My Time With Chess

I have always supported the idea of making chess part of school curricula everywhere. Although I don’t play anymore and was never all that great at the game to begin with, it’s not hard for me to imagine all the good that can come out of it. Go to any chess website promoting this idea and you’ll get all the arguments you’ll ever need. Chess is a great way to develop a mind. It’s not the only way, but, according to retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, it’s hard to beat.

Here is Kasparov (a hero of mine for almost two decades) on a Brazilian talk show talking about a whole host of chess-related topics. He gets to the chess-as-education issue at around the 9 minute mark and begins extolling the benefits of chess at 9:54.

Among his list of chess benefits is that the game promotes discipline, self-esteem, confidence. It also increases one’s ability to deal with problems and succeed, and not just on the chess board. Kasparov ties chess into computer education as well. He is most convincing, however, when he cites a study in which two similar math classes were given additional lessons, one in chess, the other in mathematics. At the end of the year the chess class outperformed the math class in mathematics.

I believe the study to which Kasparov refers is this one from 2008 by Markus Scholz and others. Read here and here for more information on scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of chess in education.

While I agree with Kasparov and would never dare contradict him on chess matters, I do believe he omitted one very important benefit of playing chess. And since I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I will mention it here.

I have always supported the idea of making chess part of school curricula everywhere. Although I don’t play anymore and was never all that great at the game to begin with, it’s not hard for me to imagine all the good that can come out of it. Go to any chess website promoting this idea and you’ll get all the arguments you’ll ever need. Chess is a great way to develop a mind. It’s not the only way, but, according to retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, it’s hard to beat.

Kasparov arguing for chess in schools
Here is Kasparov (a hero of mine for almost two decades) on a Brazilian talk show talking about a whole host of chess-related topics. He gets to the chess-as-education issue at around the 9 minute mark and begins extolling the benefits of chess at 9:54. Among his list of chess benefits is that the game promotes discipline, self-esteem, confidence. It also increases one’s ability to deal with problems and succeed, and not just on the chess board. Kasparov ties chess into computer education as well. He is most convincing, however, when he cites a study in which two similar math classes were given additional lessons, one in chess, the other in mathematics. At the end of the year the chess class outperformed the math class in mathematics. I believe the study to which Kasparov refers is this one from 2008 by Markus Scholz and others. Read here and here for more information on scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of chess in education. While I agree with Kasparov and would never dare contradict him on chess matters, I do believe he omitted one very important benefit of playing chess. And since I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I will mention it here. Humility. The most important thing chess has given me is humility. When I tell people that I used to play chess, they

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often ask, “How good were you?” My answer is always, “Good enough to know how bad I really am.” Since I have not played a tournament game since 1985 when I was in eighth grade, I really have no exact record of my skill level. I can estimate however, given my rate of success in the late 1990s against tournament players in casual games, that my highest skill level was between a 1600 and 1650 in United States Chess Federation rating points. So 15 years ago, when I would study chess for at least an hour every night, I was little more than what the USCF called a Class B player. To put things in perspective, you’d need a rating of 2000 to be an expert, 2200 to be a national master, and 2400 to be a senior or international master. So I was, in chess parlance, a fish, a wood-pusher, alas, a patzer. In some weird way it was something to be proud of. Another story goes thusly: A friend and I were having at it over the board one evening, hurling our armies at each other amid a riot of kibbitzing, as usual. We were in the Skylight Exchange, our favorite chess hangout in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I don’t remember the games, except that they were always sloppy, fast and thrilling. Out of the blue, this college kid came in and challenged me. I duly accepted and after a few moves, it was evident the kid really didn’t understand the basic tenets of the game. I crushed him easily. Two times. I could have played five opponents of his caliber at once with the black pieces and still had my way. Anyway, the kid could barely contain his frustration and said he wanted to analyze the games to figure out where he went wrong. When we were done, he got up and declared through clenched teeth that, “Every time I lose, I get better!” He even included a dramatic pause in the middle. “Every time I lose…(beat)…(beat)…I get better!” His intensity was so precious, I had to choke back a laugh not to be rude. But I couldn’t resist leaning over and asking my friend if he gets better every time he loses. My friend smiled, shook his head, and said, “Nope. If did I’d be a grandmaster by now!” By then I had about lost it, laughing at this poor kid’s expense. He didn’t stick around, and I never saw him again. I really hope the little thrashing I gave him made him realize how rare it is to have real talent at chess, and how wrong it is for one to presume they have such talent when they really don’t. When I was 25, I started playing chess again after a 12-year layoff. I had heard about the chess club at the Skylight Exchange. I thought I could do well against the players there. I didn’t. I thought I was something special, someone who could re-learn the game and start winning. I wasn’t. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try like hell. Back then I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much of a life. All I had was my “poetry to protect me”, to quote Paul Simon. That, and piles of student debt, which, I am pretty sure, Paul Simon didn’t sing about.

Paul Simon probably not Rhymin' about Fannie Mae
So with little to lose, I bought every chess book I could find and studied. Sure enough, I got better. It was a long, painful process, but I managed increase my standing among the players there. Among the lower half, I started to go about 50-50, maybe even a little better than that. Among the stronger players I graduated from being busted within the first 7 moves to being able to achieve perfectly playable middle games before eventually blundering and going down in yet another ignominious ball of fire. And it hurt. It hurt. See this picture? This is of me as a division I college wrestler getting my ass kicked by Michael Stokes of NC State in 1989. I’m the guy on the bottom. I remember that match very well. Stokes pretty much threw me around like a rag doll. Did whatever the hell he wanted. It was all I could do to keep him off of me. He tech-falled me in the second period, meaning he obtained a 15 point advantage, after which the match was stopped. State was awarded 6 points in the dual meet, and my team got nothing. It was as if he had just pinned me. And who is Michael Stokes? He was the 126 lb. runner-up in the NCAA wrestling tournament that year. He succumbed 5-2 to a wrestler named Kendall Cross from Oklahoma State in the finals. And who is Kendall Cross? Gold medal winner in the 57 kg weight class at the summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996. Watch the match here. That is the gulf between me and greatness. I never had any pretentions of being a tough guy, because I knew what tough was. That doesn’t mean I was a wimp, of course. I had the ligaments torn in my left knee during one match (which I won). Re-sprained my right ankle in another (which I also won). I had been slammed so hard against the mat that I saw stars and didn’t know where I was for a few moments (That one I didn’t win). I had completed matches so exhausted that all I could do was fall on my back and writhe. Wrestling is a hard sport. If you don’t give it your soul it will abuse you. And it hurts. It hurts. But I assure you, it never hurt more than when I lost a game of chess I should have won. I don’t know why, but physical beatings were nothing compared to the stabbing pangs of hate that would riot in my mind for days whenever I had to concede a wholly unnecessary defeat to someone who didn’t deserve to win. The contempt. The disgust. The regret. The bile. The effort to keep all these volatile emotions bottled up was almost more than I could handle sometimes. I realized that from a broken heart there is nowhere to hide. I’m reminded of how General Winfield Scott in 1846 played two casual games against 9-year old child prodigy and future unofficial world champion Paul Morphy. The general fancied himself a formidable player, you see. When he was in Morphy’s hometown of New Orleans, he demanded he face strong local talent. He was shocked when this came in the form an unassuming little boy and was even more shocked when this unassuming little boy crushed him like a bug, twice.
General Winfield Scott: Ooooh, Ah hate losin'.
With his enormous ego capsizing like the Titanic, Scott sent the boy home and refused to play him again.
Paul Morphy: So, who was this person I just beat again?
I didn’t want to be like Winfield Scott. We were both sore losers, yes. But I wanted to get my ass kicked honest, like a man. And it hurt. It hurt. But I kept coming back for more. I wanted to get better, and one only gets better by playing his betters. Especially in chess where you can objectively measure a player’s worth. There is little room for subjectivity or opinion or luck in chess. Either you win, lose, or draw. Anyway, the Chapel Hill players gradually accepted me, and with a group of friends to hang out with a couple times a week my life got a little more interesting. But I always knew that there were at least a couple guys in the group I could never beat on a regular basis. They were just better than I was, and there was nothing I could do about it. Sure, I could work hard and gain experience. But I felt I could study three hours a day for months on end while they could sit around and do nothing and they still would have beaten me. Or, given my disastrous tendency to blunder in endgames, they’d have a hell of a chance. How could I be so certain? Because what they could do without effort required much effort from me. For example, there were a couple guys who could watch a game being played and then afterwards effortlessly reconstruct a position on the board from almost any point in the game. I couldn’t dream of doing such a thing without tremendous sweat and effort, and still I would probably get something wrong. There are no books that teach you how to do this. This is not something you learn how to do. This is something you know how to do. Either your brain has the machinery to do this, or it doesn’t. Mine doesn’t. This I just got used to. Over time, as I became a better player, I also became a better loser. I began to forget the losses and cherish my victories. I learned how to enjoy the spirit and elegance of the game. I learned how not to take myself so seriously. I also learned to take pride in whatever improvement I could muster. This is the humility I was discussing earlier. Note the lack of arrogance. Note the more balanced and reasonable perspective on things. Note the accurate assessment of oneself, that one quality lacking in our hapless college kid as well as in the great Winfield Scott and many others, I would imagine. As Kasparov points out, the benefits you get from chess translate well to life too. I became a more humble person because of chess, not just a more humble player. And if the testimony of my Chapel Hill friends is worth anything, I became more likeable as well. But don’t get me wrong, if you take chess seriously (like I did) but lack real talent (also like I did), chess will break your heart. And it hurts. It hurts. But everything I did, I would do again without question, without hesitation. Because what I got out of chess in the end was totally worth it. As a postscript, I’d like to share one of the sweetest moments I’ve had as a class B chess player. In our little coterie of guys, the alpha male was without question an international master from Germany. I believe his international rating at the time was something like 2250, which was astronomically high compared to mine. Anyway, he was a genuinely nice guy who never minded wasting his time with us patzers. The way he would so effortlessly crush us all was breathtaking to behold. He also never took it hard on the rare occasions in which we managed to beat him. I must have played him 80 to 100 times over the course of 3 years in the late 1990s. In all those games, I believe I earned maybe 3 draws and only 2 wins. The rest were just dreadful beatings. Of the wins, the first really shouldn’t count because he and I were playing at a restaurant while he had his arm around his girlfriend. He was consuming his second beer of the evening and ordering dinner when the game started. He simply misjudged an opening sequence, and I won a piece for nothing. He could have played on (and probably would have won), but, like a gentleman, he resigned. The other time was a legitimate win for me. I forced him to capitulate in the endgame. Later analysis proved that he had played very badly, missing a few key positional moves, while I was in unusually sharp form. Regardless, he never let me come close to a win against him after that. But this isn’t the sweet part. The sweet part occurred when we taught him how to play bughouse. And what is bughouse? Only the funnest, most awesomest, most bodacious chess variant known to Man.
Bughouse!
It’s basically team chess. Two on two. Two boards. Two clocks. One team member is white, the other is black. If a player captures a piece, he can hand it to his teammate who can then place it on his board pretty much wherever he wants. Time limits are always low, like 5 minutes or less. And kibbitzing is not only allowed, but encouraged. The louder the better. Click here to see what a bughouse game looks and sounds like. Bughouse also has its own set of strategies and tactics separate from chess. There are certain things in chess, like fianchettoing a bishop, which one would never do in bughouse, for it would be plain suicide. This was something I neglected to inform our IM from Germany when I sat him down and taught him the game. You see, I had revenge in mind. Sweet, sweet revenge. And, boy, did I get it. For about 4 or 5 games, I beat the stuffing out of an international chess master over a chessboard. It was a slaughter, a beat down, a blitzkrieg. And I loved every single moment of it. My esteemed opponent was just too classy and could not adapt quickly enough to the cruder barroom tactics of bughouse. Still, he had fun. And he never once grudged me my time in the sun. So, that’s another thing that Kasparov can add to his list of chess benefits. Great memories.

Boxing Vs MMA Part 3

In my last post on MMA vs Boxing, we statistically analyzed the transfer of boxers into MMA and vice versa. I believe the evidence supports the hypothesis that boxers transition into high levels of MMA better than the other way around. There seems to be many reasons for this, not least of which is that a boxer can transfer close to 100% of his skill set into an MMA cage, but a mixed martial artist can only transfer something like 10%-15% of his skill set into boxing.

This post will compare the two sports in terms of overall excitement.

I will start with two premises. One, that a great boxing match is potentially every bit as exciting as a great MMA bout, although not always in the same way. In the ideal world, one sport is as good as the other. From this, I posit that in the real world, MMA has a greater likelihood for excitement for reasons that are both essential and incidental to both sports. Further, I believe that much of the disadvantages boxing has vis-à-vis MMA can be rectified.

First, a little autobiographical note. I started as a big boxing fan growing up because my dad was also a big fight fan. My earliest memory of boxing was in 1974 watching Muhammad Ali using the rope-a-dope tactic to knock out George Foreman. I was five. I also remember Ali getting knocked down by Chuck Wepner (the man who inspired all those Rocky movies), although my dad swears Wepner simply stepped on Ali’s foot and pushed him. Look at the photo and judge for yourself.

In my last post on MMA vs Boxing, we statistically analyzed the transfer of boxers into MMA and vice versa. I believe the evidence supports the hypothesis that boxers transition into high levels of MMA better than the other way around. There seems to be many reasons for this, not least of which is that a boxer can transfer close to 100% of his skill set into an MMA cage, but a mixed martial artist can only transfer something like 10%-15% of his skill set into boxing.

This post will compare the two sports in terms of overall excitement.

I will start with two premises. One, that a great boxing match is potentially every bit as exciting as a great MMA bout, although not always in the same way. In the ideal world, one sport is as good as the other. From this, I posit that in the real world, MMA has a greater likelihood for excitement for reasons that are both essential and incidental to both sports. Further, I believe that much of the disadvantages boxing has vis-à-vis MMA can be rectified.

First, a little autobiographical note. I started as a big boxing fan growing up because my dad was also a big fight fan. My earliest memory of boxing was in 1974 watching Muhammad Ali using the rope-a-dope tactic to knock out George Foreman. I was five. I also remember Ali getting knocked down by Chuck Wepner (the man who inspired all those Rocky movies), although my dad swears Wepner simply stepped on Ali’s foot and pushed him. Look at the photo and judge for yourself.

That's Chuck on the right in case you were wondering.

I remember Ali’s antics with Howard Cosell, his showing up to one interview wielding a hammer, his brawling in the studio with Joe Frazier, both Spinks fights. I also remember Mike Weaver’s incredible come-from-behind knockout of Big John Tate, Roberto Duran’s ‘no mas’ episode with Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes stopping Renaldo Snipes and Gerry Cooney, and other fights from the seventies and early eighties as well.

By the time I graduated college in 1990 I had seen hundreds of fights and remembered just about all of them. I read The Ring and other boxing magazines religiously. I made a student film about boxing. I studied any boxing history book I could find. At one point I could honestly and with some pride call myself an amateur boxing historian.

But I had always known that there was always something about boxing – or several somethings, really – that prevented it from being all that it could be. Of course, we could always point to the rampant corruption in the sport, its ties to organized crime and long history of fixed fights. This is well-documented. There’s also the horrific judging, the shameful mismatches, the dreadful officiating, the post-fight tantrums, and the , not to mention all the rioting and ear-biting that has taken place in the ring. And in case you may think that such transgressions are an artifact of a bygone age, these last seven examples all occurred since the mid-1990s. And there is many more to choose from.

But even when all is on the up-and-up with good judging, officiating, matchmaking, and talented, motivated combatants, boxing always has a real potential to fail. That is, to invite tedium or to not end conclusively, to not bring us to the state of breathtaking awareness we enter when we see a great fight or a great knockout. Mike Weaver brought us there, so did Hagler-Hearns, Pryor-Arguello I, and a young Mike Tyson against any number of opponents.

Lesser known examples from that era might also include Evander Holyfield against Michael Dokes, Michael Moorer against Bert Cooper, James Toney against Michael Nunn, Julio Cesar Chavez against Edwin Rosario, and many others. These fights were either blistering donnybrooks or stunning displays of violence and power, or both. They all contained drama, a very high-level of skill, and a brutally conclusive ending. It’s fights like these that leave one breathless and craving replays.

Only a fight fan can understand the terrible yet addictive exhilaration that comes with witnessing one man brutalize another man to a state of near-death under fair rules. Perhaps it’s the atavistic violence, the physical domination of one man over another that reminds us of our own carnal, mortal existence. Who knows? Many writers have pondered these ideas. My point however is that this is more like the holy grail of boxing rather than a common occurrence. Most top-level boxing matches don’t reach such heights and never even threaten to.

Good examples of boxing failure from the last 25 years include be Lennox Lewis against David Tua (2000), Oscar De La Hoya against Felix Sturm (2004), Floyd Mayweather against Carlos Baldomir (2006), and Pernell Whitaker against any number of guys: Greg Haugen (1989), Jose Luis Ramirez II (1989), Azumah Nelson (1990), Rafael Pineda (1992). I recognize Whitaker’s brilliance as a boxer, but to me he always seemed more of a performer than a fighter. In his matches, I always waited for a fight to break out, and instead I’d get something more like a dance, with Whitaker almost always one step ahead of his opponents.

Sweet Pea gets no love from RC.

In the cases mentioned above you have a consummately skilled fighter against a tough but less skilled opponent. The results were pure tedium since the fighter with the greater skill, despite his best efforts, could not hurt his man, and in turn was too good to get hurt by him. By the second round the outcome was a foregone conclusion: unanimous decision. Fight fans call this “pitching a shutout.” Some praise these kinds of bouts, pointing to the brilliance and artistry of the superior fighter. I point to the lack of competition and drama and feel like I’ve been ripped off.

This is why I refused to watch Andre Ward fight Carl Froch in the final round of Super-6 tournament in 2011. The fight fit this mold perfectly and as such had turkey written all over it. And I was right. Ward easily outpointed Froch and was never really in danger. Why go see a fight when you know in advance who is going to win?

Yeah, I saw that one coming.

Another example would be the fighters who fight not to lose rather than to win. Two classic examples would be Sugar Ray Leonard’s controversial points win over Marvin Hagler (1987), and Oscar De La Hoya’s controversial points loss to Felix Trinidad (1999). In both cases you had guys moving a lot (often backwards) and throwing a volume of flashy punches aimed more to impress judges rather than hurt their opponents. 25 years later, the Hagler-Leonard fight still generates controversy.

The great Roy Jones, Jr. also emulated this style against Mike McCallum in 1996. Virgil Hill, Corey Spinks, Chop-Chop Corely, Nikolai Valuev, and Chris Byrd, all world champions, have been accused of this behavior as well. They rarely go for the knockout or engage in the intense exchanges fans crave. Instead they were content to walk away with their ‘W’s at the fans’ expense.

A subset of this would be those talented fighters who do try to hurt their man, but lack real power. Winky Wright, Clarence “Bones” Adams, Paulie Malignaggi, and Yuri Foreman fit into this category quite nicely, and thus rarely are in good fights unless on they’re on the losing end.

Another subset of this group would be boxers who, knowing they are overmatched, fight simply not to get knocked out. Or, really, not fight at all. James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Jesse Ferguson famously turned in such a performance against a young Mike Tyson in the mid-1980s. Audley Harrison did the same against David Haye in 2010. Shane Mosely’s tepid effort against Manny Pacquaio in 2011 is perhaps the most high profile of the recent examples.

Another way in which boxers can stink up joints would be to emulate the “jab and grab” or “mug and maul” style of John Ruiz who left a turbid trail of flatulence through the heavyweight ranks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His main strategy often seemed to wrangle his man onto the ropes and wing punches in the clinch. And he was good at it, which made his fights extremely hard to watch and harder to score.

Yeah, these fights were as ugly as they seem.

