Saturday, April 30, 2005

Habemus Papam! -- Pope Benedict XVI

I knew it was going to happen, and I called it at the end of my entry for April 8. As the winner of the Papal election, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, cut a unique figure during John Paul II's funeral. As he presided at the mass for the late Pontiff, there was a feeling that it was a done deal. A week later he was elected Pope after one of the shortest conclaves in recent history.

Since his election much ink has been spilled about Ratzinger's past. Pictures of young Josef in his Hitlerjunge uniform seemed to be everywhere, and the London Times reminded everyone that "unknown to many members of the church ... Ratzinger’s past included brief membership of the Hitler Youth movement and wartime service with a German army anti- aircraft unit." The article, written a few days before his election, goes on to report that "in 1937 Ratzinger’s father retired and the family moved to Traunstein, a staunchly Catholic town in Bavaria close to the Führer’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. He joined the Hitler Youth at age 14, shortly after membership was made compulsory in 1941." Also, we learn that "two years later Ratzinger was enrolled in an anti-aircraft unit that protected a BMW factory making aircraft engines. The workforce included slaves from Dachau concentration camp."

Pope Benedict XVI should be a very busy man from now on. He needs to heal a Catholic Church (in particular the American Church) which has been wounded. He needs to overcome his past, which is tied to the history of his country, and he needs to shed the tough outer skin he developed as John Paul II's defender of the faith. He has to go from being the German rottweiler to becoming the German shepherd -- the Shepherd of the flock, that is.

The following article, written by Jane Kramer, appeared in the May 2 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Although it presents a largely negative reaction to last week's events in Vatican City, her ideas are interesting, and her writing style fresh and informative.

"Holy Orders" by Jane Kramer

Cardinals of the Church of Rome do not normally hold press conferences to spin their choices, but that is precisely what many of them did last Wednesday, less than a day after they named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and arguably the most powerful person in the Vatican, to St. Peter’s chair. They wanted the world to know that Ratzinger has a “great heart,” that he is “compassionate,” “collegial,” even “shy”—that, in fact, it was shyness and humility that had made him seem so strict and pitiless in the job of doctrinal enforcer that he held for the past quarter of a century.

In his homily to his fellow-cardinals, on the first morning of their conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger had warned that modern society was threatened by a “dictatorship of relativism.” But it might have been more accurate to say that it is threatened by a dictatorship of absolutisms, including his own. This is a world in the tightening grip of orthodoxy, of literal “truths” and crusading certainties, and early last week it was the hope of many Catholics that the Church would begin to break that grip and return to them the right to exercise their own consciences on matters that do not concern faith so much as the realities of their intimate lives: sexuality, celibacy, choice, the use of condoms in aids-ridden Africa, the use of birth control in the favelas and shantytowns of Central and South America, the acknowledgment that stem-cell research might conceivably be a gift from God.

The question of God and conscience, or, rather, the relation between God and conscience—the central question of Vatican II, and, as such, the source of immense hope to young Catholics in the nineteen-sixties and seventies—was so “deconstructed” (to risk a relativist term) in the twenty-six years of John Paul II’s papacy that raising it now constitutes a kind of doctrinal heresy. Ratzinger maintained, with his friend and predecessor, that a well-ordered conscience is one that submits to the authority of the magisterium. So it is understandable that today those Catholics are asking who exactly is, and was, Joseph Ratzinger. Was he the Pope’s man, the unbending instrument of John Paul II’s insistent orthodoxy, or was he, at least in part, the motor of that orthodoxy, especially in the Pontiff’s last years?

Most Popes of the last century—even John Paul II, for all his groundwork as a priest in Communist Poland—were elevated to that office from relative anonymity. Ratzinger does not have that advantage. He has been well known to Catholic intellectuals since the nineteen-seventies, when he battled Hans Küng, the liberal Swiss theologian and his mentor at the University of Tübingen, on questions of doctrinal dissension, and, as Archbishop of Munich, was instrumental in having Küng barred from teaching Catholic theology. And, of course, he has been very well known to most Catholics since the early eighties, when the Pope installed him at the Vatican. His agenda, or his orders, were always clear. During his first ten years as Prefect, the Jesuits were censured for challenging papal teachings on contraception, parts of their constitution were suspended, and their Vicar General, Vincent O’Keefe, a passionate advocate for social justice, was removed. The reactionary lay order Opus Dei was transformed into a “personal prelature” accountable directly to the Pope. The dioceses of progressive Latin-American bishops were gerrymandered out of existence, liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff were called to Rome and silenced as “Marxists” (they were, more accurately, Christiancommunitarian evangelists), and the priests they had trained, who were responsible for an ebullient Catholic revival in Latin America, were ordered back into the fold of tradition and obedience. The relative autonomy of the North American bishops’ conference was ended, and its most progressive members—most famously Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, of Chicago—were marginalized.

