Deal W. Hudson
January 2, 2001
Shyamalan’s 1999 blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, took the movie-going public by surprise. His previous film, the brilliant but underappreciated Wide Awake (1998), had gone straight from lackluster reviews to video-store oblivion, so Shyamalan well-deserved the success and acclaim The Sixth Sense suddenly brought him. It made more than $250 million and has passed Raiders of the Lost Ark to become No. 15 on the list of top-grossing movies ever.
Shyamalan’s newest movie, Unbreakable, will be viewed with different eyes. Audiences will come expecting another supernatural blockbuster on the order of The Sixth Sense, another everyman’s journey into the netherworld. If the audience I sat with is typical, however, Unbreakable may be too much of a mental stretch for most people. This is a pity, because of Unbreakable, although not quite the equal of The Sixth Sense, offers a stark and powerful challenge to the pervasive moral vertigo of contemporary life.
Both on the surface and beneath it, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense have much in common besides their star, Bruce Willis, who impresses me with his capacity for stillness in front of the camera. The setting once again in Philadelphia. David Dunn (Willis) is about to leave his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), and son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), to take a job in New York City. In The Sixth Sense, mother and son struggled to overcome their sense of loss after being deserted by their husband/father. In Unbreakable, they struggle to keep him home. Their story ends happily only after they pass through a frightening encounter with the mystery of the unseen.
In The Sixth Sense, Willis’s character, the psychiatrist, Malcolm, was the agent of the unseen who helped the young boy, Cole, accept his encounters with the dead. In Unbreakable, which I am tempted to call a sequel to The Sixth Sense, the Willis character, haunted by family dissatisfaction and guilt because he is the sole survivor of a train disaster, is led through his hell of self-doubt by the very breakable Elijah Price (Samuel 1. Jackson). Price, who has suffered 54 bone fractures since childhood because of his extremely soft bone tissue, owns an upscale gallery of comic books and comic illustrations. Price’s ministrations, and his belief that his comic books portray an otherworldly reality lead Dunn to accept the fact that he has a very different kind of sixth sense – the ability to see crimes committed in the past and the strength to capture their perpetrators.
That Shyamalan chose comic book warriors to dramatize a spiritual battle confused some members of the audience I sat with who just couldn’t take it seriously. Nobody could know less or careless, about comic books than I, but Shyamalan persuaded me to play along with his conceit. Artists who use artifacts of pop culture to establish a point of contact with their audience can suffer from the very simplemindedness they are attempting to overturn – and this may be the principal flaw of Unbreakable. It led to misplaced laughter in several important scenes, including one in which young Joseph’s belief in his father’s heroism is finally confirmed.
Shyamalan asks his viewers to take seriously a character who believes that comic books are the successors of ancient hieroglyphic wall paintings and that the battles comic books depict are age-old cosmic struggles between good and evil. He obviously anticipated that this concept might be difficult for the audience to swallow, so he appended an apologia for comic books to the beginning of the film. Shyamalan rightly insinuates that subcultures exist (such as the one that Price inhabits) in which people receive their worldviews from comic books. He runs into trouble, however, trying to communicate with an audience whose imagination has been formed by comic books – and soap operas, gothic novels, video games, and talk shows, media that do not admit of subtlety or ironic distance from their subject matter. Shyamalan’s complex portrayal of the intersection of comic book reality and supernatural reality is likely to go over most people’s heads.
What will keep average viewers engaged with Unbreakable is their identification with Dunn and his home life? Dunn suffers from middle-aged depression: He gave up the football career he wanted to marry a woman to whom he felt a guilty obligation because she almost died in a car wreck while he was at the wheel. His subsequent drab life as a security guard at the stadium where he was once a football star neither matches in any way his youthful aspirations nor sets an impressive example for his son. The compromise with domesticity leaves him dreaming of liaisons with young women and fleeing his family for New York. Through his encounter with Price, which wakens him to his special gifts, he realizes his dream of starting anew in a genuine and meaningful way.
