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Beethoven:The Rush to Romanticize

Recently, I have become somewhat obsessed with Beethoven. This is not a new obsession. When I was a very young child I read a very short biography (it even had pictures). This might have been my first exposure to the idea of a tortured artist and I am still not sure why, but it spoke to me. A few things stood out at the time. First, that he was so talented and that it showed at such an early age. Second that his father was determined to make him into another Mozart. Third, that some parents beat their children. It also contributed to my desire to learn how to play the piano which is one of my better decisions.

Many years went by while I listened to NPR’s random selection or played my trusty 2 discs of Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits on several road trips. I heard Beethoven randomly in movies, TV shows, and department stores. I saw a few scenes of a movie starring Gary Oldman while flipping through channels on television. I thought it was cool that Beethoven had his own biopic and hoped that I would happen upon it again but I never did.

Then, a few weeks ago a DVD arrived from Netflix that I had honestly forgotten I had ordered. It was called Copying Beethoven and starred Ed Harris in the titular role. I know what you’re thinking. Ed Harris? Yeah, Ed Harris! It is a very interesting portrait of the Maestro’s final years of composition. There were some flaws with the film, a couple of plot-points and camera techniques that came out of left field. But there is a 13 minute re-enactment of Beethoven “conducting” his 9th Symphony and it is magical. I really do give credit to Harris’s performance here. You can see the relationship Beethoven yearns for and never finds with his nephew and the way he doesn’t understand how people cannot see the brilliance of his work but have to hear it to believe it.

I ignored a growing passion for a day or two after watching Copying Beethoven but my preoccupation with Ludwig van Beethoven ballooned into full-fledged fanaticism. That movie only covered a few years. I needed to know more, to hear more, and to see more. I started where most searches start these days: Google. I refreshed my memory. Yes, his father did want him to be the next Mozart and he was a very abusive teacher. Beethoven became a great composer and continued to write music even after he lost his hearing. I learned more. He was not very good at making friends and even worse at keeping them. He probably drove his nephew to suicide.

As soon as I finished my Google search I went back to Netflix to order Immortal Beloved and moved it to the top of my DVD queue. I was excited not only for the music, the period-style clothing, and the story but also for Gary Oldman. That guy has some talent. The story springs from a love letter Beethoven had written that was posthumously discovered, having never been delivered, apparently. The movie then time hops between a search for this mystery woman and a parade of Ludwig’s romantic liaisons. Gary Oldman was indeed fantastic. . The film is quite entertaining but I was reminded, sometimes forcefully, that biopics can take huge liberties with history to make a better movie.

One interesting point of comparison is different is the way the women in these movies are presented. The protagonist of Copying Beethoven is a young woman aspiring to become a composer. We get to see Beethoven’s abusive side on the one hand and his grudging kindness on the other. In Immortal Beloved the succession of potential candidates for true love paint Beethoven in a much more romantic light (I couldn’t tell if this was coincidence) than may have necessarily been the case. The two films also differ wildly in recounting the most famous tragedy of Beethoven’s life: his deafness. Immortal Beloved has him almost stone deaf many years earlier than in Beethoven’s actual life while Copying Beethoven places severity of his deafness in a more accurate manner.

Thanks to Copying Beethoven I have a renewed interest in a fascinating historical character. This character has a story that really doesn’t need any embellishments to be more compelling so I have invested in three of those actual autobiographies. You know, the ones written on paper. If you want historical accuracy watch a documentary on YouTube. Or watch the BBC film Beethoven’s Eroica which is pretty much exactly what I want out of a Beethoven biopic and needs about 5 more prequels/sequels.


You Are a Beautiful Monster: a Kind of Queer Review of Penny Dreadful

This is a review of the second season of Penny Dreadful and as such will have major spoilers for season one. You can catch up on Showtime on Demand, Hulu, and you can probably check it out from your local library.

As it happens, the first season I watched of Penny Dreadful was season 2, which concluded two weeks ago, and I found it wildly entertaining and I appreciate it more after seeing how it has improved. Thankfully, none of the Victorian flair has left and the season is tighter with even more colorful characters.

The second season starts almost immediately where the first season left off. Ethan awakens in a roomful of blood. It seems clear that this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened and now it makes sense why he was living that peripatetic lifestyle in the first place. The late Miss Brona Croft is lying in one of Victor Frankenstein’s bathtubs while he and the Creature wait for an appropriately dark and stormy night to revive her. Sir Malcom is burying his daughter and Sembene is about to start acting like a person instead of set decoration. Dorian Gray is also around, you know, doing stuff. As it became clear toward the end of season one, the central narrative of Penny Dreadful thus far centers on Vanessa Ives’s struggle with the darkness inside her. This struggle intensifies when she is attacked by Nightcomers (evil witches).

