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The Passion Opens in France

Although there were attempts to block the movie from being shown in France, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ opened today on over 500 screens there, distributed by Tunisian producer Tarak Ben Ammar (see the article on him by Nicole Vulser, Tarak Ben Ammar, l'ami des milliardaires [Tarak Ben Ammar, friend of billionaires], in Le Monde, March 31). Three brothers named Patrick, Gérard, and Jean-Marc Benlolo had asked the French government, as "Jewish citizens of France," to ban Gibson's movie from French theaters because, they claimed, its erroneous adaptation of the New Testament would provoke antisemitism "since the Jewish people are presented in it as a deicidal people" (see this article from Le Nouvel Observateur, March 29). The panel of judges rejected these claims and authorized the film's release.

The story of the film's premiere is reported by Marie-Noëlle Tranchant, <<La Passion du Christ>> gagne la France (in Le Figaro, March 31). This article is accompanied by several others (follow the links on that page), and the media blitz on the premiere is impressive: reports from some of the first viewers in France from Agence France-Presse; it was called, among other things, "in bad taste, heavy, naive, and idiotic" and "an absolute joke in terms of history" by the critics at Libération. More to follow.

For past commentary on the movie at Ionarts, see Jens Laurson's review on March 17 and my posts on February 29 and March 5.


Ruth Laredo at the National Gallery

At the 2491st concert in the free series at the National Gallery of Art last Sunday, a full audience heard a program by pianist Ruth Laredo. This performer enjoys an international reputation, especially as an interpreter of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin (see the write-up of Ms. Laredo from the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland), but the echoing acoustic of the West Building's West Garden Court obscured what could otherwise probably have been exceptional performances. From where I was seated to the right of Ms. Laredo's piano, we could see the performer's face in concentration over the open case, and I suspect that our auditory experience was as clear as it was going to get. The first piece on the program was four pieces from Robert Schumann's Phantasiestücke (Fantasy pieces), op. 12 (the whole collection was played by Marc-André Hamelin at the National Gallery last December: see the Ionarts review by Jens Laurson on January 18). These pieces showed some of Ms. Laredo's strengths, such as the wandering, aimless tune of Des Abends (Evening time) and the well-voiced contrapuntal melodies of Warum? (Why?), both of which incarnate Eusebius (Schumann's dreamy, moonish alter ego), as well as the power and technical precision displayed in the two movements more in the character of Florestan (the manic yin to Eusebius's more depressed yang in Schumann's personality). In Aufschwung (Impulse), the fullness of sound was supported by a firm bass that was not overpowering, and in In der Nacht (In the night), the fast section seemed to buzz like a swarm of bees.

This was followed by the least pleasing part of the program, Beethoven's Sonata no. 23 in F Minor ("Appassionata"), which had some nice moments. However, an unjudicious use of the sustaining pedal created a far too cloudy sound for the space, in which one of the main motives of the first movement (le-le-le-sol) was often obscured. Before the last part of the first half, featuring three pieces by Alexander Scriabin, there was a long pause during which the lighting on the stage was changed, a sign that many people in the audience, myself included, interpreted as the beginning of intermission, only to be surprised by the words offered by Ms. Laredo about the composer, who is by all accounts one of her specialties. She noted that Scriabin and Rachmaninoff had similar backgrounds and musical training and that, while the latter most admired the music of Tchaikovsky, the former admired that of Chopin. The first piece that Ms. Laredo chose to play—Poème, op. 32, no. 1 (1903)—is from the composer's early, Chopinesque period, and it is in an only slightly dissonant post-Romantic style, with a pretty, tonal ending. The second piece—Guirlandes, op. 73, no. 1 (1914)—is still quite tonal in structure but with an unresolved ending that sounds more modern.

Scriabin Complete Piano Sonatas, with Ruth Laredo
Ms. Laredo reserved most of her comments for the last Scriabin piece she played—the Sonata no. 10, op. 70 (1913)—which she said is often labeled the "Trill" Sonata. Reading from the score, Ms. Laredo joked that the composer's performance directions, all written in French, "read more like a French novel than a piano sonata." Without saying what I perceived later during her performance (that is, that the main inspiration for this sonata is the singing of birds), she noted a major change in the character of this single-movement piece, marked by Scriabin "shuddering and winged," that comes with the musical entrance of a totally new sound. This section records warbling dissonant birdcalls, in multiple registers that required Scriabin to notate the music on four staves instead of the two (grand staff) normally used for piano, as reported by Elmer Booze in his program notes. This passage, with its constant shifting up and down the keyboard, revealed the still-remarkable technical fortitude of this pianist, now in her 60s. Marked overall by Scriabin with the words "Très doux et pur" (Very sweet and pure), this sonata has remarkably few moments of harsh dissonance, for its time (let us recall that Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire was premiered in 1912), although it does descend into an almost Webernesque pointillism near the end. Not surprisingly, the audience reacted with much less enthusiasm to the Scriabin offerings, despite Ms. Laredo's introduction. Nevertheless, I do recommend Ms. Laredo's recording of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas, with a selection of études and other pieces, as well (link to the left), from 1970, at the height of her powers.

After a short intermission, it was apparent that a number of audience members had left the building. First, Ms. Laredo played several preludes by that other side of the Russian prerevolutionary coin, Sergei Rachmaninoff. I admit freely that I am not a fan of Rachmaninoff, and I often reach the end of a performance of his music wondering if the result was worth all the effort, as I did that night. There was never any doubt as to Ms. Laredo's control over the most difficult passages, but the music itself left me uninspired. The piece that ended the program was Maurice Ravel's La valse, from 1921. This is a piece that I really like, but I was left somewhat flat by Ms. Laredo's rendition of the arrangement for one piano. The opening of this piece is a confused, turbulent wash of sound, out of which is supposed to rise the charming dance that is a tribute to the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr. Elmer Booze situates this fascination with the waltz in relation to the death of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Ravel's desire "to maintain and reinforce his preeminence." However, the other thing that happened in 1918 was the conclusion of the devastation of World War I, which seems to have been the inspiration for the rumbling music that almost obscures the lighthearted waltz in this piece. Here, too, Ms. Laredo seemed to apply too much sustaining pedal for the room, and her focus on the technical intricacies of the often-dissonant whirring of music further obscured the soaring waltz melody, to which it should be subordinate. What we needed to hear was the clear treble sound of the Stradivarius violin with the Bartók String Quartet (see Ionarts review on March 24), sawing out that twirling, dizzying tune.

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of attending concerts at the National Gallery is walking out of the gallery to go home. I always walk through the courtyard between the gallery's two buildings and get to stare at the illuminated 4th Street façade of I. M. Pei's East Building, with Henry Moore's colossal bronze Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece (c. 1977), gleaming in the darkness. That night, it heard the melodies of Ravel's La Valse as I passed by it.


Middle Ages Crisis

From some of my recent posts, regular readers may have trouble keeping all of the arts festival celebrations in France this year (Springtime for Poets, Year of George Sand, Year of Salvador Dalí, to name a few). It also appears that there is some sort of theme related to the Middle Ages this year, as I learned from an article (Divines et terrestres, les musiques médiévales à La Villette, March 26) in Le Monde by Marie-Aude Roux. The subject is a new exhibit (Moyen Age, entre ordre et désordre, through June 27) at the Cité de la musique, in partnership with the Louvre: it covers 700 years of art and music, from the 9th to 15th centuries:

bringing together artworks from all over Europe, including manuscripts, illuminations, engravings, ivory pieces, including some treasures well known to fans of medieval melody like the Montpellier Codex, the Roman de Fauvel, and Guillaume de Machaut's Remède de Fortune. A feast for the eyes does not rule out the ears also being charmed: listening stations will allow you to pass from the abbess Hildegard of Bingen's chants to the polyphonic complexity of Guillaume Dufay, from liturgies to parodies, without even mentioning courtly love, which extols the inaccessible Lady, "gracious, good, and beautiful."
There is also a cycle of 14 concerts by medieval music ensembles, performing programs focused on spiritual music (March 26 to April 4) and on more worldly music (April 13 to 18). Remaining concerts include the Ensemble Faenza's performance of the Remède de Fortune on Tuesday night, a program called The City of Paris in the time of St. Louis by Discantus and Alla Francesca on Wednesday night, and Ensemble Gilles Binchois performing Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame on Friday night. In the second part, a group called Obsidienne will present Feast of Fools, Feast of the Donkey (April 13) and Joel Cohen's Boston Camerata will perform the Roman de Fauvel (April 14).

