Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One of Cinema's Greatest Moments

The local library had a DVD copy of the movie "A Room With a View." Since it had been awhile since last seeing it...

In order to fully appreciate a movie like this, you must look at the overall context of movie-making: the money problems, the tastes of the general public, and the 'Media is the Message' syndrome. There is every reason to expect successes to be rare. But they do happen.

There are hundreds of comments on IMDB or Amazon on this movie. I sighed and then quit, after reading one comment that the Puccini musical score "enhanced the movie." Enhanced, indeed. It stole the show!

Now, long-suffering readers are just going to discount this opinion as that of a Puccini fanboy. But in fact I have seen movies exploit the use of operatic scores to little avail. What I am praising here is not Puccini per se, but rather, the re-combination of his music with the right visual and situational context.

To me, the movie's plot was OK, but I don't go gaga over English accents and genteel manners. The love triangle is as cliche-ridden as they get. But it is always fun to see Mediterranean Europe (Catholic, economically backward, chaotic, sensual, and artistic) contrasted with the repressed, more affluent, orderly, drab and colorless, Protestant drudges of northern Europe. Let's call it the north/south European split, for brevity's sake.

In the movie this Split is brought into focus by a masterful combination of eye-candy and ear-candy. The photography is delicious, both in Florence and in the nearby countryside.  But what really caused an explosion of pleasure for me was Puccini's music. It is indeed true that the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts.'

The climax was 40 minutes into the movie when the uptight English tourists went for a tour in the countryside outside Florence. Something started happening to them, something  unintentional, something that they were powerless to stop. Uptight northern drudges though they may be, they could not resist the living force of landscape and music that imposed itself on them.

 The landscape was one of barley-covered hills, with trees in the background. The music was chosen carefully: the aria started off easily for an audience that presumably does not listen to much opera: it was just a peaceful solo-piano prelude. When the Fat Lady finally sang, she was restrained and soothing; and yet, the audience knew that she could shatter glass anytime she wanted. So as the aria developed, there was suspense, combined with feminine kindliness and grace.

If you have any claim to possessing a soul, you have to be affected by this scene. (grin) 

Why does this matter, especially to a Puccini non-fanboy? Choosing the right music for a movie might be a second-rate skill compared to that of Puccini himself, but 'second-rate' does not mean lowly or unimportant. It is the kind of accomplishment that many of us can understand and therefore aspire to, whereas the accomplishments of a Puccini are too hard to imagine. I can imagine doing something like the music editor did, in various arenas of life. Aren't these humble steps-forward, taken my numerous anonymous people, a big part of the advance of a civilization?  Normally we only think of the gigantic steps of the overtly famous.

Consider the basic form of the music editor's work here:

1. Deconstruction. Removal of the Bad. Identification of the Good. Normally in an opera, magnificent music gets combined with the drivel of some fool of a playwright. Hence love triangles, mistaken identity, revenge, rags-to-riches, True Love overcoming Conventional Love, etc.
2. Appreciation of new potential.
3. Reconstruction. A new combination. Opera is a good idea because instrumental music is combined with the human voice, and with human situations and visual context in the background. In this movie, the background was the Florentine landscape and the story of the North/South split. This is probably a more interesting background than the libretto of the original opera. (I'm not familiar with that of "La Rondine;" but if it was a typical libretto, it was probably idiotic.)

As a consequence of this creative new combination, millions of moviegoers were exposed to the idea that opera was a beautiful thing that they could actually enjoy.  The music-editor's success can be seen as a template-model that millions of people could use in their own lives in any number of ways; so could people who blog. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Building a Better Winter Lifestyle

Earlier in the winter I was wondering how to improve my winter snowbird lifestyle. The term 'snowbird' only implies a change in geography. That isn't good enough. The intent was to build a lifestyle in the winter that is -- not deliberately the opposite of -- but complementary and independent of the summer lifestyle.

I'm happy to report that I think this worked: more social, no moving from place to place, and built around road bicycling with a club, rather than the summer lifestyle of nomadic and solitary public-lands-camping and mountain biking with my dog. Even my dog has adjusted to short daily walks in the desert, because she gets to romp with her fan club.

In the past I might have resented the relaxed contentment of a lifestyle with more routines, would have wanted to keep things shaking, and even looked down on plugging into a "system."  But now I happily snuggle in to the security of routines built around cycling with other people, afternoon siestas, and reading thousands of pages of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin (Master and Commander) novels.

It was a real pleasure to hit this paragraph in the book:
"Far out into the Atlantic, long tack upon long tack, every day having the same steady routine from swabbing the decks at first dawn to lights out, its unchanging succession of bells, its wholly predictable food, nothing in sight from one horizon to another but sea and sky, both growing more agreeable, and the habit of sea-life exerted its usual force; cheerfulness returned to almost its old carefree level; and as always there was the violent emotion and enthusiasm of the great-gun practice every evening at quarters..." [p. 4196 of "The Thirteen Gun Salute."]
 That pretty much sums up my lifestyle this winter in Yuma, AZ.

