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sweeney todd

Man:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

(...)

Todd:

There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth
What a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.

At the top of the hole
Sit the privileged few,
Making mock of the vermin
In the lower zoo,
Turning beauty into filth and greed.

(...)

Company:

Lift your razor high, Sweeney!
Hear it singing, "Yes!"
Sink it in the rosy skin
Of righteousness!

His voice was soft, his manner mild.
He seldom laughed but he often smiled.
He'd seen how civilized men behave.
He never forgot and he never forgave,
Not Sweeney,
Not Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

(...)

Todd:

All right! You, sir,
How about a shave?
(Slashes twice)
Come and visit
Your good friend Sweeney - !
You, sir, too, sir -
Welcome to the grave!
I will have vengeance,
I will have salvation!

Who, sir? You, sir?
No one's in the chair -
Come on, come on,
Sweeney's waiting!
I want you bleeders!
You, sir - anybody!
Gentlemen, now don't be shy!
Not one man, no,
Nor ten men,
Nor a hundred
Can assuage me -
I will have you!

From 'Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street', the musical thriller by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Weeler.

The movie is coming out soon...

the consolation of philosophy

Since today is the memorial day of Saint Severinus, better known as Boethius, it seems fitting to take a look at his masterpiece 'The Consolation of Philosophy' ('De Consolatione Philosophiae'), one of those classic works whose content is inseparable from the context of its creation.

Living in sixth century Rome, Boethius was a classically educated, Christian scholar who made a career in politics. Rising to the position of first consul and then 'magister officiorum' under king Theodoric the Great, his career was crowned by the appointment of his two sons as consuls. Soon after, however, Boethius was arrested on suspicion of treason, thrown in prison and executed a year later. (Boethius himself said his arrest was the result of slander. After his death the Church concluded he had been imprisoned for his Catholic faith, and Boethius was made a martyr.)

While in prison, Boethius wrote 'The Consolation of Philosophy', in which he is visited in his cell by Lady Philosophy, just when he is giving himself over to despair, composing poetry to lament everything he has lost. But Philosophy takes matters in hand, starting by chasing away the Muses.

"Who has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very women who kill the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them."

From here, a dialogue unfolds between Boethius and Philosophy, who helps him clear the "fog of distraction" caused by false beliefs, in order to attain true insight. She first shows him the inconstancy of Fortune and the danger of relying on good fortune.

"...bad fortune, I think, is more use to a man than good fortune. Good fortune always seems to bring happiness, but deceives you with her smiles, whereas bad fortune is always truthful because by changing she shows her true fickleness. Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens. With her display of specious riches good fortune enslaves the minds of those who enjoy her, while bad fortune gives men release through the recognition of how fragile a thing happiness is."

In the same way, power and fame are fragile as well, not to be relied upon because they are only outward qualities.

"The only way one man can exercise power over another is over his body and what is inferior to it, his possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason."

Philosophy continues to reveal all the things Boethius once had for what they really are, false sources of happiness. And she teaches him how to find a self-sufficient source of happiness within himself. (Or, if we step out of the discourse, Boethius manages to find peace with his own dire situation in prison.)

Whoever deeply searches out the truth
And will not be deceived by paths untrue,
Shall turn unto himself his inward gaze,
Shall bring his wandering thoughts in circle home
And teach his heart that what it seeks abroad
It holds in its own treasure chests within.

The entire second part of the book is then dedicated to proving that this happiness within is God. The way Boethius introduces this theme is telling: "For this power, whatever it is, through which creation remains in existence and in motion, I use the word which all people use, namely God." It is only here that Boethius' Christianity becomes apparent, in a book which reads like a Socratic dialogue and which is thoroughly Neoplatonic in its philosophy.

This is why Boethius, who is sometimes called Last of the Romans, and whose Christian beliefs have been the subject of some debate, is best viewed as a kind of linking pin between the Classical and Medieval age, and between Neoplatonic and Christian philosophy. The fact that it was only through Boethius' translations that knowledge of Aristotle's philosophy survived in Europe for many centuries only adds to his historical importance.

As an indication of his influence, Dante placed Boethius in the heaven of the Sun, abode of the wise, calling him:

That joy who strips the world's hypocrisies
Bare to whoever heeds his cogent phrases.

The text of 'The Consolation of Philosophy' is online: complete translation (by Cooper) or a selection (by Watts).

control

Who better to make a film about Joy Division and its troubled lead singer Ian Curtis than photographer Anton Corbijn? In 1979 the band's music inspired Corbijn to move to England where he embarked on an awesome career in pop photography. One of the first bands he photographed was Joy Division, and the photograph he took in the London tube became 'prophetic' after Curtis' tragic suicide.

