Sunday, March 31, 2024

This Day in Catholic History (Birth of Pius IV: Compromise Conclave Choice, Arts Patron and Counter-Reformation Pontiff)


Mar. 31, 1499— Gian Angelo Medici, who as Pope Pius IV brought to a successful conclusion a council that would guide Church doctrine and practices for the next four centuries, exerted a moderating influence on policy, and served as a patron of Renaissance artists, was born to an impoverished family in Milan, Italy.

Mark that place of birth—this branch of the Medicis did not partake of the activities of the flamboyant Florentine family who, as mercantile princes, cut a wide swath through Renaissance commerce and the arts. The papacy had three successors to Saint Peter (Leo X, Clement VII, and Leo XI) who came from the latter portion of the clan—and their accomplishments were dubious (the first two) when not minimal (the third).

The obliviousness of Pius’ 16th-century predecessors had left the Church vulnerable to the challenges of Martin Luther and other key figures of the Protestant Reformation. As historian Barbara Tuchman noted in The March of Folly:

“The folly of the popes was not pursuit of counter-productive policy so much as rejection of any steady or coherent policy either political or religious that would have improved their situation or arrested the rising discontent. Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended on it.”

The history of these popes reminds me at times of Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, complete with tangled family relations, power struggles, revenge, and even violence. It reached a particular depth with the reign of Pius' immediate predecessor, Paul IV, who not only waged war on Spain himself but appointed to high church offices two nephews who (without his knowledge) looted their coffers, engaged in philandering, and even ordered the  assassination of an alleged lover of one of their wives.

In terms of his own background, Gian Angelo Medici might not have seemed a particularly holy man. But by comparison with Paul, he was quite an upgrade. 

His initial instincts led him towards the law, where he excelled, but his brother persuaded him to take up holy orders.

He then worked successively as a governor in the Papal States, Commissioner of the papal military forces in Hungary and Transylvania, and vice–legate to Bologna before being named a cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1549.

A decade later, Medici emerged the victor in the conclave called to name Paul IV’s successor. I had always thought that the 1924 Democratic National Convention—the one requiring 104 ballots over 16 days to produce a Presidential nominee—was the most preposterously long contest I’d ever heard of for high office.

But it took four months—once the doors of the Vatican’s Sala Regia were locked— before Medici received the gift of the papacy. 

The College of Cardinals was supposed to be sequestered, but that didn’t stop the French and Spanish factions from furious politicking. With riots following the death of Paul in Rome, considerable money was spent on security measures to keep the population in check.

One of the 47 electors died in this tense period, while two others became ill and had to be taken away. (See Katharine Fellows’s review of Mary Hollingsworth’s Conclave 1559 in the November 2021 issue of History Today for more background on this.)

I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that, after Medici emerged as the compromise choice acceptable to the factions and he took the name of Pius IV, he instituted measures to ensure that no such electoral madness occurred again.

As far as popes go, Pius was more pragmatist than zealot. He was no stranger to sins that beset other Renaissance popes, including lack of chastity (three illegitimate children before his election as pope on Christmas Day 1559) and nepotism.

But in the case of the latter defect, it could have been far worse as far as Pius was concerned. If you’re Artie from The Larry Sanders Show or J. B. Biggley of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, you pick a relative manifestly unfit for his duties.

But Pius not only passed over any of his progeny for Church offices, but among the nephews he did favor, one was Carlo (Charles) Borromeo, as remarkable for his administrative ability as for concern for his flock.

In other words, the worldly pontiff selected one of the most important and beloved saints in the 2,000-year history of the Roman Catholic Church. (See my blog post from 15 years ago on how Borromeo—by this time, an archbishop—survived an assassination attempt.)

In addition to charging Borromeo with governing the Papal States, Pius named him Secretary of State, where he supervised the Council of Trent. Though this ecumenical council had been called originally back in 1545, it had only proceeded in stops and starts, and had not convened at all since 1552.

With Pius reconvening members in 1562 and Borromeo working with enormous energy, the third period adjourned in December 1563. By this time, nearly a half century since Luther had challenged Church authority with his 95 Theses, Pius and the council members had given up any hope of bringing the Protestants back into the fold.

