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Drive-In Saturday:
Siegfried Season

Siegfried - I am going to Eat You

Los Angeles Opera's new Achim Freyer production of Wagner's Siegfried opens this afternoon.  I won't be seeing it until the closing performance of this run, on October 17, but favorable reports (and rumors of an amusing toy dragon) have already emerged from the dress rehearsal via Out West Arts and Alan Rich's happily returned SoI'veHeard. (Alan's post also discloses that the promised live recording of the LA Philharmonic's world premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Fourth Symphony ("Los Angeles") from this past January will finally see release via iTunes next month).

LAO has not released any video thus far from its Siegfried, so I will fill the gap with two prior tellings of the tale.  First up, Siegfried defeats a thirsty dragon -- not a transformed Fafnir, since this version is adapted by Thea von Harbau from the Nibelungenlied rather than from Wagner -- in Fritz Lang's 1924 Siegfrieds Tod.

By way of contrast with Lang's impressive-for-their-day physical effects, this next video shows off a 2008 production of Wagner's Siegfried staged in Valencia, Spain, by director Carlus Padrissa and the Catalan theatrical group La Fura del Baus, with hyper-elaborate video projections by Franc Aleu.  Zubin Mehta conducts.  It is difficult to say whether this production ultimately tromped on or deferred to Wagner -- the former is probable, given its apparent Mad Scientist overtones -- but as sheer eye-poppery (in conjunction with That Music) it does not fail to impress:

This is best appreciated at full size and in high definition on Vimeo, here, where it was posted by Martin Inda, who handled video post-production on the project.  Oooo, sparkly.


Illustration: a conventional sort of a Siegfried in Opera Stories from Wagner by Florence Akin (1915).


Drive-In Saturday:
Got a Dance?

Dancing Camera Girl by geishaboy500

The Institute of Contemporary Art, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has just opened Dance with Camera,

an exhibition and a screening program that explores a crossover between artists and dancers who make choreography for the camera.  The exhibition features art works in film, video, and still photography that exemplify the ways dance has compelled visual artists to record bodies moving in time and space. Screenings elaborate the show’s theme with iconic dance films, ranging from Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood musicals to Maya Deren’s avant-garde films.

In conjunction, UBUWEB has posted a collection of solos danced for the camera selected by the exhibition's curator, Jenelle Porter, covering more than a century of filmed dance and dancing film, from the Lumière Brothers in 1896 to Flora Wiegmann dancing beside an LA freeway in 2007.  Here are two of those ten films, one deadly serious, one utterly frivolous.  

I've elected not to post Fred Astaire's "Bojangles of Harlem" number from Swing Time because the niftiness of Astaire's dancing and the sincerity of his tribute to Bill Robinson are both undercut by his doing the number in blackface.  Instead, as a penance of sorts, here is "A Study in Choreography for Camera" (1945) by avant-film legend Maya Deren, anticipating many of the speed and editing tricks that would eventually become de rigeur in a thousand music videos:

Having mentioned music videos I cannot resist the only example of that form included in this group, the smooth but quirky Broadway strut of Christopher Walken in and around and above the lobby of the former Sheraton Grande in downtown Los Angeles in Spike Jonze's rendition of Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" (2001):

For extra credit: Do not miss the Flash-animated Stick Figure version of "Weapon of Choice," which I called "a Roy Lichtenstein fever dream" when I first linked to it on the original Blogspot version of this weblog six long years ago.


Photo: "Dancing Camera Girl" by Flickr user geishaboy500, used under Creative Commons License.


The Angels' Share - 091009

Uriel - Denver Art Museum

Time again for dribs and drabs of this and that that I have accumulated all magpie-like in my wanderings of the Internet.  I term this feature The Angels' Share, as explained in the original edition back in July. 

