive” Batman? Well, what do you mean by that? “Definitive” according to whose take on the character? Frank Miller’s? Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s? Bob Kane’s? Paul Dini’s? Adam West’s? Just by the nature of film, where you’re basically blowing up a short story into two or three hours and only being able to do it once every few years, you’re never going to be able to bring out all the nuances that one can play with in an ongoing serial like a comic book or a TV show. Like any film adaptation, the best you’re going to be able to do is honor the spirit of the source material while doing your own thing as well as you can. Batman, by virtue of being a symbol, is open to a lot of interpretation, and I think Nolan has made three pretty great movies with his interpretation. Somebody else will probably come along and do their own interpretation in a few years, and there may very well be things I like about that one better, perhaps things I don’t like as well; who knows? The comics themselves will still be sitting on the shelf right next to these movies, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film. What I think one can say is that this trilogy is a long Batman story that incorporates a lot of ideas and images from the comics as well as the animated series (there’s a decent amount of Batman Beyond in Bruce’s solution), and while it’s something you could never do with Batman as he appears in the comics (unless it were an Elseworlds mini-series or something of that nature), it’s a great way, from where I sit, to encapsulate the character onscreen in a self-contained story.

OK. Back to reading some Latin.

Unlikely realities

Something that occasionally can seem like lazy historiography to me is when scholars call something “unlikely” to explain why they think it probably didn’t happen. It’s a way to argue with something that may show up in a primary source without necessarily having to reason your way through the disagreement; oh, well, such-and-such gives X account of this event but that’s “unlikely”, so we’ll assume it didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing. At the risk of getting all Dr. Manhattan on both of my regular readers, “unlikely” things happen all the time. I am an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence, given who my parents are, their personalities, their respective stations in life when they met, etc. It’s highly unlikely that my randomly going to a party one night while nearing emotional rock bottom should result, six years later, in me getting married to a person I met there (principally as somebody another friend of mine had a crush on). It’s highly unlikely that a college choir director deciding she was going plan a European tour should start a chain of events that would result in a conversion to Orthodox Christianity nine years later. And yet, these things defiantly happen nonetheless with callous disregard to whether or not a historian will later believe that they did.

A couple of other fairly unlikely things have happened to me in the last two or three weeks: for example, Megan and I, along with our godchildren Matt and Erin and our dear friend Anna, attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production of Tales of Hoffman. Not necessarily unlikely in and of itself (but since the last time we went to the Lyric was 9 years ago for Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney Todd, certainly not a regular occurrence), but consider the following: Hoffman was supposed to be produced at my first undergraduate institution, Western Washington University, my freshman year. WWU had put on a production of La Boheme a couple of years previous that had received national attention, was developing something of a reputation for being a good undergrad program for people who wanted to do opera, and Hoffman was going to be the big followup that would prove that Boheme wasn’t a fluke. Well — as the story was told to me in dribs and drabs from a few different people — political, economic, and practical concerns meant that this didn’t happen. Hoffman was nonetheless on my radar for the first time, and in short order the 1989 recording with Placido Domingo was the very first opera recording I ever owned. That disc featured people I’d never heard of before like Edita Gruberova and James Morris, and I played it over and over again.

Somebody who was in my freshman class was a soprano and cellist named Erin Wall. She was in 8am Music Theory with me the very first day of classes, we were in the same voice studio, and she was one of a group of Canadian students who were in Western’s music department for voice. She had a nice, full voice at a time when there were a lot of soubrettes hanging around; the last time I heard her during my time there was when she was one of the Flower Girls in The Marriage of Figaro in 1996, but after I dropped out I believe she got to do the title role in Susannah. Over the years I found out she was having quite the meteoric rise; she was a finalist for Canada in the Cardiff Singer of the World, she was part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young artist program, and then she started to get really busy.

A few months after leaving Western in ’97 I went to work for a Major Software Company and, shall we say, did a reasonable impersonation of a tester for a few years while trying to get to the next step as a singer. One of the things I tested had to do with web browsing, and one day I happened upon a student website for a soprano at Rice University named Anna Christy. There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the website, but I always remembered that I had hit it, particularly when I started seeing her name in Opera News a few years later as somebody who would be singing at Wolf Trap and so on.

Fall of 2003, after just starting at IU, I was flown back to Seattle to sing as the tenor soloist for a concert of Bach cantatas with the Seattle Symphony, John Harbison conducting. It was the biggest professional thing I ever got to do, and except for the check, it was a real waste for me and for the Seattle Symphony people. I was cast in a role at IU that I was removed from over this; the Seattle contract had been signed months ago, and I was to be gone the second to last week before opening. I didn’t even know I was up for anything in this particular show, and I explained my situation as soon as I found out I was cast. “Take it up with the stage director when staging rehearsals start,” I was told. Well, as soon as the stage manager said at the first staging rehearsal, “We’re not excusing anybody for any reason from any rehearsals,” I knew I had a problem, and sure enough, I was kicked out. (This was, of course, considered to be my fault from the standpoint of the opera administration, but never mind that now.) Not only that, but as soon as I got off the plane in Seattle, I came down with probably the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and my ability to phonate, still reasonable at the first rehearsal, was in tatters by the concerts. It was the first (well, only) time I’d ever been on a gig like this, I had no idea whom to talk to or what to do, and while I managed to sort of scrape by in the concerts — well, funny thing, the Seattle Symphony folks never called me again. (My voice teacher in Seattle, who had sent Seattle Symphony my way in the first place, said that from what he had heard it wasn’t exactly a “He’ll never sing in this town again” kind of thing, but that I was remembered as somebody who had problems, and he’d have to specifically arrange an audition for me down the road when the time came. Needless to say, the time never came, and thank God.)

