Wednesday, December 26, 2012

how to make an otherwise terrific movie less miserable

I just saw Les Miserables. I have several requests.

1. Do not blame Hugh Jackman. He's a fine actor, and an OK singer, and he's only to blame insofar as he accepted an extremely bad musical situation, namely the one created by the person you should blame. Blame Stephen Brooker. He's the musical director who made the bad decision to keep Jackman's vocal lines in their stage keys. It's a bad decision if you want Hugh Jackman, and it's a bad decision if you want to put a musical on the screen. (Listen to the Broadway and film soundtracks of The King And I back to back: the film version is at least a fourth or fifth lower in most songs.) Perfectly inexcusable. Most of the vocal ranges could and should have been lowered, and Jackman's could at times have been profitably lowered an entire octave. He sounded strained and wrong the whole time. It's not his fault. That one decision crapped on a perfectly great movie.

2. Praise Anne Hathaway. You'll hear from aficionados that she didn't do as well as a more trained singer. Pish. She's also a fine actor who's an OK singer, but in her case it all worked as it should. The entire time she's on screen she becomes more and more fearless as an actor. The result is simply thrilling. 

3. Thank the casting directors for filling the minor roles with people who could sing well. Yes, they all have that puny Broadway sound, but you were never going to hear Bryn Terfel. The minor characters balanced the film's weaknesses admirably.

4. If you ever write a musical, do not ever include the word "you." Especially at the climax of a line or anywhere where it'll last longer than a quarter of a second. The reason is that your singers will slaughter it every single time. No actor or actress who sings for the popular stage or screen is in any way capable of pronouncing this common, fine word. Again: no matter how difficult it is, avoid it entirely. We say it all the time, we speak it just perfectly, actors intone it well or poorly or with different accents, pop singers and opera singers and church choirs the world over have little problem with it, but in the entire history of Broadway musicals there has never been one single person who has ever managed to sing the word "you" without causing the gods of art, language, and common sense to cringe.

And some individual requests:

5. Russell Crowe, for heaven's sake get rid of that nasal affectation when you sing. You sound so studly when you speak. Keep that studly, non-nasal sound when you sing. It's actually easier.

6. Helena Bonham Carter, either stop acting entirely or stop bringing Tim Burton with you to every dang movie. Your choice.

7. Danny Cohen, have a good craftsman make an Oscar statue for you and put it on your shelf. You won't get one from the academy, but you absolutely deserve it. The cinematography was technically flawless and emotionally resonant. And while you're at it, have one made for Anne Dudley, the orchestrator. Gorgeous, tasteful orchestrations for the movies, that corrected the many sloppy orchestrations in the stage version, while providing depth and breadth and restraint and complexity that brought the whole thing to the level of good art.

8. Reader, go see this movie. It really is magnificent. At its best, it's overwhelming, and one must always thank Hollywood profusely whenever it gets religion right. They did, and then some. At the very least, they've provided a superb visual record of Les Miz, ripe for anyone to dub over. James Morris, Jessye Norman, Bryn Terfel, Anna Netrebko, I'll be getting in touch.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sandy Hook and religion

As a very traditional Baptist, I'm dismayed that so many religious leaders keep touting this concept that if only we forced Jewish and Hindu students to pray Christian prayers that they don't believe in then mass murders wouldn't happen. Freedom doesn't work that way, the soul doesn't work that way, and — for heaven's sake — God doesn't work that way.

If we pray as Christ instructed us — alone, with the door shut — no law could be passed to stop us. It's only the public prayers over taxpayer-funded microphones, prayed into the ears of individuals of different consciences (even different Christians) that can, and must, be left to theocracies and states with state religions and other places where government and religion are in bed with each other, to the great damage of each.

In the past week, we've seen an insidious climax to the years-long suggestion from evangelicals (even, alas, Baptists who don't know their history) that the nature of God is to petulantly withdraw when He doesn't feel honored enough. What vision of God is this? Can religious figures such as Mike Huckabee really believe it's possible for God to be "marched out of the public square?" Are we now idolaters? Why do we then act as if removing a nativity statue removes the presence of God?

No. God was there, God is there, God is here, and He reigns, and — alas — He allows stuff like this to happen. All the pompous friends-of-Job we've been hearing the past few days are enlightening us about nothing but their own bilious, spiteful selves when they say that the reason innocent 7-year-old bystanders died in a storm of bullets was because they weren't forced to say the Lord's Prayer before geometry, or that Christians are somehow the only people who could ever teach "Thou shalt not kill."

