Novel: Bright Air Black

Bright Air Black is a much more detailed imagining of Medea’s inner life than we get from the ancients (the element that she killed her own children was likely tacked on by Euripides; in previous sources she kills only her younger adult female rival with poison (and then the king/father of the victim dies accidentally from contact with the poison) and then her children are killed by an angry mob).

The male-named author (David Vann) is careful to offer his feminist bona fides before purporting to mansplain:

I first read Medea when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, in a year-long Great Works of Western Literature course (the final year it was offered). The instructor, Leslie Cahoon, was a classicist and feminist who shaped nearly all my future interests. Because of her I took a feminist thought workshop with Adrienne Rich, learned Latin and am currently translating Ovid, studied all of Chaucer’s works in graduate school, learned Old English and translated Beowulf, became interested in depictions of hell from Bede to Dante to Blake to McCarthy, and of course became influenced by the Greeks. My novels are all Greek tragedies, I’m a neoclassical writer, and it was a particular pleasure to try to bring Medea more fully to life after twenty-five years of thinking about her. So I want to thank Leslie for her enormous and lasting influence.

Medea is dirty. She has sex with Jason in public and surrounded by the bloody corpse of her brother. While sailing away with her father in pursuit:

I let him have me, she yells to her father over the water. Here on deck, in front of his sailors. The daughter of a king. Or what used to be a king.

Medea takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick. She spits, licks and spits again and again, three times to atone. Mouth filled with the taste of her family’s blood, and she throws this piece of Helios into the waves.

Greeks put themselves at the center of the world, but Vann reminds us that they were pathetic when compared to Egypt:

What she realizes is that they haven’t built the Argo. This is an Egyptian ship, somehow captured or given or bought. The Argo not something these people could have built. She looks again carefully at the wood worn smooth at the locks, walks back to the mast to see how the deck has chewed into its sides, walks back farther to see the rudder posts worn and infirm, loose. An old ship, not new. The bow and stern platforms gone, the heavy rope that runs the length of the deck, held up by forks, gone. Crude short benches added along the sides for the oarsmen to sit. But otherwise this is the same as Egyptian ships that have come to Colchis. She has given up everything to live with scavengers.

Vann writes a strong scene of Pelias and circle laughing at the tales of the Argonauts. It takes a long time before she can finally prevail over this foe, with the help of his daughters. I don’t think these details are in the ancient tales:

Your father can be made young. We can rejuvenate him. That’s the gift that will set you free. Asteropeia’s eyes open. You can do that? Bring another of your sisters, and bring an old ram. Tomorrow night. We must hurry, before the moon changes. I will make this ram young, and then we’ll do the same for your father.

What makes him old is in his balls, Medea says [to Pelias’s daughters]. Old ram same as your father. His children have taken his life. But if you break each one in your teeth and then spit into the cauldron, all that constrains him will be broken. This is how he will be made young again. Death will lose its hold. Peisidike looks at the dark meat in her hands, wet hide, testicles unsheathed and wrapped in vein or worse. But she raises this horror to her mouth, bites into a testicle, breaks it, and vomits onto the floor.

Medea with a long thin paddle made of wood stirs the great vat, pushes the pieces of the ram under, chants to Hekate in her barbarian tongue, song unintelligible to the sisters. Hekate, she calls. Tonight I kill a king. My sons will not be slaves. I will not be a slave. My husband will not be a slave. Tonight I kill a king and feed his balls to his daughter. Hacked into pieces with no burial, no funeral rites, fed to his family. Son of Poseidon cooked in a stew. The only great waves to form will be from whatever I stir. I will rule Iolcus, and all will be my slaves, and my sons will walk on streets of flesh. Torches, Medea says to Asteropeia and Peisidike in their ugly tongue. Light torches in the fire and go outside to pray to the moon, to Hekate, for this old ram to be made young. We must pray to Hekate until a young lamb emerges from the cauldron. That body is forming now, but we must help it along, help Hekate and Nute give birth in night.