Other performances will include chants and dances from the Abbey of Monserrat (Ensemble Micrologus), early polyphony by Perotin and from Perugia (Huelgas Ensemble), harp music with singers (Sequentia), Chrétien de Troyes and the Conte du Graal (Diabolus in Musica), courtly lyric and music from Spain (Troubadours Art Ensemble), Holy Week in Jerusalem (Discantus), the Banquet du vœu of Philippe le Bon (Ensemble Gilles Binchois), Muslim, Jewish, and Christian music during the reign of Alfonso el Sabio (Hesperion XXI), and the poetry of Osama Ibn Al-Mounqidh (Ensemble Al-Kindî).

At the same time, there are the following related exhibits: Paris 1400: Les arts sous Charles VI (in English here; at the Louvre until July 12); Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: l'enluminure en France au début du XVe siècle (from March 31 to August 2, at the Château de Chantilly and Musée Condé); Louis d'Orléans et Valentine Visconti: Mécénat et politque autour de 1400 (from June to September at the Château de Blois); L'art à la cour de Bourgogne: le mécénat de Philippe Le Hardi et de Jean sans Peur (from May 28 to September 13, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon); and Une fondation disparue de Jean de Berry: La Sainte-Chapelle de Bourges (late June to August 29, at the Salle du duc Jean in Bourges).

If it didn't mean losing my job and irritating my family, I would be on the plane to Paris tonight.


The Ionarts Proposal

The following proposal began as a series of quixotic remarks about American cultural life. We now present a more thoroughly formulated presentation of these ideas, for the consideration of our readers and hopefully for the politicians to whom it is addressed. Readers are requested and encouraged to voice their approval or disapproval for this proposal in the comments section (click on the "Comments" link at the bottom of this post).

To the Elected Officials of the United States Government:

As the most powerful nation on earth, it is scandalous that the United States should be impoverished in terms of its cultural life and heritage, by comparison with other industrialized nations. In many other countries, it is accepted that the importance of the arts to the citizenry demands that a government sponsor an entity at the national ministerial level, charged with the mission of fostering and preserving all facets of society's artistic and creative life. The list of countries in Europe that fund such a Ministry of Culture at the national level should cause us as Americans some embarrassment, where in recent years federal funding for cultural programs has been reduced from slim to meager. Of course, this list includes those states of western Europe which one might expect to support the arts, such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and the United Kingdom. However, it may be surprising to learn of more challenged countries in Europe where the government's commitment to the arts is no less devoted, such as Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Turkey. (For more information, see Cultural Policies in Europe, a compendium Web site from the Council of Europe.)

The evidence becomes more striking when we consider the countries worldwide that fund some sort of Ministry of Culture, sometimes in conjunction with another important policy area like Communication, Education, Sports, Youth, Tourism, and so on. From the list of such countries (Window to Culture) maintained by the Unesco Sector for Culture, it is clear that, in what we might label the "Cultural Arms Race," the United States lags behind such nations as Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Cuba, India, Jordan, Kazahkstan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Oman, Ukraine, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Vietnam. Here in North America we are, in terms of government support of the arts, the poor cousin of both Canada (which has a Department of Canadian Heritage, which funds the Canada Council for the Arts and a number of other programs) and Mexico (which has a National Council for Culture and the Arts).

The United States government does spend money on sponsorship of the arts. According to the Americans for the Arts organization, estimates of federal funding of the arts are as follows:

Direct funding to our country's primary cultural agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute of Museum and Library Services—presently reaches nearly $250 million. Add to this the dollars that go to cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with about a dozen others, and the federal investment rises to almost a billion dollars. [Another estimated $1 billion dollars for arts-related projects is spent by the Departments of Education, Justice, HUD, Transportation, and Defense.]
Another list of arts-related funding in the federal government is maintained by the National Endowment for the Arts.

We propose the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Culture, which would collect together into one entity the existing arts and culture agencies of the federal government (and their budgets): the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This new department would be charged with fostering and preserving the cultural life and heritage of the United States, including the support of appreciation of the history of the arts (museum-related programs, scholarship and research, and arts education in public schools) and funding for living creators of art, music, and literature. To make an appropriate fiduciary commitment to this mission, we also propose a special funding arrangement for the new Department of Culture.

At present, the United States military budget (approximately $399 billion for FY 2004, which President Bush wants to raise to $420 billion, according to his latest budget request, which does not even include most of the cost of the latest war in Iraq) is around five times greater than its closest competitor (Russia, approximately $65 billion) and over ten times greater than that of France (around $30 billion), for example. The military accounts for a staggering percentage of the overall federal budget, far out of proportion by comparison to other programs in the budget as well as by comparison to other countries of the world. Therefore, we also propose that the new Department of Culture receive an additional amount of funding (above and beyond the present funding levels for the agencies listed above) equal to a mere 1% of the American military budget, which at present levels would amount to approximately $4 billion.

Following a lengthy visit to the United States in 1831 to 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville, a government functionary from France, published a book about the United States called Democracy in America. In one chapter in that book (Vol. 2, Section 1, Chapter 9, The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove that a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, or Art), de Tocqueville tries to dispel the fear many Europeans had that, because the arts had fared so miserably in the United States, "if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness." To fear democracy for this reason, he said, "is to mingle, unintentionally, what is democratic with what is only American." De Tocqueville envisioned a democratic society that would come naturally to a profound appreciation of the cultural life, when a society in which class divisions had ceased to exist would become conversant with the higher pleasures:
As soon as the multitude begins to take an interest in the labors of the mind, it finds out that to excel in some of them is a powerful means of acquiring fame, power, or wealth. The restless ambition that equality begets instantly takes this direction, as it does all others. The number of those who cultivate science, letters, and the arts becomes immense.
This will not happen if we do not use the power of our wealth, represented in the federal budget, not only to build up the power to kill and dominate but also to cultivate our "taste for the pleasures of mind . . . so natural to the heart of civilized man," to use de Tocqueville's words. If our government does its part to present the joys of art, literature, and music by supporting them and making them available to all, then indeed, as he put it, "this intellectual craving, once felt, would very soon have been satisfied."


Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran

Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran (2003)

Buy it from Amazon
The French film Monsieur Ibrahim is being billed as the "return" of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, although one glance at his filmography in the Internet Movie Database shows that he has certainly been working, just not in anything good. In an interview published on the film's Web site, Mr. Sharif is perfectly frank about the nature of his recent work. In response to the question, "Is it true that you did not want to make any more movies?", he replied:
Totally true. After my small role in the The Thirteenth Warrior with Antonio Banderas, I said to myself, "Let us stop this nonsense, these meal-tickets that we do because it pays well. Unless I find a stupendous film that I love. And that makes me want to leave home to do, I will stop." Bad pictures are very humiliating, I was really sick. It is terrifying to have to do the dialogue from bad scripts, to face a director who does not know what he is doing, in a film so bad that it is not even worth exploring.
Ouch. That movie was adapted from a Michael Crichton novel (Eaters of the Dead), which is bad enough. William Wisher and Warren Lewis, who are credited with writing the screenplay, should be ashamed. That clueless director whom Sharif courteously did not name would be, I think, John McTiernan, who has had his ups (The Thomas Crown Affair [1999], The Hunt for Red October [1990]) and a whole lot of downs (Last Action Hero [1993], Medicine Man [1992], Predator [1987]). Worst of all, his name is synonymous with the Die Hard franchise, the first installment of which, in 1988, was as tolerably entertaining as the third (Die Hard: With a Vengeance [1995]) was excruciating to watch. It looked like Thirteenth Warrior had finally spelt the end of an infamous career (practically no work in film since then, if you check his IMDb filmography). It was so bad that, according to IMDb, Michael Crichton did some uncredited reshoots on this film before it was finally released. Hollywood, however, never learns and, like the proverbial dog, is happy to lap up its own vomit if it sits on the floor for a few years: McTiernan has been tapped to direct Die Hard 4: Die Hardest, with Bruce Willis (which is wasting celluloid as we speak, in preparation for a release in summer 2005).

==>> Continue reading this review.

Todd Babcock takes exception:

Alright, alright, ease up on The Thirteenth Warrior. Heart on sleeve here: I loved that movie. Seen it probably five or six times (twice in the theater, mind you). The dealing with the language crossover, where Banderas learns the Norse tongue through assimilation, where foreign words slowly intermingle with English, was a great conceit. I have not experienced that in film before and have noted it as an idea to steal for future projects (though I am sure McTiernan stole it from something else). The cast was stellar: sparse dialogue was replaced by behavior. You knew each character from one another simply by behavior and look. Film is pictures at the end of the day, and this film told its story through images and sound more than dialogue. The lead character of the King just stole the picture: his dignity and pride were evident in every frame by his natural presence on screen. The ballad they recited about their fathers and the oral tradition were powerful and Crichton's juxtaposition of an unlikely cross-cultural landscape was, I thought, interesting. The Arab/Muslim's use of writing and technology is not one we really discuss outside of academic history footnotes, certainly not in cinema. The ancestral worship vs. monotheism, for an action film. I don't know: I feel you're writing off a lot of what the film did, I guess.

But, more to the point, McTiernan had the film taken away from him by Crichton: he (Crichton) didn't shoot more material but rather cut about an hour of footage. It was meant as this epic tale with all the extra footage being character stuff. After the film was eviscerated, the character were left as shadows and simple ideas of what they shot. Basically, Hollywood (and Crichton) don't want three-hour art films with action. They want their two-hour, above-the-title star action film to seep into theaters and make quick bank. The gutted film felt, well, gutted, and after an initial weekend bump of curiosity it was blasted by critics and the audiences soon followed suit. What the full film looked like, apparently, we will never know. Crichton is too powerful to overthrow (the pissing contest between director and writer went to the bestseller). McTiernan asked to have his name removed and, of course, they did not oblige because his name has cash value as well.

I am also allergic to actors disavowing film choices in that 20/20 hindsight and claim "selling out." You made the film, you weren't hurting for money: it's not like Omar Sharif was trying to make a name for himself or was trying to pay off his car insurance. He has the luxury of choice. Take a note from the King of Candor, George Clooney: when queried about Batman and Robin, he simply stated that he had fun, it was a great opportunity, and that yes, the film didn't land, but he thought it was a great experience and let's face it, "who turns down Batman?" If a film tanks, the best tact is to say, "We tried our best. It was fun. Sorry you didn't like it."


The New Corcoran

Powerbook Wing of the Corcoran Gallery, sponsored by AppleIt is not news that the Corcoran Gallery of Art (and College of Art and Design) wants to expand and has contracted with superstar architect Frank Gehry to create the new wing. However, you may not have gone to the museum's Web site to look at the images of what Gehry has proposed to build. It's curvilinear, it's titanium, it's dramatic, and the museum leadership is in the middle of a big campaign drive to pay for it, as well as other modifications to the facility. (I had not really given this much thought, but the Seward Johnson show that caused so much controversy may have been partially due to the institution's need to bring in some serious coin, which Johnson's show certainly did.) Looking at the pictures of the planned new wing and its shiny titanium, I had the thought that the perfect corporate sponsor is out there (folks from AOL have already pledged $30 million, so why not?). If Apple pledges the rest of the $120 million the museum says it needs, they could name the new wing the Powerbook Wing, and a corporate logo could be tastefully applied (as in the imagined version shown here).

New York in a Day

Mark Barry, Access NY, watercolor, 2004The line to get into the Whitney Biennial stretched out the door and around the block on my visit this past Wednesday. Luckily, I was there around 10:30 and got in after only a short wait. If you buy a $75 membership, you'll be whisked to the front of the line. Once inside, it's a happening. There's painting, sound, installation, and more lines to view videos. I've got to admit up front something I'm not proud of, and that is my lack of patience for video, be it this exhibit or in a gallery. I give it a few minutes, and if it doesn't click, I'm gone. What attracts me most is painting.

This biennial is a big vibrant funhouse on four floors. I started on the second floor and made my way up to the fourth, at a fairly quick pace, weaving and bopping around the crowd, and then retraced my steps on the way back down. Many of the artists I was already familiar with from the Chelsea galleries. As a whole I really enjoyed this biennial. As always, it's heavy on New York. That's expected, but there's a lot of good art being made outside of New York, too. There, I said it.

Some other interesting reviews of the Whitney Biennial:

• Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker (March 22 issue)
• Tyler Green's Five Favorites at Modern Art Notes (March 24)
• Nathalie's Thoughts on the Whitney at Cup of Chicha (March 21)
Jerry Saltz (March 15) and Ed Halter (March 16) at the Village Voice
Blake Gopnik in the Washington Post (March 14)

What remained in my mind a day later are the same works already mentioned by other writers. Elizabeth Peyton's small painting gems, for one. Probably because of their small, quiet stature, they stand out in this boisterous show. In the same room are several David Hockney portraits, interiors, and landscapes in watercolor. (Hockney is also showing new drawings up the street at Richard Gray Gallery: Self Portrait In The Bathroom is great.) I spent most of my time in this room.

Some other work I liked were the painting/drawings on big canvases by Julie Mehretu, Lecia Dole-Recio's large abstract mixed media works on paper (a conservation challenge in the making), the imaginary landscapes of Robin O'Neil (I thought of Pieter Brueghel the Younger), and Erick Swenson's spooky albino deer installation. It's a feast for the senses: check out the Whitney artist list for images.

Also uptown, in addition to Hockney at Richard Gray, Helen Frankenthaler is showing some very nice large woodcuts at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries. Two pieces also exhibit the original woodblocks.

On 57th Street, Alexandre Gallery is showing four small (14 by 16 inches) landscapes by Lois Dodd, which were probably the most memorable paintings of the day. Snow, Wood, Flatbrookville, 1976 is one. Mary Ryan Gallery has new paintings by Michael Mazur, and Michael Rosenfeld has the largest Fairfield Porter painting I've ever seen in his office. Barbara Mathes Gallery has a beautiful exhibit of costumes and textiles from 10th- to 13th-century China. OK, I'm inspired: back to painting.

Mark Barry ( is an artist working in Baltimore.


Der Ring from New York

Even Beverly Sills has apparently given up on finding a new corporate sponsor for the Met Opera Broadcast (see post on November 15), since her taped appeal for contributions from listeners is now played before each broadcast. So, you had better find which radio station in your area plays the Met broadcast and start listening, because it will soon disappear.