Anyway, the bass in the solo quartet was one Christian Van Horn, who had just won the Met auditions. I doubt he would have any memory of who I am, and if he did remember me I doubt he’d remember me well, given the circumstances, but he was a tough guy to forget — physically and vocally imposing, to say the least.

My second year at IU, a mezzo-soprano named Jamie Barton started her Masters. She distinguished herself quickly in operas like La Cenerentola, but she was also a frequent guest at Chez Barrett, back in the day when I used to host large gatherings of IU voice people over nachos on a weekly basis. (Hey, that’s how I made friends when I first moved here — I fed people.) She won the Mets a few years ago, and since then, she’s been one popular mezzo.

So Chicago’s Hoffman featured James Morris (from that first recording) as the four villains, Erin Wall as Antonia, Anna Christy as Olympia, Christian Van Horn as Crespel, and Jamie Barton as Antonia’s Mother. (As well as Matthew Polenzani as Hoffman, whom I had last heard ten years ago in Seattle as Almaviva in Barber of Seville.) And with me in the audience — what an unlikely confluence of people and circumstances! If I took a time machine back to that first day of freshman year in September of 1994 and told the 19 year old Erin what would be happening in seventeen years, she’d laugh in my face, I’m sure. (The set looking like it was reproduced from a Chris Van Allsburg book was also pretty unlikely. Fascinating looking at times, but unlikely.)

The second unlikely thing to occur was a week ago today. I’ve written here and there about my lifelong fascination with Batman; well, as I had known for some time, Michael Uslan, the Executive Producer of the Batman films starting with the 1989 Tim Burton effort — and really the guy without whom a modern Batman on screen doesn’t happen — was an IU alumnus. He’s spoken on campus a few times since I’ve been here, but I’d never been able to go, so when I heard that there would be a screening of The Dark Knight in the new IU Cinema facility with Michael Uslan introducing the film, I made it a point to clear my calendar for the day and to order a copy of his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batmanin time for the screening. As it happened, he gave a lecture in the afternoon in addition to the screening, and I was able to go to both. There is a brief account of the day here (hmmm — “RRB”, familiar initials, aren’t they?) so I’ll just say that the guy is one hell of an inspirational speaker, to say nothing of one hell of a self-promoter; he’s basically a comic book geek who has figured out how to make being so respectable, lucrative, and attractive. He was incredibly generous with his time at both the lecture and the screening; he kept answering questions until he was hooked off the stage, and during the book signing he talked to everybody.

So, chain of events — I find a book called Collecting Comic Books by Marcia Leiter at the Redmond Library in 1985, and my life is forever changed. Four years later on 23 June 1989, Batman introduces me to a way of thinking about movies that cares who’s in them, who directs them, who writes them, who designs the sets, who writes the music, and so on. I had been a Star Wars kid and then some, but I couldn’t have told you who George Lucas was. After the summer of 1989, though, damn skippy I cared who Tim Burton was and what else he had done and was going to do, who Danny Elfman was and what kind of music he did (followed by an obsession with Oingo Boingo for awhile), who Sam Hamm was and why it seemed he never wrote another movie anybody cared about, who Jon Peters was and why a former hairstylist was suddenly one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, etc. At the very least, without Danny Elfman’s score, my interest in classical music probably doesn’t happen. (And then there’s something about a girl in high school that gets me starting to take voice lessons, but that’s somewhat beside the point at present.) Anyway, I then go to Indiana University in 2003 for music, which just happens to be Uslan’s beloved alma mater, leading to last week’s events. Again — how incredibly unlikely!

No historian will ever care about any of these things, I’m certain. If one were to ever to try to reconstruct these chains of events and concurrences of people and places and things, surely it would strain credibility. This doesn’t mean we have to interpret all of these things teleologically, necessarily, but it also means that just dismissing them is not really reflecting on how life works and how things play out.

A few additional thoughts on Inception and The Prisoner

My treadmill viewing this summer has included a string of movies that I felt like had given me a very warped view of history by the end of it — The Queen, Nixon/Frost, W., and Kingdom of Heaven — but also The Prisoner. The Blu-Ray set was on sale on Amazon very briefly for something like $40 (marked waaaaaaay down from something like $120), and I snapped it up. I had seen all of the key episodes a number of times — “Arrival”, “The Chimes of Big Ben”, “Free for All”, “Fall Out”, and “Once Upon a Time” — but had never caught the whole thing, so I started working my way through all seventeen.

