Category Archives: Master and Commander

On sighting the Acheron

The adventurers in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World aren’t an overly churchy lot, so this version of the 66th Psalm is admittedly a stretch, but the Psalm had some nautical features that seemed to make it amenable to adaptation. I finally bought the books this movie is based on, but I can’t stand to read them – they’re too good! Reading one makes me feel as guilty as if I just wolfed down a pint of double chocolate ice cream….

Shout out huzzah, to all the world!
Sing out the glory of England’s pride.
Praise be to God for victory.
Say at prayers, “How fierce in battle.
Ships scatter before the Lord’s might.”
Though we sail the far side of the world,
with God’s help all we meet is subdued.
Witness the acts of our Lord,
awesome in catalogued wonders.
Out of the sea he raised fresh water,
and finches on bare cindercones.
He alone can crown England’s might.
For the Lord’s tests probe all nations.
Pity those who rise against him.
May all our people bless our God,
and all aloud give him praise,
who has kept us from harm at sea,
and permitted no fool to stumble.
Our duty to England tried us,
our baser needs were swept aside.
Like swimmers trawled in a net,
ship’s discipline bound us, group and heel.
The officer class rode over us.
And we strove through dead calms and storms –
but our captain brought us through with ease.
We gave him our all, unflinching,
and made good our oaths to the crown,
oaths renewed in the teeth of disaster,
when all one could say was, “Hold fast.”
Our bodies consigned to the surgeon,
we sweat out the pain without cries.
The butcher’s bill takes without leave.
Come close lads, we’ll tell you a tale,
one all God-fearing seamen should hear,
of miracles and of reprieves.
Three cheers for the captain of the Surprise,
huzzah from the bows and the rigging, boys!
When we languished in horse latitudes,
the captain looked calmly ahead to the prize.
God must have kept us in mind, I say,
for someone has answered our reckless prayers.
God bless our captain, our ship and the crown,
for God has looked kindly on you and me.

P.S. Most of the lesser-known chamber music referenced in the books is on YouTube, and it’s amazing…

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Cape Horn

When I finally bought the Patrick O’Brian novels on which Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World is based, I knew I would have to earn them before I could stand the pleasure of actually reading them. To this day I haven’t been able to finish the first volume. Simply picking it up and reading a few pages feels a lot like binging on a pint of chocolate ice cream…

This poem is about the storm that nearly sank the Surprise when they rounded Cape Horn in pursuit of the Acheron. And, since a blog about Master and Commander wouldn’t be complete without the much-loved musical duo whose friendship goes to the soul of the books and keeps our Captain Aubrey sane (and keeps him on his toes!), here’s a clip from the film as well.

Extinguishing lights on a seaboard horizon –
erasure of star-charts by club-fingered Dawn.
A paling of canvas, a drawing of sail –
blunt instrument Sun parts the twilight’s loose veil.
What night’s sky assured us of, day will not yield –
an oncoming darkness, now plainly revealed,
offers rudderless passage through mast-shearing storms:
we are wrecked, flotsam remnants, adrift and forlorn.
In this passage, what last shred of dignity lost
is a cogent reflection on justice, now tossed
to the breakers with all due proportion and grace,
a memento for tourists – ‘mark this human race’?

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Bokeh

Bokeh is a form of art photography I discovered on Morguefile, in which much of the image is deliberately out of focus, for effect. It brought to mind the work of focus pullers, and the choreography of acting for screen when the focus puller has certain marks on the set that the actors must hit on time to stay in focus. What looks pell-mell in an action sequence may have to be very tightly controlled to work for camera. In the credits, the focus puller may also be called the first assistant cameraman. This may be one of the toughest jobs in all the credits, not least of all because when the focus isn’t perfect every penny of production value and every iota of fleeting inspiration that has gone into the shot has been wasted.

You rarely sense how closely the focus puller manipulates your gaze by choosing which parts of the image on your screen are in sharpest focus. There is occasionally a reveal, as when the doctor examining a Galapagos beetle in Master and Commander suddenly spots the Acheron in the distance. If manipulating the focus for that shot sounds tricky, now imagine doing it without looking through the lens! The camera operator must tell the focus puller whether or not the shot is in focus – only a knowledge of optics and cinematography tells the focus puller how to judge the distance. I found a detailed description of out-of-focus photography technique that hints at the complexity of the focus puller’s job.

