Friday, February 22

Considering the 3. Kammerkonzert des Bayerischen Staatsorchester

Studying in Munich, as I wrote earlier, was an opportunity to be "shook up" and break out of nasty old habits, like those which kept me back from trying those high culture things, i.e. visiting art museums and attending orchestral performances. Back in the States, I was holding back from them, waiting to take a class or read a book or something which would prepare me to more fully appreciate them when I finally got around to it all. Screw that in Munich. The city has two freaking opera houses, three orchestras, four world-class art museums and a not inconsiderable number of galleries and live music venues. My next chance at these was not going to come for years, and I was not going to waste an opportunity like that. Thus I ended up at one of the Bavarian State Orchestra's chamber concerts.

Interestingly enough, the Mozart piece which opened the evening, Quintet for piano and winds K. 452, was my least favorite. It was pretty, yes, but there was no excitement, no spirit to it. Movie reviewers attack superior actors by saying they "phoned in their performance." That is what this quintet felt like, Mozart phoned it in. The next two, Franz Danzi's Wind Quintet Op. 56, No. 2 in G-minor and Paul Taffanel's Wind Quintet, were easily my favorites. Danzi's brought to mind a stroll through the fields and Taffanel's hinted of a love story. The final piece, Sextet in Adaptation for Piano and Wind Quintet (sorry but the Internet fails me on this one) by Bohuslav Martinu was a strange one to me, employing on an off-putting dissonance, all the harsher in comparison to the more unified sets which preceded it.

And those are my thoughts on the performance. For a concert that clocked over two hours, that is not a tremendous amount of writing, especially what I have pulled off much more for shorter movies with much less acclaim surrounding them, but this is what it is: a beginning. At some point, if I want to make progress, I really ought to read some music theory and the like, but for now, I am content to reflect on that music I hear, to search out new stuff and try to understand it in my own situation.

Where this gets interesting is the minor controversy, which erupted yesterday and revolves on a review my friend Aaron Brown recently posted to his blog Fifty-Two Tuesdays. In brief, for those who do not care to click the link and come to their own conclusions first, Aaron reviewed the Get Set Go album Sunshine, Joy & Happiness: A Tragic Tale of Death, Despair, and Other Silly Nonsense. About a week later, Eric Summer, the band's viola player, gave a scathing point-by-point response, boiling tar scathing. Summer's rage can be divided into two camps: rants against against grammatical errors, which really smack of hypocrisy when Summer is confronted with a spelling mistake of his own and sarcastically replies that his own credibility is now shot, and raves that Aaron lacks the musical understanding to comprehend the complexity of Get Set Go's music.

"What qualifies one to be a reviewer?" is the question that finally arises from all this. For better or worse, I just reviewed a concert which I bloody well know that I lack the education to properly do, but is a degree in music necessary before one can offer a respone? I have heard some question the role of the movie critic because their experiences and very profession cause them to approach movies completely differently than most Americans and thus leave the theater with wildly different opinions. On this point, maybe what we need, and the Internet is certainly the avenue for more than enough of this already, is a greater opportunity for the non-professional critic to offer their response to art, one that can actually claim to speak for the layman. I would also like to offer one other suggestion. Only one other because this is a topic worthy of its own post. While I am not yet sure whether the ideal of a review or criticism should be to confront the art on its own terms, it should not be out of the question for a review to be approached on its own terms, as well. I was not looking to do anymore than share my simple response to it and give myself a foundation to begin a greater exploration of music. Would it be right for Mozart or Martinu to come back from the dead and bash me for my one-sentence declarations on their works?

Kudos, though, to Aaron for getting someone to pay attention and responding with a measure of tact. And fie on Summer for responding so childishly. Actually, a child would probably respond better. More like an emo teenager, one who whines that no one understands him.

Considering "Into the Wild"

One of the (admittedly weaker) reasons I believe in God is this unshakable sense that someone has been and is still screwing with me. All these coincidences keep popping up in my life, and I cannot help feeling that were I a little bit smarter, I could put it all together. There has to be a reason my Zen-Mediation instructor went off on mysticism for the first time last semester literally the day before I was to give a presentation on Sufism, the mystic branch of Islam. A push towards something or pull away? I do not know. Like I said, not smart enough. But, once I figure that and all the others out... I do not know that either. Maybe I will have won at life and will receive a free pass into heaven or something similarly cool.

Into the Wild, based upon the true Jack Krakauer account of the final two years of Chris McCandless' life, is just the latest in those coincidences. Let us begin with the clearest. The doomed protagonist and I share a first name. His estimated date of death (because he died alone) is August 18, the same as my birthday. But let us be honest as well. These similarities are shallow, nothing more than attention grabbers. To remain focused on them would be no different than those kooks searching for something behind the fact that both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald are both referred to by all three of their names. What really matters and draws Chris McCandless and myself together across the years is the words that spill from his lips and into his journal. "I read somewhere how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. " "I want to be all the way out there. On my own. No map. No watch. No ax. Just out there. Big mountains, rivers, sky. Game. Just be out there in it." I wish I could come near that passion and eloquence.

