Wednesday, February 24, 2010

70s Week

We're halfway through 70s Week (an inspiration of Beth Loves Bollywood), and the fabulousness just keeps coming. There have been too many excellent 70s Week contributions for me to list them all, but among my favorite posts so far:

70s OST Top 10 (Apni East India Company): Shweta shows why the accomplishments of artists like composer RD Burman and singer Kishore Kumar remain unsurpassed.

Don vs. Don: Two will enter only one will leave! (FilmiGirl): It's a throwdown between the 2006 Farhan Akhtar-directed remake and the 1970s original written by Farhan's father Javed Akhtar. Slickness vs. heart--which will win?

My ten favorite 70s movies (MemsaabStory): Memsaab is the ideal guide to 1970s Bollywood; now I have to track down these movies!

Shining the spotlight on Gulzar (Old Is Gold): 1970s Bollywood wasn't only masala craziness; here Bollyviewer writes about the "delicate and ethereal beauty" of director/writer/lyricist Gulzar's films.

Romance and awesome heroines (...so they dance!): Veracious writes that one of the best things about 1970s Bollywood movies is their fierce heroines portrayed by actresses like Hema Malini and Neetu Singh (to which I'd add Don's Zeenat Aman).

I haven't seen nearly enough films from the era to do my own 70s Week post, but I'm really looking forward to the rest of the week!

(Thanks to V Love Movies for the 70s Week logo.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Agrippina

Handel's Agrippina (1709) is a wickedly entertaining opera filled with some of the most delightfully conniving and underhanded characters since Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea (1642). And that's no coincidence: Agrippina is a kind of prequel to the earlier opera and features many of the same morally suspect characters: the soon-to-be-emperor Nerone (Nero, here a petulant adolescent), the seductive Poppea, the wronged Ottone (Otho). Added into the mix are Nero's ruthlessly scheming mother Agrippina, who'll stop at nothing to see her son crowned emperor, the aged current emperor Claudio (Claudius), and two buffoonish freedmen, Pallante (Pallas) and Narciso (Narcissus), who do Agrippina's bidding in the hope of being rewarded with her love. In another parallel to the earlier opera, Agrippina has a similarly amused, skeptical tone. What's surprising is that this cynical and ironic (rather than morally disapproving) take on these backstabbing and corrupt characters was created by a cardinal, Vincenzo Grimani, who wrote the opera's libretto and probably commissioned the music from Handel.

And of course Grimani could rely on his audience's knowledge of the characters and their tangled relationships. Historically, everyone who features in the opera came to a bad end: depending on which Roman historian you believe, Agrippina had Claudius and Narcissus murdered, while she herself was killed by Nero (as were Poppea and Pallas), and both Nero and Otho ultimately became emperors who were forced to abdicate by committing suicide. But ignoring the bloody reality, the opera's plot verges at times on bedroom farce, perhaps as Grimani's satire of the mores of the Papal Court.

The action takes place a few years after the marriage of Agrippina and Claudio, and conflates and compresses historical events. As it opens, Claudio is reported lost at sea as he returns from the conquest of Britain (which occurred a decade earlier, but never mind). Agrippina and her co-conspirators Pallante and Narciso waste no time in declaring the teenaged Nerone to be emperor. To everyone's consternation, though, Ottone arrives and announces that he has rescued Claudio from drowning, and as a reward for saving the emperor's life he himself been named as the next emperor. He then unwisely confides in Agrippina that he cares more for the love of Poppea than for power. Agrippina, knowing that Claudio is also besotted with Poppea, then tells her falsely that Ottone has given her up to Claudio in exchange for the throne, and convinces her to get back at him by telling Claudio that Ottone wants her for himself.

This leads to a brilliant scene halfway through the second act where Ottone, expecting to be crowned by Claudio, is instead denounced by him as a traitor. Ottone then appeals to Poppea, Agrippina and Nerone in turn for their intercession, only--to Ottone's shock and bewilderment--to be spurned by each of them.

