Slang for the Sophisticate: Macbeth

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A bit verbose, perhaps, but “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” never sounded cooler.

I don’t believe it’s any secret that English as a whole has gone a bit downhill in the past century or so. As we descend into the cavernous Language Trench, monstrosities such as “yolo” and “on fleek” begin to be heard constantly and are even seen in professional writing. It’s almost enough to cause physical pain. I am not condemning slang by any means. I readily confess to using such terms such as “noob”, “legit” and “pwned” when the occasion calls for it. And as a child of two Californians, I have addressed practically everyone I know as “dude” at some point.

However, among these terms there is still room for the occasional classy one-liner to really make one’s statements pop. On Slang for the Sophisticate, you will learn expressive and amusing phrases from classic books, plays, poems and films that can be injected into any conversation. This segment is all about making speech classier and cooler at the same time.

As Shakespeare contributed so much to his own era’s slang, I thought we’d take a line from him first. Let’s start with a line from one of my aforementioned favorite works, Macbeth.

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Macbeth, your party’s lit, bro. But you like, killed me, man. Not cool. 

LADY MACBETH: …Are you a man?

MACBETH: Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the devil.

There’s bad, and then there’s ‘appall the devil’ bad. This line, used by Macbeth to describe the haunting, bloody vision of the man he has just had murdered, perfectly expresses a breathtaking horror which adjectives such as ‘ugly’ or ‘nasty’ simply leave lacking. Thrown into casual conversation, the line is sure to get amused laughs of just the right kind from Shakespeare Nerds and Shakespeare Noobs alike. Ugly shirt you found at the store? It would have appalled the devil. Grandma painted her bathroom in mustard yellow? That color would appall the devil, dude. Bonus points are awarded if you can manage to work in that you’re bold for looking upon the object in question.

There seems to be a surprisingly slim range of phrases to properly express horror and disgust in modern speech. You can say something is “horrible” or “terrible” and that is about where the average vocabulary seems to reach its limit. With this line from the classic tragedy, however, our troubles are over.

Examples:

I’ve seen the new modern sculpture they put up in the park, and I’m telling you, that brass atrocity would appall the devil.

I let my niece do my makeup for fun, and by the time she was finished, my face would have appalled the devil.

You saw my ex? Well, you’re a bold one, to look on that which might appall the devil.

Can you think of a recent conversation where this line might have been useful?

2017: The Renaissance Man Challenge

blog-picsThe New Year is almost upon us. Many (including myself) are going to start diets or go the gym as a resolution. That’s great, of course. Always good to be fit. But what about getting the Brain to hit the gym too?  Well, I have spent some time putting together a list of semi-resolutions for 2017. I call it the Renaissance Man Challenge.

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Hildegard von Bingen and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous polymaths in history

Also known as a polymath, a Renaissance Man is a person who excels in the study and appreciation of many different subjects. They have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. For example, Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German nun. She was well educated in and pioneered music, philosophy, writing, medicine and several sciences. There is also Leonardo da Vinci, who is famous for his work in subjects such as art, science, invention, astronomy, architecture and many others. Seriously, many others. Of course, we can’t all be Hildegards and Leonardos. But then again, why not? We may not be able to pioneer subjects, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn them and love them.

So, just for fun, I have composed a list of twenty five activities specifically designed to either find or develop new interests in diverse subjects. Some are quick and easy. Some will last a few months. Some take all year. I suggest picking at least three. Time to become a polymath!

Renaissance Man Challenge 2017

1.) Read one classic novel longer than 500 pages or three shorter classics. The only rule? Make sure they are all books you have never read before! Some great authors of long books are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas and Tolstoy.

2.) Become familiar with one of the main historical eras of music. For Western music, those are the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. With YouTube and the rest of the internet, it is easy to listen and learn about these eras!

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Japanese art is very beautiful and interesting to study

3.) Become familiar with the works and artists of one art period from any part of the world. You can choose a Western movement like Rococo or Renaissance or an Eastern movement, like the Tang Dynasty or Heian Period. There are so many books, websites and documentaries out there waiting for you.

4.) Take up a handcraft, such as knitting, wood-burning, sculpting, leather-work or jewelry making. There is nothing like being able to make something with your own hands. And if you work hard enough at it, you can even end up selling your work and making a few extra dollars!

