Friday, July 31, 2009

Grey Gardens (2009)

This is not the classic 1976 documentary by the Maysles brothers, the movie that made the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis famous. It is a recent HBO dramatic film, now available on DVD. I recommend it for all fans of the 1976 film (a category that definitely includes me!).

It is worth watching for at least two things:

First, the uncanny impersonations by Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange of the beloved eccentrics, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. If you ever doubted the brilliance of these two, here is the evidence you need!

Second, this film tells the story of the making of the original film but also, through flashbacks, the backstory that is only hinted at in the documentary.

The new film sheds a lot of light on the big question, the one that occurs to anybody on the most superficial acquaintance with their story: how did these two get from that to this?

They were members of the American aristocracy, living in a mansion on the sea. They seemed at one time to have had talent and promise, and apparently some hopes of careers in show business. They ended up living in such squalor, with dozens of feral cats and racoons and opossums have the run of the house, that the Suffolk County Board of Health conducted a series of "inspections" (or "raids," depending on your perspective) that resulted in an order for their eviction. Cousin Jackie enabled them to stay in their home by contributing $32,000 toward cleaning up the crumbling building -- a lengthy project that involved removing more than 1,000 bags of trash.

What the Hell had happened?

Oddly enough, the documentary conveys a less dark, less depressing answer than the dramatic film does. It suggests that they were simply too unworldy to function in the workaday world, ineffectual angels of art, beating in the void their luminous wings in vain. (Hat-tip to Matthew Arnold here.)

The dramatic film depicts a more complex situation. After Big Edie's marriage to Phelan Beale came apart and, subsequently, her affair with her childrens' music teacher evaporated, she withdrew more and more into Grey Gardens, eventually becoming (as far as I could tell) seriously agoraphobic. (Notice that in both films she never leaves the house after this point in her life, and can usually be found in the yellow bedroom.) Since being completely alone would be unbearably painful, she pressures little Edie to come home from New York, where she is trying to start a career on Broadway. The two then spin out into their curiously interesting folie à deux.

Notice that Big Edie died within a year of the completion of the documentary. My guess is that this was not a coincidence. In the dramatic film, she tries hard (even rather cruelly) to stop Little Edie from attending the premier. After that, I would imagine that helping to promote the film took Little Edie away from the house and, left with only herself for company, Big Edie crumbled. Like I say, though, I am guessing here.

Part of the reason I think all this happened was that both these people were women. To some extent, what I mean by that is the feminist thing: their artistic ambitions were thwarted by The Patriarchy. The dramatic film shows old Phelan Beale seriously angered to see Big Edie singing and dancing at all, even in her own home.

But there is more to it than that. Try to imagine an aging man and his son living alone in a dilapidated mansion, surviving on a meager trust fund until it evanesces, just singing, bickering, reminiscing, dancing, inventing family legends about how various villains have thwarted them, and refraining from making any contribution to the economic system. I don't think that we would see that as charmingly eccentric. Our world tolerates that sort of thing in women (just barely!) but not in men. In a way, women are freer then men. Admittedly, though, this particular sort of freedom is not very valuable.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Racism is the New Witchcraft


You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this. [Later: the video has been removed, but you can get the facts here.]

I wonder if Prof. Gates finds this a teachable moment. He might learn that, just as angrily hurling racial epithets is hurtful, so angrily hurling accusations of racism is hurtful. Among the many consequences of his intemperate response to her 911 call about an apparent break-in his home, he has caused actual suffering on the part of Lucia Whelan, apparently a completely inoffensive person.

In our culture, the charge of racism is like the charge of witchcraft during the Middle Ages. It alleges an offense so terrible that, unlike battery, fraud, homicide and countless other offenses, it cannot possibly be justified. Almost every other offense comes with conditions (eg., self-defense) that can show it was the right thing to do. But not this one. Racism can no more be justified than being in league with Satan can be justified.

The offense itself is so evil that a mere accusation, even before evidence is brought forth, is damaging in itself, as you can see in this video.

Academics in the race industry have been preaching for years about "words that wound." Maybe they should listen to their own sermons.

I hope it goes without saying that I am not taking back my earlier claim that he should not have been arrested. That is a separate issue. Nor do I blame Gates one bit for immediately suspecting he was being profiled. It is in fact the first thing that came into my head when I saw the first news reports about his arrest. That too is a separate issue. This one is about the ethics of speech.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

William B. Macomber, 1929-2009

I recently got the devastating, long-dreaded news that my old teacher and friend, Bill Macomber died. He died on Father's Day, just shy of his eightieth birthday.

