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Peter Jackson’s Cinematic Defecation on the Tolkien Estate

Monday, December 30th, 2013

[Mark safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Bilbo cowering at the approach of Smaug’s henchmen,  Darth Vader and Magneto

My review of the first Hobbit movie was blistering.

The second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, is such a travesty, I lack sufficient words to describe it. It makes the first movie look like a faithful adaptation. Most of the plot consists of Jackson’s own inventions to stretch out a filler of a movie [ SPOILER ALERT]

In a nod to trendy issues dear to the heart of American liberal feminist ideologues, he has added the she-elf superhero Tauriel, Captain of King Thranduil’s guards. She is the GI Jane of the Wood-elven kingdom with a soft spot for the forbidden love of Dwarven suitors

Legolas (or rather Prince Legolas) is injected into the film. He has an unrequited crush on Tauriel that wastes some screen time, but his combat power far exceeds what he demonstrated in Lord of the Rings at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith. He is a combination of Hawkeye and Wolverine, except more dangerous. Really, the implication of this film is that an elf army should have no trouble marching from here to Mordor, storm the Dark Tower and kick Sauron in the keister. The Terminator was less lethal than an angry Legolas..

The Orcs have their own operationally impressive SEAL Team Bolg, able to invade enchanted Elven fortresses or Lake Town – though once in combat they all have the same life expectancy as Stormtroopers with similarly inexhaustible numbers.

While the hapless dwarves need to be repeatedly saved by she-elves and Bilbo, once in Erebor they can swing from huge chains, outmaneuver dragons and operate massive machinery despite leaving a bunch of dwarves back in Lake Town

Bard the Bowman, political activist – because supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses

Bilbo inexplicably takes off his Ring and becomes visible to Smaug even though Smaug has indicated he will kill him and then, of course, he does not.

Gandalf battles Sauron (!)

And so on…..

The film is visually impressive and probably works for everyone who has never read the book or who likes fan fiction mash-ups but it left me with the impression of Jackson as a petulant, spoiled child taking pleasure in each ridiculous change to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story he could shoehorn in across three movies

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Stereocognition, intelligence and the movies

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- Zero Dark Thirty & Manhunt, fact and fiction, that old saw about who it is that gets to write history, thence onwards to theology & the arts, von Balthasar & Tolkien, winding up watching UK & US versions of House of Cards with son David ]
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How’s this for stereoscopy?

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You may know I’m preoccupied with the notion of extending the stereo concept — using twin sources to add a depth dimension to one’s perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally.

Nada Bakos‘ image above shows a cinema in which documentary and fictional versions of the story of the hunt for bin Laden are playing simultaneously. The fiction, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, I saw a couple of days ago, and neither I nor son Emlyn, 17, were terribly enthused: the Camp Chapman scene was the one that touched me most deeply.

I’ll no doubt want to see both films, but it’s Greg Barker’s documentary, Manhunter, that will interest me the most, the more factual of the two. And yet that’s curious in and of itself, because as a poet I’m usually interested in the mythic and imaginative as much as or more than the “merely” factual, and I tend to think of the movies as providing a mythology for our times.

Okay, let me give you the two quotes that get to the heart of my sensibilities about fact and fiction at the movies.

What, after all, happens in a movie theater after the lights dim and the curtain rises? F Scott Fitzgerald tells us what happens in the mogul’s screening room, but it’s the same with us peons, isn’t it?

Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds or else discarded.

And I’m also with the poet Kathleen Raine, who said:

Myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around…

So where does that leave me?

Right now, it leaves me feeling that in the case of these two filmic treatments of the same “true story” — and no doubt many others — history will likely be “written” by the entertainment makers, not the documentarists. Paradoxically, a sad thought.

But let’s go beyond that.

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I said I’m preoccupied with the notion of using twin sources to add a depth dimension to perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally. Another way to say that is that I’m interested in figuring out how to think contrapuntally, and how to score contrapuntal thought — thought which holds two or more potentially conflicting concepts in mind simultaneously, so as to arrive at a deeper understanding than one perspective alone can provide…

I’ve talked about these modes of stereoscopic / contrapuntal cognition before, in posts such as Form is insight: a musical experiment and Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses, and I’m always delighted when I run across a new very bright thinker (Glenn Gould, Edward Said [Power, Politics, and Culture p. 447}, Wm Blake) playing with these ideas -- today it's the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, who speaks of "the entire polyphony of revelation", suggests that:

In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it

and states that "Even eternal Truth itself is symphonic." The only stronger statement I know of concerning the contrapuntal nature of the world from within the Catholic tradition is JRR Tolkien's extraordinary short masterpiece of a creation myth, The Music of the Ainur [scroll down at link], with which he begins the Silmarillion.

