10 Movies: a quiz

Social media can be a lot like real life. There we are, all alone, when someone tries to get our attention demanding some sort of response. It may involve some work, or some fun: or both.

I’m recapping the way I responded to a request from a pal in Newfoundland that I met twenty years ago at a conference.  As in any friendship, how we met, what we ever did together –mostly while separated by thousands of miles—is surely immaterial. I did enjoy drinking beer with him and watching some hockey, possibly at the same time. That was back in the days when one could actually see a live hockey game, in a bar, on TV, while drinking their beer.

And then one day on social media, he said

“For day 1: I was challenged to post an image – no posters, no title, no explanation – from 10 movies that had an impact on me. Each day I will nominate new people to take the challenge. 10 days, 10 movie images, 10 nominations. No explanations. Now I ask ****** ****** to accept the challenge and play.”

I love attention and the task is a fun one. So of course I did it happily, enjoying the choices & the challenge & the social context. Of course when I took my turns & did it? Maybe I didn’t select the right people or maybe they’re already played this game enough times that they felt they had paid their dues? (this was perhaps the third or fourth time for me, playing this game… As you can probably tell I never tire of this sort of thing). Of the persons I named, most ignored the challenge.  Oh well.

So for the remainder of my cycle of 10 I stopped issuing challenges to people. I just published the last ones without challenges.

Ach du lieber, I hope that’s not cheating! The game gods may look down upon me with ire or judgment. In hopes that they forgive me, to appease their anger?

I have ANOTHER game in mind.  (Perhaps the headline tipped you off?)

Having played these games before I wanted to see if I could suggest the movie gently without being obvious. I was deliberately vague, difficult, perhaps a bit socially distanced: or maybe that’s what I thought I was doing.

But that’s the source of this quiz. I have ten images from ten films. I will offer them in order.  At the bottom I’ve got the answers. See if you can figure them out.

One even has the name of the film (right on the image).

Image #1


Image #2


Image #3


Image #4


Image #5


Image #6


Image #7


Image #8


Image #9


Image #10


As I assembled the last few I realized this was a list of my favorite films. I had an 11th & 12th that I left out because they’re so well known, which spoils the fun. But I’ll post those two here.





For me it was fun assembling this, I hope it’s fun for you looking at the images.

1 Time Bandits
2 Allegro non Troppo
3 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
4 A Midsummer Night’s Dream
5 Immortal Beloved
6 Hugo
7 North by Northwest
8 Blade Runner
9 Amarcord
10 Good Will Hunting
11 Some Like it Hot
12 Singin’ in the Rain

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Wordless chorus

This subject seems apt right now. The voices in this music have no words, which is a perfect expression for a time when we don’t know what’s to come. Of course we never do, but it’s especially noticeable when we’re locked down during a pandemic.

Most but not all of the examples I’ve come across are joyful so for the most part this is likely to make you smile rather than frown.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call it a trope because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about the topic.  Composers may write grand & complex pieces employing their skill, whereas these pieces are among the simplest you will ever encounter. That might help explain the popularity of these pieces.

You wouldn’t expect Verdi’s 1851 opera Rigoletto and the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz to have much in common. Yes they both have orchestral music as well as musical numbers sung by men and women, including choral numbers. But the similarity I wanted to highlight is their use of the wordless chorus.

We might not expect to find such a thing in Rigoletto.

But when we come to the emotional highlight of the work in the last act, where Gilda sacrifices her life to save her lover, and the storm’s winds seem to be speaking to us with the wordless voices of the chorus? The music has become something else, no longer merely oom-pah accompaniments for great singers. At the very least it is melodrama.

Notice how we have the high woodwinds to suggest lightning, the quivering lower strings to suggest thunder, and the chorus suggesting something else without words. It’s melodramatic in the best sense.

I love it. But is it so very different from the Wizard of Oz opening (1939)? You’ll hear a wordless chorus near the beginning and again roughly a minute in.

I’m inclined to think of this as something we might call symbolist rather than impressionist, invoking hidden connections, indeed suggesting something spiritual and/or metaphysical.

Let’s look at the greatest hits of wordless chorus.

Near the end of the 19th century Claude Debussy included a chorus in the third of his Nocturnes for orchestra Sirénes.  This version allows you to see the singers.

The most popular example in this list –other than Wizard of Oz—would have to be Puccini’s “Humming Chorus”, one of several moments the composer gives us to offset the desperately tragic arc of the story of Madama Butterfly (1904).

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is a ballet premiered in 1912. The performance you hear if you follow this link is especially effective because the chorus is treated like an instrument, often so subtle that you can’t tell that anyone is singing.