The twist in this movie is Price’s hidden – and finally revealed – motive for finding Dunn and convincing him that he is a real-life comic-book protagonist. Price describes himself as “at the opposite end of the spectrum” from Dunn; he was nicknamed “Mr. Glass” as a child because of all his broken bones. Dunn suddenly realizes that than one mishap besides the train wreck. It turns out that the differences between Price and Dunn run far deeper than the relative health and frailty of each.
Price’s years of hospitalization and isolation have turned him into a kind of evil genius, with an obsessive desire to find a hero – Dunn – to verify his role as a villain, in the way that Dunn’s robustness verifies his own fragile state. Price wants to order in his moral universe, and he also knows that the revelation of a moral order will include a revelation that his own crimes will be duly punished. Knowing evil for what it is, as the opposite of the good, even at the cost of seeing oneself as its embodiment, is the unsettling conclusion of this film. To a culture swaddled in moral and metaphysical denial, such a denouement may well be incomprehensible; it certainly seemed so to the snickering audience I sat with. That is all the more reason to congratulate Shyamalan for bringing his deeply countercultural vision to the screen. At age 30, he has plenty of time to recalibrate his use of pop idioms in future cinematic ventures.
But Unbreakable didn’t miss its mark by much. Perhaps among those who laughed, the seeds of future moral insight were sown. I’d like to think so.
Deal W. Hudson
December 31, 2007
Here’s a short list of my favorite cultural finds from 2007. If you happen to have seen, read or heard one of these, be sure to leave your own opinion in the Comments section below. I’d like to hear from you.
Best Film: Golden Door
The one film from this past year I can’t get out of my head is from Italy: Golden Door, (Nuovomondo). Anyone who had a relative immigrates to America through Ellis Island will not want to miss this movie. Directed by Emanuele Crialese, the film stars the amazing French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg who seems able to create on-screen any kind of character she wants. Not blessed with great beauty, Gainsbourg, nonetheless, commands the screen so much you have to remind yourself to watch the other characters.
It opens in Sicily where Salvatore, an impoverished widower, has made up his mind to take his family to the United States. As they are being cleared by Italian customs, he meets Lucy (Gainsbourg), a British lady, who, for an unknown reason, wants to marry someone before arriving at Ellis Island. Salvatore is genuinely smitten and accepts her proposal. The pragmatic Lucy is unexpectedly challenged by the love of a kind, sincere, and pious man from another class and country.
Best Music on DVD: The Berlin Concert – Live from Waldbuhne
Put together Placido Domingo with today’s most exciting young soprano and tenor – Anna Netrebko and Ramon Villazón – on a summer’s night in Berlin, when all the performers were inspired, and you have not merely a concert but a celebration of opera and song. Part of the fun of this video is watching the interaction of the singers. Netrebko and Villazón make a romantic, handsome couple, and they play it for all it’s worth. When they are joined by Domingo in “Dein ist mein ganzes herz,” the two men are pitted against each other in their ardent wooing.
Other highlights include Villazón and Domingo singing the great duet from “The Pearl Fischers,” “Au fond du temple saint;” Villazón and Netrebko’s “O Soave Fanciuilla” from “La Boheme;” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story.” Not for opera aficionados only, The Berlin Concert is a reminder of why great singing trumps any other kind of art form.
Music on CD: Ralph Vaughn Williams: Symphony #5, Serenade to Music, Fantasia on a Theme; by Thomas Tallis; cond. Robert Spano; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Three of Ralph Vaughn Williams most tuneful works led by the new conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano. Telarc also provides the best possible audio quality and soundscape, especially if you have SACD capacity.
It’s nice to hear the Atlanta Symphony come back into its own after its years of wandering after the death of the great Robert Shaw. The members of the Atlanta Symphony chorus make the most of the gorgeous “Serenade to Music,” a setting for sixteen soloists of Shakespeare’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank…”
The “Tallis Fantasia,” if you have never heard it, is a lovely modal work for string orchestra based upon an original tune by the Elizabethan Catholic composer Thomas Tallis. The 5th Symphony, along with the 3rd Symphony (“Pastoral”), is the best place to start sampling Vaughn Williams’ nine symphonies. Its basic themes were taken from Williams’ setting of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (If someone were to ask me what composition I would most like to see staged before I die, I might ask for Pilgrim’s Progress – it’s that beautiful!)