You could do worse than listening to the broadcasts of the complete cycle of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, as I did this past Saturday, with the first opera of the tetralogy, Das Rheingold. Since the opera was performed, as it must be, without any pause or intermission, the broadcast began with an interview with conductor James Levine by Ara Guzelimian (instead of the usual intermission features). In the opera's famous opening scene, deep in the waters of the Rhine river, Wagner unfolds an immense, rolling E-flat major chord. In this sound, the three Rhinemaidens sing and play around the gold they are set to protect. They laughed wonderfully in this production, as did Richard Fink as Alberich, who produced one of the great evil laughs in operatic history, as he made off with the gold he has stolen.

The opening scene of Das Rheingold is one of the most promising starts to any opera, but the energy of that scene dissipates, as the exciting transition music leads us up from the river to the heights of Valhalla. For me, the driving power of some of Wagner's scenes is more than outweighed by those "long half-hours" of dreadful narration, such as the second scene of this opera. We learn that Valhalla is completed, that Fricka (the Cassandra of the gods) is worried about the fact that her husband, Wotan, has promised to pay the giants for building Valhalla with her sister, Freia, and so on. I always find myself about ready to doze off until the entry of the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, which was played in this performance at a deliberate tempo with blaring brass sounds. Two powerful Russian singers played the giants in the Met production, Evgenij Nikitin (Fasolt) and Sergei Koptchak (Fafner), and they were exciting to hear.

==>> Continue reading this review.

Tune in for the rest of the Ring cycle broadcasts: Die Walküre on April 3, Siegfried on April 17, and Götterdämmerung on April 23.


Verrocchio in Washington

The victory of David over Goliath (1 Kings [1 Samuel] 17) resonates with underdogs, which is why David, the teenager who took on a brutish man 6 cubits (9 feet) tall and won, became a hero of the Florentine republic. Numerous depictions were created in sculpture, painting, and other media in Florence over the centuries, of which those of Donatello (bronze, c. 1430), Michelangelo (marble, c. 1502), and Bernini (marble, 1623) are the most famous. A fourth famous statue of David, by Andrea di Michele Cione (known by the nickname Verrocchio, c. 1435–1488), was cast in bronze around 1466. About 47-1/4 inches tall, this statue is now in the collection of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, in Florence, but for the past several months it has made an unusual tour outside of Italy, for the first time since a trip to the United States in 1939 and 1940. It was on exhibit at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, Georgia, from November 18, 2003, to February 8, 2004 (their Web feature on the sculpture is remarkably well done and very informative: if it is kept online, I will assign it to my Humanities students next year); and it was at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington from February 13 to March 21, where I went to see it recently.

Andrea Verrocchio, David (before restoration)Andrea Verrocchio, David (after restoration)Verrocchio's sculpture shows David at his most boyish. Although his age is not specified in the Bible, when David offers to fight Goliath, Saul scoffs at the idea, saying: "Thou art not able to withstand this Philistine, nor to fight against him: for thou art but a boy, but he is a warrior from his youth" (verse 33). He was just a rough-and-tumble shepherd, who was proud of having saved sheep of his flock from a lion and a bear. With a blessing, "Saul clothed David with his garments, and put a helmet of brass upon his head, and armed him with a coat of mail. And David having girded his sword upon his armor, began to try if he could walk in armour: for he was not accustomed to it. And David said to Saul: I cannot go thus, for I am not used to it. And he laid them off" (verses 38–39). And that is how Verrocchio shows him, with a fine under-armor tunic and stockings, worthy of a king, but not the brass helmet or coat of mail. With a single stone from his sling, David "struck the Philistine in the forehead" (verse 49): the nasty gash in the head of this sculpture is in the center of the forehead. David uses Goliath's sword to cut his enemy's head from his body, puts his armor in his tent, takes his head to Jerusalem and even carries it in for his audience before Saul.

You may have read that the sculpture has been restored. At some point during or just after the creation of the sculpture, the head of Goliath was placed in between David's feet, so that it would fit on a smaller pedestal for its new location inside the Palazzo Vecchio (the Medici family sold it to the government of Florence). As seen in the image on the left, this is how Verrocchio's David has been viewed for over five centuries. It has now been restored to reflect the sculptor's original vision, shown in the image on the right, with the head of Goliath off to David's swordhand side. When you compare the two versions, what Verrocchio originally planned makes so much more sense than what we were used to seeing: why would someone strike that pose and hold his sword in that way with an opponent's head right between his legs? Now, if you stand and look David directly in the face, his body points your eye toward the severed head, the source of his proud but ultimately rather nonchalant pose. The other result of the restoration is the removal of years of black varnish (which really changed the overall tone of the sculpture) and grime from the surface of the statue, giving us a better idea of what Verrocchio intended. David's skin now has a different quality than the sheer under-armor garment he wears, and traces of gold-leaf gilding adorn the border of that garment as well as his hair.

Verrocchio, David, detail of headMichelangelo, David, detail of headBernini, David, detailVerrocchio, David, detail
Two things stood out in my mind as I stood in front of this statue. The first is just how small Verrocchio's imagining of David is: at just under 4 feet tall, about the size of a sixth-grader, and a small one at that. By contrast, Donatello's David is 5 feet tall (158 cm); Bernini's David (5.5 feet [170 cm]) is the height of an average man, bent over in athletic movement; and Michelangelo's David is immense, at 13.5 feet (410 cm) tall. Again, Verrocchio seems to be the closest to the Old Testament account, having created a diminutive figure ("but a boy," as Saul scoffs) who captures the whimsically confident tone of the Biblical David. This may also explain the bizarrely seraphic expression on the face of Verrocchio's David (image at left), so different from the icy prebattle stare of Michelangelo (second image from left) and the lip-biting exertion of Bernini's Baroque statue (second image from right). Verrocchio best captures the contradiction of the Biblical David, showing the diminutive stature and apparent lack of seriousness that hardly could have inspired confidence, juxtaposed with the evidence of the miraculous accomplishment, Goliath's head.

On a completely different note, could the attire of Verrocchio's David (see detail at right) have been the inspiration for Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl?

Let Them Do the Bar Talk

The Bartók Quartet, the umpteenth highlight of the National Gallery of Art's free concert series (2490th concert, March 21), looks like a string quartet should look. Four friendly, elder gentlemen—all in various combinations of sophistication and heftiness—entered the stage with their respective instruments. One of the instruments, in particular, is rather famous. In fact, it was almost daunting to sit within feet of one of the most famous violins—the "Hamma" Stradivarius from 1731, played by first violinist Péter Komlós. Its date of creation makes the violin, by a rough and cheeky estimate, almost as old as the four members of the quartet combined.

The program first featured Mozart's Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 458 ("The Hunt"). In Mozart you might expect a quartet from Budapest (formed in 1957, in the first six years playing as the Komlós Quartet) to play the quartet (itself 54 years younger than Mr. Komlós's violin) in a more European "Coffee House style"; that is, more Classically and less Romantically inclined than many American string quartets tend to play Haydn and Mozart. But, no, it was energetic, communicative, alive, almost driven; this was a very fine appearance, if perhaps a bit routine in a few moments of the Adagio. Of course, it helps that this quartet of Mozart's "Haydn Quartets" is one of the best Mozart ever wrote (next to the "Dissonance" quartet, K. 465, which was played by the Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress; see Ionarts review on October 28). As always, the well-informed, well-written program notes by Elmer Booze were as helpful to me as they surely were to everyone else.

Added commentary by Charles Downey:

This concert was my introduction to the Dvořák waltzes, and I will soon be acquiring a score of the piano version of these pieces as a result. In the two pieces that the quartet played, there was an air of Viennese lightheartedness (as in the "call to the dance" of the first violin in the fourth waltz), but also a measure of modern sound, particularly in the chromatic coloration of the first waltz. As the first half of the program lasted only about 45 minutes (and the whole concert only an hour and a half, with intermission: the guards were shooing us from the building by 8:30 pm), the Bartók Quartet could have played the other six of these waltzes, if I had had my way.