Holst gave “Neptune the Mystic” an especially magical chorus to finish his Planets suite (1916)

Film composer Danny Elfman might be the most prolific user of the wordless chorus, a regular feature in several of his scores. Notice how he begins Scrooged. (1988)

It has become such a regular part of Elfman’s toolkit as to almost be cliché: except he does it so well.  Maybe it’s corny but how can you resist when Elfman wears his heart on his sleeve this way in Edward Scissorhands (1990)?

He’s far subtler in Good Will Hunting (1998). Are they real voices or synth? I can’t tell.

I won’t ask “who are they” because we don’t know.  What do they mean?

Who knows, perhaps something non-specific to connote intelligence or something mysterious, something unfathomable. They’re not giving us any words, yet these can be among the most meaningful moments. How exactly, and what do such moments signify? I suppose the short answer would be to say “it depends” on the context. Perhaps the most important thing to recognize is that there is no verbal signification even as we have the presence: of voices, persons, perhaps angels.

They remind me of how much I miss live music, live performers.

Even without words.


Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Essays, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Douglas Chambers – Stonyground

I heard today that Douglas Chambers passed away this past weekend, and that the cause of his passing was COVID-19.

I sometimes make big long preambles when I’m avoiding something. I can’t deny this time that I’m avoiding several big issues, perambulating around some of the biggest issues of my life. We may have a brush with greatness, and may spend the rest of our lives decoding the impact of the encounter. Writing about Stonyground is not so much an evasion as a gentle way of sidling up to the real subject. Stonyground may be a book about a place, but it’s really a meditation on so many things, not unlike gardening itself.  Stonyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden is an account of the beautiful place Chambers made, but it’s especially a trip into his head. So while the subject of Stonyground is Stonyground (the place) it’s above all a tour of Chambers’ intriguing sensibility.

I recall suddenly that “sensibility” was for a time a word I used over and over, because I’d absorbed it from Chambers.  Do you know the word? I don’t hear it much anymore.

No I can’t presume to write about Douglas Chambers because I don’t think I knew him. I admired him and struggled at times to understand him. He had a knack for long complex sentences that remind me (as I think back on lectures I heard decades ago): …of what exactly? I guess it’s a bit of the prose style of Slavoj Zizek, where he might begin a sentence and you’d wonder OMG where is it going? as you’d watch its arcing aerobatic logic, the words threatening to crash. How is he ever going to land that thing, bring it down to the ground and somehow managing to make sense? I remember he used to often stop in his lectures after a long paragraph and say “does that make sense”? It was the humblest thing, considering that he was watching the bewilderment on our faces and never holding it against us that he might have left us behind in his flights.

His was a forbidding intellect, multi-disciplinary long before the word came into fashion, ranging over many things across different subjects & centuries. While I think he enjoyed throwing us off a bit his students were often the best and brightest. There was no shame in it, indeed it was gloriously enjoyable, including the post-mortem afterwards in the cafeteria recalling the best moments. I remember the time he turned and looked at me when I mentioned Vergil, asking me if I had read it in Latin (nope!), pretentious nerd that I am. I had no idea that I’d inadvertently spoken of one of his favorites.

I was thinking of him this past weekend. I sometimes play the piano for an older relation of mine, just as I once used to play at Casey House long ago. I can’t help pulling the two together, thinking of Douglas as a survivor of one plague, caught now in another. Let that be a natural segue to a couple of paragraphs I shall quote from Stonyground. He’s explaining himself throughout, and here in medias res he again seems to be orienting himself and us, making sure we’ve come along with him.

…Things are rarely as one remembers them. Why does learning to drive (and getting a truck) that summer now seem so commonplace when I know that the whole process was one of farce mixed with terror? “What is material to this diary?” I find myself having written that summer on the day when I discovered that I was HIV-negative. Could I have gone on with all this –would I? – if the result had been otherwise?
“This book looks like a hyper-text” said a writer friend who picked up the first few pages of the first draft. “Not hyper-text but intra-text” I said. There is no one text in its writing, any more than in the making of the garden itself, all the texts interweave with one another. Somewhere in the centre of this book is the chronology of it all, but the structure of the book as a whole is almost as obscure as the origin of the spider’s web. Many texts are here—cultural, personal, historical, botanical—all of them leaking into the discourse of one another and creating something that even I will not understand, probably, until years from now if then. (Chambers 84)

It may seem like a curious passage to quote, but the whole book is curious and profound like that, zipping back and forth between the theoretical and the practical, between the personal and the abstract. And as a kind of de facto testimony I point to the futility of the University of Toronto Library and the Library of Congress classification system, that placed his two books where?  In the Noranda Earth Sciences Library. Yes it’s ridiculously convenient to my office in the North Borden Building, but why in heaven’s name are his books about the intersection of literature & gardening placed in this library full of science books? Rather than judging I simply giggle at how handy it is for me, and yes, it seems an apt illustration of someone often misunderstood.

