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22 December 2014

At the Nexus of Art and Terror

I've been giving a good deal of thought this week to the hacking attack on Sony, which has now been confirmed as a historical first in America: a real wake up call to the threat of state-sponsored cyberterrorism. The North Korean dictator was angry at a cinematic depiction of himself in a Hollywood satire -- and wreaked revenge.

The effect is chilling. I believe the media did us a disservice by reporting the salacious aspect of the hacking, the snarky comments made by studio brass about starlets with whom they happened to have business deals and off-color jokes about the President of the United States. Some people laughed. Those of us in the entertainment industry should not have been remotely surprised that Tinseltown honchos could air kiss on a red carpet the same folks they disparaged behind their backs in an email. Hollywood insincere?? Yawn.

What the media failed to report was the real news. That the people at Sony were unprecedented victims of a new form of terrorism. At first it was cyberterrorism. Then it threatened to become literal, so the studio canceled the premiere of "The Interview," the movie that started it all.

Whatever one thinks of this film -- which may now be destined to remain in a vault -- North Korea's threats had the effect of dousing a fire with a wet blanket and smothering a work of creativity. Whether the movie is "art" is subjective. But when someone --or some country -- or some dictator --who doesn't like the way he, she, or it is portrayed, can effectively shut it down, potentially rendering any future depictions or similar artistic risks unproduceable or unpublishable -- everyone suffers.

Perhaps it was ill advised in the first place to "pard the lion" as Shakespeare put it. After all, Sony is a Japanese company and North Korean nuclear weapons can reach Japanese soil. But someone (and if I know Hollywood, it was lots of someones, with deep pockets and a cadre of lawyers on speed dial) green-lighted the decision to make "The Interview," they should have been savvy enough to anticipate the possibility of repercussions and be prepared to deal with them.

As we now know, Sony ultimately made the decision to cancel the film's premiere because no one would distribute it. Movie theatres were, understandably, terrified that North Korea actually would and could bomb them if they screened the picture, even though US Intelligence, as far as we know, revealed no credible capability. It was sabre rattling, but no one wanted to take the chance that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't.

However, rather than killing their investment entirely, Sony had other options. They own Playstation and could have made the movie available to individuals. It could have gone straight to video. Or Amazon or Netflix streaming on demand, They didn't necessarily have to cave in to the demands of terrorists.

Salman Rushdie.  Theo Van Gogh . One had to flee from a fatwah against his expression of creativity and live in hiding for years. The other was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam because he dared in his documentary filmmaking to criticize radical Islam.

Seth Rogen is hardly Salman Rushdie or Theo Van Gogh, yet his satiric comedy, which for all we know pales in comparison to Charlie Chaplin's masterwork, "The Great Dictator," may have changed the course of history in Hollywood. Studios which too often play it too safe, may now blanch at any political content, any screenplay that isn't as bland and colorless as Cream of Wheat.

As artists and as consumers of art -- both film and literature -- what should we make of this?

How might you have handled the Sony situation? Do you fear that the decision to capitulate to terrorist threats will hamstring artists in certain ways from now on?

I wonder how Napoleon would have reacted if an author had penned a novel condemning him during his lifetime.

15 December 2014

Midwinter Music


We’re in the midst of the mid-winter holiday season. We celebrate different holidays or just the winter season itself, with family, friends, and co-workers at events ranging from cocktail parties to cookie exchanges to potlucks (above Mélanie and I are celebrating with our good friend, the fabulous writer Veronica Wolff (also known as Auntie V) at a lovely holiday luncheon hosted by Catherine Coulter). But the events share warmth and celebration of those we care about – and many involve music. I recently wrote a blog for the Merola Opera Program in which I asked my co-workers and some of our board and alumni to share their favorite holiday or winter-themed music. Some common themes emerged but also wonderful variety (notably Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) but also wonderful variety ranging from Beethoven's Ninth to The Chipmunks Christmas.

This prompted me to think about music my characters might associate with the season. A lot of holiday music comes from the Victorian era and the 1940s (eras that did not shy away from sentiment). One of my more embarrassing errors was to use Stille Nacht in Vienna Waltz when it wasn't written until 1816, two years after the 1814 setting of the novel (I always set in trouble when I assume I  know research facts).  However I can use God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (the earliest known publication is a 1760 broadsheet).