So the contrapuntal idea is present in theology, as well as the arts…

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Stereoscopy, counterpoint.

I’ve been watching the TV series, House of Cards, with my fourteen-year old, David – we’ve now seen the whole first series of the UK version together, and the beginning of the US version, and it’s fascinating to notice the differences.

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey):

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson):

See both shows, form your own conclusions…

And their source?

Now I shall have to watch Richard III with David, too.

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Rabbis, Islam & End of Days II, also 2013 Mahdism Update, II

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- continuing my updating of Mahdist issues, also surprising parallels and oppositions ]
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By the time you’ve learned the various signs of the times — pre-, mid- and post-trib rapture dispensationalist, preterist, Mormon, I dunno, ecological, Sunni, Shiite — the list, like Tolkien‘s Road, goes ever on — who’s on which side, and who might be somebody else’s something — you may feel as confused as I do.

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The very first sentence of Tim Furnish‘s book, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden — which I may never tire of quoting — reads:

One man’s messiah is another man’s heretic.

I was rereading the amazing section on the Gharqad tree in Anne Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg‘s book, The Road to Martyrs Square, the other day, and noticed on p. 21 yet another intriguing variant on Furnish’s point:

Even before the intifada, the figure of the Dajjal was equated by many Islamists with the Jewish Moshiach, the Messiah, as when the highly influential Pakistani Islamist Malauna Maududi claimed in the 1960s that “the stage has been set for the emergence of the Dajjal who, as was foretold by the Holy Prophet (PBUH), will rise as a ‘Promised Messiah’ of the Jews.” By the late intifada, the equation was commonplace in the West Bank and Gaza. When the Lubavitcher Hasidim in the early 1990s began to refer to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the Messiah, the claim had considerable effect on Palestinian Islamists. Some actually began to include Schneerson on their list of False Prophets, referring to him as “the Antichrist Liar.”

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Compare this, however, with the Muslim Harun Yahya‘s willingness to declare his expectation of the King Messiah / Moshiach in the screen-cap below. Yahya is presumably referring to the same salvific end-times figure he elsewhere refers to as the Mahdi.

Here we have the reverse possibility to the one Furnish points to — it certainly looks as though here, one man’s Messiah is another man’s Mahdi. On one of his websites, King-Messiah.com, Yahya makes the identification of these figures from two traditions explicit:

And “King Messiah” is a particularly interesting phrase for Yahya to use — among other things, it’s the term some followers of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson use to describe their rebbe.

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As I pointed out two days ago in Expecting the unexpected: Rabbis, Islam, and the End of Days, there’s a whole lot going on here, and it takes patience to tease all the strands out…

One of these days I’ll have to put together an extended list of messiah / mahdi correspondences — and prophet / false prophet and christ / antichrist correspondences between competing eschatologies, too, both within specific religions and across them.

I suspect Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was thinking along similar lines to Yahya when he wrote the paragraph I quoted towards the end of The Messianic Mahdist Moebius strip — or maybe Maze?:

The Mahdi is not an embodiment of the Islamic belief but he is also the symbol of an aspiration cherished by mankind irrespective of its divergent religious doctrines. He is also the crystallization of an instructive inspiration through which all people, regardless of their religious affiliations, have learnt to await a day when heavenly missions, with all their implications, will achieve their final goal and the tiring march of humanity across history will culminate satisfactory in peace and tranquility. This consciousness of the expected future has not been confined to those who believe in the supernatural phenomenon but has also been reflected in the ideologies and cult which totally deny the existence of what is imperceptible. For example, the dialectical materialism which interprets history on the basis of contradiction believes that a day will come when all contradictions will disappear and complete peace and tranquility will prevail.

The Iranian scholar Muhammad Ali Shumali, whom I also quoted, said much the same:

Imam Mahdi is not a saviour for [just] the Shias. Imam Mahdi is a saviour for all mankind…

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Parallels and oppositions…

My language here will probably not be precise enough for mathematicians or logicians — but isn’t the thing that most closely resembles another thing its exact opposite?

