POINTS OF COLOR
November 7, 2015
“Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) led a dissolute, pleasure-centered youth. But in his mid-20s he began actively to embrace God and his Church. He believed God had spoken to him and opened him to new ideas. That led Francis to embrace a leper, to give up all his possessions, and to repair a church using his own hands and labor. He vowed to live by the Gospel, and soon attracted a following. Putting word to deed, he honored all–rich and poor, sick and healthy. He felt that all of God’s creations–including nature and animals–were part of God’s brotherhood, and he found joy in that realization. Eventually, Francis’ hard life took his health be he did not doubt; his fatal illness reaffirmed “his brotherhood with creation in praising God.” He lived in Umbria, in Italy, and was the founder of the Franciscan orders as well as being the patron saint of ecologists and merchants.
In the film comedy A Fish Called Wanda, Jamie Lee Curtis angrily confronts Kevin Kline, her magnificently moronic brother: “To call you stupid,” she says, “would be an insult to stupid people.” Which is an equally accurate insult to Donald Trump. Trump–as Ann Richards described former President George H.W. Bush in 1988–“can’t help that he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Trump isn’t smart enough to know that his shoot-from-the-mouth style discredits everything he is. Thus, on October 26th, he revealed that his father had lent him $1 million to get him started in business. Doesn’t every American parent help their child in this way? Trump’s blithely unaware that nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty. His megalomania has led to a form of blindness obscuring all (except what he chooses to see). Unfortunately, wealth frequently is accompanied by an increase in stupidity–as verified by Congress. Time, in 2014, described how more than 50% of Congress, or 268 members, had an average net worth exceeding $1 million. CQ Roll Call, which focuses on everything congressional, has, since 1990, published a list of the 50 wealthiest members. The top five in terms of net worth in 2015 are: Rep. Dale Issa (R-CA), $357 million; Sen. Michael McCaul (R-TX), $117 million; Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), $111 million; Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), $108 million; and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), $95 million. The current presidential candidates for both parties are quite wealthy as well, with Bernie bringing up the rear with only $700,000. To end on a comic note as we began, watch Gary Gulman skewer Trump by comparing him to Bill Gates in the video, “In This Economy.” There’s a very funny riff in which Gates mocks Trump for being so poor. To paraphrase, Gates says, “Trump, I understand why you’re so sad. I have $79 billion and you have a measly $4.5 million.”
Norwegian Edward Munch (1863-1944) is among my favorite artists. I first encountered Munch through his masterwork, “The Scream” (1893), one of the most famous paintings ever. However, Munch was far more than the creator of a single iconic work. In fact, he was quite prolific and after his death a studio inventory revealed more than 1,000 paintings, as well as thousands of drawings and prints. He donated all of this art to Norway. In 2006, I was able to appreciate the scope of Munch’s genius at a major retrospective of his work organized by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. One reason for my admiration is that I believe Munch was one of the first artists to give visual life to the anxiety created by modern life. In “The Scream,” the suffering individual could be anyone, and this anonymity increases its resonance. Other artists soon obliterated reality in cubist and surreal works, but Munch merely bent representation to his needs. That’s why I think “The Scream” remains so emblematic for so many. Many years ago I made what seemed to be a discovery about the painting. I was caretaking my elderly maiden aunt, and eventually she wound up in a nursing home very close to where I lived. On the day she died, I went to say farewell to her. I arrived only moments after her passing, and the first thing that struck me was that her mouth was shaped in precisely the manner Munch used in “The Scream.” This made me wonder whether the idea for the painting came from an encounter Munch had with death (and whether “The Scream” captures a universal post-mortem facial expression?)
