ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

January 2008


Musings29 Jan 2008

Overheard at the bus stop, from a group of five 19 or 20 year olds:

First Girl: My job sucks, but the view is pretty good. Oh, and I met Ghandi.

Second Girl: You did? No way!

Boy: You met Ghandi?

First Girl: Yeah, he was here to meet with some MPs, and I went downstairs to give something to my MP, and there he was.

Second Girl: Woah.

First Girl: Yeah, I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Pleased to meet you!”, because, really, what can you say to Ghandi?

Second Girl: Yeah really, are you going to say “Wuzzup Ghandi!”? I don’t think so.

Boy: When did you meet him?

Girl: A couple months ago. He was here to talk to Parliament or something.

Boy: Ghandi’s been dead for years.

Girl: Oh. I guess it wasn’t Ghandi then.

Boy: The Dalai Lama was here a couple months ago. Maybe it was him.

Girl: Yeah, that’s right! It was the Dalai Lama.

Second Girl: Good thing you didn’t say “Wuzzup Ghandi!”, that would have been embarrassing.

Second Boy: Dalai Lama, isn’t he the one who keeps getting reincarnated?

Second Girl: No dear, that’s the Pope.

Books and Music and Musings23 Jan 2008

It seems I’m blogging about Glenn Gould again.

“Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” by Kevin Bazzana is a fairly recent biography of the Canadian classical musical icon, and I wish I’d had my previous Gould encounters after reading it. I have a much better sense of the man and his significance now. I’ve seen the movie, been to the museum exhibit, and now, read the book. Next I need to hear more of his music. I have a couple of his Back and Beethoven albums, but I’ve got my eye (predictably) on his Goldberg Variations and hope to soon snag a recording of one (or both) of the Goldberg albums that book-ended his career.

Gould’s first record, at the age of 22 in 1955, was the Goldberg Variations and it hit the classical music world like an atom bomb. The Variations was not a well-known piece (Gould single-handly changed that), and Gould was a largely unknown artist making his debut, yet the album had huge success.

At one point in its first year, [Gould's record] was outselling a new recording by Louis Armstrong and the soundtrack of The Pajama Game; in 1960, in the New Yorker, Joseph Roddy reported that it had sold more than forty thousand copies, “which is just about as astonishing in the record business as a big run on a new edition of the Enneads of Plotinus would be in the book trade.”

In 1981, dissatisfied with his earlier recording, he recorded the Goldberg Variations again, offering a different interpretation of the music. The video I posted previously is of this recording session, and is the last videotape of Gould in existence. Bazzana again:

But within a week of the album’s release Gould was dead, and it was easy then to hear it as “autumnal,” as his “testament”; in the decades since, sentimentality about his untimely death has given the 1981 recording, and the Goldberg Variations generally, an exaggerated prominence within the Gould oeuvre. A better candidate for the summit of his Bach discography might be his two-record set of the English Suites, released in 1977: his Bach was never more thoughtfully creative, more intimate or more strongly characterized, and never attained a superior balance between high-modernist orderliness and Romantic flexibility. In any event, Gould had no plans to die at fifty, and his second recording of the Goldberg Variations became his testament only through a sad fluke of fate.

That passage should give you a sense of the book in general. Inevitably it contains a lot of musical terminology and history, with which the reader is not necessarily familiar. While I was put off by this at first, I came to appreciate it a lot. Any book about Gould with any insight must delve into music, which was Gould’s whole life, and Bazzana does a good job of giving the reader a sense of what these musical concepts are and mean. I feel like I know more about classical music now, even if I don’t know exactly what “high modernist orderliness” in Bach sounds like.

I also feel as though I have a good sense of Gould the person: quirky, gifted, suffering terribly from hypochondria, sure, but also likable and real. I’m a little sad to have finished the book: I was getting used to living partly in Gould’s world and now that connection has been severed. I do know that I’ll appreciate his music all the more for understanding the aims and story behind it.

Musings16 Jan 2008

I’ve noticed an interesting hole in our social fabric, and we should watch it closely, lest it cause further unraveling.

We’ve lost our sense of dignity.

I don’t mean that we have become undignified in our manner (though perhaps we have), but rather we’ve forgotten what the word “dignity” means. (“The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect”, in case it’s become hazy to you too.)

Exhibit A: Britney Spears. She has little dignity herself, there is no dignity in the coverage of her, and none at all in reading about her at the supermarket checkout. Dr. Phil lost any remaining dignity (and perhaps breached medical ethics) when he detailed Brit’s emotional problems to the press after meeting with her in hospital. Not that he did so with any thought to something as passé as dignity. A man in the public eye cannot afford dignity: dispensing with it is all to often the price of fame, and apparently a small price to many.

Which brings us to exhibit B: “Reality” TV. Actually, there is little to say about this that isn’t blindingly obvious.

My third example is less obvious, but perhaps ultimately the most pernicious. People often lament that our security encroaches on our liberty, but few complain that our security has long ago triumphed over our dignity. From taking off our shoes at the airport, to detention without limit at Guantanamo Bay, to the use of force by authorities against unarmed civilians (see: Robert Dziekanski’s undignified end), to something as apparently innocuous as bag searches when leaving a department store, we are all to eager to sacrifice the integrity of our person to the interest of others. I’m not necessarily arguing that the indignity of an airport screening should alone be grounds for relaxing our security procedures, just noting that the word “dignity” almost never enters the conversation about such things.