On this occasion, the angel in question is the Archangel Uriel, seen above armed with an attractive flintlock.  The painting is Peruvian, and that incongruous firearm drew a delighted chuckle from me when I discovered it last month while visiting, for the first time, the Denver Art Museum and its remarkable collection of Spanish Colonial art.  

Uriel does not receive the same prominence in art as some of his fellow archangels, though he is the heavenly emissary Leonardo Da Vinci included in his Virgin of the Rocks.  

Virgin of the rocks  

John Dee, seeker after wisdom and astrologer to Elizabeth I, claimed to have had personal communications from this particular Archangel.

According to his diary on May 25, 1581 Dee first saw spirits while crystal gazing, and during the following year, he saw a vision of the angel Uriel, who gave him a convex piece of crystal that would allow communication with the spirit world.

Armed not with crystals but with flatscreen and mouse, let us look at this miscellaneous collection of links and trinkets:

Narayana's Cows - Tom Johnson



Uriel (with firearm) via The Shrine of the Holy Whapping.

Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre version) via Wikimedia commons.


Important Postscript/Update:

I have shared this with my Facebook connections some weeks ago, but I nearly forgot to include it here.  

Pure, sweet pleasure of the most purely sweet and pleasurable sort. A little line from The Importance of Being Earnest (Act II) set in exquisite Renaissance counterpoint, achieving bliss of a high order:

And so, we have done.

Healthy, Wealthy, Wise: Pick One


2 a : a method for achieving an end 
    * * *
c : a detailed formulation of a program of action
--  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


On Election Day last November I wrote, in explaining why I'd not be casting a ballot for any of the presidential candidates, that

Senator Obama has been sufficiently forthright for me to know I cannot vote for him because I disagree strongly with many of his central policies, but I will shed no tears when he is elected, as seems inevitable.  I wish him well in office, and I feel more than a little sympathy for his supporters: anyone investing that much Hope is bound to be disappointed in a world that sadly, campaign rhetoric aside, does not in fact operate on wishes, good feeling and pixie dust.

And I was right, I think.

Tonight's big health care speech was President Obama doing some of what he does best.  He is a very smart man, a politician even more canny than Bill Clinton (which is saying something), and -- teleprompter be damned -- that rare contemporary figure who can give a canned and pre-rehearsed speech without it actually sounding canned and pre-rehearsed. This last counts for a lot with me: I speak publicly whenever I can on legal and insurance topics or anything else anyone wants to hear about, and I would just curl up and die if the presentation wasn't alive as it's being delivered.  When he's on his game, as he certainly was tonight, the President can be restrained and controlled while remaining alive and connected throughout.  As a performance, it gets an entirely unironic A

Still, I remain unconvinced that anything really worthwhile in the long term can or will be accomplished by our Congress when it comes to health care reform.

My fundamental problem with tonight's speech comes down to the definition quoted above.  From beginning to end, the President told us that, on this night of all nights, he was going to offer and describe his "plan" for reform.  If you parse the speech through, however, no such plan ever appears.  There is plenty of talk about what the President wants to achieve -- genuinely desirable ends not far removed from the well-intentioned rash of Facebook status posts last week, on the lines of

[Name of honorable and decent person] thinks that no one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.  If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

-- but hardly anything practical concerning how we are going to get there. The proper word for the what is not "plan," but "goal," and we can stipulate that the goals outlined this evening are devoutly to be wished. But it is the how that constitutes a "plan" properly speaking and, apart from a slew of "make it so" diktats, there was a rather glaring dearth of hows to be had tonight.

Just take a look at the official cheat sheet for the self-effacingly named "Obama Plan for Stability & Security for All Americans" [Official White House PDF].  At the outset it promises to

  • End[] discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions.

and to 

  • Cap[] out-of pocket expenses so people don’t go broke when they get sick

Good things both, I think we can agree, and certainly features I would like to see in my own insurance plan.  While we are about it, the Plan also promises that we will get essentially unlimited diagnostic and preventive care -- mammograms and flu shots and diabetes tests and the like -- at no "extra charge," i.e., included in whatever premium we (or our employer if we are lucky) are paying.  