In the dark ages, before the web, and Spotify, and MP3, radio was king in terms of the portable and public output of music. Muscians needed to get air play and executives were only too happy to play God and decide which bands got heard and which didn’t. Bribery and kissing ass was rampant, and Elvis Costello wrote a bittler little pill describing his anger at the system called “Radio, Radio.” In it, he sang
“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me”
Past or present it has always been tough to find decent radio, but now with its screaming commercialism, it has gotten tougher. Turn the dial and you’ll find everything you don’t want: right-wing narcissists, synthetic pop from the music industrial complex, sports junkies with OCD. A great station plays marvelous music, with an intriguing playlist that someone has actually thought about and put together. It is live and not prerecorded. It is usually non-commercial as well. Great radio surprises you and features intelligent, charismatic human beings at the microphone–people who share interesting anecdotes and observations. Turning on a particular station means you are temporarily joining a community; it’s the same distinction as going out to a movie or watching television at home. My favorite station is WFUV. The call letters represent “Fordham University’s Voice,” and the station comes out of the Bronx. The station plays both new music and songs that have stood the test of time. At the end of a long set, the DJ actually goes through the playlist so you can identify music you want to know more about. Monday through Friday, FUV broadcasts what it calls “adult album alternative music.” Music Director Rita Houston has been at FUV since the mid-90s and has won numerous awards. She turned me on to the British group, Gomez. The DJs at FUV are not students but professional jocks and music people. At the end of the year, there’s a nifty feature: “best of” lists done by the DJs, staff, and listeners. The website is rich–with a concert schedule, archives, and much more, and the station also occasionally broadcasts concerts live. This isn’t typical radio in any way. You can listen to it whenever you choose, and wherever you are, because the station streams live online at WFUV.org.
On November 2nd, CBS announced that a new television version of Star Trek would debut in January 2017. (Star Trek corporate ownership has passed through many hands since 1966, when the original series, created by Gene Roddenberry, premiered on NBC). In its lift-off season, Star Trek introduced the world to Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), his Vulcan First Officer. A major character as well was the starship Enterprise, the vessel that carries the crew around the galaxy at warp speed. However, the show wasn’t fast enough to avoid cancellation after three seasons, and for more than nine years fans had to go cold turkey given the lack of any Star Trek. In 1979, Hollywood acknowledged that the show’s fans exhibited an enduring comittment to the show, and released the first cinematic version of Star Trek; eleven additional films would follow. A second TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, ran from 1987-1994. Set in a future 100 years advanced from the previous show, Patrick Stewart, the celebrated British actor, portrayed the Captain while Brent Spiner gave life to the character of Data, an android firmly in Spock’s realm of primarily emotionless intellect and logic. In 1995, Star Trek: Voyager appeared with the revolutionary concepts of a woman (Kate Mulgrew) in command as well as a Vulcan of color (Tim Russ) providing the Spockian perspective. This version was set close to the end of the 23rd century–or hundreds of years in the future, and the starship Voyager was a sleek and fast iteration of Enterprise (70,000 light years from home). The journey back to Earth lasted until 2001, when Star Trek: Enterprise premiered; it served as a prequel to the first series–and ran until 2005. Scott Bakula served as the captain while Jolene Blalock was the Spock-like add along, albeit as a gorgeous alien babe. In this show, Enterprise was rather primitive and utilitarian, and one saw the transition from a purely scientific vessel to one heavily armed for defense against nefarious aliens. Yet another iteration, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was not set on a starship but rather upon a far-off space station, and was on from 1993-1999 and commanded by an African-American, Avery Brooks. Readers will note that from 1987 to 2005–or 18 years–there was always some version of Star Trek for viewers to watch at home (plus the periodic release of films). For the last decade, there have been no new shows, although all of the previous ones are available on broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms. But viewers yearn for a new weeky series after such a long void–as indicated by the critical and commercial success of a “reboot” of the film series featuring a young Kirk and Spock that was released in 2009. It may be that the making of a new Star Wars film, due for U.S. release in December, has refocused interest in Star Trek as well. What both of these franchises reveal is a dissatisfaction with life as it is together with a desire to exist in an alternate reality. It’s immaterial, as one writer has noted, that the two properties represent different visions of the universe. Star Trek is at home in a world dominated by science and technology; many of the artifacts depicted in the show have inspired real world innovations, such as cell phones, which were modelled on Star Trek communicators. Conversely, Star Wars is an exercise in faith, a contest between the Force and the Dark Side. When Leonard Nimoy died this year, there was world-wide mourning for Nimoy/Spock. He realized his duel status when he changed the name of his second memoir: the first was I Am Not Spock (1975), the second, I Am Spock (1995).
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