catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 24 :: 2007.12.28 — 2008.01.11


Grant’s recommendations 12.28.07

FILM: Angels in America

This 2003 HBO mini-series is an adaptation of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play about America at the end of the 20th Century.  Drawing inspiration from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, William Blake, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the cinematic interpretation of Kushner’s play is in my opinion one of the great American films of our time.  Directed by Mike Nichols, this six-hour two-part story is more than just a humanizing look at the AIDS crisis in America in the 80s.  It manages to place American political and cultural tensions in a broader religious context.  A man dying of AIDS wrestles an angel to get his life back.  A Morman husband tries to reconcile his faith and commitments with his homosexual desires and his wife escapes fears about the end of the world with drugs and imaginative fantasies.  An openly gay Jewish man struggles to put his abstract ideas of love into practice when his lover starts to show the horrifying symptoms of AIDS.  Roy Cohn (yes, Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man) faces mortality and the limits of his power as the vengeful ghost of Ethel Rosenberg looks on.  Kushner’s meditation on America encourages forgiveness and offers an optimistic belief that America’s children-of-immigrants will be able to make the long and difficult journey of democracy into 21st century America.  Kushner and Nichols’ hope does not rest in the victory of Christ over sin and death, but in the strength of Americans themselves, which makes this one of the quintessentially American films of our time.      


MUSIC: String Quartet No. 4, written by Peteris Vasks and performed by the Kronos Quartet

Written for the Kronos Quartet and released in 2003, String Quartet No. 4 looks back on the destruction of the 20th Century.  Latvian composer Peteris Vasks said about the inspiration for the piece, “There has been so much bloodshed and destruction, and yet love's power and idealism have helped keep the world in balance." You can hear the energy and motion of an age of “progress” in the middle of the piece, but it begins and ends in wispy notes and harmonics at the top of the strings’ range.  Vasks is a Baptist whose Eastern European roots are expressed in music that prefers tradition to avant garde values of revolutionary innovation.  If you appreciate Barber, Shostakovich, Arvo Part and Gorecki, you may want to check out Peteris Vasks as well. 


OPERA: Doctor Atomic

Post-minimalist composer John Adams and Peter Sellars (not the guy from Pink Panther) created this unlikely opera in 2005 about the “Trinity” atomic bomb test in New Mexico.  Chicago Lyric Opera is performing Doctor Atomic this season and it is something special!  Though the technical language of the scientists seems odd when sung, the spiritual implications of man’s technologies are clearly indicated by the lyrical content.  The opera compiles journal entries and poems written and read by the people making the bomb.  One of the most moving moments of the opera comes at the end of the first half when Oppenheimer sings the poem written by John Donne (Holy Sonnet XIV) that probably inspired the naming of the test site “Trinity”:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee.

The poem reveals Oppenheimer’s concerns about the new age he was helping to usher in, a future ruled by our own creations.  This realization is supported by the end of the opera which stretches and slows down the time leading to the explosion.   All the participants lie prostrate, waiting for the impact of the bomb they have made.  Despite their own reservations, the bomb seems born out of its own necessity and its human makers have to go along with it.  The last twenty minutes of the opera reflect a desire to delay the ushering in of the atomic age just a few precious moments more.  As everyone waits, bowed down to the impending moment, a female voice can be heard speaking in  Japanese.  The voice gets louder and louder and then stops, signifying the end of an opera about a bomb that never actually explodes.  After experiencing this opera, it’s hard to imagine any other art form that could produce such an experience.

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