Some time ago, one of my nephews took me aside and asked me if, for his birthday (which is this week), I could make him a toy snake... mission accomplished.
It's quite cute, if I do say so myself, and certainly a lot friendlier-looking than Kaa from Disney's The Jungle Book. Of course, Disney took quite a bit of liberty with Rudyard Kipling's original character. In his stories Kaa is actually a friend to Mowgli, and saves the young boy from the Bandar-log (monkey people) by hypnotizing them. He accidentally hypnotizes Baloo and Bagheera as well, but Mowgli is able to snap them out of it because, as a human, he is immune to being hypnotized by the snake.
Speaking of Kipling and snakes, the ones in Gunga Din, the 1939 classic film based on his 1892 poem by the same name, are definitely not of the friendly variety. The Thugs have a pit full of poisonous serpents into which they are threatening to toss our heroes. Creepy, creepy.
Happy Mother's Day to all moms out there, especially my own. I'm at my parents' house right now; we just had a big Mother's Day breakfast, are heading out to church shortly, and then will be coming back with more family for lunch. My parents just got a new kitten the day before yesterday, as their old cat had died in the fall. She's pretty cute, though inclined to hiss at Jack (the dog), who is likewise unimpressed. He keeps turning his head and looking in the other direction whenever she's in the room... he seems to think that if he ignores her presence, she'll disappear. She is also directly responsible for me getting no work done last night:
Oh, and I got my bowl back from the Clay Cafe; it turned out okay, I guess:
Mother's Day is tomorrow, and I'm heading out to my parents' place to spend time with my mom and various other members of the family. My mother is pretty amazing; she raised nine children and now loves spending time with her 25 (so far) grandchildren. We'll all be together next weekend for our annual Fam Jam, something the whole family looks forward to. The fact that so many strong-minded, opinionated progeny are still best friends as well as siblings is a testament to her upbringing. We won the Mom lottery and we know it.
I've been watching A Tree Grows In Brooklyn this week, the 1945 film about a year in the life of the Nolans, a poor family living in Brooklyn in the early 1900's. The story is an examination of various characters and their relationships within the family as they deal with the stresses of trying to not only survive, but provide their children with a better life than they have had. One of the most interesting of these relationships is the strained one between Katie Nolan, the mother, and her daughter Francie. Francie adores her charming, irresponsible father who loves his family but doesn't provide for it. She resents her mother, however, who seems hard and unsympathetic as she struggles to pay the bills and plan for the future. This is not a film that presents examples of perfect parents and children, but rather is an examination of flawed characters who love each other yet frequently hurt each other. This isn't a light-hearted movie, but it is a very good one about keeping a family together through good times and bad.
Irving Berlin's was born on May 11, 1888. He lived to be 101 years old, passing away in 1989. Not only did he live through most of the 20th century, he provided a soundtrack for it. He is one of my favourite songwriters; I was extremely happy when our choir sang a medley of his music in our Christmas concert. But rather than raving on about him, I'll share the opinions of a few musical connoisseurs who are far more competent than I: "It's a rare gift which sets Irving Berlin apart from all other contemporary songwriters. It is a gift which qualifies him, along with Stephen Foster, Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg, as a great American minstrel. He has caught and immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about, and what we believe." - Douglas Moore
"Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world—simplified, clarified and glorified." - Jerome Kern
"I want to say at once that I frankly believe that Irving Berlin is the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.... His songs are exquisite cameos of perfection, and each one of them is as beautiful as its neighbor. Irving Berlin remains, I think, America's Schubert. But apart from his genuine talent for song-writing, Irving Berlin has had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. It was Irving Berlin who was the very first to have created a real, inherent American music.... Irving Berlin was the first to free the American song from the nauseating sentimentality which had previously characterized it, and by introducing and perfecting ragtime he had actually given us the first germ of an American musical idiom; he had sown the first seeds of an American music." - George Gershwin
I thought that I'd start occasionally sharing a short clip from a film that I enjoy. To begin with, I'm going to post a scene from one of my very favourite movies: You Can't Take It With You. In this scene, Tony (Jimmy Stewart) meets his fiancee's wacky family for the first time and while he's there an IRS agent also comes to call:
