29 December 2011

New Orleans World War II Museum


The World War II Museum (also known as the D-Day Museum) is in New Orleans solely because of one guy, without whom the Allies would have either lost the war or gone about winning it in an entirely different way, and with whom I have a feeling of affinity based on shared names:
Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Probably no relation.
He designed the boats that were used on D-Day, and he lived in New Orleans and built his boats there. Hence the New Orleans connection.

Now, since this blog is supposed to be about art, I'm only going to tell you about one aspect of the Museum. It is a remarkable, sobering, informative place to visit and I highly recommend it. But I want to talk here about the use of art -- specifically, film -- in narrating human tragedy and horror.

Throughout the museum, there was a kind of visual theme in the use of film installations that I've not seen much elsewhere: the use of split screen. There were lots of small/short installations showing and/or narrating important moments of the War, such as the invasion of Normandy, and they all used split screen in one way or another.

Then there was the big highlight film, so important that visitors can buy a ticket for just the movie and skip the museum (or, as in our case, pay for both; but you don't just get the movie thrown in with museum admission). It's called Beyond All Boundaries, and it stars (if that's the right word) Tom Hanks. It's called a "4-D Experience" -- which wikipedia helpfully notes is not actually, geometrically, 4-dimenional -- involving chairs that shake, the actual nose of a bomber plane lowered in front of the screen, a real anti-aircraft gun, etc. While it is not 4-dimensional, it is a very powerful physical/emotional experience designed to put the viewer either into the position of a solider on the front lines or into the mood of some back home waiting in agonized suspense for news of the beloved solider on the front lines.

I'm a bit confused where to go from here. That's because I'm a bit confused about the purpose of such a film. Is it to make us sad that such an awful thing happened? Proud that our country survived such horrors? Impressed with the technology of the film? I felt some of each of those.

Then there's also the question of making art -- to make money -- out of suffering. Now, I don't suppose this one was designed to make money. And even though the admission price was the same as that of a normal movie theatre, I don't suppose it was for profit. Do you think this is an example of the cheap exploitation of suffering for the sake of something bordering on entertainment? I'm not sure.

On the other hand, part of what humans need to do in the face of horrors is to pass along the stories of those who suffered, in an attempt to preserve their memories and the enormity of what they accomplished. This film does do that.

What do you think?


On a related note, I do think that so-called 4-D is the wave of the future. I think we'll probably keeping combining 3-D visuals with more and more special, physical effects until that's the movie norm. Although you'll see from this list that the U.S.A. is way behind Asia and England in using these techniques.

It may be a while yet, but I'm guessing Huxley was right.

28 December 2011

New Orleans Three Jazzy Nights


During our stay, we went to three different venues for live jazz. We could hardly have experienced more variety, or a better cross-section of the historical and current styles of jazz, in such a short time. I'm going to write about them in the order that makes most sense for the points I'm making, rather than in the order in which we went to them.

The Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel
The Ritz is, fittingly, a very beautiful, stylish hotel. The public spaces—lobbies, reception, etc.--are all made of white marble. At this time of year, they were resplendent in gold and glass decorations, adding to the glitz and glitter of the place. The Davenport Lounge is a kind of glorified sitting-room and bar combination, with live music most nights. It is nicely decorated, as well, in mostly gold-and-white Victorian and faux-Georgian armchairs and loveseats.

But neither the music, nor the crowd, befitted its environment.

I haven't spent much time around drunks, and certainly not well-dressed drunks in an expensive hotel. They're really, really stupid. When the band played swing, they slowdanced. When the band played blues, they tried to swing. When the band played cha-cha, they cha-chaed to some beat other than the one the band played: flamboyantly, foolishly, with a kind of pathetic sensuality that made me rather ashamed of my species.

And the band was of that most watered-down kind of slightly syncopated pop that calls itself “jazz” mostly because there's a saxophone in the ensemble. It was the hotel's headliner group, Jeremy Davenport, and was about as spicy as iced tea sitting in the sun with all the ice cubes melted. Sappy, smooth, a little too loud, a little under-talented, very under-trained, but the kind of music that goes down easy when you've had a few (I suppose) and when conversation means more than music. So much for the classy venue.

The Spotted Cat night club

One evening, we walked all the way down Decatur Street through the French Quarter and beyond, where it turns into Frenchman Street. This is, apparently, where the locals hang out for real jazz and maybe some dancing. Um-hm, it was real jazz! And there was some dancing, too. The band was called “The Orleans Six” (quite original name for drums, bass, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, and piano, eh?), and they were hot. They were just playing standards, nothing original as far as I know, but they were a tight group, and they were swingin'. For most of the time we were there, locals were also swinging: swing-dancing in a tiny space between the band and the bar. It was a small, smokey, cramped place, but full of good feelings and great music.

So that was an example of the best of what jazz can be today: the old songs, still just as lively as ever, with some creativity in the instrumentation and a little bit of an update to the sound.
And how many clubs sport a piano in the ladies' room?!

Preservation Hall

All week we kept saying that we had to get to Preservation Hall to hear the old-time jazz. Finally we stood in a long line, then crammed into the back of the tiny hall with its stripped plaster walls, where we stood on weary feet to hear the best of the jazz that there is to be had in that city of the best of the best of jazz.

This band of sax, trumpet, tuba, trombone, snare, and drums might as well just have been put into suspended animation in about 1940, then woken up just long enough ago to practice up to their peak again. Man, were they good! They played the oldest of the traditional stuff, with other lively, silly tunes mixed in: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Jambalaya,” “Jingle Bells,” “Summertime,” and others I didn't know. I've always hated the saxophone, but that old guy cured me. His saxophone was the sweetest, smoothest, most crooning sound I've ever heard. It was more like a string instrument than any sax I've ever heard. And he could flutter his fingers and hold out a note, and just play that thing for all it was worth. Indeed, each player was just having tons of fun with his instrument. The trombone player drew out his slides as long as he could; the tuba player made noises like an elephant, or like a rude kid; the snare player crashed on his neighbor's cymbals when occasion called. It's impossible to describe the sheer fun of this concert.

Part of the joy came from the requests that the audience shouted out, accompanied by $2.00 for each song. They passed the money forward, and the trombone played draped it lovingly over a tin hat. Sometimes the band didn't know the songs that the audience requested, because the audience was a bit ignorant of the provenance of the tunes they wanted to hear. A young boy asked for “anything by Duke Ellington,” but they said, “We don't play the Duke. We only play the real traditional stuff: the beginnings of jazz, the stuff that got the Duke going.”

They ended the concert with a parade of the brass instruments through the audience, around that tiny crowded hall, with much cheering and delight.

If you ever go to New Orleans, then, you can experience Jazz as it is, as it was, and as it should be!

New Orleans Swamp Tour



OK, there's not really any way to make this post fit the "faith and art" theme of this blog! -- except to say that God's creation really does lick art hollow sometimes. After that very disappointing visit to the New Orleans Museum of "Art" yesterday (quotation marks mine), as we set out on the swamp tour into the misty beauty of the bayous, I said, "Wow, forget about art."