Joy Division by Anton Corbijn

Now, 27 years later, there's 'Control', Corbijn's debut film which tells the familiar pop history story of Ian Curtis and his band Joy Division's rise from Manchester's gloomy depression. Based on the book 'Touching from a Distance' by Curtis' wife Deborah, the film documents their early marriage, Curtis' musical career taking off, his guilt-ridden relationship with a Belgian belle, his suffering from epilepsy, aggravated by alcohol and primitive medication, and his increasing anguish and isolation. All of which spirals into an overwhelming sense of losing control, until, on the eve of Joy Division's first American tour, he hung himself in his kitchen. And even though the other band members would go on as New Order and create lasting music in their own right, Joy Division became the stuff of legend, more influential than famous.

Control - 1

So it's hard to separate the film from the legend, but to Corbijn's credit 'Control' is more than yet another biopic. Apart from the shared biographical background, Corbijn's trademark grainy black and white photography, which he also brought to this film, fits perfectly with Joy Division's bleak and haunting music. Corbijn avoids the mistake of making a feature-length music video, but sets a reflective pace and takes his time for every carefully framed shot, all adding to a brooding, melancholy atmosphere.

The acting performances, especially by Sam Riley (Curtis) and Samantha Morton (Deborah), also deserve mention. Morton manages to strike a balance between sympathy and patheticness as Curtis' clinging wife, conveying her emotions with her posture and eyes more than through dialogue. Riley of course is under scrutiny of being true to the real Curtis, but more importantly he convincingly portrays Curtis' inner torment which ultimately drives the story.

Control - 2

There is one memorably understated scene that somehow sums up the film. Curtis has a daytime job at an employment agency, where one of his clients is a girl with epilepsy. After Curtis has learned he himself has epilepsy, he calls her up to ask how she's doing and learns she has died. We don't hear when or how, we just see the look on Curtis' face: this is what awaits him, and in that instant you can see him adjust his whole outlook, changing from a cocky up-and-coming lead singer to a frightened boy with nowhere to turn to.

Implied in this scene as well is Curtis' inspiration for the song 'She's Lost Control', which in turn can be seen (heard) as an autobiographical outcry of his own desparate situation.

Confusion in her eyes that says it all.
She's lost control.
And she's clinging to the nearest passer by,
She's lost control.
And she gave away the secrets of her past,
And said I've lost control again,
And a voice that told her when and where to act,
She said I've lost control again.

(...)

But she expressed herself in many different ways,
Until she lost control again.
And walked upon the edge of no escape,
And laughed I've lost control.
She's lost control again.

Update: See also the Dutch documentary 'Anton Corbijn: Geen Stil Leven', available online at Het Uur van de Wolf.

no one belongs here more than you

I woke at seven A.M. and said to myself: This is the second day of the rest of my life. It's not one thing in particular, it's just the sensation of being adrift. As if the boat became unmoored two days ago and I am now on a voyage. I'm trying to notice everything, like a tourist would, even though it's all familiar.

In Miranda July's collection of stories, 'No One Belongs Here More Than You', most characters are adrift and most of them know it about themselves. And with the typical kind of endearing humor, naive and full of wonder, that July showed before in her film 'Me and You and Everyone We Know' (see earlier post), they devise elaborate and often absurd strategies to find anchorage somewhere. It's not even that they completely believe in their own ideas, they just vaguely realize that in a weird and awkward world where everyone is adrift, one world view is as valid (and absurd) as another.

In the story 'The Swim Team', for instance, a woman gives swimming lessons in her kitchen, and the role of swim coach lends meaning to her life, in spite of the absurd circumstances. Or perhaps the circumstances, the collective make-belief of this swim team, really provide the necessary 'teambuilding' for these people to get together at all.

I admitted these were not perfect conditions for learning to swim, but, I pointed out, this was how Olympic swimmers trained when there wasn't a pool nearby. Yes yes yes, this was a lie, but we needed it because we were four people lying on the kitchen floor, kicking it loudly as if angry, as if furious, as if disappointed and frustrated and not afraid to show it. The connections with swimming had to be enforced with strong words.

Still, beneath all the comic situations there always lurks a pathetic sadness, reminiscent of the films of Todd Solondz, a deep disillusionment with the world and the characters' place in it. You can just picture them repeating 'No one belongs here more than you' to themselves like a mantra, until they are almost, but never entirely convinced.

One of the most poignant examples is 'The Boy from Lam Kien', which describes an encounter between an agoraphobic woman (who says it's not agoraphobia because she only gets frightened after 27 steps away from her house) and a boy from a next-door beauty salon called Lam Kien. (The story's title, by the way, beautifully conveys the distance and alienation the main character feels to the world.) The woman and the boy have a conversation on the sidewalk, 27 steps from her house. They talk about pets, and the woman remarks:

- I'm not sure I could care for a pet. I travel a lot.
- But you could get a very little pet that wasn't very hungry.
I knew all about those things that weren't very hungry; my life was full of them. I didn't want any more weaklings who were activated by water and heat but had no waste and were so small that when they died, I buried them only with forgetfulness.