At the end of “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”, in which Number Six curiously looks like an older, fatter actor in close-ups but like Patrick McGoohan in long shots, as opposed to the rest of the series where he looks like Patrick McGoohan in closeups and a younger, trimmer actor in long shots, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye during the credits — an actor named John Nolan credited as “Young Guest”.

Wait, what? Christopher Nolan’s uncle is an actor named John Nolan. He’s cast him in a couple of small roles — The Policeman in Following and in Batman Begins as Wayne Enterprises board member Goerge Fredericks (who memorably tells Bruce Wayne that “the apple has fallen very far from the tree”). He actually looks a good bit like John Hurt (and in fact I assumed it was John Hurt the first time I saw Batman Begins, and I remember wondering, “Why does John Hurt have such a small role?), although the irony here is that apparently

there are people who think that John Hurt looks a lot like Ian McKellen, and I don’t think that John Nolan looks anything like Ian McKellen. Maybe John Nolan looks more like John Hurt than John Hurt does.

Anyway, I skipped back to the party scene that presumably included the Young Guest, and sure enough, it was pretty unmistakably the same guy, just a few decades younger (and still looking a LOT like John Hurt and with maybe a teensy bit more of a resemblance to Ian McKellen).

My point with all of this is to establish that there’s actually a personal connection between Christopher Nolan and The Prisoner at a familial level, not just a professional level. He said back in 2006 that The Prisoner had been an interest of his for a long time, and perhaps that actually had more weight than was apparent at the time.

I mused earlier that perhaps Nolan’s re-use of the name Cobb was a reference to The Prisoner. This obviously is not proof of that, but it does suggest that that’s maybe not a terribly crazy or random idea, and it provides some interesting food for thought about other matters as well. The Prestige and “The Girl Who Was Death” both have near-identical gags involving pint glasses. “A, B, and C” is very Inception-esque, involving Number 2 trying to extract information from Number 6 by means of a constructed and controlled dream environment. The Joker’s gleeful escalation of weapons while attacking the armored van from the semi trailer in The Dark Knight is very reminiscent of a scene in “The Girl Who Was Death.”

Maybe someday we’ll get Christopher Nolan’s take on The Prisoner, but at the very least I think it’s interesting to consider the possibility that, with or without it, many of the series’ ideas have taken root in his head and have a visible influence — and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a great thing.

“My face is craggier than yours, Mr. Hurt.”

Thoughts on Inception or, Christopher Nolan and Cobb salad

I’m not going to write a conventional review of Inception; I think the movie is stunning, and I strongly encourage everybody to go see it. That’s about as much of a “review” as I want to write; what I’d rather do is discuss what thoughts were provoked by it.

I will say this once:

DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN INCEPTION, SINCE A VERY THOROUGH DISCUSSION OF SPOILERS IS TO FOLLOW. I WILL ALSO BE TALKING ABOUT THE PRISONERUSUAL SUSPECTS, SHUTTER ISLAND, THE PRESTIGE, MEMENTO, FOLLOWING, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS, AND THE DARK KNIGHT, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

We clear?

I’ve seen Inception three times now; I saw it at the midnight showing last Friday morning, again Friday night, and again Tuesday morning. It’s one of those movies where you want to take people to see it and be there with them while they experience it for the first time. I think maybe The Usual Suspects was the first movie like that for me; I took different people to see that, all because I wanted to be there when they saw the falling coffee cup and realized what it meant. Christopher Nolan has become the the guy who makes that kind of movie for me these days; Memento and The Prestige were both movies I happily did repeated viewings of with different people, and two summers ago, as reported to some extent here, I did the same thing with The Dark Knight.

Now, one of these things — The Dark Knight — is not like the other, at least at first glance. Suspects, MementoThe Prestige — these are just all “twist ending” movies, right? The whole point of the movie is the ending you aren’t expecting, and there’s not really anything to them beyond that? Well, there are those who might argue that, sure. The question becomes, how do these movies stand up to repeated viewings? I have never bothered with The Blair Witch Project since the one time I saw it in theatres, because that’s the kind of movie that, for my money, really is just a magic trick that would probably show its strings upon seeing it again. The twists of Suspects, Memento, and The Prestige are such that you have a fundamentally different sense of what the story is actually about the second time around, and it’s a question of whether or not that different story is interesting. Is the story of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze (depending on how you look at the story) conning Agent Kujan as interesting as the story of Agent Kujan trying to figure out what happened at the pier? Is the story of Leonard Shelby setting himself up to murder John Gammell, both as revenge for being used by him and as a way to give himself closure, however briefly, over the death of his wife, as interesting as the story of Leonard trying to solve a murder mystery in an incapacitated state? Is the story of three magicians essentially living out large-scale versions of their own tricks in pursuit of their craft as interesting as the story of the rivalry between two magicians leading to a mysterious death?