To the left is a picture of him in his office, talking to students, from the University of California at Santa Barbara yearbook and dates from about 1970. I have kept it with me ever since and it is now on the wall of my office at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Below is a picture I took of him in the summer of 1991, when he was living in a cheap apartment in a scary neighborhood in Oakland. He is holding a cigarette holder, a cheap lighter, and one of his half-Camels. (Bill thought that cutting his cigarettes in half would help him to smoke less.)

Maybe the best memorial I can present him here is to offer a short segment from an essay I wrote recently in which I talk about him. The essay is an attack on the current practice of evaluating university teaching solely on the basis of anonymous student evaluations:

I think I can best introduce this problem by telling a story. Unfortunately, it is a true one. During the sixties there was a professor of philosophy, William B. Macomber, whom I knew both as his student and his teaching assistant. Of all the teachers I had, he is the one who had, and continues to have, thirty years later, the most powerful influence on the way I think and the way I teach. He was, it is very safe to say, a controversial teacher. He was most notorious for his Introduction to Philosophy course, which had an enrollment of over 700 students. There was only one assigned reading: one of Plato’s “erotic dialogues” (one semester it was the Symposium and the next time it was the Phaedrus). The exams were all multiple choice, and were meant simply to make sure that students did the readings and attended the lecture. The only other assignment was to write a paper. The lectures were brilliant, but otherwise hard to describe. They were a mixture of argument, epigram, and anecdote. The anecdotes were mainly about his own life. His basic thesis was that the ideals envisioned by the ancient Greeks, especially Plato, have never been surpassed, and that our own civilization is in comparison, denatured and decadent. It has been corrupted in every aspect, but especially in its educational system, by the influence of Christianity. He frequently referred to his own homosexuality, relating it to the homosexuality of Plato, and using the very different attitudes toward homosexuality in Christianity and the Hellenic world to illustrate the (in his view) deep divide between these two civilizations. In their papers, the students were to defend their views on one of the issues touched on in the lectures, and it was expected that in many cases they would of course disagree with the professor.

Like the lectures, student reactions to Macomber are difficult to describe. As I have said, he was controversial: by this I mean that students either loved him or hated him. Someone who is universally loathed is not controversial, no more than one who is universally loved. This of course was no accident. In another of his courses he handed out copies of an essay by the classicist, William Arrowsmith, called “Turbulent Teachers: The Heart of Education,” to justify he own educational practices. In that essay, Arrowsmith argued that the principal aim of a liberal education, especially in the humanities, is to show the student that “a great humanity exists.” Since human consciousness does not normally and naturally have much contact with the ways of thinking represented by the great creators of culture, the function of the teacher must be primarily to go against the grain of our ordinary ways of thinking. Inevitably, this means they must upset us and stir us up. Obviously, this is what Macomber was doing. It was widely believed by the faculty in our department that his courses inspired more people to become philosophy majors than those of any other instructor. Partly for this reason, and also because of his having recently published a distinguished book, some of us were confident he would get tenure. He didn’t, and he never worked in the academy again.

I have often thought of him as an early casualty of the anonymous student course evaluations. At the time Macomber was fired, our department had only been using them for a year or two. All the people who were teaching at that time had developed their pedagogical styles in a completely different regime, in which teaching quality was typically either evaluated by faculty or simply ignored. Some of them were still using methods and approaches that could not well survive in the new system. Those who did not change fast enough would have to face some unpleasant consequences, such as, if one is not already protected by tenure, being fired.

Of course, it would be difficult, after all these years, to show that this is what actually happened. (For whatever this information might be worth, I asked him five years ago about the evaluations he got in those courses, and he said that all he could remember was that "they were dreadful," and that they were noticed by the people who had control over his tenure decision.) However, what is really important is to realize that this is just the sort of thing that would happen in a regime of numbers-driven student evaluation of teaching. Arrowsmithian pedagogy is not well adapted to survive in the numbers-dominated academy. The new regime rewards people who can identify, and practice, behavioral strategies that please students. But that is obvious, and it is not the point I wish to make here. The point is that not all strategies of pleasing others are the same, and the new regime systematically discriminates between such strategies. Some of the things that we do that please others are displeasing to no one. They may not please everyone, but they are inoffensive. Others are pleasing to some but displeasing to others. Macomber was a master of the latter sort of strategy. It is entirely the wrong sort of strategy to be using in the numbers-dominated regime. If one student gives me a 5 (the highest score in our department) on the question about my overall effectiveness and another gives me a 1, they do not merely cancel each other out and disappear from the world. They average to a 2.5, which is substantially below average in my department. If I make one student loathe me, I have to get at least one student to love me, just to approach the semblance of mediocrity.