However, Pius was able to prevent more members lost to the new European sects by reforming Church practices and governance in some cases while reaffirming fundamental doctrine in others, including through:

*The first catechism for the Church;

*Limiting the practice of indulgences (the abuse that had launched Luther’s original protest) without completely forbidding their use;

*Reaffirming the number of sacraments as seven and salvation coming through faith and good works;

*Formally defining as dogma the concept of purgatory while warning against "unnecessary speculations concerning the nature and duration of purgatorial punishments";

*Rejecting calls that the Church modify its ban on clerical celibacy;

*Defining the relative authority of bishops and the pope.

By leaving implementation of the decrees in the hands of the pope, the council also boosted the primacy of the pope in Church affairs.

The Council of Trent kick-started the Counter-Reformation, resulting in a Catholic Church culture that was more:

*Emotional, often marked by tearful contrition, pathos in depicting martyrdom, and emphasizing the transitory nature of life on tombstones;

*Puritanical, with even Michelangelo’s nude figures on “The Last Judgment” covered with fig leaves (but, as I explained in this prior post, such proscriptions defanged fanatics who, alarmed by "lascivious" and "pagan" subjects proscribed, allowing religious imagery to continue flourishing);

*Mystical, particularly with reference to saints;

*Devotional, including in more frequent reception of the Eucharist.

As with so much of Church history, reform and reaction alternated under the Renaissance popes. In contrast to Paul IV, for instance, Pius avoided harshness and persecution.

Though Queen Elizabeth of England was favoring Protestantism, Pius did not excommunicate her. The worst excesses of the Index of Forbidden Books and the Inquisition were curtailed, though not completely abandoned. He moderated, and in some cases eliminated, restrictions on Jews that had been implemented under Paul. Non-believers could move around more freely than they could under Paul.

Like other Renaissance popes, Pius genuinely believed in the power of art to further the Church’s mission. He gave Michelangelo one of his last commissions: turning a large hall of Diocletian's Baths into the church of S. Maria degli Angeli.

Pius died at age 66 in 1565, serving only five years—less than the seven-year average for pontiffs. But it was long enough to re-energize a Church rocked by tumult and corruption.

Quote of the Day (Adam Tooze, on Proper Funding for Vaccine Development)

“To expect that funding [for vaccine development] to come from the private sector is unrealistic. The work is too expensive and high risk and the returns too uncertain. Philanthropy and public-private partnerships may work. But ultimately it is governments that should foot the bill. Unfortunately, in public policy, pandemic preparedness is all too often relegated to the cash-starved budgets of development agencies or squeezed into strained health budgets. Where such spending properly belongs is under the flag of industrial policy and national security.”— English historian and international security scholar Adam Tooze, “Vaccine Investment is a No-Brainer—So Why Aren’t We Doing It?”, The Financial Times, Mar. 30-31, 2024

(The image accompanying this post, showing a woman receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, was taken Jan. 16, 2021, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, by Whoisjohngalt. According to a 2022 study cited by the National Library of Medicine, at least 14.4 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide were prevented by the dissemination of the vaccine within the first year alone.)

Spiritual Quote of the Day (George Herbert, on the Resurrection)

“Arise, sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
    Christ's resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
    Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee:
                                            Arise, Arise;
    And with His burial linen drie thine eyes.
Christ left His grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears or blood, not want a handkerchief.”—English poet and Anglican minister George Herbert (1593-1633), “The Dawning,” in The Poems of George Herbert, edited by Ernest Rhys (1885)

The image accompanying this post, The Resurrection, was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510) around 1490.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Quote of the Day (Margaret Renkl, on an ‘Exquisite Sort of March’)

“We don’t deserve a March like this. We have tortured the earth so thoroughly and for so long that we deserve only the hungry lions of March. We are having the exquisite sort of March anyway. I glory in every tiny, iridescent green bee waking to feed on the first vanishing bloodroot flower, the first ephemeral spring beauty, the first woodland violet and cutleaf toothwort. Soon there will be trilliums and trout lilies, too. Any day now, toadshade trilliums and trout lilies! If you tell me I don’t deserve this joy, you are telling me nothing I don’t already know. The world is on fire, and I’m the one who struck the first match. I did it, and you did it….

