May 2019 news

May 2019 newsletter with links on TODO
topics: newsletter
created: 26 Apr 2019; modified: 21 May 2019; status: in progress; confidence: log; importance: 0

This is the May 2019 edition of the newsletter; previous, April 2019/2018 summary newsletter (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.








  • Sicario (2015)

  • Dialogues des Carmélites opera

    An unusual modern opera (1950s), based on a screenplay inspired by the play production of a novella (which led to an ugly legal dispute), by some unfamiliar names; I initially was going to give this a pass but the local opera group’s brochure praised it and I liked the visuals of the Met’s preview.

    The historical martyrdom in question is simple to describe: a convent of nuns was dispersed by the French Revolution’s Terror, but continued religious activities, were caught, and were guillotined; for opera’s purposes, they earned immortality by collectively singing a hymn on the way to the guillotine (amusingly, WP says there is considerable disagreement on what was sung, which one would think would be difficult to disagree on). The opera doesn’t particularly elaborate on this, proceeding linearly from the protagonist entering as a novice, to death of the cloister’s mother superior with ominous premonitions, the expulsion of the nuns by soldiers of the French state, and finally their reappearance in a prison cell prior to the mass execution, which the still-free protagonist witnesses and voluntarily joins at the last second, dying with them.

    Eschewing the lavish costuming of Carmen for its cast of nuns and the varied scenes of Ring for almost a single stage setting (a large cross-shaped stone-paved area in the center of the stage), D embraces an intensely austere approach: with sharp stagelighting on the cross and total darkness everywhere else, the black-white habits of the nuns means they appear by magic when they turn toward the audience and the white flashes, while they vanish into darkness the instant they step off the cross. The cross area, standing in for all locations in the cloister and times in the play (how much time passes? it must be years given the chronology of the French Revolution, but there’s no way to tell), regularly creates uncertainty, and combined with the constant disappearing acts, there is a phantasmagoric feel which emphasizes the monologues and dialogues.

    The singing struck me as overall being much less interesting, suffering from a lack of drama (‘dialogues’ admittedly tells you to not expect as much as, say, Wagner), and I was surprised at how apparently little inspiration it takes from traditional Catholic music (which must be one of the richest veins of religious music in existence, particularly for Western music). I can remember the mother superior’s death scene and of course the final march to the guillotine, but I draw a blank on the rest.

    I was left less disappointed than puzzled, feeling I was missing a lot, as if the whole opera were simply incomplete. Many subplots which appeared important were dropped without a word (the fugitive priest, the informer blacksmith, the fate of the protagonist’s brother), and characters are badly underdeveloped. The protagonist Blanche initially comes off as so neurotic that one feels she needs less a prioress than a psychiatrist, and is seeking refuge in the Carmelites for entirely inappropriate reasons, with no serious discussion of her personal growth. The mother superior’s scenes take up an enormous fraction of the opera’s running time, and while they are quite impressive (it can’t be easy to sing opera like that while lying crippled on top of a bunch of sacks), the upshot seems to be that her death was a difficult one and her decades of faith & virtue & meditation upon death all proved entirely useless, and she had failed to foresee & protect her sisters. Her final act is to order one of her nuns to watch over Blanche and see to her spiritual growth. It is unclear how her death or the overseeing ties into anything else, and I was further perplexed by how the nuns are depicted as eager and thrilled to martyr themselves, being blocked only by the new mother superior’s strict orders, and finally succeeding when her back is turned—which like Blanche’s original motivation for entering religious orders smacks of satire rather than sacredness. Finally, Blanche’s character shows hardly any development, and we ultimately have no idea of why she suddenly changes her mind and voluntarily joins her imprisoned sisters to be martyred.

    As much as it invokes the great themes of the religious life and taking orders, religious persecution, the terror of death, and the conflict between living & dying for one’s faith, I find that its name is misleading as it actually says little about any of these themes.

  • Terminator 2 (“The tech of Terminator 2—an oral history”)

  • It Follows (2014)