But as usual, it's not that simple.

We had a most marvelous day, photographing egrets, herons, turtles, and alligators. We didn't see any big alligators; they're asleep for the winter already. The more energetic young ones stay out and about when it is so cold that the great-granddaddies cannot function. Alligators don't technically hibernate, but they sleep all winter with a heartbeat of one pulse every 3 or 4 minutes! Their metabolisms slow down so much during that time that they can't eat: even if you forced food into their mouths, they wouldn't have enough energy to swallow it. Anyway, we only saw those that were about 4 feet long or less.

The really fun surprise came at the end of the trip, when the “captain” of our little tour boat pulled a baby alligator out of a bucket and handed it around! It's belly was extremely soft, like the most expensive leather. Its little throat was smooth, delicate, and fragile. It has a “nictitating membrane,” like a transparent eyelid, that acts as a windshield wiper over its profound bronze eye. I held the little guy on my shoulder and stared into his ancient face.

Because of that, and all the beauty of wind, sun, and water, this day was much more enjoyable than our visit to the boring art museum the day before, which is what led me to say that “nature beats art.”

But there is a problem. What we enjoyed was not really “nature.” Some of the time we cruised on the bayous—natural, endless waterways that flow into one another all over the word—but some of the time we were on man-made canals. And on Friday, we watched an I-Max movie at the Aquarium of the Americas that explained how the canals and levees have contributed to the depletion of wetlands, which used to protect New Orleans from the full force of hurricanes. In other words, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was in large part due to the ill effects of human “artistry” on the landscape: canals that bring in salt water and kill the trees (leading to severe erosion), levees that prevent annual flooding (leading to conservation of the silt and topsoil that used to flow down the Mississippi and build up the wetlands). So the temporary comfort of protecting New Orleans from little floods and the commercial benefits of canal-building contributed to a much bigger disaster.

The wetlands are still forming, but they are just in a low, narrow line at the very tip of the Mississippi, rather than spread across hundreds of acres of the Delta. The movie we watched talked about lots of things that can be done to rebuild the wetlands. All of that was interesting and challenging. But the way this whole thing affected me was to shock me a bit, that the so-called “nature” I was enjoying more than “art” was not only largely artificial, but even detrimental to itself in the long run. That's depressing.

I still enjoyed playing with the baby alligator.

New Orleans Gospel Choir



After a lively day out on the swamps, handling alligators, we continued our adventure with an evening packed with music. The first concert (yes, we went to two concerts in one evening!) was Gospel music; the second was jazz. See the next post for a report on all the jazz we heard during the week.

So, we went to the justly famous St. Louis' Cathedral to hear the stellar St. Peter Claver Gospel Choir. This was music that made us move, and made us laugh, and made us cry. Well, I cried a bit, anyway. It was a primarily African-American choir, led by a really dynamic woman who also played the piano in addition to directing (for a couple numbers). The songs were pretty much the same, but a kind of "same" that I couldn't really have too much of! It was thick, piled, toothy harmonies in really catchy rhythms (no kidding: Gospel, catchy? sorry). There were a few solos over the thick texture of the ensemble (none of whom were particularly good -- I mean, their voices were mostly very shrill and sounded untrained to my Classical ear, but that's mostly a matter of taste). And there was one real solo, by an enormous elderly man who rendered "O Holy Night" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" in a heart-stopping arrangement. He got an immediate standing ovation, as did the whole Choir.

That was a marvelous concert, and the most Christmasy event of the week. No matter what kind of a church it was in, and no matter what kind of a church the singers came from, it was a universally (I think that's OK to say?) worshipful event. Wow. It felt like Heaven.


27 December 2011

New Orleans Museum of "Art"

This series of posts is just a tad more personal than others in the past; that's because I'm spending the first week of my Christmas holiday in New Orleans! I'm posting each of these one week after the events each describes, and -- as usual -- I'm going to try to focus on arts, aesthetics, culture, and faith as I experience them in my little New Orleans adventure. Enjoy!



We went to NOMA today -- well, we generally go to the art museum in whatever place we visit -- primarily because I'm going to be writing about it for Curator. I hope to produce something fairly balanced and coherent for that excellent voice of reason, so here is my chance to ramble, vent, and babble.


It's really a bit of a mess. There are some lovely pieces, but the collection is a gumbo, or a gallimaufry, or a mishmash. It's quite jarring to walk from a Picasso to a Rodin to a Warhol to a Boucher. OK, it's not quite that bad, because each room or at least each wall has some kind of unifying theme. But the collection is totally random. There is just one work by each artist; frequently just one piece from an entire culture or time period. The rooms are small, so even those that have some kind of reasonable scheme do not allow much time for that concept to sink in.

But I suppose I've been spoiled by having my taste formed, more or less, at the Met, the Louvre, the various National Galleries, the Smithsonians. Not that I have spent many, many hours at these, but that each visit to one of the biggies was at some impressionable, important stage in my life, and was therefore unforgettable.

Back to NOMA, though: the signature, advertized bits of the collection were the worst of all. The famed Vogel collection is sickening rubbish. Drops of watercolor on pieces of notebook paper. Three jagged lines in pencil on a white field. A badly made movie about the Vogels at home, talking to their "artist" friends on the phone, or revisiting their old co-wokers. It made me sick. Is it all a fraud? Is it a joke? Who is fooling whom? Did the Vogels fool the galleries? [they gave 50 pieces of "art" each to 50 museums]. Did the "artists" fool the Vogels? Are the museums fooling us, the admission-paying public?

These lines constitute a work of art?

This little piece of steel is a work of art?

Yup, those are pieces of notebook paper with blotches of watercolor paint.
Yup, they're in a glass case.


So I got worried that maybe I was just an ignoramus. After all, Picasso doesn't do much for me. I sometimes think Warhol was a charlatan -- and probably John Cage, too, although that's off-topic. I'm a bit terrified admitting this. Am I going to be tossed out of the arts world? Am I going to be labeled as one of those ridiculous throwbacks who never got over the 1940s? Sigh.

So then I started thinking about what I do get, what does it for me. It's basically stuff from the European continent from about 300 BC - 300 AD and then from about 1300 AD until about 1900. That's not much. Kind of pathetic, really.

Is it just a matter of education? Is that just how I've been trained?

Or a matter of genetics and cultural context: when and where I was born, to whom?

So then I walked up to the third floor of NOMA, where the "Pre-Columbian" floor, where there is stuff from Cambodia in the 700s, from the Mayan empire, from Africa in 1050, Zen Buddhist drawings from Japan.... And it was spectacular. Amazing stuff. Real artisanship, with intricate detail, profound feeling, wit, intelligence, insight, spiritual depth, humor. Wowie.

All it took was time, a very little time, to see into those pieces.

They licked the 20th century hollow.