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Systems of Survival

I brought up Systems of Survival in my last blog and mentioned I wanted to return to the ideas in this book and go into them at length. The author is Jane Jacobs, a very creative thinker but fairly obscure as intellectuals go, known mostly for her work in urban planning. The topic is ambitious – she has gone through journalistic and archival records of public life cutting across historical epochs and continents to try and abstract moral principles operating in public discourse that transcend human history and culture. What’s the use of taking all this out of context? Well, she quickly hit upon vital applications in the study of political corruption and crime, topics you can think of as timely or timeless, on which moral philosophy has heretofore shed little light.

Although her non-Western sources are usually presented through a Western analytical lens (ancient history or anthropology), it is tempting to give her credit for having transcended these limitations with a natural history of human civilization that doesn’t flatter present circumstances as the best of all possible worlds. Her abstract principles are compellingly simple and her approach to organizing them into systems is at once easy to support with empirical examples and theoretically coherent. So rather than worry too much about her idea’s pedigree, I’m running with it as a tool for studying motivation, organizational behavior and corruption.

Her idea is that in public life, there are two possible codes of conduct that are internally valid but diametrically opposed to one another, and civilization needs adherents to each to play different roles for which their different values are uniquely suited. I liked this at once, because I enjoy dissecting false controversies and I think one of the main reasons Americans look for post-partisan candidates is that we see false controversy in the very way our bipartisan system is organized. Strikingly enough, her two moral codes of conduct fall out along the same fault lines as the Democratic and Republican parties in U.S. politics. One moral code of conduct is for commerce, the other for governance. She calls the second category of roles “guardian work” because it encompasses the military and police, but administrative and regulatory watchdog work that is in the public interest (rather than providing services from the private sector) belong in the same category.

I’ve illustrated her two lists with examples from Russell Crowe’s filmography to show how closely they correspond to the professions of the characters he plays. For me the correspondence between the ideas in the book and the values in these movies is fascinating and encouraging. I think movies are fertile territory for illustrating this sort of theory, because of the plurality of perspective so common in film. You can see characters from different walks of life interacting on their own terms, and have a sense of each person’s perspective in the same scene even if they disagree. Of course, we know Russell Crowe best for playing “guardian” types, muscular and adventurous, but Cinderella Man is an interesting exception. For Jim Braddock, boxing is a professional sport and his adversaries aren’t supposed to be trying to kill him. Work isn’t supposed to be dangerous, and outside the boxing ring he shuns force and puts the utmost importance on abiding by voluntary agreements rather than simply taking what you can for yourself.

The first thing you might notice about these lists is that they seem incomplete. Universal virtues appear on neither list, though Jane Jacobs can think of many: cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom. No one disputes these virtues, whereas adherents to the moral code of commerce hold values diametrically opposed to those of adherents to the guardian code of conduct. It is the values that have twinned opposites that distinguish these ways of life from each other and function interdependently with the other values within the same code.

She recounts being surprised to discover a variant on her own idea in Plato’s writings, and notes how adamant Plato was that each citizen must mind his own work and not try to do anyone else’s, in support of her claim that corruption occurs when people mix and match values from both codes and combine roles. She points out that the British navy was set up with a merchant fleet that merchants did not wish to operate themselves, because of the temptation to use warships to raid one another’s trade ships if they were responsible for their own protection from piracy, fearing anarchy would make the seas un-navigable if trading vessels were armed. In the drug trade this is a constant threat, because drug dealers are quick to resort to violence.

She does point out that there are jobs in civilization that mingle the priorities of governance and commerce, inevitably as without guardian enforcement of contract rights or fraud liabilities, commerce would be an unreliable way of life. The darker side of collusion between governance and commerce is illustrated in the colonial history that prefigured what we now call globalization. I used a graph to illustrate these overlapping responsibilities and undertakings, and used the axes to underscore the basic functions and modus operandi of each code of conduct. Jane Jacobs argues that in many managerial and administrative jobs, one must wear two hats, one at a time, adhering to the code of conduct appropriate to the task at hand. These are delicate responsibilities, easily mishandled. The corporate confidentiality agreement among tobacco executives in The Insider is an example, ethical when it protects trade secrets, unethical when it conceals knowledge of fraudulent public statements or practices like adulteration. The Brown & Williamson lawsuit against Jeffrey Wigand for violating his confidentiality agreement was not upheld in court because the expectation that he withhold knowledge of corporate malfeasance was unethical. The U.S. government is less understanding of whistleblowers within the guardian services, treating Wikileaks as treason instead. But this hypersensitivity to betrayal of government secrets is closely linked to the edict “shun trading,” which for a public official means not selling out the public interest, not selling military secrets to the enemy, and not subverting one’s professional responsibilities for bribes.