But at the same time as the Plan promises to do all these desirable things, it simultaneously promises that we are all going to have access to "quality, affordable" coverage -- which we have to assume is a phase meant to describe coverage that costs no more than, and possibly much less than, what we are paying now.  In fact, the Plan apparently promises that those who are defined as "high risk", i.e., those with preexisting conditions who we know going in are most likely to require expensive future care, will have access not merely to "affordable" coverage, but to "new, low-cost coverage" through the mysterious and only-vaguely-described "Exchange." 

What, in the most basic terms, is wrong with this picture?  

It seems to me that any Plan that mandates that insurers must take on greater risk -- i.e., that they must provide near-unlimited coverage for people that they know from the outset will be needing an extra-high level of payouts for benefits in order to obtain the care that they are entitled to under the Plan -- but that simultaneously implies that those insurers will not be permitted to price their product in proportion to that risk is side-stepping a fundamental problem.  No insurer, public or private, can be expected to pay out more than it takes in.  The doctors, the hospitals, the folks who clean out the bedpans, they all rightly expect to be paid for providing those services.  If the people who need those services the most are the ones to whom we promise "low cost" coverage, some part of the actual cost needs to be borne by others -- and how that doesn't mean an increased cost for those who already have insurance, or for the taxpaying polity as a whole, I just don't see.  If there is enough "waste and inefficiency" already existing in our Medicare programs that its elimination will cover these costs, as the President implied there is, then it is high time we start the show trials of the entire generation of government functionaries who allowed it to happen.  (He said, facetiously.)  

Now I would be the first to admit that I don't know it all, particularly on an issue this complicated.  And I am prepared to believe that the President actually has answers to these practical objections, and to others with which I won't bore us here.  But I certainly did not hear those answers tonight.  I did not hear the how.  I heard talk about a Plan, but the Plan itself went missing.

These are not impossible questions, or so we are told, but they are undeniably very difficult questions. And I regret to say that I am convinced in my heart of hearts that there is no government on Earth, here or elsewhere, now or ever, of this party or that party or any other party, that is actually qualified to produce a credible answer to them.  Matters as they currently stand are bad enough -- I have been paying my family's health insurance from my own pocket for fifteen-plus years, keeping premiums as low as I can via high deductibles and the good fortune of having needed very little in the way of covered care, and the cost is still too high -- but no plan that I have seen coming out of the Congress to date, and nothing that I heard from the President tonight, appears to hold any practical promise of improving the situation for most Americans. The involuntarily uninsured are likely to benefit, I suppose, but the currently insured (especially those who already pay for it themselves) and those who are willingly, or willfully, uninsured -- those who will be subject to the "individual mandate" to which I recall Candidate Obama being ostentatiously opposed -- seem unlikely to come out ahead.

I would very much like to be wrong about this.  Anyone care to convince me that wrong is what I am?


Illustration by Karl R. Rittman of the 857th Engineer Aviation Battalion.


"Books Invite All: They Constrain None"


I did a fair deal of walking about between courtrooms and meetings in downtown Los Angeles yesterday.  On my way from the vicinity of 7th and Figueroa to the Federal Courthouse, my path brought me to the lower rear entrance of the Main Library, where I snapped this photo.  My main target was the inscription above the door.  Here is a closer view:


A cursory search suggests that this is not a quotation from elsewhere, but original with whoever was responsible for selecting the language to be inscribed on the Library building.  (An attractive poster is available, featuring a watercolor of the building rather than the physical inscription itself.)

It is a fine sounding sentiment but it is not entirely true, is it?

We can grant to a book an overarching authority, as when we declare that it is not truly or merely the work of our fellow mortals but instead originates from some higher source, a source of such power and infallibility that its dictates as contained in the book must be adhered to at all times.  We can declare the book to be, in effect, the literal last word on any subject.  Those who willingly submit themselves to the book's authority may feel themselves freed, even empowered, by their submission.  When the willingly submissive conclude that the ultimate authority of the book obliges others to submit as well, constraint or worse necessarily follows.  