"I am in love with the mild light of springtime even so.”—Essayist Margaret Renkl, “Spring Brings Joy, Even in a World on Fire,” The New York Times, Mar. 10, 2022

I don’t know if Ms. Renkl gloried in March this year down where she lives in Tennessee the way she did back in 2022. At least in my neck of the woods here in the Northeast, it was more or less par for the course, seasonally: one week of pretty warm temperatures, but all in all, brisk and/or rainy, with no late snow.

I would be worried if up here we did experience anything like what Ms. Renkl had two years ago. From what I see of extreme summer heat, climate change is continuing. If plenty of those “tiny, iridescent green bees” in Tennessee start showing up here at this time of year, then global warming, I am certain, would not just be proceeding but galloping.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Perry Mason,’ on Della Street’s ‘Most Fascinating Job’)

Anne Brent [played by Mari Aldon]: “I’ve always wanted to meet my husband’s most famous tenant.”

Perry Mason [played by Raymond Burr]: “Infamous might be a better word. Have you met my secretary?”

Anne:  “I envy you, Miss Street. You must have a most fascinating job.”

Della Street [played by Barbara Hale]: “It is. Just don’t ask me about the hours.” —Perry Mason, Season 1, Episode 34, “The Case of the Gilded Lily,” original air date May 24, 1958, teleplay by Richard Grey and Gene Wang based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner, directed by Andrew McLaglen

Friday, March 29, 2024

Quote of the Day (Jazzman Sonny Rollins, With Good Life Advice)

“No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.”—Retired jazz saxophone master Sonny Rollins, The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins, edited by Sam V.H. Reese (2024)

(The accompanying photo of Sonny Rollins was taken July 17, 2009, by Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden.)

Spiritual Quote of the Day (C.S. Lewis, on Jesus, ‘Inventor of All Loves’ on the Cross)

“God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing - or should we say ‘seeing’? there are no tenses in God—the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath's sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”—British novelist and religious author C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), The Four Loves (1960)

(The image accompanying this post is Crucifixion, by German 16th-century painter Peter Gertner.)

Thursday, March 28, 2024

This Day in Film History (Death of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Composer Maurice Jarre)

Mar. 29, 2009—Maurice Jarre, a French composer and conductor who netted three Oscars among his 150 movie soundtracks, died at age 84 of cancer at his villa in Malibu, Calif.

You might wonder why I picked a photo of Peter O’Toole to illustrate a brief account of someone else. Well, it’s because that picture instantly brings to mind the first of Jarre’s memorable Oscar-winning scores: Lawrence of Arabia.

Accomplished film composers have existed for nearly as long as there’s been a Hollywood, but except for John Williams, I don’t think that one has emerged as a name brand in his own right—and the latter’s fame was surely enhanced by his 14-year association with the Boston Pops.

But once you see that picture of O’Toole, more likely than not, the majestic theme of Lawrence of Arabia will resound in your head—as distinct a contribution to that epic’s grandeur as the spectacular cinematography of Freddie Young.

So indelible were the sounds created by Jarre that his soundtrack for the film was voted #3 on the American Film Institute’s 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time, surpassed only by Williams’ Star Wars and Max Steiner’s Gone With the Wind.

Yet the soundtrack that Jarre produced for Lean’s next epic, Doctor Zhivago, produced an even more inescapable melody: “Lara’s Theme,” a hit international single.

Oscar honors came yet again for Jarre for his work on that 1965 film, then again 19 years later for what turned out to be Lean’s last big-screen epic: A Passage to India.

As Jarre’s agent and friend Richard Kraft noted in a 2009 appreciation for The Hollywood Reporter, Jarre came to the U.S. when pioneering symphonic-oriented film composers such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were passing from the scene, replaced by Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith interested in new sounds.