Naseem Hamed, an otherwise exciting fighter, laid a similar egg in 1999 during his wrestling match against Cesar Soto. He threw his man to the canvas numerous times and won a sloppy, ugly unanimous decision. You can read about his dreadful performance here.

On the other hand, sometimes two tough, talented, and motivated boxers cannot turn in an exciting scrap no matter how many kitchen sinks they throw at each other. It must be something about the styles of some boxers that sucks the air out of their matches like a bad soufflé. The first fight that comes to mind is Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis I from 1999, a lackluster affair best described as a waltz on four left feet. These are two hall of fame heavyweights, so it’s not so much a knock on them. But according to Wikipedia, the pair landed 478 punches over 12 less-than-scintillating rounds (130 for Holyfield, 348 for Lewis). This averages out to a dismal 40 punches landed per round for both of them, only around 10 of which coming from Holyfield. It was a forgettable night, made sadly unforgettable by the scandalous draw that was awarded afterwards. And this was no fluke since the rematch later that year wasn’t exactly a barnstormer either.

Boxing fights call such fights “snoozers”. De La Hoya-Whitaker from 1997 qualifies. Recent examples include Fres Oquendo against Elieser Castillo from 2007 and Nonito Donaire against Omar Narvaez from 2011.

Often such awkward results occur when a lefty faces a righty, and it’s hard for either fighter to establish a rhythm. The first Kostya Tszyu-Sharmba Mitchell fight from 2001 comes to mind here. How about when one fighter is dead set on fouling, such as Agapito Sanchez was in his 2001 technical draw against Manny Pacquaio? What an ugly fight that was. Then there’s the constant risk of fighters accidentally clashing heads and getting their faces cut open. Does anyone remember Vernon Forrest’s first fight against Raul Frank in 2000? Micky Ward against Jesse James Lejia in 2002? Both fights were stopped early, and fans went home disappointed. But probably not as disappointed as fans were in 2010 when they watched Kermit Cintron trip and fall out of the ring in the 4th round while wrangling with his opponent Paul Williams. It had been a pretty slow fight to begin with, and when Cintron was injured by his fall and couldn’t continue, he was inexplicably declared the loser.

Keep in mind that every fight I’ve mentioned was a high profile bout that featured at least one past or current world champion or contender still in his prime facing a legitimate world-ranked opponent. Paying customers should be treated with high theater as much as possible when seeing bouts like this. Obviously, the various forms of corruption threaten to ruin boxing for everyone. But when things fizzle even when no one is to blame, then perhaps something should be done about the sport itself.

And here is where is where we should look to MMA.

After watching MMA seriously for 8 years now, I can honestly say that that breathless elation, that intense, addictive buzz one feels after one of those great yet all-too-rare rare boxing matches happens all the time in MMA. If the list of great boxing matches I mentioned before seemed long, here is a list of truly great, truly mesmerizing MMA bouts only from the past three years. Every single one of these brings all the drama and thrill and action of the very best boxing matches (and I provide video links where I can).

Anthony Pettis-Ben Henderson, 2010 – A classic topped off by a super-human kick.

 

Melvin Manhoef-Robbie Lawlor, 2010 – A brutal, one-punch, come-from-behind KO.

 

Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen, 2010 – Joe Louis-Billy Conn I all over again – but with twice the trash talk.

 

Brock Lesnar-Shane Carwin, 2010 – Truly from the brink of defeat.

 

Jorge Santiago-Kazuo Misaki II, 2010 – Gut-wrenching fight, exhausting, relentless.

 

Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard II, 2011 – Sickening 1st round and an edge-of-your-seat comeback.

 

Frankie Edgar-Grey Maynard III, 2011 – Deja vu, but with a better ending.

 

Nick Diaz-Paul Daley, 2011 – Two bad dudes. You knew this wouldn’t last long.

 

Cheick Congo-Pat Barry, 2011 – Foremna-Lyle, distilled into two and a half beautiful minutes.

 

Dan Henderson-Shogun Rua, 2011 – MMA’s Thrilla in Manila.

 

Frank Mir-Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera 2, 2011 – Oh, snap!

 

Some MMA fans may quibble about fights left off this list (there are quite a few I still have not seen), but very few will deny that the fights on this list are classics. And do you clamor for jaw-dropping exhibitions of skill and brutality? The sickening submission, the highlight reel knockout? Again, from the past three years alone we have:

Paulo Thiago-Mike Swick, 2010 – There’s nothing like watching a man go to sleep.

Chris Lytle-Matt Brown, 2010 – The most artful submission I have ever seen.

(Unfortunately, I cannot find video or good photos of these matches.)

Jon Jones-Lyoto Machida, 2011 – Wicked. The fans had to tell Big John McCarthy that Machida was out.

 

Anderson Silva-Vitor Belfort, 2011 – Remember, this was Vitor Belfort this happened to.

 

Marius Zaromskis-Bruno Carvalho, 2011 – Somersalt heel kick straight from a Jackie Chan movie.

 

Cairo Rocha vs. Francisco Neves, 2011 – Where do these guys come up with these kicks?

 

Nick Diaz-Evangelista Santos, 2011 – I never considered how an armbar could be beautiful until I saw it executed here.

 

Edson Barbosa-Terry Etim, 2012 – Perfect spinning wheel kick.

 

Jose Aldo-Chad Mendes, 2012 – If a cobra had knees, he’d be Jose Aldo.

 

And there’s more. With MMA, there’s always more. Keep in mind that this is only since 2010, a small subset of the fights I could have selected. It bears repeating that these fights are every bit as good as the best boxing matches. You would just have to watch top level boxing for 5-6 years to compile an equally long list.

The best analogy I can think of is the old video game Galaga. Remember how you could get your space ship captured in a tractor beam? And if you shoot just right, you could get that ship back? Then you could fire two shots at a time and really take it to the aliens. Boxing is like that single shooter. You’re deadly, to be sure, but your kill rate is only half as good as the double shooter. MMA is like that double shooter. You get about twice as much bang from the same amount of buck.

Ever hang around old-time fight fans? You know, the guys of Bert Sugar’s generation, born before or during the Depression, who didn’t give Cassius Clay a chance against Sonny Liston and who still look to Floyd Patterson as the kind of champion to which all boxers should aspire. Don’t they get a little tiresome when they praise old fighters at expense of current ones? Ever get sick of hearing about how Sugar Ray Robinson would have knocked out Roy Jones, about how Henry Armstrong would have crushed Pernell Whitaker, and about how Joe Louis would have stopped Muhammad Ali? Don’t they realize how much they sound like stuck up blowhards when they praise to no end the Herculean toughness of Jake La Motta, the iron will of Tony Zale, the slickness of Kid Gavilan, the brilliance of Ezzard Charles, the ferocity of Jack Dempsey, the guile of Wilie Pep, the courage of Jimmy Braddock, the power of Sandy Saddler and then sneer in undisguised disdain at the modern stars? Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward I? Feh. That’s not a fight. Carmen Basilio-Tony DeMarco II at the Boston Garden. 1955. Now there was a fight.

Bert Sugar: Sure, Primo Carnera would have licked Vladimir Klitschko! What of it?

Well, kids, listen up. You see Bert Sugar’s ugly mug up there? Don’t laugh, because that’s going to be us in forty years. You heard it here first. Today’s MMA fans are going to become the most obnoxious, insufferable, overbearing gasbags when it comes to the MMA of the future, and our grandkids are going to hate us for it. I assure you, we will not shut up for one second about what Chuck Liddell or Jon Jones would have done to some punk champion in 2052 who calls himself a mixed martial artist. Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Jose Aldo, our opinions of these and probably a dozen other fighters will swell over time until these men become ensconced in some heroic pantheon that you really have to be part of our generation to understand and appreciate.

And why? Because, like Bert Sugar and other old-time fight fans, we are extremely fortunate to live during a combat sport’s golden age. It may not seem so obvious now, but what the UFC, Strikeforce, PRIDE, and other organizations have been serving up on a regular basis for the past decade is a rare and wondrous thing. When it goes away (and one day, sadly, it will) we are going to realize that the first two or three decades of the 21st century produced some of the greatest fights and some of the greatest fighters the world has ever seen.

Bert Sugar describes today’s boxing as an “echo of years gone by.” In a sense, he’s right. Boxing 60-70 years ago did reach heights it will probably never reach again. And in some ways I wouldn’t want it to. I wouldn’t want to invite the kind of harrowing conditions that gave rise to boxing’s greatest era 60-70 years ago: grinding poverty, the Great Depression, World War II, bigotry and racism, institutionalized oppression, and other things, I’m sure. Who would want to go through all that again? But for some reason, today is different. We can achieve great MMA without paying such a price. Today’s MMA is still on the upward climb towards the same heights boxing inhabited long ago. I know this sport, and I know its value. With MMA we are living in an age from which echoes are made.

We will delve into why in my next post.

Boxing Vs. MMA Part 2

My previous post, Boxing vs. MMA, set the stage for a showdown between the two popular combat sports.

On August 28th, 2010, boxing hall of famer James “Lights Out” Toney stepped into the UFC’s Octagon to take on MMA’s aging hero Randy Couture. The two athletes could not be more dissimilar. Toney, a phenomenally talented tough guy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, won the IBF middleweight title in 1991 and, when active, dominated the light heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions for over a decade. By 2003 he was competing successfully at heavyweight. He’s a bad dude with old-school skills and uncanny power. Outside the ring however, there’s little sophistication to him other than a thuggish, warlord’s charisma that commands respect and perhaps not a small amount of fear. That’s how it seems to me in his interviews at least.

On the other hand, Couture was a college wrestling standout, army veteran, and an Olympic alternate in Greco-Roman wrestling. Nicknamed Captain America, he’s articulate, outgoing, charming and loved the world over for helping to cement wrestling as one of the cornerstones of MMA. Plus, he never grows old. By the time of the Toney fight, he was 47. Toney was no spring chicken either at 42.

Here is YouTube video of the prefight hype to give you a taste of what this altercation was all about.

So pride was on the line. And bragging rights. Boxers and boxing writers have long held MMA with disdain, claiming that a good mixed martial artist will be no match for a good boxer in any arena.

So how did the hall of fame boxer do? The fight ended in the first round when Couture took Toney down with a low single leg, mounted him, and submitted him with a textbook arm triangle choke.

So that settles the debate. In the Octagon at least, mixed martial artists are superior to boxers, right?

Well, not really. Watch this.

My previous post, Boxing vs. MMA, set the stage for a showdown between the two popular combat sports.

On August 28th, 2010, boxing hall of famer James “Lights Out” Toney stepped into the UFC’s Octagon to take on MMA’s aging hero Randy Couture. The two athletes could not be more dissimilar. Toney, a phenomenally talented tough guy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, won the IBF middleweight title in 1991 and, when active, dominated the light heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions for over a decade. By 2003 he was competing successfully at heavyweight. He’s a bad dude with old-school skills and uncanny power. Outside the ring however, there’s little sophistication to him other than a thuggish, warlord’s charisma that commands respect and perhaps not a small amount of fear. That’s how it seems to me in his interviews at least.

On the other hand, Couture was a college wrestling standout, army veteran, and an Olympic alternate in Greco-Roman wrestling. Nicknamed Captain America, he’s articulate, outgoing, charming and loved the world over for helping to cement wrestling as one of the cornerstones of MMA. Plus, he never grows old. By the time of the Toney fight, he was 47. Toney was no spring chicken either at 42.

James Toney Vs. Randy Couture

Here is YouTube video of the prefight hype to give you a taste of what this altercation was all about.

So pride was on the line. And bragging rights. Boxers and boxing writers have long held MMA with disdain, claiming that a good mixed martial artist will be no match for a good boxer in any arena.

So how did the hall of fame boxer do? The fight ended in the first round when Couture took Toney down with a low single leg, mounted him, and submitted him with a textbook arm triangle choke.

Couture Submitting Toney

So that settles the debate. In the Octagon at least, mixed martial artists are superior to boxers, right?

Well, not really. Watch this.

This is a 48-year old “Merciless” Ray Mercer, retired former WBO heavyweight boxing champion stretching 33 year-old Tim Sylvia, former UFC heavyweight champion in 9 seconds. Sylvia was a mere 6 years removed from his UFC title holding days whereas Mercer was a good 18-20 years past his prime. Recently, the writers at Sherdog.com posted Sylvia as the number 7 all-time MMA heavyweight.

So if mixed martial artists reign supreme in the cage, what is Tim Sylvia doing getting knocked cold by a retired boxer?

The answer is that a boxer can transfer 100% of his skill set into the cage whereas a mixed martial artist can only transfer 10%-15% of his skill set into a boxing ring. I like to think of MMA fighters as Swiss army knives: multifaceted, but perhaps not the very best in any one single facet (with the possible exception of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, which is very closely tied to MMA). Boxers are more like bowie knives, long and deadly, but comparatively one dimensional. And since MMA fights start on the feet just like in boxing, this one dimension could very well be all you need. As they say, power is the great equalizer, and anyone with a good punch has a puncher’s chance, even in the cage.

A statistical analysis will show that boxers actually transition better into mixed-martial arts than the other way around. Presented here are a list of notable mixed-martial artists and professional boxers who made the switch. These athletes must either be champions, contenders, or notable in some way in either boxing or MMA, or they must compete seriously in both sports simultaneously.

Notable Boxers Who Have Fought in MMA (Click to enlarge):

Notable Mixed Martial Artists Fought as Professional Boxers (Click to enlarge):

Before we begin to analyze this data, we need to discuss briefly some important names left off these lists and why. There’s always going to be some subjectivity and exclusivity in studies like these, but I hope you find my reasons for limiting it to these 22 fighters reasonable, if not compelling.

Don Frye: Frye began his MMA career in 1996 and went on to become a two-time UFC tournament champion. His lone boxing match in 1989 cannot be considered a switch to the sweet science since he hadn’t begun his MMA career yet. And the 7-year gap prevents it from being considered a switch in the other direction.

Jerome Le Banner: Le Banner began his boxing career in 1998 and went undefeated against nondescript opposition. He began his MMA career in 2002 and went 5-2 decent opposition. However, Le Banner is first and foremost a world champion kick boxer, compiling a record of 58-20-1 since 1992. He’s excluded here because he is at heart neither a boxer nor a mixed martial artist as the term is currently defined.

Carter Williams: Another champion kick boxer who began in the 1990s, Williams had a very brief boxing career in 2002 and tallied a 4-4 record in MMA since then. He’s excluded here for the same reason Le Banner is.

Matt Skelton: Skelton was also a champion kick boxer in the 1990s and transitioned into a highly successful boxing career in 2002. He challenged for the WBA Heavyweight title in 2008. He had one MMA bout in 2001, a loss. Technically, this was a switch from kick boxing to MMA. Since he hadn’t started boxing yet the dynamics are different enough to exclude him here.

Alexander Ustinov: Like Le Banner, Williams, and Skelton, Ustinov started as a kick boxer. He fought 64 times from 2002 to 2007. He started boxing in 2006 and is currently ranked in the top 10 by the WBA, the WBO, and the IBF as a heavyweight. During his time as a kick boxer, he competed in events that may or may not be considered MMA bouts since they didn’t adhere entirely to the UFC/Pride model of fighting. For example, fighters wore boxing gloves and didn’t grapple. Thus, Ustinov is mostly a kick boxer turned boxer with dubious experience in MMA.

Art Jimmerson: Jimmerson was an accomplished boxer by the time he famously competed in the very first UFC competition in 1993. He had contended for the NABF Light-Heavyweight title in 1990 and won the IBC Americas light heavyweight title in 1991. His boxing record stood at 29-5 on the day he entered the Octagon against Royce Gracie, perhaps the greatest mixed martial artist of the day (although few outside his home country of Brazil knew it back then). Gracie mounted Jimmerson and submitted him in little over two minutes. Jimmerson is excluded here because although he was fighting in MMA, I’ll argue that he really didn’t know what he was getting into. He showed up wearing one boxing glove, an unheard of practice which put him at an absurd disadvantage, and he tapped out despite not being struck with a significant blow.

My hunch is that Jimmerson didn’t want to get injured and jeopardize his upcoming bout with WBA Cruiserweight champion Orlin Norris (which took place two months later) and decided too late that his little foray into MMA was perhaps ill-advised. Had he trained in MMA for several months and demonstrated some familiarity with it against Gracie he would be included here. But because he hadn’t, it’s hard to take his stab at MMA seriously.

Watch the video here and judge for yourself.

Perhaps we should first compare the combined records of both groups. That would be: 47-35-1 for the boxers (a winning percentage of 56.6%) and 42-5-4 for the mixed martial artists (a winning percentage of 82.4%). So this seems the support the argument that mixed martial artists have the edge over boxers. Indeed, when athletes cross over there is a statistically better chance the a mixed martial artist will be successful than a boxer.

But let’s consider two other things: 1) The age at the time of switching from one combat sport to another, and 2) the quality of opposition each group faced in their second sport.

For the first, boxers tend to transition later than mixed martial artists. On average, they make the switch at 35.0 years of age, whereas the average age for mixed martial artists is 27.6. Considering that a man is in his physical prime during his twenties and early thirties, this is a meaningful statistic. It seems that boxers tend to wait until their career is over or on the downside before trying MMA. This is certainly the case with Botha, Butterbean, Davis, Mercer, Nishijima, Nortje, Toney, Warring, and Jeremy Williams. Only Rubin Williams fought as a mixed martial artist while still in the midst of his boxing career. With the MMA group, on the other hand, you get a lot of guys who will compete in both sports simultaneously or who will dabble for a fight or two in boxing, perhaps as a way to keep their striking sharp between MMA fights. This usually happens in their twenties. Only Kimbo Slice bucks this trend, turning his back on a respectable MMA career in his late thirties to give boxing a try.

For the second, it’s nearly impossible to obtain an objective measure of the quality of opposition a fighter has faced in his second sport. The best we can do is compare the winning and losing percentages of the opposition and then look at their accomplishments. The combined record of opposition faced by boxers in MMA is 932-690-36. This is a winning percentage of 56.2% and a losing percentage of 41.6%. On the other hand, the combined record of opposition faced by mixed martial artists in the boxing ring is 417-944-51. This is a winning percentage of 29.5% and a losing percentage of 66.8%. Clearly, boxers faced the stiffer competition in their second sport, which would explain why their win-loss percentages are not as stellar as those coming from MMA.

One will quickly notice that of the 1412 bouts taken from the records of the opposition facing mixed martial artists in boxing, 1048 came from Chris Lytle, who seems to be a bit of an outlier. As a boxer, Lytle took on a bunch of guys with big losing records including Reggie Strickland, who famously lost 256 boxing matches from 1987 to 2005 while winning only 66. Another Lytle opponent tallied a dismal 13-166-6 record. So removing Lytle from the mix brings us to 151-200-13. This is still only a winning percentage of 41.4% and a losing percentage of 54.9%. Not as impressive as the competition faced by boxers in MMA.

Another way to judge quality of opposition is to determine what champions, former champions, or title challengers the fighters faced in their second sport. As of December 2011, boxers have faced 11 (or 12 since Jan Nortje faced UFC 8 Heavyweight finalist Gary Goodridge twice) whereas mixed martial artists have only faced 7:

MMA world champions or challengers faced by boxers in MMA:

Boxing world champions or challengers faced by mixed martial artists in boxing:

So, again, Chris Lytle is the outlier having faced 6 of the 7 boxing champions and challengers listed above.

Also, keep in mind that none of the boxing titles mentioned here are recognized by the Boxing Hall of Fame, and only one (the WBO title) is a true world championship belt, albeit a minor one at that. The other titles are considered minor or regional. To be fair, the titles achieved or contended for by the 11 MMA fighters listed in the previous table may claim to be a world championship, but some really aren’t. In some cases these represent tournament victories or minor belts. The Pride and UFC titles at different points in the 1990s and 2000s (and perhaps the WEC and Strikeforce titles in the last 5 or so years) are probably the most prestigious of the bunch and lay the best claim to the term “world champion”.