There is a sexual relationship between Medea and a daughter of Pelias that the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t have recognized.

The competition is introduced:

Jason held close between Kreon and his daughter, Glauce, who stretches her neck and tilts and coos and studies his arms and eyes and mouth. Young, very young, hardly more than a girl, and never made a slave or mother. Her only concern is ornament. Glancing at her own wrists, at gold bracelets, how they fall, folds of thin Egyptian cloth over her breasts. If her breasts were cauldrons, she would fall in, drawn by her limitless desire for herself, and Jason would fall with her. He speaks with Kreon and never sees him, sees only young flesh.

Their children will inherit Korinth and have a claim, also, to Iolcus, surrounding Athens. Kreon’s dreams, but Jason will want only that ripe young body and release from a wife who has been difficult from the first. Night without end. Rise and fall of breath, her sons’ hearts beating beneath her hands, feel of their ribs. Her own body engorging, filling with hate and hollowed, void under pressure increasing in her head and chest, unfairness so enormous nothing can be done. Jason does not return. Sounds dying away, no more music, no more shouts, quiet of night, and still no husband but gone to another bed. Medea’s breath fast, in panic, though she only lies here holding her sons. Glauce in some royal bed very close, only a few arm’s lengths away, lit in torchlight, baring herself for Jason, spreading her legs, untorn by children.

Jason is not a hero in this book:

I know who you are, bitter woman, butcher, barbarian. I’ve brought you to this civilized place. I’ll marry Kreon’s daughter, and our sons will have royal brothers. You should thank me.

Be grateful, Jason says. A woman is never grateful but always wants more.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested to see how an old story can be told in the modern style.

More: Read Bright Air Black.

Full post, including comments

Storm King, Donald Trump, and DC-3s

An afternoon in the Northeast, occasioned by a friend needing a ride from KBED to KSWF.

Over Bradley Field in the Cirrus SR20

Parked in the family airplane area…

After a 13-minute ride in the crew car (Thanks, Signature!), the Storm King Art Center. (Note curved wall by Andy Goldsworthy and the all-glass ice cream sundae “folly” by Mark Dion.)

Learned something new about one of my favorite artists. Louise Nevelson sometimes used gold instead of black!

For the kids, another Mark Dion:

On to KOXC where a squadron of DC-3s are preparing to leave for Europe to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Then an easy flight home over Hartford, Connecticut:

Fuel burned: About 25 gallons (on the trip home, with a bit of a tailwind and the mixture set for lean of peak operation, the Cirrus was getting roughly 20 mpg).

On returning home, I found that Mindy the Crippler was #Concerned about the trade war with China:

Full post, including comments

Don Giovanni by Boston Opera Collaborative

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is seriously out of step with our times. The producers at Boston Opera Collaborative realized this and posted a trigger warning on the door to the theater:

The original libretto, written without the benefit of the latest batch of Marvel female superhero movies, has Donna Anna’s honor defended (to the death) by her father. Mom is nowhere to be seen. In the modern B.O.C. version, it is a single mom who defends Anna at the cost of her own life, then comes back as a vengeful ghost to kill Don Giovanni.

The Boston Opera Collaborative’s update does not address one of the more problematic parts of the story for a modern audience, i.e., that nearly all of the women (2,000+) who had sex with Don Giovanni apparently did so voluntarily, attracted by his wealth and position or his fine words:

With blondes it is his habit
To praise their kindness;
In brunettes, their faithfulness;
In the white-haired, their sweetness.

As former Harvard Winthrop House dean Ronald Sullivan might be saying soon at Harvey Weinstein’s trial: “He had thousands of satisfied customers and just a handful of complaints.”

B.O.C. gives Don Giovanni (played convincingly by Junhan Choi) a modern way to reel in the females: he is a fashion photographer with a studio. He has a female enabler assistant (played silently, yet dramatically, by Felisha Trundle), just like a lot of the guys who’ve been #MeTooed. convincingly delivered the love/hate situation of Donna Elvira.