And I'm going to stop now, but the thought that crossed my mind then was that this stuff was made for a practical purpose: for war, love, religion, or death. It was all useful. And the 20th century art was useless. And arrogant. And self-serving.

Hm. Am I on to something there?

Juztaposition of the Classical and the Crazy


New Orleans's Aesthetic addendum

In addition to that unifying curve I wrote about yesterday, there is another, temporary, aesthetic binding New Orleans into one artistic whole right now.
It's Christmas!
The entire city is resplendent with wreaths, garlands, fir trees, red-&-gold ribbons, red-&-gold ornaments, red-&-gold bows, white lights, glitz and glitter and sparkle, but mostly very tasteful.
I don't know what the city looks like at Mardi Gras (OK, I'm looking at pictures online, and that's a whole other story!), but right now that color scheme of green, red, and gold, sparkling with white lights, really creates a visual continuity everywhere.
It also enhances every otherwise plain surface: garlands and greens etc. are on nearly every doorway, light fixture, lamppost, archway, balcony and so forth all over the place.

The restaurant where we ate lunch yesterday (Deanie's, which I highly recommend for glorified Cajun-touched pub food) was resplendent with Christmas decorations, and would otherwise have been rather plain.
And the jazz musicians scattered along the streets mostly play Christmas carols, too, which is sweet.
So if you can't be here for Mardi Gras, try to come at Christmastime.

And did I mention it's 70 degrees?


26 December 2011

New Orleans' Aesthetic

This series of posts is just a tad more personal than others in the past; that's because I'm spending the first week of my Christmas holiday in New Orleans! I'm posting each of these one week after the events each describes, and -- as usual -- I'm going to try to focus on arts, aesthetics, culture, and faith as I experience them in my little New Orleans adventure. Enjoy!


I haven't even been here for 24 hours yet, and I have already discovered a surprisingly unified aesthetic all over this city. It is as if all the architects, all the interior designers, and all the private homeowners have the same taste. I'm not talking just about the general European "shabby chic" beauty, but about something more specific: there is a pattern that ties this whole city together, from the French Quarter to the Garden District, through the Warehouse/Arts district, across the parks, and even into the Ninth Ward. There, or course, millions of Fleurs-de-Lis everywhere. But those are more like decorations than an essential style, although they contribute to what I'm talking about. It's an oft-repeated pattern of filigree, swirls, curlicues. Here it is:

It's all over the multitudinous delicate wrought-iron lace-work balconies on almost every house in the French Quarter. It's in nearly every other wrought-iron fence in the Garden District. It's on the ceilings, in the wallpaper, in the carpets, on the curtains, on the furniture. In our hotel room, it is framed in two versions above the bed. It's in the networked dome over the lobby bar. It twists and twines in uncountable varieties, beautifully and subtly, all over this town.

And it goes beyond just an identifiable pattern. This complex, delicate aesthetic has an influence on many of the shapes and curves of the architecture. There are ogees aplenty. There are arches. There are neoclassical columns that favor the more voluptuous capitals: the Ionic and the Corinthian rather than the Doric.

So the thought crossed my mind that maybe all this has something to do with geography, not just history. Take a look at this aerial view:
What do you think? Do you think that this curvy-ness comes, not just from the Fleur-de-Lis or from the architecture of Europe -- or, ahem, from the curves that are crudely displayed in the many houses of ill repute that blight this lovely city -- but also from the Mississippi River? I think it's a pretty notion, anyway!


06 December 2011

Thinking about Hallows

I would like to write a paper about Hallows -- in the Arthurian Tradition, in the writings of Charles Williams, and in the Harry Potter series. This blog post gives an excellent overview of the Hallows in history, mythology, Arthurian tradition, etc. It's brilliant.

So my question is, What needs to be studied in this connection? Do you have a question about the relationship between Rowling's Hallows and those of legend? What kind of an angle would you recommend I take? Any ideas?

All thoughts are welcome!


26 November 2011

The Bard of Our Time?

Here are some selections from my current Curator piece, a review of Anonymous.

...Anonymous is little more than a showcase for pretty boys to strut about in gorgeous, historically inauthentic costumes, speaking anachronistic lines and participating in fictional events.

...I laughed through most of the movie, but for mostly the wrong reasons: I was incredulous, amused, and bemused by its clichés, its psychological implausibility, and its lavish big-budget spectacular emptiness.

...this movie didn’t make up its mind. It could have been an educational immersion in 16th-century England that plunged its audience into the sights, sounds, and society of Elizabeth’s and James’s reigns. Or it could have been a watertight case for the Earl of Oxford’s authorship, ravishing the minds of its viewers with compelling evidence that he was the man who wrote “Shakespeare.” Or it could have been just a good movie.

...Why this movie, why this message, here and now? ...The message of Anonymous is essentially that a normal guy, an average middle-class fellow, could not achieve greatness.

Please read the whole article, then leave me your thoughts here! Thanks!


23 November 2011

Preview of "A Little Princess" by Players of the Stage

Players of the Stage, our only -- and therefore, but for many other reasons as well, an essential part of the local arts community -- Christian youth theatre, is presenting their semi-annual play. This time around, it is The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, adapted by the company's director, Sharon Barshinger.

There are some beautiful lines and very profound themes in this “children's” story. The main character, Sara, is a very intelligent, well-educated girl whose thoughts tend to the metaphysical. At one point, she tells a story about what she images Heaven to be like, infusing it with the generic conventions of myth and fairy tale (scandalizing some of her more conventional listeners). There are, of course, huge obvious themes of classism, with the traditional hierarchy only gently questioned and generally reinforced by Sara's renewed wealth and status by the end of the tale. The importance of education is both emphasized and embodied, with an especial focus on the importance of literature, history, and a large vocabulary. There is even a touch of posthumanism (according to Sara, the rat who shares her garret “is a person too: he gets hungry, he's married, he has children.”

But the two most prominent themes are patience under suffering, and the power of imagination. Sara's friend says, “When you talk about things, they seem real.” She responds that “they are real” and that, conversely, “everything is a story.” She understands the necessity of the past as a means of making sense out of the present: the major difference between Sara and her friends is that she knows history and literature and can both compare the present to them, and use them to transform the present. In other words, she has something with which to feed her imagination. The difference between herself and the “scullery maid” Becky is that she has a wealth of images, characters, and events to draw from to keep her mind and hope alive. It is not that she has an imagination and others do not, but that her imagination has a constant supply of material.

The theme the director has chosen to emphasize is the idea that we are given our trials and sufferings for a reason, and that suffering is part of life. The director's note will pick up on this theme, so you can read that when you attend the play.