I doubt I’ve said enough to be clear yet, you should really read the book. But I’ll keep drawing examples from movies as I think of them, to try and show how her ideas work. So far my favorite examples are Master and Commander for guardian/governance values, and Cinderella Man for commercial/professional values. I pulled a picture from the scene where Jim takes his son to the butchers to return the salami because it underscores the importance of not taking what you need without paying for it in a voluntary transaction. In Master and Commander, in contrast, the crew speculate that if they take the Acheron as a prize, they’ll enjoy shares of her stolen loot. Thus far, the basic taking/trading distinction.

The importance of luxuries like rum and music on the HMS Surprise is part of the guardian way of life, dangerous at times but taking some of its core values from hunter/gatherer lifestyles rich in leisure time and creative arts. Jane Jacobs speculates that one reason hunter/gatherers cultivated skills in art and other leisure activities was to keep their predations on the game animals sustainable. The introduction of fur trade in the Americas subverted this conservation ethic and created incentives to maximize kills and waste meat in favor of pelts. Rum also functions as largesse, dispensed by the powerful to placate subordinates expected to abide by a rigid hierarchy with few rewards at the bottom of the pecking order. Hierarchy and discipline are explicit themes in the script, along with cunning, prowess, fortitude and tradition.

State largesse comes into play in Cinderella Man when Jim goes on welfare, and as such it is help he is reluctant to accept. He would not expect charity without obligations from peers, and it hurts his pride as an equal among other ordinary citizens to go to the welfare office. His friend Mike dismisses FDR’s reforms as politically motivated and not a redress of what had been taken from families like theirs. Jim repays the welfare office as soon as he’s able as if it had been a loan, like the cash assistance he asked for at Madison Square Garden, which he also repaid. As a professional boxer and wage laborer, he’s uncomfortable taking something for nothing even when his family is in need, impatient to return the welfare money even when his family’s future is still precarious. It’s a matter of keeping true to his own way of life, which has no part in governance, although he respects the need for the government to step up in a national emergency.

I’ll refer back to this account of the core concepts in Systems of Survival later, so I hope it’s adequate since you probably won’t have time to read the book. I have a lot of ideas about how to apply this theory of corruption and public life to the analysis of other movies, and I’ll bring in more material from the book as I go along. Hopefully I’m not the only one eager to see how far her ideas pan out. I think I can use them to study corruption in hospitals, since my work is in public health, so I have a great deal of interest in the details of her theory.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote from her book, about elementary school children evincing guardian virtues without coaching, lifted from John Holt: “Ten is a heroic age for most kids. They remind me in many ways of the Homeric Greeks. They are quarrelsome and combative; they have a strong and touchy sense of honor; they believe that every affront must be repaid, and with interest; they are fiercely loyal to their friends, even though they may change friends often; they have little sense of fair play, and greatly admire cunning and trickery; they are both highly possessive and very generous – no smallest trifle may be taken from them, but they are likely to give anything away if they feel so disposed.” Jane Jacobs thinks if Holt had watched the same children at a yard sale, they would have taken just as naturally to the commercial virtues, that all this is in human nature and flows naturally when the appropriate task is at hand.

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Filed under A Good Year, Acting, Cinderella Man, Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, Master and Commander, State of Play, Systems of Survival, The Insider

Peter Weir

Like so many other fans, I could put off going to the theater again for three years if I knew when to expect a sequel to Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World, because this movie showed me what theaters were built for. So when, as a Colin Farrell fan, I didn’t fall in love with Peter Weir’s Colin Farrell movie, The Way Back, I decided to do some research and see if the story would grow on me. The book I read, Schiller in Russian Literature, chronicles a German idealist’s influence on the leading lights of Russian literature, from imitation on the stage in the late Tsarist era to iconography in the novels of Dostoyevsky. Schiller’s fame actually reached its zenith in Russia under Stalin, although Dostoyevsky’s later work was not part of the party’s literary canon. It’s sort of a history of the Russian imagination, through a very small window, the influence of a writer few knew even in translation. But don’t discount Schiller for his obscurity, because I suspect his ideas about protagonists have influenced Hollywood as well, if only in a very distant and indirect way.

A lot of Schiller’s plays, imitated by Russian writers, portray anti-heroes rejected by society and their own families (like Valka) and one of them is about a brutal gang of robbers. Schiller saw something romantic in the impulse to do evil, a rebelliousness that was somehow idealistic and humanistic. Russian writers were heavily influenced by his idealism, though they sometimes repudiated his love of abstract beauty (his “fair-souledness”) and the lack of realism in his plays.