Later, after this inconsequential yet somehow meaningful encounter, the woman is back alone in her house.

I shut my door and listened to the sucking sound. It was the sound of Earth hurtling away from the apartment at a speed too fast to imagine. And as all of creation pulled away in this tornado-like vortex, it laughed -- the sarcastic laugh of something that has never had to try.

To get a further taste of these stories, a couple of them are available online:

Also, be sure to check out the great book website, which is a piece of art in itself.

october in munich, pt. 2

...To the serene Indian summer mountains around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, an hour south of Munich...

Garmisch mountains - 1

Garmisch mountains - 2

Garmisch mountains - 3

october in munich, pt. 1

From the massive Maß'd hectivity of Munich's Oktoberfest...

Oktoberfest - 1

Oktoberfest - 2

Oktoberfest - 3

the shock doctrine

What to think of this short film by Alfonso Cuarón and Naomi Klein, 'The Shock Doctrine'? Without having read the book of the same title that the film is meant to introduce, it all sounds rather heavy-handed and conspirational. But perhaps that's bound to happen when a 600 page book is summarized in a 6 minute film, and when a filmmaker like Cuarón (director of 'Children of Men') dramatizes the ideological concepts of someone like Klein (author of 'No Logo').

Reading around on the Guardian's minisite on the book, which includes excerpts, video interviews and a lively debate with pro and con reviews, Klein's ideas start to make more sense. The Shock Doctrine refers to a phrase coined by Milton Friedman, economic "shock treatment", which in turn refers to the psychiatric practice of electroshock therapy. In both cases, the patient/country is thought to be best cured from their ailments in one violent slate-cleaning sweep. Hence, Friedman observed that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change."

Klein sees in recent history a tendency to exploit crises (disaster, war, revolution) for economic reform, and more specifically for the kind of free-market liberalization that mostly favors foreign (i.e. Western, i.e. American) corporations. This has led to what Klein calls disaster capitalism, the most advanced and cynical example of which is no doubt the war in Iraq.

...since every possible aspect of both destruction and reconstruction has been outsourced and privatised, there is an economic boom when the bombs start falling, when they stop and when they start up again - a closed profit-loop of destruction and reconstruction, of tearing down and building up. For companies that are clever and far-sighted, such as Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, the destroyers and rebuilders are different divisions of the same corporations.

The current row over private security firm Blackwater's excesses in Iraq is another case in point. (See New York Times coverage and BBC News analysis.)

The bottom line, then, is that war has become a business proposition, and the vaguer the enemy, the better the prospects.

Through all its various name changes - the war on terror, the war on radical Islam, the war against Islamofascism, the third world war, the long war, the generational war - the basic shape of the conflict has remained unchanged. It is limited by neither time nor space nor target. From a military perspective, these sprawling and amorphous traits make the war on terror an unwinnable proposition. But from an economic perspective, they make it an unbeatable one: not a flash-in-the-pan war that could potentially be won but a new and permanent fixture in the global economic architecture.

Still, probably the trickiest part of Klein's theory is her analogy of shock therapy - which she extends to include interrogation / torture techniques used by the CIA - and economic reform. Though both may be violent, the one is literal and the other figurative. The analogy, therefore, is mostly rhetorical and, as the film shows, shouldn't be taken too literally - precisely in order to distinguish between actual and perceived crises.

As a disclaimer, did I mention I haven't read the book yet?

stalking hieronymus

Stalking Hieronymus - Hans Vandekerckhove

'Stalking Hieronymus' by Belgian painter Hans Vandekerckhove visibly merges two sources of inspiration: Jeroen (or Hieronymus) Bosch' painting 'St. Jerome at Prayer' and Andrei Tarkovsky's film 'Stalker'.

St. Jerome at Prayer - Hieronymus Bosch

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky

Through all three artworks runs the theme of the solitary pilgrim on an existential/religious journey, in a surrounding of contrasts. From Bosch' dual landscape with an idyllic green world and a dark underworld; to Tarkovsky's post-apocalyptic Zone as the only place where the character of Stalker can find peace; to Vandekerckhove's violent, hallucinatory colors that at the same time evoke an oriental serenity. (For more interpretation of the painting, see this essay.)

Seen at an exhibition organized by Yot in the Magdalena church in Bruges. As a nice symbolic detail, metal nuts with trails of white cloth tied to them - like Stalker uses to find his way in the Zone - could be found in various places in the church.