December 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at 7:00 p.m.
December 3rd at 2:00 p.m.
At Living Hope Church, 330 Schantz Road, Allentown, PA

Due to the natural changes of the growing up and graduating of the most experienced members, the current cast is young and the result is much more artificial than previous performances. They are also quite difficult to hear, not yet having mastered the arts of diction and projection. In spite of that, these children show remarkable control. They are focused and intense, handling the slightly formal language with great aplomb. They are also not distracted by the reporters snapping pictures right in their faces, setting off flashbulbs with tremendous noise -- but they just go right on. All in all, an inspiring performance, and not “just” for kids.


18 November 2011

Allen Organ Concert

Review of a concert by Carlo Curley at Allen Organ in Macungie, PA

Carlo Curley, a burley wonder of an organ showman, is dazzling us with his talent, wit, and flashy technique. In a varied program of classics both poignant, boisterous, and overplayed, he's setting us laughing and slack-jawed with delight.

I first visited Allen Organ for a Lehigh Valley Arts Council event a couple of months ago and vowed to come back for a concert. It is well worth it. First of all, the hall itself is just about worth the ticket price: the audience sits inside the instrument, surrounded by pipes and bells and whistles. We feel the music as much as hear it.

Allen Organ is a remarkable place, and the instrument-makers masters of their craft. They have set some world records, earned many firsts (including first digital instrument), and sustained their reputation over nearly a century of making fine organs.

And Mr. Curley himself is as good and funny a storyteller as a dazzling musician and showman. It's almost as much fun to listen to him talk as to listen to him play, then talk, then play, story after story, piece after piece....

His program is very well chosen to exhibit the range of the organ's varied abilities and to exploit the varied sensibilities of a (mostly very aged) audience. We can see him listening to each chord, each note, each overtone, even. He holds the last chord twice as long as annotated, leaning into it, ears extending, body absorbing and enjoying the whole layered resonance of it all. This listening pleasure was reflected in the varied program, which started with a challengingly delicate, sustained bit of Dvorak, and proceeding through fast and slow, loud and soft, harmonic and contrapuntal and melodic: Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein....

So he told one story just now, before intermission, that set us off into paroxysms of amusement. He was asked to play at St. Paul's Cathedral in August of 1979. He was practicing on the fine instrument there (!), when a clergyman approached him and asked, “in a voice dripping with ridicule,” if he would “play something American” if he were asked for “a little something extra at the end of the show.” Well, Mr. British, thinks this North Carolingian to himself, I'll give you a little something extra. So he was encored at the end of a very heavy European program, and turned on all the brass in the place: trumpets over the entrance, trumpets up in the dome, trumpets over in the choir, and cranked the thing all the way up, and hit 'em with John Phillip Sousa's “Liberty Bell” March! Before he was done, “the thousands in the crowd were clapping, and dancing, and I looked down, and there was that same clergyman standing in the midst of a gaggle of 20 or 30 others, looking as if he'd been hit over the head with a cricket-bat. By the time I ended, there weren't enough stretchers in the whole city of London to carry out the corpses of the clergy!”

All together a delightful evening, even though accuracy often suffered for the sake of effect. Still quite enjoyable, though the aged audience meant an unending background of coughing, sneezing, and nose-blowing; tuneless humming along throughout the “Meditation” from Thais; and a constant accompaniment of hearing aids whistles. In spite of these small distractions, it was a concert in the bones, in the blood, in the gut. While he played a Bach Sinfonia, I never wanted it to stop. It was the rhythm of my body.

14 November 2011

Allentown Symphony review

Written on Sunday afternoon
I am here at the Allentown Symphony for the afternoon's concert. But first, the Young Musicians String Festival is playing a shortened version of this afternoon's (abridged versions or just movements from the three major pieces) for an audience composed mostly of their parents. It is a thrilling educational, musical, and community event. And that's not all. The 14-year-old composer of one of the pieces came out to talk about his composition: what a way to connect the young musicians, their parents, and the community together over Classical music! Now the violin soloist is talking to the young people about practicing, its challenges and rewards. She's very endearing. She's telling them about her unique violin—of which more below.

Now a college freshman, winner of the Voorhis Competition, played a gorgeous Paganini caprice—a sustained, delicate, challenging piece unlike the technical fireworks we usually expect from that composer. Young talent like that terrifies me!

The experts from the pieces are surprisingly short. I imagine the students would be a bit frustrated to just barely get going with the piece and have to stop. But they do have full concerts of their own?? They're good, but not quite “on” with their intonation and ensemble work. However, at least they're here, violins and violas in their hands, which is marvelous!!

This is one example of all the amazing initiatives that the Allentown Symphony has going on to include the community in the life of the orchestra—and to include music in the wider life of the community. Another example occurred on Friday afternoon, when the conductor Diane Wittry invited the community into Symphony Hall, onto the stage, to participate in a conversation about the weekend's concert. Diane spoke about her programming of the concert as a whole. Then she introduced Stephen Czarkowski, a conducting fellow here with the Symphony. I had a chance to talk with him later, and he is a wonderfully positive supporter of young musicians, finding and promoting new talent. He also has boundless energy of his own for conducting, playing cello, teaching, and starting new musical ensembles and programs.

So next at the bag lunch event on Friday, the “child prodigy” composer talked about his work. This young man's name is Rory Lipkis, and I interviewed his father, Larry Lipkis, for the “Where Are We Now?” series last spring. Rory is one of these multi-talented people: he sang the boy soprano solo on the recording of Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast by Paul Salerni (another interviewee, at whose CD release party I met Dana Gioia, yeanother interviewee (and a gracious endorser of my forthcoming book).

Rory Lipkis is a remarkably articulate person—not just “for a 14-year-old” (which denigrates the actual maturity of most well-educated 14-years-olds), but simply as a human being. He spoke intelligently about his education and experience, his composition process, his ideas, revisions, and working with the orchestra. How thrilling it must have been for him to hear these 100 or so professional musicians perform his composition today!

After Rory spoke, the conductor invited the weekend's violin soloist, Elizabeth Pitcairn, on to speak about the Prokofiev concerto and about her own famous violin: the notorious “Red” Stradivarius that inspired the film The Red Violin. She is a slender, willowy woman whose bony grace matches the lean woodwork of the famous instrument. I was rather shocked that she would just walk on stage in amongst a bunch of random Lehigh Valley residents (among whom I was the youngest by a good 30 years or so) with this priceless, irreplaceable instrument. It was made by Stradivarius When her grandfather gave it to her as a gift 21 years go, it cost $2 million dollars. That was 21 years ago. I can hardly imagine what it is worth now, two decades later, with that time and its notoriety added to the value. Whew. And she's just walking about, holding it in her slim hand. But I suppose that's the safest place for it.

Ms. Pitcairn was sweet in person, and a powerhouse on stage. Her playing ranges from delicate to devastating. And the whole concert was just thrilling. I am privileged to live here -- and blessed to be beginning to realize that! It might not be Lenox, Massachusetts, no siree, but it suits me.


03 November 2011

James Shapiro wrote Shakespeare?

