Previous month:
August 2005
Next month:
October 2005

Look At All My Trials and Tribulations, Sinking in a Gentle Pool of Whine

[Quick, citizens!  Identify That Lyrical Allusion!]

No posts here for three weeks, eh?  You may ask yourself: What is the Story with that Situation?

The Story is that these past several weeks have been about as professionally frantic as any I've seen in ten years or more.  Above all, I have been carried away in all the activities necessary to prepare for a trial -- involving Two Men and a Horse -- that is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning, while at the same time a battalion of others of my clients have problems and needs of their own requiring my attention.  The life of the law is not logical, but it is An Experience.

In any event, this weblog has not in fact begun a slow spiral to disappearance.  Silence will now resume, in the hope that it will be broken again by a rush of fresh material, perhaps as soon as the middle of next week (if I play my cards right at trial).

À bientôt!

Hungry Like the Beowulf

Alan Sullivan -- who has a respectably deep knowledge of the material, having collaborated on a translation -- takes note of Robert Zemeckis' upcoming Big Screen Hollywood Treatment of Beowulf

More details are to be had in this report [4th item, down below Jack Kerouac] at The Book Standard News, which tells us

  • that Zemeckis will be using the computerized motion-capture technique he previously deployed to dubious effect ["at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying," sez CNN] in The Polar Express and
  • that Angelina Jolie has been cast as "the beautiful queen of darkness," a character I don't rightly recall as appearing anywhere in the poem. 

(I'm disappointed that Ms. Jolie won't be playing Grendel's mom.  She's certainly scary enough.) 

Hugo Award winner (for American Gods) Neil Gaiman is writing the screenplay, which suggests that it is likely to be interesting but also that resemblances to the original material will be strictly coincidental.

Los Angeles will be seeing a different sort of Beowulf next summer when the Los Angeles Opera offers the world premiere of Grendel, adapted from John Gardner's novel with a score by Elliot Goldenthal and a libretto co-written by poet J.D. McClatchy and director Julie Taymor.  Goldenthal and Taymor are long-time collaborators (Goldenthal won an Academy Award for his score to Taymor's film Frida and, oh yes, they married in 2002 after some 20 years together) and the Grendel project has been developing for at least 15 years.

An intriguing detail: in the cast for this production Beowulf himself is not listed as a character.  He appears relatively late in Gardner's novel, depicted as a taciturn, humorless, Terminator-like fighting machine, and does the predestined job of killing Grendel after ambushing him in the meadhall; he even has a few lines of dialogue.  But he does not appear, at least as a singing part, in the opera.  Given that this is a Taymor production, I have to suspect that Beowulf will be portrayed by a puppet.  In a 1989 article referencing Grendel, which doesn't necessarily reflect what the actual production will look like more than a decade later, Taymor is quoted as groaning, "It's a hundred and fifty to 200 puppets. Not little things, either, but big things."  Perhaps Beowulf is one of the big things.

Dragons, such as Fafnir in the Ring and the scaly creature chasing Tamino at the opening of Magic Flute, are often portrayed by puppets and similar effects in operas.  The Dragon in Grendel -- a central figure in the novel, this dragon may or may not be the same one as Beowulf slays and is slain by later in the poem -- is a mezzo-soprano, to be portrayed by the splendid Denyce Graves.

After premiering in Los Angeles in June, the production will be heading to Lincoln Center in late 2006.


[1744 PDT]:  Hmm.   I'm not the only one with Beowulf on my mind lately: Here's a late-August item on the topic from escapegrace.

Geat Down!   Geat Funky!

Fighting Fire With Fliers, and Other Tales of Lumbering Bureaucracy

Based on Ernie's recommendation -- the very making of which showed a modicum of grace under pressure -- I have been reading John M. Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.   I am at about the halfway point now, and I concur in Ernie's endorsement.  [Offer: If you click through the Amazon link and purchase this book, or most anything else by way of that referral, I will gladly divert my referrer's share of the purchase price to hurricane relief.]

While the Mississippi River itself is not the principal culprit in the present devastation of New Orleans, the parallels in human behavior between past and present are striking.  In particular, as fingers have pointed and tempers have boiled over who was responsible for what and who was too slow and who was part of the problem rather than part of the solution, I find myself returning to one passage in particular: 

It is the 1880s.  After years of hard-nosed competition between the brilliant civilian engineer James Buchanan Eads and the Army Corps of Engineers embodied in the somewhat less capable but still talented General Andrew Atkinson Humphries, Eads succeeds by means of elaborate jetties in creating a reliable entrance to the River from the Gulf.  Between them, Eads and Humphries know most everything there is to know about the River, and science and engineering appear to hold the promise of controlling it at last.  Always Here to Help, the federal government steps in in earnest with the creation of the Mississippi River Commission:

It never became, formally or informally, 'the Eads Commission.'  Though Humphries and the War Department could not prevent the establishment of the commission, they did succeed in having Congress stipulate that Army officers outnumber civilians on it by three to two, that an Army officer serve as president, and that this officer report to his military superior, the chief of engineers.  Eads was named to the commission, but he could not dominate it.  In 1882 he resigned to protest its compromises.