When such a system is linked to pay-raises for teachers, it is obvious that it will result in a massive (if subtle on the micro-level) change in pedagogical behavior. My point is not that this change represents a shift from a superior style of teaching to an inferior style. It is rather that it constitutes an arbitrary narrowing of the array of available styles. Defenders of anonymous student course evaluations sometimes point out that they have virtually done away with a certain obnoxious method of teaching, memorably embodied by John Houseman in the film and television series The Paper Chase, in which the professor motivates students to study by humiliating the ill-prepared in front of the whole class. This, I think, is substantially true. I would only point out that it does more than that. It harshly discourages the use of any pedagogical technique that can be expected to be abrasive, annoying, or upsetting to anyone. In the current regime, the most rational course is to choose strategies that are inoffensive.

Here is the obituary that appeared in the Redlands Daily Facts for July 2:

William Burns Macomber, PhD, born in Redlands on July 13, 1929, he passed away here June 21, 2009. His siblings John, Robert, and Mary Gene preceded him in death. From childhood, he was dedicated to achieving academic excellence. Upon graduating from Santa Clara University, he served 3 years in the Army during the Korean War. He then resumed his studies abroad at the University of Heildelberg and at the Institute Catholique in Paris. Returning to North America he continued his studies at the University of Toronto Pontifical Institute where he taught for 9 years and earned his PhD. His thesis on Martin Heidegger, "The Anatomy of Disillusion," was published in 1968. He taught at UCSB from 1965 to 1973. His latter years were spent in his home town of Redlands.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gatesgate

I find it hard to believe that American conservatives are defending the Cambridge police for arresting this man, a fifty eight year old scholar who walks with a cane, for speaking angrily to a policeman in his own home (ie., on his front porch). The right wing talking heads are saying that Gates was the wrongdoer here: the wrong he did was that of being "disrespectful" toward an officer of the law.

That is not a crime and should not be. Being "respectful" toward someone because they have a badge may or may not be prudent, wise, or moral, but it clearly is not your legal duty and should not be.

What kind of country would this be if "disrespect" for an officer of the state were a punishable criminal offense?

And surely, no sounds you are making on your own property, provided the sheer decibel level is not disturbing others, should be treated as "disturbing the peace" or "disorderly conduct."

Three things about this case seem obvious to me:

1. Prof. Gates should not have responded with instant anger with police answered a report of a break-in at his home.

2. Barack Obama should not have said that the police acted "stupidly" before knowing the facts. (He seemed to think that Gates was being arrested as an intruder after having proved that he wasn't one.)

3. Officer Crowley should not have arrested this man, taken him away in handcuffs, and forced him to submit to the above mug shot, simply for speaking angrily to a police officer in his own home.

Of these three, the worse offense by far -- by far -- is the third, because it is the only one that involves an assault on the person of a human being who is not violating anyone else's rights.

The fact that there are conservatives who don't get this seems to show an unbecoming desire to bow and scrape before authority.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Obama Health Care Speech: Pure Advertising

I've been lazy about following what the Democrats and the President are doing with "health care reform." I just watched Obama's big health care speech, hoping he would remedy my ignorance.

I thought there was a chance that he would do the FDR fireside chat thing, clearly explaining what is wrong and just how he will fix things.

From that point of view this hour was a complete waste of time. Here are my notes on what he said:

His plan will limit the amount the insurance companies can “force you” to pay (apparently referring to deductibles). You will be able to keep your own health insurance if you are insured.You will be able to keep it if you lose your job.If don’t have insurance, you will “be able” to get some. It will not increase deficits. 2/3 of cost will be paid for with waste removal, and with getting rid of some current health-related subsidies. The other one 1/3 will come from some undetermined source other than tax increases to the middle class and going further into debt. He mentioned raising taxes on people who make one million dollars a year. He accused an unnamed Republican of wanting to “break” him instead of seriously trying to reform the medical system. He also complained about something some other Republican said about him, I can't remember what. [BTW, shouldn't it be beneath the President's dignity to be whining about people criticizing him?].

