P. T. Barnum’s circus went through a lot of configurations before he formed his final co-equal partnership with James Bailey.  Bailey was an organization guy, Barnum was a ballyhoo guy, and between them they offered the public some dazzling shows, more complicated than any circuses which have survived into our own time, with the usual clowns and trapeze and juggling acts and exotic animals but also including exhibits of exotic people from around the world, including human freaks, and vast historical pageants, like “Nero”, staged by Imre Karalfy, complete with chariot races and the burning of Rome.  All that and a musical donkey to boot.

In 1890, on a trip to London where he’d taken his great show, Barnum was recorded on an Edison cylinder.  It’s scratchy and the words are hard to make out, but it’s still thrilling to hear the old showman’s actual voice.


One of the coolest sites on the Internet is The Big Picture, hosted by The Boston Globe.  It offers high-resolution photographs of various newsworthy or human-interest subjects, and brings back the days of photojournalism as it used to be practiced by weekly magazines like Life and Look.  Television seems to offer us a more comprehensive window onto the visual world than older media, but the fleeting nature of its images makes for a shallower experience most of the time.  The stillness of a photograph continues to provide its own unique kind of revelation.

The Big Picture is always worth a visit.

The image above shows Vertie Hodge, 74, as she weeps during an Inauguration Day
party near Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in Houston on Tuesday, 20 January 2009, after President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural speech.  It's an AP/Houston-Chronicle photo by Mayra Beltran.


Our Washington correspondent, Dr. P. F. “Maleva” Zahl, was on the Mall in Washington yesterday with his wife and some friends to witness the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States.  The good doctor is my oldest friend — we met in seventh grade, in Washington, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and had many adventures in the very places shown on television yesterday, so he was in my thoughts as I watched the inauguration coverage.  He was kind enough to send this special report of the day:


by Paul Zahl

Mary and I and our friends from Philadelphia left our house in the
near suburbs of Washington very early, taking the Inauguration shuttle
down Connecticut Avenue.

The crowds were not too bad as we walked from Farragut Square over to the Mall entrance nearest the Washington Monument.

[Correspondent Zahl stands on the left, next to his wife Mary with friends.]

It was extremely cold and everyone was bundled up.  The
cold never let up; and in the place where we stood for most of the
morning, at the top of hill by the Monument, the wind was unendingly

Starting around 9:30 the crowd began to build. By 11 the space was absolutely packed.

Most of the baby-boomers present, like ourselves, were white; but
the overwhelming majority of the crowd were young, between 20 and 30. 
Where we were, the people were 90% under 30.  African-Americans were a
large but not majority proportion, although our friends with tickets
much nearer the Capital said the crowd there was 70% African-American. 
Very interesting it was to us that when Rick Warren recited the Lord's
Prayer, the African-Americans around us said it with him, but the
younger white people mostly did not.  I wasn't quite sure what I should
do at that moment.
We liked Pastor Warren's prayer as a whole, but he seemed to be
'imposing' the Lord's Prayer at the end.  We liked the name of Jesus
the way he did it, and there were no 'murmurs' anywhere near us that we
could hear.

When the cold became simply unbearable by the Monument — and we
all had at least five layers on, plus hand warmers — we moved down to
a jumbo-tron screen for President Obama's Inaugural Address.  He had
the complete attention of the thousands on every side of us.  Not one
word avoided being heard.  Mary and I were struck especially by his
listing of virtues such as courage and tolerance and compassion under
the positive adjective “old”.  He appealed to history, and even
primeval history.  We are not people who mind God-talk, so his
invocation of God's Grace seemed to us sincere and helpful.
Mary and I are religious people, and would be on the 'traditional
Christian' side of much (but not all) that is discussed today.  But we
also felt that Barack Obama more truly reflected the Christian
heart-ideas and experience which mean the world to us, than the other
side.  That may sound like a 'no-brainer', but for us it was not.  We
might normally have voted for a Republican given the degree to which
our own lives have been affected, and shattered in truth, by the
culture wars of recent times.  We have felt no more warmth from the Left,
religiously at least, than the secular world feels from the Right. 
Nevertheless, we could not vote for someone whose foreign policy
involves a “doctrine” of pre-emption . . . and no talking
with our enemies, and so forth.