I wish I could actually do it too, make a clean break with society to live alone and deliberately in the wilderness, but that is where Chris McCandless and I ultimately differ. He went out and did it. He stopped playing along with the rules which underly modern American life, which most of us never question, even if we happen to recognize their existence. Rather than go on to graduate school or pursue a career, he donated his entire savings to Oxfam and took off on a two-year journey in the early '90's, one that took him from South Dakota to Mexico and culminated in four months in the Alaskan wilderness where he eventually starved to death. McCandless was an idealist, unwilling to compromise the rightness of his journey to the real. Even better, he actually did what he believed in.

What does this all mean? If I grant that coincidence can be more than a number of random variables coming together at the opportune moment, and I do, with what did I leave this film? A chance to see the path less taken. If I have not made this clear enough yet, I apologize. I respect McCandless the man and his actions immensely. Maybe I could have been proud of myself if I were to do what he did, but after seeing this, I am not so sure. For sure, what he did took courage. Not just anyone takes on the Alaskan wilderness with 30 pounds of equipment and 10 pounds of rice with no safety net, but it takes a massive level of selfishness too. Some allusions are made to his distaste for apartheid, not particularly unique or difficult since I cannot remember the sales of "Maintain Apartheid Forever" stickers being particularly high, but instead of catching the next flight to South Africa or Washington, D.C., he chose to live for himself. Forget others. All that mattered in the end for McCandless was that he lived the life he wanted to.

Furthermore, McCandless ran not only from middle-class family and the consumerist life which awaited him after graduation but poverty and human misery, too. A year into his journey, McCandless checks in for a night at a Las Vegas shelter but picks right up and leaves that very evening after wandering the streets, unable to bear what he sees, and pushes harder still to make Alaska. That he had incredible passion and ambition cannot be disputed. What is disappointing is that he turned it all toward himself. He could have been great but died young and without reason. If you do not want to deal with possibilities of what may have been, realize that he hurt his family. Not on the best of terms with his parents, McCandless never told them of his plans or once contacts them. More unforgivable though, he never tells his sister either, one whom he supposedly loved dearly. They knew nothing of his fate, whether to hold onto a hope of his survival or until a call came in mid-September to inform them his body had been found. McCandless is someone to respect but not to emulate. I do not want to be him.

Make no doubt, this is an excellent movie, and were it released in any other year, it would have received more awards attention than it ended up with. Its only two Academy Award nominations went to Hal Holbrook as Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. Both well deserved, but strong cases could be made for Emile Hirsch in the lead role, who has been a pleasure to watch since The Girl Next Door; Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on the soundtrack; Sean Penn as the director; and even Best Picture. The movie is deftly made, and there are no weak links, except for those who demand constant action and find the original Die Hard a little slow with too low of a body count. Obviously, the movie centers on McCandless, but the ensemble of people he meets on his travels, both whose lives are touched by him and who shape him, is given due care. No matter their screen time, genuine depth is given to each of them. No stock characters here, and the landscape cinematography is simply brilliant. It is worth a little look-see, and you can come to your own conclusions towards Chris McCandless, a wake-up call to one's own squandered existence or a warning or something else entirely.

Monday, February 18

Studying abroad

Tomorrow marks my third full week back in the United States after five months abroad in Munich. Thankfully, the transition back has gone remarkably well. Jet lag was not an issue, and neither was homework, a bit of a surprise since I returned a week after classes at Gonzaga had already started. Of course, catching up and getting settled back into life in America has kept me busy and reconnecting with friends even more so. The result of this is that I have spent little time reflecting back on my months in Europe, and this bothers me. Five months in a foreign land, surrounded by a largely alien language, different culture and apart from most everything I was familiar with? Kind of a big deal, I think. Now is the time to start taking that on, a time to begin considering what those months meant to me, how they changed me.

But first things first. Why did I go? Looking back now, it seems kind of inevitable and as though I never made the conscious decision to trade Gonzaga for Ludwig-Maximilian-Universit├Ąt for a semester. It begins with my choice to take German as my foreign language requirement at Gonzaga. When my application asked what languages I was interested in, I checked German even though I had studied French for four years in high school. My grandparents emigrated in the '60's, and I thought it might be nice to be able to speak with them in their native tongue and those relatives (e.g. all of them) who stayed behind. From that point on, there was no detour on my path to Munich. By the beginning of my sophomore year, it was already time to start considering whether I wanted to study abroad. Why not? A goodly number of my friends were taking advantage of the chance, and I thought it might be fun. There was never any doubt in my mind that a German-speaking country would be my destination since to wimp out on Oxford or something would be an affront to my two years of study, and once the Munich program was suggested by my German instructor, I never looked at another program. Like I wrote earlier, there was no deliberate thought on the subject at any point. The pieces all just fell into line. Perhaps this should worry me, such a light approach to a major matter, but I have come around to agreeing with Mary Schmich. "Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's." The amount I do not expect and cannot prepare for will always trump that which I can. No use worrying about it too much.