In his opening remarks, that’s pretty much all he said.

He then answered ten questions (which gives you some idea how long his answers were).

To Jake Tapper’s question about what sacrifices we will have to make, he said that we will to give up paying for things that don’t make us better. The first example gave he gave was running new tests when you go to a new doctor instead of using the test your last doctor did because they don’t have a record of the old test. The other was that he will make doctors use the cheapest form of a given medication.

He twice mentioned that he inherited a deficit from Bush. And claimed that the “old policies” would have caused a bigger deficit than the enormous one that he contributed [no explanation of this stunning comment was offered, and the press did not question him about it].

All he did was to tell us what good effects the plan will have, and how it will have no costs at all for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Effects, not causes. This is exactly the sort of information we get when we watch TV commercials.

The trouble is that we don't need to know how most of the products advertised on TV work, while we do need to know the details about how this overhaul of the medical system is supposed to work. We need to know that in order to rationally evaluate what he is proposing. Basically, he is just saying "trust me, this will have only good effects, and on a massive scale, and will cost you nothing."

In my opinion, this shows contempt for the intelligence of his audience, for two reasons. First, he is simply not engaging our reason at all. He is merely making a sales pitch that assumes we will take his word for whatever he says. The other reason is of course that only an utter fool would believe in massive good health care effects that have zero costs (that can't be shoved onto rich people).

The only question remaining is whether the American people are sensible enough to realize that he has not told them anything that would pursuade a rational being. I think they are.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Golden Age of Human Decency

I have been listening to Prof. Jeremy Adams' excellent lecture series, Neolithic Europe (Teaching Company, 2005). I am fascinated by his account of the transition from the paleolitic (hunter-gatherers) to the neolithic (agriculture and pastoralism), a sort of cultural earthquake which began around 10,000 BC (end of last ice age) in the Middle East. It involved, says Adams, a "moral revolution" in addition to the more obvious technological one. His account confirms something I have long suspected: that the preceding era, the age of hunter-gatherers, was the golden age of human morality, and that this "revolution" was a terrible fall from grace, whose horrors still afflict us today.

Here are the main points I take away from his account (which is mainly based on studies of hunter-gather cultures that survived into modern times):
The paleolithics lived in tiny groups in which they dealt with others on a face-to-face basis. In such a world, individual human life is precious. Even the life of a malefactor has value. These cultures try to avoid imposing the death penalty, and even exile is viewed with distaste.

Throughout the paleolithic and well into the neolithic, war as we think of it was rare to nonexistent. (I would say there is a big ethical difference, which is not just a matter of degree, between raiding and feuding on the one hand and war on the other.)

Paleo cultures were egalitarian. Decisions about the group were typically made by the elders, who could be men or women. Decision-making authority was thus based on age, which indicates possession of natural values such as experience and relative wisdom.
Paleo social organization was often either matriarcal or matrilineal or both. Well into the neolithic, the principal deity was often female.

With the neolithic came a population explosion and people became more expendable. [They lose what Jeffers called "the value of rarity."]

At the same time, decision-making authority is based more and more on brute force (the strong man) and inheritance (ie., on convention) instead of natural merit. Broad, long-range social organization begins.

Meanwhile, stores of neolithic food surpluses become thief-magnets. People use the new, coercive forms of organization to steal the food of others. Proto-states arise and, with them, organized warfare. Large numbers of morally innocent human beings are coldly slaughtered.

Among the goods stolen in wars are human beings. Slavery is born.

Life-long monogamy is the paleo form of marriage. In the neo world, polygamy arises: mainly polygyny, which priviledges men. It also increases class inequality, as it draws potential mates away from lower-caste men. If it spreads far enough, many lower caste men will not be able to reproduce at all. [I also wonder if it also tends to propagate the thuggish traits that enable one to achieve a position of artificial privilege.]

Beginning in the neolithic, there is a tendency for human wealth, regardless of who produces it, to be channeled to a privileged few. The first taxes are collected.