We should also consider that there are more boxers in the world than mixed martial artists, so the ascent to the championship level is likely to be longer in boxing.

Still, the MMA champions and challengers faced by boxers in the cage are far more elite than the boxing champions and challengers faced by mixed martial artists in the ring. Couture and Sakuraba are legendary fighters and have easy claims to greatness in MMA. Gracie is a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu black belt, who, in the 1990s, defeated two UFC champions. Nate Diaz is a highly rated and respected fighter currently competing as a lightweight in the UFC. Tim Sylvia is a former UFC champion with 2 title defenses. And both Manhoef and Akiyama hold a KO victories over Sakuraba (although Akiyama’s was changed later to a no contest). Any casual MMA fan will have heard of most of these guys.

In comparison, the boxing champions and contenders faced by Lytle and Noons wouldn’t be household names even in their own households, to borrow a quip from boxing writer Bert Sugar. In fact, of the 7 mentioned above, only 2 actually won a title. And one of these is Reggie Strickland. Yes, the same guy who went 66-256-14 in his boxing career.

This all supports the claim that boxers compete better in MMA than the other way around. Despite that MMA fighters have the better win-loss record in their second sport, boxers as a whole still have a win percentage well over 50%, are taken more seriously, and compete on a higher level in MMA despite their much more advanced age. The fact that one boxer actually holds a KO victory over a former undisputed MMA world champion seals the deal in my opinion.

But if there is still some doubt, consider this. Anderson Silva has been considered the pound for pound best MMA fighter in the world for the last 6 years at least. Here is a quote from Wikipedia attesting to his greatness.

With 14 consecutive wins and 9 title defenses, Silva holds the longest winning streak and title defense streak in UFC history. UFC president Dana White has proclaimed Silva as “the greatest mixed martial artist ever.”

Silva is ranked as the number one Middleweight in the world by multiple publications, and is the consensus #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world according to ESPN, Sherdog, Yahoo! Sports, MMAFighting.com and other publications. Silva is also the last Cage Rage Middleweight Champion and a former Shooto Middleweight Champion.

Anderson Silva is a beautiful fighter who, now in his late thirties, is still ruling the MMA roost at 185 pounds. Here is a good YouTube collection of Anderson Silva’s greatest moments (if you don’t mind excessive profanity in the soundtrack). Really, he is breathtaking to watch.

This is the same person who in 1998 was knocked out in the second round by someone named Osmar Luiz Teixeira, an 11-2 fighter from Brazil. Silva was 23 at the time, not old, but certainly not young by boxing standards. So the Sugar Ray Robinson of MMA gets stopped in two by a boxer who as of December 2011 has compiled a record of 32-22 and never even contended for a belt, minor or otherwise. This certainly does throw a wet blanket on any argument regarding the superiority of MMA fighters over boxers.

To be fair, there is some controversy as to whether this bout even took place and whether it really was Anderson Silva who got knocked out. You can read about it here. But Silva’s demographic information on boxrec.com (a boxing reference site which lists the Teixeira fight) matches that on sherdog.com (a MMA reference site). Same nickname (“The Spider”), same birth date, same city of residence. The only difference is that Boxrec lists Silva as “Da Silva” and has him at 6′ 2.5″ whereas Sherdog drops the “Da” and has him at 6′ 2″ even. In my opinion, it’s the same guy.

Another example would be Jens Pulver. Pulver may not be considered a great MMA fighter, but he was a legitimate UFC lightweight champion in the early 2000s. In 2002 at UFC 35 he defeated the amazing BJ Penn, who is considered one of the greatest MMA fighters ever.

In 2004 at the age of 29 he embarked on a boxing career, winning 4 straight. In his second fight, he got in a kick-down drag-out war with a 3-0 fighter named Steve Vincent and won a close 4-round split decision. Vincent knocked Pulver down, got knocked down twice, and lost by a single point on two of three judges cards. Vincent ended his boxing career 2 years later with a 10-5 record. His biggest fight ended in a 5th round TKO loss to Gilbert Venegas. And who is Venegas? A 10-7 fighter who drew for the WBC Continental Americas welterweight title in 2007 and was shut out in a unanimous decision by a rising Mike Jones a year later. And who is Mike Jones? A currently undefeated welterweight contender ranked in the top 3 in the world by the WBA, the IBF, and the WBO.

This should illustrate the chasm between the level at which MMA fighters compete in boxing and the true championship level. Based on the evidence, it would be unthinkable for a top notch MMA fighter to walk in the ring and take out a champion boxer. If it is thinkable, it would have happened already. Pulver would be losing close fights against people like Mike Jones, not winning close ones against the Steve Vincents of the world. MMA fighters would be facing stiffer boxing competition in general. But they are not, probably because they, as a group, cannot. But in MMA, boxers can, and so they do. And in at least one instance, came out on top.

After his bout with James Toney, Randy Couture faced a challenge from Toney’s boxing promoter to fight Toney in the boxing ring. Couture was frank in his reply. “I would respectfully decline such an offer,” he said. Later he added, “James would probably knock me out in the first round.”

That just about settles it, doesn’t it?

See the entire clip here.

Sources for this article include Sherdog.com, boxrec.com, fightnews.com, and Wikipedia.

In part 3 of this series, I will move from comparing the fighters to comparing the sports of boxing and MMA themselves.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.

Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.

By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”

Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, nurse Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.

Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.

By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”

Born in 1809 to a family that was as prosperous as it was cultured and respected, young Felix displayed astoundingly prodigious musical talent. He gave his first piano concert when he was nine. At twelve he dazzled the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who compared him favorably to a young Mozart in terms of his ability to sight-read and improvise on the piano. Goethe was speaking from experience. Old as he was in 1821, he had witnessed young Mozart play in 1763!

Mendelssohn had always admired the choral music and texts of Johann Sebastian Bach. Such music was hardly fashionable in the early years of the Romantic era, when enlightened Germans looked down upon such unabashed religiosity, and when leading composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner were focusing on rebelling against classical traditions. Nonetheless, in 1829, when he was a mere twenty years old, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It was a tremendous success, and the young composer was credited for almost single-handedly reviving Bach’s music in Germany. Significantly, 1829 marked not only the 100th anniversary of St. Matthew’s Passion but also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Moses Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn took new inspiration from traditional forms of music. He wrote many works for the church, such as his Elijah Oratorio, which were instantly popular and grew to be cherished in Germany and beyond. His Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture recalled the majestic sweep of Beethoven’s Leonoren Overtures. And the choral Lobgesang, his second symphony, took up where Beethoven’s Ninth left off in merging the classic symphony with the spiritual cantata.

With the symphonic poem, however, Mendelssohn was at his most Romantic and in many cases a step ahead of his contemporaries. The famous conductor Hans von Bulow once stated that Mendelssohn’s symphonic poem Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage “would live when other symphonic poems had ceased to be played.” And this came from the son in-law of Franz Liszt who coined the term “symphonic poem” and did the most to popularize the form. Around the time of his primeval and terrifying Walpurgis Night cantata in the early 1830s, he began calling himself “Richard Wagner’s elder brother.” Indeed, his elemental Hebrides Overture, a work that captures the raw violence and beauty of the sea, is considered a Wagernian work before Wagner!

What can never be forgotten about Felix Mendelssohn was how he was almost deliberately forgotten nearly a century after his death. The Nazis struggled to efface this towering and much beloved figure from the very core of the German psyche. They could not prevent Germans from singing the songs they loved, but they could suppress the name of the Jew who wrote them. They could not pull him off the small stage where he shared a place with the other great German composers of the past, but they could pull down the statue of Mendelssohn that stood in Leipzig. That these cruel and clumsy efforts came frighteningly close to success can drag one either into the depths of cynicism regarding man’s inherent selfishness and ingratitude or into euphoric heights regarding the victory of Truth over oppression.

As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. But in the case of the rather stormy and contentious Romantic period of classical music, all roads seemed to stem from Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin may have disregarded Schumann. Schumann may have railed against Wagner. Wagner may have stood apart from Brahms. Brahms may have condemned Liszt. But to a man, they all revered and took inspiration from Felix Mendelssohn. His dear friend Robert Schumann was said to have begun dying the day Mendelssohn passed away tragically in 1847 at the age of thirty-eight. Upon hearing Mendelssohn himself play his gorgeous Songs Without Words, with its adroit and mesmerizing variations simple themes, Robert’s wife Clara Schumann called him “the dearest pianist of all.” And why? Throughout his charmed but short life, he was brilliant, kind, generous, honest, erudite. But most of all, he wrote beautiful music.

Boxing vs. MMA

The sudden advent of mixed martial arts as a legitimate professional sport is one of the most remarkable apsects about American cultural life in the early 21st century.

Like boxing a century and a half before it, MMA was born into obscurity and possessed with such atavistic violence and brutality that many couldn’t believe that such a thing could exist in the modern age. In fact, shortly after the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in the early 1990s, there were calls across the country to ban it. The UFC began as an experiment of sorts to discover which martial art was the most effective. As such, you had wrestlers, Ju-Jitsu and Muay Thai practitioners, karate black belts, boxers, kick boxers, and men from other martial disciplines all competing in a cage called the Octagon. The fighters at first were a hodgepodge, arriving in differing kinds of attire, from Speedos to full gis. Further, the rules of the sport were lax enough to allow tactics that (for people accustomed to boxing at least) seemed truly barbaric. It was perfectly legal to not just to hit a man when he was down, but also to deliver kicks to the head and groin to keep him there. Add to that witches brew elbows, knees, kidney punches, hair pulling, foot stomping, arm locks, leg locks, creative choke holds, and, in one instance at least, strangling an opponent with his T-shirt, and you had something that even the most hardened American sports fans found difficult to swallow.

The sudden advent of mixed martial arts as a legitimate professional sport is one of the most remarkable apsects about American cultural life in the early 21st century. Like boxing a century and a half before it, MMA was born into obscurity and possessed with such atavistic violence and brutality that many couldn’t believe that such a thing could exist in the modern age. In fact, shortly after the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in the early 1990s, there were calls across the country to ban it. The UFC began as an experiment of sorts to discover which martial art was the most effective. As such, you had wrestlers, Ju-Jitsu and Muay Thai practitioners, karate black belts, boxers, kick boxers, and men from other martial disciplines all competing in a cage called the Octagon. The fighters at first were a hodgepodge, arriving in differing kinds of attire, from Speedos to full gis. Further, the rules of the sport were lax enough to allow tactics that (for people accustomed to boxing at least) seemed truly barbaric. It was perfectly legal to not just to hit a man when he was down, but also to deliver kicks to the head and groin to keep him there. Add to that witches brew elbows, knees, kidney punches, hair pulling, foot stomping, arm locks, leg locks, creative choke holds, and, in one instance at least, strangling an opponent with his T-shirt, and you had something that even the most hardened American sports fans found difficult to swallow. Of course, amid the 400-pound freak shows, beer-gutted street brawlers, pretentious martial arts dilettantes, wannabe pro-wrestlers, and out-of-work tough guys who appeared in the early UFC tournaments, you had serious athletes dedicated to making MMA a legitimate form of competition. Royce Gracie, the Shamrock brothers, Marco Ruas, Guy Metzger, Vitor Belfort, Randy Couture were leading examples. As time went on in the 1990s, this pretty much became the norm in the UFC as it slowly shed its “bloodsport” in search of mainstream recognition. Regardless, boxing remained the premier combat sport in America, and not just because MMA took about a decade to find its legs. The 1990s and early 2000s were a golden age for boxing. Superstars such as Mike Tyson, Roy Jones, Julio Cesar Chavez, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barerra, Felix Trinidad, Ricardo Lopez, and Oscar De La Hoya revitalized interest in the sport. Later stars like the Klitschko brothers, Ricky Hatton, Arturo Gatti, Kostya Tszu, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquaio got their start in the 1990s as well. Further, competing cable networks such as HBO, Showtime, and ESPN limited some of the corruption in boxing by pressuring promoters to put on competitive fights, not just ones that were most expedient to their profit margins. The talent level was also very, very high, and many weight divisions were loaded with great matchups just waiting to happen, especially heavyweight. As opposed to MMA, boxing around the turn of the century was considered by most Americans to be a legitimate sport. It could boast of time-honored rules, loads of tradition, Olympic pedigrees, phenomenal athletes, and bigger-than-life personalities while the UFC was still trying to convince state athletic commissions to keep MMA legal. In 2001, the very idea that MMA would eclipse boxing as America’s top combat sport was fairly ridiculous. Now, ten years later, not so much. In fact, it has pretty much already happened. The UFC changed owners and management in 2001, and as a result better regulated the rules, banned some of the more brutal fighting tactics, introduced more weight classes, earned approval from sanctioning bodies, greatly improved advertizing, made forays into reality television, and spread their appeal across the world. MMA has also developed a distinct personality with its own share of characters, heels, heroes, and rivalries that will soon be part of legend. Bottom line however is that, in the UFC at least, the matchmaking has been excellent, the fighters compete at a very high level, and the fights more often than not are exciting. By 2005, the UFC had turned a corner and has grown in popularity and stature ever since. Boxing, on the other hand, while still going strong, hasn’t exactly matched the dizzying heights it had reached 10-20 years ago when super-fights were being staged nearly every month. Many of the fighters mentioned above have retired, should retire, or will in the next year or two. And they have not exactly been replaced by athletes of equal magnitude or charisma. The Klitschkos continue to dominate a lackluster heavyweight division. Sergio Martinez, Chad Dawson and Andre Ward are excellent fighters, but Roy Jones, James Toney, and Bernard Hopkins they ain’t. There are a lot of talented guys in the lighter weights, such as Saul Alvarez, Nonito Donaire, Amir Kahn, Marcos Maidana, and Andre Berto. But none as of yet has the box office cache or charisma of a prime Julio Cesar Chavez or Oscar de la Hoya. And has anyone created a rivalry that can match Barerra-Morales, Ward-Gatti, or Corrales-Castillo? Further, the two most recognizable men in the sport, Manny Pacquaio and Floyd Mayweather, share not only the same weight division but also the number 1 and 2 spots on all pound-for-pound lists. Yet they refuse to fight each other. Of course, boxing isn’t doing badly in 2011. It’s just that compared to how things were 10-20 years ago, it’s in a bit of a slump. Also, it appears to Americans a little worse than it really is since much of boxing’s appeal has shifted overseas with its stars. If you look at the Ring or Fightnews.com rankings per weight class you will only find a smattering of American fighters in the top ten in each division above welterweight. This

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reminds me of how things were in 1975 when the only American world champion was Muhammad Ali. The talented Olympic classes of 1976 and 1984 changed all that. I have no doubt that things will improve for boxing, partly because MMA has emerged as a competitor and real threat to its business. So now that the two sports compete head-to-head we can ask the following questions: which one is better? Which is more thrilling? Who is the more dangerous combat athlete? What can one learn from the other? These questions I will tackle in an upcoming post.

Against Kubrick 7

This is part 7 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 3 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. I added up the minutes spent on violence and sex versus satire and found more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter. I also organized the film in chapters like so:

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

In Part 2, I explored the quality of the filmmaking and assessed that Kubrick was most inspired when filming acts of cruelty and frankly uninspired when filming much of the satirical chapters. In this third and final installment, I will discuss the flawed nature of the satire itself, underscoring the premise that A Clockwork Orange is anti-humanist in its contempt for people and frankly dishonest for its intellectual pretensions.

At its very center, the film’s satire shows how in the face of endless corruption and weakness, pure evil becomes attractive, if not preferable to good. Purity becomes a virtue because it is a quality no one else in the film besides Alex shares. And the ending turns this already perverted notion on its head when even pure evil becomes corrupted.

Remember Alex mugging triumphantly for the photographers in his hospital bed? After a moment, he looks up, suddenly struck by an idea. He realizes that he doesn’t have to resort to ultra-violence anymore to harm or take advantage of others. He can use the corrupt system that the government has invited him into to do that for him. After all, he is getting away with murder, right? If he plays his cards right, with the powerful friends he now has, he can do it again.

And that last line: “I was cured, all right.” Basically, Alex was cured of his cure, as illustrated here.

This is part 7 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 3 of my discussion on… A Clockwork Orange In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. I added up the minutes spent on violence and sex versus satire and found more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter. I also organized the film in chapters like so:

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes) 2) Prison (24 minutes) 3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes) 4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes) 5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

In Part 2, I explored the quality of the filmmaking and assessed that Kubrick was most inspired when filming acts of cruelty and frankly uninspired when filming much of the satirical chapters. In this third and final installment, I will discuss the flawed nature of the satire itself, underscoring the premise that A Clockwork Orange is anti-humanist in its contempt for people and frankly dishonest for its intellectual pretensions. At its very center, the film’s satire shows how in the face of endless corruption and weakness, pure evil becomes attractive, if not preferable to good. Purity becomes a virtue because it is a quality no one else in the film besides Alex shares. And the ending turns this already perverted notion on its head when even pure evil becomes corrupted. Remember Alex mugging triumphantly for the photographers in his hospital bed? After a moment, he looks up, suddenly struck by an idea. He realizes that he doesn’t have to resort to ultra-violence anymore to harm or take advantage of others. He can use the corrupt system that the government has invited him into to do that for him. After all, he is getting away with murder, right? If he plays his cards right, with the powerful friends he now has, he can do it again. And that last line: “I was cured, all right.” Basically, Alex was cured of his cure, as illustrated here. I draw a dotted line here because it doesn’t have to be Alex committing the ultra-violence himself as long as he has the government covering for him. Hence, he is no longer as “pure” as he was in chapter 1. (Although exactly how Alex could suddenly stand listening to Beethoven again in the film’s last scene despite the Ludovico Technique was never made clear.) Regardless, Kubrick has to do two things to set up such a clever and ironic finale. First, he has to establish Alex as pure evil, which he clearly does. In fact, he may do it better than anyone in cinema, which is no mean accomplishment. More on that later. He also has to portray his victims and others around him in a negative light so we never gain sympathy for them and lose focus on the beautiful white-hot burning flame that is Alex. As soon as that happens, Alex’s fall and satirical rebirth become meaningless. So how does Kubrick do this? By portraying the dystopian world Alex lives in as being: A) hopelessly corrupt B) maddeningly banal C) awash in atrociously bad taste. In such a world, how could we not become spellbound by Alex’s harmonic malice? Unfortunately for Kubrick however, being corrupt, banal, and/or having bad taste are not heinous enough sins even when compounded to be punishable by rape and murder. First, there is the rampant corruption. The Deltoid character epitomizes this. He is presumably some kind of youth counselor, yet he grabs Alex by the crotch while lecturing him on how he should live his life. He also laughs maniacally when informing Alex that he is a murderer. The man is clearly a psychopath, yet he fits in just fine in Kubrick’s world. deltoid1deltoid2 Of course, the prison chaplain’s creepy hand-on-the-shoulder affection for Alex, Mr. Alexander’s vicious politicizing of the Ludovico Technique, and the government cover-up in the end add to this. Really, who in this film is not tainted by corruption? Maybe the chief guard of the prison, but he seems to be there more for cheap laughs than anything else. The signs of corruption everywhere are in images too (e.g., the phallic graffiti, the atrocious art). It seems that Kubrick really wants to portray humanity as some Gordian knot of corruption so that when Alex slashes it to pieces, we cheer. graffiti Second, there is the banality of Alex’s parents. These are two entirely sheep-like human beings. It’s as if they are so heavily medicated they can barely lift a finger. And they are stupid too. Anyone would go mad if forced to live with people like this. At least, that’s what Kubrick wants us to feel. Giving Alex any positive role models would only make Alex look bad in comparison. Finally, there is the atrocious style on display everywhere in the film, from hairstyles, to clothing, to artwork, to interior decoration. It’s all not just bad, but garishly so. Does anyone in Kubrick’s universe besides Alex have a sense of taste? See if you don’t disagree. Notice also how Kubrick deliberately films Alex’s main victims in an unattractive light. I mean, really. Is this necessary? The first screenshot is of the innocent middle-aged woman whom Alex senselessly murders. Do we have to see her in such an unflattering pose? The second screenshot is of Mr. Alexander when he realizes that his guest (Alex) was the one who had raped and murdered his wife and left him in a wheelchair. A little over-the-top don’t you think? So this is how Kubrick sets up his satire, by making humanity entirely repulsive. Hardly the work of a humanist. Also, I’d like to point out an additional tidbit of Kubrick-cruelty. Remember when Alex and his droogs steal a car and go joyriding? Playing “Hogs of the road”, as Alex put it. They run 3 vehicles off the road. So what happened to the people in those vehicles? Were they injured or killed? I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy in the motorcycle had at least broken a leg. But we don’t know because Kubrick doesn’t care to tell us. Those people weren’t important, you see. They were only human. Another way to look at the satire that is A Clockwork Orange is to take it at face-value. Let’s judge it on its own terms as a treatise on mind control and freedom. Again, let’s re-quote Kubrick:

…a

social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.

and

It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is at the same time a running lecture on free-will.