“Stories are not just entertainment, not to me. A story records and transmits the experience of being human. It teaches us what it’s like to be who we are. Nothing but art can do this. There is no science that can capture the inner life. No words can describe it directly. We can only speak of it in metaphors. We can only say: it’s like this—this story, this picture, this song.” -Andrew Klavan
We had our last concert of the season last Sunday night and it went pretty well. It was a combined concert with the Halifax All City Boys Honour Choir, the Chebucto Community Singers and our choir, the Dartmouth Choral Society. The boys sang first and were delightful and- impressively- had all of their music memorized. Chebucto went next and sang a few pieces; they were really good as well. We were on last and sang only two pieces because we did the Les Miserables medley, which is in itself seventeen minutes long. I was really worried, because I have a solo in that piece and, adding to my general nervousness, I was still recovering from my cold and was afraid my voice would crack. I was downing cough drops and water right up to when we went on. Fortunately I made it through without incident, and as it happened, the trouble came from another quarter. Our baritone soloist in Les Mis had gone to Toronto earlier in the week for work, but was supposed to be back on Saturday, a day before the concert. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, his flight was cancelled. He was then supposed to fly out on Sunday morning, but again the flight was cancelled and at concert time he was still in Toronto. One of our tenors stepped in to sing his part and did as well as could be expected on short notice, but at one point didn't come in when he was supposed to which was awkward, though we covered it up pretty well... I think. Thanks a lot, Air Canada. Chebucto then joined us on stage and we sang two pieces together, one directed by their director and one by ours. All in all, everything went well and the concert was well received by the audience, which was pretty big- thankfully, since we have to split the proceeds three ways. We're done now for the season and, though I love choir, I'm ready for a break.
The idiom "put your best foot forward" means "to embark on a journey or task with purpose and gusto," or to "embark on an undertaking with as much determination and effort as possible." I've always understood it to be encouragement to put your very best into whatever it is you're attempting to do. But where did this expression come from? There seem to be several theories about its origins. The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings states that the expression dates back to the late 1400's. The problem is, it doesn't cite a source for this claim. Some sources hypothesize that the idiom owes something to the widely held belief that the left hand- or foot- was unlucky or less skilled, and so it was encouraged to always lead off with the right (aha! right hand privilege!) Others suggest that this expression is merely literal advice to lead off with whichever foot is stronger when starting on a journey or activity.
One suggested explanation for the origin of "put your best foot forward" which seems sensible to me dates back to the days when courtly bows were in vogue. When young men and women were learning to bow-or curtsy, as the case may be- they were encouraged to place their shapelier leg or foot to the fore in order to appear to the greatest advantage. It seems distinctly possible that the expression owes its beginnings to this practice.
However this idiom came about, the first literary use of it- or something similar to it- is found, not surprisingly, in Shakespeare. In King John (written in the late 1500's) it is expressed in this manner: "Nay, but make haste; the better foot before." It is also found in another, slightly later source: the 1613 poem A Wife by Sir Thomas Overbury which has a line which reads "Hee is still setting the best foot forward." So that's what is known about the idiom "put your best foot forward." No one is really sure which- if any- of these origin stories is correct, so you can pick which one you like best and go with it.
I found the documentary Tim's Vermeer to be really absorbing. Penn and Teller do a good job of putting together the fascinating narrative of their friend Tim Jenison's attempts to prove or disprove the claim that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce his paintings. Tim comes off as a likable everyman, though he's obviously extremely wealthy... and a bit obsessive. He's extremely creative, and good at working with his hands: he's got a garage/ workshop full of inventions in various stages of development, and which work with varying degrees of success. He seems like a man who likes to tinker and figure out how things work, and the controversial puzzle about Vermeer's painting methods is his latest enthusiasm.