Book: Javier MarÍas, Written Lives
Javier MarÍas is one of Spain’s leading literary figures. Many of his novels have been published in English translation, but this is the first time readers without Spanish have had the opportunity to sample MarÍas’s opinion on other, mostly classic, writers. The chapters are short, the perfect length to read before falling asleep, and they bear titles like “William Faulkner on Horseback,” “James Joyce in His Poses,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle and Woman.” Yes, these are not the ponderous essays of a literary critic from the New York Review of Books – MarÍas shares his irreverent enjoyment of literature in a way that not only illumines well-known books and writers from an unusual angle but also makes you want to go back to the books themselves.
Take this passage from his chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson:
As a child, as well as harboring strong religious feelings, feelings that drove him to hold forth, along in his bed at night, on the Fall of Man and the Fury of Satan, he had thrown himself with great enthusiasm into committing ingenuously ‘sinful’ acts, an enthusiasm, he confessed, that he never again felt about anything in his adult life.
Audiobook: The Great Gatsby read by Tim Robbins
I don’t think The Great Gatsby should be read before you reach forty – it’s one of those many books force-fed to high school and college students, most of whom simply don’t have the life-experience or imagination to appreciate it. This recording by Tim Robbins is an ideal way to return to Gatsby and give it a second chance, just in case, like me, you didn’t get it on the first time around. Most great books have their greatness amplified by a good reader, and the lean, lyrical writing of this Fitzgerald classic particularly comes alive when taken in by the ear rather than the eye. More and more people are discovering audiobooks – thanks in part to the MP3 file – and Robbin’s reading of Gatsby will not disappoint you.
My Most Unusual Discovery of 2007: Blood Wedding, a film Carlos Saura
I’ve always been a fan of great dancing in films, from Busby Berkeley and the Golden Days of Hollywood with Astaire, Rodgers, Hayworth, and Gene Kelly, to the choreography of modern musicals by Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins. In 1992, an early Baz Luhrmann film called Strictly Ballroom was a rare and delightful foray into the world of ballroom dancing competitions. Buhrmann’s film had one scene in which a couple of veteran Flamenco dancers show a young ballroom dancer their moves, and the result was magical. It always made me curious to see more of Flamenco.
My chance came recently when the Criterion Collection issued a three-disc set of the Flamenco Trilogy by Spanish director Carlos Sauro. I took a chance and watched the first film, Blood Wedding, and I was mesmerized. The story of a young bride who runs away from her wedding with a married man is told with only a little dialogue but a lot of dancing. What drew me into the film at the beginning was the commanding presence of the dancer/choreographer Antonio Gades. Gades has a magnetic screen presence that can only be compared with a Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, or a Laurence Olivier. Gades’s charisma and dancing got me interested in the movie and then, before I knew it, I was hooked.
Flamenco dancing, as it turns out, is not about heel-pounding. As Gades presents it, Flamenco makes great use of the arm and hand gestures, which, by themselves, have the power to move you. The one moment that has to be seen to be believed is the knife fight between the jilted husband and the married man at the end. As I watched those long switch-blades pass back and forth between their bodies I held my breath waiting for the blood to spurt – it looked that real and that close! Great dancing and a great moral tale based upon the play of the same name by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Deal W. Hudson
March 5, 2008
A new and unusual film festival focused on pro-life issues will be held in San Francisco this coming Friday, March 7. The Cinema Vita Film Festival is “dedicated to encouraging emerging filmmakers, showcasing movies about contemporary issues concerning life, and exploring life’s deep significance.”
Sponsored by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Diocese of Oakland, and St. Ignatius Press, Cinema Vita was conceived by four pro-life laywomen. With the help of San Francisco’s pro-life community, the festival became a reality.