The Stradivarius violin played in this concert, I agree, has a remarkably potent sound, especially in the high E string playing. This is at least partially responsible for the lush full sound for which the Bartók Quartet is often praised. The other members play what are described in the program as "the finest instruments of the eighteenth century," without any more detail. The extensive pizzicati played by Mr. Mezö on the cello part in the second movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto) of the Beethoven were beautifully executed, too, graceful at times and raucously sforzando when needed. For me, this is the highlight of this quartet. Although it does not actually set any Russian folk melodies (like the first and second quartets in op. 59), this somber and almost gloomy Andante is an extraordinary look forward, in 1805 to 1806, to the enigmatic works of Beethoven's late period. Unfortunately, the blindingly fast contrapuntal final movement had a toe-tapping spectator in front of me furiously tapping like a metronome. At least he was listening to the music: his wife, seated next to him, read a magazine for the duration of the concert.

After Mozartian delight came jollity, courtesy of Dvořák. Two waltzes—Dvořák transcribed these two of eight solo piano pieces (op. 54) for string quartet—were the filler before the intermission. (The works stem from 1880 and—rough estimate again—are just about older than any one quartet member.) The Mozart had been so promising already, the Dvořák, too, made me miss the quartet's namesake's work on the musical menu. That Dvořák liked the two particular waltzes hardly surprises; they are much more than "just quaint" and suggest both a hint of Bohemian forest folksiness and Viennese salon spirit. Very enjoyable little filler, indeed. The Stradivarius, too, got to show the punch it packs without showing off. (Is it just my imagination or does it really soar more than other instruments?)

After intermission, it was the third of the "Rasumovsky" quartets (op. 59, no. 3, in C major) of Beethoven that promised much. It delivered. Indeed, it was astounding enough that it made me stop my usual scribbling and instead focus on the music. The first two movements (only the first long repeat was cut) took me in, especially. While the Beethoven quartets of op. 59 are not everyone's favorites, I have a big soft spot for them in my heart. (Probably because for years I carried the Végh Quartet's splendid recording of no. 2 and 3 on the Valois label around with me, while all the other Beethoven quartets languished in a box at home.) At any rate, the quartet, with a good number of similarities to op. 59, no. 2, was a tremendous joy. The Bartók Quartet played them with sophistication but involvement, with zest but dignity. Not so much "Heroic"—which is the other nickname for this quartet—but perhaps something akin to a 1920s "urban chic"? Mature versions, aged like good single malt, served straight up.

The audience rightly applauded with some enthusiasm the outstanding efforts of Messrs. Géza Hargitai (violin), Géza Németh (viola), László Mezö (cello), and, of course, Péter Komlós. Unfortunately, the audience stopped just shy of eliciting an encore from these gentlemen, which is a shame. Perhaps that would have, could have been the elusive Bartók? Even so, after the Takács Quartet's fabulous concert at the Freer Gallery, this was another cultural "home run" for Hungary, witnessed by Mme. Peják, the Hungarian Ambassador's wife. I am looking forward to more.

Recordings mentioned in this review available at Amazon:
Végh Quartet, Beethoven String Quartets, no. 8 and 9 (oop)
Bartók Quartet, Complete Beethoven String Quartets
Salomon String Quartet, The "Haydn" String Quartets
The Lindsay String Quartet, Dvořák Waltzes


That's Good Reading: Fully Credited Links

  • Let's hear it for francophilia! Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation noted the opening of the annual Salon du Livre (Paris Book Fair). The theme this year, Mark notes, is Chinese literature: according to the Salon's Web site, "Thirty-eight Chinese-language authors are in Paris to meet their Western readers." This theme was selected in coordination with the celebrations for the Année de la Chine (Year of China) in France, as reported here at Ionarts back on October 29 (the Festival d'Automne [Autumn Festival] also had a heavy Chinese focus: see post on September 27). Mark's comment about the Salon is wonderful:
    I was in Paris for the fair a few years ago. It was really extraordinary to wander through the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) past table after table of French authors out with their books. The crowds were so thick you could barely elbow through them. Was neither the first nor last time I contemplated moving there, but surely it was one of the strongest.
    As regular readers know, I am an impassioned admirer of French cultural attitudes. I have lived in France for some extended periods of time, and I am convinced that we have to do all we can to bring some of that passion for literature and the arts to the American mainstream. John Kerry should think seriously about acting on the Ionarts proposal: that we create a Department of Culture, on the model of the Ministries of Culture in European countries, by diverting a mere 1% of the U.S. military budget (see post on March 11).
  • The indefatigable folks at The Literary Saloon have a nice, brief roundup of coverage of the Salon du Livre in French newspapers. To puncture the France-loving euphoria, they also posted some data on book-buying habits among the French. Take a look.
  • ArtsJournal blogger Greg Sandow thinks that ugly CD cover art is a good way to encourage the "death of classical music," that famous bugbear of music critics. When you look at the example he gives, you know, he may have a point: yes, Winterreise can be grim and somber, but it's not that bad!
  • Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ has opened in Germany, where its possible anti-Semitism, as you can imagine, will have different connotations. Heather Mathews, at Hem|mungen, translates an excerpt from the statement issued by a coalition of religious groups, warning of the film's "potential for use as antisemitic propaganda."
  • One of the most important uses of the Internet will be the worldwide dissemination of important texts, especially those most rare examples of words and images found only in one or a few manuscripts. This has already proven to be important in my research and interests, and the momentum of the movement to digitalize continues to grow. From Mark Woods up in Perth, Canada, who blogs at wood s lot, I learned about (post on March 20) the online resources related to the Reichenauer Schulheft (Reichenau Primer), a ninth-century manuscript written at one of the Swiss monasteries, which contains notes on all sorts of subjects.
  • A new blog for me, Veritas et Venustas, has a post by its founder, John Massengale ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", March 18), which is worth reading if you are interested in the question, "Whither modernism?" John approaches the question through architecture, as you can see in this excellent excerpt:
    Modernism was the cultural expression of a good deal of the second half of the 20th century, but we're in the 21st century now, and for most Americans Modernism is just a style—not a lifestyle or an ideology. It's normal today to work in a high-tech office and go home at night to a new Traditional Neighborhood. On the way home, one might have dinner at a chic new place with Minimal design, and the next night go to a new French bistro with hundred year old tiles imported from Paris, complete with Gauloise stains.
    What can be called "Modernism" is, indeed, just one style among many now, as has been discussed here in terms of both art and music, too. Interesting read. Thanks to Michael at 2blowhards for pointing it out to me.


English Mermaid Stranded in Washington

Sophie Daneman, a regular at Wigmore Hall in London or Weill Recital Hall in New York, a veteran English soprano who has worked with the "who's who" of period performance specialists such as William Christie, Christopher Hogwood, and Philip Herreweghe (see the Ionarts review of her performance with Les Arts Florissants on February 4), was to be marveled at in the West Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art this Sunday (2489th concert, on March 14, 2004). The recital—a form of concert that draws smaller crowds than other performances—promised Schumann, Wolf, and, alluringly, Francis Poulenc. The stage had been prepared with reflecting panels behind the piano, which is a rare (because futile?) attempt to rein in the difficult acoustics of this venue that is particularly unfit for recitals and solo piano performances. Although they were installed to keep the sound from bouncing around uncontrollably, I could not discern the exact effect these panels had. A welcome patch, perhaps, but probably no more.