And for me, the answer has always been, unequivocally, yes. Verbal/Keyser becomes a fascinating character on subsequent viewings — little gestures and facial expressions take on new meaning, and while you realize that he’s taking Kujan on something of a ride, you also come to the conclusion that some of it has to be true. It’s particularly unsettling if you conclude, as I do, that he’s telling the truth about having killed his own family. The ways in which both John Gammell and Natalie manipulate Leonard to their own ends, but also in which Leonard consistently manipulates himself, suggest that what Leonard really is in his damaged state is a loaded gun, and it’s just a question of who’s going to get to pull the trigger. One of the rewards of multiple viewings of The Prestige is understanding exactly why Borden figures out the goldfish bowl trick so quickly and why Angier doesn’t get it, to say nothing of seeing just how clever Christian Bale’s performance actually is, and that he very clearly differentiates between the two twins.

Particularly given my experience with Memento and The Prestige, I did my best to stay as ignorant as possible about Inception from the time I heard it announced until when I walked into the theatre for the first time — but it didn’t escape me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was named “Cobb,” the same name given to the antagonist in Following. What would it come to mean, if anything? Would “Cobb” be nothing more than Nolan’s “Spota”? Or was there more to it?

The opening shot of Cobb sprawled and sputtering on the beach suggested even more of a connection to Following, since a very similar image plays an important role in the opening of that film as well (and as it works out, in both movies you don’t find out what these images actually mean until much later). About an hour into seeing it the first time, I started to become convinced that where the story was leading us to was the revelation that Mal was right, that she had escaped the dreamworld by throwing herself off the building and Cobb was still stuck, and that all of her manifestations were actually her entering Cobb’s dream to try to rescue him. Perhaps she was a “forger” as well, and that was why Saito echoed her line about a “leap of faith”. I prepared myself for this ending, expecting a montage of clips at the end that would replay some of Mal’s appearances with additional “behind the scenes” information presented, showing how they meant something else than what we, the audience, thought they meant at the time. I figured that even though I had figured it out, Nolan would be able to present it in a way that would make it work and that would be up to par with the rest of his work.

Can I tell you that I was really happy to be wrong, and that I was completely unprepared for the last five minutes of the film, much less the cut to black on the spinning, but wobbling, top? The “twist,” insofar as there was one, was really about Cobb’s soul and less about plot mechanics or where amongst the various levels of reality he actually was, and the final bit of ambiguity — the top’s losing stability, so it has to fall, right? Or does it? — is just enough to leave the audience with closure on Cobb’s emotional journey (the real story in the first place) even if you can argue until the cows come home whether or not he’s in the “real” world. It’s like the origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner, except that by the time audiences could see a cut of Blade Runner where the origami unicorn meant what Ridley Scott intended it to mean, they were already prepared for it to mean that. I’m not sure anybody was expecting the top.

An assertion that some reviews I’ve read have made is that, with DiCaprio in the leading role, there are uncomfortable similarities with Shutter Island. I don’t disagree necessarily that there are parallels, but I also think the claim is misleading. With Shutter Island, I knew from reading the reviews that Teddy Daniels would turn out to be crazy; the only question I had watching it was just how this would unfold. Dom Cobb’s issues have to do with his dead wife, much as with Teddy Daniels, and Shutter Island makes you question the “reality” of what you’re seeing, but that’s just about the extent of the similarities. Cobb isn’t crazy, and there are far more levels of reality-bending at play in Inception than in Shutter Island. Shutter Island really is a “twist ending” thriller, whereas Inception is an emotional and psychological drama playing out in the framework of a caper movie. If you go into Inception expecting it to be Shutter Island meets Dark City, you will be expecting a much different movie than what you actually get.

Something the two definitely have in common, however, is that Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a knockout performance in the lead role. I hadn’t been all that interested in him before a couple of years ago — I noticed Russell Crowe in The Quick and the Dead but really couldn’t care less about Leo; Romeo + Juliet and Titanic were neither fantastic nor offensive performances, as far as I was concerned; I remember Gabriel Byrne a lot more than I remember him in The Man in the Iron Mask, and I hated hated hated The Beach. Then I saw The Departed, Blood Diamond, Shutter Island, and Body of Lies in reasonably rapid succession, and realized he had developed into a fantastic adult dramatic actor. As a friend of mine put it, he’s no longer an ingenue. He captures Cobb’s guilt and regret and makes them compelling, while still being able to sell us a “master extractor” at the top of his game.

I might suggest that DiCaprio is somewhat unconventional for Christopher Nolan as a leading man; Hugh Jackman and Aaron Eckhart are both classically good-looking man’s men; Guy Pearce, Christian Bale, and even Jeremy Theobald (at least in spots) all have kind of a drawn, chiseled quality the way he photographs them — not necessarily meaning that they’re ripped (although certainly Pearce, Bale, and Hugh Jackman are), but rather that there’s a particular air of cultivated masculinity about each of them, especially in the face. DiCaprio doesn’t really fit into either category (although Cillian Murphy’s Fischer fits in with Pearce and Bale), and he definitely doesn’t have the rippling muscles that Nolan takes pains to show us with Pearce, Bale, and Jackman. He starts to assume an air of something like the latter category when he’s “Mr. Charles” in level 2 of the dreamworld, but it’s clear that it’s an act, or a “gambit” as the movie explains. In any event, even if DiCaprio isn’t exactly doughy, he is more of a physical Everyman than Nolan has given us before (except maybe with Al Pacino, although even then, c’mon, it’s Al Pacino).