Submissions of these short films – most in the five-minute range – were made in three categories: high school, college, and open, the highest number of entries being in the high school category. Festival judges are actress Jennifer O’Neill; Rev. Michael Morris, O.P., film and art historian at Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology; Doug Sherman, founder and chairman of Immaculate Heart Radio; Vicki Evans, Respect Life Program Coordinator at the Archdiocese of San Francisco; and me.
Bill and Marjorie Campbell are one of the two couples helping to underwrite the fledgling festival. “We see this as an ongoing project that will grow like the San Francisco Walk for Life,” Marjorie told me. “We were inspired to support it because of the success of films like Bella and Juno. The arts, especially film, are much more effective at conveying a pro-life message than strident political debates.”
One of the biggest stories concerning religion in the past several years is the explosion of Christian interest in producing films, ignited by the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The grassroots marketing campaign for The Passion left in its wake a spate of companies and ad hoc networks attempting to tap into the same audience.
This interest in film as a medium of evangelization clearly appeals to Catholic investors like the Campbells. “You have a much better chance to change people’s minds when they go to movies, because the movies are not an attack on you. Films invite people to reflect; political debate often creates division and separate camps.”
Connie D’Aura was among the group of pro-lifers who first discussed having a pro-life film festival. “I was in a meeting talking about how we could bring Bella to San Francisco when somebody said we should have our own film festival.” No one said anything at the time, but Connie brought it up at another meeting several months later, and a decision was made on the spot to launch Cinema Vita.
Using networks in San Francisco and Oakland, especially through the Walk for Life West Coast, Connie and her friends got the word out. Films were to be approximately five minutes in length and address the “significance of life.” Wording the criterion this way ensured that not all the films would be about abortion. “We think this will be a big success – the word got out, especially on the Internet, and we got submissions from Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina. But we expect it to be even bigger and better next year.”
The festival itself, in addition to the awards, will feature a showing of After the Truth, a fictional recreation of a trial in contemporary Germany of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, the “angel of death” who performed human experiments on the prisoners at Auschwitz. In the movie, Mengele kidnaps an attorney in order to return to Germany to tell his story, without remorse. In reality, Mengele escaped to South America, living first in Argentina, then Brazil, eluding capture before dying of a stroke in 1979. (In 1978, the film The Boys from Brazil was released, based upon the novel by Ira Levin, starring Gregory Peck as Mengele.)
The film about Mengele was suggested by festival organizer and judge Vicki Evans, who considers the Mengele story especially relevant for current arguments over bioethics, such as experimentation on embryonic stem cells. She thinks having a film festival is a no-brainer:
Everyone loves to go to the movies and lose themselves in the silver screen. Why not present films that will give an audience positive themes to reflect upon? And why not encourage emerging filmmakers to use their art in support of an ethical society?
The winners of the Cinema Vita contest were contacted today, and several of them are making the journey to San Francisco to receive their awards in person. Marjorie Campbell hopes that some of these participants will be encouraged to learn the trade of making films. “We need to encourage Catholic artists; they are under-represented in the film industry, and much of what is being made for a Catholic audience suffers from a lack of quality.”
Having seen the films myself, I can report that several of them were well-made and incredibly powerful. We will be showing some of these films on InsideCatholic.com over the next few weeks, in the hope of stimulating interest for next year’s festival. (I was surprised that there weren’t more students from Catholic colleges represented, given the time that many of them spend on YouTube!)
One film in particular, whose title I cannot mention, packed a particular punch, and I will be interested to see the reaction when it is posted. It’s an impressive example of how Catholic artists can express their faith through their art.
The films submitted to Cinema Vita are only the first wave from a generation of young Catholic filmmakers who may well surpass the past generation of polemicists in combating the culture of death.
Deal W. Hudson
July 24, 2008
Brideshead Revisited, the classic Catholic novel by Evelyn Waugh, was made into a highly successful television miniseries in 1981. The 11-part series – written by John Mortimer, produced by Granada Television, and starring Jeremy Irons – was praised for its fidelity to Waugh’s novel, particularly for its respectful treatment of the Catholic faith.
Every major character, and the narrative itself is defined by a relationship to the Faith that was embraced by the author at age 26 – and Waugh was never shy about pitting his preference for an ancient piety over the modernity he despised.