Although Jarre’s conservatory training leaned heavily on percussion, he shared the younger composers’ interest in different musical textures, using instruments that evoked the settings of his films, as seen in:

*The Man Who Would Be King, featuring sarangi and sarod, or Indian lutes;

*Ryan’s Daughter, with eight harps among the “lot of little experiments in the sound, music and concept” that Jarre mentioned in an August 1993 interview with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times;

*Witness, relying on synthesizers;

*The Dead Poets Society, with Celtic harp and flute layered over synthesizers.

Hired by producer Sam Spiegel, Jarre found Lawrence of Arabia a far more complex and high-stakes job than any he’d experienced in French theater and cinema. It was on a grand scale, requiring more than two hours of music; Lean was editing the second part of the film first, so Jarre would have to compose out of chronological order; and he had only six weeks to compose and conduct.

Making matters worse, as Sheila O’Malley noted in a perceptive 2007 blog post, Adrian Boult was engaged to record the soundtrack because British subsidies would not fund a foreign conductor, even though the first rehearsal made it plain that Boult didn’t know key aspects of what he was about to take on, such as keep an eye on the chronometer and an eye on the screen. (Boult ended up on the film credits, even though he didn’t record a note.)

Early on in researching this post, I wondered what Jarre’s personality was like—an inquiry triggered by Williams’ recent comment in an interview with Variety Magazine in which he discussed the older breed of film composers: “Alex North, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith and others — brilliant, beautiful talents. All unhappy.”

I’ve come to think that, while Jarre might have been a “brilliant, beautiful” talent, he was far from “unhappy”, with these traits among his most prominent:

*Perfectionism: Lean helped instill this characteristic, Jarre explained in commentary for a tribute concert for the director recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

*Loyal: Jarre worked on the last four films completed by Lean and was starting on a fifth, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo, before the project died with the director’s death from cancer.

*Convivial: At the time of the composer’s death, Bernard Miyet, then leader of French musicians’ guild SACEM, praised his friend’s “eternal good nature, a way of living and a simplicity that became legendary.” Jarre loved to regale listeners with anecdotes spotlighting the films and personalities he had known over the years, including how during an L.A. recording session, his entire orchestra stopped playing after spotting actress Sophia Loren in the technician’s booth.

Quote of the Day (Pete Townshend, on the Ultimate Optimism of ‘Tommy’)

“I don’t want it to feel as though I think ‘Tommy’ needs to be treated only seriously. It has lightheartedness and joy. It has the idea that whether you’re an abused child or a healthy child, we prevail ultimately, by turning toward the light. That’s simplistic but it’s also powerful, particularly when set to music.”—Rock ‘n’ roll songwriter and The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, on the upcoming revival of his “rock opera” “Tommy,” quoted by Rob Tannenbaum, “Talking to a New Generation,” The New York Times, Mar. 24, 2024

It will be interesting to see the reviews following “Tommy”’s opening tonight at the Nederlander Theatre. But, however it’s received, the music’s place in rock ‘n’ roll history is secure.

The original LP’s release in 1969 climaxed a decade of increasing ambition and sophistication for rock ‘n’ roll, and pointed the way forward to how the concept album could become, as a November 2020 Spin Magazine article put it, “the first album to successfully blend exceptional storytelling with advanced production.”

Moreover, it was prescient in examining the cult of celebrity, and spiritual striving in an age of cultural fracture.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Quote of the Day (Gunther Schuller, on the Exuberant ‘Creative Imagination’ of Sarah Vaughan)

“Sarah's creative imagination is exuberant. I have worked with Sarah Vaughan, I have accompanied her, and can vouch for the fact that she never repeats herself or sings a song the same way twice. Whether she is using what we call a paraphrase improvisation—an enhancement of the melody where the melody is still recognizable—or whether she uses the harmonic changes as the basis of the song to improvise totally new melodies or gestures, Sarah Vaughan is always totally inventive. It is a restless compulsion to create, to reshape, to search. For her a song—even a mediocre one—is merely a point of departure from which she proceeds to invent, a skeleton which she proceeds to flesh out.”— American composer, conductor, horn player, historian, educator, publisher, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), “The Divine Sarah,” in Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller (1989)

Today marks the centennial of the Newark, NJ-born jazz singer and pianist Sarah Vaughan (1925-1990), “Sassy” or “The Divine One” to her legion of fans. I blogged on her in this post from a decade ago, but her artistry is such that I thought she deserved another.

