Monday, December 15, 2008

Got Milk of Human Kindness?

There were a lot of emotions that swept over me watching Sean Penn's latest performance as San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk. First off, it's a dazzling performance, with a gentle physical take on Harvey Milk. Penn found a sweetness and a believability in the character that was something of a revelation. Of course, we didn't expect a flouncing, prissy Harvey Milk - he was neither of those things. But Penn has shown himself again and again that often being among those called "the best of their generation" means turning down the fireworks to find some inner truth. Ditto James Franco as Milk's handsome boyfriend Scott. By comparison to Franco's performance in last summer's Spider Man, this is one of the most under-played and restrained performances of Franco's career, and he shimmers in the role. Even Emile Hirsch, who made friends with Penn last summer in "Into the Wild", and whom never seemed even vaguely "twinky", comes off as a sweet, genial Cleve Jones, equal parts youthful impetuousness and fiery activist. Ironically, the argument could be made that it was ultimately Jones who had a greater, more lasting effect on society even than Harvey Milk, a decade after the Milk episodes, as an AIDS activist, and a founder of The Quilt Project.

The heady years of the late seventies rush back to many of us, especially those with ties to San Francisco - remembering those rallies, marches and vigils in the Castro, and electrifying reality of gay pride, and the sense that the world really could be changed with just a few dedicated people standing up for what is right.

But Penn is also embroiled in a controversy for his support of dictators like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba. As outlined by Patrick Goldstein in a recent edition of the LA Times, Penn comes off somewhat hypocritical in his support for a number of regimes which have never treated LGBT people very fairly. This has to pose something of a conflict for the politically savvy Penn, who has never made his liberal, anti-Bush policies a secret. One wonders how he will resolve, either publicly or privately, the apparent contradiction of his loving, even reverent portrayal of one of Gay America's icons, and his support for those dictators.

Nonetheless, Gus Van Sant's treatment of the material was moving, even if the device of having Milk dictate his tale into a tape recorder, ostensibly prior to being assassinated, seemed strained, and some of the TV footage had the ring of "see, this really did happen, here it is on TV" - even if the actual news footage was produced just for this film. You have to assume there is supposed to be a sense that this was the way it was if we show it as a TV sequence. These quibbles detract nothing from the solid performances and the utterly affecting material.

Van Sant dips his Penn in Milk writes in magic ink.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

His Name Shall Be Called Wonderful

They’re not exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the Cathedral Choir of St. John the Divine in New York or Saint Sulpice in Paris. They’re a Pretty Darned Good civic choir in Pasadena, and as a PDG choir, they are one of hundreds around the country, made up of executives, teachers, house wives and musicians looking for meaningful expression in their lives.

I’m not denigrating the PDG Pasadena Master Chorale, it’s just that there are a lot of really wonderful choirs to be found, so in addition to their sweet tone, and their challenging selection of numbers, there had to be something else about tonight’s concert that touched me so much.

Yes, you’ve probably heard of Benjamin Brittten and even the renaissance writer Michael Praetorious, but have you ever heard of Morten Lauridsen or Henryk Gorecki? I hadn't either, so, no, it had to be something else.

As I sat there in the nave of the First Congregational Church, listening to the second part of the concert – selections from Handel’s Messiah – the warmth of the music washed over me and sent me deep into thoughtful revery.

So first off, it has to be that Mr. Handel hit me somewhere meaningful. At a time when central European powers, the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, and the Maria Thereses are setting the tone of the late renaissance, a Brit stands out for having composed one of the great pieces of music in the western canon (well, one Brit who was a transplanted German). While his “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Water Music” are dazzling in their own right, it is squarely on the history and reputation of his great masterwork “Messiah” (not THE Messiah!) that he has inspired and moved people, educated or not, since that day in 1742 when it debuted in a small concert hall in Dublin.

The quartet which led off this portion of the show here in Pasadena was sweet, and charming in its way. We could see that this would be a serious, if truncated version of the great oratorio, featuring just some highlights of the twenty-plus song cycle, sort of the ‘greatest-hits’ selections.

The early pieces “And the Glory of the Lord” and “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs” were solid, competent and moving. And who can argue with the bombast and hummability of the Halleluja chorus.

But strangely for me, it was the ecstatic and lyrical “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” that raised a lump in my throat.

I don’t think it was because of the religious sentiment – I’m far too cynical to succumb to that sort of thing.

Rather, I think it is that in this beautiful, joyful refrain, this most British of compositions (composed by a German nonetheless) captures the sense of western civilization as it is declaring itself the most important power on the planet. And when I say power, I don’t mean mere military might or commercial domination. Rather, I mean these tones, voices and instruments have been organized in a way that celebrates western civilization, that joyfully proclaim to the rest of the planet that our music – and by extension, our art, our architecture, our commerce, our literature – has triumphed over the lumpen anguish of the dark ages.

The beautiful passages taken from Isiah say that this is more than simple engineering, this is art, this is man’s highest aspiration, this is western civilization, with God on its side, triumphantly saying to the world:

“…the government shall be upon His shoulder;
and his name shall be called Wonderful,
the Mighty God,
the Everlasting Father,
the Prince of Peace.

We may have equaled those refrains since 1742 in great works by Beethoven, Haydn, and modern masters – Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Faulkner – but we have never exceeded them.