My choices for the Merola blog post were distinctly 20th century, I, too, love Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. But two pieces of music this time of year have special associations for me with my mother and my daughter. My Mom and I always sang Rodgers & Hart’s The Shortest Day of the Year on the Winter Solstice. I still sit down at the piano and play and sing it, now with my daughter. My three-year-old daughter, Mélanie loves Diana Krall’s holiday CD, particularly Jingle Bells which she calls “Jingle Bells Away.” We put it on and dance around the house. We started doing this last holiday season and have been playing it all year (it’s says something about Diana Krall’s talent and my own love of holiday music that I’m not tired of it :-).

What music evokes the season for you?

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08 December 2014

Travels in England, 1782: Visiting Parliament.

I'm really enjoying all the tidbits this book contains. Here's one about going to the House of Commons (and yes, women were allowed to visit and watch the proceedings!).

"I had almost forgotten to tell you that I have already been to the Parliament House; and yet this is of most importance.  For, had I seen nothing else in England but this, I should have thought my journey thither amply rewarded…

Westminster Hall is an enormous Gothic building, whose vaulted roof is supported, not by pillars, but instead of these there are, on each side, large unnatural heads of angels, carved in wood, which seem to support the roof.

When you have passed through this long hall, you ascend a few steps at the end, and are led through a dark passage into the House of Commons, which, below, has a large double-door; and above, there is a small staircase, by which you go to the gallery, the place allotted for strangers.

The first time I went up this small staircase, and had reached the rails, I saw a very genteel man in black standing there.  I accosted him without any introduction, and I asked him whether I might be allowed to go into the gallery.  He told me that I must be introduced by a member, or else I could not get admission there.  Now, as I had not the honour to be acquainted with a member, I was under the mortifying necessity of retreating, and again going down-stairs, as I did much chagrined.  And now, as I was sullenly marching back, I heard something said about a bottle of wine, which seemed to be addressed to me.

I could not conceive what it could mean, till I got home, when my obliging landlady told me I should have given the well-dressed man half-a-crown, or a couple of shillings for a bottle of wine.  Happy in this information, I went again the next day; when the same man who before had sent me away, after I had given him only two shillings, very politely opened the door for me, and himself recommended me to a good seat in the gallery.

And thus I now, for the first time, saw the whole of the British nation assembled in its representatives, in rather a mean-looking building, that not a little resembles a chapel.  The Speaker, an elderly man, with an enormous wig, with two knotted kind of tresses, or curls, behind, in a black cloak, his hat on his head, sat opposite to me on a lofty chair; which was not unlike a small pulpit, save only that in the front of there was no reading-desk.  Before the Speaker’s chair stands a table, which looks like an altar; and at this there sit two men, called clerks, dressed in black, with black cloaks.  On the table, by the side of the great parchment acts, lies a huge gilt sceptre, which is always taken away, and placed in a conservatory under the table, as soon as ever the Speaker quits the chair; which he does as often as the House resolves itself into a committee.  A committee means nothing more than that the House puts itself into a situation freely to discuss and debate any point of difficulty and moment, and, while it lasts, the Speaker partly lays aside his power as a legislator.  As soon as this is over, some one tells the Speaker that he may now again be seated; and immediately on the Speaker being again in the chair, the sceptre is also replaced on the table before him.

All round on the sides of the house, under the gallery, are benches for the members, covered with green cloth, always one above the other, like our choirs in churches, in order that he who is speaking may see over those who sit before him.  The seats in the gallery are on the same plan.  The members of parliament keep their hats on, but the spectators in the gallery are uncovered.

The members of the House of Commons have nothing particular in their dress.  They even come into the House in their great coats, and with boots and spurs.  It is not at all uncommon to see a member lying stretched out on one of the benches while others are debating.  Some crack nuts, others eat oranges, or whatever else is in season.  There is no end to their going in and out; and as often as any one wishes to go out, he places himself before the Speaker, and makes him his bow, as if, like a schoolboy, he asked tutor’s permission.