In this post seven years ago from the blog“Largehearted Boy,” music historian Elaine M. Hayes discussed six songs that shaped her biography Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan.

(The image accompanying this post is an August 1946 photograph of Sarah Vaughan at Café Society in New York, from the William P. Gottlieb Collection of the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Quote of the Day (Rebecca Solnit, on Activists’ Anger and Love)


“Most great activists—from Ida B. Wells to Dolores Huerta to Harvey Milk to Bill McKibben—are motivated by love, first of all. If they are angry, they are angry at what harms the people and phenomena they love, but their urges are primarily protective, not vengeful. Love is essential; anger is perhaps optional.” — Writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit, “All the Rage,” The New Republic, October 2018

The image accompanying this post, showing Rebecca Solnit, was taken Sept. 10, 2010, by Charles Kremenak.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Quote of the Day (John Steinbeck, on the Impact of a Light)

"It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone." American novelist and Nobel Literature laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)

Movie Quote of the Day (‘My Little Chickadee,’ With Mae West’s View of the Law)

Judge [played by Addison Richards]: “Are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

Flower Belle Lee [played by Mae West]: “No... I'm doin' my best to hide it! “— My Little Chickadee (1940), screenplay by Mae West and W.C. Fields, directed by Edward F. Cline

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Quote of the Day (Janan Ganesh, on the 1960s, ‘The Last Pre-Global Decade’)

“The 1960s were the last pre-global decade. The 1970s would bring free-floating currencies and the opening of China. It would bring OPEC crises that smashed apart the highly managed economic order. The 1980s would go much further. For people who have found globalisation discombobulating (and you will have noticed there are a few), the 1960s must seem like the last stand of a more familiar world. In other words, a decade that has for so long been synonymous with breakneck progress is now idealised for exactly the opposite reason. The ‘meaning’ of the 1960s has slowly changed.” —British journalist, author and political commentator Janan Ganesh, “Remembering the Last Pre-Global Decade,” The 
Financial Times, Aug. 17-18, 201

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Gerard Manley Hopkins, on Beauty From God)

“Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
“All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
      Praise Him.”—English Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), “Pied Beauty

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roethke, on How ‘I Rejoice in the Spring’)

“When from under the barn the cat brings a similar litter,—
Two yellow and black, and one that looks in between,—
Though it all happened before, I cannot grow bitter:
I rejoice in the spring, as though no spring ever had been.”— Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), “Vernal Sentiment," in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1975)

I took the image accompanying this post two years ago, in the second week of April. We’re not quite at the point in the spring now, but we’re getting there.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Quote of the Day (Geoffrey O’Brien, on the Rise and Fall of the Western)

“Westerns were reliable, minimal, direct, mindless, a series of clear actions occurring in an empty world where there was ultimately nothing to worry about. Indians, outlaws, rustlers, and crooked railroad men emerged out of nowhere and were duly erased. A Western was not expected to depart from precedent any more than a baseball game would experiment with new rules or novel plays. The genre was an antidote to complexity, enjoyed precisely because of its apparent lack of any subtext to parse or interpret. Ironically, the simplest of genres ultimately succumbed to a host of problems it had never anticipated: problems with history, with gender roles, with racial stereotypes, with faded notions of heroism and honor.”— American poet, editor, book and film critic, translator, and cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien, “Killing Time,” The New York Review of Books, Mar. 5, 1992

The image accompanying this post, coming from the film Colt. .45, features Randolph Scott—an actor so associated with the western that in Mel Brooks’ parody of the genre, Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little invokes the name of the star to win over racist-ridden Rock Ridge.

For this quote’s picture, I could have used John Wayne, James Stewart, or Gary Cooper, stars more prominent in the cultural landscape, then and now, than Scott.

But none of these were so defined by the western as Scott. Of his more than 100 movies across three decades, he made 60 in this genre—including one I regard as one of the very best in the form’s history, Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Ride the High Country—the farewell movie of both Scott and co-star Joel McCrea.