Thematically, Inception is very much a development of what Nolan has done before; as I’ve noted in earlier musings, there are recurring motifs in his work, and they’re all here. Fischer’s need to resolve his feelings of letting his father down mirrors Bruce Wayne’s struggle in Batman Begins. Domestic tragedy, time being messed with, people leading multiple lives with multiple identities (or even multiple people sharing an identity), the overwhelming desire to simply go home to one’s family, a hidden place where one is hiding the truth from everybody, often including themselves — and, curiously enough, agonizing leg injuries have started to pop up, starting with Angier falling through the trapdoor in The Prestige, Batman dropping Maroni in The Dark Knight, and now Mal shooting Arthur in the kneecap. In fact, in a lot of ways, Inception is a reworking of some of Memento‘s story, with even a repeated visual quote (the view of the wife lying down but shot so that she’s oriented vertically, since she’d be parallel to the person whose point of view is providing the shot), except that it’s the wife with the damaged mind, and Cobb is aware of his own role in Mal’s death, making revenge a non-starter, and the Cobbs have children, whereas Leonard and his wife did not — giving Cobb something else to live for, a meaning to his life beyond Mal’s death that Leonard didn’t have. Leonard describes his condition “like waking, like you just woke up”, and goes to great lengths at one point in the movie to construct a scenario where he will wake up and think he’s still in his own home — essentially the same idea as Inception‘s “dream within a dream”. Not only that, but John Gammell’s constant insistence that Leonard doesn’t know what reality is, that he’s “wandering around, playing detective” prefigures Mal’s speech to Cobb that “you don’t believe in one reality anymore”. Of course, a key difference here is that Mal’s wrong… right?

There are also interesting similarities to Following, too, beyond the name “Cobb”. Both movies are about a long con, but one can also draw lines of connection between Inception‘s Cobb and Ariadne, at least at the outset, and Following‘s Cobb and the Young Man. In both cases, Cobb is the master taking the apprentice under his wing, and the first dreamshare training sequence with Ariadne, with Cobb explaining how people populate their dreams with their subconscious, has a curious parallel to Cobb in Following breaking into the first apartment with the Young Man, and explaining how people’s things in their apartment reflect who they are. Cobb tells Ariadne that if they design a safe, the dreamer will automatically fill it with their secrets; Cobb tells the Young Man that “everybody has a box… that’s sort of an unconscious collection… [that] tells something very intimate about the people.”

It also seems to me that the concept of a “totem”, something by which one keeps track of reality, is everywhere in Nolan’s films, even if he hasn’t named it before. In Memento Leonard has his “system,” his photos and his tattoos. In Batman Begins there are the arrowhead and his father’s stethoscope. In The Prestige it is Borden’s ball. In The Dark Knight it’s Harvey’s coin. They also appear to have varying degrees of efficacy — Leonard’s “system” doesn’t work at all, for example, but Borden, at least one of him, seems to keep it together pretty well. (By the way, on the third viewing I noticed that Ariadne is madly fiddling with her totem on the plane at the end, as the camera pans from Arthur across to her. It’s a nice touch.)

Something else that strikes me about Inception is that it is a surprisingly low-tech movie. The technological conceit of dreamsharing is pulled off through compounds fed into the bloodstream via tubes in the arms leading from a gadget in a suitcase, rather than slick-looking headpieces that jack into the brain. There is one computer in the whole film, a rather chunky looking laptop; we only see two cell phones, and they’re barely used at all. Beyond that, tech isn’t really a factor, like at all. Professor Miles writes in what look like Moleskine notebooks, for heavens’ sakes.

To be honest, I argue that Inception isn’t even science fiction, any more than The Prestige is. Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction is that the technology, or what he called the “conceptual dislocation” of the world in the story from the real world, must “result [in] a new society… generated in the author’s mind” (From a 1981 letter printed as the preface to “Paycheck and Other Classic Stories”, PKD). There’s not really anything of the kind in Inception; you have a particular technological conceit that facilitates the story (Cobb dealing with Mal’s death) but is not itself what the story is about. Dick’s stories are usually all about how the “conceptual dislocation” creates a new world, with that “conceptual dislocation” being what drives the story forward. PKD’s version of the story would ask the question, “What would the world be like if this were possible?” and use Cobb’s emotional journey as the way of answering that question (if we’d even get Cobb’s emotional journey — Cobb would probably be named Wheaton or something like that and be an unhappy minor bureaucratic functionary who just happened to accidentally press the button on the machine at the wrong time); Nolan, by contrast, uses Cobb’s emotional journey to drive the story forward in Inception, not the technology. We don’t really see how this technology changes the world. The same applies to the The Prestige, at least Nolan’s film of it.