5.) Read a book in a new language. Any difficulty or length, as long as you learn enough of the language to understand it.

6.) Read a book of the folk takes or mythology of a different culture. Preferably of another continent, so that you get to learn about a history and culture that is different than your own. Practically every culture has unique stories you can read. Some suggestions: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American, Celtic, or Norse.

7.) Write a short story, at least 20-30k words. Write it about something you dreamed or always wanted to do. Write characters based on your friends, family or coworkers. Tip: You can kill off the characters based on people who drive you crazy!

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La bohème is an excellent place to start in the world of opera

8.) Watch five operas and/or ballets. Get in touch with the entertainments of history!

9.) Write an essay about the images, themes or characters of one of your favorite movies. This is a really cool exercise, as it helps you to understand exactly what it is you love in a story.

10.) Pick one Shakespeare play and hyper focus on it. Read the play, analyze the themes, characters and messages. Watch every filmed version of it you can find and discover in what ways you like the interpretations and what ways you don’t. It’s much better to do this with a tragedy than a comedy, and preferably one of his Big Four: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello. These plays are exceptionally rich and you can practically feel your brain expanding as you study them.

11.) Learn about something new using only books, no internet. A period of History is especially good for this entry.

12.) Try a different country’s cuisine for one week. The more different from your usual, the better!

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Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet is very elegant and is surprisingly easy to learn

13.) Learn to write one calligraphic script. Or learn to write with a new alphabet like Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese or even Elvish!

14.) Read an epic poem or a ballad. Ballads and epics can be some of the most exciting and moving forms of literature. A few of my favorites are the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

15.) Watch at least one historical or scientific documentary every month.

16.) Read three Greek Dramas, tragic or comedic. They are some of the finest and oldest dramas that the world possesses, and are really worth a read.

17.) Learn about the history of the city or town in which you live. Sometimes it’s more interesting than you think it is!

18.) Once a month, try making a food that you have never had before. If you have to go to a special store for the ingredients, that’s a good sign! And maybe invite friends over to try it with you. If you can get them in on it, you can have a multi-cultural potluck!

19.) Learn to read Music. This is an incredible thing to do. When you can read music, it’s like knowing another language.

20.) Read or watch three things geared towards a demographic to which you do not belong. For instance, read a Jane Austen novel if you’re a dude. Watch an old John Wayne Western if you’re a girly girl. Read a children’s’ book series. And always look for the artistic value. You might find you have interests you never thought you had!

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La donna è mobile is a fun and catchy aria to sing with

21.) Teach yourself to sing a classical aria or an art song. Switch up your commute sing-a-longs from Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift to Verdi and Mozart. And YouTube has orchestral backing tracks for countless operatic hits, so Classy Karaoke is possible!

22.) Memorize a poem at least a page long. It can be a whole poem, or part of one. Just push your memory to the maximum!

23.) Pick a science that interests you. Animal, astronomy, anatomy, physics, anything. Study it. Don’t just read about it a little. Dive into it, teaching yourself as best as you can. Be that cool person who knows those random facts!

24.) Find a type of math you were always really bad at and learn it all over again. Go, see, and conquer! Make Geometry and Calculus fear your name!

25.) Study the architecture of certain era or culture, historical or modern. It’s astounding how much artistry can be put into buildings.

You’ll have to forgive me that a lot of these are pretty Western-centric. I know unfortunately little about Eastern Culture. But that’s one of the things I’m planning to change this year! I’m picking Numbers 6 and 13 on my list, and reading about Japanese folklore and how to write some Japanese calligraphy. I’m also planning on 18! I want to try some of the tasty dishes that the world has to offer. And I’ve been meaning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I’ll be doing Number 1 as well.

Any other Hildegards and Leonardos out there to give this a try?

Music Magic: Concerning Hobbits

fantasy__038816_Life without music is like a book with no adjectives. Sure, all the basics are still there, but what of the beauty? The passion? The meaning? In my Music Magic serial, I’ll be talking about all the little bits of music in operas, films and other works and how they make a big difference. There will be lots of leitmotif here. The first piece I’ll be talking about is from The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Concerning Hobbits. Please, listen as you read!