Sarah Cooper as Zerlina has some of the most troubling lyrics, delivered with an amazing voice and acting talent. In “Là ci darem la mano” she is considering abandoning her fiance for the just-met Don Giovanni because he is rich, has a fancy castle, and can raise her standard of living:

I would like to, and I wouldn’t,
My heart is trembling a little.
True, I could be happy,
But it could trick me again.

The only thing that she knows about this guy is that he is richer than the person she has promised to marry. Rich guy says “I will change your fate.” and she is coming around to the idea (“Soon…I won’t be strong anymore.” then “Let’s go!”), but Donna Elvira (Isabelle Zeledón; great), the spurned earlier lover, intervenes and proves Don G’s villainy by showing Zerlina evidence from a smartphone (texts?).

Her apology to Musetto (acted with appropriate frustration by John Bitsas) is what should generate a trigger warning. “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto”:

Batti, batti, o bel Masetto, Beat me, dear Masetto,
La tua povera Zerlina; beat your poor Zerlina.
Starò qui come agnellina I’ll stand here as meek as a lamb
Le tue botte ad aspettar. and bear the blows you lay on me.
Lascierò straziarmi il crine, You can tear my hair out,
Lascierò cavarmi gli occhi, put out my eyes,
E le care tue manine yet your dear hands
Lieta poi saprò baciar. gladly I’ll kiss.

The sets were spare, but reasonably effective. Quotes from men in modern headlines were projected during the overture. Big Harvey made the list and, of course, Donald Trump (full quote used: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”).

As with previous Boston Opera Collaborative productions, I enjoyed not being one of 3,800 (Metropolitan Opera House seating capacity). In the age of 4K video and good microphones, I would rather see the big productions electronically and get up close to rising stars.

Full post, including comments

Gender Bending Fashion show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

If you need help completing your summer wardobe, our Museum of Fine Arts has a “Gender Bending Fashion” show through August 25.

Not sure what “Nonbinary” or “Genderqueer” mean? There’s a glossary placard:

Ready for inspiration next time you visit Amazon Fashion?

After you exit, there is helpful restroom tutorial:

Full post, including comments

Generation Wealth

The movie Generation Wealth is currently streaming on Amazon. I loved the director’s previous The Queen of Versailles, so decided to give this one a try.

The movie is a mishmash of the director’s family history (retired parents and teenage children get a fair amount of screen time), musing regarding modern-day materialism, and interviews with people whose lives have been affected by parental or personal earnings.

One interesting character is Florian Homm, a fugitive from U.S. justice due allegations of fraud while running a hedge fund, resulting in investor losses of up to $200 million. He is back in his native Germany, which supposedly refuses to extradite its citizens (would that be true for an accused murderer or is it that they won’t extradite for a financial crime?). The filmmaker interviews Homm’s adult son and the son’s girlfriend for an all-around perspective.

Another interesting subject is a New Yorker who works on Wall Street. She refuses to consider the idea of marrying a lower-income man (a prudent policy in light of New York State’s winner-take-all family law) and explains that the pool of available men is thus quite small. At around age 40 she does find an old rich guy to marry and goes through exotic fertility treatments and the hiring of a surrogate. He eventually leaves her for a younger woman (i.e., the 70-year-old found a 30-year-old sex partner).

Kacey Jordan was featured as someone who went from minimum wage to high-paid porn star and then back to minimum wage. There was plastic surgery during this journey, which is another theme of the movie. Lauren Greenfield, the director, follows a bus driver “single mom” to Brazil for a life-changing investment in plastic surgery.

One interesting aspect is that the born-in-1966 Greenfield follows her classmates from a rich kids’ private high school into their adult lives.

The movie takes some swipes at Donald Trump and his supporters (they’re exposed as crass idiots!) and also takes a variety of standard 21st century feminist positions. Yet the filmmaker’s own life story contradicts the feminist complaints. Her college boyfriend-turned-husband is the person cited for maximum encouragement and facilitation of her career. He urges her not to quit in the early days when she’s discouraged and he takes care of an infant child while she travels to Asia on an assignment.