A criticism I hear of Nolan that baffles me is that his work is technically brilliant but cold and emotionally uninvolving. I just don’t get that at all. I find his movies highly emotionally involving; I fail to understand how anybody could see the vertical-lying-down shot of the wife in either Memento or Inception, or Angier’s attempt to drown himself in the sink in The Prestige, or the memory of Thomas Wayne with young Bruce and the stethoscope, or Harvey Dent waking up in the hospital and finding the scarred coin, and be left cold. Perhaps those are losses that one must be able to reasonably fear sharing themselves in order to be able to relate. I suspect that the familial losses experienced in Nolan’s movies are the very ones by which he himself would be devastated; certainly there is an allusion to his own personal situation in Inception when Cobb says that he and Mal “were working together” (Nolan’s wife, Emma Thomas, is also his producer), and we see another co-worker couple destroyed by their professional association in The Dark Knight (Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes). I wonder if there will be one down the road where the protagonist loses his child (present, but handled rather indirectly, in Insomnia).

So what’s the deal with the name “Cobb,” anyway? In Following Cobb is a smartly-dressed, violent thief who is ultimately long-conning the unnamed protagonist, and who disappears at the end leaving no trace of his existence. He’s nothing like Inception‘s Cobb… well, except for the part about the smartly-dressed thief pulling a long con, and I guess Inception‘s Cobb is violent at times, although only either in the context of a dream or when his life is in danger. Maybe Nolan is pulling some pieces from his early work and reforging them based on the artist he is now. Maybe “Cobb” is just a name; maybe it’s a reference to The Prisoner, a work that strikes me as likely having had an influence on Nolan (particularly since he was supposed to do a big-screen adaptation up until about a year ago). Cobb was a character in “Arrival,” the very first episode, a colleague of Number Six’s who had been brought to the Village only to commit suicide. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that his death was faked, and he was working with the Village all along. Anyway, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just one more thing to talk about endlessly.

So far, Nolan seems to going onward and upward. He’s the most exciting and interesting Hollywood filmmaker working right now, as far as I’m concerned, and while I can’t wait to see what he does next with Batman, there’s part of me that is even more interested to see what his next original story is like. (Although — I’ve said it before, but while I like the work Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have done with him, I really hope he finds a way to work with David Julyan again as the composer.) Is he the next Kubrick? You know, I really don’t care — so far I’m plenty happy with him just being Nolan.

Varii (go see Watchmen) and (go see Watchmen) sundries (go see Watchmen)

A “Byzantine” monastery from the late 5th/early 6th century has been found about five miles west of Jerusalem, reports CNN:

During the first few weeks, the team exposed the church’s narthex, the broad entrance at the front of the church, whose floor is covered with colorful mosaics in geometric patterns, he said.

“Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the excavation this mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals,” Mor [the leader of the excavation] said.

Ouch. On the other hand, I smile at this detail (particularly since I just finished my first-ever attempt at homebrewing):

The excavators also partly exposed a complex wine press, said Mor. Grapes grow well in the region, and it’s likely the monks sold the wine.

And it’s in my period and region, too. Hmmmmmmmmm.

The screenwriter of Watchmen urges people who liked it to see it again, preferably this Friday or Saturday (a tip of the hat to WatchmenComicMovie.com):

This is a movie made by fans, for fans. Hundreds of people put in years of their lives to make this movie happen, and every one of them was insanely committed to retaining the integrity of this amazing, epic tale. This is a rare success story, bordering on the impossible, and every studio in town is watching to see if it will work. Hell, most of them own a piece of the movie.

So look, this is a note to the fanboys and fangirls. The true believers. Dedicated for life.

If the film made you think. Or argue with your friends. If it inspired a debate about the nature of man, or vigilante justice, or the horror of Nixon abolishing term limits. If you laughed at Bowie hanging with Adrian at Studio 54, or the Silhouette kissing that nurse.

Please go see the movie again next weekend.

You have to understand, everyone is watching to see how the film will do in its second week. If you care about movies that have a brain, or balls, (and this film’s got both, literally), or true adaptations — And if you’re thinking of seeing it again anyway, please go back this weekend, Friday or Saturday night. Demonstrate the power of the fans, because it’ll help let the people who pay for these movies know what we’d like to see. Because if it drops off the radar after the first weekend, they will never allow a film like this to be made again.

Fine by me — er, seeing it again, that is, not the other proposition. Who wants to see it with me on Saturday sometime?

I saw Watchmen in IMAX last Friday. It is worthy of its own post, and that might happen after I see it a second time, but I will say for the moment that it is a challenging, adult, in-your-face, no-holds-barred piece of art which is worth seeing and to which it is worth reacting. Yes, it is violent and the violence makes you giggle in a way which makes you very uncomfortable with yourself after the fact. Yes, there is a bizarre use of Leonard Cohen’s original recording of “Hallelujah” (which, I must say, is very jarring listening to begin with when you’re used to the — dare I say it? — superior Jeff Buckley version). Yes, I read the book — I read it for the first time probably twenty years ago and have read it any number of times since then, including reading it aloud to my wife. I’ve read much of what’s been published about Watchmen the book and have been following its development as a film since way back in the day when Comics Scene had a half-page interview with Sam Hamm about his screenplay and about how Terry Gilliam would direct it. Hamm, as I recall, speculated about perhaps Michael York as Adrian Veidt and Robert DeNiro as Edward Blake. Might have been interesting.