This is frankly laughable. I love how Kubrick refers to Alex as a “delinquent”. Alex is not a delinquent. Alex is a serial rapist and murderer. Anything the government does to keep him from the electric chair is a mercy in my opinion. By giving him a second chance through experimental behavioral conditioning, the government looks good in my opinion. They chose the very risky path (for them and for Alex) of redemption when the path of least resistance would have been a swift execution. And yes, capital punishment had been abolished in England when the film was shot, and yes, they wouldn’t have executed Alex anyway for his status as a minor. But so what? This is the dystopian future. Laws can be overturned in dystopian futures. Here is an additional quote on the subject from the man himself, found here.

The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man. But in this movie, you have an example of social institutions gone a bit berserk. Obviously, social institutions faced with the law-and-order problem might choose to become grotesquely oppressive. The movie poses two extremes: it shows Alex in his precivilized state, and society committing a worse evil in attempting to cure him.

So the point of the satire is to make this kind of governmental mind control out to be a bad thing. It villainizes the government when it tries to (gasp!) hinder the free will of serial rapists and murderers. Well, you know what, Stan? Putting people in prison also hinders free will. How come you’re not complaining about that? And if you must have serial rapists and murderers walking the streets as free men, wouldn’t you want their free will to be hindered somehow? It’s either that or subjecting society to more rape and murder. Also, according to the film, the government reserves its “psychological conditioning” only to its basest criminals, not ordinary citizens. Doesn’t that make a difference? A Clockwork Orange is a far cry from 1984, and the Ludovico Technique is a far cry from the tool of a “totalitarian government”. Remember, Alex volunteered for the treatment. He could have said no at any point and gone back to the prison where he belonged. I suspect Kubrick simply didn’t think this satire thing all the way through. It’s either that or he really believed that allowing thugs to rape and murder is a small price to pay for free will. And I don’t think he did. When I knock Stanley Kubrick for his lack of humanism, I’m knocking the artist, not the man. Kubrick had two daughters. I refuse to believe he would have enjoyed watching what happened to Mr. Alexander’s wife happen to them. So A Clockwork Orange may glorify cruelty under a clumsy guise of satire, but I will say this for it: the first chapter is brilliant, and the film would have been better if that’s all there was to it. My friend (the same friend who challenged me to write these posts to begin with by claiming that Kubrick was a humanist) asserts that the first chapter of A Clockwork Orange is a priceless addition to Western art. He feels that by making evil both repulsive and attractive, it allows us to face any evil we have lurking inside of us. He calls to our attention the scene in which Alex reveals the breasts of Mr. Alexander’s wife with a pair of scissors. We have seen it before, but not like this. Hard to look at, isn’t it? That’s because this scene titillates as it horrifies. Only a filmmaker as adroit as Stanley Kubrick could have pulled off something this schizophrenic and this powerful. But when my friend says the first 43 and a half minutes of a A Clockwork Orange, viewed as a whole, is great art, I cannot entirely agree. True, the film’s juvenile and sloppy satire slathers an intellectual veneer over the violent chapters like a layer of grease. And when robbed of that, the film does become less dishonest. But even at his best in this film, Kubrick is just too snide, too cold, too vicious for me to champion. He shows not one iota of compassion for humanity in that first violent chapter. Lopping off everything after chapter 1 of A Clockwork Orange would put it in league with Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Leni Riefenshtal’s Triumph of the Will as a masterwork of filmmaking, creepy as it is brilliant, but just too weird to be taken seriously or even noticed by the mainstream. And that would not be nothing. It would also be much more than what we have with the entire film, which is basically virtuosic evil masquerading as something highbrow, poignant, and funny. One interesting trick Kubrick kept from the novel was Alex’s constant use of the Russian word “Хорошо”, which, as a Russian adverb, means “good, fine, or well.” It’s pronounced in English as “Horosho”, or, as Alex likes to say it, “Horror show”. It’s a clever use of diction, full of meaning and irony in a dystrophic future in which the Soviets presumably won the Cold War – or at least made headway in England where young cockneys now salt their rhyming slang with choice Russian slovos. But it’s also a double-edged sword that can symbolize the film itself. A Clockwork Orange may seem хорошо with all its vaunted brilliance and satire. But really it’s just a horror.

Against Kubrick 6

This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.

For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.

The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.

So to continue…

This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise is basically that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.

For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.

The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.

So to continue…

The first shot of the film is unforgettable. Alex, our anti-hero, staring into the camera at the Karova milk bar. Eerie synthesizer music. Then Kubrick slowly tracks back, revealing the futuristic setting. Everything here is laden with meaning, foreboding. You can’t take your eyes off it.

acwo_openingshot

This is what I mean when I say profound cinematic idea. I’ll wager Kubrick didn’t consult any rules of direction or cinematography when devising this scene. Rather, he just knew. He knew that it would work because he saw it crystal clear in his mind’s eye before he shot a centimeter of film. This is talent. And odds are you can close your eyes and throw a marble at any scene prior to Alex’s incarceration and come up with something just as good. This is genius.

Here’s a presentation of a half dozen of these images, most from the first chapter of the film:

I love this image. The wide angle. The long shadows. The truncheon resting comfortably on Alex’s shoulders. It’s urban. It’s subterranean. You know something bad is about to happen, but the setting is so…inviting you can’t pull yourself away from it.

I can’t pull myself away from this scene either, but for entirely different reasons.

Now, we all should know what Alex is about to do with those scissors. He’s about to expose his victim’s breasts prior to gang-raping her. It’s horrifying partially because it’s entirely unnecessary. He uses the same pair of scissors to remove all of the woman’s clothes a few seconds later. What does he need to expose her breasts for? He does it because he can, you see. And because she’s a woman and has breasts that Alex the psychopath simply wants to take a gander at. All this and “Singin’ in the Rain”. Chilling cinema.

And who can forget the slow-motion bashing by the lake. Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” playing on the soundtrack. A real feast for the eyes. Notice also how Kubrick frames these last three examples in wide angle, with the boots of Alex and his droogs figuring prominently. For me, this brings to mind storm troopers and documentaries about Nazi Germany. I’m sure it would bring to mind something else for you, but whatever it brings, I’m sure it won’t be comforting. I would be shocked if this wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s intent from the very beginning.

Then of course there’s this:

And this:

Hmm, I wonder Kubrick is up to here? And I mean that in a positive way. There is so much meaning in both of these screenshots that I’ll leave it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Keep in mind that Kubrick filmed it so you could do exactly that.

By the way, the woman in this last screenshot is attacking Alex with a bust of Beethoven. Beethoven is Alex’s favorite composer, and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” (Symphony #9) is Alex’s favorite composition. Of course, Alex’s self-serving hooliganism has no place in the peace and brotherhood promoted by Beethoven’s 9th, yet he loves Beethoven anyway. Beethoven also plays a very important role during the satirical scenes coming up in the film. So the levels of cinematic and narrative irony just keep piling on.

Perhaps my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, from chapter 4…

…which tracks back into this one:

So what’s going on here? After the Ludovico Technique, Alex is not only conditioned against violence, he is also conditioned against Beethoven’s 9th. That man in the middle is a writer known only as Mr. Alexander. He can be seen in the third screenshot above, about to watch Alex and his droogs gang rape his wife, the lady soon-not-to-be in red. Well, Alex stumbles into his home after being released from prison. To get revenge, Alexander locks him in a room and plays Beethoven’s 9th at full blast from the floor below, attempting to drive him mad. Alex screams in agony, but to Alexander it’s all sweet music.

But why is this sequence so mesmerizing, from the exaggerated schadenfreude on Alexander’s face to the apparent indifference of his co-conspirators? I don’t know. But I do know that it generates an emotional response in me that I cannot name. I also love the guy idly rolling billiard balls across the table.

So, I will ask you then, what do these all these scenes have in common? Well, yes, they are products of Kubrick’s stunning cinematic vision. But what else, my dear brother and only friends? What else do they have in common?

Answer: cruelty and violence. In all cases except the first, someone is in the process of getting beaten, raped, murdered, or tortured. And in the first, Alex reveals that whatever he and droogs decide to do that evening, it will involve “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” So if the violence ain’t happening, it’s certainly about to.

So, let’s compare all this great stuff with some of the conceits Kubrick comes up with during the other chapters in the film, namely 2, 3, and 5.

First, we have the chief guard of the prison.

With all his foot-stomping, order-barking, and anal retentive military etiquette, I never quite understood what Kubrick was going for here. And he must have been going for something since so much time is dedicated to this man. Is Kubrick lampooning the military? The British stiff upper lip? Not that it has anything to do with the story or anything, of course. I guess the prison chief is kind of amusing the first time you see him. After that, you’ll realize that Benny Hill did the schtick much better. So did Monty Python.

Then there are the moments that are just disgusting or placed in the movie for shock value. These are what I call cheap tricks, unworthy of their director. They command a person’s attention the same way a car wreck on the side of the road would. They require no sophistication to appreciate. They carry no meaning, present no vision. Here are some examples. See if you disagree.

So you have someone spitting in Malcolm McDowell’s face (Geez, I wonder how many takes it took to hit the lips like that), Michael Bates looking directly into Malcolm McDowell’s arse (Geez, I wonder if he really is pulling apart those arse cheeks), a close-up of Godfrey Quigley’s impossibly bad teeth (Geez, did Kubrick make him chew through a box of Oreos before shooting?), and a close up of Malcolm McDowell licking the sole of a shoe (Geez, I wonder if that’s a new shoe).

I use the actors’ names here and not their characters’ because what’s happening here is real. That’s not fake spit. That’s not a fake arse. That’s not a fake tongue. And if those are fake teeth, they’re real enough to convince. And I ask all those inane questions because they all relate to real life, in this case the act of filming, the very thing a director is supposed to hide unless his name is Jean Luc Goddard. Your reaction to these scenes would be almost identical to your reaction to them in real life. This is why I call these images cheap tricks. You can get them anywhere, and any director can come up with them. They require no craft, no art. Just competent lighting, acting, and camera work.

Now, what do these images all have in common? Little to no violence or cruelty, that’s what. The second and third images have none at all, the second being a routine prison inspection, and the latter being nothing more than a fire and brimstone sermon by the prison chaplain.

As for the first image, yes, spitting on someone isn’t nice. But is it cruel or violent? Hardly. And sure, Alex had just been roughed up by a pair of cops, but it was nothing compared to the ultra-violence he had been heaping upon Dystopian Britain throughout chapter 1. And that wound on his nose? Caused by one of his droogs hitting him square in the face with a loaded milk bottle, not the cops.

As for the last image, from chapter 3, it’s true that Alex gets slapped a couple times by a thug presumably paid to antagonize him on stage. The point of the scene is to show the public that Alex, being conditioned against violence by the Ludovico Technique, cannot retaliate. It is to show that he’d been cured and can thus regain his freedom. So when told to lick the thug’s shoe, Alex does it. Is this cruel? Well, if licking a man’s shoe is the price one pays for freedom, I doubt I’d call it cruel at all. Just the opposite, actually.

To be sure, there’s some good stuff in the satirical sections of the film. A straightjacketed Alex being forced to watch ultra-violent movies as part of the Ludovico Technique stands out, obviously.

And yes, that’s real physician, not an actor, making sure Malcolm McDowell’s eyes didn’t dry out during filming.

But as great as this image is, I wonder how much of it came from Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange the novel and how much originated from Kubrick?

Also, what images during chapters 3 and 5 aside from this one are particularly memorable? Maybe the final scene in which the government official feeds Alex while offering him a bribe. But what else? All the dormitory scenes during the Ludovico sequence are brief and used largely for exposition. What about Alex interrupting a hospital-room tryst when he wakes from his coma? Meh. His final rejection of his parents from his hospital bed? Nothing special there. The Rorschach’s test scene with the blue-haired psychiatrist?

clockwork-psychiatrist

While it was nice for Kubrick to have another woman in his film who doesn’t either get raped, murdered, or appear topless, this scene doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

Overall, I would say that Kubrick is at his best here when depicting scenes of violence and cruelty. His vision is singular and mesmerizing, just like it is in many of his other films. Further, I think the evidence shows that he is less inspired in the sequences in which people aren’t being particularly cruel and violent to each other.

So what does this amount to? Simply that A Clockwork Orange is a film about violence and cruelty first and a satire second. In fact, I could argue that A Clockwork Orange is almost as much softcore porn as it is a satire considering how many naked breasts it contains. I, umm, counted, actually. There are 62 female breasts in A Clockwork Orange, by my count. 40 are fake or in paintings. The other 22 are unique. That is, eleven different women appear topless in A Clockwork Orange. What this has to do with “satire” is anybody’s guess.

This concludes part 2 of my polemic against A Clockwork Orange. Part 3 will address how the very satire of A Clockwork Orange is problematic, further underscoring the idea that satire takes a backseat to violence in this very un-humanistic film.

But before I close, my dear brothers and only friends, I would like to leave you with this awesome image.

This is the first shot of the film’s prison sequence, chapter 2. Alex has just been betrayed by his droogs after his murder of the Cat Lady. Here he is being stared at by a police detective, who never says a word throughout the scene. I do love this image, but perhaps for reasons other than what Kubrick had intended. I love the boredom and contempt on the man’s face, as if to say, “You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you punk? With all your sex and ultra-violence. You think you’re so clever. But I see through you. I know what you really are, and it’s no big bargain.”

This is exactly how I feel about A Clockwork Orange.

Against Kubrick 5

This is part 5 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…

A Clockwork Orange

If you had to pigeonhole 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, you can call it a dark comedy that is far darker than it is funny. In fact, it is a cruel, nasty piece of work that uses satire as a cover for its myriad sins.

AClockworkOrange1

Kubrick’s usual brilliance and vision is on display here most of the time, and when he runs out of ideas he shamelessly stoops to the lurid and shocking to keep people interested. But the film is a satire, you see. We can overlook such lapses because we’re always trying to fit the film’s scenes, no matter how brutal or crude they are, into some bigger picture.

My big problem is that, after 40 years of overlooking Kubrick’s lapses, it seems that people have actually come to celebrate the horrific crimes that take place in the film and somehow believe the government or the political class are the real villains of the story. This really does seem like the intent of the film (accomplished as much by Malcolm McDowell’s riveting performance as Alex the film’s anti-hero as by anything done by Kubrick).

Forgotten amid grand satire, of course, is the suffering of the story’s many victims. But don’t be surprised. With Kubrick, feeling compassion for your fellow man is usually kind of beside the point, is it not?

And this, my brothers and only friends, cannot possibly be the work of a humanist.

This is part 5 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…

A Clockwork Orange

If you had to pigeonhole 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, you can call it a dark comedy that is far darker than it is funny. In fact, it is a cruel, nasty piece of work that uses satire as a cover for its myriad sins.

AClockworkOrange1

Kubrick’s usual brilliance and vision is on display here most of the time, and when he runs out of ideas he shamelessly stoops to the lurid and shocking to keep people interested. But the film is a satire, you see. We can overlook such lapses because we’re always trying to fit the film’s scenes, no matter how brutal or crude they are, into some bigger picture.

My big problem is that, after 40 years of overlooking Kubrick’s lapses, it seems that people have actually come to celebrate the horrific crimes that take place in the film and somehow believe the government or the political class are the real villains of the story. This really does seem like the intent of the film (accomplished as much by Malcolm McDowell’s riveting performance as Alex the film’s anti-hero as by anything done by Kubrick).

Forgotten amid grand satire, of course, is the suffering of the story’s many victims. But don’t be surprised. With Kubrick, feeling compassion for your fellow man is usually kind of beside the point, is it not?

And this, my brothers and only friends, cannot possibly be the work of a humanist.

I’d like to begin with a quick discussion on satire, especially the dramatic kind. In most cases, a satire unfolds in a world that is clearly not our own, yet the characters in the satire act as if it is. This can be funny enough, but it gets even better when the immutable laws of this satire universe seem to contrive in a very human way against a fairly obvious target of some kind, often revealing truths about this target that can’t easily be said in real life.

A great example is the old Onion article originally titled Retirees Rise Up Against Gang Violence…All are Killed.

In the story the gang members commit horrific acts of rape and torture against a group of plucky seniors who only want to rid their neighborhoods of crime. They want to make a better world for themselves, just like they did when they came to America on boats during the Depression or fought during World War II or what have you. But as fate would have it, the gang members not only massacre the seniors, but become better people because of it. They learn to work together, you see, something they’ve never done before. And that’s a good thing, right?

Why is this funny?

Because instead of exonerating gang violence and wanton murder like the article seems to do, it’s really satirizing the hackneyed underdog/good Samaritan stories the news media is constantly pushing on us. Aren’t you just ready to gag on all that syrupy moonshine? I mean, how many times do we have to hear about some disadvantaged girl from the ghetto competing in a national spelling bee, or read about how a retired couple collects and recycles cans to aid a local animal shelter? If you’re as sick of that stuff as I am pretending to be, then this Onion article is for you.

onion

So what does this have to do with A Clockwork Orange?

Well, as you can see, the article is only one page long. Imagine if it had gone on for four pages describing horrific violence not in standard news prose but in virtuosic, almost poetic, language. Imagine the seniors being not a pastiche of ethnic righteousness but a bunch of shallow hypocrites with bad taste. Imagine further the gangbangers being led not by a thug but by a highly literate and charismatic psychopath with a passion for Beethoven. After a while it would occur to you that the article’s point is not satire but to use virtuosic language to describe and, by extension, condone horrific violence.

For nearly the first 45 minutes (about one third of the film), I believe that’s what you get with A Clockwork Orange. As the story goes, you basically have this:

1) Hoodlum performs “ultra-violence”. That is, he fights, rapes, and murders, and has wanton sex. (43.5 minutes)
2) Hoodlum spends time in prison. (24 minutes)
3) Hoodlum receives the experimental, government-sponsored Ludovico Technique to “cure” him of hoodlum-itis. Hoodlum is set free. (20 minutes)
4) Hoodlum is shunned by family and attacked by former droogs and victims. Hoodlum attempts suicide. (33.5 minutes)
5) Hoodlum is bribed by a government official to avoid embarrassment for failure of Ludovico Technique. Hoodlum accepts bribe, realizing that he’s still hoodlum at heart. (13 minutes)

The satire manifests mostly in parts 3 and 5. Although we see some residual effects of Alex’s cure in part 4, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in part 3, and so really doesn’t count.

In Kubrick’s own words (from Saturday Review, December 25, 1971, copy-pasted straight from the Clockwork Orange page on Wikipedia) A Clockwork Orange is…

…a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.