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Howard Shore

Even from the most unbiased standpoint I can muster, Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings is a truly epic masterpiece. One of the greatest film scores in history and even a work of art in orchestral music as a whole. What is it, though, that makes this score so great? Well, one thing surely was Mr. Shore’s attention to the details of the story. I don’t know how carefully he read the books, but he clearly did. For many of the themes in the books which were not prominently featured in the films themselves are heard within the music. You see this particularly in the pieces he chose to represent the main protagonists of the films, the Hobbits.

The piece in question today is Concerning Hobbits, which contains the Shire Theme: one of the most important leitmotifs in the film (you can read what a leitmotif is in this previous article of mine). It’s the bit you hear from 0:05 to 0:27. This tune and its variations are heard throughout the films, and so skilfully did Howard Shore weave it into our minds from its first sounding that it’s impossible to hear it and not think of the Hobbits and their homeland.

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Tolkien’s very own illustration of Bag End

One of the literary themes which features heavily in most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is that of Wholesome Rusticity or, Connection to Nature. This theme is seen particularly in the peoples of the Shire and Rohan, where the cultures are unsophisticated and yet not uncivilized. They use no machines or other industrial tools. The Rohirrim do not even have an alphabet. The Hobbits are nearly catastrophically unaware of world events. And yet, there is something noble and idyllic in their provincial cultures. Having grown up at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time where the black smokes and fumes of factories were choking the once beautiful English countrysides, the themes of Rusticity and Return to Nature were very important to Tolkien. Howard Shore paid close attention to what tunes and sounds were associated with what people in the trilogy, and I believe he understood Tolkien’s vision of the Shire very well and kept it before his mind’s eye when he composed Concerning Hobbits.

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Surely, a Hobbit dance if ever I saw one.

There is something about this music which cannot help but bring to mind the countryside and ‘good old times’, if you will. Even if you had no idea what the piece was from or about, you would probably imagine something like a country market, a farm or a picnic. But why? Listen carefully to the instruments, for they all have something in common. A tin whistle. A fiddle and violins. A drum. A guitar… They are all folk instruments. In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says “[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” When he wrote this music, surely Howard Shore had this line in mind. No trumpets, no fancy oboes and clarinets. Not for the Shire. Here are sounds you might find playing in a country pub (The Green Dragon, perhaps?). They are simple instruments for simple living. Country life and people are so well painted with this piece that, even if we didn’t hear the description given by Bilbo and didn’t see the hobbits on the screen, somehow, we would know who they were and what they were like.

Not content with it merely being skillfully composed, however, Howard Shore made sure it was skillfully placed as well. While in the Shire, the music is charming and quaint. It is cozy and makes you think of only the best and simplest things the world. Warm fires, green hills, fresh baked bread, flowers, and good friends. All the things that we might take for granted.

But when we are no longer in the Shire, the music fills the heart with melancholy, almost nostalgia. With only a twenty second tune on a tiny flute, we the audience become homesick for a place where we have never been. Memory of life’s simple joys flood the mind, and the heart glows with the the strength and courage to continue. And as Frodo and Sam trek onward in the final frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s easy to forget that it is the Hobbits who are making the journey, not you!

 

Music, folks. It’s magic. I’m telling you.

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Sam, I’m glad you’re with me. *sound of sobbing to tin whistle*

 

Opera Highlight: Madama Butterfly

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Commemorative statue of Cio-Cio-san and her son in Nagasaki, Japan

One of my all time favorite operas and possibly the most heartbreaking thing one could ever either read, watch or listen to is Giacomo Puccini’s great masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. It is what could be called a ‘drawing room’ opera. There is no action or adventure. Everything, from the wedding to Butterfly’s death, takes place in and around a beautiful Japanese house on a hill. And yet, nowhere does the opera want for interest.