Another adaptation of Brideshead will be released on Friday. Based on the comments of its director, Julian Jarrold, and screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, the new version presents Catholicism not as the solution to the novel’s central dilemma – an adulterous love affair – but as a problem to be overcome.
Brock describes the central theme, saying:
In that tug between individual freedom and fundamentalist religion, there’s a story that’s opposite for our time. In the modern age that’s something, we’re all dealing with (emphasis added).
Jarrold goes on to call Waugh “undemocratic” in his treatment of the character Hooper, who takes every opportunity to express his contempt for the aristocracy and its customs. Hooper, according to Jarrold, is “the future of England, and the hope of the 1945 generation, and we’ve put a positive spin on him.”
The phrase “he must be turning in his grave” describes perfectly the thought I had when I read that comment. Sadly Waugh lived long enough – he died in 1966 – to guess how a future generation might desecrate his most famous work.
Waugh was scornful of Hollywood. He negotiated with the studios in 1947 and 1957 to have Brideshead and another novel, Scoop, made into films. Too bad Jarrold and Brock ignored his 1947 memo to the studio about Brideshead: “The novel deals with what is theologically termed, ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.”
The director and writers of the new film version were evidently determined to put the human love triangle at the heart of their picture, and leave divine love alone. But, evidently, some of Waugh’s story of grace comes through after all.
Critics who attended pre-screenings of the new Brideshead have been generally favorable; of the reviews collected at RottenTomatoes.com, 67 percent are positive as of this writing. Reading through the reviews, I am led to wonder if the film is better than one would expect from Jarrold’s and Brock’s silly comments in the New York Times.
For example, Andrew Sarris, writing in the New York Observer, notes:
Michael Gambon’s death scene as a repentant Lord Marchmain encapsulates one of the most profound manifestations of the eternal struggle between faith and doubt it has ever been my privilege to witness.
Those who can recall the power of the same scene with Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1981 version will wonder how it could be surpassed.
Still, given the attitude of Jarrold and Brock, I was not surprised to read the critic for the Hollywood Reporter, who praises Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Lady Marchmain, say, “She instills the heart and soul that the rest of this production seems to have lost somewhere along the way to the big screen.”
Then there is Ella Taylor, writing for the Village Voice, who appears to share the view of screenwriter Brock about Catholicism as a “fundamentalist religion.” Taylor expresses horror at Lady Marchmain, a “rigidly controlling figure” who destroys her son, Sebastian.
Taylor blames the Catholic faith for the deficiencies of Lady Marchmain:
But the truly malevolent power of Brideshead Revisited is his identification with what she stood for – a literal reading of the Vatican texts, the preservation of ancient tradition, and keeping her snooty class free of contamination by interlopers like Charles.
The most intriguing comment I have read thus far comes from Rex Roberts in Film Journal International. Noting Jarrold’s focus on the love triangle between the main characters, Roberts argues, “The screenwriters might as well have converted the reluctantly religious Flytes from Catholicism to Scientology. With Waugh, attitudes and themes are non-negotiable; you take him as his curmudgeonly, contrarian, conservative self, or you leave him alone.” Exactly.
New Yorker critic Shauna Lyon put it bluntly:
The screenwriters, Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, took many liberties with the book, altering not only plot points but also the main thrust of Charles’s spiritual journey: instead of turning from an agnostic into a Catholic, he starts out an atheist and, seemingly, remains one. This change lends nothing to the film, a torpid version of a classic that is ultimately and unjustly devoid of passion.
To strip Charles Ryder of his faith is to extract the very conviction that drives the story of Brideshead Revisited through all its chapters. No wonder Lyon calls it “devoid of passion”; the director and writers behind the film have stripped it of inwardness. There is nothing greater than the social acceptance or rejection that Charles must weigh over his love for the married Julia.
In spite of these bleak prospects, I will be in the theater on Friday for Brideshead Revisited, if only to report whether Waugh’s masterpiece has been desecrated or resuscitated.
