Monday, April 14, 2014

American Hustle

I know, there's been quite a gap since the last posting. Whatever happened to me? (I've been asking myself that for years.) Actually I've been writing on a brontosaurus of a project. The kind I get paid for, which subtly influences my priorities. Plus I have been spectacularly uninspired to come up with anything new worth saying. That may still hold true with this squib. I blog, you decide.

American Hustle is now available from Netflix in Blu-ray format. I thought I'd borrow it and see what all the fuss is about. I was mistaken. I've watched it and don't see what all the fuss is about. It's a modestly entertaining junk movie about con artists and political corruption in New Jersey circa 1978. (What would filmmakers do without NJ as a metaphor?)

Nothing about it is original or creative, and while I've read it described as a modern "screwball comedy," it isn't particularly screwy and if a comedy is supposed to make you laugh this is not a comedy.

It's left to the cast to save the movie, or not.

Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a would-be big-time scammer although he seems to be a farm team player. I couldn't connect with his character; he appears unsure what Rosenfeld is about or why we should find him interesting. A sharper screenplay or a better director than David O. Russell might have helped.

Rosenfeld  and his partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), get sucked into the gravitational field of an FBI man, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The grifters and the fed man try to bamboozle each other. Cooper plays his role in flashing neon, punching his lines without let-up. The camera likes him and he'd probably be good if he'd dial the histrionics back about 50 percent. Maybe somebody told him he was playing in a screwball comedy.

I said the picture was modestly entertaining, and that's almost entirely down to other lead actors. Jeremy Renner, as the mayor who signs on to the scheming, resists the temptation to sink to caricature. He's convincing as a crook but you can't help liking him a little -- he lets you see the streak of decency in the man. He wants to line his pockets, sure, but sincerely believes that bringing in casino gambling will help the town's wretched economy.

Notwithstanding his relationship with Sydney (it's hard to tell if he has genuine romantic feelings for her or just finds her a useful business partner), Irving is married. Jennifer Lawrence is cast as Rosalyn Rosenfeld. I take it she's about the hottest star in movies currently. Would you believe I've never seen her in anything? No, I'm afraid I was doing something else when everybody was running to the Hunger Games movies.

I had gotten the notion she was a teenage waif, but either I was mistaken or she has grown quickly into a near-zaftig shape. Like everybody else here she has a cliché part, but makes it highly watchable. Impressive.

Now let's talk about Amy Adams. Another newcomer to me, she is both magnetic and clearly an accomplished actress. She puts nuances into lines that have none. The costume designer has installed her in slutty-elegant clothes that show off her figure to great advantage.

Sydney is alluring and smart -- at least in a calculating way. Part of the time the story asks her to speak in an English accent (which she does poorly, but I'd bet that's part of her characterization: she admits her origin was Albuquerque, which to the movie industry big shots is probably the ultimate loserville). So it's hard to understand why she's with a doof like Irving. She's the brains of the outfit. Not to mention the body.

In the unlikely event any feminist ideologues are reading this, I am charged with male chauvinism and "lookism." Guilty as charged. Me and a few billion other people. We all react to looks, although on closer acquaintance other qualities come into play.

Respectable authority is on my side. According to Montaigne, in his essay "On Physiognomy," when Aristotle was asked why men spent longer in the company of the beautiful than others and visited them more often, Aristotle replied: "No one that is not blind could ask that question."

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Those who know

The more nearly our soul resembles the divine, the closer it is able to approach the model from which it was formed and which it ceased resembling when it became tainted by the material on falling to earth. Thought and deed conjoined are crucial. Faith means nothing, for we are too corrupted to apprehend the truth.

Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio

Those who know are different. The difference is hard to pin down, the signs subtle. But you can often sense them.

Usually they are among the older, but not necessarily; a few are even teenagers, especially those who have scraped their minds on hard experience. 

The obvious question: know what? It is not about having built a skill set over the years, and certainly not intellectual knowledge, which can be a barrier to the knowing we speak of. 