Joseph Haydn's "The Mermaid's Song" was the first to go, and it fit perfectly. Mme. Daneman's silver-blond hair waving behind her, large, deep eyes, and a beautiful, no-frills pale black dress that tightly clad her suggested the mermaid even before she sang of it. Her singing "follow, follow, follow me" would gladly have been headed to by at least half the audience, and not just on account of the quality of her voice. The assumption that the dress was a very light, fine leather did not hold up to closer scrutiny. And neither did the three Haydn songs that dittied along delightfully. That they were in English came as a bit of a surprise, but then so did the very existence of Haydn songs.

More enjoyment came with four Schumann songs from "Lieder-Abend für die Jugend" (Evening of songs for the youth). What an improvement that not some youth, but the mature Sophie Daneman (youthful though as she can be) sang these songs with much animation and absolutely astounding pronunciation. Not only did I understand her German better than her English, but even a song as full of such ridiculously difficult pronunciation hurdles as "Der Sandman" was mastered without much difficulty. If Placido Domingo were not as magnanimous as he is and had only he stopped by, he would (or should) have turned green with envy. "Kennst du das Land?" (Do you know the country where the lemons blossom?) was so ravishing that the venue's shortcomings became unimportant or forgotten altogether.

==>> Continue reading this review.


Music in Proust

The last post on my Proust reading was on January 27 (see list of Proust posts in the link bar to the right), and I am now almost finished with the fifth book, so it's clearly time to catch up on some thoughts. In spite of how common it is in the narrator's life, music has a vast power in À la recherche du temps perdu. For example, in the fourth book, Sodome et Gomorrhe (in English, Cities of the Plain), there is this very brief passage:

I went upstairs again to my room, but I was not alone there. I could hear some one softly playing Schumann. No doubt it happens at times that people, even those whom we love best, become saturated with the melancholy or irritation that emanates from us. There is nevertheless an inanimate object which is capable of a power of exasperation to which no human being will ever attain: to wit, a piano.
I have the fortune of being a pianist and living in a musical home. When was the last time you heard music played live in your home or a friend's home, or played it yourself? Sadly, television and other forms of entertainment have largely eroded that tradition of amateur playing that was so common in Proust's life. In the fifth book, La Prisonnière (in English, The Captive), it is the narrator himself who is shown at the piano:
Taking advantage of the fact that I still was not alone, and drawing the curtains together so that the sun should not prevent me from reading the notes, I sat down at the piano, turned over the pages of Vinteuil's sonata which happened to be lying there, and began to play. . . . I did not take pains to remark how the combinations of the voluptuous and anxious motives corresponded even more closely now to my love for Albertine, from which jealousy had been absent for so long that I had been able to confess to Swann my ignorance of that sentiment. No, taking the sonata from another point of view, regarding it in itself as the work of a great artist, I was carried back upon the tide of sound to the days at Combray—I do not mean at Montjouvain and along the Méséglise way, but to walks along the Guermantes way—when I had myself longed to become an artist. In definitely abandoning that ambition, had I forfeited something real? Could life console me for the loss of art, was there in art a more profound reality, in which our true personality finds an expression that is not afforded it by the activities of life?
==>> Continue reading this post.


The Battle of Algiers

Actually, I saw The Battle of Algiers back in February and never got around to blogging about it (see post on February 7, The Return of the Art Movie). As you may know, the movie has come back to a wider audience's attention because of the message it seemed to offer to a nation fighting a war, not against a country, but against a nebulous network carrying out devastating terrorist attacks. It was David Ignatius, in an article (Think Strategy, Not Numbers, August 26, 2003) in the Washington Post, who first reported that American military officials had viewed a special screening of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 faux-documentary about the French army's brutal crackdown on an uprising in Algiers:

Pentagon sources report one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq. The Pentagon's special operations chiefs have scheduled a showing tomorrow in the Army auditorium of "The Battle of Algiers," a classic film that examines how the French, despite overwhelming military superiority, were defeated by Algerian resistance fighters. A Pentagon flier announcing the film puts it in eerie perspective: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. . . . Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."
In fact, in a more recent review ('65 classic 'Battle of Algiers' still electrifies and challenges, February 27) in the Boston Globe, Ty Burr claims that the August showing was only the latest example of an established practice: "For years the Pentagon has screened this film to military personnel headed for insurgent hotspots—it was shown there as recently as August. . . . 'Battle' is cauterizing in its evenhandedness, showing the vengeful madness and the passionate reason on both sides of the conflict."

==>> Continue reading this review.


Millennium Wagner Opera Company

Several months ago, I learned about the Millennium Wagner Opera Company and the hopes of its founder and director, Carol Berger, to perform the operas of Wagner here in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere (Wagner Festival in Washington?, August 19). What began as an innocent search for more information ended in the publication of a six-part interview with Ms. Berger in September. During the preparation of those posts, I met with Ms. Berger, learned a lot about her ideas and what she was trying to do, and even attended a rehearsal (see post on September 23). Since then, I have been following the company's fortunes, in the hope that they would be able to have the chance to perform as they want.

The company's last performance was a semi-staged "Scenes from Der Ring des Nibelungen," on January 31 at Ganz Hall in Chicago (an interesting venue on the campus of Roosevelt University, with quite an assortment of stained glass). Last night, three of the company's singers performed with an accompanist at a special concert at the Cosmos Club here in Washington. This organization (whose foundation funds, among other things, the concert series at the Phillips Collection) is based in a beautiful building on Massachusetts Avenue, a few blocks west of Dupont Circle, with a spectacular Library for its members on the second floor, as well as a private garden. The concert took place in the Warne Lounge, a grand Rococo hall, also on the second floor. The decoration of this room would fit right in at Versailles: white walls with gold trim, ornate chandeliers, large mirrors facing large windows, and a host of putti, mythological creatures, and vines. A large circular painting dominates the room in a recessed part of the ceiling, executed by a painter who was an admirer of François Boucher and showing a party of water nymphs and gods on the ocean, with putti trying to form a ring in the clouds above.

==>> Continue reading this review.


What's the Beef with The Passion?

This Article was first published on AFF Brainwash

A film has managed to spark thought—or gut reactions, at any rate—among Americans of all ilks like few before. Everyone in the media and intelligentsia, movie reviewer or not, feels obliged to give us his or her impressions. And the impressions they got! Fascistic, sadist, virulently anti-Semitic, a sickening death-trip, pornographic, soul-deadening, relentless savagery, etc., are the labels attached. What sounds like the unholy lovechild of Jud Süß and The Silence of the Lambs is, of course, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

By now everyone is talking about this “religious splatter art film” (Richard Corliss, Time), “the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade” (David Ansen, Newsweek), this “repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film” (Leon Wieseltier, New Republic). The attack comes from every imaginable angle, and by the time you get done reading all the reviews about it, you may even understand Mel Gibson's oddly paranoid behavior when talking about the film, seeing conspiracies everywhere. When I finally saw the film, after over a year of hoopla surrounding it, its director, and the director's father, I found it to be a wholly unremarkable film. It is a frank, albeit very graphic, depiction of the 14 Stations of the Cross and the seven last words of Christ on the cross. Why the outrage?


available at Amazon
The Passion of the Christ,
Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci et al.
Dir.: Mel Brooks
20th Century Fox

The most obvious accusation leveled against The Passion is that of anti-Semitism. Christopher Hitchens finds The Passion to be anti-Semitic in intention and its director even anti-Semitic by nature! Leaving aside little details such as the difference between anti-Semitism (a rather modern concept twist on an old theme) and the “more traditional” anti-Judaism that has been the scourge burden of the Jewish people for millennia, this points to one of the biggest problems of The Passion, Mel Gibson. Characterized by Hitchens as a coward, bully, bigmouth, and queer-basher, Gibson is probably the cause of much of this ire. Had the same film been made by Bernardo Bertolucci (not to say that it's Bertolucci's style to make such films), the reaction might have been one of surprise and perhaps slight concern, but hardly this kind of vitriolic lashing out that started even before the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy article on Mel Gibson's highly controversial father a year ago.