Because people now live in the same place from generation to generation (no need to follow the mastodon herds) they acquire special holy places (eg., Stonehenge) where they can go and perform the same repetitive rituals in the same place over and over again. Organized religion begins to displace the individualistic spirituality of the paleos. [I would add that this makes possible priestly castes, with coercive power undreamt of by the medicine men of the paleolithic.] Eventually, the religious practice of human sacrifice [the ultimate expression of the subordination of the individual to the group] begins.
At the heart of the moral revolution of the neolithic is a sort of moral anesthesia, caused by a number of factors, not the least of which is the organization of activity under that the Nazis called the F├╝hrerprinzip. It is an occasional convenient blindness (which could never become constant lest culture itself should collapse) to the inviolability of the individual.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sotomayor: Decisions or Speeches?

As everyone knows, Judge Sotomayor's legal opinions are much more moderate than her off the bench speeches and writings. Which should we believe?

Clearly, we should believe the off the bench statements, for a very simple reason.

I'll give you a clue: the same profile -- off the bench writings much more scary than on the bench -- also fit Judge Robert Bork at the time of his confirmation hearings. Why do you suppose Democrats were having hot flashes about his scholarly writings?

The life of a circuit or appellate court judge is very constrained. Of course, in this rule-bound, overregulated world, we are all constrained in a way. But there is a big difference between me and one of these judges.

I am sure the village of Oregon WI could come over right now and "write me up" for several violations I am committing on my property without my even knowing I have committed them. This is true of most Americans who own anything. There are several reasons we are not all paying fines, and possibly doing time in the pokey: that a) the magistrates just don't have the resources to enforce all the rules and regulations that are on the books, b) they are actually decent people and don't want to harass us, which means that c) they don't really care what we do, as long as the mischief is not too great. We are protected against the massive, unpredictable, and incomprehensible tangle of rules by our own insignificance.

With a judge it is very different. There are all sorts of ways a judge's decision can be wrong, so that there are plenty of rules that apply to them, just as to us. But there is a big difference: in a judicial decision, there is always a loser, and the loser always has a strong motive to appeal if they can find a relevant flaw in the decision. When your judgment loses the appeal, the higher judges give a detailed account of why you were wrong, and I've read some stinging ones. It must feel like being a law student and having your exams graded in public.

Writing opinion pieces and giving speeches is obviously very different. There are few constraints and little enforcement. Sure, someone may disagree with you and say why. But you are free to ignore them, and the level of rigor in what they say may be such that you won't take them very seriously if you don't.

Of these two, judging on a lower court and writing opinion pieces, judging on the Supreme Court is a lot more like the second situation than it is like the first. There is no appeal from its decisions. They can overrule themselves, but how likely is that? And even if they do, and it is not just a matter of the justices changing their minds, it is not like being publicly spanked by their superiors.

Supreme court justices are like law students who grade their own exams.

To see how Sotomayor will act on the SC, look at how she acted in the situation that most resembles it. If she suddenly retracts all her extreme pronouncements, as she did today, the big question is which do you believe: the pronouncement or the retraction?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mediocrities or Freaks?



I think it was Michael Kinsley who said "a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth."

I don't want to endorse everything King is saying here by a long shot. I wouldn't call MJ a "child molester" -- wasn't he found not guilty in a court of law? And it certainly isn't true that there is nothing good about him. As comments on Michael Jackson the human being, these are way over the top.

But on the wider cultural issue the Congressman has a point.

Tocqueville and Mill worried that the transition from aristocracy to democracy that was then under way would bring a certain change for the worse in the outlook of the average person. Before the revolution, when we looked outward, beyond our village at the greater world, who did we see? There was of course the faceless herd of undifferentiated individuals like ourselves. But we did not find them very interesting. Above this mass, however, there were a few holy or noble individuals who were vividly differentiated: the Pope, the tribal chieftain, the local lord, the king. There was no one else to get our attention. (Ortega claims that "noble" originally meant simply "well known.") We thought of these people as representing ideals of holiness or heroic prowess. (We were wrong about that, of course, but that is irrelevant to my point here.) That was one of the reasons we sometimes sat around the fireplace telling stories about their exploits.

After the revolution, society does not systematically present any one type of person to our view. I used to think that this means that under a democracy we will tend to pay attention to mere mediocrities -- more exactly, to celebrities, ie. people who are well known on account of their well-knownness. Obviously, that is to a large extent what actually did happen.

But this weird MJ obsession of ours does not fit this pattern. He was not a mediocrity at all. No, I think the reason he is getting so much attention is that he was, simply, a freak. Sorry, but there's no nice way to say that without blunting my point. And you have to admit that this is indeed what he was: a seriously weird person. For some reason, we seem to find this endlessly fascinating. We just cannot get enough of his wonderful weirdness.