Literalist fundamentalism of any stripe turns our Library inscription on its head.  The linked instances above both involve Islam, but examples can equally well be found in any other rigorously Book-based belief system. Religion holds no monopoly here: the Terror of the French Revolution can arguably  be traced to overzealous, but strictly secular, interpretation of Rousseau and the cruelties of "godless Communism" have been built on careful exegesis of Marx or Mao.  Used in this fashion a book may invite us in, but only to bind us firmly to the less than comfy chair

Books.  Approach with caution. 


Photos of Los Angeles Public Library by the author.


Among School Children

Obama Question Othority

The President is scheduled to address America's public school students on Tuesday, in advance of his Big Health Care Speech to a joint session of the Student Council Congress on Wednesday.  The former has turned into an overblown kerfuffle in which opponents of the administration, unfortunately and most loudly including the zany-maniac crowd of which I was complaining just the other day, shout that the speech is a sinister exercise in political indoctrination -- in which argument they were aided by the fabulously tin-eared lesson plan initially circulated by the Department of Education, since sheepishly withdrawn, urging students to reflect upon how they can "help the President."  

The prepared text has been released now and it is, as expected, not a sinister exercise in indoctrination.  It is aggravating all the same, even though it delivers little more than the standard time-worn and unobjectionable message that can be paraphrased as: 

"Kids, you ought to stay in [public] school and work hard to advance yourselves, and you'll thank me for telling you so someday."

This is another in the decades-long line of Presidential pronouncements raising the nagging question of why this President, or any other President, should get the idea that the job of being President necessarily includes taking time away from the work of actual governance for the sake of saying to students what is already being said, every blessed day, by a squizillion other blessed adults who are neither more nor less credible on the subject than is the aforementioned blessed President or any other President who has been or ever shall be.  The proper ground for objection to this sort of thing is not the risk that the young people will be led down the primrose path to Communism, but that these sorts of helpful lectures by public figures high and low rarely amount to anything more than displays of self-importance and sentimental tommyrot. 

When I went to the White House site this morning to look for the text of the speech, I was again astounded by the extent to which the Executive Branch has become one enormous advertising agency.  The Media Resources page relating to the speech, for example, features not only links to the hastily re-drawn "classroom engagement resources" but also embeddable banner ads to include on your blog or website (in the unlikely event your readers include K-12 public school students) and even a "coming attractions" video in which the President's message -- "Kids, you ought to stay in school and work hard to advance yourselves, and you'll thank me for telling you so someday." -- is pre-delivered for him by a collection of NASCAR drivers:

Though the NASCAR drivers don't go so far as the President does in laying a "don't let us down" guilt trip on the kids, this is still self-important, sentimental tommyrot.  On your nickel, too, and mine, since the care and feeding of the White House media apparatus is a taxpayer responsibility.  

Can we possibly arrange the appointment of a Healthy Skepticism Czar to teach the kids to test and to question most anything they hear from those who come clothed with authority of any stripe?  

Think for yourselves, kids, think for yourselves.

P.S., Your country is counting on you.


Illustration: Custom Obamicon by the author.


Where Have You Gone, Jolie Mary Jo?
Our Nation Turns Its Second Thoughts to You

Blessed damozel - head study

The blessed damozel leaned out
    From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
    Of waters stilled at even . . . .
    "The Blessed Damozel," Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846)


In the immediate aftermath of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, it was widely reported that Google and other search engines saw a spike in inquiries for variants, often misspelled variants, on "Chappaquiddick" and "Mary Jo Kopechne."  Much of that traffic was presumably driven by the zany-maniac crowd who so enjoy misrepresenting themselves as conservatives, for whom it is essential that any prominent highly-liberal Democrat be painted as the very spawn of Satan -- a purpose for which the awful events of July 18, 1969, are too useful to ignore -- but some of that traffic at least must have derived from the conundrum of reconciling the praise heaped upon the late Senator in so many eulogies with the ignominy that more typically befalls those who abandon young women to die slowly in submerged automobiles.

