TWO MUSICALS

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In 10th grade I entered a high school public speaking contest.  I took it upon myself to compare and contrast two recent movie musicals — The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Sound Of Music.

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I was at the time a big fan of the French New Wave and almost completely immune to the genius of classic Hollywood musicals.  Naturally I proved by unassailable logic that The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg was a masterpiece while The Sound Of Music was a bit of commercial fluff.

I just watched the two films again on Blu-ray.  My thoughts about them . . . have evolved.

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This may sound ridiculously obvious but when considering a musical it’s really important to consider its music.  The music Richard Rodgers wrote for The Sound Of Music is, quite simply, beyond praise, beyond critical appraisal.  Michel Legrand’s music for The Umbrellas Of Cherborg is also very fine, but not in the same league as Rodgers’s.  Both serve the artistic ambitions of their respective movies with equal felicity and skill, but Rodgers’s score has a timeless brilliance that transcends its emotional or dramatic functions.  He wrote melodies that have a life of their own, that are immortal.

Only one of Legrand’s melodies has something of that quality:

Still, there are half a dozen songs in the Sound Of Music in the same class, and no others in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.  To be fair, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is not a musical structured around set-piece numbers.  It’s all sung but most of it is jazzy recitative evoking expository dialogue.  What this means in practice, though, its that the great set-piece melody at the heart of the movie has to carry the whole emotional weight of the film, musically speaking.

There are no memorable melodies that provide contrast, that embody the various ancillary moods of the film — it’s either vernacular recitative or the grand lyrical passion of this one melody . . . ultimately a tenuous structure.

Demy’s lyrics for the recitative and for Legrand’s great central tune are purely functional dramatically.  Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for the Rodgers tunes are exercises in virtuoso wordsmithing — bordering on the treacly in passages, perhaps, but mostly dazzling in their simplicity and ingenuity, a combination of qualities that only a poet of genius can pull off.

Hammerstein died soon after the premiere of the Broadway play.  The last lyric he completed before he died was the one for this song:

What a way to go out, on an accomplishment of pure perfection.

In general, looking at the two movies today, I find that I’m better able to appreciate the uses of virtuosity, the emotional effectiveness of virtuosity, and the dramatic satisfactions of the traditional book-musical structure.  By the same token, Robert Wise’s impeccable cinematic technique, rooted in Hollywood studio practice, seems as potent as Demy’s more personal and inventive style.

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I still get choked up, as I did as a teenager, at the ending of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but I get choked up more often throughout The Sound Of Music, at the simple sweetness conveyed by virtuoso technicians of the musical form, a sweetness conjured up without insistent aesthetic pretension.

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As a teenager I used to think it was more important to be cool than to be kind — cool by my own quirky standards, perhaps, not by anyone else’s, but still . . . cool.  Now I know that kindness is the greatest of all virtues, that without kindness, life has no meaning whatsoever, however cool you are or think you are.

I still think that The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a kind of masterpiece, but I now think that The Sound Of Music is a masterpiece, too, and in some ways a greater one.  The Umbrellas Of Cherboug remains cooler than The Sound Of Music but it’s not a whit more powerful as a expression of life-changing human kindness.

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One thing I didn’t appreciate as a teenager is the key thing the two films have in common — radiant and stupendous performances by their female leads, performances that don’t just redeem the films’ faults but obliterate them.

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However saccharine The Sound Of Music is tempted to get, Julie Andrews’s English country-lass sexuality and music-hall good nature ground the film back in the real world.  However arty and artificial The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is tempted to get, Catherine Deneuve’s utter commitment to her role grounds the film back in authentic and persuasive emotion.  Performances like those have a kind of music all their own.

[Note — when I say I get choked up by the ending of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg what I mean is, not to put too fine a point on it, that I cry like a baby.  By contrast, the idea that The Sound Of Music would also make me cry like a baby one day would have astonished my 16 year-old self.  But I was so much older then — I’m younger than that now.]

THANKFUL TODAY

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For the muse who hovers in the air beside my head and whispers stories in my ear, which I write down and send out into the world.

For the rivers of America.

For the new vinyl pressings of the Beatles albums in mono.

For Bob Dylan and The Basement Tapes Complete.

For Rabbi Jeshua bar Joseph, a kind teacher.

For a girl who kissed me, just once, in 1968.

For family and friends, of course, the roof over my head, enough food to eat, a good supply in hand of cigarettes and alcohol.