Reading about how Doestoyevsky experienced the ideas of Schiller was heartbreaking at first. As a young man he saw the same great actor who inspired the other Russian writers to love Schiller’s plays, Mochalov, perform The Robbers. Late in life he wrote of this experience in a letter, “I can justly say that the strong impression of this performance has acted as an enormous stimulation for my entire spiritual development.” Doestoyevsky was a sad and lonely child, with books for friends, but he too experienced a magical friendship in his youth reminiscent of the friendship in Schiller’s play – only this relationship was very private, something he kept a secret for reasons unclear to me. He told his brother about this in another letter:

“You wrote to me, dear brother, that I have not read Schiller. You are wrong, my dear brother! I have learned Schiller by heart, I have talked in his language and have raved about him; and I think fate never did me a greater favor in all my life as when it allowed me to get to know the great poet at that period in my life; I could never have gotten to know him so well at any other time. Reading Schiller with [unnamed friend], I saw in him the noble ardent Dn Carlos, and Marquis Posa, and Mortimer. This friendship has caused me much sorrow and much joy! But my lips shall remain sealed about this forever. To be sure, the name of Schiller has become dear to me, a kind of magic formula that conjures a host of dreams; bitter dreams, dear brother; this is the reason why I have never spoken to you of Schiller and the impressions he produced on me: it hurts me when I hear his very name.”

Nine years later, Dostoyevsky and members of his socialist circle of friends were arrested and sentenced to death, a sentence “commuted by the tsar to hard labor in Siberia. While confined in the Peter and Paul fortress Dostoyevsky read Schiller’s History of the Thirty Years’ War which his brother Mikhail had managed to smuggle in to him.” The years he spent in Siberia hardened him to Schiller’s idealism. His early novels are full of Schillerean characters, but he scoffs at their ideals with “caustic irony.”

In the novel The Injured and the Oppressed, he has a prince confess like a reformed student of Schiller: “Do you know that I once was a metaphysician and philanthropist out of caprice and moved almost in the same circle of ideas as you? .. now one must make grimaces; now we all make grimaces – such are the times..”

Satirizing the life of Schiller, who was unhappily married and sometimes strayed to a whorehouse, only to redeem himself with his love of abstract ideals, he has the hero of Memoirs from the Underground say: “Oh, if I were doing nothing just because of laziness, heavens, in how high an esteem would I hold myself! I would esteem myself precisely for being able to have at least laziness to my credit; … And then I would make a career of it: I would become an idler and a glutton, yet not an ordinary one but, for instance, one sympathizing with everything beautiful and sublime. How do you like that? I have been dreaming of it for a long time. This ‘Beautiful and Sublime’ has awfully gotten stuck in my throat now that I am forty; but that’s now that I am forty…”

He claims that idealism overwhelms him “at the very moment when he had sunk to the lowest depths. Yet their appearance could not induce him to give up his debauchery: ‘On the contrary – they revivified it by contrast, as it were, and occurred exactly as often as was necessary to make a savory dressing.’”

Only later, in The Brothers Karamazov, did Dostoyevsky redeem Schiller’s “beautiful soul,” the hero and no longer the butt of a worldly joke. Schiller is named, quoted or alluded to 32 times in this novel. Dmitry Karamazov is much like the hero of Memoirs from the Underground, but his brother Alyosha is a beautiful soul. Dmitry says:

“Beauty is a dreadful and awe-inspiring thing! It is dreadful because it has not been unriddled and never can be unriddled, for God gives us nothing but mysteries… Beauty! I cannot bear the idea that a man of exalted mind and heart starts with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. Yet even more shocking is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not give up the ideal of the Madonna and his heart may be afire with that ideal, truly afire, just as in his days of childhood and innocence.”

A German critic of Dostoyevsky wrote that for him, the beautiful is nothing but the realized, individuated existing form of these ideals – humans cannot live in constant conflict with reality, and rather than merely sketch an idea, man wants and needs feasibility and realization. Soviet critics found in The Brothers Karamazov a betrayal of the realism of Dostoyevsky’s other novels, for Alyosha Karamazov is like an abstract idea to them, too perfect, a character out of a romantic poem.

The turn-of-the-century poet-philosopher Ivanov saw Schiller as a Dionysian mystic and hero of popular culture, and saw his Ode to Joy (immortalized in Beethoven’s ninth symphony) as a universal hymn. He pointed out that Schiller, like the Greeks, used a chorus in his play The Bride of Messina. He thought Schiller’s legacy would be a populist theater of tragedy with mystical overtones. Commenting on another Schiller poem quoted by Dostoyevsky, he wrote: “Thus, in the silence of the mysteries, resounded once the obscure revelations instilling grief, and terror, and disenchantment into the hearts of the novices so that later the flame of unexpected, purest hope might flash up for them all the brighter.” The critic Kostka argues that this poem is only about a longing to see Italy again, but for Ivanov all of Schiller’s writing has spiritual meaning.

