In the visual arts, I watched three DVD this week plus one movie in a theater:
Ordinary People, Robert Redford's directorial debut, won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1981, so I've now seen the last 33 movies to win that award. I'm not sure I'll continue moving back; I first started this project because I noticed how few of the winners I needed to see in order to have seen all of them going back to 1980. From this point on, the percentage of winners I've seen drops precipitously; to reach the point where I've seen all the winners made since 1960, I'll need to see 16 of the 20 movies. That said, so what? I like movies, and there a number of movies among those 16 that are still very highly thought of today. Anyway, back to Ordinary People. It's kind of a harrowing film; a pervasive sense of dread hangs over the whole thing, and I found myself feeling more and more on edge as I waited for the horrible thing that was obviously going to happen to happen. I was really impressed with Mary Tyler Moore's performance; I'm hardly the first person to say this, but I think it's quite an accomplishment for an actress so widely beloved to play such an unlikeable character so convincingly. I suppose at this point I shouldn't be surprised by seeing comic actors give outstanding performances in dramatic roles — especially since I just saw Jack Lemmon in Missing last week — but I usually am.
Casting about for another TV series to try out on DVD, I found the first disc of the complete first season of The Big C on the shelf at the library and decided to give that a try. A couple of years ago, Abed from Community wrote a piece for Variety about that year's Emmy nominees for Best Comedy, in which he wrote, "The Big C, on the other hand, has the advantage of only having to be mildly humorous to be considered hysterically funny. Laugh once at cancer, you’re laughing A LOT." And, well, he's right about the mildly humorous part. I also found that to be true of Flight of the Conchords, which you may recall I sampled last week and decided to not proceed with, but I will be proceeding with The Big C. What it comes down to is that a lot of FotC's humor is the humor of awkwardness, and I think something has to be really really funny to overcome the discomfort of watching people be awkward. The Big C's humor comes from a different place, so it can get away with being mildly funny. Also, I just like the characters better.
I also decided to check out the first disc of the first season of The Wire. I know, I know, you're all like, "how have you not seen The Wire, by common consensus of a certain sort of TV nerd the greatest television show ever made? Chalk it up to not having had HBO when it was originally on — which was a surprisingly long time ago — and being a recent convert to watching TV shows on DVD. Anyway, I knew by the end of the pilot episode that I would be continuing with this one; in fact, I've already got the second disc of the first season waiting for me. Great show.
My pals at Pres House, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA) at University of Wisconsin-Madison, sponsored a screening of TRIGGER: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence, a documentary produced by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, at Union South last Wednesday. It takes the position that the effect of gun violence on communities in which it occurs is no less a disaster than a hurricane or a flood — PDA has been sending (when invited) teams to communities affected by mass shootings ever since Columbine — and that it should be treated as such, or as a public health crisis, as a flu epidemic surely would be if it killed more than 30,000 people in a single year. An interesting, thought-provoking film After the screening, a panel comprising a lieutenant from the Madison Police Department, a representative from PDA who had been part of the team sent to Newtown, the Executive Director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, and the director of the film took questions from the audience about the film and about gun violence in general.
In the musical arts, I attended a concert by Black Marigold, a local all-female woodwind quartet. I've always been more of a wind instrument guy than a string guy — I blame Mrs. Dabny, the orchestra teacher at my elementary school — and brass more so than woodwinds, but the dirty secret of woodwind quintets is that they include French horns as well as flutes, oboes, bassoons, and clarinets. Also, my friend Rachel helped organize the series of concerts that this one was a part of, so I also got to show support for one of my fellow church musicians. The concert was very good; it's a talented group of musicians and the works they played were all quite good, which to be frank was a bit of a surprise since there were three 20th century pieces on the program, and with some such pieces one occasionally gets the impression that the composers are being outré for the sake of being outré. But as I say, that wasn't the case here. Yay! If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to three of the four works they performed here. The fourth doesn't appear to be online in its entirety, but you can hear the second movement here.
In the literary arts, I've reached Chapter IV of Part III of The Mysteries of Udolpho. I'm more than three-fifths done! Emily managed to show a bit of backbone in this one, but more often than not she's insensible with terror over some stupid thing she's talked herself into believing, or allowing people she should have known better than to trust to take advantage of her better nature. Luckily, her maidservant Annette is kind of an entertaining character, so there's that.
I also read another Lawrence Block short story recently released as a Kindle Single, "A Moment of Wrong Thinking." I think I might have read it before, but I'm not sure; a lot of Block's stuff tends to run together in my mind. This one was a Matt Scudder story, a flashback to his days on the NYPD, as related to his wife (or possibly girlfriend; I know he and Elaine married at some point, but I'm not sure where this story falls in the character's chronology). It's a good story, though part of me wishes it hadn't used the narrated-flashback style. I get why Block wrote it that way, but as I've mentioned before, Block's dialogue tends to ring false for me, which can be a problem with a story that is little more than a long conversation between two people.
Moving from the arts to the sciences, I attended two public lectures this week:
H. Samy Alim, Professor of Education, Anthropology, and Linguistics at Stanford University, was on campus to discuss his new book, Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. To the extent I'd ever thought about the intersection of race and politics before, it was in the context of Lee Atwater's notorious remarks on how the language used by the Republican Party to inflame racial resentments as part of the Southern Strategy had evolved over the years. Alim came at it from a couple of different directions: what the language used to describe President Obama, and the reaction to the way he speaks, says about race in America. First, he made the point that calling Obama "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," to quote Joe Biden, is a form of "exceptionalizing discourse" or "enlightened exceptionalism," that is, praising him by implicitly labeling other black men as inarticulate, dumb, dirty, and ugly. He also suggested that Obama's occasional use of "Negro dialect," to quote Harry Reid, and a rhetorical style commonly associated with black preachers (such as seen in various contexts in this video), was not just a way to connect to black audiences, but as a way to make himself seem more familiar to white audiences. I can't do justice to what he said, but the basic point was that among whites, "preacher" is behind only "athlete" or "actor" as being positively associated with black men, so that by adopting a rhetorical style familiarly associated with black preachers, Obama was making himself more acceptable and even more American to whites by allowing them to associate him with a familiar, acceptable cultural archetype. An interesting point! I'll be looking for his book, I think.
Sandra Postel, the director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project, was in town Tuesday to give a presentation, sponsored by Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, on challenges to the fresh water supply, both locally and globally. I knew things were bad — it's hard to live in a Great Lakes state and not know that, since there have been more than a few suggestions over the years that water from our lakes be diverted to the south and west — but in some ways it worse than I thought. I knew, for example, that the Aral Sea was shrinking, thanks to the rivers that feed it being diverted to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan, but I didn't realize that it had dropped 10% of its original size. And I knew that the flow of the Colorado River had been greatly diminished by the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams and other upstream diversions, but I didn't realize the Colorado River delta is more or less entirely dry, except in El Niño years. Scary.