Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sunday Reading

Miami Vice — Martin Longman on Marco Rubio’s connections with drug dealers.

When you see a headline like this [How Rubio helped his ex-con brother-in-law acquire a real estate license] in the Washington Post, you figure that you’re about to read a very long and sordid exposé. That’s not really what Post reporters Manuel Roig-Franzia and Scott Higham delivered in this case, though. Their piece has enough substantiation to justify the headline, but it doesn’t delve too deeply into the greater meaning and it leaves the most important question unanswered.

Let’s start with the fact that “ex-con” doesn’t really do justice to Marco Rubio’s brother-in-law. Orlando Cicilia was a major drug trafficker at a time and in a place that has gone down in history in movies like Scarface and television programs like Miami Vice for being notoriously violent and destructive.

According to public records, Cicilia was arrested after federal law enforcement seized the Miami home where he lived with Barbara Rubio, Senator Rubio’s sister. Barbara Rubio was not arrested or indicted. Cicilia was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana.

The arrest was part of “Operation Cobra,” a federal crackdown on a Florida drug smuggling ring that killed a federal informer and chopped up his body, according to a NYT story published at the time. The story reports that the ring, led by Cuban American Mario Tabraue, paid $150,000 in bribes to the Key West police chief and Miami-Dade county officials, and used Miami police officers to collect, count, and disburse drug profits.

About that part where they killed a federal informer and chopped up his body, the New York Times reported on December 17th, 1987:

The authorities said that in July 1980, members of [Cicilia’s drug ring] apparently became aware that Larry Nash was an informer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“Mr. Nash was murdered and mutilated,” Mr. Dean said. “His body was cut up with a chain saw and then burned.”

This drug ring reportedly did $75 million of business trading in marijuana and cocaine, of which Cicilia was personally responsible for $15 million. That’s a lot of cocaine and a lot of ruined lives, and the way they operated, it was a lot of violence, intimidation, and the cause of a shameful amount of public corruption.

To call this man merely an “ex-con” doesn’t capture the scope of his crimes.

When Cicilia was arrested, Marco Rubio was sixteen years old, and he can’t be held accountable for what his sister’s boyfriend and eventual husband did for a living. That his sister and the family stayed loyal to this man throughout his incarceration and welcomed him back into their lives and homes when he was released is admirable in its own way. When you look at the totality of the circumstances with this case, the Rubio family deserves a degree of credit for loyalty and a willingness to forgive. Orlando Cicilia served his time and he ought to be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that he’s been rehabilitated.

Still, this was a choice. It was a choice to essentially overlook the immense damage done by Cicilia and his gang to countless individuals and to the integrity of the local government and law enforcement institutions.

We have to balance the good and the bad here, and that’s the context with which we should judge the following:

When Marco Rubio was majority whip of the Florida House of Representatives, he used his official position to urge state regulators to grant a real estate license to his brother-in-law, a convicted cocaine trafficker who had been released from prison 20 months earlier, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.

In July 2002, Rubio sent a letter on his official statehouse stationery to the Florida Division of Real Estate, recommending Orlando Cicilia “for licensure without reservation.” The letter, obtained by The Washington Post under the Florida Public Records Act, offers a glimpse of Rubio using his growing political power to assist his troubled brother-in-law and provides new insight into how the young lawmaker intertwined his personal and political lives.

Rubio did not disclose in the letter that Cicilia was married to his sister, Barbara, or that the former cocaine dealer was living at the time in the same West Miami home as Rubio’s parents. He wrote that he had known Cicilia “for over 25 years,” without elaborating.

The Rubio campaign responds that it would have been worse if he had revealed his conflict of interest because revealing that Cicilia was his brother-in-law and was living with his parents would have put undue pressure on the members of the Florida Division of Real Estate. This is because, as majority whip of the Florida House of Representatives, he had “significant influence” over the Division’s budget.

That’s a defense, certainly, but a poor one. Rubio had two truly defensible options. He could have refused to write the letter because of the obvious conflict or he could have fully disclosed it and let the chips fall where they may. He chose to hide the conflict, and that was the wrong decision.

Tell Me a Story — John Yorke in The Atlantic looks at the roots of all tales.

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth. But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all of them.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and 11th centuries.

And it’s more familiar than that: It’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob—all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House, or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho, and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture—in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community—stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown …

It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down. And if you transplant it from fantasy into something a little more earthbound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone, and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the characters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, and Thelma & Louise.

So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf, Alien, and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories—but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic “quest” stories like Apocalypse Now or Finding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even “Brave New World” stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness, and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: The characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home….

The Music of John Williams — Alex Ross in The New Yorker on the influence of the composer of Star Wars and many other film scores.

My favorite film of 1977 was not “Star Wars” but “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s U.F.O fantasia. Notwithstanding the fact that I was nine years old, I considered “Star Wars” a little childish. Also, the trash-compactor scene scared me. “Close Encounters,” on the other hand, drew me back to the theatre—the late, great K-B Cinema, in Washington, D.C.—five or six times. I irritated friends by insisting that it was better than “Star Wars,” and followed the box-office grosses in the forlorn hope that my favorite would surpass its rival.