Here I think King raises the right question. What does this fascination say about who we are, about our spiritual depths (if any)?

If there is some human being or other person (eg., a god) that we want to contemplate day after day, it should be because of positive things about him or her.

Here is another place where I differ from King. He is a politician and government employee, and his heroes are government heroes: fallen military personel and fire fighters. My own heroes are a very different bunch. I think of them as people who make things, whether what they make is a philsophical theory or a better mousetrap. (Come to think of it, the ideal philosophical theory would be a sort of spiritual mousetrap.) These are the creators in the realms of art, science, technology, and industry.

Whether you prefer my sort of heroes or Kings, or have yet another preference, shouldn't we try to pay more attention to them? More and more, that seems to mean letting your TV cool off for a while.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Sarah: A Duty to Serve?

If Sarah Palin thinks she can avoid "political blood sport" by resigning as governor of Alaska, she's got another think coming. The knives will stay out until she is no threat to Obama or anyone else in the political establishment.

One of the many negative things that have been said about her in the last 24 hrs. seems pretty silly to me. Several people, including Sen. Karen Murakowsky and the Democratic National Committee, have said in effect that it is morally wrong of her to resign and so "abandon the people of Alaska." After all, the voters commanded her to serve one full term, so she has to do it.

In the first place, these are people who feared and hated her. Their pretense at being upset that she is leaving is pretty funny. I hereby nominate them for the Louis Renault Memorial Award.

But the main point is this: Once upon a time there was a group of people who had a duty to labor for others. They were called slaves. Today, most Americans have a work arrangement called "employment at will," which means that either employer or employee can terminate their relationship at any time and without cause. Some people think employers should have fewer rights than this, that it should be harder to fire people. Nobody thinks employees should have fewer rights, that it should be harder to quit. Why not? Well, why are you against slavery? Some of the same reasons apply here.

Maybe the idea -- if there really is an idea here -- is that it's different if your employer is "the people." Vox populi, vox dei. But I don't think the people rule by divine right, any more than Louis XIV did. The people are just that -- people, like any other employer.

Added later: In my amateur opinion, the best discussion I've seen for Palin's decision to quit is here. I'll give you a clue: if this analysis is correct, then it may be impossible for outsiders to break into the political establishment unless either a) they arouse no strong hostility in insiders and their dependents, or b) they are wealthy. In other words, we are doomed.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Christening Scene in The Godfather



I've posted before about the use of Bach's organ works -- especially including the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor -- in this much-praised and highly effective scene. A recent anonymous commenter on that post has gotten me thinking about it again.

I'll comment in greater depth later, but for now I wanted to point out a couple of things about this scene that may seem minor to others but I find annoying.

First, this way of using Bach's organ music -- to represent the dark, sinister corners, the twisted recesses, the dripping dungeons of the human heart -- has long been a movie cliche. The first time I played one of them on a tape player for my son Nat - I think he was seven or eight at the time - he said "That's Dracula music!" He had already picked up on the cliche.

Admittedly, the organ work that is usually used for this purpose is not the Passacaglia but a related work, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which Bach wrote shortly before the C Minor. That's the one that the Herbert Lom plays in his sewer lair in the Hammer Films version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962). (Scroll forward to 3:00 below.)



It's also played by Captain Nemo (James Mason) in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea (1954). Here is Nemo, twisted by the loss of his family into a monster with no purpose in life by death and destruction -- perfectly represented by Bach's creepy, sinister music! Right?

Wrong! That's the other annoying thing I wanted to bring up. Bach was about 21 o 22 years old when he wrote these two works and both, to me, are full of the exuberance of youth and love of the magnificent universe God has created. There is nothing sinister or satanic about them. In discussing the C Minor in his magisterial Johan Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of and Era, Karl Geiringer uses words like "dignity," "strength," 'intensity," "power," and "magnificence." He neglects entirely to mention malevolent creepiness.

A far better interpretation of Bach than these other films is embodied in this sequence from Disney's Fantasia. Notice that Satan and his works are far, far away:



I know this might sound like an odd thing to mention as a criticism of The Godfather, rather like criticizing a Bond car chase scene for promoting unsafe driving practices. It seems like an extraneous consideration, somehow. But I think that, if a work of art contains a gross and actually rather stupid misinterpretation of another work of art, it is at least worth mentioning.