Take a look at the cover of the book and you'll see what I mean. :)

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So far, this book is amazing! It purports to be a balanced view of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and presents the case for Francis Bacon, then the Earl of Oxford, then Shakespeare. The beginning, however, is a remarkable survey of early Shakespeare scholarship (late 1700s), tracing the lines that laid down the kinds of thinking that made the authorship controversy possible. I highly recommend it.

. . .

Now, after finishing this book, I still highly recommend it! It's excellent. It is not unbiased, but a long immersion in postmodernism has taught us that objectivity is impossible anyway. So, it's a lovely, lively survey of (not the authorship question itself, but) WHY people question Shakespeare's authorship. It has a great cast of characters: forgers, lunatics, spiritualists (one guy held seances in which his medium called up Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, and Shakespeare to get from them the whole story. He did get the whole story of who wrote what, and even got a couple of lousy sonnets out of them. Funny that guys write better when they're alive than when they're dead), philosophers, psychoanalyists (Freud was an Oxfordian), novelists (Mark Twain was, too), feminists, historians, politicians.... It's well-written, quite readable, and (in the end) quite persuasive that Shakespeare of Stratford was the guy after all.

If you're going to go see "Anonymous" (don't know why you'd waste your money, really), read this first!

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28 October 2011

PA Shakespeare 2012 season

OK, so last week I promised to announce the upcoming season at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival as soon as I was allowed. Well, it's now public!

Here is the artistic director's official announcement. This summer's plays will include:

by William Shakespeare
July 11 - August 5

by Tennessee Williams
July 19 - August 5

by William Shakespeare
June 20 - July 15

by William Shakespeare
July 25 - August 5

by Stephen Sondheim
June 13 - July 1

Wowie kazowie! I am super excited, most especially about King John. Last summer's "Shakespeare untamed" version of The Two Noble Kinsmen (original performance practice, i.e., without a director, rehearsal, blocking, etc!!!) was STUNNING. One of those memorable theatrical experiences that changed my life and will live along as part of me. I've been blessed to have lots of those!! -- but this was certainly up there. I have high hopes for King John. Plus if I just stick around the Lehigh Valley and live long enough, I'll meet my goal of seeing all of Shakespeare's plays live. (I've seen 15 of the, ahem, 40? plays)

Now, I'm also engaged in reading up on the authorship controversy these days in preparation for seeing Anonymous tomorrow. I'll report back on that. I'm sure it will be lavish.


20 October 2011

Inklings Reading List

OK, so a couple of friends who attended my Inklings presentation last week have asked for a recommended reading order to get into the Inklings' works. (I've added Chesterton & MacDonald & Sayers to the list to be more inclusive). I've chosen to put only fiction on this list. This is because these two friends are English/History profs. at a community college, so will probably be more interested in the "literature" side of things. I've also tried to keep the list short and to ease the reader in from most accessible to more difficult. What would you add? What would you omit? Would you change the order? Do you think it really needs to include theological and lit. crit. works? How about poetry?

1. The Narnia Chronicles - Lewis
2. Three "Princess" books by MacDonald: The Princess & The Goblin, The Princess & Curdie, The Light Princess
3. The Screwtape Letters - Lewis
4. The Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novels - Sayers
5. The Man Who Was Thursday - Chesterton
6. War in Heaven - Williams
7. The Great Divorce - Lewis
8. The Hobbit - Tolkien
9. The "Space" Trilogy by Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength
10. The Place of the Lion - Williams
11. The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) - Tolkien
12. Descent into Hell - Williams


18 October 2011

5-minute Glyer

The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in CommunityThe Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most important Inklings studies in the last few years (the others are Planet Narnia, C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier, The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams & His Contemporaries, and C.S. Lewis & the Church). If you had to pick just two, I would recommend this one and Planet Narnia. This is a lovely, lively, fascinating study of the many ways that the Inklings influenced one another. As a writer in community myself, I found it very encouraging.

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16 October 2011

PA Shakespeare volunteer dinner

This past Thursday, I attended a thank-you dinner for volunteers of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. It was a beautiful event, with lovely decorations, good food, and good talk. Not many organizations treat their volunteers so well!

This past season at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival was, as usual, excellent. The time has come (believe it or not) to begin thinking about this coming summer! This evening I am attending a thank-you dinner for Festival volunteers, and I'm already getting excited for summer 2012. So whoever you are, wherever you are, please plan ahead to attend the Festival next year!

South Pacific, Comedy of Errors, Pride & Prejudice, Hamlet, The Two Noble Kinsmen
Record attendance; record sales. National coverage.
Added 5th production, 3rd Shakespeare play, two plays in rep.

This past summer was, as I mentioned, excellent. It was not uniformly so (the musical, South Pacific, was rather silly and artificial; I've seen a better Comedy of Errors (at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA). However, the quality of Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen just blew me away. This is world-class theatre, let me tell you. As the speaker said during her introductory remarks, "Excellence is an intoxicant." If you attend one of the great plays at PSF, you'll need to come back for more.

PSF has admirable long-term goals. Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahey summed up "Vision 2030" thus: A world-class Shakespeare festival celebrated regionally and recognized nationally, with artistry consistent with leading regional theaters.

He also announced the 2012 season, but that's not public yet, so I can't share it here! Check back later. :)


14 October 2011

Interview with Ron Reed Part 2

Please read Part I of this interview. Your comments are welcome.

Part II

RP: You also write for the Soul Food Movies blog and are currently at work on a book, Soul Food Movies: A Guide to Films with a Spiritual Flavour—so you are also knowledgeable about contemporary film. A glance at your blog suggests that you have seen just about every movie that came out this past year, so it’s pretty fair to say that you have a good sense of what the film world looks like right now. What topics would you say tend to recur in films that have been released in, oh, the last ten years?

RR: The book’s on hold; it started to come back alive again, and then I got three ideas for plays and decided I’d write them. And I’ve seen all the good movies that came out last year.

Ten years is a big sample size. It probably shifts more frequently. I’m actually going to go back 12 years, to 1999, which was a milestone year. It was this peculiar explosion of really memorable films that are still watched over and over again. There’s just a ton: Magnolia, American Beauty — just a heap of remarkable films in 1999. The peculiar thing, as Mr. Soul Food Movies, is how many films there were that were engaged with spiritual themes, even Christian themes. Before that, by and large, if a film had spiritual themes, it still wouldn’t be a Christian story. And so Babette’s Feast or Chariots of Fire, every Christian on the planet would go see those, because we were never up there on screen, unless we were a lying evangelist, a pedophile, a bigot, or a Klansman. I’ve been a Christian all my life and I don’t know any of those people. They’re choosing a really small sample size. And then all of a sudden there’s just people who are Christians, or themes that are obviously spiritual and Christian, or just spiritual but in an unabashed way. I think it was a certain amount of superstition about the turn of the millennium, but whatever. It was also some kind of synergy with the economy of the film industry itself: the rise of independent films, the health of film studies, some kind of sweet spot for money to fund the films, some peculiar flowering of screenwriting, Many, many real lovers of film emphasize the director. I would never minimize the role of the director, but I actually give equal weight to a strong screenplay. That is diminished in a Hollywood film, because so often the screenplay is just a piece of processed meat; it’s been ground up and reshaped and repackaged so many times. But on a smaller independent film or an auteur film, that screenplay is incredibly important. Again, coming from the theatre world, you don’t change a word of that play, the script is Scripture. In the film world it’s almost opposite, but it shouldn’t be. Many of the best films come from a screenplay that is superb. Half the time it wasn’t developed by committee. Somebody wrote that thing. It comes from a person’s heart, so I really value the writer.

