Wednesday, October 21, 2020


Ellie and I watched American Utopia, the new David Byrne movie directed by Spike Lee. Given our current situation, you have to wonder whether that title is irony or satire. Well, no. Or yes, at least in part. There is certainly an absurdist element--as there has always been in Byrne's music. It was a powerful motif in his much earlier movie, Stop Making Sense, which I remember having loved when I first saw it, many years ago; and recently decided to replay. But "American Utopia" does in fact end with a hopeful vision of what this country can be--multi-racial, multi-cultural, welcoming of immigrants and their energy and talent, open to new ideas and, above all, caring for each other.

Watching "American Utopia", I was once again captivated by the hypnotic rhythms of Byrne's music and the choreography of the group of musician/dancers--you could hardly call it a "band"--he had assembled. There is something haunting about the use of minimalist staging and the movement of identically-clad human figures in its space. The "costumes"--call them that--consisted of loose grey suits and grey shirts, buttoned to the neck without a tie. Lighting was used to occasionally dramatic but often simply high-lighting effect. The whole production understated, then, leaving the emphasis on the human body, music, words.

I understood Byrne's work in a different light--though I should perhaps have recognized it all along--when he spoke in a break between songs about Dada, and the between-the-wars years after the monstrous travesty of World War I and the rise of Nazism and nationalism, when the European Enlightenment's belief in the power of reason to govern individuals and the affairs of the human species was shattered by horrific historical realities. Dada was a conscious effort to "stop making sense"--or stop trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, irrational behavior of actual human beings in a chaotic real world. 

David Byrne's work, as I see it, is an effort to get past sense and into a reality that transcends it. One sequence in this film is a lunatic snippet from a dada "symphony" followed by the setting of a sense-less "poem" by Hugo Ball; it fit perfectly in with Byrne's aesthetic. It makes some, excuse the expression, sense to suggest that we find ourselves in much the same social, cultural and political predicament as that time. We have put ourselves through the nightmare of more wars and population shifts--provoked in part by climate change--threaten once complacent Western societies, including our own. The self-protective nationalist response, with its ever-present potential for violence, is as pandemic as the coronavirus. The line that stands between us and chaos has indeed become a very thin one.

Yet Byrne sees and offers us grounds for hope in the creative human spirit, and in the desire of human beings to be in touch with each other, to communicate and, yes, even to love. The end of "American Utopia" embraces that spirit as the performance group descends into the audience, mingling, touching, encouraging, including as they play. Then they all get on bicycles and ride through the darkened New York streets to what we assume is Byrne's personal residence for what we assume to be a party.

I think you'll love this film as much as Ellie and I did. Give it a try.

Monday, October 19, 2020


I have noticed that there is an increasing sense of inexorability to the passage of the days, in this time of plague. It requires vigilance. When I allow my attention to lapse, I find that time dulls the senses, dulls the intellect, dulls the spirit, too. It becomes an effort, a chore, to perform even the most basic and ordinary of tasks. Times slows down, drags, and can even seem to bring me to a halt.

So attention must be paid, even to the most basic and ordinary of tasks. Perhaps especially to them. When I remember; I too often forget! Because attention is the only palliative, the only cure for what would otherwise be overwhelming. Attention sharpens the senses, the intellect, and the spirit too into clear awareness, and wrests the mind out of the inexorable passage of days to bring it into the present moment. Which, after all, is the only place there is.

Saturday, October 17, 2020


Ellie and I watched The Way I see It last evening. This is the documentary about the photographer Peter Souza who documented the presidencies of both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Having worked as a

photojournalist for so many years, dedicated to the work rather than the politics, which he eschewed, he felt obliged to "come out" during the Tr*mp era and expose the pettiness and venality of our current president. I was not aware of his efforts until now, but it seems he has been doing this for some time by the simple act of visual juxtaposition. His book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents and his continuing Twitter series, with images of a dignified and thoughtful Obama posted in response to his successor's often vacuous tweets are an act of social conscience. He abandons journalistic objectivity in favor of the passionate expression of opinion.

It's a great documentary. Directed by Dawn Porter, it includes lengthy interviews with Souza himself, as well as with notables from around the Obama administration. There is a good deal of historical film and video footage, and an unforgettable selection of the still photographs for which Souza is justly acclaimed. Ellie and I, along with I'm sure every other viewer, were deeply moved to be reminded of Obama's human dignity, his intellect, his need to think through every issue in depth, his love not only for his own delightful family but for the great family of humankind and, above all, his compassion. 