Those who speak seem to deliver themselves with but little, perhaps not always with even a decorous, gravity.  All that is necessary is to stand up in your place, take off your hat, turn to the Speaker (to whom all the speeches are addressed), to hold your hat and stick in one hand, and with the other to make any such motions as you fancy necessary to accompany your speech.

If it happens that a member rises who is but a bad speaker, or if what he says is generally deemed not sufficiently interesting, so much noise is made, and such bursts of laughter are raised, that the member who is speaking can scarcely distinguish his own words.  This must needs be a distressing situation; and it seems then to be particularly laughable, when the Speaker in his chair, like a tutor in a school, again and again endeavours to restore order, which he does by calling out “To order, to order,” apparently often without much attention being paid to it.

On the contrary, when a favourite member, and one who speaks well and to the purpose, rises, the most perfect silence reigns, and his friends and admirers, one after another, make their approbation known by calling out, “Hear him,” which is often repeated by the whole House at once; and in this way so much noise is often made that the speaker is frequently interrupted by this same emphatic “Hear him.”  Notwithstanding which, this calling out is always regarded as a great encouragement; and I have often observed that one who began with some diffidence, and even somewhat inauspiciously, has in the end been so animated that he has spoken with a torrent of eloquence.

As all speeches are directed to the Speaker, all the members always preface their speeches with “Sir” and he, on being thus addressed, generally moves his hat a little, but immediately puts it on again.  This “Sir” is often introduced in the course of their speeches, and serves to connect what is said.  It seems also to stand the orator in some stead when any one’s memory fails him, or he is otherwise at a loss for matter.  For while he is saying “Sir,” and has thus obtained a little pause, he recollects what is to follow.  Yet I have sometimes seen some members draw a kind of memorandum-book out of their pockets, like a candidate who is at a loss in his sermon.  This is the only instance in which a member of the British parliament seems to read his speeches…

The little less than downright open abuse, and the many really rude things which the members said to each other, struck me much.  For example, when one has finished, another rises, and immediately taxes with absurdity all that the right honourable gentleman (for with this title the members of the House of Commons always honour each other) had just advanced.  It would, indeed, be contrary to the rules of the House flatly to tell each other that what they have spoken is false, or even foolish.  Instead of this, they turn themselves, as usual, to the Speaker, and so, whilst their address is directed to him, they fancy they violate neither the rules of parliament nor those of good breeding and decorum, whilst they utter the most cutting personal sarcasms against the member or the measure they oppose.

It is quite laughable to see, as one sometimes does, one member speaking, and another accompanying the speech with his action.  This I remarked more than once in a worthy old citizen, who was fearful of speaking himself, but when his neighbour spoke he accompanied every energetic sentence with a suitable gesticulation, by which means his whole body was sometimes in motion…

Among these spectators are people of all ranks, and even, not unfrequently, ladies.  Two shorthand writers have sat sometimes not far distant from me, who (though it is rather by stealth) endeavour to take down the words of the speaker; and thus all that is very remarkable in what is said in parliament may generally be read in print the next day.  The shorthand writers, whom I noticed, are supposed to be employed and paid by the editors of the different newspapers.  There are, it seems, some few persons who are constant attendants on the parliament; and so they pay the door-keeper beforehand a guinea for a whole session

A proposal was once made to erect a gallery in the House of Peers also for the accommodation of spectators.  But this never was carried into effect.  There appears to be much more politeness and more courteous behaviour in the members of the upper House.  But he who wishes to observe mankind, and to contemplate the leading traits of the different characters most strongly marked, will do well to attend frequently the lower, rather than the other, House."

03 December 2014

Travels in England, 1782: Ranelagh Gardens

I used Ranelagh Gardens in RIPE FOR SEDUCTION, so it's very interesting to come across this first-hand account.