Anyway, go see it. I’ll go see it with you. Blade Runner shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to be recognized, and I’d hate to see a similar fate befall Watchmen. It’s a big-budget Hollywood art movie, much like The Dark Knight was, but unlike TDK this doesn’t have much in the way of presold factors that allow people to be fooled into thinking it’s just an action movie. It’s not perfect, but that’s okay. Just go see it, and then we’ll talk.

After the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts tonight, Fr. Peter was talking about how Orthodox Christianity permeates the first film of The Matrix trilogy. “It’s all about the Fathers,” he said. “It’s an Orthodox movie through and through.”

“If that’s the case,” I replied, “it must be advocating specifically the Western Rite.”

“Why is that?” Fr. Peter asked, tilting his head at me with a quizzical expression (which is not uncommon).

Without missing a beat I looked him right in the eyes and said, “There is no spoon.”

I will be going to Confession this weekend, I imagine. I don’t look forward to the penance.

News

I figured that probably the earliest I’d hear anything from West European Studies, particularly given that they seemed unaware that I had applied for next semester (as opposed to next year) until I told them in person three weeks ago, would be the week after Thanksgiving. I also figured, based on anecdotes and previous experience, that good news would come by e-mail and bad news would come by postal mail.

Today, I got home and saw an envelope in my mailbox from West European Studies.

My first thought, as might perhaps be predictable, called to mind Oedipus. I completed the idea by saying to myself, “Well, guess that didn’t work out.”

Just for grins, I decided to open the letter. Upon unfolding it, the first few words caught my eyes:

“We are pleased to inform you that…”

So, a door has, at long last, opened. We will see what happens on the other side of it — but in the meantime, I’m drinking champagne with my wife this evening.

(Oh, and the DVD of The Dark Knight arrived today, too.)

Review: Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ, by Cappella Romana

About four years ago, I was lucky enough to get to sing in concert performances of both the Gretchaninoff and Rachmaninoff settings of the Vigil (more commonly, and incompletely, known as “Vespers” to Western audiences because they don’t know what a Vigil is). Something that was very difficult about the experiences of singing them, however, was knowing that we English-speaking Orthodox Christians do not yet have equivalent works, and that to sing such things in translation would be to largely destroy much what makes the settings so beautiful, since they’re so tied to the Slavonic texts. Subsequent conversations about this with friends of mine who are composers and Orthodox Christians revealed a very real reluctance to become “Orthodox composers” — and I’m still not sure I totally get why, but there we are. Since then, I’ve discovered the music of people like Kurt Sander, whose setting of the Nunc dimittis in English is itself a mini-masterwork, and Ivan Moody, to say nothing of Fr. Sergei Glagolev — and while as a whole we are miles from maturity, it would not be at all fair to say that there are no English-language Orthodox composers attempting to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by some of their old-world counterparts.

Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a large-scale work by a fully mature composer which picks up that gauntlet and throws it down again, quite honestly. The intended scope of the piece is indicated by its subtitle, “A Choral Concerto,” and one important point to make before we get any further — this is not, repeat not, a liturgical work. I suppose there might be, hypothetically speaking, a cathedral somewhere with an absolutely amazing choir who could pull it off liturgically, but who actually does the full Nativity kontakion liturgically anyway, these days?

(You might be thinking to yourself one of three things right now. If either 1 — “What’s a kontakion and why do I care?” — or 2 — “Don’t we sing different kontakia for various liturgical seasons?” — then I can tell you that a kontakion in its original form was a very lengthy kind of hymn with many stanzas and a refrain, and the proper kontakia we sing now are only the first stanzas of the applicable full-length versions. If 3 — “Well, we do sing a kontakion every time we do an Akathist” — then please pat yourself on the head and have a cookie.)

As a work intended explicitly for the concert stage rather than the parish choir, much like the Rachmaninoff Vigil setting, Toensing is free to paint on a vast, expansive canvas, and does he ever. He liberally employs text painting, use of soloists and small ensembles, an extensive harmonic vocabulary, adept counterpoint, tone clusters, and so on. Great — but does it sound like music? Yes, most definitely — glorious, lush, beautiful, dramatic, and demanding music. The press materials state that Toensing is “indebted to Slavic traditions,” and perhaps that’s true to some extent, but what I also hear is a master composer, fully on top of his game, synthesizing many of the best influences of 20th century choral writing, including Francis Poulenc, William Harris, Ralph Vaughan Williams, even Lloyd Pfautsch. The wordy text is set in a very sensitive but expressive manner often evocative of the deftness which made Benjamin Britten such a master with English. At some points I found myself thinking, “This is what Morten Lauridsen would sound like if he had more than one trick up his sleeve.” At the same time, the way Toensing uses the music to support the text is strongly suggestive, not just of well-trained artistic sensibility, but also of a deep faith informing his compositional choices, much like Bach.

