Sunday, January 29, 2012

Guilty. Every damn one of them.

Good news from Kingston: the jury verdict in the Shafia mass-murder honour killing trial is in, and all three defendants are guilty of first degree murder. Thank goodness, the system worked and the murderers are headed for jail; 25 years with no chance of parole, then I guess we'll see. Christie Blatchford's reports have been terrific; I hope she writes a book about this case.

There was one thing she reported early on in the trial, when the court was hearing testimony from the teachers and social workers who could easily see that these girls were living in hellish abuse yet were too cowed by political correctness to intervene and save them.

One of the girls didn't want to go on a sugarbush field trip with her class, and the teacher told her firmly that she had to go, because this was "part of our culture" and it was important she learn about it. I was struck by the firmness and certainty about Canadian culture when it was a rather trivial, picturesque novelty in question. Why were these people never told with equal firmness about the other aspects of our culture they had to accept?

And not just the usual "human rights" blather that everyone piously intones at times like this. I mean something as simple as the way our laws work and what happens to people who try to defy them? I think making the Shafia adults watch a season of "CSI" would have been a more valuable introduction to our culture than a whole seminar on maple sugaring, snowshoeing, hockey, and how to bake butter tarts. Why didn't anyone ever say to Shafia "Do you know what we can do to you if you put a foot wrong? We have machines that can make the stones talk to us. We can overhear your whispers ten miles away. We can see what you do without even opening our eyes. We will find out everything and you can't hide from us."

Instead, this Afghan mini-tyrant was flattered and deferred to - at every turn, he was encouraged to believe that his foreign culture was a sort of magical cloak of invincibility that could deflect every presumptuous attempt by the infidel to interfere with him. No wonder when Shafia and his two accomplices finally turned their mind to committing murder, they figured the same threadbare little bag of tricks that thwarted the Montreal social workers would defeat the Kingston police.

"We'll just haughtily deny everything! We'll tell bald lies! We'll get on our high horse and act offended! We'll claim we can't understand! We'll throw ourselves on the ground and sob hysterically! What could go wrong? It's always worked before!"

It was like watching a spoiled 5-year old who thinks he can buy the CN Tower with the contents of his piggy bank. These three simply had no idea how a police investigation works or what sort of tools a modern Western criminal investigator has at his disposal. If someone had managed to get through their bumptious conceit and really teach them how this culture they were inhabiting worked, maybe they wouldn't have felt that murder was an option for dealing with disappointments.

But no, we didn't want to hurt their feelings by pointing out that they were backward hillbillies; we covered it up and ignored it so they sailed along confidently in their bubble of error, until they crossed a line we wouldn't ignore. I'm sure all 3 are bewildered at finding themselves in jail; they thought they'd figured us out and knew the magic formula for passing unscathed among us. And we let them think they had, until it was too late.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Word fun

My sister sent me this funny article. The task was to "to take
any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or
changing one letter and supply a new definition". I especially enjoyed the following:

Ignoranus: A person who is both stupid and an asshole.

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after
you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

I remember long ago finding an almost identical contest in the back pages of a Spectator magazine, only people were to take the name of a book, movie, poem, etc. and alter one letter to create a new work. The one I remember was "Wein Kampf: The inspiring story of Hitler's struggle against alcoholism."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Tales of Hoffmann - Opera Nationale de Paris (Bastille) 2002

We're lucky that nearly every Sunday evening the French Ontario TV station TFO broadcasts an opera, usually in French, but sometimes in another language with French subtitles. This past Sunday they showed 'The Tales of Hoffmann', recorded in 2002 in Paris, with Neil Shicoff as Hoffmann and Bryn Terfel as Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto.

I normally prefer traditional stagings of opera, so when I saw the bare stage at the opening of this version, I didn't expect much. I was pleasantly surprised, due mostly to the performances of the leading male singers. Shicoff's Hoffmann was quite a different interpretation from what I'd seen before. This isn't the eagerly-awaited life of the party one usually sees entering Luther's tavern to the applause of enthusiastic students. This Hoffmann begins the opera alone in the dark, passed out drunk on the floor before the crowd even enters. As the opera house patrons flood in during intermission, they don't even notice Hoffmann until Niklaus hauls him up off the floor. The modern dress manages to downplay Hoffmann's "poet" identity; in his disheveled suit and askew tie, he doesn't look like a poet. He looks like one of those raffish, hard-drinking reporters from a 1940s Hollywood film (when they were still called "reporters" and not "journalists"). He's already drunk, so when he starts calling out "Allumons le punch! Grisons-nous!" it's more obvious than usual that he's not drinking to celebrate anything - he's bitter and rather unpleasant.

