Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. As a writer, I should be jealous of Shakespeare. And yet, I’m not. I am just so thankful that he existed at all.

There is no one like Shakespeare in the English language. I criticized Harold Bloom’s deification of Shakespeare and Hamlet in a previous article, and yet it is tempting to a native English speaker. (I had least have the advantage of being an American. It places just a little bit more distance between me and him. His language is my language, but his country is not my country.)

I experienced this temptation in a recent biography I started about Shakespeare. I stopped reading it because it was far more speculative than grounded in actual evidence. (Of course, there isn’t much information about his life, giving rise to the authorship controversy.) Still, I had a thought while I was reading a portion about the death of Christopher Marlowe. The writer pointed out that, with Marlowe’s death, Shakespeare had no rivals. In effect, Marlowe’s death cleared the way for Shakespeare.

At that moment, Marlowe seemed less like Marlowe and more like John the Baptist.

John the Baptist Leonardo Da Vinci

In the Gospels. John the Baptist is described as “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” His death also heralds the beginning of Christ’s ministry. “I must decrease so that he might increase.” At the moment when the biographer described how Marlowe’s death cleared the way for Shakespeare, I thought I could hear Marlowe say, “There comes one mightier than I after me, the lace of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.”

Momentary Shakespearolatry aside, Happy Birthday Shakespeare. I celebrate you existing, I celebrate you being part of history, and thank you so much for all you have given us. We will never be able to repay you for your generosity.

Now, for some music. I hate Romeo and Juliet, and I firmly believe that we do great violence to our American youth by forcing this play down their throats. Indeed, I don’t blame young people for hating Shakespeare, considering that Romeo and Juliet is usually the first play that American students read. (It ought to be Macbeth, as someone once stated.) I was fortunately spared this torment. I was actually introduced to “Double Double Toil and Trouble” in the second grade. (I felt so grown up.) In the seventh grade, my class read Much Ado About Nothing.

However, the great thing about Romeo and Juliet is that it has spawned some pretty spectacular music.

Here is Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets.

Here is Maria from West Side Story, unquestionably the greatest musical ever made. This song frequently makes me tear up, and has for over ten years, since I was in production of it in high school.

Now, for better Shakespeare, I give you “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” in all its nihilistic glory.

Here’s Ian McKellen’s version, which I will shortly watch for the first time.

Here is Kenneth Branagh’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”

Here is Patrick Stewart’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”

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Noli Me Tangere by Titian

Non Me Tangere Titian

I believe this picture is at the National Gallery in London.

I’m also adding But Thou Didst Not Leave Thy Soul in Hell. The singer has excellent diction. I can understand every word.

Happy Easter everyone!

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Films about Women List 5

1 The Hunger Games

This is a very recent film based on the best selling trilogy. It was the third highest grossing film of 2012, if memory serves me right. Starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, it tells the story of a teenage girl living in Panem, a dystopian North American country where the people are divided into 12 districts and governed by a dictatorship in the Capital. To commemorate a failed attempt to overthrow the Capital, a boy and girl are picked every year from each district to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games.

When Katniss’ little sister is chosen as District 12′s annual tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Katniss Hunger Games

This film is an exciting action/adventure film, and it surprised me with its intensity.

2 Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother)

This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and is by Pedro Almodovar. He is one of the greatest living Spanish directors, and he frequently centers his films around women. He believes that women have a richer emotional life than men, and therefore are far more compelling subjects for film. Whether or not this is true, he is an amazing filmmaker, and if you have not seen any of his films, you’re missing out.

In All About My Mother, he tells the story of a woman who tragically loses her son in a car accident, and returns to Barcelona to find her son’s father. Filled with productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, transvestite prostitutes, and HIV Positive pregnant nuns, this is a poignant film about death and the relationships between women. Despite the dark subject, the film never feels heavy. Almodovar excels at that, I don’t know how he does it.

3 The Hours

The Hours is a film based on Michael Cunningham’s exceptional book. (Read it, it’s wonderful.) It tells the story of a writer (Virginia Woolf) the reader (Laura Brown) and the modern day Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa Vauhan.) Virginia Woolf is struggling to write Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown is reading Mrs. Dalloway and is unhappy in her marriage, and Clarissa Vaughan is trying to plan a party for her poet, AIDS stricken friend. It follows each of these women through the course of one day of their lives, with the book Mrs. Dalloway tying them together. All three women (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep) give wonderful performances, and the film inspires a meditation on a variety of different themes.


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Music from The Saint Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach

The original German of the popular hymn. In true Lutheran fashion, the text is German, not Latin.

Fans of Martin Scorsese will recognize the final chorus from the movie Casino. (Which I’ve never seen.) It is the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion.

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Films About Women List 4

For the last two posts in the series, I have posted films that were featured at the Cleveland International Film Festival. These films rarely (if ever!) get a wide release.

So, these three films will be films that DID receive a very wide release AND won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

1 Gone With the Wind

I said in my introductory post that I would post films that were culturally or artistically important, even if I did not like them very much.

This is one of those films.