Kubrick also described the film thusly:

It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is at the same time a running lecture on free-will.

Well, isn’t that nice. Kubrick dedicates around thirty-three minutes of a two and one quarter hour film to all the big ideas he throws around in his erudite quotations.

But what about the remaining hundred minutes?

We don’t even hear about the Ludovico Technique until an hour in. We don’t see it until the hour and eleven minute mark. And then later we take a half-hour break from the satire as Alex is ushered out of prison and forced to take big helpings of the ultraviolence he used to dish out. So is this film really a satire about “behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning”? Or is Kubrick using “satire” as an excuse to do what he really wants to do, which is to find new and ingenious ways to film acts of ultra-violence?

Well, the numbers support the latter proposition: 77 minutes of violence, cruelty, suffering. 33 minutes of satire. 24 minutes in prison, which is neither violent nor satirical in the spirit of the rest of the film.

But let’s look at the direction and vision of these chapters and try to judge where Kubrick’s heart is most at, so to speak.

There! Found it.
There! Found it.

I would argue that Kubrick is at his best in the first 43.5 minutes, with Alex running amok in Dystopian England. It is here, for the most part, where Kubrick has his most profound cinematic ideas, his most memorable scenes, his most daring vision. It is here, also, where he makes best use of music.

On the other hand, it is mostly during the satirical phases when Kubrick most often resorts to cheap cinematic tricks and exhibits less of the singular vision found in the violent episodes.

If I am able to successfully argue these points, then I believe I have solid ground to stand on when I say that A Clockwork Orange is really a cruel, soulless film that happens to have satirical elements rather than an important cinematic satire that only uses violence and cruelty to serve some higher purpose.

This argument will be presented in part 6 of my polemic against Stanley Kubrick, which will also be part 2 of my discussion of A Clockwork Orange. Stay tuned.

My Problem with Wall-E

So now I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m picking on Pixar. They produce quality entertainment, don’t they? Haven’t they produced some classics as well? Sure. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are my favorites. These I would say belong on the Great Mount Rushmore of family movies. And all from the same company. Quite an accomplishment.

Wall-E is a classic too. But it’s one of those frustrating works of art that present a startlingly beautiful vision only to mar it with contemporary didacticism. It’s a story with, among other things, an instructive and very important message that we should all take heed of before it’s too late. The presumption here, of course, is that the filmmakers can actually deign to instruct us on anything. The problem here, of course, is that the filmmakers are wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, they get a little bit evil-minded about it as well. And those of us who realize this (like me) have no choice but to leave the theater with fists clenched, hoping that not too many people will be suckers for this little power play that is Wall-E.

So now I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m picking on Pixar. They produce quality entertainment, don’t they? Haven’t they produced some classics as well? Sure. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are my favorites. These I would say belong on the Great Mount Rushmore of family movies. And all from the same company. Quite an accomplishment.

Wall-E is a classic too. But it’s one of those frustrating works of art that present a startlingly beautiful vision only to mar it with contemporary didacticism. It’s a story with, among other things, an instructive and very important message that we should all take heed of before it’s too late. The presumption here, of course, is that the filmmakers can actually deign to instruct us on anything. The problem here, of course, is that the filmmakers are wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, they get a little bit evil-minded about it as well. And those of us who realize this (like me) have no choice but to leave the theater with fists clenched, hoping that not too many people will be suckers for this little power play that is Wall-E.

Let’s first discuss what’s good about Wall-E. It’s basically a well-worn love story formula dressed up with such striking and original storylines, imagery, and characters that the formula becomes new again. Please consider this for a moment: taking something old and making it new. It is like being born again. People love it. And they should. It’s one of the magical things about the film-going experience.

So what is this formula? Simple:

It starts with a broken heart. All heroes and heroines of love stories have to have a heart broken in some way or another. We will use two classic examples from American cinema to help illustrate this point and also to show how truly great Wall-E (almost) is.

So, back to the broken hearts. Wall-E is cute and perky and cleaning up an abandoned planet all by himself. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Our hearts break just thinking about it. Most importantly, however, Wall-E is lonely. Rick Blaine of Casablanca doesn’t stick his neck anymore for nobody. Why? Some dame left him in Paris during the Nazi invasion and didn’t say why. This is why Rick is lonely. Rachel Lapp, the Amish woman in Witness, is lonely too. Her husband just died. That would make anybody lonely.

Then the broken heart stumbles across a something-or-other, a question mark, something that disturbs the melancholy status quo in which the broken heart lives. And it has to be a welcome disturbance from the audience’s point of view. In Wall-E’s case, it’s the finding of the sprouting plant. For Rick, it’s the letters of transit allowing two passengers to board a flight to Lisbon. For Rachel, it’s the fact that her son witnessed a murder in a Philadelphia airport.

After this, enter broken heart number two. Note that this heart shouldn’t be as broken as the first, or vice versa. If they are both equally lonely, two things could happen, both bad. Either they ecstatically fall into each other’s arms, get married, have kids, and that’s the end of the story after twenty-five predictable minutes. Or the lovers will both seem so much like losers that the audience will have a hard time caring about them. In Wall-E’s case, Eve is just doing her job. Sure, she’s far from home and all by herself and probably pretty lonely as a result. But she is certainly in a better place emotionally than Wall-E at the film’s onset. In Casablanca, Rick’s ex-flame Ilsa still loves him and feels awful for dumping him in Paris, but she’s with her husband now, a man of impeccable honor and bravery. As for Witness, it’s the reverse. John Book is more the loser. He’s without a family, and he’s afraid of responsibility but clearly not happy without it. Also, according to his sister, he likes to gripe about his job on the Philadelphia police force whenever he drinks too much beer.

At this point, the two broken hearts, because of this something-or-other, are drawn into some conflict they didn’t expect. They are forced to cooperate out of necessity, to be brave and to grow as characters, and to realize that they meant more to each other than they originally thought. Further, this conflict has to be part of something pretty big. For Wall-E, it’s contending with Auto and his minions on the spaceship Axiom. But what’s really at stake is humans getting a second chance at populating Earth. For Rick Blaine, it’s holding off Nazis until he can get Ilsa and her husband on that plane. The greater struggle is World War II (obviously) as well as whether or not he’ll stick his neck out for anyone again. And for John Book, it’s preventing three crooked cops from killing him and their young witness. But in a deeper sense it’s about resisting the intrusion of modern corruption upon a world that insists on keeping itself pure.

The ending can take many different guises, but has to resolve the conflict in some way. In the two older films, the lovers part, presumably never to see each other again. But the love these people feel for each other helps mend their broken hearts despite their separation. It’s good to be loved, you know?

Wall-E, on the other hand, has the kind of miraculous happy ending you’d expect from a rated-G film. And that’s fine. Due to the snowdrift innocence of the two principals, any other ending would have been inappropriate.

I place Wall-E alongside these two classics because Wall-E is also a classic. Its vision is genius, the plot very tight and believable, and the imagery unforgettable. The ballet sequence in space in which Wall-E dances with Eve with the help of a fire extinguisher is quite simply beautiful cinema. And Wall-E does some truly heroic things, like saving the plant after Auto tries to shoot it into space, and, most importantly, protecting from Auto the machine that will return the Axiom to Earth. Wall-E nearly gets squished as a result. It breaks our hearts after he is fixed but does not recognize Eve. Eve’s kiss, however, which restores the Wall-E we know and love is as wonderful as it is predictable. During such a moment, you’d have to be a cold-hearted monster to not want to cry.

Awwwwwwww

So the instincts of the makers of Wall-E were on the money. It is great cinema. The only problem is that the film promotes propaganda that is anti-human, and dogmatically so, which makes it even worse.

Put bluntly, the treatment of humans as comically lazy, obese buffoons reveals a benign contempt for humanity. There are three elements to this. First, is the obesity. Yes, I have heard (and not bothered to research) that humans would lose bone mass and tend to gain weight after prolonged stays at zero-G. That’s supposedly the basis for the film’s decision to make everyone a fatty. But everyone? Do they mean to tell us that humans just lost all self-respect in space? Wouldn’t that be a sad thing if it were true? Well, no, because the filmmakers obviously think it’s funny.

The second element is the laziness. All the humans on the Axiom never leave their seats while they consume liquid food and watch television all day. Not one person doesn’t do this, you see. So basically, they are telling us that all humans are couch potatoes. Never mind all the athletes, soldiers, and hard-working people we have. No, no, couch potatoes. That’s what we are according to the makers of Wall-E. You know, I would get offended if someone ever accused me of being lazy. I get more offended when someone call all humans lazy and then have the temerity to laugh at them. That’s stereotyping, and stereotyping a whole group of people is supposed to be bad, right?

Finally, there’s the stupidity. The humans are pretty much oblivious to the heroic things that Wall-E and Eve have to do. They also don’t seem to care. Yes, there is the captain. But the captain is so clueless he has to do the most basic research to figure out what Wall-E is up to. For instance, he has to look up the definition of the word “dirt”. Well, of course! He’s fat, you see. And all fat people are stupid. Right? Sure! Like St. Thomas Aquinas.

"Do you think this haircut makes me look fat?"

Then there was the scene in which the captain, with much effort, gets on his feet to turn off Auto. They play Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” just to show what a monumental feat this is. The joke is impossible to miss.

I’ll make the point again. If there is something about being in space for 700 years that would cause ALL human beings to become stupid, fat, and lazy, that would be unspeakably tragic. It would be the death of everything good. Everything we’ve ever accomplished and worked for would be for nothing. But the fact that the filmmakers try to make this condition funny tells us that this really isn’t happening they way things are happening with Wall-E and Eve. With the robots, you have a sweet love story that really happens plot point after plot point. With humans on the other hand all we have is a didactic stab at social commentary. The filmmakers are basically telling us that stupidity, laziness, and corpulence are bad things (as if we didn’t already know this).

"Drunk, fat, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

So, before you think I’m taking all this too seriously, let’s perform a little thought experiment to determine whether or not my response is appropriate. Have you noticed that the humans on the Axiom were comprised of all the major races? That’s well and good, but suppose, on the other hand, there had been only one race of people on the Axiom. Like, say, Asian. Many Asian nations have viable space programs. It’s not out of the question that, when the planet becomes uninhabitable in the distant future, only spaceships from Asian nations would leave Earth successfully. So let’s suppose then that all the human characters in Wall-E are Asian but with their dialog and actions remaining completely unchanged. What would the response to such a film be? How would people react to a bunch of lazy, obese Asians bumbling around in ridiculous sweat suits? How would they react after realizing that the filmmakers wanted us to laugh at these people?

Their first question would be, what the hell do the makers of Wall-E have against Asians?

This would be a just question, and the accusations of racism which would follow would also be just. To imply that every single member of a certain race is stupid, fat, and lazy clearly reveals a low opinion of that race. Hence racism. In fact, there could be no other possible interpretation but racism. Right? Riiiiight?

So my logic follows thusly:

If having all Asians onboard the Axiom reveals anti-Asian racism, then having all humans onboard the Axiom reveals anti-human racism. The human race is a race, after all.

As they say in debate class: Q.E.D.

But before I start running my victory laps, I will add that the filmmakers could have avoided this blunder rather easily and still stayed true to their love story formula. The Earth could have been rendered uninhabitable after being struck by a meteor or attacked by an alien force or, heck, even a nuclear Armageddon if you insist on making the humans the culprits. In any of these scenarios, the stakes would have been high enough to give Wall-E and Eve’s struggles on the Axiom greater meaning. But no, the Earth was made uninhabitable not from an act of God or the evil actions of a few, but because hundreds of millions of earthlings couldn’t be bothered to clean up the mess they made. And did you notice the large corporation that had a hand in this? Buy N Large? A nice little dig at big time capital if there ever was one.

And the bottom line remains: the humans could have been more intelligent and self-respecting and still played a minimal role in the story. Why not? Is there a single reason why not?

Well, there isn’t a good reason why not, that’s for sure. There is a bad reason however: It gives a chance for physical fitness buffs and followers of trendy environmental causes to scold and deride people who aren’t physical fitness buffs or followers of trendy environmental causes. Strip aside the substantial beauty and vision of Wall-E, and this is what you have.

So if you are a physical fitness buff or a follower of trendy environmental causes and like ripping good love stories, then Wall-E is for you. If you’re not one of these people, then please, watch Wall-E anyway. Have your kids watch it too. Just let them know three things after it’s done:

1) That the majority of humans are not lazy, obese buffoons.
2) That there is a lot of scientific controversy about how much pollution is going on and we are nowhere near the state of degradation presented in the film.
3) And that human beings really aren’t that bad.

After all, we make wonderful films like Wall-E.

My Reasons for Listening

We all listen to music for different reasons. Better yet, we can never know for sure why someone else listens to music. So, since they are not you, it's safe to say that their reasons aren't your reasons. Or mine.

As a kid, music was a therapy for loneliness. For me. Bottom line. I needed it for that reason. The only kind of music that mattered was rock n' roll. Classical was so sterile, so clean. It brought me nowhere. But rock responded to those pressures which made me lonely: from my family, my peers, myself, and dragged me kicking and screaming to a place where I could feel whole again.

And it did this by doing everything it you weren't supposed to do. It was loud. You weren't supposed to be loud. It was vulgar. You weren't supposed to be vulgar. You see where I am going with this, right? Growing up, I had to do what I was supposed to do. And for some ineffable reason this felt wrong. I felt wrong. And rock, at least temporarily, fixed that.

We all listen to music for different reasons. Better yet, we can never know for sure why someone else listens to music. So, since they are not you, it's safe to say that their reasons aren't your reasons. Or mine. As a kid, music was a therapy for loneliness. For me. Bottom line. I needed it for that reason. The only kind of music that mattered was rock n' roll. Classical was so sterile, so clean. It brought me nowhere. But rock responded to those pressures which made me lonely: from my family, my peers, myself, and dragged me kicking and screaming to a place where I could feel whole again. And it did this by doing everything it you weren't supposed to do. It was loud. You weren't supposed to be loud. It was vulgar. You weren't supposed to be vulgar. You see where I am going with this, right? Growing up,

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I had to do what I was supposed to do. And for some ineffable reason this felt wrong. I felt wrong. And rock, at least temporarily, fixed that. I'm not talking about older rock or the architects of classic rock like the Beatles or the Beach Boys. I'm talking more about the loud, angsty, angry rockers who sucked me into their sonic sanctuaries where I could nurse my childish grudges against mankind and feel justified at the same time. AC/DC, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Guns n Roses. As I got older and supposedly more sophisticated, I exchanged these bands for the Velvets, the Stooges, The Sex Pistols, Superchunk, Bruce Springsteen in his darker moments. I dug other stuff too, of course, and by no means is all rock is like this. But when I felt most at odds with the world, when I was at my lowest, this is where I took cover. That's something classical music could never do for me. It seems that that was never its point. It's not there to make you whole. It's not there to fight your demons for you. It leaves that to you (as it should), and instead, assumes that you are already grown up enough to appreciate what it is about to give you. That is its starting point: the grown up. And from there it takes you to God, whatever or however you may perceive Him to be. I am not lonely anymore. So it make sense then that classical now makes sense to me. Rock is still there, but I don't need it like I used to. I can still sympathize with Springsteen's Magic Rat. I can still raise my fist with Bon Scott's Problem Child or hurl profanities at my slack co-workers as Superchunk would have me do. But I cannot become these people anymore. I have a family, a career. I have more important things to worry about. But classical music is another matter. It is important enough. I did not know what beauty was until I first listened. I mean, really listened. Like in my mid-thirties. It took some effort and time, and then all I could wonder was how I could have lived so long without it. When Tom Lehrer referred to rock and roll as “children's music”, it was funny, and somewhat true. Much of the time rock does speak to the maladjusted, underachieving teenager in all of us. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is something that classical music never does. Instead, classical music requires an adult perspective above all else. This is why I believe we should expose our children to classical music as much as possible. Sure, they can still be kids. But someone who has that adult perspective as a kid will turn into one heck of an adult. One who is already whole and spared the dirty job of having to become whole while in their prime. Instead they could be doing great things.

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On Modern Classical Part 2

This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.

Of course, I can't; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I've been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.

I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:

Or the way the modernists would have it:

This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.

Of course, I can’t; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I’ve been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.

I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:

Or the way the modernists would have it:

Now let’s back up a bit.

I am not saying that composers of Modern Classical music or those who enjoy it A) engage in atheism, B) downplay relationship between music, math, and physics, C) think that classical composers would have experimented more if they knew such music would sell, or D) believe I have a beer gut for a brain for the reasons listed in the fine print above. But if you believe pretty ardently in at least some of these things, then it is likely you’ll more easily relate to Arnold Schoenberg and his ilk than the composers who came before them. After all, classical music was born in the Church, stays true to a tonal system grounded in math and physics, and for the most part really really tries to hew something true and beautiful out of the air molecules fluctuating chaotically among us.

For modern classical, on the other hand, that would be strike one, two, and three. So let’s get the subjective and therefore flimsiest part of my argument out of the way. When I listen to the music I love, I really want to believe in the sequence outlined in the first spreadsheet. I really want to believe that something truly unique occurs. Albert Einstein once proclaimed that violin playing of Yehudi Menuhin gave proof that there was indeed a God in heaven. This is what I’m talking about: art providing evidence for the theory that Humanity is part divine and indeed unique throughout the universe. It would be as if God created the universe so incalculably vast for the sole purpose of beating the infinitesimal odds that a planet can be formed under the right circumstances and with the right materials from which intelligent life (i.e., human beings) could prosper.

In other words, Ptolemy was right. Humanity is the sole point of existence. We are its headlining act on center stage, its crowning achievement. After us there is nothing. And if you don’t believe me, then listen to Beethoven’s Fifth, read Moby Dick, gaze on this. As I have said. This argument. Is. Exceedingly. Weak. Weak because I can prove none of it. Also, it is, um, self-gratifying. I want to believe this because it feels good to believe it. Or, I should say, it feels right, which is more or less the same thing. But my opponents could then pounce on my position and say, “But you subvert your own position by claiming a conflict of interest. This is a classic example of wish replacing thought.” True, true.

On the other hand, if my opponents accuse me of self-gratification, I can accuse them right back. I mean, who wouldn’t want free the musician from the shackles of tonality? Who wouldn’t want to blaze a trail of revolutionary music and be the “Emancipator of Dissonance”? Who wouldn’t want to lead the ignorant and closed-minded masses into a realm of higher art, higher thinking, higher living, et cetera? Why, low ticket sales and apathy or contempt from the public are small prices to pay for such historical awesomeness. Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to be on the cutting edge of such a noble crusade? All you have to do is buy a few of the right CDs (Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, take your pick), be seen going to the right concerts, pen a few incomprehensible reviews on your website or a local arts daily, claim you’ve read some Adorno, and shazam, you’re instantly better, yes, better than all the troglodytes out there who actually prefer paintings that resemble the real world, poems that rhyme, and music that doesn’t require an advanced degree (or the patience of Job) to understand. Bet that would feel pretty good too.

Like I said. Weak. But maybe a little less so since I know how to use someone’s own argument against them and never back down from a good fight.

Anyway, I’ve always found Brahms’ approach a little more honest than Wagner’s. Judge for yourself. It’s the genius who envisioned himself spearheading the Artwork of the Future and being the most important composer since…well, since ever, versus the genius who labored within the tonal system to produce works on par with its champions Bach and Beethoven…and succeeded some of the time.

But let’s return to the original reason we’re here: the justifications for modern classical. The first was that by the 1890s the tonal system was pretty much used up, and composers had to go beyond it if they wanted to stay vital. The first part of this polemic takes that on. The second justification goes as follows: We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn’t lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.

There are two ways for me to attack this. One is to simply describe the rock-solid mathematical relationship between music and physics. But guess what? I won’t do that because others have done it so well before me. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that keeping a tonal center and abiding by the age-old rules of music provides its emotional pull because of its grounding in math and physics and not despite of it.