The central thesis is poorly supported. The film shows people today saying things about money-obsessed Americans that the film also shows people saying in the 1990s. Do we know that people didn’t have similar things to say in the 1970s about young Arab royals or circa 1900 about the children of industrialists? The world is richer so maybe there are just more rich kids running around.

One idea that does seem worth exploring is whether people are now less likely to aspire to be like their richest neighbor. The film says that, due to increased availability of media, Americans aspire to be like the rich crazy spenders that they see through electronic media. I wonder if this can be true. As the population booms and jobs are concentrated in a handful of cities, the realistic trajectory for a young American is a 2BR apartment shared among 4 people. Do the occupants of that crammed apartment look at an 8,000-square-foot house in Beverly Hills as a realistic aspiration?

My big take-away from the movie is that sending kids to a fancy private school is risky. Teenagers with a lot of unearned money to spend are not the best role models.

Full post, including comments

Is Captain Marvel as bad as New Yorker magazine says?

The latest superhero movie gets a super bad review in New Yorker:

Captain Marvel” is like a political commercial—it packs a worthy message, but it hardly counts as an aesthetic experience. The message of the film is conveyed less through the story than through its casting: women and people of color need to have starring roles in major Hollywood productions …

Brie Larson plays Vers, a warrior from the Kree, a humanoid population from a distant galaxy, centered on the planet Hala, that is in age-old war with the shape-shifting Skrulls.

(A fierce warrior is played by an actress named after a cheese from the country most associated with military defeat?)

The movie sounds perfect for people my age:

The action, it’s soon revealed, is set in 1995, and the videotape-filled store (featuring a standing display for “True Lies,” among other contemporaneous titles) inaugurates a skein of nineties-nostalgia objects that figure in the plot, including a RadioShack, a quaint AltaVista search engine, the foot-tappingly fitful loading of a CD-rom, a pager,

I loved AltaVista!

Carol discovers that the Kree’s longtime battles were based on a false premise. The Skrulls, far from being evildoers (or, as one character calls them, terrorists), have been displaced from their homelands by the Kree; they describe themselves as “refugees” and are merely seeking a home. Carol comes to doubt the presumptive virtue of her own nation and to recognize the legitimate claims of its enemies; she decides to return to battle, not to win but to “end it”—to end “the wars, the lies.” In this thread of themes, the Marvel overlords make the political positioning of the movie clear. The marker is made all the plainer when Lawson tells her that the Kree are fighting to defend their “borders.” “Captain Marvel” wants to make clear that it is a Democratic movie.

If it is anti-Trump, New Yorker should love it! Except that they don’t…

The directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who are also among the film’s co-writers) display as little style here as they do in their lower-budget and live-action films. The inert direction is amped up by a rapid pace of editing, resulting in a jumpy mosaic … The idea packs great dramatic potential, which makes its facile execution all the more disappointing.

Readers: What do you think? Is the movie as bad as the Official Magazine of Trump Hatred says?


Full post, including comments

Du Bois Orchestra concert

We escaped the suburbs recently for a concert by the Du Bois Orchestra:

Founded in 2015, the Du Bois Orchestra offers the opportunity to listen to and perform both the standard and historically neglected repertoire of the classical canon. Inspired by the work of Harvard alumnus and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois, our mission is to raise awareness about issues of social exclusion in classical music. We in the Du Bois community see music-making and listening not only as a means by which to break down aesthetic stereotypes but as a model for constructive societal dialogue. The Du Bois Orchestra engages in community outreach and educational programming.