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The Pledge (誓), by Hirezaki Eiho

The story begins with an American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, who has been stationed in Nagasaki for a time. While handsome and charming, he is a scoundrel, and has arranged for a temporary marriage to take place to ‘keep him entertained’ until he ships out again. This marriage is to a delicate and gentle Japanese girl, aptly named Cio-Cio, meaning ‘Butterfly’. Unaware of Pinkerton’s true intentions, she believes he genuinely cares for her and falls desperately in love with him. She renounces her religion and is disowned by her whole family. When Pinkerton is eventually reassigned, he tells her he will return. The poor girl believes him and patiently waits for him for three years. During this time, she bears his child, lives in poverty and rejects all handsome offers of marriage made to her on the grounds that she is already married. One day, Pinkerton does return, but to Butterfly’s horror, it is with a new, “real” American wife. In a sort of twisted attempt at reparation, they are there to take away Butterfly’s child and give him a good life in America. Knowing that she will never be able to properly support him, Butterfly does indeed give up her child. But she decides as her father did, that ‘It is better to die with honor than to live with dishonor’. She takes her own life just as Pinkerton, for whom she waited so faithfully, arrives calling out her name.

Written out, the story seems very sad. But listening? I can honestly say that I have never encountered any work of art, visual, literary or musical which so touched my soul as Madama Butterfly. The story is heart-rending, the libretto (script) wonderfully crafted, and the music could draw tears from a stone.

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Giacomo Puccini

This opera is partially the result of the Orientalist movement. This was a popular movement in Europe for a long time, especially during the historically terrible Imperialist Era. The ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ view that the West had of the East was big money in entertainment, and plenty of musicians and artists made a quick buck by giving Europeans a cheap imitation of the East. Our composer Giacomo Puccini, however, stands apart. Rather than give the people their “fix of exoticism”, as it could be called, he strove for an authenticity that most artists of his time never even bothered with. Fascinatingly, his Madama Butterfly is filled with authentic Japanese folk tunes, which he studied in great detail to give a genuine Japanese flavor to his music. Despite limited knowledge and access to knowledge of it, Puccini did his very best to stay true to Japanese culture in his opera. Of course, not living in a very informed era on this subject, he got many things wrong. He did try, however, and many of his mistakes (such as a mildly inaccurate depiction of jigai) are easily corrected by modern productions.

What also sets Madama Butterfly apart is its shocking anti-Imperialist message. Similar to an earlier opera by Délibes, LakméMadama Butterfly tells the story of a wronged and abused woman in a wronged and abused culture. Butterfly seems to represent more than just one woman, but the entire culture of Japan, or even the whole of Asia. The abuse of the West towards its colonized lands is a black mark on Western history and one which found a sharp reproach in a work like Madama Butterfly. Who knows, but perhaps more than one person left the theater after this opera with a very different view on the East than he had when he entered.

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Maria Callas as Cio-Cio-san

Many people take Madama Butterfly in the wrong way, however, deeming it racist and filled with stereotypes. While I acknowledge the presence of the stereotypes, I respectfully disagree that the work is racist. While such a piece composed now would certainly be problematic, one has to consider the time that it came from. In such a time as the early 20th century, Madama Butterfly bordered on a slap in the face to Westerners for their haughty, imperialistic views of different cultures. Much like a butterfly, the important image of the opera, Westerners treated other cultures as nothing more than something you capture, kill and pin to a card as a decoration. This well delivered message is why I am at a loss when people pour hatred on this beautiful opera for racism. It seems to me the equivalent of condemning Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its obvious racial stereotypes while ignoring the anti-slavery themes and the effect it had on society’s conscience. In the end, I believe it comes down to what I said in a previous article; that in many stories, accuracy is not the point. The message is.

Madama Butterfly was not immediately successful. People said that the music was too similar to some of Puccini’s earlier works, especially La Boheme. This is rather bewildering to me, as I have yet to find a single place where the scores are noticeably similar. The fact remained, however, that the opera had to be revised and re-released before it was given the success it deserved. In my opinion, this is fortunate, as the first version contains bits in the libretto which are vastly inferior and, indeed, trite compared to the later (and now standard) 1914 version. Nowadays, Butterfly is one of the most popular and commonly performed operas in the world.

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Yin Huang and Richard Troxell in Scorsese’s beautiful film version

While many operas do not have any really perfect recordings,  Madama Butterfly is fortunate to possess some of the very finest versions in all of recorded opera. Many of the most talented singers and conductors have recorded this opera and there are plenty of versions to choose from. However, my recommendation can only go to the 1974 recording magnificently conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Never will you find a more tender and haunting Butterfly than Mirella Freni, nor a more magnificently voiced and characterized Pinkerton than Luciano Pavarotti. The supporting cast is just as good, and I consider this to be one of the best opera recordings of all time. You can listen to the entire thing on YouTube in Parts I, II and III.