All that to say, for whatever reasons, 1999 was such a year. And then that openness to spiritual things has continued. I feel like it lulled some, because as the conservative presidencies carried on, the country became more polarized again, and people who were scared of Christians or scared about Christianity – sometimes with good reasons, because of the only churches or Christians they knew – that asserted itself again. Whatever kind of openness there’d been started to get polarized again: “Oh, those Christians just want to invade countries and bomb people.” The tide’s turning again, and these tides do turn. I’m seeing more of those Christians who are obnoxious characters, more films that vilify Christians or even generally spiritual characters. But nah, not too bad. It’s not like some backlash. It still comes up more often than you might have thought, more often than I grew accustomed to growing up in the 60’s, 70s, and into the 80s. It still feels like a heyday for films that are spiritually engaged.

RP: What specific film techniques have you seen invented or significantly developed in your years as a film critic?

RR: Disruption of narrative continuity. It doesn’t flow from beginning to middle to end. It can be a gimmick, but it can also be very invigorating. A good film used to be filmed consistently from beginning to end with one look and feel that would give a sort of visual unity -- just like we have the dramatic unities of time and place. Certain kinds of filter or film stock were used throughout. You’d see Scene 3 of Dr. Zhivago and Scene 10. One was a frozen ice palace, and one was blood in the streets, and yet you’re going “that’s the same film.” A good thing, however I think of a film like Into the Wild. I love the way that was filmed. One section is shaky like it was filmed with a camera phone, and then another is a panorama, a massive gorgeously detailed, sculpted shot. I like that kind of mash-up of filmic style at the same time as I can love a film that has unity of style. I think that comes about because people have camcorders and cell phone cameras and point-and-shoots, and all that. So we are used to that variety. The news used to just be film: Channel 5 film crew filmed all the events. Well now, people’s cell phones capture an accident, and they put it on. “If it bleeds it leads.” We just take the data in through every kind of form, so films can reflect that.

There’s also the fact that you can shoot a pretty gorgeous film now with far less expensive equipment, so it doesn’t need to be a studio. There’s been some discouragement in recent years, though. We thought independent film would explode, but then we found out that distribution is critical. That’s still a challenge.

RP: I’m guessing more people are trying to make films now, just because the cost of equipment is going down, and the understanding of filmmaking as an art form is more available, you can learn about it on the Internet.

RR: You don’t assume a studio has to hire you or bankroll you. But also there’s the proliferation of film schools. With the first film school graduates of the 70s, now there are so many film school graduates, you’ve got a large community of highly educated people doing it. So I suppose there’s more crowding, harder for an individual to do it.

RP: But there are all kinds of ways to distribute a film solo, by publishing it on the Internet; you might not get a lot of money from it, but you might get ad clicks, you might get discovered.

RR: If people want to do that, there are those ways to make a webcast, something made for the Internet. There is a proliferation of small film festivals, so you can have a very little film. I have one friend who makes a film or two a year, shows them in those places, and is quite content to do that. That’s his art. He no more craves nationwide distribution than I crave a 2000-seat theatre. I’m going to do my work for 100 people at a time. I wouldn’t mind 250, but that’s it. It’s like the slow food movement. You don’t expect to feed 5000 people with this meal. You take five hours to make it, and it’s for a dozen guests, and that’s it. And that’s what my theatre is, and that’s what my friend’s filmmaking is. And if you’re content there, great. Most people who make the webisodes are doing it as a calling card so someone will hire them to do it for real. That’s a shame. But I mean, why not. Any strategy you can use. I say it’s a shame, because the chances are still so slim.

RP: Social networking is affecting film too, isn’t it? Not a huge number of people hit it lucky in that way, but if you are able to catch a huge wave, if you’ve got something that’s really good and somebody forwards it around to enough people and it spreads…

RR: The first movie like that was Blair Witch Project. That’s the one that the Internet made. But it had no legs. As soon as it closed at the end of the summer, nobody watched it anymore. People laugh about it: “Why were we scared about that?” Somehow the hype made it a phenomenon. But some things that have been Internet driven have great staying power I think.

Lots of little independent films were made last year for terribly shrunken budgets with little hope of getting beyond Sundance, and Winter’s Bone did. Why? Well, it’s phenomenal. It really is a piece of complete integrity. It’s real filmmaking, extraordinary story, fine screenplay, based on a novel. That probably could be said of a number of other projects. But somebody saw it, somebody promoted it, somebody else decided to show it. It is a combination of luck, perseverance, and high artistic quality. Those ones with the luck factor will keep happening. Every now and then there will be a piece that’s just terrific. I believe that Animal Kingdom was an equally strong picture. In my experience it was actually slightly stronger. They’re very comparable. But it didn’t catch the same wave in America. Most people, when I say Animal Kingdom, say “oh, that nature thing?” No, It didn’t get on their radar. I remember several years ago, two films that I saw, really close in time, that were so comparable in so many ways: The Lives of Others and After the Wedding.

RP: I saw The Lives of Others; haven’t heard of After the Wedding.

RR: My point exactly. When I saw them, I was equally excited about both. One of them caught the wave, got lucky (in my opinion that’s the only difference), and became a “you’ve got to see this” movie. And I was thinking, “But what about After the Wedding?” In retrospect, I think After the Wedding was a better picture. Remarkable film. Maybe it had a less sentimental ending; and people, even when they like their art films, they still like – I don’t want to call it “sentimental” – that’s a little too strong a word. I don’t mean to demean The Lives of Others. But you know, you felt good. And I’m not sure After the Wedding gave you quite that. It’s a little bit cool and more Nordic, so maybe that’s why. Nonetheless, very comparable films. One you’ve heard of; the other you haven’t. So there’s that luck factor. Luck or who knows what.

RP: How do you think spirituality (in general) is faring in films? How about Christianity, specifically? How should it fare in the movies, and how should the Church respond to filmmaking?