The concert featured one work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer whose biological father was a physician from Africa and whose mother was an English woman who ultimately married a “railway worker”. It is unclear how he was an example of race-based “social exclusion,” though, since the program notes describe one of the most brilliant musical careers in history. He was admitted to the Royal College of Music at age 15. He become a professor of music, principal conductor of the Handel Society of London, was received at the White House by President Teddy Roosevelt, and enjoyed gushing reviews from critics around the world, e.g., “I have long been looking for a new English composer of real genius and I believe I have found him.” (Auguste J. Jaeger)

The overture to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898) was about 50 years ahead of its time. Coleridge-Taylor would have made good money as a Hollywood composer if he hadn’t died of pneumonia in 1912, aged 37. [The piece is not about a wedding among Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors, but rather is derived from Longfellow’s poem.] Listen to a version on YouTube.

A new piece by Sachiko Murata, Sorrow Songs, was well-received and easy on the ears due to incorporating a lot of folk tunes (not your usual painful dissonant “modern classical” work). She says that she was inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. From the program: “I am from Japan and came to the United States as an immigrant. … Du Bois used his whole life to promote equality and fight against racism. His message is still so strong and appropriate in this time.”

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was played. without a disclaimer that one or both principals would be considered criminals in most U.S. states (Juliet was 13-turning-14 and Romeo may also have been under the age of consent).

Thomas Cooper was the soloist for the Chausson Poème, which was beautifully played with perfect intonation and expression.

Apparently contradicting the “social exclusion” hypothesis, the program notes say that Ernest Chausson, who was from a wealthy white family, had a much tougher time with the critics and audiences than did Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But maybe people today are more racist than folks were circa 1900 when Coleridge-Taylor was most popular? On the third hand, Kanye West does not identify as white (as far as I know) and he has achieved #1 status. So if classical music listeners have become more racist then there is no inconsistency? On the fourth hand, most classical music listeners will soon die of old age, so the problem will resolve itself.

Full post, including comments

Dear Evan Hansen: A musical for 12-year-old girls…

… and their parents too.

Most of the newer Broadway musicals seem to be targeted at 12-year-old girls (e.g., Wicked). In order to guarantee that at least one member of the Greenspun 2019 business trip theater expedition had a good time, I augmented my inner 12-year-old girl with an actual 12-year-old girl (she’ll be 13 soon) for a night at Dear Evan Hansen. We had a tough time getting into the theater because there was a huge herd of 12-year-old girls being ushered in by their adult (female) chaperones. My companion: “This is the hottest show on Broadway right now.”

The material seems to fit the musical format better than most. Most of the show is one-to-one conversation in which it doesn’t seem crazy that one actor would sing to another.

In addition to the challenge of navigating the teenage years, the show dwells on the challenges and limits of parenting, especially of parenting teenagers who are not thriving. Thus, this musical has much broader appeal than the typical new show.

One group that might not love the show is LGBTQIA. “This must be the only new Broadway show without an LGBTQIA theme or character,” I remarked. My companion, a regular at the theater, agreed, but that might be because her LGBTQIA teacher typically chooses LGBTQIA-themed shows for the public middle school crowd. The only reference to LGBTQIA issues is when teenage boys are anxious to avoid being perceived as gay (“that’s how it is in my school, too,” said the 12-year-old next to me).

Stop reading and buy a ticket if you are afraid of spoilers…

The title character is a casualty of the American no-fault divorce revolution. Dad wanted to have sex full-time with a “cocktail waitress,” so he abandoned Mom when Evan was 7 years old. Evan is marooned in an unnamed suburb in an unspecified state while biological dad has moved to Colorado and has two new kids with the new sex partner. It sounds as though Evan hasn’t seen the dad for years. Mom doesn’t seem to be getting any child support cash from dad so she is constantly working as a nurse’s aide and taking classes to become a paralegal. Mom-of-suburban-teenager (Lisa Brescia) is Manhattan/Paris slender with fantastic posture.

[While heroic involuntarily single mom makes for good theater, the father who leaves the wife and kid is a statistical rarity in the U.S. Most commonly it is the mom who wants out and sues the dad (3:1 ratio here in Middlesex County, Massachusetts). Larger statistical studies have shown that in states where a woman can expect to win custody of children and associated lucrative child support, the majority of divorces and divorce lawsuits are initiated by women. Also, Wife #1 has first claim on the man’s income in nearly all U.S. states, so it doesn’t make real world sense for Evan’s mom to be financially struggling if this guy has enough money to support the cocktail waitress and two new kids.]