Chambers is the funniest sort of academic, having an enormous amount of erudition yet without real pretense about it. He introduced me to words such as “prelapsarian”, unpacking the typology of the hortus conclusus (or the enclosed garden) of 17th century poems, before also quoting “and I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky turning into butterflies above our nation” in the very same class. Remember that the song also says “and we have to get back to the garden”.

Chambers’ writing is full of references to plants and poems & sudden unexpected bursts of pure fun.

The Great Garden is the antithesis of what I call the “brown-earth school of gardening”: everything neatly set off by its little patch of safely dead earth. Certainly it is no place for gardening nannies: hair well brushed and fingernails clean. As blowsy and sluttish as its Oriental poppies and peonies, the Great Garden looks as it if had been scripted by Tennessee Williams with parts for Greta Garbo and Mae West. Its indiscipline would be the despair of the Sunday garden writers. No plantsman’s garden (though there’ a wide range of species), it bursts out like a big girl’s blouse in a lush and vulgar profusion of colour. (50)

For all the fun, there are some very useful ideas about how to make your garden beautiful. He quotes a Pope translation of Horace:

He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
Surprizes, varies, and conceals the Bounds

Sir Henry Wotton in The Elements of Architecture (1624) enlarges upon the confusion to the eye chiefly by differences in elevation, that would be one of Chambers’ influences in his planning of Stonyground.

I confess, I have been reading the book for the past few weeks, sometimes reading several chapters, sometimes musing over a single paragraph, and then thinking about it while I walk around outside in my backyard. It’s all a reverie for me, as I think about Douglas Chambers. I had asked a few fellow alumni about Chambers, without success, and then today one of the same cohort pointed to his obituary.

There’s so much more to him than just the book. Chambers was an activist in the heady days when being openly gay was a bold political statement. I regret that I didn’t spend more time just listening.

chambersStonyground –originally taken out of that library the first time I read it, now something I’ve purchased—is a belated opportunity to really hear what he has to say. There is such richness in this book that at times it reminds me of poetry or the Bible. I can imagine a concordance capturing all the references & implications.

Or one can simply read it and enjoy it. He seems to go off on a bit of an unpretentious tangent in quoting John Evelyn’s salad dressing recipe. This is the same Evelyn whose Letterbooks represent the final great project of Chambers’ academic life, completed in collaboration with David Galbraith & released in two handsome volumes in 2014. What seems to be off topic or irrelevant is surely a matter of defying conventional wisdom, especially if one understands a thing by coming only from within the logic of a single discipline. Chambers in citing Evelyn on vegetable gardens signals to us the same thing he regularly did to his students, namely that there’s always a bit more to it than what’s on the surface. Never fully awed by the usual rules of the discipline he might leave us gasping at his references & the connections he made, while refusing to put anyone on a special pedestal.

Chambers may have passed but I still have his books. And that’s a treasury.  Stonyground appeared in 1996 but is still available new or used from a couple of different online sites.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Essays, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Lepage’s Coriolanus: a video sandwich

There’s a particular magic to live theatre that you can almost glimpse in an online transmission, but it’s not really the same, not quite so magical. When I see Coriolanus get into a car onstage that seems to drive into a rainstorm, and then a forest, all while the car is actually stationary before me in the middle of the stage? That’s magic. On the desktop of my computer, I can intellectually grasp how this is really cool really amazing. But it’s not the same level of impossibility, not quite as remarkable.

Everyone may be locked down, all the theatres & concert venues may be closed for the pandemic, but the Stratford Shakespearean Festival are giving us a kind of online festival of past glories, reminding us of what we should already know: that this is one of the greatest companies in the world.

Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina work in partnership with the Stratford Festival. What you see is directed for film by Barry Avrich.  An auteur with a recognizable style offers many of the same things you’ve seen before.  If you’re fascinated by the possibilities of theatre you’ll enjoy watching Lepage play with his new toys, dancing on the cutting edge of evolving technologies: the new ways to tell stories.

Did you catch that phrase? Lepage said “We’re asking the actors to perform in a video sandwich”.

I’m reminded of his work on the Wagner Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. I heard criticism that Lepage seemed to place the singers in a narrow space in front of the big expensive machine that was simultaneously a set and a projection surface. Of course if you go to the show with stipulations you’ll likely be frustrated and angry.

I loved it because I’d never seen anything like it.


The descent to Nibelheim from Das Rheingold (Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera), one of several moments when you couldn’t tell whether it was a person or a puppet-double.