The ironic thing (beyond the phenomenon of Baptists, who invented separation of church and state, now calling for their conflation) is that many of these outspoken people who say that God can be removed from schools by human will are the same people who hammer away at how much they hate government, and how government can do nothing right, and how they want government to stay out of our business and stop meddling — right up until they say that government-run schools should be teaching about God and morality.

I've seen what the school cafeteria does to spinach; I have no desire to see it serving up religion. We've had enough of public schools trying to teach morality and values and feelings — how about if they go back to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, and I'll teach my kids our family's religious values. And let's please find another way, a logical way, to discuss how America, the most religiously observant country in the world, can stop being so violent.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

glad tidings

Holiday blues getting you down? Sad at the state of affairs in the world? Well, there's a lot to be sad about, but on the other hand we've never had it better. Take a moment to absorb the glad tidings in an eye-opening article called Why 2012 was the best year ever, in the Spectator this week. He overstates things here, and glosses there, but overall he's got it right.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

tonality and ambiguity

Tonality is an interesting thing. How do you tell whether something is in a certain key? In most common pop and folk songs, and quite a few classical songs, it's easy. There's usually a giveaway. The melody hammers down on the tonic note ("She'll be COMIN' ROUND THE mountain when she COMES"), or the chords give you a clue.

Two big clues are the leading tone and the dominant seventh. The seventh of the dominant chord (the V chord) is on the fourth degree of the tonic scale (do the math) and it wants to go down to the third. In "Somewhere" from West Side Story, when we hear "theeeere's A PLACE for us," the word "A" strains down toward the word "PLACE," the fourth straining toward the third.

Take a look at this phrase. In the left hand, the E goes up to an F from the first to the second measure, and then down to an E from the third to the fourth. Meanwhile, the C goes to a leading-tone B and back in those same measures.

Really, a C-major chord and a G-major chord can easily fit into either of two keys: G-major and C-major. But that F and that B fix us unambiguously in the key of C-major. The F in the melody in measures 1 and 2 also help.

Take a look at this new phrase, just slightly tweaked. Now the Fs are F-sharps, and go up to Gs, and the Cs resolve to Bs. Now we're fixed unambiguously in G-major, with just a few notes changed. Those few clues change everything.

What if we erased those clues? Try taking away the fourth-resolving-to-third, and hold back on any leading-tone until the very very very end, and you have a fairly confusing phrase.

Just play the first measure. Or just the first and second: what on earth key are you in? Either the melody or the accompaniment should give you some clue.

The reason I got into this was that I heard a toy of Greta's playing the third phrase there. Even the rhythm was confusing: because of the way it was stressed, it sounded like the pickup note (that first G in the melody going into the first measure) was the downbeat, like "The Army Goes Rolling Along." The whole thing was and is disorienting. Come on, folks!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

education in america, part 2

Thursday, December 6, 2012

our iambic language

Catherine just said some loving thing to Greta, whom she called "Greta Girl." Lots of people on her side of the family use the name "Greta Girl." Also, cousin Asher was often called "Asher Boy," but, interestingly, Isabel was never called "Isabel Girl" and Miriam was never called "Miriam Girl," although we still often call Miriam "Baby Miriam."

What's happening here? Simple: it's our iambic language. In English class you had to memorize the fact that lots of English poetry is iambic, but there probably wasn't an in-depth discussion of why. The reason is that the English language itself tends toward the iambic.

An iamb is a two-syllable foot that goes buh-DUMP. The first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. A trochee is the opposite: BAH-dump. German is trochaic: you can do a pretty good mock-German just by going BLIEB-en DORF-en LEICHT-ic RUNST-lich STRAS-se. 

Other languages tend to gather in three-syllable feet. Italian is anapestic: ba-da-BEE! ba-da-BAH! Spanish is amphibrachic: co-HI-ba ma-ÑA-na tor-TI-lla.

In English, if something isn't iambic, we often jigger things around to make it iambic. So, it's very deeply linguistically satisfying to make "Greta" into "Greta Girl," and, on the other hand, "Miriam" into "Baby Miriam." That last foot plunks down on a nice fat English iamb.

Monday, December 3, 2012

reports of my death

Regarding this cover of "Der Spiegel:"

It's easy to write of our decline in German in a magazine. Try writing it in English — in dirt.

On Mars.

Just sayin.