What was I looking for in this experience? Still not quite sure on that one. To get better at German for sure, but the language does not play any specific role in my future plans, as fluid as they are now. To see Europe and its great cities, too, but no plans were made before my departure at the end of August, everything arranged across the ocean. Certainly not to advance on my path to a Journalism major. Did not even take a media studies class over there. Mostly, I think, I was looking to get shook up. I was comfortable at Gonzaga, and it was time to see what happened when I threw myself into a situation I was not quite prepared for (God knows two years of college German is not enough to get by), break myself off from the familiar and watch the consequences. Cheated on that one a bit. A friend from Gonzaga participated in the same program, and we hung out a good deal, even more after the Internet in my room went down.

This is a big subject, and this is only a small part of the experience. I will, undoubtedly, write still more on it. For now, though, the only way I am going to get through it all is piece by piece.

And here is the first of those pieces. To be blunt, my academic education in Munich was not of the highest caliber. Ultimately, I learned German. All of my classes, barring the independent study of Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," were held in German, and the academics were not that rigorous, except my term papers. Two classes were devoted solely to the language. Anything I learned from History of Germany Since 1945 came from reading the texts because the first half of the three-hour classes were student presentations on the assigned readings and the second half was the instructor waiting for us to ask questions on them. Weltreligionen im Religionunterricht was fun, but what was taught about the major world religions I generally already knew from earlier readings. Theorie und Praxis der Zen-Meditation was quite literally an hour of meditation preceded by the reading of a koan and a little yoga.

It is a good thing then that there is more to education than what you learn from books and lectures. I planned my own trips in their entirety and (far more difficult and resulting in failure far more often) planned for the arrival of friends. I learned a little of art simply by visiting as many galleries and museums as I could stomach and got better at meeting new people and accepting hospitality. These are all good things for sure, life lessons after a style, but they dwarf in comparison to the big one.

From the onset, I knew I would only spend a single semester in Germany, and I lived every day with that awareness. I was living in Munich on borrowed time, and I knew it. If an opportunity presented itself, I took it because these chances were not going to crop up again. For as much as I despise Harris' The End of Faith, he does make one decent metaphor. We are all living with an incurable disease that will knock us dead and off this mortal coil, and we do not know when. That is life. I just faced that on a smaller scale in Europe but was graced with the knowledge of when it would all end. Now I want to live my life that way. To go out and do something worth remembering and not pass up an opportunity for something new. Quit using homework as an excuse not to spend time with friends and stop spending hours asking "So, what do you want to do?" instead of doing something.

For that alone, I am euphoric I spent that time across the ocean. Really, it is not any sort of great revelation. Good grief, Tim McGraw sang "Live Like You Were Dying." To actually experience it, though, is something else.

Saturday, February 16

McGlobalization

The latest issue of Charter, Gonzaga's journal of scholarship and opinion, one which I hope to serve as editor for next year, has been posted online. My essay considers the best way to discover a culture through the mostly standardized cuisine of McDonald's, and there are plenty of other essays worth your time. Particular favorites of mine include those by Mallory Ferland, Ann Foreyt and Rebecca Schwartz.

Sunday, February 10

Considering "Mulholland Dr."

I once heard that James Joyce wrote with the intention that, in order for one to understand his works, the reader would have to devote their lives to them. If you think you understand it on the first go around, you are wrong. Mulholland Dr.? Not so different except, assuming you come to it blind and blissfully unaware, you will very quickly realize that you have no idea what is going on. Probably still true after the fourth viewing though you might finally be able to establish a chronology and distinguish between dream/nightmare/fantasy/psychotic episode and reality at that point, though everything else will continue to evade you, all of which makes for a rather interesting contrast to Babel which I had watched the night before. Against the example of Crash, I lauded Babel for not putting it all on the surface, forcing the audience to strain itself a little. To say that Mulholland Dr. strains the audience is like saying a five-minute time-out in the corner is the same as an hour of waterboarding. The initial viewing is punishing in the extreme. There is something that resembles a plot as an aspiring Canadian actress, freshly arrived in Los Angeles, tries to help a wandering amnesiac understand why she has mad stacks of money and a blue box in her purse, but that is frequently interrupted for scenes of completely unrelated characters doing completely unrelated things. A man discovering the monster of his nightmares behind a dumpster, a director strong-armed into casting a specific actress, a hitman bumbling the job and lesbian sex all just kind of happen. Then, with only a half hour separating you from the end, you have to throw all of what you just saw out the window because in a single moment, all those basic elements like plot and character relationships and identities, which you thought you were getting a grip on, are radically altered or straight-up traded for something new. If I had popcorn, I would have started throwing it at the screen and then proceeded to pick it all up and give it another toss because that would have been more worth my time than continuing to stare.