The second is to look at music made in non-Western cultures because evidence supporting the second justification above can be found there. Essentially, it’s the nurture over nature argument. We feel the emotional pull of the music we’re brought up with and not of the music we’re not brought up with unless we apply serious effort. It reminds me of a quip my brother once made in the late 1980s. I was watching the film Gandhi on television, and some Indian music was playing. My brother winced and said, “Sometimes I think they made that kind of music just to annoy the white man.” Funny, in part because it is demonstrably not true. But it reveals how music from foreign cultures won’t easily make sense for those not immersed in it or who can’t be bothered to learn it. We are “conditioned” to appreciate certain kinds of music.

Okay. Fair enough. But the argument goes further and deduces that if we are culturally conditioned to appreciate certain kinds of music then there is nothing inherent in the cultural nature of the music itself that draws people to it. It’s all about the accidents of conditioning. Where and when you were born, and to whom, etc. And if this is so, then we can be conditioned to appreciate all kinds of music, even the kinds without tonal centers, provided we have open minds and apply the discipline.

This is a false conclusion.

It is false because music from non-Western cultures also tends to be tonal. This is so despite different tuning systems, scales, vocal styles, melodies, harmonies, and so on. Therefore you can argue that the nurture argument applies only to tonal music and does not necessarily encompass the atonal. You can argue that people have a natural inclination towards tonal music first, and towards music of a certain culture second. This leaves atonal music out to dry, that is, if non-Western music truly tends to be tonal. This is where it gets tough. Most sources will begin talking about atonality with people like Debussy in the 1890s, or perhaps Franz Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité from 1885, and then move on to Schoenberg. I don’t think atonality was even a concept in the music theory of non-Western cultures until well into the 20th century and only after solid contact with the West. I can’t be sure because I am not a musicologist, but my hunch is strong. It is also backed up by this passage from Brian Hyer’s essay “Tonality” found in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory edited by Thomas Street Christiansen (2002), page 727. According to Hyer, tonality

is often used to describe the systematic organization of pitch phenomena in both Western and Non-Western music. Tonal music in this sense includes music based on, among other theoretical structures, the eight ecclesiastical modes of medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, the slendro and pelog collections of Indonesian gamelan music, the modal nuclei of Arabic maqam, the scalar peregrinations of Indian raga…

If this is true (and I welcome arguments to the contrary) then it’s game, set, and match for the nurture argument. I can beat it to the punch with nature by claiming that most humans struggle with atonal music because most human ears simply cannot cope with it, not because we weren’t brought up to appreciate it. It’s a problem of the brain rather than that of the mind.

What follows will be a scatter-shot approach providing even more evidence against modern classical.

1. My favorite is this, Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope. I linked to this in part one of this essay. Its basic premise is stated nicely in the title. Here’s the best part, but please read the whole thing. It’s not long.

Professor David Huron, an expert on music cognition at Ohio State University, has studied some of the underlying reasons why listeners struggled with such modern classical pieces. He said: “Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events. We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.”

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Heh. Less predictable than random. Think about this for a moment. What would be the point of any art if its fundamental elements are organized in a manner that is less predictable than normal? What if all painters just splashed their paint at random across their canvases? What if all writers just sprinkled words at random across the page? What if all sculptors put on blindfolds and hacked away at slabs of marble until their arms got tired? The end result would not be art. It would be an embarrassment.

2. Alexander Zemlinsky, perhaps the last in the line of great German-Austrian composers starting with Bach, was a great champion of atonal music despite not really composing much of it himself. He worked closely with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (in fact, he was Schoenberg’s brother in-law). He organized concerts with them, bestowed professional favors on them, corresponded with them, and basically acted as a powerful ally. According to Marc Moskovitz’s splendid Zemlinsky biography, Zemlinksy admitted towards the end of his life (late-1930s, early-1940s) that he did not understand Schoenberg’s later works. Moskovitz describes this as a startling confession and states flatly that Zemlinsky “could no longer comprehend the music of the man whose cause he had once so ardently championed.”

3. From the same biography comes this amusing little anecdote. Sometime in early in World War I, Zemlinsky proposed to conduct some of Schoenberg’s more daring pieces in Prague. Schoenberg begged him not to. You see, his music gave people fits in peace time. Imagine what it would do during war time. Actually, Schoenberg didn’t want to do that (fearing for his own skin), and so pressed on his brother in-law to perform something of his that he can “count on being fairly well received by the public.” Zemlinsky did, and the concert was successful. But this underlies an important point: According to Schoenberg, apparently, when death is near or when you are fighting for survival, atonal music will necessarily have destructive consequences. It will inspire high levels of madness and violence. To take Schoenberg’s point to its logical conclusion then, atonal music should only be played during peace time and when people’s fortunes and futures are more secure. In other words, it is music for pampered, intellectual elites who never have to get their hands dirty fighting for their survival. I’m just extrapolating here, and I’m sure someone else could be more charitable in their conclusions from the same facts. Still, when the chips were down, Schoenberg lost faith in his own music. That says a lot.

4. In 1918 Schoenberg and his students founded the Society for Private Musical Performances. Note the word “private”. It was a members-only club, and according to Wikipedia:

Only those who had joined the organisation were admitted to the events: the intention was to exclude ‘sensation-seeking’ members of the Viennese public (who would often attend concerts with the express intention of whistling derisively at ‘modern’ works by blowing across their house-keys) as well as keep out hostile critics who would attack such music in their publications: a sign displayed on the door – in the manner of a police notice – would state that Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (‘Critics are forbidden entry’).

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I can understand keeping the ruffians out, but the critics too? Also, by limiting the amount of people who could listen to the music, it seems that Spinal Tap definitely had a predecessor.

5. One of main problems I have with most modern classical music (excepting John Adams and a few others) is that there is so little joy in it. It’s so often serious, strange, forbidding. It seems to have forgotten why people invented music to begin with: to provide comfort or delight or, at its most sublime, to exalt the greatness and mystery of God. I love Rachmaninoff, and I think I will end with this pithy quote from him in 1941: “The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt—they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”

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2 Reviews of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I'm sorry then, but you're just not qualified to appreciate this film.

The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism.

Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties.

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties, I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French-Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I'm sorry then, but you're just not qualified to appreciate this film. The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism. Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties. I was a film critic for the Chapel Hill News in Chapel Hill, NC from 1992 to 2000, and never did any of my reviews produce hate mail except for this one. The letter came to me on paper via the post since this was before most of us had email. In it a man suggested that I show some humility and not so casually smack around names like Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach. These men were geniuses who have made permanent contributions to Western Civilization and who the bleep are you and what the bleep have you done to put yourself on the same level as them? Fortunately, the missive wasn't longer than a paragraph. It seemed the writer took as much joy in writing the letter as he did in reading my review. Well, I was flattered that someone had taken me seriously enough to actually write me a letter, but I was also dismayed and fearful. The guy certainly wasn't wrong. On the other hand, in my review I was demonstrating the same kind of snooty holier-than-thou attitude that the director did when he made the film? See? Get it? You didn't like my review? Well, join the club. I felt the same way about 32 Short Films. There. See? And some people accuse me of not being subtle. Still, this didn't make the man's points any less valid.

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It took courage for me to write what I did. But courage born from arrogance and ignorance usually isn't anything much more than stupid. Hence my dismay and fear. Well, nearly twenty years later, I guess I'm a different guy. I love classical music and write about it for WCPE the Classical Station. I've also gotten into Bach quite a bit in the last few years. And no, I am not qualified to talk about Bach except for the emotional impact some of his music has on me. A lot of Bach is still beyond me, and I don't know if I will live long enough to be able to appreciate everything he's ever done. I've also purchased a few of Glenn Gould's recordings and really like them. Why? I don't know. How does Gould compare to other Bach interpreters on the piano? Couldn't tell you. All I can tell you is that I like his French Suites and I really really like his Goldberg Variations. Beyond that anything I could say would just be subjective ramblings no better or worse than anyone else's. So, I've always wanted to take another crack at 32 Short Films. I'm grown up now. I've finally got the blare of punk rock out of my brain and can view this film in a more detached manner and from a more informed perspective. So here you go…my second review of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. And guess what? The film is just as dull and pretentious now as it was in 1993. I had it right all along! I stand by my original review, proudly. Well, okay, maybe putting the Velvets and Coltrane on the same level as Bach was a little foolish, and maybe I'd shy away from some of the raw attitude in the original review. But I am proud that the 24 year-old version of me, penniless, uncultured cretin that I was, was able to see this film for the ill-conceived art house experiment that it is. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is essentially a smart movie for smart people who like to congratulate themselves for being so smart. Keep in mind, this is not a knock on Gould or Bach. Nor is it a knock on Colm Feore who does a convincing job of playing Gould. It's a knock on the film and the director who made it and co-wrote it. So where was I? Oh, right. Smug. Note how people in the film appear in interviews without subtitles explaining who they are or their relation to Gould. This really would have helped the audience appreciate the relevancy of the interviews, but I guess Girard couldn’t be bothered. We're supposed to know ahead of time who these people are. And if you don't know them, too bad. Notice also how one of these subjects refers to something called 318. This was Gould's beloved piano, a pretty darn important part of Gould's artistic life. But film doesn't tell you this. You have to infer it because an earlier short film called “CD318” shows the inner workings of a piano as it plays. Actually a double inference is required of the uninitiated: You have to know ahead of time that “CD318” was the, er, name of Gould's piano. And you have to know that the “318” this one interviewee keeps mentioning indeed refers to this piano. Of course, Girard could have told us this without requiring us to jump through hoops, but, then again, he wouldn't want to dumb down his precious movie for the sake of the unwashed masses, now would he? See what I mean by smug? Also, many of Girard's pieces are have a point to them. In other words, he wants to tell us things about Gould through cinema, and often cheap cinema at that. Take the piece “Truck Stop”. Gould drives up, sits down, and orders breakfast. Pop music on the radio, people chit chatting about this and that. Normally, our ears would filter most of this out or relegate it as background noise and not pay attention. But not Gould. He has super ears, you see. He hears one conversation loudly and excludes all the others. Then he hears another even louder and over the first. Then another and another and another, until the whole truck stop is a cacophony of conversation. You see what Girard is doing here, don't you? He's telling us that Glenn Gould had really sensitive ears. That was the point of the short film. I figured that out after thirty seconds, but had to put up with the babble of people who had nothing to do with Glenn Gould for the rest of the piece. See what I mean by dull? Another 'point piece' by Girad is “Pills”. All you get is close ups of certain drugs while Gould rattles off effects and side effects of these drugs in voice over. I'm sorry, this is interesting how? Well, Glenn Gould self-medicated and took a lot of needless drugs which may have led to his untimely and tragic demise, don't you see. Oh. Ohhhhh! Boy, I felt like an idiot when I learned that after the fact in 1993. Of course, Girard could have saved me the hassle (and the discomfiture) and made this clear in his film, but I just guess he didn't think people like me were worth it. Next, there is the experimental aspect of the film. And by 'experimental' I mean the kind of dreck you would find in a really bad student film festival. And 'student' I mean attempts at high art that sink directly into tedium. Take “Variation in C Minor”. It's a visualization of a sound reel as Gould's music plays. Just abstract white globs pulsating on a black background in time to piano music. Does anyone else besides me see this as a cheap gimmick? That, and the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Take also “Diary of One Day”. An x-ray video of a man playing piano interspersed with mathematic equations. A baffling piece if there ever was one. Then there's “Practice” in which Gould whines about being on the road and then imagines that he playing the piano. Girard tracks the camera in circles around Gould as he plays air piano in…what? his apartment? a motel? a studio? I can't tell. He does this in “Passion According to Gould” as well. And to a lesser extent in “Opus 1” in which a camera tracks circles around a string quartet as they play an early piece by composed by Glenn Gould. Who the musicians are Girard does not deign to say until the credits roll. With these pieces Girard is gambling that since the subject matter is Glenn Gould and since the music is classical these pieces will be interesting. He loses his gamble. Music, diagetic or not, loses something when heard on film, I don't care how great it is. Unless it is a concert film, the music becomes supportive to the images. It becomes secondary. Take music videos, for example. In all cases, they are heavily edited and filled with striking images. If not, they better have something real clever or serve up to the viewer. Rarely, do you see musicians just playing with only handful of edits. Great music and a famous subject will not rescue boring visuals. And as a little thought experiment, just to test my theory here, suppose in “Practice” it were my Aunt Millie prancing around her apartment caught in a sublime Bach-inspired epiphany and not Glenn Gould. Would anybody care? There are 32 films here, so Girard does get it right some of the time. I love “The Tip”. This is the only piece that contains a beginning, middle, and end and something approaching a plot. Apparently, Gould was almost as good at playing the stock market as was playing the piano. So here you have Gould getting a tip from a Middle Eastern Sheik's bodyguard about a little-known oil company known as Sotex. Gould sells all his other oil stock in the middle of boom and doubles down on Sotex. His broker thinks he's crazy, but eats his words after a disastrous week when Gould is the only one of his clients who makes money. The piece employs irony, humor, and suspense all in appropriate doses. The performances are charming as well. Other pieces do fine. “Personal Ad” has Gould, dwarfed by hulking stacks of books, composing the ultimate personal ad, an alliterative catalog of geeky character traits he looks for in a woman (“Tristanesque trip taking and permanent flame fluttering”) only to keep mum when he calls the newspaper on the phone. “Gould Meets McClaren” is a nice bit of abstract animation, if you like that kind of thing. “Gould Meets Gould” pits pianist against pianist as they debate Gould's views on art and the artist. Gould famously quit performing by the 1960s, opting to direct his creative energies thereafter in the recording studio. The piece, fittingly I guess, ends in mid-thought. “Leaving” achieves poignancy in dealing with Gould's death. I guess my major problem with 32 Short Films, aside from pieces I didn't like outnumbering the ones I did like 3 to 1, is that it provides a poor starting point from which a person can begin to appreciate Glenn Gould. Of course, if you already love Gould, you'll probably love this film. If you already have any affection towards him, then this film will likely match that affection. The film is as quirky and unpredictable as its subject matter. And that indeed is something. But what is more than just something is the millions of people who are ready to appreciate Glenn Gould, but will be put off by the unabashed elitism of this film. And that's too bad, because in the years between my first review and this one, I finally did experience and appreciate the greatness of Glenn Gould. I can only imagine how my life could have been broadened had this happened when it should have happened, the day I first sat down to review 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

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Marrying Mozart

One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, it chronicles Mozart's relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.

One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, ask it chronicles Mozart's relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, physician then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.

Drawing carefully on historical figures, Cowell treats us with distinct, believable characters, and always treads that thin line of objectivity. Mozart is sweet, but impulsive and self-absorbed (of course). Guided by his financially careful mother, the 21 year old genius meets the Weber girls (Josefa, Aloysia, Constanze, and Sophie — all under 20) in Mannheim, and over time falls in love with more than one of them. And they all fall for him, in their own peculiar ways and for their own peculiar reasons. Of course, the nominal villain is their pathologically shrewd mother. She has big, if outlandish, marriage plans for all her daughters and can't bear that they waste their time on a penniless musician. And so it goes.

Some readers might get turned off by all the tears and melodrama. Hearts ache, hearts break (oh boy, do they). Such drama is treated with the utmost respect by Cowell. There is no irony. Nothing to laugh at. But we must remember that this story, which takes place over four or five years, is essentially about the Weber sisters in their teens, and what are teenage girls but susceptible to melodrama? (Mozart himself plays the crucial, if supporting role, and his marriage to one of the sisters is almost like a Maguffin — it takes place on the penultimate page of the book). Further it is a great love story, told once by history, and retold nicely by Cowell, with just enough detail in the candle wax and cobble stones and cold coffee served next to lemonade stands closed for the winter to bring us back to a young girl's 18th Century Europe. But not enough to overtake the story or to deprive us of those breathless moments when the characters she has asked us to invest our time in catch glimpses of true love. You see, their loves become ours. Like I said, sweet.

This however brings me to a confession. One reason for the wonderful sense of discovery I felt while reading this novel was my complete ignorance of Mozart's love life. I had no idea which sister he would marry. So Marrying Mozart became quite a pager turner for me. But I do wonder how I would have reacted to the novel had I known.

Probably the same. It's a sweet story. Such things occur often enough in life. And once in a while an author hunkers down and gets it right. And we're all the richer for it.

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Heart of Darkness: What a Cover Says

A friend once gave me an incredible find. It was a beat-to-heck paperback edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad published by Signet Books in 1950.

The thing looked like it had survived a flood. Its bottom right-hand corner was barely even there, the split binding was holding on to pages for dear life, and the pages themselves felt like they could crumble like autumn leaves. Clearly such a decrepit specimen would not survive another reading. So why did he give it to me?
Because the cover looked like this:

This is an amazing book cover. I realized this right away, but didn't stumble upon why it was so amazing until days later. Why is this such an amazing cover? Wait. Let me ask more closely, because anyone familiar with Western lit should realize the answer just as I did. Why is it an amazing cover for a canonized work of classic English language literature?

A friend once gave me an incredible find. It was a beat-to-heck paperback edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad published by Signet Books in 1950. The thing looked like it had survived a flood. Its bottom right-hand corner was barely even there, the split binding was holding on to pages for dear life, and the pages themselves felt like they could crumble like autumn leaves. Clearly such a decrepit specimen would not survive another reading. So why did he give it to me? Because the cover looked like this: This is an amazing book cover. I realized this right away, but didn't stumble upon why it was so amazing until days later. Why is this such an amazing cover? Wait. Let me ask more closely, because anyone familiar with Western lit should realize the answer just as I did. Why is it an amazing cover for a canonized work of classic English language literature? Answer: because Signet Books selected that cover in an effort to sell the book on its merits. Note the splash words on top (dishonest ones at that, since nothing akin to “romance” exists in either story). Note the lurid, sexy painting full of danger and suspense. Notice the clenched fist, the sidelong leers, the surrounded protagonists. What does this tell us? That the unbelievable story within is just brimming with such excitement that you simply cannot wait to read it, can you? It also tells us that despite all the claims of Conrad's greatness on the back cover and all the big words and deep analyses in Albert J. Guerard's introduction, Signet in 1950 still considered Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer to be pulp fiction to be sold alongside (and to compete against) other works of pulp fiction on the rack in local drugstores, five-and-dimes, and other mundane places where young men in the 1950s went to satisfy their urges for romance, terror, and exotic adventure. Don't believe me? Then compare the cover to these covers and notice the obvious similarities. Publishers typically want to make a book cover accomplish two things: A) reveal at a glance what genre a book belongs to by making it similar to all the other book covers of that genre, and B) make the cover different enough from the pack to pique a potential reader's interest. Clearly Signet promised much for Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, and based these promises in most cases on what's actually contained in the stories. This is a form of advertizing, and it's done when the product you're hawking needs whatever nudge it can get to attract the eye of potential customers. After all, the good people at Signet have bills to pay, just like all of us. So in this milieu, does Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer look all that much different from its competition? To the uninitiated, “Joseph Conrad” could be just another pseudonymous hack cranking out cheap paperback gratifications one month at a time in whatever genre his publisher tells him write in. This is all so interesting because no one packages canonical novels this way anymore. Nobody ever sells classic lit on its merits. Now here is the cover of the same volume with the same introduction published by the same company 33 years later. (Note how it's “Signet Classics” in 1983 whereas it was “Signet Books” in 1950.) What does this cover tell us? Not much, in fact. Lotta trees, lotta mist, lotta darkness, and a barely discernable human figure on the bottom. That's what I thought when I first saw it in the 1980s and that's how I still feel today. While thematically faithful to the Heart of Darkness story, the cover is what I would call…meh. It is the product of a company that does not have to sell Heart of Darkness and the Secret Sharer anymore. The novels' status of “classic literature” does that for them these days. The presence of this volume on course

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syllabi everywhere ensures that millions of high school and college kids are going to buy it whether they want to or not. And the cover reflects this. It does not beckon or entice or in any way compete for your attention. It does not make you want to reach out and buy the book and read the stories therein. Instead it informs you that you should do this. This is classic literature. Something important is being shared on these pages, so if you want to be privy to such a profound element of Western Civilization not to mention nab that slightly-harder-than-expected-but-still-pretty-easy A in your English class, then you better crack this puppy and get to work. Let's look at a few other covers and see if they don't give the same impression. What do these covers all share? Setting. Judging Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by its cover, all we get is that at least one of these stories takes place in some wild jungle setting. Apparently this is enough for publishers not to lose money on Joseph Conrad these days. Apparently enough people are familiar with his reputation that paperback covers telling us we should read him rather than making us want to read him are actually preferred. This may be interesting in and of itself, but why should we care? Because, ironically, Signet Books got it right the first time. Heart of Darkness, being the primary story of the volume and the basis for what seems like all of its covers, is a disappointing and tedious read. Swaths of it are slow and ponderous, especially early on. While not a bad story by any means, it is thematically unfocused, repetitive, obvious. It is, in a word, overrated. It probably did need that extra nudge Signet was giving it in 1950. I will discuss why Heart of Darkness is overrated in an upcoming post.