Toensing shifts from one color to another with ease and control, and is as much an expert with different choral textures. For example, the first stanza begins with a solo cantor on a chant melody, joined gradually by the rest of the ensemble, building until finally the choir is all together on the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”). One stanza transitions smoothly into another, no matter how stark the contrast — in Movement III, Stanza IX (“Receive then, O Holy Lady”) he renders the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”) as a heart-stopping, everybody singing out, vocal-folds-to-the-wall climax, only to begin the next movement immediately with a simple, peaceful melody introduced by the women, without it ever feeling like any kind of a disconnect.

The members of Cappella Romana bring their usual high standard into the game, delivering Toensing’s “poeticized” version of St. Romanos the Melodist’s text with crispness and clarity. Too often choirs sing modern choral works like they’re just trying to get the notes right and they’ll let somebody else figure out how to make music with it later; in this premiere recording of Toensing’s work, Alexander Lingas refuses to take that route, and the ensemble makes music with it now, taking Toensing’s sonic palette firmly in hand and detailing the peaks and valleys rather than just sketching them in. Soprano LeeAnne DenBeste sings the Theotokos’ lines (I really hesitate to call “the part of the Theotokos”) with a crystal clear timbre and laserlike accuracy, and the other soloists acquit themselves admirably as well.

All of that said, I am not convinced that the depths of Toensing’s piece are fully plumbed, and the disc is not flawless. In the case of the former — well, no, of course not. A recording like this is hopefully the beginning of a conversation, rather than just a monologue. It would a rarity indeed for a premiere to be both the first and last word on a given piece (expressively speaking, at least — it is quite common for such recordings to be the first and last word from a commercial standpoint). This recording is without doubt a very strong opening statement to the conversation, but I would be very curious to know what the Kontakion might sound like using boys and men (with boys singing the solo soprano parts as well, not just the choral sections), and I would also love to hear, just for the sake of knowing the difference, what kind of nuances an English conductor might discover in the piece.

My criticisms of the disc itself center around one particular technical point — the acoustic is on the dry side, and there are times where the singers are clearly not loving the dryness of the room as much as they might — which I can well understand, singing services every week as I do in a church where the ceiling of acoustic tiles is inches from my head. My guess is that they chose the less-reverberant approach to clarify the text as much as possible, which I can also appreciate, but there are times where the vocal writing sounds like some reverberation of the chord has been assumed by the composer to be there, so when it doesn’t happen it sounds like something is missing. With nothing but admiration and respect for the effort as presented here, this is another reason why I’d be interested in a performance by somebody native to the English choral tradition — I would like to hear their solution.

One thing I am obliged to mention — something we forget sometimes in a world where we hear music in every kind of room and venue and in every medium imaginable except live in the hall is that music like this is intended to be heard, well, live in the hall. That’s really where the Kontakion needs to be heard, not on an iPod or in the car. It is difficult, therefore, to fairly judge this recording without knowing firsthand what it should sound like in person. I don’t say that to qualify my criticisms or to de-emphasize the praise; I’m just saying that to have a premiere recording three months before the premiere performance is putting the cart before the horse, particularly for somebody wanting to write as honest a review of the music as possible — it is unavoidable in the music landscape of today, unfortunately, but I sincerely hope I can have the chance at some point to experience Toensing’s music as it was intended rather than an electronic simulation of same. It would be akin to writing a review of The Dark Knight based on a pan-and-scan DVD screener watched on a 20″ TV. It doesn’t change the plot, the dialogue, the performances, or anything like that, but it is clear enough from the smaller-scale experience that “there’s a lot more ‘there’ there,” if you know what I mean, and without actually seeing it in IMAX to catch everything, you don’t know exactly what it is.

Besides the Kontakion are several “Orthodox Christmas carols,” Toensing’s settings of Fr. Jack Sparks’ metrical translations of Nativity hymnody. These are all positively delightful and inventive, surprisingly so, and good luck getting them out of your head once you’re familiar with them (particularly “What Shall We Call You,” from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, and “O Let Creation All Rejoice,” from the First Canon of Nativity Eve Matins). I could easily see these settings as having a place within the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, as well as possibly being adopted as anthems by church choirs in other communions. As with parts of the Kontakion, many of these are particularly evocative of the best of English choral writing, but there are also clearly some American folk influences (“Now Christ is Born Upon the Earth,” from the Canon of Nativity Matins, particularly has shapenote-esque things going on) suggesting that elements of both sung traditions may ultimately be useful as “American Orthodox music,” whatever it winds up being, coalesces.

In summary, Toensing’s Kontakion is an epic choral masterwork by a composer who is both American and Orthodox, and as a result it is perhaps the first such piece we might dub “American Orthodox.” If it is not quite on par with the best of its Russian Orthodox counterparts, it is only because it does not have the centuries of native Orthodox Christian tradition upon which to draw, not because of anything lacking in Toensing’s abilities as a composer or in the piece itself. The performance itself is, despite a key technical choice which is probably arguable one way or the other, a very compelling case for the work to have a life beyond Cappella Romana’s advocacy and championing, and I very much hope this happens. Recommended.

(Kurt Sander, I think you’re next up at bat.)


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