But it is always best to start off by watching an opera before you merely listen to it. And here, Butterfly is in luck again, as Martin Scorsese himself put out a filmed version of the opera in 1995, filmed on location in Japan. This version can also be watched on YouTube, complete with subtitles.

So enjoy! This is an exquisite opera and well worth the watch. If you need to be convinced, however, give a listen to some of the snippets from the opera. They should leave you entranced.

(Featured Image: Peonies and Butterflies, by Ito Jakuchu)

Hercules, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney

blog-picsHercules is probably among the most famous names in Western culture. Everyone knows who he is: The fantastically strong son of Zeus, the Samson of the Greeks! However, these days, a great many people, particularly my fellow Americans, know this information from something other than original Greek myth: the famously inaccurate and yet delightful Walt Disney Pictures.

The 1997 animated film, Hercules is one of the acclaimed movie members of the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance‘, their great comeback era after the 80’s. Possessing charming animation, equally charming characters and all of the bowdlerizing deviations from source material you would expect from a Disney film, Hercules’ tale of self-realization, sacrifice and heroism remains a staple of children’s cinema to this day.

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The Hipster Demon: “You can’t like Bohemian Rhapsody. Everyone likes Bohemian Rhapsody…”

I loved the movie back in the day. Of course I did: I was a kid! But eventually came a new era in my life: I became a Teenager. And with Teenager-ism came the dreaded Demon of Hipsterdom. No longer was I allowed to like the things everyone else liked. I had to be “unique” now and find a reason to dislike everything popular in favor of the obscure.

“Look how Disney ruins the Greek myths!” my Hipster Shoulder-Demon cried out at Hercules. And to an extent, the little Hipster Demon was right. There were many problems great and small. For instance, the irritating decision to use the Roman name ‘Hercules’ rather than the Greek ‘Herakles’ when literally every single other name in the movie is in Greek. I mean, come on, really? Another quibble is that the winged horse Pegasus is in the entirely wrong myth. Not to mention, in the kids’ movie, they have the cute pony formed adorably out of puffy little clouds, when the actual story goes that the vicious, killer, flying horse sprung from the blood of Medusa, spilled on the ground after Perseus decapitated her. Less cute, yes, but quite awesome.

hercules-removes-cerberus-from-the-gates-of-hellBut things get far more different than simple name changes and misplaced equines. The original story, as one might expect, is faaar less child friendly than the one coming out of Disney studios. For one thing, Herakles is most certainly not the son of Hera, but the demigod son of Zeus, king of the gods and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Hera is the hero’s mortal enemy, who loathes him for being the result of one of her husband’s many illicit affairs. Always searching for a way to destroy Herakles that she can get away with, Hera sends terrible madness upon him several times, eventually resulting in Herakles unwittingly slaughtering his two children, and in some stories, his wife Megara as well. A decent sort of person in the stories, the stricken Herakles performs his famous Twelve Labors as reparation for the murders, but the suffering doesn’t end there. He ends up being poisoned by his next wife, Deianira, who thought she was giving him a love potion. Unable to die of the poison due to his immense strength, Herakles writhes in agony, burned internally  by the poison until he orders his servants to burn him alive on a pyre to end his suffering. His wife, realizing her horrible mistake, then hangs herself in remorse.

Try wrapping that story up with a catchy musical number.

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Ha ha, I’m eventually supposed to kill you and our children.

 

However, missing all of this less savory stuff means that they missed a lot of the cool stuff too. Numerous movies could be dedicated to Herakles’ Twelve Labors, and many other amazing adventures involving other heroes, monsters, journeys and battles. But instead of telling about how Herakles defeated the Nemean Lion, or how he accompanied the Argonauts or choked Death until he gave back the soul of Alcestis, Disney decided to go a different route; by completely making something up. Sigh.

Being a child of the 90’s, I was first introduced to the story of Herakles and indeed, the entire Greek mythos by Disney. Watching and being fascinated by this movie as a small child planted an interest in my brain that I still have not shaken. Greek mythology became one of my childhood passions. I got every book I could on Greek mythology from the library and read them all until I had to move on to the adult section. As I learned more and more, my Hipster Demon grew strong, and I despised the Disney movie I had once loved, pooh-poohing it for many years as a borderline parody of the original story.