And to give this already twisty rope yet another twirl… not in terms of apocalyptic, but of Jewish / Muslim relations more generally…

Here’s Pastor John Hagee — the preacher who was so far right that Sen. John McCain rejected his endorsement in the 2008 presidential campaign — talking with Rabbi Daniel Lapin about Muslims being blessed, and how their five-times-daily prayers are particularly listened to by God:

These unpredictable “outlier” nuances and their attendant shocks and surprises are ongoing…

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The “signs” graphic at the head of this post is from a post titled Preparing for the Second Coming on LDS Why? — you can download their answers for teens in Chapter 12 of the book The Big Picture. It begins:

Imagine it’s a bright and sunny afternoon, and as you drive down the road with your parents you look up and notice that the sky looks different than normal. The clouds are luminescent, bright, and heavenly. Suddenly, without warning, the sky seemingly bursts open and the veil between heaven and earth is split. Trumpets start sounding from the sky, and you see above you the most glorious being your mind could ever conceive of descending out of heaven and touching down on earth — Jesus Christ in all His glory…

That’s a sign that might be hard to miss…

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The Person / Position Paradox: once more, with avatars

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow up to my previous post -- and it's not religion that's the alternate reality this time, but games ]
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I just posted a long and potentially contentious post about what I called a person / position paradox: that of the member of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and chairman of the US House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Rep. Paul Broun MD (R-GA), who said recently:

that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell…

And he meant it.

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Well, while I was writing that post, this little gem (above) crossed my bows (ht Paxsims) — so perhaps you’ll permit me to poke a little fun at a member of the other US political party.

It seems that Colleen Lachowicz, Democratic candidate for the Maine State Semnate, is also Santiaga, Orc Assassination Rogue in the game-world, World of Warcraft.

Questions arising:

Does that make her more representative or less?
what about the fact that she plays at level 68?
is that a representative level to play at?
and an Orc Assassination Rogue? really?
or is she just a candidate who happens to be a gamer?

The image above comes from the Maine GOP, btw.

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To look at this minor contretemps from another angle: how far are we from religion, here in the land of Orcs?

The great literary critic Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism writes of:

great art using popular forms, as Shakespeare does in his last period, or as the Bible does when it ends with a fairy tale about a damsel in distress, a hero killing dragons, a wicked witch, and a wonderful city glittering with jewels.

Frye is not knocking Revelation here, though one might at first think he is: he’s assigning it to a literary genre, as one might assign the Psalms to poetry, Kings and Chronicles to history, or the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles to biography. The Epistles, after all, are already classified as epistolary works. And — give the man a break — he’s also placing it in the same realm of great art as Shakespeare.

How far, then, do you suppose CS LewisNarnia – or Tolkien‘s Middle Earth, with its Elven folk Firstborn of the Children of Ilúvatar — might be from the World where Colleen is an Orc?

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How much room can we concede to imagination in our “real world”?

And Dante‘s voyage took him through the three realms of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, didn’t it, and according to the Apostles Creed, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell took place between his death and resurrection.

So my next question would be:

When will we build and play the games of Paradise?

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A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach

Monday, February 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]

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The description of Egyptian troops attacking a Christian monastery that forms the first quote in this DoubleQuote is horrifying in many ways.

quoprayer-counter-prayer.gif

Recent events in Egypt had featured mutual support between Muslims and their Coptic Christian neighbors, each group in turn acting as human shields to protect the other while they were praying. Here, by contrast, the army – which is effectively now “ruling” Egypt in the interregnum between the fall of Mubarak and the election of a new President and government – is attacking the humans it is supposed to protect.

But what does that have to do with Bach?

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Part I: a monastery attacked in Egypt

This is vile.

Those who are being attacked happen to be Christians and monks, no less human on either account, and just as subject to bleeding as others – so they might ask, with Shakespeare‘s Shylock speaking for the Jews:

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

That last question of Shylock’s is an interesting one, and gets to the heart of what I want to discuss here, as we shall see.

Specifically, these human beings were monks. Muhammad had a higher opinion of monks than of many others. In the Qur’an, we find:

The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians.” That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.

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Sigh.

These “followers” of Muhammad were attacking Christian monks with live ammunition and RPGs continuously for 30 minutes, wounding 19.

They felt superior to their compatriots the monks, they cried “God is Great” and “Victory, Victory” as they did it.