Allan Kardec, the founder of Spiritism, wrote that "the farther man advances in the study of the mysteries around him, the greater should be his admiration of the power and wisdom of the Creator. But, partly through pride, partly through weakness, his intellect itself often renders him the sport of illusion. He heaps systems upon systems; and every day shows him how many errors he has mistaken for truths, how many truths he has repelled as errors. All this should be a lesson for his pride."

Those who know have shaken off a great delusion, usually under the tutelage of repeated or heavy sorrow. They know that this world will not give them what they need most deeply, however much it may give them what they crave. If they desire riches and attain them, their reward will be the goods of the world and the envy of multitudes. If it is power, they will be feared but not admired. If it is romantic love, there will never be enough. Pleasures on top of pleasures, satisfactions of all kinds, bring happiness that drifts and scatters like clouds prodded by the wind.

And, of course, devastating personal tragedies can quickly dissolve the idea of life in the material world as a playground.

This knowledge goes against everything we are taught -- by our educational system, worldly wisdom, popular entertainment, politicians, even "cool" churches; above all by commerce and salesmanship.

Those who know do not necessarily benefit from it.

Some become depressed, some cynical. They can be mean, cranky. Others still refuse to look in a different direction, insisting that there is nothing to learn except that life is a veil of tears. At most you can try to do some good and be remembered with appreciation after you die.

But a few of those who know insist on seeking the meaning of the new outlook that has seized them. They study the collected wisdom of mankind, especially the vast catalog of spiritual teachings and practices. 

They say, in words or the signals of the heart, "God, teach me what I need to understand by this change of vision." They refuse to give up till new meaning replaces the illusion that has passed away. They do not withdraw from the sense world or reject it, but see it in connection with a greater, more rarefied realm of Spirit.
Define your goal and exert reason to accomplish it by virtuous action; success or failure is secondary. The good man, the philosopher ... would strive to act rightly and discount the opinion of the world. Only other philosophers could judge a philosopher, for only they can grasp what lies beyond the world.
Those who know would best become, to whatever degree they are capable, philosophers.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Canyon Prayer"

I no longer buy many popular or country albums -- my CD collection already occupies a disproportionate space in Palazzo Darby, and with other expenses clamoring for my attention, my rare acquisitions these days are mostly of music that promises more mileage (e.g., classical, jazz, world). Still, I'm lucky enough to have access to several separate library systems, which is a major benefit of living in northern Virginia. And I do keep an eye out for interesting-looking CDs in all genres to check out (in two senses). 

Recently I borrowed Honeysuckle Sweet, by Jessi Alexander. It's not particularly new, released in 2005, but new to me. I promise you the attractive woman shown in her publicity photo on the cover had nothing to do with my selection. Well, maybe a little.

Jessi has what sounds like a well-trained voice; unfortunately, it is much like that of hundreds of other country singers. Not distinctive like Lucinda Williams (rapidly sinking after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), Martina McBride, or k.d. lang.

Jessi wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Some are decent enough but not special. The arrangements are smoothly professional, right out of the Nashville playbook. As I listened to one track after another, my reaction was "okay, she's promising but needs to develop a sensibility and musical style of her own."

So I can hardly recommend Honeysuckle Sweet unreservedly. Why am I writing about it at all? Because when I got to the very last track, "Canyon Prayer," I was knocked sideways. It is of a different order than any of the other songs. Not only is it a beautiful tune, but the lyrics (co-credited to her producer, Gary Nicholson) are poetic and far more spiritually mature than often heard from someone of her young age, or any age. (She says she originally wrote it years before the album, when she was sitting at the rim of the Grand Canyon.)

I will take the liberty of quoting a slightly abridged version:

Time after time, I've turned away from you,
When all I had to do was surrender to your love.
You've seen me stumble, you've watched me fall,
And though I heard you call, I just wasn't strong enough.
But there's an emptiness inside without you in my life:
Lord, I hope you hear my prayer tonight.

Won't you blind my eyes when all I see is temptation.
Break my stride when I'm runnin' from the truth.
An' tie my hands when I reach out with desire.
Go on an' do what you must do,
Whatever you must take me through till I turn to you. ...