Another great sequence occurs in the third act, when Ottone, Claudio, and Nerone arrive in Poppea's bedroom in succession, and she has each one conceal himself to eavesdrop. She uses the situation to turn the tables on Agrippina and Nerone; it's like something out of a Rossini farce.

Handel and Grimani even parody the conventional happy ending of opera seria. In a burst of magnanimity Claudio declares that he will crown Ottone emperor after all, and marry Nerone and Poppea. Waiting to be acclaimed for his wisdom and justice, instead he sees the stricken looks on everyone's faces, realizes his error and hastily switches the rewards of Ottone and Nerone. (Of course, in real life Poppea wouldn't wait long before dumping Otho for Nero, while Otho was not nearly as power-shy as he appears here--he was one of the successors to Nero in the Year of the Four Emperors.)

I don't want to make Agrippina sound too comic, because (as ever with Handel) it contains some ravishing music that lends emotional weight to the characters' dilemmas. Here is Ann Hallenberg singing Agrippina's thrilling Act II aria "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate":


Thanks to stolof for posting this live recording conducted by Fabio Biondi from the 300th anniversary production of the opera at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the city where the opera had its 1709 premiere. The words are: "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate. / Ciel, soccorri a mie disegni, soccorri ciel! / Il mio figlio fa che regni / E voi Numi il secondate!" In English, "Thoughts, you torment me. / Heaven help me in my plan! / To bring my son to the throne. / Gods, help me!"

Another remarkable thing about this aria is its structure. A typical da capo aria ends after its first section is repeated. However, Handel plays with those expectations: after the aria is apparently over, Agrippina has several lines of recitative and arioso, and then the A section returns again for a final time (the recitative begins at about 5:00, and the second repeat of the A section at 5:45). It's as though she can't help herself: she's obsessively returning to her plans and her hopes for their success. Even though Handel was only 24 when he wrote Agrippina, he was already subverting the conventions of opera seria to make his characters more psychologically rich.

Performances and recordings of Agrippina are still comparatively rare, especially for such a musically brilliant, funny, and stylistically fresh work. I first heard excerpts from Agrippina on Arias for Durastanti, with Lorraine Hunt (later Lieberson) performing what became for me definitive versions of "Ogni vento" and "Pensieri" (Nicholas McGegan conducting; Harmonia Mundi HMU 907056). I then turned to the full-length John Eliot Gardiner recording from 1991-1992 (originally released in 1997, and recently reissued; Philips 4380092). Although it has many excellent qualities, for some reason I've always found it vaguely dissatisfying. It features Della Jones as Agrippina, Alastair Miles as Claudio, Michael Chance as Ottone, Derek Lee Ragin as Nerone, and Donna Brown as Poppea. Perhaps it's because Jones' voice isn't as rich as Hunt's (when the oboe enters in "Pensieri," it sounds eerily as though Hunt is suddenly dueting with herself), or perhaps the fault is Jones' characterization--she simply doesn't convey the same strength and fierceness as Hunt (and what's Agrippina without a strong Agrippina?). Speaking of characters who lack power, Michael Chance's soft countertenor lacks the fullness that a female contralto would have brought to the role of Ottone (it was originally written for a woman, Francesca Vanini-Boschi). A pleasant surprise, though, is Alastair Miles' commanding bass as Claudio. Perhaps too commanding--after all, Claudio is supposed to be an enfeebled and besotted old man.