RR: I’ll just take the “should” part, because that’s where my mind tends to go. When Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ, he made a personal vision, a peculiar, eccentric film, where he might as well film it in weird languages, because nobody was going to see anyway. It was only going to be shown in a few art houses, so he would follow the limit of his vision and make his most distinctive film. He could make Lethal Weapon 79. But this was his heart. He put that film out there. It became the biggest sensation imaginable. And then the organized church said, “Hey, he made a film for us. There’s a Christian market. Let’s tap it. Let’s have more of those films for us, and let’s make money off making them. So let’s do some market testing, and find out what Christians want to see, and let’s make that for them.” Is that what Mel Gibson did? No. Some people say it was a mercenary, calculated financial thing to make all this money. They are full of rocks. That’s just not true. It did not begin there. I know that once they saw that this could sell 87 trillion dollars worth of business, they went after it. Well, so would Winter’s Bone if it had the chance, or the most obscure Polynesian postmodern performance art. So it became a bit of a media circus. But it was not made for that purpose. They got it completely wrong. And so we saw many years of insipid, churchy movies. Now, some of the people who worked on those films are people of integrity, artistic skill, even vision. But still, what showed up on the screen was like Hallmark movie of the week, with more religion. That’s OK. That’s what some people want to see. I don’t criticize them. I don’t think that Mrs. Swenson in some small town in Minnesota should have to watch Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. She should have some art that suits her, and that does, so God bless it. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be made. I’m just saying “is it actually of any interest to anyone who is not in that subculture already?” Nope. Find me a positive review from your regular old theatre reviewer about those and they’ll be in short supply. They tend to make vastly populist, sweetly religious films, though there are some exceptions.

RP: There have been a couple that got attention outside the Christian subculture. I can’t remember when the remake of Shadowlands came out. That was before Mel Gibson’s...

RR: Oh, that had nothing to do with the Christian subculture. No, that wasn’t made for the church.

RP: What about Amazing Grace?

RR: Amazing Grace got marketed a little more that way. That is post-Passion. But it wasn’t made by a group of Christians who said “Let’s make something for the mega-church-goers in Atlanta and LA.” They were trying to do something different. They marketed it, though, very much to the churches, especially evangelical churches, saying “Look, evangelicals were at the forefront of abolitionism. Why shouldn’t we be today?” They loved the way it engaged social conscience and explicit themes of faith. And they were evangelical Christians in this film, as opposed to those dread Catholics or Anglicans or Lutherans or something like that (all in quotation marks). So it crossed over that way; it tried.

RP: There were a couple of films where there was quite a push in the evangelical subculture to email all your friends and get them to go see such-and-such a movie, because if it doesn’t get enough views the first weekend, it’s going to die, and we need to have it survive. I don’t remember which ones they were.

RR: Well, exactly. If you actually came up with the name of the film, you wouldn’t remember anything about it.

Another thing that’s happened more and more. Young Christians see no barrier to working in the film industry, whether they are a camera person, a screen writer, a director, a grip. So more and more there are Christians involved in the film industry. I want to put an asterisk by that. I keep differentiating between evangelical Christians and other Christians. It’s not because one is real and one is not, at all. There have been Catholics and mainstream Christians involved in live theatre and film way back. Far less of a divide there. It’s just that evangelicals came later to the game, in engagement with the culture as a whole (late 60s into the 70s), in letting their kids go to theatre schools and film schools (70s, 80s). And then with film, again, something happened ramping up to the late 90s to make an explosion in the world of film. Partly DVDs. You could get whatever film you wanted. Partly the Internet. You could read about any movie you wanted. You learned about films. So I think that explosion caused lots of Christians to end up there. The business itself has a lot more Christians, evangelical and not. (Those labels become not that useful.) So that shifts how the whole things works. Though, again I don’t want to be negative about this, but money drives most of the movie business. Massive amounts of money, power, ego. And all three of those are a poor fit with the real gospel of Jesus. Most people who decide they’re going to invest $20 million in a film aren’t probably going “I admire the integrity of this work. It needs to be done, even if only five people see it.” I don’t think so. I think it’s “If I put $20 million in, I get $40 million back.” So however many Christians might be involved, as producers, directors, writers, it’s going to have a pervasive effect. But that’s exactly where Christians should be. The most venal of motivations can lead to a spiritually profound work of art. It doesn’t matter if the producer is married to Satan. If it happens that the screenwriter was telling some truth, and it makes it through the rewrites, doesn’t get cut, you can go to that theatre, you can see that, and your life can be changed.

RP: Who are some of the most important directors working right now, and why those? What is it about their work that you think will make it last and become classic (if it hasn’t already)?

RR: I could have given you a really good answer on this five years ago, but not now, partly because I’m not immersed in it anymore. Partly also because the people I would have named then haven’t made any good films since. I would have pointed you to Lars von Trier, P.T. Anderson, Whit Stillman, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I might have thrown Peter Jackson in the mix. Also Anders Thomas Jensen who made Adam’s Apples.

They all made extraordinary films with the kind of things I especially like in film, but then— Lars von Trier had a really dark and nasty element in his film that I felt was in tension with the other elements; the other elements fell away and it just, oh my goodness, the poor man. Antichrist is so toxic and so nasty. He had a breakdown and fell into a clinical depression and didn’t make films for a while. Who knows what’s to come of that? Then P.T. Anderson, people felt he had come back with marvelously with There Will Be Blood. I didn’t like it. I admired it. It’s well shot, it’s fascinating. But to my mind it went back to a story that I was sick of by 1970. I was only 13 in 1970. The venal, compromised revival preacher who really doesn’t care about spiritual things, and is just as much of a manipulator as the oil baron, and it’s two power-grubbing people. Yeah, yeah. And it didn’t surprise me at all when I found out eventually that it’s actually from a novel that was written 80 years ago. That’s what the stories were about then, and I find that boring. Well-made, but I was disappointed. Whereas in his previous films, there was so much nuance and intricacy about spiritual themes, even Christians themes. And all of a sudden, the Christian character is reduced to this two-dimensional cardboard stereotype. Quite a disappointment. It was still a very strong film, though. So, is he still a strong filmmaker? Yeah. Although he went from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia in the space of a few years. And then…Punch Drunk Love. To my mind a wonderful but more minor film. Other people feel it’s his best of all. I think it’s a little bit more of a side exercise before his next great film. That looked like the trajectory: Really interesting small, independent film; much bigger, really good film; and then a masterpiece. And then this wonderfully quirky brilliant smaller piece, while he’s gathering strength for something big. And then a bunch of years, nothing. And then, what many people consider his greatest masterpiece, which I feel disappointed in. He’s just not on that pace he was on as a brand new filmmaker.