Deal W. Hudson
October 1, 2000
The golden age of the Broadway musical may be long past, but never has the musical been so gloriously recorded as in the present. Those who only know and treasure the familiar original cast recordings of shows like Brigadoon, Oklahoma and West Side Story have a great treat in store. Quietly, over the past decade, most of these shows have been rerecorded inversions that often match or surpass their originals.
At the top of the list stands a recent recording of The King and me with Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley. Nothing here disappoints. Julie Andrews’s singing is breathtaking: Her rendition of Hello Young Lovers is a master class in diction and characterization. Ben Kingsley actually succeeds in effacing the memories of Yul Brenner, and the conducting of John Mauceri, as in The March of the Siamese Children, reminds us that Richard Rodgers was a melodic genius. Don’t miss this one!
Next on the list is Brigadoon, conducted by John McGlinn, who has had a leading role in the revival of Broadway recordings beginning with his 1988 Show Boat on EMI. McGlinn’s recording is flawless; every role is perfectly cast and beautifully sung. Singers like Brent Barrett, Rebecca Luker, Judy Kaye, and John Mark Ainsley are not household words, but they stir you to the quick in the way Drake, MacRae, Merman, and Martin did a generation ago. Listening to Ainsley’s Come to Me, Bend to Me will leave you shaking your head that such a marvelous song was left out of the MGM movie with Gene Kelly.
Kim Criswell is the belter par excellence of our day, and she stars in the new versions of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Again, McGlinn is the conductor in both shows, and baritone Thomas Hampson is Criswell’s romantic partner. Hampson continues very successfully the tradition of classical performers crossing over to Broadway. You must hear Anything You Can Do to believe it—my daughter heard it on her way to camp and asked to hear it again when I picked her up a week later. And Criswell’s I Got Lost in His Arms should be labeled “Dangerous to play while driving in traffic!”
Next to McGlinn, the person who deserves the most applause for this recording revival is producer John Yap. In 1979, Yap founded TER Records in England (known as Jay Records in the United States) to record musicals in complete editions with their original orchestrations. A good place to start is Yap’s On the Town with Criswell and Kay but also Greg Edelman, Ethan Freeman, and Valerie Masterson. John Owen Edward, who does most of the conducting for Yap, handles Bernstein’s score with the kind of brio you would expect from the composer himself. In fact, Edward’s conducting is the star of all the Yap recordings I recommend, including Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, South Pacific, and Oliver. Great voices are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful recording—without proper pace and idiom even well-sung performances will fail to ignite.
The film version of Oliver succeeds dramatically but is musically lacking, especially in the role of Nancy. Yap’s version builds on the unrivaled Nancy of Josephine Barstow. Sample her brief reprise of Where Is Love? followed by the ensemble Who Will Buy? for an example of musical theater at its best. In West Side Story, Yap again succeeds in rivaling the virtues of the well-known film version with the fresh young voices of Paul Manuel and Tinuke Olafimihan as Tony and Maria. As in most Yap recordings, the performance is greatly enhanced by the prudent use of dialogue, which serves a musical purpose of setting the mood for each song and, in the case of West Side Story, means hearing a lot of Bern- stein’s music as underscoring.
None of the previous Guys and Dolls recordings match the complete Yap version with Edelmann, Criswell, Emily Loesser (yes, the composer’s daughter), and Tim Flavin. There is just so much good music in this show one CD can’t hold it. For example, Yap gives you the world premiere recording of the entire Havana sequence. Yap’s complete version of South Pacific features opera star Justino Diaz in the Ezio Pinza role of Emile and Paige O’Hara, better known as the voice of Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as Nellie Forbush. Again, it is the great achievement of this recording that you don’t miss the film version or, especially, its soundtrack. You may think that two CDs are too expensive for a musical, but once you have heard the little gems like the dance number based on the Bali Hai theme, Company Street, you won’t want to go back to single-disc versions.
Given space, I would recommend many more, including some remarkable solo recordings of Broadway songs by Dawn Upshaw, Bryn Terfel, and Thomas Hampson. Artists and the recording industry have definitely discovered an audience hungry for expressive singing and good tunes. There have been some laments lately that the only musicals opening on Broadway having any success are revivals like Kiss Me, Kate and The Music Man (both reviewed in CRISIS). This new golden age of recording reminds the skeptics why some musicals fail quickly and others continue to find new audiences.