That we take all this as a matter of course is evidence that we’ve lost track of our dignity. This bodes poorly for our future interactions with each other, and poses all sorts of problems when we have to deal with people whose sense of dignity is intact.

One oft-cited complaint by Iraqis against the American occupation of their country is the casual humiliation of citizens in the course of any interaction with American troops. From Abu Ghraib to house-to-house searches to the giant Green Zone fortifications in the middle of Bagdad, the occupation has been a constant affront to the dignity of the average Iraqi. The unfortunate part is that I think the Americans on the ground, so used to having their own dignity affronted, don’t really grasp the implications.

Musings12 Jan 2008

I finally got round to watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special, “Voyage of the Damned”, and found it a bit lackluster. It suffered from poor execution, and from some Russell T-isms that I found a bit irksome. Since, in these criticisms, I run the risk of sounding like Comic Book Guy, I will first say that I mostly approve of Russell T. Davies’s handling of Doctor Who. However, I do have a few quibbles.

“Voyage of the Damned” probably started well on paper. It seems to have been intended as an antidote to the Martha Jones era, in which, too often, our heroes (along with perhaps a planet or two) would find themselves in mortal peril, and Martha would say something like, “The Doctor will save us because he’s the Doctor”, and sure enough, Doc would don his spectacles, brandish his sonic screwdriver and race around for 90 seconds ranting and pressing buttons, in the process completely banishing the Danger of the Week. “I saved them”, he’d beam, “because I’m The Doctor“. Roll credits.

I don’t want to give away any details about “Voyage of the Damned”, so suffice it to say that our lonely Timelord is taken down a needed peg. There were also some clever asides and a few reversals of expectation, but all of these good elements seemed to get lost in the adventure’s overall pace. The action moves too quickly from plot-point to high-tension plot-point, and there isn’t any time to digest the jokes or the tragedy. Davies is normally adept at handling the emotional impact of Doctor Who, but in what could have been one of the more tragic episodes since we “lost” Rose, our only real sense of disaster was a few moments of David Tennant putting on his woeful face near the end. Perhaps this was because the stakes were ultimately too high: we knew the Doctor would have to (mostly) save the day, or the entire human race would be obliterated, etc etc.

This is one lesson I wish Russell T. would learn from Ron Moore (who heads up Battlestar Galactica): Doctor Who’s characters are more nuanced than Galactica’s, but in that series we actually feel that the characters are in real peril, paradoxically because the stakes are usually a lot lower — nobody on the good ship Galactica needs to worry about saving the entire universe: saving their own skins is typically enough. Put a whole planet in direct peril every week and your viewers will start to feel “crisis fatigue”. There are only so many close escapes any one character can believaly have.

Which brings me to my second problem with “Voyage of the Damned”: Davies is a fine writer of character (which, ultimately, is what drives D.W.) but he’s a little ham-fisted with the SciFi. Doctor Who doesn’t aspire to “fantastic naturalism” where BSG ultimately does, so the comparison isn’t entirely fair, but BSG does a much better job of avoiding many of the tired SF clichés. I know Doctor Who is a show about a 900 year old time traveler from a planet where the higher one’s social standing, the sillier one’s hat, but I do feel they could take the plots a little more seriously.

Some of the best episodes of Doctor Who were written by others besides Davies. According to wikipedia, Steven Moffat wrote the scary gas-mask episodes that introduced Captain Jack in season one, “The Girl in the Fireplace” in season two, and “Blink”, (the crying Angels) in season three. These are some of the most original (and gripping) episodes in the show’s entire run.

By contrast, “Voyage of the Damned” , written by Davies, included lots of familiar SciFi tropes, from spacecrafts that look inexplicably like ocean going vessels (complete with smoke stacks and a big ship’s wheel on the bridge) to gratuitious crossings of deep chasams, to robots run amok, to fires burning away in the damaged background that never seem to spread and are ignored by everyone (Star Trek suffers from this too: wouldn’t putting out fires on a space ship be priority one?). Don’t get me started the poor grasp of physics (flaming meteors in deep space? Really?). And how come the Doctor can work technilogical miracles except when the plot requires that he can’t?

I know “accurate physics” isn’t really a Doctor Who viewer’s top desire, but the hazy understanding of how the “world works” can often make the crises and their solutions seem arbitrary (see also Star Trek: every problem can be solved by “reversing the polarity” of some gizmo or another). One wonders if it would be possible to completely abstract the danger away: the Doctor could simply inform everyone that they are all in great danger without saying why, and then perform his usual dramatics before prononcung everyone safe again.

This wouldn’t really make for compelling TV though.

So, for the legions of TV producers that no-doubt read my blog (Hi guys, how’s the strike going? Are you industriously inventing ever-stranger “reality TV” formats?), here’s my advice: keep Russell Davies in charge of Doctor Who, but give more episodes to other writers, and make Davies watch Galactica DVDs. I don’t think Doctor Who should try to be “gritty” and “realist” like Galactica does, but I do think it could benefit in some of the ways I described above.

And if you really want to revitalize Star Trek, go hire Ron Moore and give him carte blanche. He cut his teeth on Next Generation so he should know what he’s doing.