This gives an odd atmosphere to his first song, the "Kleinzach" number.



I've never cared much for this song; it seems a rather silly interruption to the story, and I've always just waited it out until it segues into his reminiscenses of his beloved. But here, it works in a different way from what I've experienced before. When the crowd calls out for him to "sing that song about Kleinzach", it doesn't feel like a bunch of friends happily asking to hear a familiar, fun story. Suddenly I got the feeling that this was a crowd in a bar cruelly egging on a drunk to make a fool of himself. Maybe these people aren't his friends after all.

Bryn Terfel as Councillor Lindorf has already appeared before this, plotting his seduction of Stella, but now he starts interacting with Hoffmann. It's hardly a fair contest. Shicoff is actually a bit on the short side, and Terfel is quite tall, but it's more Shicoff's acting ability that convinces us of Hoffmann's emotional turmoil and weakness. Lindorf is coolly scornful of his rival; Hoffmann's taunts never leave a mark, and his physical stumbling and weakness are a metaphor for his inner disarray. When Lindorf mockingly asks, "Ah! ah! ah! monsieur aime donc quelque fois?" ("So, the gentleman is in love, is he?") Hoffmann really looks wounded as he pauses, clutching his sad little pages of poetry, and I suddenly felt genuinely pained for him. It's so easy to make him suffer, and he can never hide it, no matter how he tries. Torturing him is child's play for a hardened villain like Lindorf; I almost wondered at that point how Hoffmann could possibly make it through the entire opera.

The main way this Hoffmann is different from all the others I've seen is that here, Hoffmann from the beginning is a loser. He doesn't really have friends, except for Niklaus. This whole story is going to be a list of the ways and things he's lost over the years. It's both an explanation of why he's down and out today, and why his history is one of failure and loss.

The story of Hoffmann's 3 loves begins with Olympia, the doll, and for the most part I enjoyed it. Olympia's mechanical party song starts with her waving a fan, which she eventually folds up and turns into a microphone, as she carries on a pop-diva performance, even to the point of holding out the mic to the audience for "callbacks" during the little repetitions in her song. Very funny. I immediately thought of Madonna, but she could have been any pop singer. I could have done without the simulated sex during the song, but this seems to be becoming more common in modern productions. I can't understand it myself; Olympia is supposed to be a robot, without heart or feelings. Why directors seem to think that this should also make her a nymphomaniac is beyond me. I think it's just because this is the most obviously comic part of the opera, and today "comic" seems to equal "lewd". It was funny and even a little shocking, but in a silly way, when her dress flew off and she was walking around "nude", though of course the soprano was encased in plastic "body armour", that I couldn't help noticing was not anatomically correct, just the way a real Barbie doll would be. Poor Spalanzani kept trying in vain to cover her offensive areas with nothing but his hands, which didn't do much good, but added a lot to the humour. At least he was having the normal reaction to seeing his "daughter" marching around in public stark naked!

Terfel's Coppelius doesn't have that big a role in this part, but he did well enough. I didn't find him that overpowering as Coppelius. When he was plucking eyeballs out of the giant jar of preserved ones sitting on the table, I really expected him to start juggling them. That would be a nice touch, frankly; I wonder if it's hard for a baritone to juggle while singing? I'll bet not many could do it. When at the end, he pulls out a saw and goes roaring off in search of revenge, he reminded me a lot of Sweeney Todd.

But it's Shicoff I wanted to watch all throughout this section. He's playing a younger self, and you can see it in his almost little-boy skittishness (even though Shicoff was over 50 for this performance, he still manages to carry it off). He simply can't protect himself; "heart on the sleeve" doesn't nearly adequately describe the way this Hoffmann surrenders to love. When he drops to his knees in adoration before Olympia, it's almost indecent to see so much emotion pouring out of a man. He's both wonderful and pathetic. Coppelius's suggestion to Spalanzani to marry off Olympia to Hoffmann manages to convey more than the usual random malice of an evil man. It fits because Hoffmann is a loser. He's not a naive, innocent boy who can be deceived; he's the sort who'll always end up with a piece of junk because that's what he deserves. Poor Hoffmann! I can feel sorry for him while realizing that he brings this sort of disaster on himself. He's not just a victim - he's complicit in his own degradation.