At times Ivanov likes to call Schiller a dithyrambic poet, but at length he says, “it would be, nevertheless, a mistake to regard Schiller as the perfect representative of a dithyrambic poet. A real dithyramb (as it as postulated by the ancients) presupposes a certain continuous fullness and abundance of the soul – in profound harmony with every joy and sorrow of the soul – at the bottom of which rests the great Yes to the world, in purple twilight, not accessible to the storms, like the golden ring of a mysterious betrothal. When, unable to contain the over-abundance, the golden brim of the fathomless bowl overflows with the foaming lymph of sentiment then the music of bacchic song is born out of excess and superfluity. The dithyramb is the least logical kind of poetry and the one most closely related to the element of music. In the dithyramb any what precipitates into the abyss of the soul’s inebriation which has engendered it,– into the ineffable how of the spirit. From this nature of the dithyrambic muse Nietzsche obviously deduced his distinction between creation ‘from abundance’ and creation ‘from hunger.’” Ivanov felt Schiller wrote from hunger, not only in the sense that he struggled to support himself with his writing, but in a spiritual sense. Kostka describes Schiller’s writing as “an upward flight of yearning, but not the mighty surge of plenty and abundance.”

Of Schiller’s influence in the Soviet era, a biographer wrote:
“Each upsurge of the revolutionary struggle of the Russian people was accompanied by a new enthusiasm for Schiller’s poetry. It is well known how warmly, in the years of the Civil War, the dramas of Schiller were received by the revolutionary workers, the members of the Young Communist League, and the soldiers of the heroic Red Army. The novels by A. Tolstoy and K. Fedin, dedicated to the theme of the Civil War, testify to this with sufficient eloquence. The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, and Don Carlos occupied a place of honor in the repertory of the Soviet theater during the first years of the great socialist October revolution. And they have preserved this popularity down to our own times.”

A Bolshevik poet who popularized Schiller, Alexander Blok, described his legacy as revolutionary: “The banner of humanism which Schiller had held intrepidly was convulsively seized by hundreds of anxious and nervous hands of the people of the nineteenth century – a century that was permeated with unceasing agitation.”

But this is not the Schiller I see in Hollywood today. I see Stalin’s Schiller instead. When the Stalinist regime was stymied with the challenge of raising worker productivity, having transformed a nation of peasants into an industrial power with a massive labor force, they turned to Schiller for an idealization of the work ethic:

“The motto of the great poet was his saying: ‘The main thing for man is love of work; for it gives him not only the means of subsistence but it, and it alone, gives value to his life.’ Schiller was always striving and always emphasized that work was the joy and fullness of life…”

For Schiller, the best a man can do in life is only his duty, nothing more. The hero does what he must, and is the last person to willingly exceed his orders. Great or terrible deeds are thrust upon him in spite of his moral modesty. Hence, the reluctant hero. But that’s not the Captain Jack Aubrey I love. So, enough of literary theory. Next time let it be a man of action, with a spirit of adventure, a ship and a crew, and an anarchist naturalist on board to show him his place in the order of things.

But for Schiller, I leave you with this.

The Ode to Joy, a hymn of abundance the West
raises like a holy flag, appeals to the blessed
ideals of life in the words of a fallen man
in love with Sodom and convinced salvation can
arise from sin, that lying there in the entrails
of the earth is the man who unthinkingly pales
with love at the image of the Madonna’s smile.
Seek ecstasy and frenzy, we are told, for while
we breathe the moistened air and drink the heady wine
we are the mystics of religious life, and fine
feelings for mankind will flow from us, and Christian
faith will soon deliver us, through that same passion.
There is a Dionysus in Christ, fierce and free
of hunger, teaching out of superfluity.
The soul’s inebriation is the source of good,
and in our wildness is confession understood.
Give us a leader of gorgeously-wreathed dancers,
deliver us from the crescendo of hunger
for a great accomplishment, take us far beyond
the creation of need to where the gods respond
to a fathomless golden bowl overflowing
with magical sentiment, giving and singing,
by making holidays of holy sacraments,
and sanctifying oaths on books of testament.
Lead us on to the West, corrupted and divine,
let us survive to see another lighted shrine.

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