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Sunday, December 30, 2012

And I Really Do Mean That

  I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.

  But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

 The  Senior Demon Screwtape, to his Nephew Wormwood
Transcribed by C.S. Lewis -  The Screwtape Letters

  I was thinking about hipsters recently (I promise, I am going somewhere with this) thanks to an article my friend Steven Leyva posted. Specifically, I was been thinking about their use of "irony". The article (by Christy Wampole) deals with the idea terrifically and I do not propose to pirate and reword her observations. What did strike me though, is the similarity between "irony" as a hipster byword (which at the end of the day seems a little more sarcastic than ironic) and Lewis's treatment of flippancy in The Screwtape Letters. Both are ways of hiding and, probably more importantly, both criticism without substance. If Ms. Wampole is correct, the Ironic Hipster is mocking sincerity and the past in precisely the same way that the flippant man is mocking virtue. The Hipster does not tell us what it is that makes mainstream music, media, fashion and culture ridiculous; he simply treats them as though they are.

  Not that there isn't plenty to criticize in practically any culture- there certainly is. But criticism needs to be grounded, I am free to dislike the music and media image of Madonna only as long as I can say why I dislike them. To treat them as "obviously ridiculous" and mock them by becoming ridiculous myself while facetiously wearing or playing them is simple meanness. It is the difference between discernment and bullying. 
  More serious though, is the relationship that the Ironic Hipster and the Flippant Man have to Joy. One aspect of Joy is that it is profoundly serious. A clever man may be able to make a Joke about virtue in general, it would be very hard indeed to make a good Joke about Joy (possibly something rooted in its use as a name but I'm not sure that even that would work out). But this difficulty does not arise from any intrinsic link between somberness or melancholy and Joy; indeed, Joy is often great fun, rather I am using "serious" to mean something closer to "weighty" or "significant". Joy really matters, and because it matters, it is out of reach for the flippant, insincere or ironic person. For the Flippant Man, sincerity is anathema - it explodes his facade of cleverness, an illusion built on the circular idea that the object of ridicule must be ridiculous because  it is being ridiculed and attended by the impression that the ridiculer is somehow above or better than that which he ridiculed. (If you don't think this is true, have you ever been ashamed of a song, book or movie only because someone else used it as a comparison to something they didn't like "whoa, that was worse than the country muisc"). I think it would be fun to go up to the next hipster I see wearing an Alf t-shirt and exclaim "You like Alf too? Awesome, so few people get how truly great that show was" I think they might be a little ashamed. 

  Maybe I am particularly worried because I am generally a rather sincere and occasionally insecure person. I was taken aback a few weeks ago to discover that my high school students think of me as a hipster. On investigation it turned out to have a lot to do with the way I look. I have shoulder length brown hair which I generally keep tied back, I wear large sideburns and a goatee and my usual work attire involves a corduroy cabby hat, a selection of cartoon and comic-book ties, a tweed vest and a pocket watch. I do not really blend in. That said, while I am aware that hipsters often accoutre themselves similarly, we do it for entirely different reasons. I genuinely like Captain America, Bugs Bunny and Dr. Suess (got a 1-fish, 2-fish, red fish, blue fish tie for Christmas), I am a hopeless anglophile and bibliophile and happen to think that people in the 1920's looked really cool. It turns out the hipsters are mocking my style, or at least, the styles I have adopted!

   I like sincerity as well. I write because I want to express something profound, I delight in books, music and movies which inspire me to sing, weep and cheer. I want to live an abundant risk-filled life, to drink deep and drain life to the dregs; I want to experience the laughter and sorrow the pain and the mind-shattering Joy. I want to see God and be undone.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables is No Lord of the Rings, I Can Tell You That Right Now

   Alright, I just got back from finally seeing Les Miserables and I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. For those of you who don't know, I absolutely love both the musical (Ash and I have seen the stage version 4 times so far) and the book. In fact, for quite a while now, the stage production has been my go to example of how it actually is possible for a book to successfully cross media formats without being diminished.
  Cameron Macintosh and crew managed the same feat in the transition from stage to screen and that is no mean feat. The movie manages to be a bonified movie musical where the temptation for die-hard stage enthusiasts may have been looking for a filmed stage production and the full bore movie people will probably be upset that it is a musical at all (look for words like "melodramatic" as an indication that the review just doesn't actually like musicals).
  What I am generally looking for when a story crosses media formats is the preservation of the stories essential themes and characters. While I love what Peter Jackson did with the visual aspect of Middle Earth, I have to fail him on these points for what he did to Faramir, Treebeard, Saruman, Merry and Pippin and for his utter rejection of Tolkien's understanding of the relative power of good and evil, of the importance of age and wisdom and of the potential beauty of hierarchy. Wether Jackson approved of those things or not, he had no business changing Tolkien's story, his proper business would have been to tell his own story or that of someone else with whom his agreed.
  Les Miserables certainly does make some edits and changes so if you are hoping to see everything you love from the stage production you will be a disappointed there, the Thenardiers get more airtime but less song time (beggar at the feast is dramatically reduced and somewhat reinterpreted while dogs eat the dogs is cut down to a single line),  and while most of the numbers get an appearance, most of them are also shy a verse or so.
  What the movie does is capitalize on its own form. A movie allows for a far lazier imagination than does a stage production (which in turn allows for a lazier imagination than a book) by putting the story in its full setting.  On the stage we get a few props and some great costumes and the rest is up to us when it comes to setting. On stage there are no close ups and we can't really see things like tears so the crew has to find other ways of conveying personality and emotion. In a movie all of these are possible and Les Miserables uses them to the fullest extent. I have read some complaints about extended close-ups on characters as they sing, but I thought these were all incredibly moving (Fantine, ValJean, Javert and Marius all get them). I am not an expert in either stage or film so I will stop there but I was certainly pleased with the use of the new medium.
  The great thing though, is the preservation of Victor Hugo's essential themes and I am reasonably sure that not all of them are popular today. I have always loved the novel's ability to insist that life really is both horrendously tragic and wretched and also painfully beautiful and noble. Where so many stories and philosophies fail by trying to balance the good and evil in life or to choose one over the other and being dominant in our existence, Les Miserables refuses to admit to a watered down compromise and instead sets all the horrors of early 19th century Europe against true sacrifice, repentance, loyalty and nobility (there's a virtue we don't run into much anymore). I wept for both pity and joy while reading it and each of the times I have watched it.
  The victory of mercy over Justice without condemnation is also still present in the movie and comes across quite powerfully. Russel Crowe's Javert, while not a great a singer (I miss the baritone) was certainly well acted. As by brother put it, "this Javert is a lot more sympathetic but no less the villain". Redemption, Grace and the hope of Joy were all present as well.
  I certainly recommend it and hope you all go see it. Then leave me a comment and let me know how you liked it and what I forgot to mention.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A father

I would raise a glass to the carpenter
of whom so little is said
the story was told all about him
whilst men spoke of horns on his head

He taught the saw and the hammer
pulled splinters, healed cuts with his spit
Was it he who taught you a living
who taught you to heal with the mud?

Yesterday's message got me thinking...
 It doesn't quite manage a form but I find myself fascinated by the thought.