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ With Phyllis on Her Daughter’s Dance Date)

Phyllis Lindstrom [played by Cloris Leachman]: “Bess... is outside - with her young man... and they're going to the school dance, and she's so proud of him, I just know how much she'd like you to meet him...”

Mary Richards [played by Mary Tyler Moore]: “Oh, sure, I'd love to meet him...”

Phyllis: “Oh, and, um, Mary; when I bring them in, um, don't make a big fuss over them. Don't treat them like children. They're not children, you know. They're little people.”

Rhoda Morgenstern [played by Valerie Harper]: “I would love to meet your 'little people.' Why don't you slide them under the door?”— The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 3, Episode 12, “It Was Fascination, I Know,” original air date Dec. 2, 1972, teleplay by Ed. Weinberger, directed by Jay Sandrich

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Quote of the Day (Truman Capote, on Writing the Short Story)

“When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.”— American fiction writer, essayist and screenwriter Truman Capote (1924-1984), interviewed by Pati Hill, “Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17,” The Paris Review, Issue 16, Spring-Summer 1957

Part of the reason I did not enjoy the just-concluded “FEUD: Capote vs. the Swans,” is that it did not practice the concision and control that Capote recognized as essential to the short story.

Instead, the mini-series about the imbroglio surrounding his controversial “Answered Prayers” moved slower than the author’s Southern drawl.

How unfortunate. Before fame, depression, and substance abuse got the better of him, Capote applied sustained effort not just to fiction but also to non-fiction, such as his New Yorker pieces “The Muses Are Heard” and “The Duke in His Domain,” a profile of Marlon Brando that is a masterpiece of malice.

Was Capote a “genius,” as he proclaimed? Perhaps not. But American literature would be poorer without the likes of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” and “A Christmas Memory”—none with the epic sweep of a novel, but all swift, sensitive, and memorable short fiction.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Quote of the Day (Peggy Noonan, With a Prediction for the 2016 GOP Race)

“I can say what this [2016 Presidential] election will most assuredly be, at least on the Republican side: anything but boring. On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton may wind up debating herself on an empty stage with good lighting. But Republicans will have Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio and probably John Kasich duking it out. Add Carly Fiorina, and some others….What a heck of a fight this will be.” —Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist—and former Presidential speechwriter—Peggy Noonan, “The Too-Smooth Cruz,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 28-29, 2015

For some reason I don’t recall now, I clipped out the page where Ms. Noonan’s article was originally printed, put it aside, and then found it by chance only a week or so ago. As soon as I re-read this quote, I burst out laughing.

There’s an obvious name missing here—indeed in the entire article. I suppose you could say that Ms. Noonan did anticipate a candidate coming out of nowhere and making at least a momentary splash when she used that phrase “and some others,” as if recalling Herman Cain (remember him) from 2012. But that really would be stretching things, wouldn’t it?

Many of my friends on the liberal side of the spectrum will chortle at Ms. Noonan’s lack of foresight about the 2016 election. But I don’t offer this to ridicule her.

(Indeed, she warned early on that Donald Trump’s chances that year should not be airily dismissed, and she’s endured more than her share of brickbrats from him and the MAGA faithful since then for her periodic attacks on him—perhaps most memorably, in a direct hit on his emphasis on his “strength,” assailing his “whiny, weepy and self-pitying” character.) 

No, I put this out there to illustrate that the Washington establishment that Ms. Noonan joined in the Reagan administration is much like how Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman described Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything...... Not one person… knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”

It’s safe to say that, unlike what Ms. Noonan expected, Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton an unexpectedly tough time in the Democratic primaries.

But this is what’s really wild: Trump beat 16 rivals for the GOP nomination that year, including those Ms. Noonan praised, in a case of being overly charitable, for being “serious talents with big accomplishments.”

Well, grant her this: nearly all of those 16 possessed governmental and/or national security experience that the eventual nominee conspicuously lacked. 

And all but one—retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson—had been answerable to the public, either voters or (in the case of Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina) shareholders in her company.

Instead, GOP primary voters embraced a private-company executive with no financial transparency and no board of directors that could remotely question his plans.