The problem, though, is Mulholland Dr. is an exquisitely crafted film. A compiled score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes and user of rating of 8.0 on IMDB do little to suggest otherwise, and everything is so precise and absurd that there had to be something behind it all. All of my frustrations were only compounded by the constant feeling that I was so close to understanding it, just a few points too stupid. Other people have had this same feeling but have taken the next logical step in trying to make sense of the whole thing. Sites like Lost on Mulholland Dr. are a testament to this, and I am prone to agree with their deep, involved analyses, some undoubtedly taking more time and effort than a few term papers of mine.

Ultimately, one's response to Mulholland Dr. is dependent upon the attitude coming into it. For a lazy Friday evening with the friends, there is nothing worse. For those willing to fully immerse themselves in it and spend their life trying to understand it, maybe it will catch, but I question that decision. After all the hours of watching, reading and thought,what does Mulholland Dr. offer? It contains no great commentary on life, the universe and everything or the state of modern society. It is no myth the audience can set its life in relation to and there are no heroes one can aspire to be.

Ultimately, it is a psychological profile of Naomi Watts (whose ability to so completely disappear within the three characters she plays cannot be celebrated enough). At the end of it all, we have nothing more than an intimate understanding of a construct of the director's imagination. No matter how subtle and well-developed, she is nothing compared to the infinite depths of the person we pass on the street or sit next to in class. Does Mulholland Dr. allow us to better relate to them in the least? Maybe if they put the same amount of time into it as well, but for the most part, I doubt it.

But that is a terribly functionalist approach to it all and calls into the question the validity of all art, not a position I am eager to adopt.

Monday, February 4

Considering "Babel"

I had wanted to see this movie a long time before I came across it while flipping through a friend's DVD collection. Not really sure where that desire came from. Its compiled rating on Rotten Tomatoes is not so great, though it did receive nominations for a variety of awards including the Oscar for Best Picture (lost to The Departed) and even won a few of them. More than anything else, I think it was its association with the explosion in Mexican films that occurred that year. Having only seen Children of Men myself (still need to get my hands on Pan's Labyrinth) that movie alone is enough to make me see anything remotely related to it.

As a result, I was not really sure what I was coming in to except for mild memories of reviews comparing it to the previous year's Best Picture Crash through their wide-spanning ensemble casts and fractured storytelling. Let me make this clear now. Babel is better than Crash. That's no knock against the latter, a movie which I very much enjoy and appreciate, but for the most part, everything it has it puts out there. There is not much to sift through because the majority lies on the surface. Babel requires digging and reflection, and its raw emotional intensity matches that of Crash with little difficulty.

Babel hits the fundamentals beautiful. Acting across the board is excellent, the no-names, even through sign and foreign languages, matching perfectly against the headlining Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The music, simple but evocative and so very appropriate, is largely kept in reserve and only employed to the greatest effect, especially during the club scene. The cinematography, beautiful. The frequently employed jump cuts, powerful. On these basic, foundational elements there is nothing to fault Babel on.

But, to be a truly great movie, one that attains the level of masterpiece, it needs a similarly striking theme, and it is here that Babel takes a brilliant turn. For a movie that literally spans continents and arrives at a time when globalization has transformed and raised the stakes on every political issue, it remains intensely personal, not concerned with governments and society but the individual people doing the best they can in their little, daily lives. The narrative thread, effectively relating how a Japanese hunter's gift leads to the deportation of an illegal immigrant, is there only as an excuse to tell the nearly simultaneous stories of a Moroccan family, a troubled American couple touring in Morocco, a deaf Japanese girl looking for sex and a Mexican nanny forced to bring her young charges to her son's wedding. And what do we find in these distantly related stories? That all these people all are forced to put up with the same trash. They misunderstand each other. They bumble into one another in their search for intimacy and connection. Things get out of control, and people lie and make mistakes. But we all share in the same hope too. At the end, someone puts their arms around you. They show they love you. It does nothing to make the situation any better, but then, at least you know you can get through it.

The message of Babel, in spite of everything it seems to suggest in its scope, is really no greater than "You are not alone in your suffering," whether in the midst of the worst of it or when help finally arrives, sought or not. Just watch the movie. It gets intense at times and will make you uncomfortable, but it is very much worth it.