Coriolanus is the next generation after his Ring machinery, using infrared to ensure that the projections and light are harmonized rather than fighting one another (ie when light washes out the projection, as we sometimes saw in the Ring operas).

Lepage also builds upon something marvelous that we saw in 887. You may recall that at one point in his one-man meditation upon his past, we get a series of miniatures replicating the moment when France’s President Charles de Gaulle stirred up all kinds of turmoil by saying “Vive le Québec Libre” to an eager francophone audience. We see Lepage moving the tiny car while a camera in the car captures the bystanders as though they were real (just like the picture below).  It’s crazy & profound, that we’re watching this man reminisce about one of the most problematic moments of his childhood while seeming to play with a toy.


This time he’s messing with us in our perceptions of war & heroism. Coriolanus’ son plays with toys onstage, even as a camera projects an enlarged version of them in behind. Later we’ll see someone playing with war toys, while we hear battle sounds. We may well wonder: is war a game played with toys or something real? Are men just boys playing with their toys?

Whatever else you might say about Lepage, he is a wonderful director. The relationships in the Shakespeare have never been clearer for me, offered with intriguing overtones but never cluttered. So yes we may notice that Aufidius may seem to adore Coriolanus a bit too much. They wrestle and embrace, a moment verging on the homoerotic, a moment fully justifiable from the adoration we see & hear expressed in the text. André Sills is a wildly passionate Coriolanus, totally vulnerable when we first meet him, more & more furious as the play goes on. Graham Abbey is Tullus Aufidius, his greatest enemy & yet his eventual ally, and finally, the one who betrays him.  Lucy Peacock as Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia is the only one who matches his passion.

You may not realize how good this play is, until you see this production. That’s perhaps the best argument for what Lepage & his team accomplish, that they’re advocates for Shakespeare, clarifying & emphasizing the key moments of the play. There are many touches of laughter & levity as you’d expect. We’re in a world that’s a fascinating mix of modern & classical, 21st century and ancient. The class relationships, the politics, the personalities, all cohere perfectly.

Coriolanus is available online until May 21st. I’ll watch it again, I suggest you should check it out if at all possible.


Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Disappointing Planet of the Humans

I’m giggling as I begin writing this, because I know that for some people, credentials are everything. If I dare speak about an enviro-documentary where do I stand, where am I coming from? This is such a partisan world that one must declare one’s allegiance.

What team am I on?!!

So let me offer a few thoughts to let you know my beliefs & what I really want to see in any film about our Anthropogenic climate crisis. That’s the first one actually: that yes I believe humans cause climate change.  That word “anthropogenic” means that humans are the source.


I try to be positive, but for a moment I must be negative in laying out my fears about the climate crisis.  I am fearful, rarely talking to my friends about this because my expectation is far darker than what I see in any projections for the future. I have nightmares not unlike what you see in JG Ballard’s sci-fi novel The Wind from Nowhere.  Wow I need to re-read this book, come to think of it!!! Will the Earth end up with winds like those on Jupiter? perhaps not this year… but we now have category five hurricanes, will there be a category six? or seven? Or Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle. Climate change is an ideal opportunity for the most extreme elements of our society to pursue evil ends. A white supremacist who hates persons of colour might relish the predicament of impoverished masses in Asia facing rising sea levels and powerful monsoons. Is it any wonder that a certain billionaire – POTUS known for his xenophobia might opt the USA out of any attempts to rein in greenhouse gases, might actually embrace climate change as his genie in the bottle that he wants to set free for evil ends?

So I hope it’s clear, I am wishing that humanity could stop the changes that seem to be bearing down upon us inevitably.

That’s the context for my response to Jeff Gibbs Planet of the Humans, a film that bears Michael Moore’s name, a film that’s now available for free online: even if I don’t believe it’s really his film.

I make the distinction because

  • Michael Moore is a fine film-maker & writer
  • Michael Moore is someone I admire
  • Planet of the Humans is a shoddy piece of work, unworthy of MM

Full disclosure: I stopped watching it after 40 minutes. I wasn’t depressed, I was just unimpressed. The film is sloppy and amateurish. Nicely executed segues & a good soundtrack can’t compensate for weak logic in the argument of the film. It’s true that I only saw a fraction of the film, but it was enough.

It’s one thing when you’re interviewing GM management while asking tough questions about the behaviour of GM, a big monolith. It’s something else entirely to scatter questions at a bunch of people with no relationship to one another but have somewhat similar positions on climate change strategies: as though this group are somehow a monolith.  Please note, they are no such thing, not even close. Even if there were a cult of climate change believers with a bible that they follow, this would be a bad strategy. But there’s no such cult.