I know that others fall down on their knees for mercy,
But you may have to hurt me before I see the light.
'Cause I've grown as far as I can go by myself:
I need your help if I'm gonna get it right.
Tired of strugglin' every day,
I wanna know the way,
So now the only prayer I wanna pray:

Is just blind my eyes when all I see is temptation.
Break my stride when I'm runnin' from the truth.
An' tie my hands when I reach out with desire.
Go on an' do what you must do,
Whatever you must put me through till I turn to you. ...

Blind my eyes;
Break my stride;
Whatever you want to be denied;
Whatever you must do.
An' tie my hands;
Ignore my demands;
Build a wall that stands so high, I can't get through Until I turn to you.

Sometimes I think inspiration still delivers its rays, that there is a minute hope for popular culture and for the world.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why not invite clairvoyants to visualize what has happened to Malaysia 370?

The "experts" and well-trained search and rescue teams from 26 countries are confounded. For examples of the astonishing range of theories and speculations among the public, see here and here from Richard Fernandez's Belmont Club site. (Be sure to scroll down after the main posts past the advertising junk to the comment sections.)

So why not give anyone who claims clairvoyant extrasensory perception (also known as remote viewing) a chance to test their ability? ESP, it has been widely noted, seems to work best when there is an emotional connection with the target. A missing airliner with 239 occupants meets that criterion far better than a pack of Zener cards with uninteresting symbols.

When (if) the mystery is solved, the clairvoyant perceptions could be graded on an accuracy scale from "completely wrong" to "correct in every detail." With a large enough sample, a statistically significant data analysis could be calculated.

Almost surely most responses from clairvoyants would fall somewhere outside the two extremes. But it would be fascinating to see exactly where on the scale. Responses could also be broken down by the alleged percipients' demographics, if such information were sought at the time of the experiment -- according, for instance, to sex, location, age, nationality, &c.

If all responses were solicited via email, the time and date stamp would add another variable.

This is not meant to treat lightly what will very likely turn out to be a tragic event. Nor am I suggesting that the results of the experiment (which would take a while to analyze) determine anything about the search strategy, which presumably is being carried out according to standard operating procedures based on experience. But it couldn't hurt to try, if a group of scientists would open their minds enough to conduct the procedure.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Disappearing act

Tip o'the lid: American Digest

If an airliner falls in the middle of the ocean, and nobody hears (or sees it), does it make any noise, sight, or sense?

Having spent some 17 years working in the aviation safety field, I ought to have something to say about the mysterious disappearance (as of this writing) of Malaysia Flight Three Seven Zero.

I won't keep you in suspense: I don't know what to think.

A working hypothesis requires evidence. There is no evidence. The investigative authorities always say in the immediate aftermath of an accident that speculation should be avoided until the facts are known. Perfectly right. Good luck with that.

We all have terrorism on the brain these days. It is strange that voice communication and the transponder that prints the flight number, altitude, and location on radar flight following suddenly stopped. No pilot, unless insane or under duress, would have commanded that. And unless the airplane experienced a catastrophic failure like a stuck rudder hard-over, an especially devastating uncontained engine failure, or a mid-air break-up, there would have been time for the pilots to send a radio message. None was received.

Could terrorists have forced their way into the cockpit? Not impossible. Could explosives have destroyed the aircraft in flight? Conceivably.

But terrorism seems unlikely. The fact that two (or more) passengers were traveling with stolen passports is almost certainly a red herring. Why take a chance of being stopped because of a fake passport when you have a valid one? In that part of the world -- and maybe elsewhere -- any given flight probably includes passengers with phony IDs. What message was supposed to be sent? If it was down to Muslim fanatics, why blow up a plane on the national airline of Malaysia, a Muslim country?

A radio frequency is reserved for pilots to transmit an automated message of a hijacking, although I don't know if its use is universal among airlines.

It was reported that military radar showed that the flight did a U-turn. It was only an hour from its airport of origin, and if some mechanical difficulty had been detected, the best plan might have been to return whence it had taken off. But why no radio communication? The normal course would have been to contact the airline's maintenance technical staff for advice, or declare an urgency or emergency. 

