Monday, December 22, 2014

My favorite video of the year

The second half of this video provides the four most enjoyable minutes of watching I had in 2014. (Though the comic buildup helps make the piece, so I recommend the whole thing.) I don't know whether I was more amazed that someone could think this up or that they could execute it. Au revoir until 2015....

Thursday, December 18, 2014

'The Interview:' The faceless cowards win

There's an emotionally stunted kid in every high school who thinks about calling in a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm, then sitting in the bushes sniggering as people scurry out of the building. My high school had one, and I thought of him when I heard hackers had threatened Sony Pictures and theater owners if "The Interview" opened as scheduled on Christmas Day.

It never looked like a masterpiece to me, but it might have been funny. Here's the trailer:

As you see, it's about a tabloid show host and producer invited to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, then assigned by the CIA to assassinate him. The announcement of its release prompted hackers to interfere with Sony's business affairs (including private internal communications) and threaten violence against movie chains that dared to show it. The film has been pulled everywhere, though I expect it to come out on DVD someday. That's where it would have made most of its money anyhow.

Commentators have correctly pointed out that a movie suggesting the death of a real person is in bad taste, even when he's a brutal swine. They've also mulled over the possibility that threats of real-world attacks were hot air (likely) and that further provocation of the still-unidentified hackers isn't worth the trouble (also likely, especially if the Chinese assisted the North Koreans).

Folks have also discussed whether this backing down by Sony will start a trend. Will ISIS threaten the same kind of reprisal if a movie makes the bad guys Islamic extremists? Probably not, unless someone declares open season on the prophet Muhammad -- we've seen that scenario play out in murder in Europe -- or ruthlessly mocks the Qu'ran. I'll be curious to see whether this incident triggers other kinds of reprisals, such as homophobic assaults on movies with gay themes.

Before the Internet, when bile was harder to spew anonymously and widely, people protested pictures in person. For example, the Catholic Church disapproved of the 1991 movie "The Pope Must Die," a comedy with no real people in it: A foolish priest was elected pope by mistake, arousing the ire of the Mafia and other villains. So church officials asked Catholics not to see it, to write letters of complaint, etc. Those protesters wanted demonstrations, not detonations.

Now the faceless cowards of the world call in their threats and hide in the bushes, laughing. We can't suspend them from school -- or from the Internet, for that matter -- so all we can do is weigh each menace and respond accordingly. No satisfactory solution has presented itself, and I don't think one will.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Goya in Boston: An unmissable exhibit

Before I heard anything more than the words "Francisco Goya" and "Museum of Fine Arts Boston," I knew where I'd be taking a mini-vacation this fall. Here's the scoop:

Goya remains unique in the history of western art. Over his 82-year-life, he evolved from rigorously formal paintings of the Spanish court to what could be considered the first "modern" art, surreal pieces that step out of time and come from some dark psychic place most of us don't dare go.

His brush gave us handsome princes and wizened witches, nabobs and nightmares, deeply religious pieces and savage attacks on corrupt clergy. This show has them all in 170 works culled from his six-decade career. (It represents about one-tenth of his output.) Yet at the end of the exhibit, you come upon a beautiful piece in which a physician comforts the aged Goya -- bringing him back from death, in the painter's estimation -- and you realize he never lost his ability to invoke optimism and hope.

You'd have to go to the Prado in Madrid to see most of the large paintings for which he's famous. But the curators for this show, reputedly the biggest Goya retrospective in America since the 1980s, have done an extraordinary job of revealing the whole man. They've grouped galleries according to topics (portraiture, sport, etc.) rather than chronology, so we can see how Goya thought and rethought about ideas. The show includes paintings, etchings and especially drawings, where he did some of his most unsettling work. Here's a famous example, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters:"

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828. That span was marked by wars: The fight for American independence, the French Revolution and Napoleon's two attempts at conquest. In Spain, the latter took the form of the Peninsular War of 1808-14, when Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as king of Goya's native land.

Goya painted war like no one before him. A small drawing in the show depicts severed body parts hung on a tree like trophies, and no one until Civil War photographer Mathew Brady would make the battlefield seem so terrible. War was another form of "unreason," and Goya -- the greatest painter of the Age of Enlightenment -- spent his career attacking ignorance in politics, religion, social roles and the court.

If I had to take the collected works of one artist to a hermitage to study until I died, I'm not sure whom it would be. But if I took three, I know Goya would be one of them, and I would find something new every time I contemplated him.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Symphony Hall: Music like I've never heard it

I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time Saturday night, and my ears are still tingling.

Guest conductor Leonidas Kavakos led a program of Bartok, Haydn and Mussorgsky. He used the broadest tempos for "Pictures at An Exhibition" I've ever experienced, luxuriating especially in the massive brass chords. And though I've listened to that piece live and in recordings dozens of times, I really heard it for the first time.

Yes, having so many musicians onstage made a difference, especially when they're all first-rate. But the special difference was Symphony Hall. The program notes rate it as one of the three best halls acoustically in the world, along with the Musikverein in Vienna and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I haven't been to either, but it could be so: Every note, from low grumblings in the violins to the high whine of the oboe, came across with perfect clarity and projection. Here's a look at the hall in transition from a Boston Symphony to a Boston Pops set-up:

That's the sound you get when you build a hall specifically for an orchestra, which Boston did in 1900. As the program says, "The walls of the stage slope inward to help focus the sound. The side balconies are shallow, so as not to trap any of the sound, and though the rear balconies are deeper, sound is properly reflected from the back walls. The recesses of the coffered ceiling help distribute sound, as do the statue-filled niches along the three sides."

Contrast that with the Belk Theater, which has 500 fewer seats (2097 to 2625), is shorter front to back and has three tiers above the orchestra, not two. The overhang in the Belk is much closer to the stage, and the seats under it get diminished sound even during the best of mixes. The Belk's a fine all-purpose hall, useful for opera and dance and Broadway tours as well as symphony concerts, but it's not designed for one purpose alone.

Lest you think only the Boston Symphony can shine in Symphony Hall, check out this video of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band in the same venue:

Charlotte won't build another concert hall in my time at The Observer, maybe even my lifetime. So I'll have to fly to Amsterdam, Vienna or Boston to get a bead on the perfect sound.

P.S. Unlike the organ pipes in the Belk, which are as handsome and useless as a chiseled eunuch in a harem, the ones at Symphony Hall are actually connected to an organ console.