For me the worst thing in this film is the half-assed way that they enquire about clean energy. Unfortunately the word “clean” means at least two different things:
1) Clean meaning “Not as dirty”, meaning less air pollution
2) Clean meaning “Not as likely to cause global warming through CO2 emissions”

In Ontario we stopped using coal to generate electricity. Instead we’re mostly using a combination of nuclear & natural gas. I haven’t watched the whole film, but so far they’ve made no mention of nuclear, which is an option some jurisdictions in Europe have embraced, just like the one where I live.  So a big chunk is already missing.

It’s true that natural gas is still a fossil fuel so of course the purists will roll their eyes. But the removal of coal from the equation has meant fewer days when we have bad air in Toronto. It’s so much better since our former premier Wynne removed the last coal plant, that I don’t even remember what we call a bad pollution day. Is it a pollution advisory? Or something like that.   Our air is cleaner!   There’s less nasty content to give sensitive lungs reason to hide indoors.

So that’s one tiny improvement, in a world that is still unsafe for birds or bees or fish, where they’re cutting down too many trees and the water has funny chemical residues, even before we start adding things like fluoride.

But here’s the thing. The interviews in this film did not make it clear which objective they meant between #1 & #2, when making sweeping statements about the success in certain jurisdictions, concerning clean energy.

Yes it’s true that there are all kinds of limitations with solar & wind. And when interviewed almost everyone admitted that. Nobody except a very naïve few thought solar or wind could completely replace coal.

One can see text on a website promoting this film that says things such as “This eco-documentary takes a harsh look at how the environmental movement has lost the battle through well-meaning but disastrous choices”.


But it’s not a good film. We see musicians at an environmental gathering, and it starts to rain, and so they plug into the grid eventually. What is the point, to show that the idealists are actually liars or hypocrites? I’m sorry that’s cheap. Did they take an oath as environmentalists never to accept electricity from the grid? What a cheap shot this is, one of several…

And so, no: I didn’t watch the rest of the film. You can find it online for free if you like. But I won’t post its trailer.

I’ve already given it more than enough free publicity.

Posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

In the mail

I just received a mail package containing a recording from an artist.

It was mailed April 7th, with a covering letter inside dated April 6th. It was coming from a city that is about an hour away on the QEW, yet it took three weeks to get here.


I expect that there are other packages still on their way, still taking their time getting through the mail, given that I was promised other deliveries that have yet to materialize.

A Canada Post rep said the following in an email I read last week:

Canada Post is working hard to respond to a significant increase in parcel volumes, putting the safety of our people, and our customers, first. Significant increases in parcel volumes, combined with important safety measures like physical distancing in our plants, means it is taking longer to process than usual.

I am not posting this to complain. Nope.

But we do live in interesting times. Mail has become a life-line of sorts. Parcels may contain essentials such as personal protective equipment. Or they contain online purchases for a population suddenly requiring diversion. I’m sure Amazon is doing very well right now, when so many businesses have been forced to close down due to the pandemic.

It’s a reminder, though. What’s good news for one person may be bad news for someone else.  And the times they are a-changing.

Canada Post press releases.

Posted in Popular music & culture, Press Releases and Announcements | Tagged | 2 Comments

Saturday not quite Live

SNL in the era of quarantine? It’s impossible in the usual way:

  • The eager audience in Studio 8H of the Comcast Building (the one many of us know as the “RCA Building”)
  • The cold opening
  • The monologue
  • The musical guests singing or playing live before that eager audience
  • Fake News (currently presented as “Weekend Update” or some other imitation of a newscast)
  • Comedy sketches, impersonations

Two weeks ago they tried it in a scaled-down social-distanced way. It was just as bad as that sounds, pretty deadly. There were some flashes of wit but it was almost entirely deadpan without any sort of audience. I suppose they were also mindful that comedy is perhaps a problem in a pandemic, and so there was at times a solemnity & self-consciousness to what they were doing.   And so no wonder that it felt very lonely & cold watching the usual members of the SNL cast trying to be funny, seeming at times unable to figure out what they were doing. The one little bright-spot was Weekend Update, when Colin Jost & Michael Che did a bit of back-and-forth banter, briefly breaking the frigid isolation.

The world of comedy is not known for being especially kind. A century ago if you were boring you’d get the hook, literally. Hecklers are never friendly.

NBC faces a particular pressure with SNL from the biggest heckler in the country, not known to be a fan.


Lorne Michaels & his team took a very smart but safe path last night in the second attempt at a work from home (WFH) SNL. I can picture them sitting & thinking:

  • “what do we best”?
  • “what do they want to see”?