Gone With the Wind is, for my money, bloated. The music is incredibly annoying, the racial stereotypes are very disturbing and problematic, and it’s overly (overly!) sentimental. It also goes downhill completely when Scarlett marries Rhett. Some of these problems are the problems of the book. Others are the fault of the film.

Even with these problems, it is still one of the most successful films of all time. The heart of the story is a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Old South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

It is also important because it shows the path that cinema could have taken. David O Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind, conceived of film as a verbal medium, similar to theater. Theater is a medium of the spoken word, and has been since it’s inception by the ancient Greeks. Selznick thought of film in much the same way. This is why there are so many moments in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett speaks in soliloquies to express her opinions. In the following years, Selznick’s vision of film would fade away. Film becomes a visual medium. A director tries to give the audience information not in words, but in images. He will use the composition or the type of shot to eliminate unnecessary words.

For that reason, above all, I encourage everyone to see Gone With the Wind. Watch it, and see the road not taken.

Gone With the Wind

2 All About Eve

In 1998, when Titanic was nominated for 14 Oscars, it tied the record for the most Oscar nominations. This is the first film to receive fourteen nominations.

All About Eve tells the story of a girl, Eve Harrington, who plots to supplant her stage idol. The original trailer and poster advertised it as a film about women and their men. It’s also more than that. It’s a mediation on age, the role of women in society, the theater, and ambition. The screenplay is incredibly thoughtful and the performances are wonderful. It’s also told mostly through the eyes of the women involved and manages to be both witty and dramatic.

All About Eve Poster

3 Silence of the Lambs

Ironically, this film is mostly remembered for Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant, chilling portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lector. However, the real protagonist of the film is Clarisse Starling, the young FBI agent.

Clarisse Starling spends most of the film surrounded by men, who range from paternal to patronizing to simply creepy. There are some wonderful scenes of quiet menace. David O Selznick would have demanded that Clarisse have monologues about how she feels threatened by the men in the film. Johnathan Demme, in contrasts, surrounds Jodie Foster with men, and then films her squirming. The film also hints at the connection between the treatment of Agent Starling and the monster of the serial killer.

The film is thrilling and suspenseful without being overly graphic, and Hannibal Lector is truly unforgettable.

Silence of the Lambs

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Passover and the American Exodus Story (Random Thoughts)

I always feel jealous of Jews around Passover. They get to have a Seder meal and they tell a really exciting, scary, and moving story. I even like eating matzo. (I know, I know.) Why is this?

1 Part of this is the Seder ritual itself. It’s not just a dinner party, it’s a religious ritual. There are prescribed actions that must be performed and all of the objects have symbolism. They get to eat exotic foods and light candles and pray in a foreign language.

2 There are few such rituals in the US. For Thanksgiving, we get together and eat, and that’s about it. Sure, we may watch TV together or go shopping, but that’s just super lame compared to a Seder.

3 The ritual of the Seder goes back thousands of years. At the same time, it is flexible. Different people and groups are free to make their marks on the Seder. Rabbi Hillel introduced the idea of eating a matzo and bitter herb sandwich as a way of fulfilling both mitzvoth. Today, some Jewish feminists are adding a Miriam’s cup ritual to honor Miriam the prophetess and the role of Jewish women.


4 The exodus story is very much an American story. I saw God In America, a PBS miniseries about religious freedom in America. (It was excellent.) There was a historian who said that the story of America was the Exodus story. People leave a place of bondage and oppression, travel great distances, experience freedom, and form a nation.

5 Of course, the Israelites, according to the story, travel first to Mount Saini to receive the law. In America, we forged the law ourselves. There are some Americans who attribute an almost divine quality to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. (Wrongly, of course, but they do exist.)

6 This story gives America a strange relationship with Europe. It is the motherland, but it is also Egypt, for many people. It is the place where our ancestors experienced oppression, a place where our ancestors needed to escape, cross the Atlantic Ocean (the Red Sea) and then experience freedom.

7 It also shapes how we view America. America is not only the place where the streets are paved with gold, it is a land flowing with milk and honey.

8 The story of the exodus also resonates strongly with the experience of slavery in the South. It’s a fascinating twist on the story. A people are in a place of freedom and travel thousands of miles to experience bondage and oppression. Then, when they are freed, they must find freedom not in their homeland, but in Egypt itself. They must share Egypt with the Egyptians. What does that mean? This question looms large in the American experience.

abolition poster

9 At the end of the Seder, the celebrants declare “Next year in Jerusalem!” It’s not so much about the literal Jerusalem; even Jews in Jerusalem still say it at the end of the Seder. Jerusalem clearly calls to mind a distant ideal. For Jews, this would be a future Messianic age. There is the tension between the horror of the past (and perhaps the present) and the promise of the future.

Those are my random thoughts about Passover. I hope no one found them offensive, they were not intended to cause offense.

A Happy Passover to everyone!

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The Entry Into Jerusalem Fra Angelico

It’s important to remember that the idea of realism did not take hold until the 19th century. Fra Angelico gives his characters the hats and clothing of Florence.


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