People who leave the "System"  -- whether to retire early, move to a rural area, take on self-employment, kill their television sets, home school their kids, or live on boats -- take on quite a responsibility, quite a load onto their own shoulders. They might not even be consciously aware that this extra burden is digging into their shoulders. It's a burden that is well worth it. But it is still enjoyable to take a sabbatical from it, in the winter.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Progress Report on New Year's Resolutions

More than once I have warned the reader against the under-rated scourge of the Early Bedtime Syndrome. I took the Fabian approach to vanquishing it, and now have the proud and happy task of telling you that I have officially beaten it. (Note the present perfect tense of the verb.)

Postponing bedtime by a minute or two per day worked at the beginning. Then I plateau-ed at one minute every two days. I actually recorded it on a calendar. Bedtime is now beyond 2200 hours. At 2230 I'll probably back off and leave well enough alone.

It was not easy, and at times, I attacked the problem with a desperate heroism. Even if that is a silly and pretentious way to put it, it is still true that I had to imagine it so, in order to succeed. I was willing to use any technique that worked -- even going so far as doing housework when I started fading!

When you wake up in the morning and see Dawn, you can't help but feel that all is right with the world, and that your day has great potential. But the satisfaction of beating this thing goes deeper. It is a potential model and metaphor for more complex achievements with food and money. Beating the Early Bedtime Syndrome had a huge advantage: it was univariate and capable of precise measurement. 

But the same approach to food or money will run into multivariate confusion. Give the tiniest opportunity, we all tend to become crooked accountants. We fool ourselves about saving money when we are really only playing cost-shifting games. With food or money, we focus on the easily perceivable, the precisely measurable. Then we move certain categories "off budget," and pretend that they don't count. Remember what a wise man once said, "The apparent does not exhaust the real." [Weaver, in "Ideas Have Consequences."]

But if only we could condense any project with food or money down to this univariate and Fabian model. What we wouldn't accomplish!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Brilliantly Successful Group Hike

Rumors are floating around that several RV bloggers were recently involved in an outdoorsy comedy-of-errors: a hike full of mistakes and misadventures. Oh sure it seemed like that at the time. But without any undue contrarianism or facetiousness, I'm here to tell you that it was a great success, and is worthy of emulation.

There is one bit of facetiousness that I would like to play with: instead of ridiculing the "Naturalistic Fallacy", I would like to pretend that I agree with it, that is, that everything "natural" is "good", and unnatural is bad.  I am going to argue that misadventure during an outing, whatever be the cause, brings on a more natural -- and better -- experience. 

Consider first how unnatural hiking is. What natural purpose does it serve? None that I can see.  Is this not ironic, considering the demographic and self-image of hikers? They see themselves as environmentally-correct nature lovers. They think that their sport is the "greenest" of all outdoors sports, despite the fact that half the sport is driving a motor vehicle to the trailhead. (Some outdoorsmen, like runners, walkers, and bicyclists are not guilty of that syndrome.)

Hikers are for the most part college-educated office workers from large metropolitan areas. It is beyond their imagination to see Nature as providing the sustenance for the animal species known as homo sapiens. It's OK if any other animal species makes an honest living off of Nature -- but not homo sapiens.

If, instead of purposeless and useless hiking, we were walking along with a bow and arrow or a spear, and killing something, that would be the perfect natural outdoors activity. Similarly if we were being chased by large predators. But ironically the stereotypical hiker is anti-gun and anti-hunting, and probably vegetarian to boot. If the homo sapiens hunter was being helped by a horse or a dog, they would see that as "ickie" because those animal species might leave poopies on the hiking trail. Apparently they believe that other animal species don't defecate.

The natural experience of a stereotypical hiker is actually quite sterile and phony. It consists of nothing but consuming visual entertainment. Ogling postcard scenery.

Now then, let's see how this supposedly goofed-up hike was actually a success. "Mistakes" such as forgetting cellphones, not bringing GPS, forgetting to bring enough water, and splitting-up had a real benefit: they reminded us of how precious water is in the Southwest, and how everything revolves around this issue. 

Splitting up? That "mistake" reminded us how weak an individual specimen of homo sapiens is. The species has survived because of its sociability, communication skills, and adaptability. These were exactly the qualities that we were forced to practice when things went wrong. For pity sakes, Nature is about surviving hardship, rather than gamboling through the magic gumdrop mountains and rhapsodizing about pretty butterflies or silly wildflowers.

Consider how this comedy of errors forced us to confront the fundamental non-truths that have overtaken society the last 200 years. Consider that humorless, virginal, domestic-terrorist-praising, Yankee blockhead, Henry David Thoreau. His essay on "Walking" starts off thusly:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil -- to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
Nice try, Hank, but you blew it. He is imagining homo sapiens as living in a state of complete solitude when he is in "harmony with nature." Clearly he was reading the same junk-anthropology books as that frog-eating blockhead, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who starts off his famous "Social Contract" with:
THE most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family.
Oh really? I guess tribal villages and hunting partners are unnatural? Did Rousseau not see that it was perfectly natural for one hunter to borrow a tool from another tribal member, and to submit to certain expectations because of this transaction.