Brad Pitt doing a cold opening as Dr. Anthony Fauci was a good start. It wasn’t hugely funny, but it doesn’t have to be, not when the main purpose of the opening is to get us watching, to get us hooked.

Where we were falling asleep in my house last time, this time? we watched the whole thing and it was funny.

I wonder if this is a clue to how to approach the pandemic, as a creative, as a vendor. Maybe instead of trying to do something bold & new, we need to stick to what has worked in the past, something safe & recognizable rather than something alien. That’s especially important for NBC and their SNL brand, which has had seasons of mediocrity along the way, but keeps rolling along with new talent, reinventing the product along the way.  It’s a very conservative strategy.

In the short term? This is no time to be radical or bold as you seek to keep the attention & loyalty of your audience. That’s likely true for any product you’re selling. In this period of disorientation it’s really good to recognize what we’re seeing, to be presented with something familiar.

So we saw a version of Kenan Thompson hosting his show “What’s up with That?” featuring, what else, Kenan Thompson bursting into the infectious song “what’s up with that”?

He interrupted his own interview with Charles Barkley (who was talking about the new documentary about Michael Jordan & the NBA). Irritation & illogic trumps clarity. Bill Hader was there impersonating Lindsey Buckingham, who is always waiting to be interviewed, for many years now.

And last night was no exception.

When the song begins we get backup dancers, this time a pair from the current cast, and funny animals dancing. While they were superimposed digitally, the point is our screens had multiple persons dancing, including – I think—Jason Sidekas doing his total nerd dance.

[the video has been removed…I gotta ask what’s up with that?]

But you get the idea right? This is still a WFH version but animated & alive rather than cold & distant.

So we saw Pete Davidsen singing a song with Adam Sandler jumping into the middle

We saw Thompson reprise his impersonation of Big Papi David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox in fractured English with a heavy Dominican accent.

For the WFH version of Big Papi he’s teaching us how to cook. There are seven meats, and to make it you will need a “big ass pot”.

One of the great things they can do right now is hidden in plain sight. Doing live performance is hard, right? Doing something on tape you can make it perfect.

And so we were treated to Miley Cyrus singing “Wish you were here”, an apt song of loneliness, in what might be the best musical performance I’ve seen on this show in a very long time.

Are there lessons to be learned? If you’re a business stick to what the customer knows, what we can recognize.  Be positive, be happy, and avoid alien and new for the sake of being new.

The fact that Adam Sandler is trending on Twitter this morning is a good sign.

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Gone With The Pandemic

Last night we watched the first half of Gone With the Wind. The film began at 10:00 pm taking us up to the intermission around 11:30 pm.   Whatever misgivings I have about the story it remains an amazing achievement.

What must this have been like to encounter this film on a big screen back in 1939, as the world was beginning another world war?

I had the deepest sleep rich with dreams. Perhaps it’s the luxury of knowing I’ve got a couple of days off (I have been working, sometimes in the office, mostly teleworking), knowing we aren’t facing a civil war, that we have a place to ride this out. Watching someone else’s troubles for awhile is a distraction from what’s happening in our world. For a little while we forgot all about the present.

This morning we put on the second part of the film. The focus shifts from war to romance & disappointment.

The funniest thing happened, recollecting what we saw last night and especially watching the conclusion today. I suspect this works best with the films & plays & operas that we know so well that we can recite every line.

There are people screaming & running afraid of disaster. We cling to one another, glad we have a place to hide.

There’s a man screaming about getting his leg cut off without anesthetic. But we remember we have hospitals and anesthetics.

There’s a family starving, barely able to survive. We appreciate coffee & breakfast.

There’s miscommunication through misguided ego, failing to tell someone you love them. We won’t miss our chances to appreciate one another.

Everyone is different of course, each with our own perspective. But the current pandemic is a new lens through which we can view everything we think we know. You notice new things or see the old in new ways. It’s a wonderful opportunity to appreciate, to be grateful, to find strength & resilience.  I am especially in awe of films from long ago that can still illuminate our experience decades later.

The film or play or opera that you thought of one way can become brand new, seen in a new light & a different framework.  Everything is new when your assumptions change.

I suggest you pull out movies or operas you’ve seen before, and watch them through the lens of your current predicament, whatever it may be.

Tomorrow is another day.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture, Psychology and perception | Tagged | Leave a comment

Time to Lift Up Your Heads

Come along with me as I muse about one of my favorite pieces of music, on a day when it seems especially apt.

There are good years when we’re rolling along enjoying springtime pleasures. And there are years when it’s much more difficult, when we wonder if winter will ever end. Never mind the weather, there’s the inner experience of the spirit, our struggles in the world.