Perhaps as a consequence of being fatherless, Evan (25-year-old Michael Lee Brown on the Tuesday night that we attended; usually a 16-year-old(!) plays the role) is a psychological wreck and his therapist instructs him to write letters to himself, staring with “Dear Evan Hansen.” An even more distressed teenager at the school (Alex Boniello as Connor) grabs one of these notes out of the printer and commits suicide with the letter in his pocket. The parents assume that these are their son’s final words and that Evan Hansen and Connor were close friends. Evan is in love with Connor’s sister so he is anxious to insinuate himself in this grieving family’s life. A web of lies ensues. This is probably the funniest show about suicide ever created.

The family devastated by suicide was an intact 1950s-style family in which the lawyer dad wears a suit and tie to work every day and mom doesn’t work. Dad (Michael Park, a lot more slender than the law partners I meet with in conference rooms!) has no function with the kids other than to pay the bills. He was not sensitive or sympathetic to his son’s troubles. The mom (Jennifer Laura Thompson) was heavily invested in her son and infinitely forgiving, but she couldn’t reach him either. The teenage daughter (Mallory Bechtel) is the only one who could see her brother rationally.

One funny part of the musical that we experienced is that a Jewish teenager, originally played by a white actor, is now played by a non-white actor (during the performance we watched: Roman Banks, who was fantastic). So we saw an African-American youth talk about his Bar Mitzvah, etc. (Of course, in real life a black convert to or adoptee into Judaism would be most welcome, but the situation is unusual enough to entertain the audience.)

I like works that don’t take the easy way out and Dear Evan Hansen is one of them. Nobody does anything that is radically implausible. There is not a neat happy ending. (See also The Weather Man.) As a provincial, I was awed as usual by the depth of talent in Manhattan, including the orchestra.

Final verdict from the local 12-year-old critic: “This is my favorite show so far, except for Hamilton because it’s Hamilton.”

(I said that I would see Hamilton when it could be accomplished for $15 or less at the movie theater. This prompted my retired fund manager friend to respond that he was waiting for it to be available for free on a Chinese file-sharing site.)

Full post, including comments

La Traviata: first opera performed on the Outer Banks

I was fortunate to be among the first 600 people to enjoy a fully staged opera on the Outer Banks of North Carolina: La Traviata.

Three charitable foundations got together to make a professional production possible in the swank community auditorium that was built in 2004 as part of the First Flight High School, adjacent to the Kitty Hawk Monument/Airport.

Local hero Tshombe Selby was a powerful Alfredo. It’s easy to see why he was picked up for the Metropolitan Opera chorus. Wayne Line brought a truly huge baritone to the role of Alfredo’s dad.

The women were equally good: Sarah Joyce Cooper in the title role of Violetta and Caroline Tye as her good-time girlfriend Flora.

One of the fun parts of the program was finding that the conductor’s name is also “Violetta”: Violetta Zabbi. Her parents back in Communist Odessa watched Teresa Stratas in the Zeffirelli movie and were inspired.

As with a recent La Boheme (see below), it was nice to see opera in a smaller venue, bringing the form back to its roots in 17th century Italy. The 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House would be great if not for the existence of video cameras. Given the existence of video, however, why would anyone want to see a live opera from seats that are so far away that binoculars are required?

The smaller venues give younger performers a chance to grow and develop. Cole Tornberg, Gennaidi Vystoskiy, and Erik Tofte were able to shine as Gastone, Doctor Grenvil, and the Marquis D’Obigny. Debra Kasten was appropriately discreet as the courtesan’s maid Annina. John Adams, in black tie with cane, was convincing as “Baron Douphol, the man who has been supporting Violetta.”

Sets were simple, but effective. The audience was never in doubt as to where the characters were.


Full post, including comments