"Often as I had heard Ranelagh spoken of, I had yet formed only an imperfect idea of it.  I supposed it to be a garden somewhat different from that of Vauxhall; but, in fact, I hardly knew what I thought of it.  Yesterday evening I took a walk in order to visit this famous place of amusement ... At length I arrived at Ranelagh; and having paid my half-crown on entrance, I soon enquired for the garden door, and it was readily shown to me; when, to my infinite astonishment, I found myself in a poor, mean-looking, and ill-lighted garden, where I met but few people.  I had not been here long before I was accosted by a young lady, who also was walking there, and who, without ceremony, offered me her arm, asking me why I walked thus solitarily?  I now concluded, this could not possibly be the splendid, much-boasted Ranelagh; and so, seeing not far from me a number of people entering a door, I followed them, in hopes either to get out again, or to vary the scene.

But it is impossible to describe, or indeed to conceive, the effect it had on me, when, coming out of the gloom of the garden, I suddenly entered a round building, illuminated by many hundred lamps; the splendour and beauty of which surpassed everything of the kind I had ever seen before.  Everything seemed here to be round; above, there was a gallery divided into boxes; and in one part of it an organ with a beautiful choir, from which issued both instrumental and vocal music.  All around, under this gallery, are handsome painted boxes for those who wish to take refreshments: the floor was covered with mats, in the middle of which are four high black pillars; within which there are neat fire-places for preparing tea, coffee and punch; and all around, also, there are placed tables, set out with all kinds of refreshments.  Within these four pillars, in a kind of magic rotundo, all the beau-monde of London move perpetually round and round.

I at first mixed with this immense concourse of people, of all sexes, ages, countries, and characters; and I must confess, that the incessant change of faces, the far greater number of which were strikingly beautiful, together with the illumination, the extent and majestic splendour of the place, with the continued sound of the music, makes an inconceivably delightful impression on the imagination; and I take the liberty to add, that, on seeing it now for the first time, I felt pretty nearly the same sensations that I remember to have felt when, in early youth, I first read the Fairy Tales.

Being, however, at length tired of the crowd, and being tired also with always moving round and round in a circle, I sat myself down in one of the boxes, in order to take some refreshment, and was now contemplating at my ease this prodigious collection and crowd of a happy, cheerful world, who were here enjoying themselves devoid of care, when a waiter very civilly asked me what refreshments I wished to have, and in a few moments returned with what I asked for.  To my astonishment he would accept no money for these refreshments; which I could not comprehend, till he told me that everything was included in the half-crown I had paid at the door; and that I had only to command if I wished for anything more; but that if I pleased, I might give him as a present a trifling douceur.  This I gave him with pleasure, as I could not help fancying I was hardly entitled to so much civility and good attention for one single half-crown.

I now went up into the gallery, and seated myself in one of the boxes there; and from thence becoming all at once a grave and moralising spectator, I looked down on the concourse of people who were still moving round and round in the fairy circle; and then I could easily distinguish several stars and other orders of knighthood; French queues and bags contrasted with plain English heads of hair, or professional wigs; old age and youth, nobility and commonalty, all passing each other in the motley swarm.  An Englishman who joined me during this my reverie, pointed out to me on my enquiring, princes and lords with their dazzling stars; with which they eclipsed the less brilliant part of the company.

Here some moved round in an eternal circle to see and be seen; there a group of eager connoisseurs had placed themselves before the orchestra and were feasting their ears, while others at the well-supplied tables were regaling the parched roofs of their mouths in a more substantial manner, and again others, like myself, were sitting alone, in the corner of a box in the gallery, making their remarks and reflections on so interesting a scene.

I now and then indulged myself in the pleasure of exchanging, for some minutes, all this magnificence and splendour for the gloom of the garden, in order to renew the pleasing surprise I experienced on my first entering the building.  Thus I spent here some hours in the night in a continual variation of entertainment; when the crowd now all at once began to lessen, and I also took a coach and drove home.

At Ranelagh the company appeared to me much better, and more select than at Vauxhall; for those of the lower class who go there, always dress themselves in their best, and thus endeavour to copy the great.  Here I saw no one who had not silk stockings on.  Even the poorest families are at the expense of a coach to go to Ranelagh, as my landlady assured me.  She always fixed on some one day in the year, on which, without fail, she drove to Ranelagh.  On the whole the expense at Ranelagh is nothing near so great as it is at Vauxhall, if you consider the refreshments; for any one who sups at Vauxhall, which most people do, is likely, for a very moderate supper, to pay at least half-a-guinea."


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