As a German atheist, I find the idea of salvation by the cross to be one of the most pervasive lies and/or misunderstandings in the history of modern man. To anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers I react no less sensitively than Abe Foxman. But what has Mel Gibson's disturbing father got do with The Passion? Or, for that matter, must we see this film through the mind of Mel Gibson's rather orthodox Catholicism that includes the rejection of Vatican II, one of the few things that I find positive about the Catholic Church?

I came away with a very different picture of The Passion than Hitchens, Krauthammer, Sullivan, and Co. The depiction of the Passion has some inherent difficulties, Gibson or not, and even the Gospel itself can be a divisive issue. But is this really what springs to mind when seeing the film? I find it hard to believe that people would leave the theater any more anti-Semitic than they had or had not been before seeing this film. As Christopher Hitchens points out in his article ("Schlock, Yes; Awe, No; Fascism, Probably,” in Slate), an inscription of the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver that read “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus” was posted before the movie even opened. Such despicable attitudes are present in the murky waters of some unfortunate people's brains, but The Passion does not cause them. And if the film were to elicit such a public show of disgrace, the reaction of the public should rein it in. We need not attribute the word fascism to the film to that end.

The polarizing figure of Gibson aside, the fact that Gibson would not allow critics to see the film ahead of its opening provoked the ire of many journalists, who were consequently hurt in their professional egos (The Nation's Stuart Klawans all but admits so much). Beyond that, is the actual film anti-Semitic? I don't think it is. While it would be disingenuous and stupid to claim that the film can't be anti-Semitic because Jesus and his followers were Jews themselves, the film does not visibly go out of its way to portray Jews per se as particularly malevolent. There are characters who are portrayed with all of Hollywood's skills available as evil and vengeful and many of them happen to be Jews, but that alone does not make this picture anti-Semitic.

In “Mel Gibson's blood libel” (in the Washington Post) Charles Krauthammer is right to point out the history of interpretation of the Passion, that it is one including utmost horror and thus cannot be considered in splendid isolation. For many Christians and non-Christians, Vatican II is the “disclaimer” of sorts for the story of the Passion. Mel Gibson's rejection of Vatican II, for whatever reason (there might be other ones involved than his desire to attribute the death of Jesus to the Jews for all eternity) is unfortunate in this light, but The Passion itself does not come with a disclaimer one way or the other. The context we give the Passion is that which we provide ourselves. That is the reason why it is important to know history and the Bible well when seeing this movie. Everyone who doesn't will fail to understand the film altogether.

Gibson's “singular act of interreligious aggression” can't be whitewashed with the “Leni Riefenstahl defense” (all Krauthammer) of having had other intensions? Oh, boy… the crux is that Krauthammer thinks it is impossible to have an artistic vision and not impose one's personal interpretation at the same time. This is a problem that many, Christian and non-Christian, viewers or non-viewers alike have mentioned to me: “We don't want Mel Gibson's version of the Passion stuck in our head.” To the degree that the four Gospels, told as one, lend themselves to interpretation, one of the single most positive surprises to me was the fact that in telling the story Gibson succeeds remarkably in making it a very matter-of-fact account of the 14 stations. Why ten minutes of sadistic flogging and not “zero, as in Luke?” I suppose that's the focus on the suffering, more of which later. But it is hardly to drill home the point about what bastards the Jews were—or the Romans, who do all the flogging.

Retelling or Propaganda?

When I mentioned that I found the film rather unremarkable, I meant mostly that the story of the Passion is not particularly new to me, as a European. From Johann Sebastian Bach's Passions to Grünewald's altarpiece (see ionarts posts on February 29 and March 5) to the sullied history of the Oberammergau Passion play to more harmless little Passion plays and school, I have been surrounded with this story often enough. I don't know the exact effects of the Oberammergau staging and its contribution to the Holocaust, but growing up long after World War II, the last thing I took away from these depictions was a particular hatred for anyone. Indeed, Gibson's account, save for the graphic nature of it, corresponded surprisingly well with the naively benign picture I had about the Passion from childhood on. German though I am, I would object to the claim that I must have grown up amidst rabid Jew-haters and that I was nurtured with propaganda fostering “interreligious aggression.”

Mel Gibson either did not try or did not succeed in making this his story; it is the story of Christ. Whatever his personal beliefs, untimely as they are to me, I believe he tried to make a depiction of the Passion as faithfully as he could, being a religious man, and as good a movie as he could, being an artist. That's what he does. Movies. Tricky as this may be, I believe he succeeded. This is not The Lord of the Rings or Erin Brockovich, where a director imposes his view of a book or story onto a subsequent film. It is not Moses in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. This is a director making moving pictures out of a moving account of Jesus with the means that he knows from his trade.

But Chris Lehmann, writing for The Revealer ("Picturing the Passion"), makes the point that it is precisely not “a faithful, realistic account of the [...] the greatest story ever told, [but] Gibson's loudest command ever barked.” Am I one of the unthinking victims of his insidious Leni Riefenstahl propaganda flick? Sorry, I don't get it. Am I naturally inoculated against the message or too ignorant to discern it? Sure, there were a few moments in which I thought that Gibson the director had taken over from Gibson the “faithful” storyteller. Especially when the cloth, which Veronica holds after cleaning Jesus' face with it, looks suspiciously like the Holy Shroud of Turin. Or when Jesus gets thrown over the cliff only to dangle in front of Judas. Where was that again in the Bible? But neither that nor the italicized Latin nor all the beautiful tall people nor Satan's four cameos really justify the claim that the film is trying to “bend it” or “stretch it” whenever “it comes to the Jews” (Krauthammer) or to whatever else. The link that Krauthammer draws between Satan and the Jews among which he (Satan, not Krauthammer) moves in two of those four appearances—concluding cynically with “a perfect match: Satan's own people"—is pugnacious, or at least silly.

All Suffering, No Love?

Another frightfully ill-perceived criticism comes up surprisingly often. Somehow, the claim is that The Passion of the Christ is too much about the suffering and not enough about “the message” of Christ. Kenneth Turan from the LA Times complains that the film “fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins.” Smarty-pants David Denby from The New Yorker, too, finds that “Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate.”

Now I am only a non-believer, but isn't the suffering precisely the point? The quibble that there is no focus on the message and doing of Christ—say, a juicy quote from the Sermon on the Mount—but only this assemblage of carnage misses the point spectacularly! If you are looking for Hippie-Jesus with a smile and a bumper-sticker quality quote on love and peace on his lips you might want to try your corner bookstore's esoteric section. Don't look for it in Catholic thought, though—and don't look for it in this film.

The very message of Jesus was his suffering, was his sacrifice. Every doing and saying of Jesus makes sense only in light of his crucifixion, his willingness to die for our sins. It may sound pretty stupid to Krauthammer and me, but that's the belief. And if and only if you understand that can you look beyond the film as Gibson's “personal obsessions” and “a sickening death trip” (Denby). Focusing on a part and making it the whole is, perhaps singularly, appropriate when it comes to the Passion. That's why people unfamiliar with the story should not see this movie, and by “not unfamiliar” I mean “very familiar"! Not because there is something to hide from anyone else, but simply because it won't make sense otherwise. It would then indeed be nothing but an oddly spiritual gore-fest. But if understood rightly, it ought to be the feel-good movie of the year.