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Bobby Fischer: Endgame

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady's first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby's power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn't even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer's ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady's second biography, “Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer's death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer's madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too.

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady's first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby's power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn't even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer's ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady's second biography, “Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer's death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer's madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too. The book at times reads like an apologia for Fischer written by someone who knew and loved him. Now that Fischer is dead I cannot imagine a Fischer biography being written any other way. Despite being such a loathsome person (at least in public), Fischer had inspired so many people and given so many so much to to cheer for that all is forgiven.

All is forgiven…Like Beethoven.

A nice example of how Brady seemingly inadvertently glosses over some of Fischer's nastier moments is how he describes the ride home Fischer shared as a boy with other chess players after Fischer won the US Junior Championships in 1957.

The car kept breaking down, and everyone chipped in to have it repaired so that they could keep going. Riding through the hot desert with no air conditioning led to petty arguments, and a fist fight broke out between Bobby and Gilbert Ramirez (who'd taken second place in the United States Junior). Bobby bit Ramirez on the arm, leaving scars that remain fifty years later. (Ramirez proudly displays them, as if to say, “This is the arm that was bitten by Bobby Fischer.”) Eventually, the car broke down entirely and had to be abandoned.

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See what Brady is doing here? It was the heat and the car that did it. Not Bobby. Under normal conditions, Bobby would never have bitten Ramirez. Notice also how Brady conveniently distances the reader from the action (“a fist fight broke out” – as if the fight caused itself). And anyway, it was Ramirez who came out smelling like a rose. I mean, who wouldn't want a Bobby Fischer souvenir left on his body for the rest of his life? Granted, we don't know if Bobby started the fight or not (and he reportedly did get a black eye courtesy of Ramirez). However a bite that long and powerful indicates something more than just belligerence or self-defense. If Bobby were my kid (he was 13 at the time) I would have spanked his backside raw, thrown away all of his chess sets, and grounded him for a month for such disgraceful behavior. Genius or no, you don't act like that.

Only you do, and you can. If Brady's biography tells us anything it's that genius has its privileges. And if anything, Bobby took cruel advantage of that privilege almost his entire life.

One of Brady's best passages describes how in 1960 Brady himself had asked Bobby how he would prepare for some top Soviet players in an upcoming tournament. They were at a pub in Greenwich Village seated in the same room as Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, and John Cage. Fischer got up and sat alongside Brady in his booth and delivered a tour de force of chess memory, insight, and strategy. He spoke at length about his opponents, their games, and dozens and dozens of other games dating from the 19th century to the present. All off the top of his head. Fischer forgot numerous times that Brady was even there as he expertly moved his pieces across his well-worn pocket set.

Brady was a chess player himself, but when Bobby had asked him if he had read a certain Soviet master's book, Brady responded, “No. Isn't it in Russian?” Fischer seemed annoyed and urged Brady to learn Russian just so he could read this book.

As Bobby then continued playing and replaying his opponents on his little set and describing every avenue of attack and defense in games both real and imaginary, Brady began to silently weep, because he knew he was in the presence of genius.

Bite me. Bobby, bite me in the arm. Please. And do it hard. Would you please do it hard, Bobby? And leave a mark. Don't forget to leave a mark. I want something of you to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Of course, Brady does not omit any of Bobby's post-retirement ugliness: His asinine rejections of million-dollar purses, his religious kookery, his obsessive anti-Semitism, his pig-headed slander of Karpov and Kasparov (the chess champions who followed him), his ingratitude towards his friends and hosts, his little-known philandering. Fischer was a jerk, plain and simple.

Brady relays a story about how Fischer visited the home of a friend during his seclusion in the late-70s. Fischer was moving around a lot at the time and was relying more than he should have on the charity of others. Shortly after arriving Fisher makes a long distance phone call and stays on the line for four hours. And when his host told him that he couldn't afford such a call, Fischer was offended and stormed out, never to talk to him again.

So how to make such a person likeable? Well, Brady makes an admirable effort. He delves into Bobby's religious doubts and various regrets. He mentions how Bobby might have been depressed at some point. He goes to great lengths to show that Bobby and his mother had a positive and loving relationship up until her death in the late 1990s. (Regina Fischer had often been described as overbearing and a negative influence on Bobby.) He faithfully describes Bobby's haunts in places like California, Hungary, Japan, the Philippines, and Iceland, where he died in 2008. He tells of how Bobby doted on his Japanese wife Miyoko Watai. He gives us a harrowing account of Bobby's arrest in Japan in 2004. He even describes the books Bobby was reading in Iceland leading up to his death, as if to prove that Bobby was more well-read than people gave him credit for.

This is all fine and good. If anything, Brady proves that Bobby Fischer could sometimes be a perfectly nice guy, as long as you weren't Jewish and you left him alone. But there are two other things that make Brady's job a lot easier. One is Bobby's genius and nigh-invincibility on the chessboard. No more needs to be mentioned of that. And two is Bobby's death.

Remember that scene in Disney's Jungle Book in which Baloo the bear supposedly dies after helping vanquish Shere Kahn the tiger? Bagheera the panther delivers a touching eulogy to Baloo's memory to the boy Mowgli, only to heap scorn back on Baloo once he realizes that the bear isn't really dead after all.

Bobby's death makes Brady's job as a biographer that much easier. Fischer is no longer a threat to anyone and there can be no redemption, no heroic return. His story is finally over. There is only what was, and we take of it what we find useful. Fischer's greatness is useful to many of us. It reminds us that we can stand alone…against the odds, against the societal bureaucracy that is mankind, against whatever it is that oppresses us or tells us that we cannot be what we want to be. Everything else can be forgotten or left to fade away like teeth marks on an arm.

So if Frank Brady tries a little too hard in his wonderful biography to make Bobby Fischer a sympathetic character, we should forgive him. Just like we do for Bobby.

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The Savior

In 2007, Eugene Drucker, violinist for the Emerson String Quartet, wrote a novel called The Savior. Tagline: a violinist plays classical music in a German concentration camp during World War 2 as part of a ghastly psychological experiment.

Of course, pathos and tragedy abound in subjects like this one, so it would be really hard to write a boring book on the subject. Even a lesser writer who does enough research could probably come up with some gripping stuff.

But Drucker goes way beyond that. With music being the link between the living and the (let's face it) dead, he delivers its transcendental power on page after page. There are unforgettable passages describing music and how the poor victims of the Nazi camps react to and interact with it. Heartbreaking stuff. Then there's the effect on the maybe-not-so innocent musician himself. You see, he loved a Jewish girl once. But that was in 1934, before things started to go from bad to worse, and before anyone knew how bad it was going to get.

In 2007, Eugene Drucker, violinist for the Emerson String Quartet, wrote a novel called The Savior. Tagline: a violinist plays classical music in a German concentration camp during World War 2 as part of a ghastly psychological experiment.

Of course, pathos and tragedy abound in subjects like this one, so it would be really hard to write a boring book on the subject. Even a lesser writer who does enough research could probably come up with some gripping stuff.

But Drucker goes way beyond that. With music being the link between the living and the (let’s face it) dead, he delivers its transcendental power on page after page. There are unforgettable passages describing music and how the poor victims of the Nazi camps react to and interact with it. Heartbreaking stuff. Then there’s the effect on the maybe-not-so innocent musician himself. You see, he loved a Jewish girl once. ip address websites . But that was in 1934, before things started to go from bad to worse, and before anyone knew how bad it was going to get.

What makes The Savior all the more special is that even its flaws are interesting. It seems that Drucker has yet to master the concept of the story arc, let alone plot. Instead of following the classic Beginning-Middle-End structure, we get Beginning-Middle and are robbed of an appropriate ending. He also stretches believability a smidgeon with the SS officer obsessed with critically analyzing Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, and with the evil commandante who explains his motivations to the protagonist at the very end like a typical comic book villain.

If The Savior has a spiritual cousin, it would probably be Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, just replace Commie bad guys with Nazi bad guys and Freudian psychology with music. Lots and lots of beautiful music in a place where you’d think music doesn’t matter. But it does.

Also, look carefully at the cover above. It’s one of the best book covers I have ever seen.

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The Land Breakers

This is a continuation of my Myth and Experience post from December 2010…

Film critic Andre Bazin once came up with an extremely useful analogy. If the purpose of the narrative arts is to get its audience across a stream, then the classical forms are bridges. Each stone, in its placement and dimensions, helps enable the bridge to hold as much as possible with as little as possible. This is elegance of vision and design. So in a good story, every action, every theme, every plot and subplot, and every detail should serve the higher purpose of unifying the experience for the audience.

Remember The Godfather Part II? Early on, old Frankie Pentangeli makes the trip to Vegas to ask Michael for help against the Rosato brothers who were encroaching on Corleone territory back in New York. While waiting for his audience with the young Don, Pentangeli searches the orchestra for one single Italian and, finding it bereft of his paisanos, attempts to lead it in some traditional Italian folk melody. The musicians have a hard time following until they come up with a very American equivalent: “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Pentangeli retreats from the stage in disgust.

So why is this important? Because on one hand you have an amusing scene, but on the other you have the introduction of a crucial theme: Michael Corleone’s separation from his roots and descent into evil. This theme is explored throughout the film, including the flashbacks to Michael’s father a generation ago in Little Italy and culminating with the murder of his brother Fredo. So the scene with the orchestra may not seem important right away, but in hindsight it is. It is a well-placed stone in the bridge that is the entire film.

Bazin’s point was that neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief were not like this at all. Instead of being bridges with some a priori purpose, they were more like rocks that just happen to lie in the stream. Their a posteriori purpose being to support your hands and feet as you amble across as best you can. The experience isn’t so much unified and schematic as real and apparently random just like life. Therein lies its power.

North Carolina writer John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is one such story.

This is a continuation of my Myth and Experience post from December 2010…

Film critic Andre Bazin once came up with an extremely useful analogy. If the purpose of the narrative arts is to get an audience across a stream, then the classical forms are bridges. Each stone, in its placement and dimensions, helps enable the bridge to hold as much as possible with as little as possible. This is elegance of vision and design. So in a good story, every action, every theme, every plot and subplot, and every detail should serve the higher purpose of unifying the experience for the audience.

Remember The Godfather Part II? Early on, old Frankie Pentangeli makes the trip to Vegas to ask Michael for help against the Rosato brothers who were encroaching on Corleone territory back in New York. While waiting for his audience with the young Don, Pentangeli searches the orchestra for one single Italian and, finding it bereft of his paisanos, attempts to lead it in some traditional Italian folk melody. The musicians have a hard time following until they come up with a very American equivalent: “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Pentangeli retreats from the stage in disgust.

So why is this important? Because on one hand you have an amusing scene, but on the other you have the introduction of a crucial theme: Michael Corleone’s separation from his roots and descent into evil. This theme is explored throughout the film, including the flashbacks to Michael’s father a generation ago in Little Italy and culminating with the murder of his brother Fredo. So the scene with the orchestra may not seem important right away, but in hindsight it is. It is a well-placed stone in the bridge that is the entire film.

Bazin’s point was that neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief were not like this at all. Instead of being bridges with some a priori purpose, they were more like rocks that just happen to lie in the stream. Their a posteriori purpose being to support your hands and feet as you amble across as best you can. The experience isn’t so much unified and schematic as real and apparently random just like life. Therein lies its power.

North Carolina writer John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is one such story.

Set in the late 1700’s, the story focuses on the first white settlers in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. There’s Mooney, the strong, silent, clear thinking farmer. His stubbornness keeps his family alive, but it could also kill him. His wife Lorry, pretty and tough, is haunted by a previous marriage and has a hard time not resenting her father who owns a plot of land nearby. Her father, Tinkler Harrison, owns a small number of slaves and much livestock and hence is a station above everyone else. Highly intelligent but pathologically shrewd, he married his teenage niece when he was in his 50s. His brother in-law Ernest is musical and lazy and reared a large brood of girls who suffer from the lack of a good father, or so Tinkler thinks. Their second-oldest Mina is truly beautiful, but restless and rebellious to a fault.

These and others are the people who have to break the land. The rocky, wild, mountainous land. Few today know what that means firsthand, including myself. But it is a gargantuan task that Ehle portrays with brutish clarity. It involves keeping wolves and foxes away from the livestock you’re raising in your backyard. It involves digging a proper privy so others can walk through the forest without incident. It involves knowing which roots and herbs can be used for medicine and which ones can kill you. It involves knowing how to keep your log cabin secure so snakes don’t enter in the dark of night and poison you. It involves keeping eggs and meat fresh for as long as possible in a wretched little kitchen that lacks even a window. It involves sitting on logs when sharing meals because you can’t spare the wood to build a table and chairs. It involves tracking down grizzly bears on their turf with knives and primitive rifles when they terrorize your community. It involves, to quote Rudyard Kipling, the ability to “watch the things you gave your life to broken/And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

So the novel strings together more or less unrelated vignettes like rocks in a stream as the land breakers build a town from literally nothing. The process is slow, and they could search for greener pastures in the lowlands. But they don’t. That land’s already been broken, you see. It wouldn’t belong to them.

The only semblance of myth and meaning in The Land Breakers can be found in a later chapter when the entire settlement, led by Mooney and Tinkler, resolves to deliver all their goods and livestock across tortuous and deadly terrain down to the nearest town. This is their very best, the dear dear product of years of bitter toil. It’s their only way of generating real wealth and showing the world, and themselves, that all their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. It’s also the only way to entice more settlers to come and break the land with them. So all the stories encountered thus far in the novel seem to ride on the line with this exodus. Ehle paints it as downright biblical – and it is. If it fails, the settlement is set back further into the wilderness with hearts and bodies, rather than the land, being broken.

The language is blunt and stripped-down but clever, the characters unforgettable, and the circumstances riveting and almost always dangerous. Anything florid or witty gets excised if it was ever there to begin with. By focusing on women as much as men, Ehle comes off as less macho than Hemingway who explored similar themes, but for whom the “Sacred Land” was mostly masculine territory. For The Land Breakers Ehle’s approach is appropriate. Part of the fascination of historical fiction is getting a sense of how people lived years ago, and women are of course no less fascinating than men.

Another important aspect of the novel is its (albeit innocent) political incorrectness. Published in the early 1960s, it portrays Mother Nature as an unforgiving monster who will swallow you whole and forget all about you if you let her. There is no nostalgia for nature in this novel. There is no concern for the rights of wild animals, the things that threaten to chip away at your prosperity or destroy it outright. And trees are there only to be chopped down for firewood, building material, or to make room for more settlers. When breaking the land you need all the help you can get, and sympathy for anything other than humans, pets, and livestock in such circumstances would be downright suicidal. The land breakers engage in an unremitting struggle with the beast that is Mother Nature, the only outcomes of which are either death or the privilege of waking up in the morning and continuing the struggle for another day. All for the vision and hope of what the settlement could one day be.

After you make the rocky journey across the stream that is The Land Breakers, you can look back and see the wet stones you clung to and cut your skin on. They are still just rocks, for the most part strewn across the water at random. Very few of them are well-placed. And that’s okay. For a brief time, thanks to the genius of John Ehle, you were a land breaker yourself. And you made it across the stream. You made it across the stream.

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The Indiana Bounce

Most kinds of humor depends upon the old switcheroo: You expect one thing and get another. Puns work this way by deliberately confusing two very different words that sound the same. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest might be one of the most sublime expression of puns in literature, with “earnest” alternating between name and adjective to serve the needs of the story's hilariously Byzantine plot. Slapstick goes a long way with switching things as well. People are supposed to stand, not fall down. They're supposed to eat pies in pieces coming at them two miles an hour, not all at once and at twenty. Subtext also works wonders in this regard. Remember the SNL Colonel Angus skit? Those aristocratic Southerners waiting for the good Colonel to come home from the war kept talking about one thing. But by the way they pronounce Colonel Angus's name in that highfalutin Southern drawl, you realize quickly that they're talking about something completely different. And the clever way in which this pretext is maintained snowballs the humor for a good five minutes.