I’m looking at one of the choruses in Handel’s Messiah that comes at an interesting point in the Passion narrative, especially resonant in this difficult year. It comes as the story begins to turn from horror & pain towards something gradually more positive & redemptive.

I thought of the piece as I was outside walking my dog. Whether we’re in church or isolating ourselves at home our feelings don’t stop. Our needs are still there.

The name of the chorus is “Lift up your heads”, which is literally a good idea. Okay, so don’t hang your head. That’s a good thought no matter what you face. If you’ve got stage-fright, if you’re meeting customers or your boss, smile and behave as though you have something to offer: even if you are having doubts.

Handel took a small part of Psalm 24 and placed it into his Passion narrative at a moment when we need something positive.

Here’s the Psalm.

The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
2 For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.
3 Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
7 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.

Handel only uses a tiny part of the Psalm, and his text reads entirely different in its new context. Let’s look a bit more closely at what he did.

We begin Part Two of Messiah  with “Behold the Lamb of God” and the Alto solo “He was Despised”. The choruses then pound upon us, one after another.

  • Surely he hath borne our griefs
  • And with his stripes we are healed
  • All we like sheep (a bit of comic relief)
  • He trusted in God (with the relentless admonitions “let him deliver him”)

A pair of airs relieve some of the intensity of the drama, as we pause to look around, to notice and to contemplate what has happened so far. First we have the abject sadness of “Behold and see if there be any sorrow”. Behold. Look. Notice how sad the story is. Then there is the more positive “But thou dids’t not leave his soul in hell, ” the smallest consolation in fact.

And then the next number is something entirely different.

Taken as a separate piece, it’s a beautiful composition. As a number within the dramatic arc of the Messiah it’s especially moving. “Lift up your heads” is my favorite in the whole oratorio, both as an inspired creation from Handel & for how it makes me feel. Alas when Ivars Taurins chose which numbers to include in the Tafelmusik singalong, this one was omitted, likely because it’s not easy to sing. I’m grateful that at least I’ve had a chance to hear it & especially the chance to sing it as part of a choir.

So Handel grabs the last part of the Psalm for his libretto. We’ll consider what music he put to it in a moment…

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, The Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

In the Psalm what exactly is the psalmist doing, personifying the gates? Do gates have heads, are they alive in any sense? In a conventional / literal reading of the Psalm we might think of the gates only in their function as the entry to the Holy City, where the procession of the tabernacle might be brought and welcomed. But the Holy City is a metaphor for so much more (indeed, in the Psalms as well). The gates are to our own hearts, to our spirit, opening to the King of Glory. We are the gates and so it makes poetic & spiritual sense for us to lift up our heads. Notice too it’s not a single head, not a single gate, but a plural, a collective response.

And notice too that we aren’t told to open the doors. That it’s presented as a fact that The King of Glory shall come in makes it clear that this isn’t so much an act that we make happen. We prepare ourselves, we lift our heads, and the King comes to us.

Handel then creates a dramatic chorus that turns this little text into a dialogue. The psalmist may have been thinking of something more Socratic, more like an internal question & answer between aspects of our selves. But Handel dramatizes it, splitting the chorus. As with the Christmas Eve angels, the high voices are angelic and the lower voices more human, whether as the Christmas Eve shepherds (in Part One) or in this case, the male voices who are asking the questions. It’s a physical drama we can see enacted before us when one section questions the other, and then offers encouragement to them.

It’s one of the cleanest bits of writing for the first few pages, as though Handel were determined that we would hear the text and not have it occluded by dense textures in the orchestra.

Notice too at the most literal level we’re watching something on the page.

  • “Lift up your heads” is a melodic figure that descends, coming from above, and confident in its affirmation
  • The questioning figures of “who is this King of Glory” ascends upwards, unsure.

The back and forth is an occasion to build enthusiasm, certainty, resolve. Eventually with the final statements of “He is the King of Glory” we’re hearing a unified celebratory affirmation, no longer questioning but certain.

It seems especially apt for this Sunday. Today is Palm Sunday, when we think of a procession and the gates of the city being open. It is also Passion Sunday, as Holy Week is here, whether or not one goes to church.

Whatever you believe or doubt, I think we need all the help we can get.

Posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talking to Stacey about fearing fear: Choose Joy

When you have a toothache you go to the dentist. When you’re feeling troubled in spirit where do you go? At times in my life I’ve gone to a psychotherapist or to a church for solace. Live theatre & concerts are usually a balm: but they’re currently unavailable.