The next section deals with Antonia, the artist. I didn't care for the set design that much. The bottom/front section is an empty orchestra pit; the top/rear is a stage with closed curtain (the curtain opens when Antonia's mother finally appears). Most of the action between Hoffmann and Antonia takes place in the lower section, and I found it so dark it was hard to see what was going on. All the chairs and music stands seemed just so much clutter for the performers to thread their way through; this was one instance when I would have LIKED a bare stage. Antonia was fine, though I didn't detect much fire in her. She seemed depressed and colourless, as if the dark stage design sucked the life out of her. When she finally gives in to her desire to sing, she didn't seem to have that much fire; I've always thought Antonia should have a sort of hectic excitement whenever she sings, so you can believe that this could push her past the limits of her physical strength.

Terfel's Dr. Miracle is pretty sinister in this section, though I was a little amused because he was dressed in a tuxedo. With those little glasses, he reminded me a lot of John Candy's Dr. Tongue. I kept thinking, "Welcome to Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Opera!" The villain really dominates this section of the opera; in fact, Hoffmann hardly appears in it except near the beginning. Instead, it's a long interview between Miracle and M. Crespel, then another long interview between Miracle and Antonia. Hoffmann and Dr. Miracle don't actually meet at all. Antonia seems to be the best "match" for Hoffmann - they're both artists and they do genuinely love each other. But Hoffmann still looks like a scruffy loser; you can see why M. Crespel doesn't want this guy hanging around his lovely, talented daughter - he looks like a bum. He does lose her, but it's not exactly his fault this time. Instead, the problem seems to be that he's drawn to a woman he can never really win. She's an artist, and she'll choose her art over him, no matter how much he means to her, even though in the end it costs her life.

Finally, we come to the Giulietta segment, which naturally starts off with an orgy, which I found a bit meh, but other people seem to like this sort of thing. Giulietta is quite a piece of work - she looks like a 1920s blonde movie star, with lots of style and absolutely no heart whatsoever. I found her strangely convincing as a femme fatale for hire. The background of this set is a wall of (moving) theatre seats; the chorus occupies these seats both as participants in the action, and then will suddenly transform into an audience observing the performance. It's surprisingly effective to see the main performers suddenly turn their backs to us and stand facing this applauding "audience" - we're suddenly "backstage" watching someone else's theatre experience. Hoffmann arrives on the scene clutching a bottle; he's moved on from the bamboozled dope he was with Olympia and the runner-up he was with Antonia. Now he fancies himself a man of the world, and he walks right into Giulietta's setup. It's obvious to everyone else that she's out of his league, and can only be paying attention to him for some sinister purpose, but he thinks he's got a chance with her. Once again, Hoffmann throws himself head-first into this love affair, which we quickly realize is overwhelmingly sexual on his part. When he realizes he's been tricked out of his reflection, his anguish is real and crushing. As Giulietta is about to walk out of his life for good, he falls on his knees before her and buries his face between her thighs - she doesn't even notice him. The scene ends with Hoffmann having killed his rival for nothing, and the villain Dapertutto towering over him as he lies broken and damned.

Back we come to the tavern for the epilogue, where we discover that all 3 women are really 1 woman: Stella. Hoffmann, the eternal loser, is in the process of losing her, in all 3 ways we've just witnessed. She's a vain, empty flirt who performs a role; she's an artist who'll always care more about opera than about him; and she's a whore who can be bought by Lindorf's box of jewellery. The crowd surges out, following the diva and the triumphant villain, as Hoffmann collapses into a drunken stupor. Then the final reveal comes: Hoffmann's faithful friend Niklaus reappears, this time as the Muse. He can't see her, but she caresses him and revives him; he even momentarily leans his weary head on her shoulder, then notices his page of poetry lying scattered on the floor. His suffering turns to inspiration, and he begins to write. With her hand on his shoulder, he gets up and walks toward the distant light, a page of poetry held triumphantly aloft. I've seen versions where this final scene with the Muse is cut (I think the Powell and Pressburger film ends the film with the students singing as they leave), but it's a beautiful ending. Hoffmann is no longer a loser - he's been redeemed by his Art.