Science, he knew, does not compromise.  Instead, science forced ideas to compete in a dynamic process.  This competition refines or replaces old hypotheses, gradually approaching a more perfect representation of the truth, although one can reach truth no more than one can reach infinity.

But the Mississippi River Commission never became a scientific enterprise.  It was a bureaucracy.  The natural process of a bureaucracy, by contrast, tends to compromise competing ideas.  The bureaucracy then adopts the compromise as truth and incorporates it into its being....

Bureaucracy is always with us, and it is a large part of the reason that the current hurricane response is the inefficient, aggravating thing that it is.  Bureaucracy inevitably creates channels that must be gone through, procedures that must be followed, forms that must be completed exactly before one moves along to the next form that must be completed exactly before it can be forwarded through appropriate channels for review.  Here is one of innumerable examples of the process at work, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune:

As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters - his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week - a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta.    

Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.  Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.


The firefighters, several of whom are from Utah, were told to bring backpacks, sleeping bags, first-aid kits and Meals Ready to Eat.  They were told to prepare for 'austere conditions.'  Many of them came with awkward fire gear and expected to wade in floodwaters, sift through rubble and save lives.

'They've got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified,' said a Texas firefighter.  'We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet.'

[Emphasis added.  Link via Matt Welch at Hit and Run.  The photo of attendees at the harassment class that accompanies the Tribune story is expressive in its own right.  We might note another bureaucratic tendency -- redundancy and repetition -- at work as well: Quite apart from any debates over the necessity of such training prior to entering a disaster zone, is there a fire department in this country that doesn't have its own sexual harassment education program in place?  Why the federalized refresher?]

Bureaucracies are by nature self-perpetuating, with their day-to-day functioning levels most often filled by long term employees whose ingrained habits change little or at all as political appointees rotate through at the top.  Those appointees in turn, and the elected officials who appoint them, are commonly selected by methods in which expertise, experience and technical qualification are among the least of considerations, supplanted in the hierarchy by such concerns as is he/she my pal, did he/she write me a large check at some point, do I as a voter believe that he/she "cares" about me or "understands" me or has a nice smile or a spins out a better line of snappy patter than his/her alternative, and so on.

There is ample condemnation owing to every level of government this week, but I am persuaded that different elected and appointed officials in any of the key positions would produce, at best, only modest improvement in the end result.  Radley Balko, engaging in the sport of picking on Paul Krugman, observes something similar:

Krugman's second false assumption is more egregious.  And that is that cronyism is somehow limited to the right, or to limited-government types.  Please.  The bigger the government, the more corrupt the government.  I'll make no attempt to defend the appointment of [FEMA director] Michael Brown.  Nor will I attempt to absolve the Bush administration of charges of cronyism.  They're as guilty as every previous administration.  But they are as guilty as every previous administration.  Cronyism isn't symptomatic of those of us who distrust government, cronyism is endemic to government.  Corruption and backscratching are part and parcel of government.  They are the very nature of government.  They are one of many reasons why those of us who hold contempt for government -- well -- hold contempt for government.

Here's a question for Krugman: The Army Corps of Engineers set out on the task of shoring up those levees on the outskirts of New Orleans in the 1960s.  The federal government had taken responsibility for the system in the 1920s.  Forty years later, after both parties have held both the White House and the Congress, that task was never completed.  Despite repeated warnings, we finally paid the price for massive government incompetence.

[Emphasis in original.] 

I do not join Balko in outright contempt for government, but I will certainly allow that governments in every age have been and will with certainty remain a prime repository of head-scratching, hair-tearing human folly.  Yes, things are bad, responses and planning have been painfully inadequate in many many instances, and in a perfect world none of it would have happened.  In the best of all possible worlds, however, regardless of the particular local, state or federal administration that was in place, I think it is safe to say that the details or the degree of misery might differ somewhat, but there would still be misery aplenty. 

Like Eads' scientific truth, we can no more reach perfection, or even near-perfection, than we can reach infinity.  Let blame and retribution fall where and when they will and should, so long as pursuing them does not interfere with the efforts of millions in and out of government who are responding to that misery as best they imperfectly can.

Laissez Les Relief Checks Roulez!

Short notice, I realize -- I only learned of it myself this morning via an e-mail from the Pinot-pressing gang at Santa Barbara's Flying Goat Cellars -- but those of you who are

  • in the Los Angeles area this Friday evening (September 9),
  • partial to the delights of food and wine for which New Orleans was known (and will be again, say I!), and
  • looking for additional opportunities to help in the hurricane relief effort

should consider attending "TASTE, LAsupportsLA":

A disaster relief effort from the greater Los Angeles Community to our friends in Louisiana.

Hosted by Harry Shearer of The Simpson's, KCRW, This is Spinal Tap, and A Mighty Wind . . . and musical performances by world renowned DJ Paul Oakenfold, Dave Hernandez and more!

* * *

100% of the proceeds from ticket sales will go benefit Hurricane Victims. All proceeds from a silent auction taking place at the event will benefit the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund, established by the BRENNAN family of Commanders Palace, to aid hospitality workers who will be without jobs while New Orleans is being re-built.

40+ restaurants and 100+ wineries are scheduled to participate, alongside what is touted as "The Largest Silent Auction in Los Angeles History."  Seriously hip self-indulgence in the name of a seriously important cause.  I Love LA (both of them), don't you?