But really, today, most of all, for a girl who kissed me, just once, in 1968.

CLOG DANCING

Thanksgiving at my house always means clog dancing — clog dancing from dawn to dusk and on into the middle watches of the night.

Here’s some footage from last year’s shindy (via Laura Leivick) — expecting an even wilder time this year.

WHAT I’M SPINNING NOW

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The soundtrack to Magical Mystery Tour, originally released as a double EP set in England, is an enjoyable suite of songs.  The title track and “I Am the Walrus” are classics — in between are some lesser but delightful Beatles tunes.

When the soundtrack was issued as one side of an LP in America, the second side was made up of a collection of Beatles singles, and this is one of the best of all Beatles album sides.  “Hello Goodbye” followed by “Strawberry Fields” followed by “Penny Lane” followed by “Baby, You’re A Rich Man” followed by “All you Need Is Love”.

If The Beatles had never released anything but that one side, they’d be recognized as one of the greatest pop bands of all time.

It all sounds terrific in mono on vinyl but I think “I Am the Walrus” probably works better in stereo.

A LIBRARY

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I spent some of the happiest times of my youth in public libraries.  I loved books, and I never lost my wonder over the fact that I could go someplace and find hundreds of books to browse through and the even more amazing fact that I could take any of them I wanted home to read.

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Above is one I spent many hours in when I was a kid in Washington, D. C., in the Cleveland Park section of the city.

The public libraries were open to all but I felt totally at home in them, as much as I felt at home in my family’s living room.  I felt as though they existed just for me.  As civic institutions go, it just doesn’t get much better than public libraries.

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I went to a prep school with high academic standards but I got half my education, at least, at the excellent school library (above, with the red roofs), checking out and reading whatever I wanted to read.

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The Ferguson Public Library, which has stayed open through the troubles there, gives me hope — a center of quiet and peace and reflection and inquiry and knowledge in a town wracked with grief and rage and plain bewilderment.  The library has been on the news a lot and it has been deluged with contributions — so many that it may be able to hire a second full-time staff member.  It currently has one, plus a lot of volunteers.

I just sent a small contribution myself, and you should, too, here:

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It’s not much to do, in the big picture of things, but it’s something, and it’s real.

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I don’t know where we’re going to find the keystone to finish the arch above, but I’m sure we’ll find some clues about it down at the library.

EDELWEISS

This song was written by two American Jews, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, in 1959, for their musical The Sound Of Music.  It was the last lyric that Hammerstein completed.

Why would two American Jews write a song that sentimentally evokes the homeland of Austria, which wasn’t exactly kind to Jews, historically speaking?  Because they were Americans — because they were thus bigger than the antisemitism of any country, because they could afford to transcend it.

This song demonstrates why America won the war against the Nazis.  America was bigger than Naziism, grander, sweeter and more generous.  We won’t win any future wars if we lose that grandness and sweetness and generosity.

FICTION

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O. k., I’m a fiction writer.  When presented with disassociated but intriguing facts I have an irresistible urge to turn them into stories.  This is my story about the Michael Brown shooting:

Brown (above), feeling insecure and powerless, for whatever reasons, robbed a convenience store, violently assaulting the convenience store clerk in the process.  This made him feel powerful, virtually invincible, after the fashion of 18 year-olds.

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Ten minutes later, he and his accomplice in the robbery, Dorian Johnson (above), were walking home down the middle of a street, defying convention, feeling like the lords of the earth.  A nerdy cop drove up to them and dissed them, telling them to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk”.  He used the tone that white cops with guns often use towards uppity black men.

Brown snapped, either scared that he was about to be arrested for the convenience store robbery or unable to come down from his high derived from the robbery.  He swore at the cop, punched him, then, when the cop drew his gun, Brown tried to get the gun away from the cop.

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Brown failed, was shot, and ran.  The cop, feeling humiliated by Brown’s assault, pursued.  Brown stopped eventually, severely wounded, and turned back towards the cop, maybe took a step or two towards him, hardly able to think clearly at this point.

The cop, enraged, feeling violated and afraid, wanted to kill Brown, needed to kill Brown.  The step towards him gave him, in his mind, legal authority to kill Brown.  He did it to preserve, not his life, but his dignity as a competent male.

It was a confrontation between two people howling on the margins of nonentity — two boys uncertain of their own identity as men.