Pilot suicide? It is a serious breach of good manners if as a pilot you take all your passengers with should you decide to say goodbye to this cruel word, but it happens, albeit rarely. There was EgyptAir Nine Nine Zero. SilkAir One Eight Five.

And it was reported that a woman claimed that one of the pilots on Malaysia Three Seven Zero once invited her to share his quarters on the flight deck during an entire flight. If that is true, it was a disgraceful violation of cockpit discipline. But it's hard to see any relevance to this situation.

Probably a debris field will be discovered -- tomorrow, next week, next month. Depending on its location and, if in the sea, the depth of the wreckage, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder will be recovered. It could take a while; I believe it was two years before they found the recorders from Air France Four Four Seven.

Meanwhile my heart goes out to the relatives of the passengers, still nursing whatever hope they can that some are alive in the air, on land, or at sea.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Western civilization died 70 years ago

Or maybe it would be truer to say exactly a century ago, in 1914, at the beginning of the two world wars that in many ways were phases of the same conflict.

While the allies emerged militarily and politically victorious at the end of World War II, the artistic and spiritual traditions that had sustained Europe and its derivatives through all its previous trials and disasters were buried in the ruins. They were buried with the bodies in the cemeteries and unmarked graves, and under the shattered cities.

The churches left God. The arts rejected beauty. After such horror, who could believe in their eternal value? A few humanists like Aldous Huxley, Gilbert Highet, and Jacques Barzun fought a rear-guard action to preserve what had been the lifeblood of Western culture. The devastation ultimately overcame their efforts.

All that is left today is economics, "fun," and technology. Economics is the contemporary religion, entertainment venues our places of congregation, new gadgets our icons.

Such melancholy thoughts are my take-away from watching, over the course of half a year (with breaks between discs -- it would be unbearable otherwise) The World at War. By almost universal agreement, this series made by Thames TV and first broadcast in the U.K. in 1973-74 is the best documentary on World War II ever. Because it includes commentary from many who participated in the war, nothing like it can be produced again.

Interviewees, some still looking surprisingly young three decades after the war, include British, Americans, Germans, and Japanese. Some were simply survivors, others high-ranking officials. No one expresses much regret for their personal decisions and actions, although many deplore the events and carnage.

The very first scene in the first of the 26 episodes (as well as the final scene in the last) sets the tone. We see a ruined village, Oradour-sur-Glane in France, in which almost all the occupants were murdered by the SS. It has not been rebuilt, although signage and a memorial indicate the atrocity. No one lives there.

The long series has time to show the war in depth, including Europe, the Pacific and Far East (and such nearly forgotten campaigns as Burma, where British soldiers fought under the most harrowing conditions imaginable or unimaginable, recalled onscreen by veterans). Needless to say, much of the film is immensely painful viewing. The editing is relatively kind: unsparing in picturing the gore, but only quickly enough to make its impact before cutting away.

Some of the most moving and disturbing scenes are not overtly violent. We see the Germans separating the men and women in an occupied Russian town. The men are sent away, presumably for slave labor. There are pitiful last embraces. Husbands and wives must have known they would not see each other again in this world.

Sound effects have obviously been added to much of the footage. Few battlefield cameramen were accompanied by sound recordists. Some purists might object to this ex post facto application, but it adds to the realism and immediacy.

The voice-over is contributed by Laurence Oliver, with understated drama and an air of sadness held in check. Olivier was a superb voice actor, as in every other aspect of his art.

While the war fades in our time to a few trite images (Pearl Harbor, Normandy Invasion, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, etc.), it is urgent to be reminded of how savage and encompassing it actually was. The World at War accomplishes that.

To have the grand scale of the war's madness and suffering brought home to us helps to explain, if not justify, why most of Europe has given up the defense of its heritage. It is natural to say, "Never again." But trying to abolish national borders, even inviting colonization by militant Islam, is the wrong way to insure peace.  Pretending there are no longer differences among countries and cultures, while ignoring the massive population replacement by Muslims and Africans, may well culminate in yet another terrible chapter of history.