However, as I exposed myself to more and more literature, Greek and otherwise, I began to feel a bit ungrateful to Disney. How could I condemn a work which had functioned as a key for me to the door of Greek stories? If it hadn’t been for this movie, who knows if I would have ever bothered picking up a book of mythology? I watched the movie again for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong. While wildly inaccurate, Disney’s Hercules was still a treasure. In this coming of age story, the title character learns that true heroism is love and sacrifice and becomes a great role model for kids in a way that the womanizing, violent Herakles of the original tale never could be. Who was I to criticize? Who knows how many kids like me went and sought out more myths after watching this movie?

And so, I learned a lesson. I flicked the little Hipster Demon off of my shoulder. I decided that faithfulness to source material, while usually a must, isn’t always the point. It’s the actual story that matters. Is Disney’s Hercules a good representation of Greek mythology? Heck no. But is it a good movie with a good story? Yes, it is. Can you like both original myth and censored Disney classic? You most certainly can.

It still annoys me that they used his Roman name though. I mean, gosh, why?

Batman and the Joker: A Match Made in Cinema Heaven

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(You all probably know how Batman goes by now, but just in case: Here be spoilers)

Film is a very personal, subjective thing. A movie can be very popular and be terrible, and a movie can be very unpopular and be a work of art. Occasionally, however, a work comes along that is both popular and a work of art, and for me, an example of that would be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Now there are many, many reasons that this movie is so brilliant, but probably the first thing that comes to mind is the film’s masterful interpretation of the Joker. For those who don’t read comics (me included) there wasn’t much to go on. All the Joker is to us is a creepy guy with creepy makeup who laughs very creepily. Decent villain so far… for a comic book, anyway. So what was it that brought so much terrifying realism to a villain who is usually painted in bright colors on a comic panel? He’s mysterious, evil, and charismatic we know that, but there is a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him different from the many villains we know with those same attributes. So what is it?

One thing in this mystery which we can take as a given is that the Joker was such a good villain because of how well he played off of the hero, Batman. You can’t have a perfect villain if he isn’t perfectly matched with the hero. So what made Batman so good? Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Trilogy is not quite what he was in any other interpretation of Batman before him. He was darker, deeper and better than he had ever been before. And more than that, Christopher Nolan made use of a literary device that is a marvelous frame for an excellent character: The Christ Figure.

annibale_carracci_-_christ_wearing_the_crown_of_thorns_supported_by_angels_-_wga04427The Christ Figure is a great technique in literature, ingrained permanently in the art of Western Culture. Though obviously from Christian roots, one doesn’t have to be at all religious to appreciate it. The idea behind the literary Christ Figure is a character who is good and yet who takes evil or responsibility for evil upon himself in order to help or save others. Sonya in Crime and Punishment is a good example of this. She is shy and pure, and yet she sells herself into prostitution in order to feed and protect Katerina’s children, who aren’t even her real siblings. The Christ Figure is used in storytelling to make a character instantly likable. We can’t help but admire such a sacrificial person and we want them to win in the end.

Nolan’s Batman is another good example of this character type: He risks his life defending Gotham from evil although he owes them nothing. But if Batman is the Christ in the story, then what is the Joker? The answer might make this article sound like it’s being read from a podium in a mega-church, but the Joker is Satan.

blog-picsThe Satanic Figure is another excellent technique in literature. They are, unsurprisingly, the polar opposites of Christ Figures. Where the Christ in a story sacrifices all to help others and reaps no benefit for himself, the Satanic Figure works to destroy and corrupt, but surprisingly, also while reaping no benefit. We react in a visceral manner to such people. If a villain wants money, we can understand that. Power? We can relate to that too. But for absolutely no apparent gain? This is where we are taken aback. If someone performs an action with no gain for anyone, we consider that foolish. If someone commits evil with no gain for anyone, we consider that depraved. A very good example of a Satanic Figure is Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the most loathsome characters in literature. With relatively little motivation, the Machiavellian Iago utterly destroys innocent people and has nothing to show for it in the end. He merely takes sick pleasure in the destruction his hatred has wrought. Nothing more.