Of all the ships that caught wind in season one, the on ehtat surprised me most was between Ethan Chandler and Dorian Gray and not just because of the hot guy-on-guy action. It is no surprise that Mr. Gray swings both ways given the source material. Mr. Chandler on the other hand, had heretofore been an American archetype of Wild West masculinity. Although perhaps it is not so surprising given his theatrical tendencies. I had faint hope, now that Ethan is a bachelor, he might visit Dorian and give the fans what they really want, but John Logan and company have decided to sail the Ethan/Vanessa ship. And that’s okay because Dorian was occupied with Ethan he wouldn’t pay any attention to the lovely Angelique, who has her own secrets.

I was worried, as sometimes happens when a character who has previously been identified by the audience as straight exhibits same sex attraction, that Ethan’s experience would be a one-time thing, never to be mentioned again (except during the exorcism episode when none of the other dudes in the room made a big deal about which was fucking awesome). Fortunately Mr. Ferdinand Lyle, Egyptologist and, by his own words, “a queen with lovely hair,” is around to flirt with. And flirt they do! Of course it’s harmless since Ethan is being steered romantically and spiritually toward Vanessa Ives, but that kind of spice is what distinguishes the Victorian flavor of Penny Dreadful from other period shows.

There are many layers to Penny Dreadful. Of course there is the horror and the Victorian flair, but the second season has taken a few more colors from the Queer rainbow. I think it is a mistake to label any of these characters, perhaps save Mr. Lyle, as any one of the LGBT alphabet since these are more recent terms for modern identities (Yes, I read Foucault).  That said, this season confirms that Penny Dreadful is Queer-friendly. Well, as friendly as you can be in the horror genre.

Righteous Dopefiend: A Review

If you’ve read In Search of Respect, Philippe Bourgois’s ethnography of Puerto-Rican crack dealers, you know that he is expert at getting into the gritty side of Urban America. In Righteous Dopefiend, Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg present a compelling photo-ethnography that exposes the harsh realities of homeless heroin injectors living in the makeshift Edgewater community of San Francisco. It is one of the best uses of photography in written accounts that I have seen.
The authors delve deep into the social and emotional lives of their subjects, exposing the raw of nerve heroin addiction, its causes, and how it drives addicts to homelessness. It runs the course of typical ethnographic topics such as family, economy, and complex forms of racism, yet inherent in every column of observation is a pervasive sadness at the beleaguered existence of these individuals. Drawing on themes from Marx, Foucault, and Bourdieu, Schonberg and Bourgois offer up a sensible explanation for how American institutions like the justice system and the healthcare industry are directly involved, often to a detrimental effect, in the lives of people in the Edgewater community.
Righteous Dopefiend can be quite graphic at times. The descriptions of amateur medical procedures like lancing one’s own abscess and medical professionals who don’t use adequate anesthesia for quite painful procedures were enough to make me squirm slightly with discomfort. This is where the power of Schonberg’s photography steals the show. In nearly all ethnographies I’ve read the photographic material has been placed somewhere in the middle of the text and it can be relevant to anything or nothing contained in the text in no particular order. By presenting a series of images at the beginning of every chapter, the visual media emphasizes the essence of particular moments and themes as they arise. The decision to use thicker and glossier pages is also a subtle way to emphasize the role Schonberg’s photography plays in representing members of and scenes in the Edgewater community.
Bourgois’s and Schonberg’s research was funded by a NIH grant as part of a larger campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS. Their work exposed the flaws in the proposed medical interventions and suggested newer methods that would be easier for addicts like those who lived in Edgewater to utilize. As such, this text would be a good addition to courses focused on Applied and Medical Anthropology.

Family Trees and the History of Family History

You think you’re family history is complicated?


By Jenny Weston

This post was originally inspired by a recent revelation that one of my ancestors may have lived in Leiden in the early 1600s. A particularly unexpected find — given the fact that my family is from the West Coast of Canada (over 7000 km from Leiden) — it was a surprise to find that my ‘eleventh-great-grandfather’ may have lived, literally down the street from our office here in Leiden, almost 400 years ago.

In the wake of this little discovery, I began to wonder about the history of ‘family history’. In the Middle Ages, how did people keep track of their family heritage? How important was it to know where you came from? (Or perhaps, how important was it for others to know where you came from)?

For some medieval families, the task of documenting and publicizing the ‘family tree’ was critically important. This was especially the case for royal and noble…

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Being ethical when you don’t have an ethics review board

The very last thing I want to do with this project is take advantage of the Huaorani because it has been a recurring theme in their interactions with most non-Huaorani. Since, I don’t have many outside anthropological observers to take a close look at my project design, I am taking a less than academic approach and doing my best to apply the anthropology I know in the most ethical way I can. Therefore, I have written a proposal for the communities’ lawyer to examine and pass on to the community leaders. There are going to be a lot of firsts in keeping this ethically above board, and this is the first. Do you think I’ve missed anything?

A proposal for filming a Huaorani community tour

The goal of this film is to promote Bameno’s and Bowanamo’s tourism business. I will be documenting our tour with a personal camcorder of my own and equipment that is more suited to official documentary filmmaking. There will be 3-4 people in my group (waiting on one to work out his schedule).  I asking permission to film the jungle and the community to showcase what is unique about the Huaorani territory.