“Close Encounters” still strikes me as an amazing creation—a one-off fusion of blockbuster spectacle with the disheveled realism of nineteen-seventies filmmaking. It has a wildness, a madness that is missing from Spielberg’s subsequent movies. The Disneyesque fireworks of the finale can’t hide the fact that the hero of the tale is abandoning his family in the grip of a monomaniacal obsession. Looking back, though, I’m sure that what really held me spellbound was the score, which, like that of “Star Wars,” was written by John Williams. I was a full-on classical-music nerd, playing the piano and trying to write my own compositions. I’d dabbled in Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler, but knew nothing of twentieth-century music. “Close Encounters” offered, at the start, a seething mass of dissonant clusters, which abruptly coalesce into a bright, clipped C-major chord, somehow just as spooky as what came before. The “Star Wars” music had a familiar ring, but this kind of free, frenzied painting with sound was new to me, and has fascinated me ever since.

Now eighty-three years old, Williams remains a vital presence. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” his latest effort, is doing fairly good business, and he is at work on Spielberg’s next picture. He has scored all of the “Star Wars” movies, all of the Indiana Jones movies, several Harry Potters, “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Superman,” “Jurassic Park,” and almost a hundred others. calculates that since 1975 Williams’s films have grossed around twenty billion dollars worldwide—and that leaves out the first seventeen years of his career. He has received forty-nine Oscar nominations, with a fiftieth almost certain for 2016. Perhaps his most crucial contribution is the role he has played in preserving the art of orchestral film music, which, in the early seventies, was losing ground to pop-song soundtracks. “Star Wars,” exuberantly blasted out by the London Symphony, made the orchestra seem essential again.

Williams’s wider influence on musical culture can’t be quantified, but it’s surely vast. The brilliant young composer Andrew Norman took up writing music after watching “Star Wars” on video, as William Robin notes in a Times profile. The conductor David Robertson, a disciple of Pierre Boulez and an unabashed Williams fan, told me that some current London Symphony players first became interested in their instruments after encountering “Star Wars.” Robertson, who regularly stages all-Williams concerts with the St. Louis Symphony, observed that professional musicians enjoy playing the scores because they are full of the kinds of intricacies and motivic connections that enliven the classic repertory. “He’s a man singularly fluent in the language of music,” Robertson said. “He’s very unassuming, very humble, but when he talks about music he can be the most interesting professor you’ve ever heard. He’s a deep listener, and that explains his ability to respond to film so acutely.”

It has long been fashionable to dismiss Williams as a mere pasticheur, who assembles scores from classical spare parts. Some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist. A widely viewed YouTube video pairs the “Star Wars” main title with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music for “Kings Row,” a 1942 picture starring Ronald Reagan. Indeed, both share a fundamental pattern: a triplet figure, a rising fifth, a stepwise three-note descent. Also Korngoldesque are the glinting dissonances that affirm rather than undermine the diatonic harmony, as if putting floodlights on the chords.

To accuse Williams of plagiarism, however, brings to mind the famous retort made by Brahms when it was pointed out that the big tune in the finale of his First Symphony resembled Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: “Any ass can hear that.” Williams takes material from Korngold and uses it to forge something new. After the initial rising statement, the melodies go in quite different directions: Korngold’s winds downward to the tonic note, while Williams’s insists on the triplet rhythm and leaps up a minor seventh. I used to think that the latter gesture was taken from a passage in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, but the theme can’t have been stolen from two places simultaneously.

Although it’s fun to play tune detective, what makes these ideas indelible is the way they’re fleshed out, in harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. (To save time, Williams uses orchestrators, but his manuscripts arrive with almost all of the instrumentation spelled out.) We can all hum the trumpet line of the “Star Wars” main title, but the piece is more complicated than it seems. There’s a rhythmic quirk in the basic pattern of a triplet followed by two held notes: the first triplet falls on the fourth beat of the bar, while later ones fall on the first beat, with the second held note foreshortened. There are harmonic quirks, too. The opening fanfare is based on chains of fourths, adorning the initial B-flat-major triad with E-flats and A-flats. Those notes recur in the orchestral swirl around the trumpet theme. In the reprise, a bass line moves in contrary motion, further tweaking the chords above. All this interior activity creates dynamism. The march lunges forward with an irregular gait, rugged and ragged, like the Rebellion we see onscreen.

This is not to deny that Williams has a history of drawing heavily on established models. The Tatooine desert in “Star Wars” is a dead ringer for the steppes of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The “Mars” movement of Holst’s “Planets” frequently lurks behind menacing situations. Jeremy Orosz, in a recent academic paper, describes these gestures as “paraphrases”: rather than quoting outright, Williams “uses pre-existing material as a creative template to compose new music at a remarkable pace.” There’s another reason that “Star Wars” contains so many near-citations. At first, George Lucas had planned to fill the soundtrack with classical recordings, as Stanley Kubrick had done in “2001.” The temp track included Holst and Korngold. Williams, whom Lucas hired at Spielberg’s suggestion, acknowledged the director’s favorites while demonstrating the power of a freshly composed score. He seems to be saying: I can mimic anything you want, but you need a living voice.

In that delicate balancing act, Williams may have succeeded all too well. After “Star Wars,” he became a sound, a brand. The diversity and occasional daring of the composer’s earlier work—I’m thinking not only of “Close Encounters” but also of Robert Altman’s “Images” and “The Long Goodbye” and of Brian De Palma’s “The Fury”—subsided over time. Williams invariably achieves a level of craftsmanship that no other living Hollywood composer can match; his fundamental skill is equally evident in his sizable catalogue of concert-hall scores. Yet he’s been boxed in by the billions that his music has helped to earn. He has become integral to a populist economy on which thousands of careers depend.

Doonesbury — No harm no foul.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. There is, of course, the old saw about how “there is only one story.” Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, points up how the Hero’s story encapsulates that basic tale (not to mention the lives of any number of gods, demigods, and heroes): He sets off on a quest, encounters strange new worlds, slays monsters, and comes back to redeem/transform his people.

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