Then there’s the Coens. You never know. Each new film comes out. People see it and go, “Nah, it’s too clever, it’s shrill, it’s jokey.” And then a little bit later, the tide always shifts and people go, “That’s really interesting, that’s substantial.” They keep pulling that out of their hats. Their recent film, A Serious Man, engages right on the center of theological questions in a direct sort of way. I think they’re playing for keeps there. And then True Grit. I still don’t know if that Protestant voice of the narrator is meant to be taken seriously in the novel. The Scripture-saturated, hymn-quoting thing, is straight-up. And this is a good, religious character, in the middle of an anarchic world. Or if that’s the irony, that this girl, in her naiveté sings hymns, quotes her daddy, quotes Scripture, quotes theology, and heads out to commit vengeance, and actually is as conscienceless a killer as anybody around her. I haven’t discerned that yet. The Coens may have just liked it because they like strong voices. They like Marge Gunderson to talk with her accent. They like O Brother, Where Art Thou to talk from the South. They like the dude to be a Southern California drop-out. They love those. When I say “voice” I mean a character voice – an audible, spoken voice. And I bet they like the voice of that character in that book. And they found it funny, and they found it ironic; they probably never stopped to go “Hmm, are we setting this up or not?” But they play with that stuff; they keep doing it. Who knows what lies ahead for the Coens; they’re pretty fascinating.

RP: What are some good movies waiting in the wings—films that you either know are in production, or that you wish would be made in the next few years?

RR: Again, because I’m not writing regularly about film, I’d have to think about it. I’ve got some written down. That’s a really good question, but I’m kind of stuck. David Michôd, the guy who directed Animal Kingdom. That is the director I’m most interested in right now. I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’ll also say playwright Martin McDonagh. His first, which he wrote and directed was In Bruges. And that’s got legs. I loved it overwhelmingly when it came out, and now it’s one of those ones that everyone talks about. It’s so good, and very theological, as well as very funny, very offensive, very entertaining. He was kind of the bad boy entertainer-playwright, and then he made that film. He made a short film, Six Shooter, that won an Academy Award that’s really interesting. And then In Bruges. I hope he makes another film. No guarantee it’s going to be theologically or spiritually engaged. But he’s pretty fascinated by moral and ethical questions. So I’m curious to see if he makes another film. [He is at work on Seven Psychopaths (2012). – rp]

And Danny Boyle! I can’t wait to see what he does next. His last films have been very flashy. 127 Hours was his most recent. And Slumdog Millionaire. Some pure cinephiles have thought it was a little superficial. I don’t find it to be so. Both films were engaged with spiritual questions. I know you could say that Slumdog Millionaire is about getting rich quick. You could say it’s about rags to riches. It’s the Horatio Alger nonsense. I don’t think so. I think it’s about a young man’s faithfulness. It’s about doing whatever was needed to recover this relationship with a girl that he knew. It’s got all the social conscience of Dickens. It’s also got all the storytelling tricks and melodrama of Dickens. I don’t care. It’s wonderful. And it was profoundly about the question of this peculiar series of coincidences. Were they luck? Were they skill? Were they “Insha’Allah” (God’s will)? 127 Hours is about an irresponsible, bike-riding, adventure party boy who gets in a scrape and by his ingenuity gets out again. What’s spiritual about that? Yeah, well, it is. Profoundly it’s about a young man who is all the things we described at the beginning, who realizes as he sits there for 127 hours alone, facing his death, “I lived every second for me. I deserve everything I’m getting.” It’s like The Christmas Carol in a gorge. His life flashes before him, and he comes to reckon with…[goes to get The Christmas Carol and reads an excerpt] “’Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.’ The spirit was immovable as ever.” That’s at the heart of 127 Hours. There’s a parallel theme in Into the Wild. Danny Boyle goes after those things. I recently saw the National Theatre of England broadcast of the Danny Boyle stage production of Frankenstein. It was broadcast live to theatres. Brilliant. And again it deals with these questions about the nature of humanity, consequence, ethical things. Danny Boyle is all over that stuff.

RP: Where is the film industry going in the future? How has technology affected it (online streaming, etc.) With amazing home theatres, will we stop going out any more? How much further can special effects and digital technology go? Is the movie experience become more solitary rather than communal?

RR: Yes, the film viewing experience is more solitary than it used to be, significantly so. However, two things: after you’ve seen the film, it’s more communal. People really didn’t have as much opportunity to talk together about a film afterwards. So you’d go for coffee after and talk with your friends. Sure. But that’s it, you couldn’t see it again. There is such a conversation about film now, in the culture as a whole, and online. This conversation makes me wonder if cinemas are going to become like live theatres. They will never go away. The feeling of sitting in a room with strangers, munching popcorn, and looking up at that massive screen as the movie starts, and nobody can text you and phone you (if people text in front of me I tell them to stop). That’s something. I’ve got a 52” screen. I believe you can have a great experience in your home, a better one sometimes. But the cinemas are never going to go away. There are always going to be people showing movies in public.

RP: Are our standards for acceptable content shifting, and is this to be deplored? Are Christians going to have more or less influence in Hollywood over time?

RR: Well, the influence in Hollywood we touched on. There are more Christians there. That’s lovely. It’s still Babylon. But that’s where Christians belong. So, enough said. Content? Well, the movies have always had appalling content and great content. Just because it’s sexual content or violent content doesn’t make it bad content. Just because it portrays characters who are morally appalling… Well, Macbeth. Where are his redeeming features? Should we watch that? “No, he’s a terrible role model. What do we see except bloodshed and sexual undertone and ambition.” Well, take away Macbeth and I’ll punch you in the eye. So those are very open questions to me. I have a very safe middle-class upbringing. I’m a jerk sometimes. But I’m a nice person. I’m very invested in being a good citizen. Just a decent, boring, white, middle-class guy. But artistically, I’ve always been fascinated by films about very dark or questionable things. Maybe that’s an indulgence of my dark side. I don’t know. Now there are films that I simply don’t go see. A couple of films by Gaspar Noé. Would I say that film should never be shown? No, I wouldn’t say that. But I’m not going to see it. I just have a feeling that it’s not what I want to put in there. On the other hand, I watched Antichrist. And that’s nasty. And I watched Dogville. With Antichrist, I borderline regret that I saw it. I’m glad I saw it, but I would not see it again. But Dogville is one of my three favorite films of all time. But it’s nasty. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. Each individual has to discern, listening to the Holy Spirit and their conscience: what should I see, what should I not see, what films should I make, what should I not make? There’s so much made and shown that really is morally vacuous, and even negative, even bad. I’m sure the Devil himself runs many studios and can make pictures that are appalling, and yet you don’t know. Tom Key, the man who took Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels and made them a stage musical. He is a marvelous man. He’s a Southern gentlemen, deeply Christian, a Catholic man. He’s a leader. He runs a live theatre in Atlanta. He’s a respected member of the theatre community. His conversion came when he saw Bonnie and Clyde, which his church friends were completely opposed to. It was degenerate, conscienceless kids, with a level of violence that was unacceptable. He went, and he got saved. God spoke to him, and he changed from a safe church-going kid to someone who saw the commonality of sin in them and himself, realized that he actually needed God instead of God being a nice little add-on to his merit badge collection. Did anybody making that film intend that? I doubt it. Neither was it made just to exploit. It was made I think by artists. But it’s very violent, and especially for its time, over the top violent. Should it have been shown? Well, apparently. God’s mysterious. As long as he’s engaged in the whole thing. And he won’t allow himself to be disengaged.

RP: Well, thank you very much.