I just had another session with Stacey Agouros, psychic/spiritual guide. We had an intense interview about 20 months ago when I asked her about her past, how she discovered her gift, questions that led me to a better grasp of what she is doing and (by implication) gave me more clarity about my own beliefs. If you didn’t see the 2018 interview (one of the longest ones I’ve ever done, of which I’m very proud), let me quickly review. Stacey hears from energies or angels, that she calls “guides” who are from another realm.

Today’s chat began with a bit about me & my fears but broadened to questions about the world at large and the implications of the current pandemic. This is so much bigger than just any of us.

Stacey tells me that her guides encouraged her to post something, but she hasn’t so far, at least not until this conversation: it’s because she doesn’t want to spread fear, but more an understanding of what’s really going on, and the multiple lessons we’re learning personally, economically, and globally. I’m hoping this interview can help.

The reason the headline speaks of fearing fear (phrasing you likely recognize) is because the guides are saying so. A human immune system is weaker when we’re stressed or afraid or tired. If you’re losing sleep to your worries about the pandemic, you’re becoming less resilient. Fear hurts your immunity.

No this isn’t new.

In the Old Testament we read in Deuteronomy 31:8

“He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

The 23rd Psalm says

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

More recently Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Official Gubernatorial portrait of New York Governor (and U.S. President) Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And there is a scientific basis for such beliefs. If you know anyone who has cancer, there’s a therapeutic approach using positive mental imaging, since the first books appeared in the 1980s, such as Simonton’s Getting Well Again. They show that your moods impact your health. Positive images & attitudes are indispensable to healing and your body’s defense mechanisms.

If you believe you can get well, you will surely do better than if you surrender to cancer & act as though you have no chance of recovery.

By the same token, this is no time to be fatalistic or negative.
The guides want us to understand that people can perpetuate negative behaviour, that it’s important not to be afraid, rather to take accountability for ourselves and our loved ones so that, “fear” doesn’t spread like the virus… When we feed into fear, worries, sadness, we become less resistant and it weakens the immune system.

Stacey said that her guides tell her that last year at this time, we as a population were radiating light to each other and ourselves at 80 percent. We were all encouraged because spring was around the corner. Some of us were looking forward to Easter and Summer coming, most of us were working, spending time with our families, traveling. This year? that energy is only being generated at 49% because we’ve become so fearful about what tomorrow will bring. As we hear of people falling ill of this pandemic, being laid off, worry about not being able to meet monthly payments…we may be in states of emergency, which is causing more people than usual to live in fear.

We need light, anything that promotes the positive vibes of others around you. Intention is the most important part, so whether you’ve spent two hours meditating or one minute, the guides consider that the same as far as what it contributes to the light in the world.

The guides have asked her to keep her circle of light open. The reason the guides have asked her at times to keep a circle of light open, is so that beautiful energy can be distributed around our neighborhoods, City, Province, Country and the World. A lot of people who are healers, readers, educators, nurses, doctors: anyone who believes in living their true selves and the best in people contribute to this light automatically. As funny as it sounds this energy of happiness, love, kindness, humour, humility gets contributed to those that live in fear, and worry. And what’s unhelpful right now is something oriented around blame and negativity, as this lowers the vibrations.

Stacey said that the pandemic is a signal, encouraging us to slow down, to accept that we can’t do as much as usual. We shouldn’t fight it, but instead take this as a blessing, an opportunity to be in the moment. This pandemic is ten times deeper than anyone can comprehend.

She goes on to say, “the light is less than the darkness right now.. As a collective we can change that. I want people to understand that we all can make a difference, so that we can get back to living.”

Stay as present as possible.

Continue to do what gives you joy.

Kindness is an option that will always help.

Be conscious of actions that are ego-driven and fear-driven. That’s not the way to go, if it’s at all possible to be mindful, to be aware of your choices.

Gratitude is a useful mode, because we are in the light when we say thanks, and because it models good behaviour, teaching and giving a good example.

Pay attention to what you can and can’t control, and don’t stress about the things beyond your control.

And as much as possible stay home, avoid the possibility of infection.

I’m reminded of Beethoven who (with the help of Schiller) reminds us to pick up our spirits.

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!   Oh friends, not these sounds!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere But let it be cheerful songs
anstimmen und freudenvollere! And full of joy

Notice that the way it’s expressed: you have a choice. We may not always notice that we have a choice, but if we slow down, if we breathe and don’t get carried away, one usually can see that there’s a choice. Do not take the scary fearful path of conflict. Choose the joyful one instead.



Anastasia –Stacey—Agouros, who I know simply as “Stacey” is a “Motivational Counselor, Clairvoyant Psychic Reader, Intuitive Life Coach”. You can find her through her website https://www.staceyagouros.com and on Facebook.

Posted in Essays, Food & Nutrition, Interviews, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments