Masterpiece’s “Victoria” – taking on the lessons of power, responsibility, and duty

It seems that there is a hunger for television series regarding British royalty at the moment.  We have seen a series on Netflix covering the early portion of the reign of Elizabeth II, a series on PBS about Henry VIII’s wives, and now comes the ITV-produced series “Victoria”  on PBS. Season one (season two begins production next month) covers her accession to the throne upon the death of her uncle, William IV, at age 18.  We conclude season one with the birth of her first of nine children she will bear, many of whom will be married into the royal lines of some of the most powerful countries of 19th century Europe.

The series focuses on a combination of personal relationships, political skirmishes, and the growth of the monarch in her understanding of her role under the British Constitution.  Most Americans will probably find it more entertaining because of the frequent emphasis of romantic entanglements (mostly staff and nobility), personal drama, and the inevitable projection of modern day values on Victorian Era morals, ethics, and interpersonal relationships.  Understandably, the writers take great care to point out the inequities of gender expectations in 19th century England in spite of the fact that the country’s monarch is a female.

I enjoyed this initial series most when it was laying the foundation for the rise of the modern British Empire and giving hints at the forward-looking attitudes of the Queen and her husband, Prince Consort Albert.  Whether it is science, technology, or the “social contract” between the public and their government, the writers take care to emphasize the political progress, defeat for populism, and the occasional cluelessness of the privileged class to the survival mode of the average citizen.

The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, becomes Victoria’s eyes, ears, and a voice of conscience reporting on the plight of her most common subjects.  Chief writer and creator Daisy Goodwin wants us to recognize that it took an outsider, a minor German prince, to see the disconnect between the Queen’s government and the squalor of the London realities portrayed in Charles Dickens’ novels. 

As teacher of government, it’s also noticeable that the main decision makers are still only men of great wealth and title.  It will take the catastrophic world conflicts of the early 20th century, and the corresponding loss of empire, to bring the Parliament under control of the middle class.  The result will be the end of the Victorian attitudes and privileges and the rise of the modern welfare state for the working classes.  It will be fascinating to see if that aspect of the story of Victoria’s 73-year reign will be portrayed assuming the series produces enough episodes to cover her entire adult life.

This all brings to mind the question of why we are so fascinated by these stories of royalty.  There is no question that this kind of period drama is more popular in England than here in her former colonies, but the success of filmed portrayals of several Jane Austen novels, and the “Downton Abbey” mania, says something about us as a people.  Perhaps we have a desire to see wealthy and famous people wrestle with the same personal problems that everyday peasants do.  I think there is a longing for the day when people behaved with more civility and tact.  We may be faced with a world that is full of crudity and salaciousness, but that doesn’t mean we prefer our lives to be dominant in our entertainment.

While it doesn’t have quite the power, majesty, and deep exploration of moral issues plumbed in Netflix’s “The Crown”, Victoria is another pleasant dive into the world of English royalty while we wait for season two of “The Crown.”  I am also interested in another British series covering the War of the Roses called “The Hollow Crown” on PBS.  Besides, one can never get enough Benedict Cumberbatch.  Especially if they are only going to give us three episodes of “Sherlock” per year.

Modern Mozart – Mike Oldfield’s latest reminds us of the uplifting power of music

As an 18-year-old college sophomore at a small midwestern college, I had to search far and wide to find the kind of eclectic British progressive music that I craved.  I had been early amongst my peers in appreciating bands like Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  My brother and I had an informal competition to find the best new music, and then we would enjoy introducing each other to our new discovery.  But I was not prepared for what I came across while working for my college FM radio station in 1973.

The album cover displayed an ocean shore with a bow-tie twisted silver tube and the simple words “Mike Oldfield-Tubular Bells.”  I had read about this 20 year-old musical prodigy who had created 40 minutes of instrumentals, and that he had played the 20+ instruments himself.  Today’s technology would have made this practice fairly common with an average laptop and commonly available software.  Released as the initial effort of young entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, Tubular Bells made Oldfield famous and wealthy, but also put great pressure on the young musician to produce a successful follow-up.  It’s millions of copies sold worldwide produced the seed money that launched Branson’s massively successful business empire capped by his recent sale of his Virgin America Airlines to Alaska Air for $4 billion.

For US listeners, Oldfield was plucked out of obscurity when director William Friedkin used the opening piano solo notes as the “Theme from The Exorcist” which earned the composer a Grammy award in 1975.  Oldfield’s subsequent works remained popular in Europe, but never really caught on in the USA. His third album, Ommadawn  was categorized by some as “world music” due to an extended section at the end of part one being dominated by a mesmerizing pace of ensemble African drumming.  Oldfield’s melody-centered long-form instrumentals were considered passe’ when punk rock came on the scene in the 1980s.  Sales were disappointing and even Branson began to lose faith in his prize stallion.  With the exception of the popular hit “Moonlight Shadow” in 1983, the 80s became increasingly more about hit music videos.  The MTV Generation’s short attention span was a daunting audience for the long form rock musicians of the 60s and 70s.  The 1990’s brought two sequels, Tubular Bells II and III, but they appealed mainly to older fans who had embraced his original opus and newer fans didn’t seem inclined to devote the time to “listen” to music like the previous generation.

This past Friday, Oldfield released his 26th album, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle.  This new work, Return to Ommadawn, owes it’s musical heritage to many of his works of the 70s and 80s.  But Oldfield is now creating his music with a maturity of a man who has developed an exquisite sense of proper balance. His newest effort displays the confidence and experience of an accomplished musician who knows how to get the music exactly as he imagines it with today’s digital recording and mixing technologies.

The modern serious composer has a daunting challenge. How does the his work get heard in a world of pop, hip-hop, and dance music?  Oldfield’s offerings go straight to the heart, not just the feet and hips.  His creations hearken from a time when people listened to the soft shades and voices that combine like fine food with delicate spices and sauces.  There is no “hit song” or “Love theme from <worthless teen movie>.”  The more one puts the album through it’s paces, the more the listener marvels that one individual has so many shiny polished gems to share.  Return to Ommadawn is rich with the varying aural atmospheres that graced his past compositions but with the maturity of four decades has come a leaner,  pacing. 

I remember discovering new artists and musical works by listening to late night FM stations.  In high school, I would set my stereo system on a timer and fall asleep as the midnight radio personality would play both sides of the Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, Tommy by The Who, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, or Nursery Cryme by Genesis.  I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in a record store and paying three times the face value to a young employee for a pre-released promotional copy off their turntable.  Is there an opportunity for new music to be introduced in a society with the focus and constant distraction of the social media world of today?  Is there any hope that an artist like Oldfield can get a fair hearing?  I believe this is very important to the improvement of modern culture.

The popular music scene has always been dominated by “fast-food” music and today’s “rip and share” piracy has made it very hard for any but the most widely distributed artists to find an audience, let alone make a living.  Oldfield ceased public performances after his sole symphonic composition, Music of the Spheres, was performed in Bilbao, Spain in 2008.  Living in the Bahamas, it seemed his live performance days were over until he received an email that film director Danny Boyle wanted to talk to him.  Boyle was going to produce the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. Their ensuing conversations resulted in Oldfield performing a medley of his pieces in a tribute to the British National Health system.  Oldfield enjoyed playing a medley from parts of Tubular Bells I and III and the public response was gratifying.  Inspired by the experience to try recording again, he penned a series of songs and enlisted The Struts singer Luke Spiller to provide the vocals. Man on the Rocks was received with modest, but encouraging European success.  Return to Ommadawn is a return to his long form roots and before it was released he was already well along in working on Tubular Bells IV. 

It’s time for a new generation of young music lovers to discover the joy of heart-expanding music that inspires and uplifts.  In the effort to replace the darkness and cynicism of our doubts about the direction of our species, we must first endeavor to purge the mind of hatred and dark passions.  Inspiring music lifts man’s thoughts out of an animalistic nature to something more selfless and limitless.  Music can be used to expand our attempts to bring a more civilized aura of kindness to this universe.  It can effect our thinking in a way that allows each listener to find his own path with the inspiration that an accomplished and creative musician can produce.  Mike Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn is exhibit A.

If you are reading this post and are curious about this work, please go purchase it.  We waste so much money in silly ways without a thought.  File-sharing discourages creativity and impoverishes the artists who push the boundaries of modern music.  For the cost of a couple of large Starbucks lattes we can help them keep the flow of innovation going!

What our culture needs:  the return of the manned space program

I was struck by something that I read in the news yesterday that had been one of those questions that kind of runs quickly through your consciousness and then heads off without leaving a forwarding address.  What happened to all the men who walked on the moon?

I’ve been going through a lot of films referencing the manned missions of the 60s and early 70s.  This was before I took my girls to the recent hit movie “Hidden Figures” (my cultural review of which you can read here…or just scroll down a little!)  My eldest girl is a freshman in high school and is very accomplished academically.  She thinks she would like to be one of the people in the control room at Houston’s Manned Spaceflight Center or guiding a roving vehicle around Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

I grew up wanting to be an astronaut.  I was in elementary and middle school through the go-go days of Mercury, Gemini, ( I entered that contest) and the early Apollo missions.  I loved reliving some of those feelings when Tom Hanks followed up his starring role in “Apollo 13” with his first big HBO mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon.”  I have been showing those episodes with our eager teenager and explaining a lot of the cultural background to those days.  We went from the excitement of Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon, to the cynicism of government deception in the Vietnam era, and finally explaining why the Apollo program was cut three missions short. The money being spent was confronted by the coinciding costs of the war and the funding needs of LBJ’s massive Great Society initiatives.

As I was watching these programs with this budding space scientist, and remembering the mood of the country as we witnessed these achievements, I realized that it’s been a long time since Neil Armstrong had taken that “giant leap for mankind.”  We have sent some great unmanned probes to all of the major planets in our solar system and have seen some great discoveries as a result.  But where is man in all of this?  How many Americans know that we don’t even have a way to get people into orbit anymore.  The space shuttle, a relic of 1970s technology, is permanently retired.  Our astronauts must hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the international space station.  That should be embarrassing to this great nation; is it?

I recognize that the expense is massive, but then so is anything that is being attempted that is new.  I have watched Amazon stock soar by several times past it’s original stock price from the late 1990s and they have rarely been able to report a profit.  That’s not a criticism, but it’s an indication of something.  Innovation doesn’t have to be immediately profitable in order to be a worthwhile venture.  The earth-changing innovations that resulted from the coordinated national endeavor to put men on the moon had many “spinoff” results that have changed our world. 

Technological progress was accelerated by the need for miniaturization and spurred production and advancements of integrated circuitry, fiber optics, GPS tracking, telecommunications, and new materials that could handle the hostile environment of deep space and the stresses of leaving earth’s atmosphere.  I’m not saying these inventions wouldn’t have happened anyway, but the need to solve problems with a deadline over your head (landing a man on the moon before 1970) led to a adrenaline-fueled drive to achieve the goal of a martyred president AND be the first to do it in competition with our hegemonic rival, the Soviet Union.

Yesterday morning, I booted up my Macbook Pro and was hit with a notification that made me stop, remember, and become sad.  The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, passed on at age 82.  He lifted his foot off the surface in December of 1972.  I was midway through my freshman year in college.  President Nixon had ordered a bombing of North Vietnam that would finally bring a peace agreement with North Vietnam.  This year will mark 45 years since men last walked on the moon.  How can that be?  The Chinese are already talking about sending a team of their own in 2025.  Now that we know there is plentiful amounts of water ice residing in craters at the poles providing precious water and oxygen for future lunar colonies, isn’t it about time we go back?

I’ve been disappointed that it’s been such a long time since we have had leadership, in either the Congress or the White House, that sees the value in continued space exploration, whether it’s for commercial or scientific use.  It’s part of what makes man unique:  he has always been motivated by a desire to seek the answers to the big questions of the universe around him.  I have been energized by the efforts of Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin.  Perhaps it’s not government’s job to organize these kinds of visionary expeditions anymore.  But  a unifying national scientific goal is where leadership, with a very visible bully pulpit, can get some momentum behind this kind of effort and make the case that the development of manned space flight is beneficial to our society.

I’m not saying that this should be only America.  On the contrary, one of the most remarkable and visionary space exploration efforts in the last decade or so was the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe which not only used several planetary fly-bys to gain the speed necessary for it’s mission to explore a few asteroids, but also the vision and precision to land it’s Philae lander on a comet.  Extraordinary!  This became a cross-cultural event when the ESA asked famous soundtrack composer Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Bladerunner) to compose a theme to promote the mission.  Vangelis became so enthusiastic that he composed a whole album of songs to represent different tasks of the mission.  Enjoy the ESA promo film, with a few comments from the composer, at this link.

Let’s begin to raise our sights a little.  Our world should be about more than Candy Crush, Skype, and driverless cars.  Let’s go back to the moon.  Let’s set goals for missions to Mars.  As remarkable as they are as entertainment, let’s not just throw our money at Passengers, The Martian, and Interstellar.  Let’s agree to fund the kind of scientific development that will fuel these efforts.  They will have lasting economic and cultural benefits as well.  Leadership is key, but public support is necessary to turn this dream into reality. 

Inspiring and uplifting – Hidden Figures

I must say, Hollywood’s trailers are getting better.  Too often they give you most of the film in the trailer and my wife leans over to me in the theater and says, “now we don’t have to go see it!”  But the trailer for “Hidden Figures” made me look forward to the film’s release, and then hope it would be worthy of its subject.  I’ve been a fan of the space program since I was in elementary school.  It led me to want to “be an astronaut when I grew up.”   While 2016 was a spotty year for the film industry, they are starting 2017 with a couple of solid offerings that also bless the national culture.

Hidden Figures is a familiar version of Hollywood history portraying real people overcoming injustice to have a major impact on the country’s direction.  As I watched the movie I kept thinking of my favorite film portraying the early days of the USA space program called “The Right Stuff”.  It represented those days in America as a solely caucasian experience, with the exception of the delicious little scolding of Alan Shepard by an hispanic worker for his habit of imitating the famous Bill Dana impression of what an astronaut might be like if he were a Mexican immigrant.  Other than that, the only bit of diversity was the portrayal of long-suffering wives putting up with chauvinist test pilots.   

Hidden Figures tells the little-known story of three African-American women who were NASA’s “computers”.  They solved the problems of projecting theoretical trajectories and flight paths for the Mercury Program.  The three women were part of a group of African-American women who performed this critical task knowing that the building of a large IBM mainframe computer would soon make even those low-paid, menial tasks obsolete.  The narrative is also focused on the roadblocks thrown in their way by existing Jim Crow restrictions that constituted the law at their workplace in 1961— NASA’s Langley Research Labs in Virginia.  I also put this together, mentally, with the recent movie “Loving” which I have reviewed on this blog.  Both take place in the 1950s and 1960s in Virginia.

Director and co-writer Ted Melfi’s pacing keeps us engaged and the dialogue hits all the proper questions to be asked without being overly melodramatic or preachy.  This is important in order to keep the film’s message on the principles involved without creating an extreme atmosphere of “demons and victims.”  A white supervisor, played with low-key believability by Kirstin Dunst, is an important sub-plot within the film.  Her mental transformation matches that of many of the characters and is done with believability and finesse. In order for art to have the greatest impact on public thought, the characters in a film must have a believable change in their basis of thought, not one that simply reflects the authors views.  It must be based on what we have already seen revealed in the nature of human character.  No one likes going to a theater to be preached to. Film audiences want to be entertained and prevailed upon to think more constructively about our world by having been persuaded to a higher moral concept of man through the players’ reason and moral actions.

A strong example of this happened with one of the “well-meaning” white supervisors who is in charge of the colored computers.  She has made clear that she won’t fight aspects of the system that is blocking advancement for anyone in the “colored” group.  She tells their supervisor that she isn’t against the interests of the advancement of the group.  She is told by one of our heroines, “yes ma’am, I sure you actually believe that.”  Audience reaction at our showing demonstrated that this is still a popular perception of the failings of the “well-meaning” who continue to fail to put intentions into more courageous actions.  When forced to acknowledge the superior talent of the colored group she makes amends by fixing the inequity and securing the proper advancement of all of the women in that section.

Films with an important contribution to make in the development of the nation’s culture and conscience about it’s past should be deliberate.  They should keep the debate about attitudes, rather than simply putting forth stereotypes based on race, religion, or class.  These stereotypes often are as limiting on the “heroes” in the story as the “villains.” This is key because people can’t change their skin color, but they can change they way they think about and treat other people.