We also see in Barack Obama something
that our little Episcopal Church culture wars never produced, neither
from the Left nor from the Right: a statesman, who listens without condescension, i.e.,
with felt interest and even sympathy, to those with whom he disagrees. 
If only our own context professionally, which is a denomination of
Christians in 21st Century America, had produced a person like this man
seems to us to be.  If only that, we would not be, with many, many of
our old friends and colleagues, in a broken, split, and bitter

I am glad, therefore, to be living and working in Washington this
year.  It meant that we could witness these things with our own eyes. 
It means, too, that we can aspire to the statesmanship and grace which
live only a few miles away from us down Connecticut Avenue. 
P.S. The one truly uncomfortable moment of the Day had nothing to
do with the Main Event.  The crowd control as people began to leave the
Mall was awful!  No one had any idea of where to go and what exits were
not blocked.  So you had at least 100,000 people jammed together all
trying to move out but with no idea where they could go.  For a moment
or two it could have been a soccer-stadium disaster.  But then people
just started to climb over the barricades.  Which felt exactly right.


A painting by Andrew Wyeth, who died today.  He and Norman Rockwell kept the art of painting alive in a barbaric age.

A “carry” is a rocky part of a stream where one's canoe needs to be portaged to smoother water.  From the rocks Wyeth looked downstream, towards a bend he couldn't see around.  We can be pretty sure, though, that he's there now, on his way to the sea.


All films are about the theater, there is no other subject.

                                           — Jacques Rivette

This provocative statement may need some interpretation or qualification, but it is essentially true and crystallizes the secret of cinema.  All great cinema tries to supply what it lacks in relationship to theater — a visceral sense of physical space, the quality of tension in a live performance.  It cannot actually supply these things, of course, but in trying to it stretches its resources to the maximum — in trying to be something it's not, it becomes itself more completely.

André Bazin wrote two brilliant essays on this subject, part of his argument in favor of mise en scêne as opposed to montage as the primal method of cinema.  His insights have still not been wholly absorbed by film critics, but all great film directors have understood them, if only instinctively.

We may still be amazed that certain of the greatest directors have moved from work in the theater to work in film and displayed an instantaneous and absolute mastery of the latter medium.  Orson Welles's first film, for example, Citizen Kane, is still considered one of the finest of all movies, and yet it was done without any significant term of apprenticeship in cinema.  Vincente Minelli's first film, Cabin In the Sky, displays a similar mastery of cinematic form and style.  His third film, Meet Me In St. Louis, is one of the greatest films ever made.  Minnelli, like Welles, moved more or less directly from theater work to movies.

Both Welles and Minnelli wanted to create on film the same excitement they found in theatrical productions, and they both used cinematic techniques in bold and innovative ways to replicate that excitement.  They are recognized as two of the most “cinematic” filmmakers, but that's just a way of saying that they were two of the most theatrical filmmakers.

Cinema can do many non-theatrical or anti-theatrical things — it can create interesting graphic designs, it can bombard us with spatially incoherent images — but no one has managed to create great art out of these techniques, despite the claims of the cinematic avant garde.  It is only when cinema uses its most theatrical techniques that it is capable of genuine aesthetic grandeur.

One can speculate about why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the primal significance of the theatrical experience, as it relates to ceremony and ritual.  We dream in theatrical terms, creating coherent spaces in the imagination in which incidents unfold in dramatic time — as in dreams of pursuit, for example.  We could dream in flat graphic images, or in a succession of unrelated or abstractly related images, but we don't.  The imaginative rehearsal of emotion seems to require the spatial and chronological coherence of a theatrical environment.

The one exception to this rule among all the other arts is music.  Though it's undoubtedly true that music as an advanced art evolved out of theatrical practice, out of ceremony and ritual, it seems to have an aspect more primal than that, perhaps originating in the rhythmic soothing of an infant.  Throughout all cultural history music has been a vital adjunct to theatrical practice, but it has a hold on us which exists apart from the theatrical realm, strictly considered.

Considering the matter less strictly, though, one could say that all music involves performance of one sort or another, within certain set parameters of time, and so is essentially theatrical in nature — that music always, on some level, creates, signals and consecrates a theatrical moment, a theatrical space.


Cruel and unrelenting!

I can't move!  I can't think . . .

. . . and yet, miraculously, none of this has managed to dampen my holiday spirits in the slightest, as the gay and festive portrait above will readily attest.