In this they resemble GEN Boykin, who famously responded to a Somali warlord claiming that God would protect him, “Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

I could easily have made that my second quote here, pairing it with the description of the Egyptian army attack on the monastery, for between the two of them they raise the question of whether weaponry is stronger than belief – and while some Christians might agree with General Boykin, some Muslims might agree no less strongly with the members of the Egyptian military shouting “Allahu Akbar”.

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I believe that taking sides here misses the point.

Which I am happy to say, Abraham Lincoln made with considerable eloquence in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, almost a century and a half ago:

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

That point is one which HaShem made to his angels, according to rabbinic teaching:

The Talmud teaches us that on the night that the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, the first true moment of freedom for the Jews fleeing Egypt, God refused to hear the angels sing their prayers, and said “my creations are drowning in the sea, and you will sing songs?”

So, no — revenge is not the way to go…

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But please note that the point I am making is not one of moral equivalence.

That God which created “both sides” in any human conflict and loves each and every one of his own creations, might indeed find one creed superior to another, as he might find one scientific law more accurately describing the workings of, say, gravitational attraction than another – or the night sky at Saint-Rémy portrayed by Van Gogh more or less moving than the thunderous sky over Toledo of El Greco.

In the view I am proposing, the “God who takes neither side” in fact takes both, but with this distinction: he sides with the wounded more than with those who inflict wounds – not because one side has a better creed than the other, but because he made us to learn not to unmercifully maim and destroy one another…

…one of whose names is The Merciful, in whose scriptures it is written:

If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds.

…one of whose names is The Lord is Peace, in whose scriptures it is written:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

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Part II: Bach and contrapuntal analysis

All of which brings me to the second “quote” in my DoubleQuote above: JS Bach‘s “concordia discors” canon in two voices, BWV 1086 – which you can hear or purchase here.

Bach’s mastery was in counterpoint, the play of one musical idea against another, and in this particular work, the two ideas are exact opposite: in musical terms, the melody is played here against its inversion. And the point of counterpoint, if I may put it that way, is not to provide “harmony” but to show how discord can become harmonious and concordant — or to put that in the geopolitical terms that interest me, how conflict and opposition can be resolved…

Not, you understand, that this state of affairs then leads necessarily to the singing of Kumbaya or the kind of ending in which “they all lived happily ever after”.

Concordia discors: the resolution of the present conflict, in a continuing overall “music” of great power and beauty, in which further conflicts will inevitably arise and find resolution.

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Here’s the essence: Bach takes contrasting and at times conflicting melodic ideas and makes music.

He teaches us to hear distinct and differing voices, to allow ourselves to hear and feel both the discomfort that their disagreements raise in us, and the satisfaction that comes as those disagreements are worked out. He does this by teaching us to hear them as voices within a choir, ribbons in a complex braid, making together a greater music that any of them alone could give rise to. And in this process, their differences are neither denied nor lost, but resolved and transcended.

Edward Said, whose politics my readers may dislike or like or even perhaps be unaware of, was for years the music critic for The Nation, wrote three books (and an opus posthumous) on music, and with his friend the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, named for the West-östlicher Diwan, Goethe’s collection of lyric poems.

Barenboim (the Israeli) wrote of Said (the Palestinian):

In addition to being well versed in music, literature, philosophy, and the understanding of politics, he was one of those rare people who sought and recognized the connections between different and seemingly disparate disciplines. His unusual understanding of the human spirit and of the human being was perhaps a consequence of his revelatory construct that parallels between ideas, topics, and cultures can be of a paradoxical nature, not contradicting but enriching one another.

And there we have it again: Bach’s insight, this time transposed by an accomplished musician into the key of thoughts and ideas…

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Said talks quite a bit about counterpoint, both musically:

Musically, I’m very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.

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[Said, Power, Politics and Culture, p. 99.]

and politically:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

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[Said, Power, Politics and Culture, p. 447.]

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As I commented in an earlier post that ties in with this one, the great pianist Glenn Gould was also preoccupied with counterpoint, both in Bach’s music and in conversations overheard at a truck-stop cafe or on long train journeys — he too was “working” the parallel between melodic and verbal forms of counterpoint.

And JRR Tolkien made the reconciliation of discordant musics in a greater concord the central to his creation myth in The Silmarillion, “The Music of the Ainur”, which can now be read online at the Random House site.

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Part III: invitation

May I strongly commend to your attention the movie, Of Gods and Men, which just opened in limited release, having won the grand jury prize at Cannes…

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