Unfortunately, the apparent inappropriateness of expressing strong, “outdated,” and politically incorrect faith in public rubs many people the wrong way. Take that, Mel Gibson's personality, the hurt ego of journalists, the hype, and the incredible ignorance that many reviewers brought to the subject matter and apparently you get the loathing response that is still being poured out over this venture. I don't suppose that the criticism is any more anti-Catholic than the film is anti-Semitic, but it's surprising and pathetic in both of the meanings of the word.

All the more interesting, it becomes what professional movie critics have to say. Calm and a no-nonsense approach come from Roger Ebert ("Ebert & Roeper") and Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times): “It's the only religious film I've seen, with the exception of The Gospel According to Matthew by Pasolini, that really seems to deal directly with what happened instead of with [...] cleaned-up, postcard versions of it,” says the former. The latter concludes, “Mel Gibson's [Passion] does not preach that anyone—past, present, and future—must bear sole responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. [...] It is not a work of hate. It is a powerful and important film, helmed by someone with a sincere heart and a warrior's sense of justice. It is [...] ultimately a message of redemption and hope.”

Ultimately, it is not a film for a thumbs up or down; I don't give the Bible a thumbs up or down. But many of the overblown attacks on this film deserve a big thumbs down. Try again: this time perhaps with more love, less hate.


That's Good Reading: Fully Credited Links

To prove that we at Ionarts are not solely enraptured with seeing our own words in print, here is a selection of interesting things to check out, out there in Blogistan (a humorous alternative to the less sonorous "blogosphere," brought to my attention by Byzantium's Shores):

  • I had already learned that Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes shares my interest in hockey (Tyler is a Caps fan, which has got to hurt right now), and now it turns out that Terry Teachout's blogging partner at About Last Night, Our Girl in Chicago, has an interest in that noble sport, too. On March 10, she had some interesting comments to divert us from the negative attention the game received following the terrible injury inflicted on Colorado's Steve Moore by Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks. (Bertuzzi has a long record of nasty checks and other goonery, and we are not surprised that he has finally put someone in the hospital, only that it took this long.) We also thank OGIC for directing us to Eric McErlain's hockey blog, Off Wing Opinion. For the record, the Ionarts film critic and I grew up together in the great state of Michigan and are ardent supporters of the Detroit Red Wings. Are there other bloggers out there who like hockey, too? (I already know that Byzantium's Shores does not.)
  • I had to laugh at Nathalie Chicha's Not Nice Observation, No. 3892 at Cup of Chicha. Liv Tyler is a beautiful woman, and if her Oscar appearance and performance in the Lord of the Rings movies do not make you realize that, then you have only to view Stealing Beauty to see that I am right about this. She has an awkwardness about her that, although it can be embarrassing (as in the still on display at Cup of Chicha), is ultimately appealing.
  • I believe that you can never see too many images of France, so it's good to learn that photoblogger David F. Gallagher of has decamped to Paris for a while. (This link comes to us by way of Greg Allen at David informs us that the RATP, the authority that administers the Métro system in Paris, has recently offered 47 blank billboards in its stations for passengers to write on. These spaces will be available for free expression through March 18.
  • Heather Mathews Mungen (a thousand apologies to Heather for this mistake), whose reporting on the arts in Germany at hem|mungen is regular reading, had some interesting commentary on the exhibit of works from the Museum of Modern Art in Berlin, on February 14, February 16, February 23, and February 25. You can also see reviews from Deutsche Welle (February 17) and an article (Le MoMA divise Berlin, March 7) by Odile Benyahia-Kouider in Libération. This sort of exhibit, a large selection of a foreign museum's important collection brought to your city, is remarkable and, I would guess, rare. Anyone out there have a preference for a museum they would like to have come to, say, Washington, D.C.?


The Triplets of Belleville

In your desperate attempt to see all those Oscar-nominated films you missed, you should definitely go to see the French animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville (in its English version, The Triplets of Belleville). Or, if you are like me and the Academy's pronouncements seem ludricrously irrelevant, you should see it because this movie was easily more worthy of the Best Animated Feature than Finding Nemo (allegedly a ripoff of a French comic book: see posts on December 21 and March 14), which won that award. Big surprise. The film made $340 million, so we should also crown it with a gold statue. Hooray. If you need another reason to see it, go because there may be the added bonus of seeing the short film envisioned by Salvador Dalí for Disney, Destino (see my review on February 26). Of course, here the Oscars got it right . . . oh, wait, no, it did not win Best Animated Short Film either. What a show: the pageantry, the intrigue, the glamor, the recognition of milestones in cinematic history. Yawn. *Click*

The director of Triplets, Sylvain Chomet, was born in 1963 in Maisons-Laffitte, a small town in the suburban region of Paris that is in part the inspiration for the dreary home of the movie's two main characters. He went to arts school and did advanced studies in animation at a new school in Angoulême. The first work on what eventually became this movie began ten years ago, and he had a difficult time getting it funded and produced. The story is charmingly strange, and the style of animation is hard to describe, but it is definitely image-based and relies on very little dialogue. In an interview published on the French Web site linked above, Chomet describes his animation style the following way (my translation):

It is based on mime and the interplay of characters. I am more influenced by real scenes than by animation. By Tati's films, yes, but also those of all the masters of silent movies: Chaplin, Keaton. The sense of timing is also very important. It's the reason why I love Louis De Funès so much and the whole English comic school, as in series like Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson. I also love the animated work of Richard Williams and Tex Avery. In comic books, Goossens is also a master of timing.
Sylvain Chomet, Les Triplettes de BellevilleThe movie is dedicated to Jacques Tati, and at one point, I glimpsed a movie poster for Tati's movie Les Vacances de M. Hulot, on the wall of the triplets' apartment. The movie's main characters are an old grandmother, short and triangular in shape and with one leg longer than the other, and her depressed grandson. The latter is shown first as a solitary, chubby child who is always a little blue. He finds his reason for living in cycling, and his grandmother helps him train for, what else, the Tour de France. Her tall, narrow house is located in an imaginary suburb of Paris: at the opening of the film, it seems like the countryside, but then a new Métro line is put in on an elevated railway that goes so close to the house that it has to be bent backwards to accommodate it. (In the image from the movie shown at right, the far-off image of the Eiffel Tower is lost behind a construction crane, industrial smokestacks, and ominous passenger jets above.) As she helps him train, they ride through the streets near the house, dangerously close to a bus whose destination is marked as the imaginary "Mairie du XXIe Arrondissement" (modern Paris has only 20 arrondissements, each with its own mairie, or town hall). The interviewer asked why the interiors of the film were "modest but warm, a picture of ordinary France in the 50s and 60s," and why Parisian scenes are so important in the film. Chomet answered as follows:
Because I came from a rather modest background, and not a fashionable one. I remember going to visit an old lady, the neighbor of one of my aunts, and finding a small apartment that smelled of floor polish, where each little object, even the smallest, was valued. I would be incapable of producing stories that take place in comfortable surroundings. Naturally I draw inspiration from what I have lived.
The grandson, Champion, rides in the Tour behind the leader who is identified as "Nanard," which was a nickname of the legendary cyclist Bernard Hinault (he was also called le blaireau, or the badger), who won five Tours de France (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1985). Like most Tour winners, Hinault was a phenomenal climber who could probably have won the Tour again, except that he was challenged in 1986 by another legend of la grande boucle, American Greg Lemond. In the movie, Champion abandons the race, along with two other cyclists, on an unidentified mountain that is, I think, the infamous Mont-Ventoux. Although Hinault never raced on that mountain, it has ruined many cyclists, the worst case being Englishman Tom Simpson, who died there in 1967. It is identifiable in the movie by the windswept desert seen on the peak, where the powerful Mistral wind makes the growth of vegetation impossible. (The mystery of that landscape has made the Ventoux a revered site for centuries. In the 14th century, the poet Petrarch made the ascent and wrote about it in a famous letter.)

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