This year, 91 criminal counts on four indictments, not to mention two adverse decisions in civil courts, did nothing to dent Republican faith in Trump’s candidacy. 

Yet, even with a field significantly narrower than the divided one he conquered eight years ago, he still romped through the primaries.

Nothing like this has ever been remotely seen in the history of Presidential campaigning. No other candidate would be so shameless in defying scandal. No other electorate has ever ignored at such a high level the weight of so much evidence of bad faith, corruption, and basic lack of character.

To adapt a phrase from one of his scorned rivals, “low-energy Jeb” Bush, the former reality-show host did become “the chaos President.”

Famous not for being a great business executive but for playing one on TV, Trump was anything but the proverbial “dark horse” candidate. 

But he became (to borrow a phrase from the field of finance) “the black-swan” candidate—one elected through a series of unexpected, even close to unknowable, events.

That black-swan candidate found his rock-solid base—and is now slated to be a Presidential nominee for the third time—in a contingent that conservative Peter Wehner, in a New York Times opinion piece, termed “Fifth Avenue Republicans”—diehards who would support Trump even if, as he boasted back in 2016, he shot someone on that tony New York street.

We can’t begin to tell what this year’s events will be, especially now. That’s why polls are as good as useless at this point.

That’s also why maintaining vigilance about threats to democracy can be so frustrating. But, as Shakespeare would say, “the readiness is all.”

In one sense, Ms. Noonan was right: the 2016 GOP race, with Trump insulting rivals, lashing out at anyone remotely critical of him, and circulating falsehoods almost as often as he opened his mouth, was “anything but boring.” But now she’d probably agree with the adage about being careful what you wish for.

For myself, after the past eight exhausting years, I can’t wait to get back to “boring.” 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Quote of the Day (Benjamin Disraeli, on How ‘Ignorance Never Settles a Question’)

“Ignorance never settles a question. Questions must be settled by knowledge…. I often remember with pleasure a passage in Plato where the great sage descants upon what he calls ‘double ignorance,’ and that is where a man is ignorant that he is ignorant. But, Sir, in legislating there is another kind of double ignorance that is fatal. There is, in the first place, an ignorance of principles, and, in the second, an ignorance of facts.” — English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), address in the House of Commons opposing William Gladstone’s Reform Bill, May 14, 1866

I loved this quotation, but groaned when I learned the circumstances surrounding it: i.e., Disraeli’s opposition to a measure that would have effectively widened the franchise in Great Britain to the working class.

Then, researching a bit further, I discovered that, once his own Conservative Party was in power within the year, “Diz” not only endorsed the bill he had once opposed, but strengthened its provisions—by convincing those on the fence that the new members of the electorate would back the Conservatives in the next election.

That didn’t happen, but passage of the bill did stop the momentum towards class-based violence in Britain. 

In the end, then, the “question” of voting was settled, though in a more roundabout way than Disraeli’s understanding of “principles” and “facts” might have originally suggested.

Monday, March 18, 2024

This Day in Film History (Douglas Fairbanks in Career Triumph at ‘Thief of Bagdad’ Premiere)

Mar. 18, 1924— At the premiere of his latest film, The Thief of Bagdad, Douglas Fairbanks gave everything his fans could want: carrying wife Mary Pickford on his shoulders past the crowd of 5,000 waiting outside their limousine; having New York’s Liberty Theater transformed into a scene from The Arabian Nights that had inspired his latest spectacle; leaping onto the stage at the conclusion of the movie; and, in between, packing the 138-minute silent with splendid pageantry and special effects to go along with his usual athleticism.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to see this classic—not in one of those cheaply made versions in the public domain, but restored with beautiful original color tinting, and put on the big screen by the Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, NJ.

Film technology has advanced markedly in the last century, but Fairbanks’ good looks, charm and charisma remained timeless for those of us in the packed auditorium that night.

All these qualities helped Fairbanks virtually create the template for the cinematic swashbuckling hero. Yes, sword fights and period costumes are required for the genre, but above all, you need a devil-may-care protagonist who is good at heart, and open to love by a woman.

That was the formula already fashioned by Fairbanks from the start of the Roaring Twenties, in The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and Robin Hood, and it would continue to be through the end of the decade.