Seriously folks, it is thought-provoking and profoundly satisfying to see walking outdoors as a real thing, a serious thing, rather than mere entertainment for a scenery tourist. It makes the natural experience more authentic.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Eavesdropping on a Silent Conversation

It seems like many of the experiences, that I want to post about, occur during the food-stop in the middle of a bicycle ride. Why is that? Is it the mood that cycling puts me in? It certainly seems to be true that one's appreciation of a Thing depends more on the Context of the thing, than on the thing itself.

At any rate, it happened again today. A couple of deaf people were having an animated conversation at a table in front of the window of a food stop. I could pretend to watch my unlocked bicycle just outside that window, without it being obvious that I was "eavesdropping" on their conversation in sign language. (I do not "sign.") Through my sunglasses I could watch them out of the corner of my eye.

They had each other's undivided attention. No distractions. Compare the quality of the conversation of these two "handicapped" people to the usual 'barely listening' conversation of non-handicapped people! We struggle with the crappy background music, if nothing else.

How strange that this has never happened before in my fairly long life. It surprised me that they put so much facial and upper body emphasis to their conversation. It seemed more "analog", and less "digital", than I expected.

How many "bytes" of information flowed between them, compared to a regular conversation between "hearing" people? Surely they transmit less in the same time. But I'm really not so sure.

What was the basic quantum of their language: a letter, syllable, word, or metaphor?

After awhile it dawned on me that the special emphasis I imagined to be there might be due to them being a possible couple -- and that they were flirting with each other. Normally a person is sensitive to the slightest clue of that; but it might not apply here because I didn't understand the first thing about their language. But it certainly was a possible substratum in their language. (I hope it was.)

Linguistics has interested me since I went to Mexico a couple times in my RV.  Imagine explaining the different meanings of 'OK', depending on the intonations, to somebody who is learning English.

So off I went, to Wikipedia to learn about sign language. How disappointing the article was! It probably wasn't the author's fault. But when your curiosity is really hot on some topic, it takes the form of questions. Then we read an article about the topic; but the information isn't organized as an Answer to that Question. Perhaps it can't be.

But if it could be, then even a retro-grouch must admit this to be genuine, qualitative progress brought on by the internet, instead of the usual quantitative expansion of garbage-information. If somebody could find a way to write in terms of answering questions of the reader, it would be the greatest conversation of all.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why Read Fiction?

Now that I'm rereading a series of novels, adding up to many thousands of pages, it would certainly be nice if I actually accomplished something. The good news is that I am starting to realize that fiction has something to offer: but strangely enough, it really isn't the "story."

I admit to being a die-hard non-fiction reader. Mostly history. Many years ago, it was philosophy, until I decided that it was mere wordplay. Fiction always seemed like a waste of time. What did the plots of novels really consist of but rags-to-riches, revenge, whodunnit, mistaken identity, improbable reversals of fortune, and -- above all else -- adulterous love triangles? Yawn, especially the latter.

It was a good choice to reread Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin" ("Master and Commander") novels because they are written more to please men than "lady novel readers," who have an insatiable appetite for romantic drivel. (It was they who bought most of the fiction of the 19th Century, was it not?)  O'Brian's novels take place on the high seas -- not in parlors. Or bedrooms.

Therefore I wasn't resenting the overall plot. This advantage was huge, because it allowed me to relax and look past the overall plot. I started paying more attention to the interstices in the overall plot. Vignettes of behavior. Different personalities react differently to uncertainty and risk, loss and disappointment, betrayal, boredom, pain, and all the real challenges of life.

Left in the hands of philosophers and academics, the "stuff of life" becomes sterile wordplay, with no ability to inspire you or change your own behavior. Whenever I find one of these vignettes of behavior to the real challenges of life, I should hit the brakes. A reader can become "velocitized" -- numbed -- like an interstate highway driver. These are opportunities to let the eyeballs rest, and then type or cut-and-paste the juicy paragraph into your blog or journal.

And then put the damned book down. Take the dog out for a walk and think about what you have read. Dream that juicy paragraph up into a little essay, perhaps for your own blog.  See it as a chapter in your own life. Isn't this a better topic to write about than shopping, the weather, or pretty sunsets?

Odd, ain't it? For years I would roll my eyeballs when philistine blockheads would badmouth opera: 'It's sung in EYE-talyan, so Ah cain't unnerstannit!' Or maybe the uncivilized brute would say, 'The plots are just stupid Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-loses-Girl-to-the-Duke' type junk.

All true, but so what? The plots of operas are just flimsy excuses to move on to the next song, which is what counts. Even more, it adds something to your appreciation of music to tie it to a human and emotional context. That can happen in operas, despite the silliness of the overall plot. Why didn't I see the analogy with appreciating fiction -- years ago?