GRAND JURY

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The grand jury proceedings in the Michael Brown shooting case were highly unusual, to put it mildly.  Prosecutors normally present their best evidence for an indictment to a grand jury, which normally returns the indictment the prosecutor wants.  Though nominally independent, grand juries generally act as a rubber stamp for prosecutorial decisions.

St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch (above) departed radically from precedent by presenting the Michael Brown grand jury with every single bit of evidence in the case, making no prosecutorial recommendation himself and letting the grand jury make its own judgement about it.  When they failed to return an indictment against Officer Wilson, McCulloch then released to the public all the evidence the grand jury had reviewed, again a highly unusual move.

Why would McCulloch handle the case this way?

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My guess is that McCulloch took a look at the evidence and decided in his own mind that it wasn’t sufficient for a successful prosecution of Wilson (above) — didn’t warrant putting Wilson through the ordeal of a trial or justify the expense of a trial to the state.

But this was problematic.  McCulloch didn’t have the trust of the black community in Ferguson, was seen as biased in favor of the police, which is why many in the community had called for a special prosecutor to be appointed.  McCulloch had refused to step aside.  Now, if he exercised his independent judgement not to prosecute Wilson, he would be vilified by many.

So he threw it all into the lap of the grand jury, and ultimately the public, asking them on the basis of the evidence to decide if justice had been done.  It probably seemed like a reasonable course to him.  But it wasn’t.

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If he wasn’t willing to make his own independent judgement about prosecuting Wilson, and take the heat for it personally, he should have recused himself from the case.  Giving the case unusual treatment only reinforced the community’s belief that police shootings always get unusual treatment, that the standards applied to other suspected citizens don’t apply to police officers.

McCulloch tried to have it both ways.  Recusing himself would have implied that he couldn’t deal with the case impartially.  Isolating himself from the ultimate disposition of the case, via the grand jury, implied that he didn’t want to take responsibility for the disposition of the case.

One can feel a certain amount of sympathy for his predicament — but only up to a point.  The very nature of the predicament suggests that appointing a special prosecutor was from the outset the only reasonable course.  Justice must be done but justice must also be seen to be done, and the oddness of the proceedings in this case insured that this wouldn’t happen.

COMMON SENSE

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I’m someone who believes Obama should be impeached for his crimes against The Constitution — specifically in regards to the Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus.  If I could add his recent executive orders on immigration to the list of such crimes I would happily do so, but a rational case can’t be made for it.

Unless you insist that Obama deport 11 million illegals tomorrow you are conceding his right — and indeed highlighting his obligation as chief executive — to prioritize deportations.  It is not reasonable to suggest that he should create arbitrary priorities — devoting the same resources to deporting working mothers with American children that he devotes to deporting illegals with felony convictions or gang connections.

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It is not reasonable to say that, having created rational priorities, he should keep them secret, when stating them could bring real (though temporary) relief and comfort to those who are low-priority.

It is not reasonable to say that Obama should prevent low-priority illegals from working until their cases are disposed of, since this would create potential burdens for the state which are totally unnecessary.

Finally you can’t argue, based on the record, that Obama is using his recent orders to avoid executing the immigration laws currently on the books.  Deportation is no longer a term used in those laws — the terms “removal” and “return” having replaced it — but if you define deportation as most people do, to mean getting illegals out of the country, Obama has been busy at it, busier than any President in recent history.

He has presided over the “removal” of nearly 2 million illegals and the “return” of about 1.6 million more.  If not The Deporter In Chief, as some have called him, he is certainly The Remover and Returner In Chief.

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The Republican hysteria over Obama’s executive orders is simply irrational — a tempest in a teapot.  Obama’s executive orders, like the Emancipation Proclamation before them, are largely symbolic — articulating enforcement policies that are already in effect and the only enforcement policies that are rational under the circumstances.  They don’t grant citizenship, or a path to citizenship, to anybody, they don’t grant permanent amnesty to anybody, just as The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave, much less abolish slavery.

Obama and the Democrats will of course exploit the symbolism of the orders for political gain, and this is what is causing Republicans such distress, primarily because of the symbolism that will also be contained in fighting the orders — a symbolism that will drive Hispanics in particular away from The Republican Party for generations to come . . . not all of them, of course, but enough to decide elections in battleground states.

Like The Emancipation Proclamation, Obama’s orders create a moral rallying point without actually changing anything — it is a political masterstroke that is probably unanswerable but hardly a violation of The Constitution.