Matinee idols of the studio system in the sound era—Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Burt Lancaster, and Stewart Granger—owed much of their early success to vehicles patterned after his. But what they accomplished in those movies don’t measure up to the standards set by Fairbanks.

Why? It doesn’t necessarily have to do with skill. (Lancaster, of course, eventually won an Oscar, and Flynn and Power were also recognized as quite capable late in their careers.)

Rather, it’s because Fairbanks as an independent producer (and as part of the group that formed United Artists in 1919, with wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith) generated his own films and image—engaging the financing, writing the stories (in this case, with a nom de plume derived from his middle names, “Elton Thomas”), and explaining to collaborators what he wanted through his elaborate charts.

In short, Fairbanks had become what later film scholars would term an “auteur”: a filmmaker whose artistic control over the product is so great that he is, practically speaking, its “author.”

Director Raoul Walsh, in one of his greatest silent films, gave ample evidence of the energy and panache of his Warner Brothers movies of the sound era.

But it was a professional he had worked with on the East Coast, in a Fort Lee film studio, art director William Cameron Menzies (later to direct Things to Come and to design Gone With the Wind), along with special effects mavens Hampton Del Ruth and Coy Watson and the star's own brother Robert, serving as technical director, whom Fairbanks called on for most of the movie’s most prodigious feats of cinematic magic, including:

* a fire-breathing dragon (a crocodile shot with the actor using double-exposure);

*a giant spider;

*a flying horse, featuring a real horse running on a treadmill against a screen;

*the underworld mermaid kingdom, shot through a curtain of thin gauze as if the Thief were swimming underwater, then tinted blue in post-production;

*an invisibility cloak;

* the famous flying “magic carpet,” which Walsh claimed to have conceived while watching a steelworker hoisted aloft on a crane—but which still required a 3/4 inch piece of steel, along with 16 piano wires fastened to the carpet’s corners and anchored to the top of a 100-ft. construction crane.

The intricate sets also reflected its star’s precise calculations for his stunts, according to Laura Boyes’ July 2023 post on her “Moviediva” blog: “Props were designed to make whatever feat he was attempting look easy: a wall was the right height to leap, a table proportioned to make a dive over it appear effortless.”

The 41-year-old actor was in magnificent shape, wrote Margarita Landazuri in a winter 2013 article, courtesy of daily exercise in a gym on the lot. But the kind of prop Ms. Boyes had in mind included trampolines placed in large jars that Fairbanks’ title character would jump in and out of to elude frustrated pursuers.

Contemporary audiences would also be enthralled by the film’s exotic apparel, even for the 3,000 extras a day engaged for the production (all requiring different clothes, according to costume designer Mitchell Leisen).

For a long time, estimates of the movie’s expenses ranged from $2 million to $2.5 million. Perhaps these numbers were a Hollywood publicist’s attempt to hype the movie’s production values.

But in 2008, Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance disclosed that the budget was only half that previously supposed: $1,135,654.65. What this meant was that the actor and his creative team had used extra ingenuity to create what looked like a far more opulent spectacle.

The Thief of Bagdad would be remade six more times in the past century, with a Technicolor 1940 version winning Oscars for Best Cinematography, Special Effects, and Art Direction. But Fairbanks got it right the first time.

Quite simply, the original, according to critic Richard Schickel’s December 1971 American Heritage article, “was full of wonders that, if often imitated since (and in some cases technically improved), have never been surpassed in their ability to delight.”

To get to this point, Fairbanks had been a shrewd judge of his career, using his acrobatic skills and sunny optimism to bound from Broadway to vaudeville to cinematic adventure hero to his current niche as the embodiment of swashbuckling.

But with the coming of sound, the Great Depression, and his own aging, the actor could no longer nimbly negotiate these transitions. 

When he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 56 in 1939, a new generation of movie fans, upon hearing the name “Douglas Fairbanks,” was more likely to associate it son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., then in the middle of his own thriving career.

Quote of the Day (Flannery O'Connor, on ‘Nice Young Men’)

“She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.” — Southern novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), “Good Country People,” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955)