The part of the documentary which shows Tim painting his father's portrait using a small mirror at an angle is extremely interesting. It certainly goes a long way to convince viewers that the hypothesis about Vermeer's methods is at least possible on a practical level. I was impressed by it, but found myself thinking, "It can't possibly be that easy." Besides it- I should imagine- taking some time to get used to painting from a reflection, there's also the necessity of being able to blend the paint colours and hues competently, which takes some skill and practice. I found myself skeptical that Jenison sat down and produced this picture on his first attempt. It's not that I doubt that he did it, but rather that there weren't a few crumpled canvasses from previous efforts in the trash can. Unless, of course, Tim has had some training in painting, which is certainly possible but I don't recall being mentioned. I just find it unlikely that a raw beginner could sit down and produce a picture that well done in one attempt. The process and its results, however, made me want to try it myself, to see if it actually was that easy. Whether I'll ever get around to it is another question.
Tim's rebuilding Vermeer's studio to scale is an impressive accomplishment, and a testament both to his dedication to this project and to his unlimited funds. I found myself thinking at different times during the film that it was a good thing that Jenison owns a successful tech company, because everything he does obviously requires not only a lot of time and effort, but money as well. Not only does he exactly reproduce the studio and all the decor necessary for the Music Lesson portrait, he travels to England to meet with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera. While there, he also gets to see the real painting The Music Lesson, which is in Queen Elizabeth's private collection at Windsor Castle. It's not as if just anyone could get in to see it; I've done the tour at Windsor, and I assure you that the painting isn't on it.
The part of the film which chronicles Tim's painting of the Vermeer reproduction in my opinion does a better job of showing the time and work involved in the process than the earlier scenes about his father's picture. You get a better sense of time passing; the work is exacting and tedious, and Tim is often tired and sometimes frustrated. This seems a bit more realistic, at least to me. The final result is impressive, and one is forced to conclude that it is certainly a distinct possibility that Vermeer employed a similar method to aid his artistic efforts.
The film Tim's Vermeer and also the book Vermeer's Camera suggest a very interesting- and creditable- method which Vermeer could possibly have used to produce his paintings. Inevitably, this leads the viewer to wonder just what this says about Vermeer's art, and more broadly, about what constitutes art. If, indeed, Vermeer employed a camera obscura to capture the images which he painted, does this make him less of an artist?
Certainly Vermeer had to master painting techniques, the fundamentals of the art, but if he wasn't doing the actual drawing himself, and was painting from a reflection, was he a real artist or a merely a competent craftperson? And does it matter? Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt a good deal of the city of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was a mathematician and scientist who used these skills to produce many great edifices. Yet I would argue that the buildings he designed- such as St Paul's Cathedral- are just as much works of art as they are works of construction.
I suppose the real question is, what constitutes art? My usual rule of thumb is that if I can do it, it probably isn't art, which is why I have no time for Jackson Pollack's splatters and dribbles. But, even if I could paint a picture using a reflected image, I couldn't do it with anywhere near the skill and beauty seen in Vermeer's work. Was he an artist or an artisan, or both? Whatever you decide, it is inarguable that Johannes Vermeer gifted us with many works of great beauty for which we can be deeply grateful.
Whew... it was a busy day yesterday. Well, I don't honestly know if work was busier than usual, or it's just that I'm still feeling pretty tired from being sick. Either way, I was all in by the time 5:30 rolled around, but couldn't go home because our choir's final concert for the season is on Sunday night and we had a practice scheduled. The concert features three different choirs- including ours- all doing a few of our own pieces and then forming a mass choir to sing two pieces together. Last night was the night we were getting together with the other choirs to practice our combined pieces. It went fairly smoothly and we got out of practice early which was good because I had agreed to go with a couple of sisters and friends to the Clay Cafe to paint some pottery afterwards. It was good fun; talking, laughing, and painting were exactly what I needed to unwind. I did a bowl:
We've left our projects there to be fired. They'll be ready for pick up next Tuesday, so I'll show a picture then of the finished product.
“E Concrematio. Confirmatio--out ot the fire comes firmness, through stress we pass to strength.” ― Charles F. Binns