If the Vatican’s project in the eighties was to purge its clergy, its nineties project was to purge its teachings of ambiguity. The dogma of papal infallibility, which dates only from 1870, has been invoked just once since then, in 1950, when Pius XII proclaimed the “truth” of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But in the years of John Paul II’s papacy there was a conflation of the notion of infallibility and what the Church calls “definitive teachings.” The result was that John Paul II’s teachings often carried the imperative of infallibility, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s theological imprimatur on those teachings, together with his power to enforce them, effectively ended the discussion.

These issues were more important to the cardinals than the new Pope’s age or whether he was Italian, or European, or from Latin America or Africa. There are a hundred and eighty-three cardinals, but no cardinal over the age of eighty may vote, and, of the hundred and fifteen who did, all but two owed their appointments to John Paul II. It was probably never in doubt whom they would choose. Joseph Ratzinger speaks for them, and whatever he says about “waves” battering at the boat of the true faith—globalism, feminism, individualism, desire, homosexuality (“an objective disorder”), demands for the ordination of women, mysticism, “gravely deficient” sects, Turkish Muslims in Christian Europe—those words put a full stop to the opening up of the Church of Rome that we still call Vatican II. In the past few days, Benedict XVI has promised the world dialogue and reconciliation, but at the same time he has reappointed the Vatican team that, with him, brought us the spectacle of suffering and death that ended with the funeral of John Paul and secured the veneration, if not the speedy sanctification, of that faithful and controlling Pontiff. (“This is a long way from three people at the foot of the Cross,” one ex-Jesuit remarked last week, not long after Benedict XVI appeared for the first time in his papal vestments.) Most of the Cardinals wanted a continuum of that always spectacular reign. And they wanted a continued enforcement of its most conservative dicta—which may be why they are talking now about cutting their losses for the advantages of a smaller, “purer” Church. But, from what we know, the early Church was a place of risk and debate. They should remember that, too.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Tristan und Isolde at the Bastille

Finally, the awaited new Peter Sellars production of Tristan und Isolde premiered at the Bastille. The following is the New York Times review by Alan Riding.

In Pursuit of a Total Art, the Paris Opera Adds Video to 'Tristan und Isolde'


PARIS, April 13 - Huge, dense, taxing, with almost all the action taking place in the heart, Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" is notoriously difficult to stage. Indeed, the composer himself abandoned his first attempt in Vienna in the early 1860's after no fewer than 77 rehearsals. Now, in a daring experiment, the Paris National Opera has invited the American video artist Bill Viola to accompany the work with his own visual commentary.

On a 30-foot-wide screen above and behind the somberly lighted space peopled by the singers, images that recall some of Mr. Viola's well-known video pieces variously offer literal, metaphorical and even spiritual complements to one of mythology's most famous and tragic love stories. With only the preludes played to a closed curtain, Mr. Viola's multi-toned video poem runs for some 3 hours 40 minutes, a full-length spectacle in its own right.

The production, first performed in a concert version at Disney Hall in Los Angeles in December, is directed by Peter Sellars, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra.

Its seven performances at the Bastille Opera through May 4 are to be followed by seven more in November, with Valery Gergiev at the podium. It is to return in concert version to Disney Hall in March 2007 and to be staged in New York in April 2007.

Central to this production are the German mezzo Waltraud Meier as Isolde and the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner as Tristan, both given a rousing reception after Tuesday's opening night. In the view of French music critics, the Swiss mezzo Yvonne Naef as Brangäne, the Finnish baritone Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal and the German bass Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke also contributed to the high quality of singing.

But the true novelty lay in Mr. Viola's videos, which the artist said in an interview were inspired more by the text than the music. "I listened to it, various versions, for a month and I was stunned, I couldn't see anything," he said. So, no less than Wagner, he started with the myth, the story, the text. "The images tell the inner story in a similar way the music tells the inner story of the emotional and, I would say, spiritual life of these people."

As a result, Mr. Viola shot most of the images before turning back to the music. "I realized the music is not useful to me while I'm shooting," he explained. "The music becomes absolutely necessary in the editing process. So music became for me the last stage. It was then that I tried to fit the images onto this pre-existing landscape that Mr. Wagner has beautifully provided us."

As such, the images echo rather than illustrate the story, with many sequences slowed to harmonize with the protracted development of the plot. For instance, it takes most of Act I, as well as a magic potion, for Tristan and Isolde to recognize they love each other. They enjoy their love in Act II, but it ends with Tristan stabbed by a follower of Isolde's new husband, King Marke. And Act III is devoted to Tristan's extended death and Isolde's decision to join him.

Perhaps the central image used by Mr. Viola for Act I involves a split screen in which two tiny lights gradually take the form of a man and a woman, Tristan and Isolde's surrogates, who slowly strip and then are purified with water. The sequence ends with close-ups of their faces under water, as if they - like Tristan and Isolde who have drunk the love potion - have passed into a new reality. Two other figures then caress each other as they float under water.

With Tristan persuaded that the night is benevolent and the day is evil, Act II opens with an image of sunset and closes with another of dawn, but the most powerful sequences involve fire and water, two of Mr. Viola's preferred opposites. In one, a man slowly approaches a fire from a long distance and finally walks through the burning logs; in the other, a woman - again in slow motion - lights some 150 candles before herself walking through water.