The comparison between Obama and his successor offered by this engrossing documentary is stark, and deeply painful. The film reminds us of what a president can, and should be; and of the utter failure of the current occupant of the White House to reach that standard. Watching it, I frankly wept at times. But mostly I was inspired by the example of the truly great man who led us for eight years, and mindful that his trusted right hand in office, Joe Biden, shares many of his qualities. He must be our next president.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020


Watching the US Senate hearings on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, I could not help but think of Portia's famous speech about mercy in The Merchant of Venice. It is addressed to Shylock, as he contemplates the extortion of his "pound of flesh." Anti-Semitism aside--it's there, it's wrenching--Shakespeare puts his finger on a quality that is all too rare in today's vicious political environment. Says Portia:

The quality of mercy is not strained. 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘
T'is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes 
The throned monarch better than his crown...

Okay, no monarch, no crown, please. But the absence of compassion in those who occupy our leadership positions in America today threatens to lead us down a truly dangerous path--one where we are no longer able to respect each other's humanity. To embrace raw, unmitigated power--power without mercy, without tolerance, without compassion--is to risk the loss of our humanity, and with our humanity the very survival of our species. As I understand it, even the theory of evolution--the survival of the fittest--allows that mercy, compassion, generosity, conscience, were qualities developed by our species as a matter of self-interest, to come to better terms with each other and the world around us.

Republicans in the Senate today are bent on confirming this nomination by a man who knows no mercy, except as a public demonstration of his power. Their action, too, is an exercise in pure political power. It's my belief that they, and we, will live to regret this act of willful ruthlessness, no matter the qualities of the nominee. 

Monday, October 5, 2020


So goes the cheerful old musical hall song. But author Hilary Mantel must surely have had the current American president in mind as she wrote the third part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, "The Mirror and the Light." As she portrays him in this lengthy but compelling read, Henry VIII is vain, petty, vengeful, promiscuous, self-indulgent, oblivious to those around him, manipulative, domineering--the complete

narcissistic sociopath. He is overweight, unable to control his appetite, and infamous, of course, for his serial marriages. He expects unquestioning loyalty from everyone, but is capable of none himself. He craves power, but only for his self-aggrandizement and the expansion of his realm of influence. The only difference between Mantel's Henry and our Trump is the authority to literally chop off heads at whim, where Trump can only "fire" those who incur his displeasure.

That said, King Henry is not the protagonist of Mantel's trilogy. That would be Thomas Cromwell, his marriage broker, his consigliere Michael Cohen, his factotum Attorney General Barr, his Secretary of State Pompeo, his Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, his Defense Secretary Mark Esper--all rolled into one. Cromwell is of common birth, which leaves him in a weak position with the contemptuous (and contemptible!) nobility. By hook and crook--and often the latter--he has ascended to his lofty position by guile, by manipulation, by abject, if easily shifted loyalty. We like him perhaps in part because of the vulnerability that lies just below the surface of his smooth self-confidence. We always know that he is doomed: one thing we know for sure about Henry is that he eventually turns on everyone he once trusted, and Cromwell is no exception. He knows it himself. We like him also because we admire his smarts, his uncanny ability to navigate the court intrigue, and at heart a kind of wisdom, even a kind of compassion for humanity that virtually all others lack. 

The great historical background of the book is the tenuous relationship between England, France and Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. In part it is the then intense struggle between religious faiths--the "papism" of the entrenched Roman Catholic tradition and the growing independence, under Henry, of what will become the Anglo-Catholic church. Henry dissolved the monasteries and convents, freely looted what had been church property and wealth for his own enrichment, persecuted (tortured, killed) those who remained adamantly loyal to the Pope, and gathered the power of the church into monarchical hands. Still, Protestantism, as practiced by the followers of Luther in Germany and the Lowlands, was considered heresy, punishable by public burning at the stake.

The bigger picture, then, is a constant, sometimes bewildering chess game between monarchs and their teams of duplicitous diplomats, in which women, potential queens, are essentially nothing more than pawns to be exchanged for political advantage. They are expected to be the providers of succession in the form of sons, and are spurned and cast aside if they fail to perform that function. Otherwise, they are treated and spoken of with contempt, or treated as convenient chattels or whores by men, no matter what their social station. It was, it seems, a bleak world for the female gender. Some might argue that it has not greatly improved; and most would agree that it took too long to make progress. Mantel does us a fine, if uncomfortable service, in reminding us of these truths about the historical hegemony of men.

Were the times as bad as Mantel would have us believe? She nothing if not convincing in her depiction of the casual torture, the beheadings, the disembowelments, the hangings, the burnings at the stake. If there's a take-away, it's a moral condemnation of barbarity and a recommitment to a more compassionate regard for all humanity. The history of this country of my birth has little to recommend it, but at least in Mantel's hands it gets to be an excellent read.