It was already well known before last week that the Senator was dying, but I had the impression that there was every reason to believe that the actual end would not come for some weeks or even months.  When I picked up the morning paper and saw his death headlined, it caught me by surprise.  And, perhaps out of that surprise, very nearly my first thought was:  

"Well, I imagine he and Mary Jo are knocking one back together even now in some heavenly saloon." 

Which is not a bad image, if you're of a mind to believe in a beneficent and particularly forgiving Providence.

Matt Welch is rightly perturbed with those who would suggest that Ms. Kopechne's wildly unnecessary death is somehow justified or even rewarded by the subsequent forty years of Kennedy's senatorial career.

[T]he sentiment [that Kopechne's death was somehow 'worth it'] is a timely reminder of the seductive awfulness of political ideologies everywhere and always.  The ends are always worth a few strangled means, especially to those wielding or sympathizing with power.  If you're openly musing whether the unwilling, unjust sacrifice of an innocent is worth a broad set of alleged legislative improvements, you're not asking a morally challenging question, you're answering it.

As Exhibits "A" and "B," he points to a Huffington Post piece by Melissa Lafsky and to a Guardian essay by Joyce Carol Oates.  Lafsky's column is, to this reader, pretty ghastly in any number of ways.  Badly written, for a start.  Oates' ruminations are more worthy of consideration, not only because she is a vastly better writer and thinker than Lafsky, but also because Oates places the question in a more adult and serious frame. Oates fictionalized the events at Chappaquiddick, from the point of view of the victim, in her 1993 novel, Black Water, and it is clear she has thought longer and harder about them than the general run of online commentators (present company included).  As a novelist, Oates inevitably sees Kennedy and Chappaquiddick as having literary parallels:

One is led to think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, rich individuals accustomed to behaving carelessly and allowing others to clean up after them.  It is often in instances of the 'fortunate fall,' think of Joseph Conrad's anti-hero/hero Lord Jim as a classic literary analogy, that innocent individuals figure almost as ritual sacrifices is another aspect of the phenomenon. 
* * *
The poet John Berryman once wondered: 'Is wickedness soluble in art?' One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: 'Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?'' 
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions.  Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
One could wish (I could wish) that the parallels to Kennedy's life post-Chappaquiddick were not so much to be found in American literature as in the Russian novelists.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are full of sinners and criminals whose later actions redeem them.  The Russian literary way, however, was to require that the sinner be brought low first, that he feel in a direct, personal, public way, often in Siberia, the full weight of the wrong that's been done before, at last, finding the way to a better and more laudable life. 

I do not doubt that Senator Kennedy had many painful periods of personal introspection over what he did and failed to do that night, but position and privilege allowed him to evade the consequences that would be expected to be inflicted on most of his fellow mortals.  Even those who are more admiring of the Senator than I will ever be might admit that his later accomplishments, no matter how otherwise admirable -- I leave it to the sympathetic reader to select his or her personal favorite -- are tainted at least slightly by what Auden wrote of, in a much different context, concerning this day seventy years ago:

The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.




Top: Head study for The Blessed Damozel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1876), via The Rossetti Archive.

Bottom: The infamous 1973 National Lampoon Volkswagen ad parody, previously mentioned here in early 2005.  Created only five years after the incident, this seems driven less by any hostility to Kennedy than by the fondness for poor taste and macabre humor typical of the Golden Age of the Lampoon.  Sadly, most reproductions of this appear on the sites of zealots of questionable probity, i.e., the aforementioned zany-maniac crowd.  This copy comes via the more apolitical Photobucket.