The list goes on, of course. My purpose here however is to discuss another kind of comedy, a kind that rarely gets discussed but should. I call it the Indiana Bounce. It's inspired by Indiana Jones' reaction to a joke in an often overlooked scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Most kinds of humor depends upon the old switcheroo: You expect one thing and get another. Puns work this way by deliberately confusing two very different words that sound the same. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest might be one of the most sublime expression of puns in literature, order with “earnest” alternating between name and adjective to serve the needs of the story's hilariously Byzantine plot. Slapstick goes a long way with switching things as well. People are supposed to stand, viagra not fall down. They're supposed to eat pies in pieces coming at them two miles an hour, nurse not all at once and at twenty. Subtext also works wonders in this regard. Remember the SNL Colonel Angus skit? Those aristocratic Southerners waiting for the good Colonel to come home from the war kept talking about one thing. But by the way they pronounce Colonel Angus's name in that highfalutin Southern drawl, you realize quickly that they're talking about something completely different. And the clever way in which this pretext is maintained snowballs the humor for a good five minutes. The list goes on, of course. My purpose here however is to discuss another kind of comedy, a kind that rarely gets discussed but should. I call it the Indiana Bounce. It's inspired by Indiana Jones' reaction to a joke in an often overlooked scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. French Archaeologist Rene Belloq is about to bury Indiana Jones in a crypt filled with snakes and shouts down before sealing it: “Who knows, Doctor Jones? Some day even you might be worth something.” Jones' only response is a laugh which quickly dissolves into a curse: “Ha ha ha…son of a…” The switcheroo here is going from the Funny to the Not-Funny and back to the Funny again. Hence the term “bounce”. Belloq, that annoying French archaeologist who wants seal Indiana Jones to his doom, cracks wise about is his soon-to-be erstwhile colleague. And it's a funny crack. You see, the two were students together in archaeology school. They knew each other. And, as men are wont to do, they vie for the alpha position by seeing who can deliver the most devastatingly clever putdown of the other. Belloq does three things here. A) Asserts that Indiana Jones is a poor archaeologist (the point of the barb, so to speak). B) Suggests Jones' only hope of accomplishing anything in the field is to be buried in a crypt for a thousand years, and then get discovered like any other artifact. (Funny! Ha ha!) C) Wraps the entire delivery in the guise of a compliment. (Boy, those French are a sophisticated bunch, aren't they?) But if you think about it, Belloq actually delivers his putdown in reverse order, from C to B to A. And this is important for reasons we will discuss in a moment. But first, let's step back a bit. Typically, such insults are not meant to hurt. They are delivered so flippantly and pleasantly they can't possibly be genuine, and the recipient should realize this. For example, I once witnessed a conversation between an aspiring filmmaker and his poet roommate. The poet entered the apartment while the filmmaker was screening one of his early efforts to some friends, a low-budget, ultra-violent farce with lots of gore and unmotivated hysteria. Clearly, a piece of questionable quality, even as schlock. After watching for a few moments, the poet asked the filmmaker how it felt to have accomplished his greatest work at such a young age. The filmmaker laughed. Despite being told in front of his friends that he was a bad filmmaker, he still laughed. Why? Because the poet's jibe, like Belloq's, was a putdown artfully disguised as a compliment. This is why Indiana Jones laughs as well. Only he soon realizes that the joke is on him in the most permanent possible way and is therefore Not Funny. Plus, he's an ophidiophobe about to die in a snake pit. Hence the reduction to profanity. Remember when I mentioned the importance of delivering the putdown in reverse order? It's important because Jones has to wait until Belloq finishes his graceful insult before realizing that he is indeed the butt of two jokes: He is a bad archaeologist and soon to be a dead one. This is why Jones laughs and swears at the same time. Supposing Belloq had instead said the following before sealing the crypt: JONES: Belloq! BELLOQ: You know, Dr. Jones, you always were a bad archaeologist. In fact, the only way I can imagine your having an impact in our field is if you are buried here and then your remains are discovered in a thousand years with other artifacts of our age! You can thank me later! Ha! Ha! JONES: That's not even funny! Exactly. There's nothing for Jones to laugh at here and no descent into the Not-Funny because the scene never rises to the Funny to begin with. Belloq's revised parting shot says the same thing as what's onscreen, only it's inelegant and obvious. It's not funny, and so under these circumstances there is no switcheroo to make it funnier. Therein lies the humor of the Indiana Bounce. Taking something funny and making it funnier by making it not funny. Or, put more intuitively: a condition that plummets from the Funny to the Not-Funny, and then bounces back to the Funny as soon as the audience hears the splat. One instance I can remember of the Indiana Bounce being used to great effect in a sitcom was in an episode of Hogan's Heroes. The bette-noir of all the Nazi officers, the one thing they never liked to talk about, of course, was the dreaded Eastern Front. So when a visiting general threatens to send Colonel Klink there, someone informs him that “you don't go to Eastern Front. Eastern Front come to you!” The look of horror on the officers' faces as they contemplate the unfunny ramifications of this little witticism is preciously funny. Another that I remember is from the Johnny Carson Tonight Show when Carson was interviewing a very young Drew Barrymore, probably right after the release of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Carson asked her if her parents ever watched the Tonight Show and Drew responded naively that, yes, in fact, they did watch the Tonight Show. She knew this for a fact because they had it on one evening while she was up after bedtime throwing up. Carson's look of dread as he pretended to contemplate people throwing up while watching his show was perfect. He looked up above his guest and raised his eyes even higher, as if appealing to a greater power while knowing that no such appeal is even possible. This, I call the Carson Glare, and I use it in conjunction with the Indiana Bounce whenever I can. And if you can humor me for one more paragraph I shall provide an example. Once I was a soccer coach for a team of four- and five-year-olds. In one particular game, they were getting outplayed, but just barely. So it was a frustrating, painful loss with the score ending up

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to be something like 4-2. Then, with seconds left, our three best players allowed a completely unnecessary goal. Basically, one of the other kids kicked lame little grounder that wasn't even on its way to the goal. But in a series of Keystone Cop moments of utter incompetence, my kids guided the ball into their own net. They did this by tripping on the grass, falling on the ball, and crashing into each other all at the right moments. The ball stopped short the moment it eked its way into the goal. I couldn't believe it. It's funny thinking about it now. But then, well… The kids all looked to me to see how I would react to such a pathetic display. And so I looked up above them and raised my eyes even higher, as if appealing to a greater power while knowing that no such appeal is even possible. And the kids laughed. They laughed because of the Carson Glare and the Indiana Bounce.

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So I’m gonna tell you a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that's really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was on a boat with these other guys. And one of them, this guy Marlow, told the most amazing story ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that's really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here's what he said. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Marlow here. I’m gonna tell you three guys a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was, there I was, there I was…in the Congo. Boy, was it dark. I was a steamship captain going up river to work at a trading station that deals in ivory. Not a whole lot happened, other than the darkness. Did I say that it was dark? Got waylaid for about a month. Met a few dubious individuals. They all talked about my future boss, Kurtz. Saw a lot of suffering. Still pretty dark. Heard that Kurtz was going nuts. Heard he took charge of a tribe. They attacked us with arrows. We found him. He was nuts, all right. And sick, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” right before he died. It was too bad, and still pretty dark over there. Didn't have the heart to break his last words to his fiancé. So I told her he died calling her name.

So that's my story. It would have been too dark to tell her the truth. Too dark.

When Marlow finally shut up, I looked out towards the horizon, and it was pretty dark.

So that's my story. The end. Pretty dark, huh?

So I guess that if you're still with me by now you've probably guessed that the most overrated novella ever must be Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I have read this novella three times now. Or, I should say, I remember reading it three times. The story itself, not so much.

So I’m gonna tell you a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was on a boat with these other guys. And one of them, this guy Marlow, told the most amazing story ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here’s what he said. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Marlow here. I’m gonna tell you three guys a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was, there I was, there I was…in the Congo. Boy, was it dark. I was a steamship captain going up river to work at a trading station that deals in ivory. Not a whole lot happened, other than the darkness. Did I say that it was dark? Got waylaid for about a month. Met a few dubious individuals. They all talked about my future boss, Kurtz. Saw a lot of suffering. Still pretty dark. Heard that Kurtz was going nuts. Heard he took charge of a tribe. They attacked us with arrows. We found him. He was nuts, all right. And sick, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” right before he died. It was too bad, and still pretty dark over there. Didn’t have the heart to break his last words to his fiancé. So I told her he died calling her name.

So that’s my story. It would have been too dark to tell her the truth. Too dark.

When Marlow finally shut up, I looked out towards the horizon, and it was pretty dark.

So that’s my story. The end. Pretty dark, huh?

So I guess that if you’re still with me by now you’ve probably guessed that the most overrated novella ever must be Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I have read this novella three times now. Or, I should say, I remember reading it three times. The story itself, not so much. If not for this blog post, which forces me to remember, I probably would have forgotten it once again. That’s because, frankly, it is a murky, forgettable story. While a lot happens from an ideological standpoint, very little happens from an objective standpoint, and that’s what I primarily care about.

Okay, so what does this mean? It means that if you are sympathetic with a certain ideology (in this case, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism), then Heart of Darkness leaves you with enough clues and themes to reinforce this ideology and make you feel vindicated after reading. But if you are completely ignorant or apathetic to this ideology, then the story will sink into tedium like quicksand.

More on this as we go along.

From a technical standpoint, my objections to the story are twofold: lack of action and unnecessary degrees of separation. Let’s get the latter one out of the way first, since it’s the more easily summarized.

Basically, you have three levels of separation (or complication) between the author and the story. It goes from author, to anonymous narrator, to Marlow, to the Congo, to the reader.

Now why do we need this? Couldn’t we just have made Marlow the narrator and have him tell the story as it happened? Couldn’t all of Conrad’s important plot points still be covered with this more direct approach? After all, it is Marlow’s story. All this anonymous narrator business and the fact that Marlow is recalling his African adventures of long ago before a curiously quiet group of colleagues only separates the reader further from the story.

I can think of one reason such a separation could increase the novella’s appeal: it reinforces the distance between Europe (where most of Conrad’s readers were located) and the locus of the story: Africa, the heart of darkness itself. Africa: haunted by the specter of colonialism and ravaged and raped by imperialism. Africa: where bad, greedy Europeans go to lose their souls and where good Europeans filled with good European good intentions supposedly go to lose their minds. In so doing Conrad increases the exotic nature of the story, enhances its sense of adventure and mystery, and makes a very clear point that despite taking place thousands of miles away, this heart of darkness really exists within all of us. You see? Far away become really really close. I believe literature professors refer to such an obvious literary device as irony.

Okay, so what?

This only matters if you are either a committed colonialist or a committed anti-colonialist (or imperialist, but whatever). This only matters if you subscribe to a certain ideology before reading the story. But what if you don’t? What if you’re neither pro- or anti- in this debate? What if you’re some 8th grade kid armed only with a tabula rasa and hopes that this story will have something interesting in it unlike the last dusty tome they just made you read? Better yet, what if you’re a literature lover in India or East Asia who’s looking for a universal story about the human condition and don’t have time to weigh yourself down beforehand with ideological English baggage from a hundred years ago?

In that case you would be out of luck. Wouldn’t you?

My second complaint is this: Nothing happens. Or, really, when things finally do start to happen towards the end of the story, the reader is too beaten down by boredom to care. Marlow gets a job in Africa. Goes there. Waits. Goes part of the way to Kurtz’s station. Waits some more. Goes a little further. Waits some more. Finds a book about shipping. Continues searching for Kurtz and waiting. Meets some raving Russian guy. Then the action begins: they get attacked by Kurtz’s tribe. One of the ship’s crew is killed. They find Kurtz. He escapes. They find him again and put him on the boat. He says, “The horror, the horror.” He dies. A year later, Marlow tells Kurtz’s still-grieving fiancé that his last words were her name.

Now, is it me? Or is this tea a little weak?

Of course, Conrad tries to liven it up by constantly reminding us of how dark it is along the Congo River, even in broad daylight, and converts his novella into a veritable thesaurus of darkness. He uses the words “dark”, “darkly”, or “darkness” 56 times both metaphorically and otherwise. “Black” he uses 33 times apart from a racial or skin-color context. Variations on “night” he uses 30 times. He uses “shadow” or “shadowy” 20 times and “gloom” or “gloomy” 14 times. Similar terms include “dusk”, “dim”, “murky”, “unlit”, “obscure”, and “pitch”.

I’m reminded of a Woody Guthrie album called Dustbowl Ballads wherein 8 out of the 15 songs all have “dust” in the title: “Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)”, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”, “Dust Can’t Kill Me”. “Dust Pneumonia Blues”, “Dust Bowl Refugee”, “Dust Bowl Blues”, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues (alternate take)”, and the ever-popular “Dusty Old Dust”. Something tells me that this is a concept album about dust.

The problem with this darkness motif in Heart of Darkness is not just that it is overdone and blatant, but that it is entirely manufactured by the author. It comes from Conrad, through the narrator, and finally through Marlow rather than stemming from the action itself. In other words, Conrad pulls it out of his bag of tricks in order to drum up tension and compensate for the chicken scratch plot line he’s making us follow. This happens in horror movies a lot, except in horror movies the payoff is never too far away. In Heart of Darkness there really is no payoff. With all the creepiness, with all the macabre language and depictions of foreboding landscapes, you’d expect some grand finale, some catastrophic yet thrilling event from which Marlow barely escapes a completely changed man. Instead, the story dissolves before your eyes like a dream upon waking. Instead, Marlow finds Kurtz and takes him away. An anticlimactic ending like this threatens to leave a reader wondering where the story went.

So if Heart of Darkness is so underwhelming, why is it canonized? Why is it force-fed to millions of high school students across the English-speaking world? Why is it considered great? Well, for one, it’s not a bad story by any means. It’s a serious work of historical importance. If you’re looking for a portrayal of colonialism in fiction, you could do a lot worse than Heart of Darkness. If you’re paying attention, you can also tease out a lot of meaning in the story’s recurring themes. You will have no trouble finding such exegeses on the internet. Also, I do kind of like how Conrad builds tension by having people incessantly talking, whispering, muttering, cursing the name of the mysterious Kurtz pages and pages before we meet him. H.P. Lovecraft uses a similar device pretty well in Call of Cthulhu and other stories, and may very well have taken a page or two out of the book of Joseph Conrad.

I think the main cause for the novella’s canonization however is ideological. Most people in the academy assign Heart of Darkness because they agree with its perceived ideological message: Colonialism is Bad, imperialism is Bad, and because Europeans engage in colonialism and imperialism they have become Bad. Their hearts have become full of darkness, you see.

Now, you may agree with this or not, but it does not refute the claim that Heart of Darkness is propped up by ideology for its chief appeal. This means it will not last as a work of fiction since the expanse of time exhausts all ideologies. At some point in the future, when readers will have less emotion invested in colonialism or imperialism, Heart of Darkness will have to stand on its merits. And when that happens it will be exposed for its manifest limitations, no matter how dark Joseph Conrad makes it out to be.

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Master and Commander

I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, and yet is successful. I'm filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It's great such things get published. But I can't help thinking, “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”

I have just finished Master and Commander, published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O'Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.

This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I'd like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don't believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.

I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, treatment and yet is successful. I'm filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It's great such things get published. But I can't help thinking, diagnosis “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”

I have just finished Master and Commander, buy published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O'Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.

This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I'd like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don't believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.

O'Brian's big accomplishment here is the invention of two very likable characters who are nicely placed on a warship where they are bound to amicably butt heads. They probably occupy rungs 1 and 2 of the IQ totem pole of any ship they're on. Jack is brave and clever, but not headstrong. He's always trying to second-guess the enemy, and he's always trying to capture their ships for prize money. Maybe he's a little too loose with the wine. Maybe he's a little too loose with the ladies. He likes Stephen though, and not just as a surgeon. All the bugs and twigs the man collects. The incessant questions about naval goings-on, their shared interest in music. It's a strong yet interesting friendship, and I'm sure this resonates well with O'Brian's readership.

Another accomplishment, just as big if not bigger, is the truth of it all. There is no doubt that O'Brian knew exactly what he was writing about. The history, the culture, the technical details of sailors, ships and seamanship. Contemporary reviews focused on the exact verisimilitude of the story down to the tiniest details and raved about it. Indeed, Master and Commander is a time capsule. There is little that's modern about it other than some of the prose (and even that comes across as baroque at times). O'Brian abstains it seems from inserting any modern sentiment into his writing and focuses on telling the story as it would have happened in 1801 or whenever it takes place. Although this is not the sort of thing that necessarily jazzes me, I do recognize that it is a significant literary feat (and one that is difficult to accomplish).

The last great thing O'Brian brings to the table are the stratagems, gambits, and ploys Aubrey uses to trick the enemy. They are all ingenious, they are all based on deep research, and they almost always work. Hence the Captain Kirk reference. In Master and Commander, Aubrey captains the HMS Sophie, which is little more than a sloop. Often he faces off against ships that are bigger, newer, faster, and carry more firepower. Aubrey will need his wits if he doesn't want to take his crew on a tour of Davey Jones' Locker. And remember that IQ totem pole? It applies to practically the whole ocean it seems. No one is smarter than Jack Aubrey about things naval, and when he has a suspicion about the enemy or the weather or what his ship or crew can or cannot do under certain circumstances, it is almost certain to be right.

So if you like accurate history, atomic-level nautical details, likeable characters, ingenious stratagems, and a hero you can really root for (not to mention some thrilling battle scenes), then Master and Commander is for you.

But it is not quite for me.

For one, I found about a thrid the novel to be incomprehensible. This breaks a big rule for me: make your novel comprehensible. When I'm take on a story, I would like some detail, but not so much that it seems like it's written in another language. This is what it was for me. It seems that for the first several chapters, if you do not have an intimate understanding of all kinds jibs and sails and masts and decks then you will get lost. I honestly don't know how anyone who isn't a naval scholar or lacks experience on a 18th century warship would be able to follow what goes on. Yes, I know that many can; I just don't know how.

I think I gave up trying to closely follow the story when my dictionary failed me for the 5th or 6th time. This was maybe a third of the way through the novel. That's too much work for a reader, to have to constantly consult reference material to follow the action. I started to skim over some of the more baffling passages just to keep from putting the book down (which I was tempted to do several times). I found it amusing that somewhere towards the end a character had died and I hadn't even realize it. I didn't catch on until they were sewing him into his hammock for a watery grave. And I didn't care all that much, either. I was only skimming the baffling bits just so I could follow the main arc of the story. Then I realized there wasn't one. Master and Commander has a beginning and a middle, and that's it. The story is basically about Jack Aubrey's advancement through the ranks of the British Navy as he goes from adventure to adventure with his nerdy pal Stephen Maturin. The story isn't supposed to have an ending.

This leads to my second gripe. Being a serial novel, suspense never truly develops because no matter what happens you always know that Jack and Stephen will live to see another day. So the entertainment value comes not with wondering whether Jack and Stephen will get out of their current predicament, but marveling at how they get out of their current predicament. And there's always going to be a predicament.

Remember Gilligan's Island? You know they were never going to leave the island, right? No matter what an episode promises (or threatens), you can rest assured that in the end the castaways will be in the same place they were at the beginning. This is called the Law of the Expanding Middle. It works great for comedies and soap operas and mysteries and adventure stories, but it is rarely the format for serious literature. In serious literature you usually want main characters to be in a different place when it's all over. The story has to somehow change them (and us) significantly and perhaps even permanently. That is the mark of great literature. You don't get that with Sherlock Holmes stories. You don't get that with James Bond stories. And you certainly don't get that here.

This is not to say that Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Jack Aubrey novels are without merit. Of course, not. These are first-rate genre stories that have impacted millions. People have a need for this kind of thing, and these novels have been delivering for generations. And that's lovely. It's just that I don't have a need for this kind of fiction. I consider it to be intellectual but lightweight entertainment rather than something profound.

While I am willing to concede that my first two objections to Master and Commander are at least partially my problem rather than any legitimate knock on the novel itself, I will stand by my last objection till my dying day as an honest to goodness fault in the work. The novel's ending violates what I consider to be a sacrosanct law of storytelling:

Never take the climax of the story out of the hands of the protagonist.

Master and Commander contains two really big battle scenes towards the end: One in which Jack outwits the crew of a big Spanish vessel and takes it for a prize, and the other in which the Sophie is snuck up upon by 3 French warships, and, despite a brilliant and risky escape effort engineered by Jack, is captured. The remainder of the novel consists of Jack and Stephen sitting it out as prisoners and then getting court-martialed by the British navy. The big climax happens when the admirals let Jack off the hook for being such a capital fellow.

Does anyone else see exactly how lame this is?

Here we have our brilliant and gallant leader ending his story by getting captured and then sitting there at the mercy of others. Jack does nothing to achieve his state of grace. Yes, his crew testified that Jack did all he could to save the ship, but we already know this. All this ending proves is that the navy brass are not entirely unsympathetic to justice. This is more their shining moment than Jack Aubrey's. To slog through such a dense, baffling novel only to be sold a cheap bill of goods at the end was a letdown to say the least.

Yeah, I guess we're supposed to be elated since we share in Jack Aubrey's triumphs and disasters. But I'm not. If the author couldn't be bothered to contrive a climax that keeps Jack in charge of his own fate at the very least, why should I be bothered to care all that much when Jack lucks out in the end? He could have just as easily been hanged or struck by lightning.

This is simply lazy writing, and I am dismayed that so many people don't seem to care. If an author expects a reader to dedicate many hours to his book, he'd better have a worthwhile payoff in the end. That O'Brian doesn't give one is as baffling as some of his prose. And why readers gave him a pass for it is anyone's guess.

That said, I did come away from Master and Commander with a valuable lesson: if an author knows his audience (or if his audience knows him), he can get away with breaking any rule of writing he wants. I am willing to gamble Patrick O'Brian knew his audience well, and that audience (at least in 1969) consisted of a whole generation of English speaking men who were quite knowledgeable about British naval history. If this weren't the case, no publisher would have come near such an arcane yarn as Master and Commander. As long as Patrick O'Brian kept Jack and Stephen likeable, as long as he kept his stories teeming with accurate nautical details, as long as he kept supplying his readership with cracking battle scenes and clever stratagems, and as long as Jack Aubrey always came out on top in the end, then his readership will always love him.

There is something to be admired about that.

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