This is an overall theme throughout the film: the changing of the perceptions of others.  One of the women changes the thinking of a man who is courting her, and she changes her thought about him.  Yes, racial stereotypes are attacked and progress is made in several little ways that each advance the idea that  people are people, not groups.  A key moment comes when a conflict based around the restrictions of “colored bathrooms” is triumphantly struck down by the senior supervisor of the facility, portrayed by Kevin Costner, who tells the employees around him that “here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

Finally, I also loved the fact that the film was not afraid to portray how much other values were important to these women.  Its clear that marriage, family, and religion were important to the real figures portrayed in this film and I salute the filmmakers for not leaving out that source of high standards and principles when telling the story of their struggles.  In a world where many say we are in a culture war, it’s nice to see a balanced portrait of American life in the 1960s presented on the screen. 

I highly recommend Hidden Figures for families.  It’s PG rated for a few bits of language and a few mild adult conversations.  It’s going in my DVD collection when it comes out!

Movie Review – Fences

When I saw the trailer for this movie, I almost jumped out of my seat.  Denzel Washington has used his considerable talent and “pull” over the last few years to do projects that ask tough questions of his fellow humans.

I thought his turn in “The Equalizer” posed important thoughts about the consequences of one’s actions and how one must juggle what you “can” do with what you “should” do.  His character discovers that while he could take on “the bad guys”, perhaps the ramifications of his actions must be sufficiently pondered.   The impulse to wreak havoc can cause irreversible damage.

His alcoholic pilot in “Flight” forced the audience to make a tough call. Can a man who endangers hundreds of passengers by flying drunk be a hero?  Washington portrays a “high-functioning” drunk who overcomes his self-induced handicap enough to take quick-acting, and radically unthinkable, solutions to a hopeless crisis in mid-air.  I have watched that film several times just to read Denzel’s face and try to interpret his thoughts as he makes several critical ethical choices throughout the film.  The pilot’s ethical thought-processes veer, like a drunk, back and forth down a hallway of choices before his character faces a final resolution.  It’s a painful journey and ends with a mixed result that doesn’t fully satisfy.  And it shouldn’t…

Years ago, during my time working for a local school, I organized regular outings for the students to go see different live performances in St. Louis.  Every year, I sent at least one group of students to see a play at the Black Reparatory Theater.  Whenever they had an August Wilson play, I sent a group.  My wife, in the years before we got to know each other, joined one of those groups as a chaperone and saw “Fences” at the Black Rep.  It made quite an impact on her.  When we saw the movie trailer we both made a mental note to make “Fences” one of our date night movies.

The plot of the play is centered around Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Oscar Nominee Viola Davis).  Troy was Negro League baseball player in the 1930s who would probably have been a major league star if not for Jim Crow restrictions preventing blacks from playing in the major leagues.  Now Troy is a sanitation worker in his 50s raising a teenage son from his marriage to Rose and occasionally sharing some of his meager earnings with a jazz musician son from a previous relationship. 

This dialogue heavy film is a powerful portrayal of life on the edge.  While it’s about a black family in the 1950s, many of the conflicts that arise have deep roots in ambition, disappointment, and the frustration of lost chances during youth.  Obviously, these are human traits and challenges shared by all races. 

I look forward to watching this film again, more than once, if for no other reason that I missed parts of dialogue.  The film is rides the broad shoulders of Washington’s powerful acting and directing. Davis’ portrayal of the conflicts dealing with the “war” between her husband, his sons, and his commitment to Rose give Washington a worthy character to spar and court with.  Steven McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of Jim Bono, Troy’s friend who has been with him through trials and triumphs, is chummy when needed but also stands ready to give gentle and keen counsel to Troy when he seems destined to make another major life-altering mistake.

While sprinkled with some adult language and mature discussions, Fences is an important statement about the state of families and fidelities of all sorts that every family should watch, discuss, and dissect.   Wilson’s play won a well deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and is part of his ten play series centered in his hometown of Pittsburgh. 

I don’t suppose anything can help a white-bread suburban-raised boy like me understand the black experience in America, but I think efforts like Fences can help us be more aware of the challenges that few other ethnic groups in the USA have had to face in the last four centuries of our existence in North America.  Run, do not walk, to see Fences.