Water too is at the heart of the final near-mystical scene when the now frustated love of Tristan and Isolde becomes, in Mr. Viola's words, "something more profound, something you can't even describe." Here, by reversing the high definition film he has shot, Mr. Viola uses water to lift the dead Tristan from a stone slab and raise him to eternity. "You're looking at death, and in the editing room, it becomes a kind of birth," he noted.

The question already raised by some critics in Los Angeles last December and echoed by some spectators here Tuesday is whether the powerful images distract from the singing. Views seem divided, with the criticism applied mostly to Act I. Mr. Viola recognized the problem. "The images can overwhelm," he said. "It seems like a huge amount to take in, but a lot of them are quite slow and on the screen for quite a time. They function at times as backdrops."

Unusually, Mr. Sellars began working on his production only after seeing Mr. Viola's images. "The staging is built around Bill's images and of course Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner," he said in an interview, "because the depth they bring to the first rehearsal means you're starting at an advanced level. Waltraud is the reigning Isolde of her generation. Ben is now truly without peer."

With the images in place, Mr. Sellars said, "Bill gives me permission to ground the singers in an emotional depth because I don't have to have them run around the stage and be 'interesting.' " The result is a minimalist staging, with only a square platform as décor and all the intensity reserved for the voices.

Still, with the combination of video, orchestra, singing, acting and text, Mr. Sellars likes to think the team has come up with something resembling a modern Gesamtkunstwerk, the concept of total art that was Wagner's lifelong musical and theatrical objective. "Of course," he added, "Wagner's music alone gives you more than you can possibly take in."

Monday, April 11, 2005

Sin City

The collaborative culmination between director Josef von Sternberg and superstar Marlene Dietrich ocurred in 1935 with the last film that the two made together: The Devil is a Woman. Superb cinematography was always one of the key ingredients of these elaborate, baroque fantasies made at Paramount, and some of the best studio cameramen -- Lee Garmes, Lucien Ballard, James Wong Howe, and Bert Glennon -- worked with the director in defining the sultry and unforgettable look of these B&W films. In The Devil is a Woman, von Sternberg, credited in the film with his American Society of Cinematographers (A.S.C.) title, took the directorial as well as the cinematographic credit, an aspect of his films to which he always payed the utmost attention.

Sin City, Robert Rodriguez's new film, adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novels is, technically, a worthy successor to von Sternberg's early work in Hollywood. Rodriguez takes the cinematographic as well as the editing credit, and also shares directorial credit with Mr. Miller.

When was the last time that a major motion picture was released in black and white? The last that I can remember was Jim Jarmusch's 1995 iconoclastic western Dead Man, and that was an independent film that received limited release.

Sin City is visually a unique film. That alone demands that the work be seen, and it is reason enough for me to not go at length about it; for how can you faithfully describe with words what one needs to experience with your sense of sight? Miller's noirish sleaze is brought to life in a panoramic style that captures the pulp essence of the work, but allows the medium of film to expand on it. The results are truly stunning. Go see it. Post your comments about the film here.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Pope John Paul II is Buried

Thursday, April 7 was a long day's journey into night and beyond for me. I taught the entire day, and during the afternoon showed my Film Club The Producers, a film which they enjoyed very much. Then, I watched the first act of the dress rehearsal of HMS Pinafore at school. Then, I got a call from my friend Brian inviting me to a free showing of the film Donnie Darko at the 34th street Loew's Cineplex. Awesome film, by the way, and I recommend it to everyone who likes science-fiction, horror, time travel, and movies that are carefully crafted puzzles. It ended after ten o'clock (it was the director's cut, after all), then I had dinner at the "Tick-Tock Dinner" (they make great roadside sliders there!), then went back home in a taxi, under a huge downpour -- needless to say, I did not have an umbrella. These days, it's been raining a lot in NYC. When I finally got home, I went to sleep at midnight, and got up at 5 AM to watch the Pope's funeral on TV.

I was surprised that the Pope's Requiem Mass was held outdoors, Spring weather being so unpredictable. Then again, how could they hold this mass indoors and deny the millions of people who had flocked to Vatican City at least a far-away glimpse of the events. Thousands stood shoulder to shoulder on St. Peter's Square and beyond. There were people as far back as the eye could see, and overhead threatening clouds were evident. The robes and vestments of the prelates gathered were blowing in the howling winds of St. Peter's Square. However, miraculously the rain held up, and the ceremony went off without a hitch. It was a memorable service -- moving at times. I don't believe there has ever been so much clapping and cheering at the funeral mass of a pope before -- but it never turned into an irreverent scene at all. The crowd chanted either "Santo" or "Magno" (Saint or Great) or both: a reference to the grassroots movement, that started the very day the pope died, which aims to cannonize the Pontiff and attach the term "The Great" to his name. This has not happened in centuries, and as I was watching the telecast I knew that I was witnessing history in the making.

I also could not help but wonder if I was watching the next pope at the altar. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dean of the College of Cardinals, and Cardinal from Germany sayed the Mass, and rumors are swirling that he might be the successor to John Paul II. Hopefully, in a few weeks we will know.