Loesser, Bernstein, Rodgers, Porter, Berlin, and Bart knew how to write memorable music and wed it to a story that neither wallowed in spectacle (Andrew Lloyd Weber) or in cynicism (Stephen Sondheim).
There is a young talent emerging on Broadway whose music is quite arresting—Adam Guettel. In a future issue of CRISIS, we will take a look at his work, especially his musical Floyd Collins, in which powerful religious themes abound.
Deal W. Hudson
April 1, 2000
With the departure of Johnny Carson, I lost my late-night viewing habit. Like his predecessor, Jack Parr, Carson could entertain a broad audience while maintaining a reasonable standard of taste and decorum. When we laughed at Carson’s jokes, we laughed not just at others but at ourselves, as well as Carson, whose greatest asset was a charming self-deprecation. Now, watching the late shows, we laugh at others, spurred on by the lewd and sometimes cruel jibes of Leno, Letterman, et al.
Yet, during the Carson era, there was a foreshadowing of the days to come. When Joan Rivers was a guest host, every guest had to face a grilling about their sex life. One memorable night, a guest arrived with the moral presence to turn the tables on Rivers. That guest was children’s television host Fred Rogers, who reduced Rivers to sobbing by singing a song composed just for her. The audience was stunned as well—the same audience that has mixed derisive laughter with applause—as “Mr. Rogers” took his seat. For once, the leveling power of TV was defeated.
These moments have become even rarer. The terrain of late-night TV is now so cynical that hardly anyone can avoid being refracted into a caricature of himself or herself. Sleaze shimmers, while ordinary goodness looks dull-witted. One remembers fondly the sensitivity with which Carson treated children on his show and how eagerly they responded. Now the presence of adolescents on Leno or Letterman by necessity brings their shows to a standstill, while the poor children are spared the barrage of cynicism and sensuality.
In retrospect, it was brilliant of Bill Clinton to don sunglasses and blow his saxophone on MTV. Even though it was no good for the presidency, it was expedient to be “cool” for voters who care less about issues and more about personality.
Subsequent candidates have evidently felt the necessity of duplicating Clinton’s success with their own appearances on late night. These attempts are foolhardy. Politicians are subjected to a daily meat grinder called a monologue: Why would anyone go into a medium where he has been ridiculed for months and expect to come away a winner? None of the candidates has the aura of Fred Rogers.
Surely it is wise to prick the balloon of political puffery. That’s what comedy does: It reveals the foibles of the human condition. But when comedy goes on the attack, nothing is affirmed except the arrogance of the comic. There is a long tradition of political humor in this country, going back to Will Rogers and beyond. The old film footage shows Rogers twirling a rope and poking fun at the pretensions of D.C. but without the cynical meanness of Jay Leno and Bill Maher.
Nietzsche often wrote about the laughter that kills, saying it was far more effective, for example, to refute Kant’s philosophy than an argument. Night after night millions of viewers is conditioned to guffaw at the misdeeds and goofs of our political leaders. Respect for political leadership is effectively dead.
No doubt Clinton, who so brilliantly succeeded in controlling the medium during his campaigns, opened wide the door of late-night disdain with his White House shenanigans. But we have reached a point where no one will be sworn in as the president who has not been laughed at ad nauseam on late night. What will be the cost to his leadership? What will be the cost in the quest to recover a moral compass in this country?
I’m tired of the cynicism. I’m tired of the ceaseless sexual innuendo. I’m tired of hearing every leader picked apart. I’m sure it all contributes greatly to the legions of the politically disaffected, those who don’t vote and those who cast their votes away.
When we were boys, we learned that part of civility was pulling our punches. We learned instinctively how hard a blow could land, whether it was in a game, an argument, or playful kidding around. It also made it possible to play without hurting others. Parr and Carson obeyed those rules; their humor was restorative rather than destructive. Perhaps they understood that once laughter starts killing, it stops at nothing.