One thing that doesn't quite work for me is the deliberate theme of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' that is carefully worked through the entire opera. Stella is performing in 'Don Giovanni'; the music scattered about the set in the Antonia scene is 'Don Giovanni', and I think Dapertutto is holding it during Hoffmann's destruction. It's the role Antonia's mother is costumed for; all the women carry the same black fan. There are some parallels between that opera and 'Tales of Hoffmann', but I don't think it quite works. Yes, in each case the hero is involved with 3 different women. But Hoffmann is uniformly unsuccessful in love, whereas up until this point, Don Giovanni is famous for his success. Both protagonists are accompanied by a companion (Niklaus/Leporello) who continually tries and fails to turn the main character from his mistaken path. And by the end of Act III Hoffmann has committed murder, lost his soul and even "falls" as if to damnation, like Don Giovanni but he is saved in the end. "Don Giovanni" doesn't have a separate villain; Don Giovanni IS the villain, as well as the hero. And the "happy ending" in "Don Giovanni" comes from the restoration of virtue through the destruction of vice; Hoffmann's ending is happy even though evil seems to have triumphed. They even eliminated the final scene in Act III where Giulietta accidentally drinks poison; "Ah, Giulietta, maladroite!" growls Dapertutto as his useful tool foolishly kills herself. So we never see anyone punished for their bad actions, only Hoffmann suffers. But at least his suffering is not pointless; he suffered as long as he sought something other than Art. And having suffered, he can now become the great artist he was meant to be, and transform his suffering into beauty.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

.WAV of the Future

I have seen the light. The True Faith has finally been revealed:
Sweden has formally recognized the Church of Kopimism whose central tenet is the right to file-share.

The church claims that "kopyacting" - sharing information through copying - is akin to a religious service.

The church holds CTRL+C and CTRL+V (shortcuts for copy and paste) as sacred symbols.

It was founded by 19-year-old philosophy student and leader Isak Gerson. He hopes that file-sharing will now be given religious protection.

So I have decided to convert, from .RCC to .KOP. We even have a place of worship all ready to go:


I'll meet you there tomorrow, wearing my very best go-to-matinee hat!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Wounded knees and baked bread

The Christmas holiday is going pretty well. We're in another warm spell, and the snow that fell over Christmas has melted off the driveway. It's a strange pattern right now; we're in a sort of wave pattern, where it warms up almost to or over freezing, then drops way back down to -14 for a few days, then the pattern repeats. I'm not complaining; ever since I started driving the school bus, I anxiously watch out for snowstorms, and a dry winter is the best for me.

James somehow hurt his knee Saturday night. I don't know just what happened, but I thought I heard him stumble going up the stairs that evening. The next day, he was complaining about a hurting knee, and he hasn't walked on it since. He's just hopping all over the house on one foot. I'm sure it's just a muscle pull, because there's no bruising or even swelling, but you can't explain that to him. It's sort of funny to hear him saying "OWWWwwww!" in a surprised voice; he's not used to encountering something that can really stop or even inconvenience him.

I went out to the drugstore yesterday and got some liniment and joint-ache bandages. Now my hands smell of that awful eucalyptus, and he keeps demanding "Medicine!" but I think this is something that only time will heal. I've got him to at least stretch out his leg on a footstool under the desk when he's at the computer, and I think that's an improvement. Hopefully by tomorrow he'll try putting some weight on the foot.

He loves baguettes, and we'd run out by the weekend, so finally I couldn't stand him demanding "Bread!" all the time, so I decided to MAKE some bread. I got out the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, looked up the basic bread recipe and got started. It turns out it's not that hard to do after all. I've done it before, long ago, but in the last 20 years I used bread machines from time to time and just figured that this was the way to go from now on. But bread machines break, and I finally decided they take up too much space in our small kitchen, so I haven't made bread for many years.

I made a dozen buns and a loaf of white bread. My mom used to make buns, and I've always wanted to be able to do the same. Mine weren't quite as large, but I may be seeing the past through those kid-eyes that see everything as bigger and better. Maybe they weren't really that large. Mine tasted the same, though.