In addition to filming the environment I would also like put the face of the Huaorani communities at the forefront of the film. I would like to interview Huaorani men and women so that they can give their message to people who do not understand with the Intangible Zone must stay in possession of the Huaorani who live there.

Any Huaorani who does not wish to be filmed will not be. Any activities or ceremonies the Huaorani do not want filmed will not be. With the funds that I am raising to make this film, I hope there will be extra to give a larger community fee for this intrusion. Initially, the film will be posted on the Community Tour website, but I hope to be able to get it into independent film festivals as well which will show the Huaorani cause to even larger groups of people and they will help create pressure on the Ecuadorean. And since President Corea has claimed that he gave permission to the oil companies to drill in the Yasuni because international governments were not giving enough financial aid, viewers might even put pressure on their own governments to help prevent these companies to invade Huaorani territory.

As far as profits and royalties go, right of first refusal will go to the Huaorani though dealings with potential distributors may require further negotiation.

Please let me know of any concerns or changes you would like to make to this agreement.



Thank you for your consideration

Tampa meets Thailand

As an amateur anthropologist, my dreams of throwing myself into an unfamiliar culture are often dashed by financial shortcomings and not enough PTO from my job. Fortunately, I live in Tampa, FL, home to the Wat Mongkolratanaram temple.

Temple entranceCheck out the Grandfather clockMonks' seats Wat Mongkolratanaram was built on 26 July 2005 and dedicated on 20 May 2007 in honor of the 80th birthday anniversary of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand. The temple hosts a lunch every Sunday but the Sunday I visited was a special day: Songkran, the Thai New Year.

The schedule on Wat Mongkolratanaram website said the ceremony began at 10:30 but when I and my friend, travel blogger Maria Laborde, arrived at 9:45 the parking lot was already packed and as we approached the main building I noticed there was quite a mix of Thai and non-Thai visitors and quite a few were taking pictures. I had brought two cameras, one for photographs and one for video and seeing the number of cameras that were already flashing about was very reassuring.

The first thing I registered as I walked around to the entrance was the smell of incense.  Next, I heard the sound of a band playing traditional Thai music. They were playing on a stage in front of a giant banner declaring the start of the New Year in Thai and English. Beneath the music I heard a voice speaking a completely foreign language; it was a monk on a loudspeaker.

Wat Mongkolratanaram is beautiful, inside and out. The architecture and altars were things I had only ever seen in movies. Maria and I spent a while taking pictures outside and we asked permission to take some photos inside the temple as well. We had looked up some quick tips about temple etiquette on the internet and were careful not to point fingers or toes at the Buddha. When we had gotten all shots we needed we exited the temple, making sure not to turn our backs on the Buddha.  Maria noticed that other visitors, Thai and non-Thai did not seem to be showing the respect we had as they did turn their backs when leaving.

Maria and I wandered around the temple grounds until the ceremony began.  When we went back inside the temple, Monks had lined up on a raised platform by the wall and began chanting. There were mats close to the Buddha statue and rows of chairs near the exit for those who did not wish to knee. It was crowded so we knelt in the back with hands folded in front of us in a prayer gesture.  Congregation bowed on command and there was responsive chanting between the monks and the congregation. I couldn’t help but draw a correlation to the responsive chanting that I grew up with at Temple Beth-El.

And then there was lunch. There were several food tables lined up against the outside wall of a community hall.  There were several options before me so I picked two I’d never tried: pumpkin curry chicken and red curry chicken with a side of fried rice and lady fingers for dessert ($9:50). Maria got her food as well and we walked down the length of the building to get our drinks and that is when we realized our mistake. Around the corner of the building there were even more food tables lined up! If only we had shown a little patience.

Throughout the day, there were opportunities to give alms, sprinkle perfumed water and flower petals on Buddha statues, and have water sprinkled on us by the monks. The end of the ceremonial process was marked by congregants (mostly children) using super soakers to spray even more water on any person who dared cross their path. This ritual is actually a means of encouraging good luck, good health, and a prosperous new year. It is also a refreshing way to cool down on a very hot day.

As I saw the Buddhists and non-Buddhists mingle and take pictures of each other around the temple grounds, it became obvious that this was as much a social event as a religious ceremony.  It is also a great method of outreach for the Thai and Tampa community. I even witnessed a moment of cross-cultural communication in the very long line to the restroom as a Puerto Rican woman explained where her island was to an elderly Thai woman. All in all, this was a fascinating experience and I am looking forward to exploring Tampa’s international communities.

For more about our festival experience, check out Maria’s post

Activation Achieved

I have spent a lot of time praising the internet but only participating in half measures. I have been a lurker, a youtube addict, and occasionally an anonymous commentor. So today I have decided to take the full measure and create a real presence digitally (or as real as the internet can be).

I’ve applied to graduate school for anthropology twice and been rejected twice, which hurt.   But I had my cry, and then I decided if I couldn’t go to school to learn how to be an applied anthropologist, I’d learn how to do it myself.  Right now I’m fighting for the Huaorani to maintain their territorial rights. I am going to use my skills as an anthropologist to do it.