At this point, it is fairly obvious to see how the Joker is a Satanic Figure. He burns a mountain of money. He rejects powerful mob bosses. Money and power don’t interest him. As Alfred so eloquently puts it, he just wants to see the world burn.

So how does this make the Joker such an excellent villain? Well, let’s go back to what I said earlier: You can’t have a perfect villain if he isn’t perfectly matched with the hero. Looking at the character types in both Batman and the Joker, it’s clear to see that they are evenly matched opposites. But perfectly? That has to be illustrated with their actions and motivations. This is where it gets really cool.

blog-picsThroughout The Dark Knight, we are constantly reminded of Batman’s deeply held belief that Gotham is good and the Joker’s belief that Gotham is evil. This conflict of beliefs reaches a verbal climax near the end of the film, when Batman and the Joker are fighting in the tower. The key line is when Batman says “What were you wanting to prove? That deep down we’re all as ugly as you?”.  And there we have the Joker’s real goal. Yes, he did want to prove that. You can tell by Heath Ledger’s disappointed expression when the ferries fail to blow up. The Joker wanted to prove that Gotham was evil. Why? Because he is evil. As witnessed by the way he taunts people throughout the film, he cannot believe in good in others because he possesses no good himself. This is why the Joker is so fascinated by Batman, who completely contradicts his theory of absolute corruption.

Now fast forward a little later, to when Batman is standing over the body of Harvey Dent. The White Knight of Gotham is dead. Not only in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. The incorruptibility he stood for is dead, brought down by the Joker’s demonically clever tactics. Batman knows that the people of Gotham can never know what Dent did. It would destroy their belief in good, and thereby twist them into the image of the Joker. And so, Batman does the only thing he can; shoulders the blame. And by doing so, he becomes a perfect foil of the Joker. While the Joker takes his own depravity and projects it onto others, Batman looks the depravity of others and takes it upon himself.

And so, Batman and the Joker are shown to be true opposites. A Savior and a Devil. And it is therein that we find a huge reason behind The Dark Knight‘s genius. One would be hard pressed to find a single work where the hero and villain are so perfectly matched. The Joker himself acknowledges it in the interrogation scene. “You complete me.” he says to Batman. And even without any literary study and dissection, we know on a instinctual level that he is right.

 

 

And at last I’ve seen the Leit…motif

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Let’s start things off with something fun: Wagnerian thematic musical technique!

I know, that doesn’t sound fun at all. Which is why we’ll give it its shorter and catchier name, Leitmotif (lite-mo-teef).

I swear, I’m not lying. Leitmotif is very cool. Leitmotif is a technique in music where the composer assigns a particular tune or melody to a character, object or concept in the story. That tune or sound is now associated with that particular subject for the entirety of the drama and will play whenever that subject needs to be brought up. Think the Imperial March and Darth Vader. When ever you hear that sinister and martial tune, you know that the Big Bad is somewhere nearby.

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Dah nah nah na NANAH na NANAH

Leitmotif is one of the most exciting and moving innovations in orchestral music. It can foreshadow, reveal, and explain a moment of drama without a character in the opera, play or movie ever having to say a word.

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Hear the power…

This idea has been used for a long time, but its real development is almost always attributed to Richard Wagner, the prodigious and famously bombastic German operatic composer. He used this technique a lot in his famous operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. You can listen here for a tune you will probably recognize. It is the motif for the Valkyries, the divine battle maidens. Or listen here for the theme which is associated with Siegmund’s magic sword, Nothung. The tunes are short, but powerful and memorable, just as a leitmotif ought to be.

Now, that’s all very well, you’re saying, but I don’t know if I want to listen to 14 hours of Wagner to understand leitmotif. That’s fine. I’m not much of a Wagner fan myself (for the time being). There are far more easily digested ways of understanding and appreciating leitmotif. It is a staple of the epic film genre, and is used magnificently in very popular films such as Star Wars and especially The Lord of the Rings. These are far too complex to address here, but I will talk about them in future posts…

Now you know what leitmotif is. Next time your friends decide to have a Star Wars Marathon, pause the movie, push up your glasses as pompously as possible and listen to them groan while you expatiate on Wagnerian thematic musical techniques.