A countertenor Ottone (Thierry Grégoire, not a huge improvement over Chance) is also employed in the stage version of Agrippina from Théâtre Municipal, Tourcoing, France, conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire and released on DVD in 2004 (Dynamic DVD 33431). My main problem with this version, though, isn't so much with the generally good cast, which includes the vocally alluring Véronique Gens as Agrippina and a young Philippe Jaroussky as Nerone. It's with Frédéric Fisbach's staging, which places many of the characters in unnaturally-colored fright wigs, offers a starkly minimal, unatmospheric set, and forces Gens to sing "Ogni vento" under a projection of something that looks like a child's drawing of a alien spaceship (you can see it here; any guesses as to what it might mean are welcome, because I find it utterly mystifying). As with Gardiner's recording, a highlight of this version is the performance of the Claudio, Nigel Smith, though again he seems a bit too youthful and vigorous for the role. If you're tempted by this one you might want to skip the images and just listen to it on CD (Dynamic 43113), though there the limitations of live sound are probably more apparent.

Given the flaws of the Gardiner and Malgoire sets, I can only hope that conductors like Alan Curtis, Marc Minkowski, Christophe Rousset, or William Christie have this wonderful opera in their near-future recording plans.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

Betty Boop's "I Want To Be Loved By You":


The blog Advertising for Love, in which Pam Epstein shares the Victorian-era personal ads she's discovering in her research (as featured in the New York Times today).

Julie London's "Daddy":


A personal map of one week of missed connections.

Too much information: love talk overheard on the street, compiled by Leah Garchik.

Nico's version of "My Funny Valentine".

(Thanks to Robin for some of the ideas, and to herself for the inspiration.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

How We Decide

Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) is a smart and entertaining look at recent research into how the brain functions when we're faced with a choice. One of the main findings is that both the rational centers (the prefrontal cortex) and emotional centers (the amygdala) are involved in decisionmaking, but that each tends to be best at certain kinds of problems. Counter-intuitively, Lehrer claims that the rational brain is best at simple problems, but can be overwhelmed when there are many complex and competing variables--then it's best to rely on gut instinct (the emotional brain) and not to overthink a problem.

He offers selectively chosen experimental evidence, but even his carefully chosen examples are sometimes contradictory. Buying a house is an example: there are so many variables to consider that the rational brain can't sort them out; better decisions are made (Lehrer claims) when people trust their impressions and instincts, rather than try to weigh every variable. But then Lehrer suggests that when people use their emotional brain to choose a mortgage--another complex choice--they often go for the option that is cheaper in the short term but vastly more expensive over the life of the loan: in other words, a really bad deal. So trusting your gut in complex decisions is best, except when it isn't--typically, when numbers are involved.

Do you want cake with that telephone number? I'm also concerned about the experimental design of some of the studies that Lehrer recounts. In one experiment, subjects were asked to memorize either a two-digit or a seven-digit number, and then walk down a hall to another room where they would be asked to repeat it. Halfway down the hall they were offered a snack (and this was the real experiment): they could choose either a serving of fruit salad, or a slice of German chocolate cake.

You might think that personal preference would determine which snack was chosen, but instead it was found that the determining factor was the size of the number the subject had to memorize. The ones who'd memorized the seven-digit number went for the chocolate cake much more often than the ones who'd memorized the two-digit number. The explanation offered is that the rational centers of the brain were overwhelmed even by the apparently simple task of memorizing a seven-digit number, and so those subjects were obeying an emotional impulse towards the chocolate dessert (instead of exercising rational self-control and going for the healthful fruit salad). From the point of view of the scientists who designed the experiment, people are being led into the less optimal choice by their emotional centers. But aren't they also expressing their true preference? And isn't a true preference a more optimal choice, even if it's a bit decadent?


Van Gogh vs. the Kittens: In another study of preferences, college students were asked to select a poster to take home, and given a choice between a Monet reproduction, a Van Gogh reproduction, and three different "humorous cat posters." One group of subjects was simply asked to rate the posters on a scale of 1 to 9 before selecting their favorite. A second group was asked to explain why they liked or disliked each poster before rating them. Only five percent of the first group chose one of the kitten posters, while half of the second group did. When the students were contacted several weeks later, 75 percent of the ones with the kitten posters were dissatisfied with their choices, while no one with an art poster regretted their choice. The scientists' explanation was that in the second group, the engagement of the rational centers (having to explain their choice) had blocked the input from the emotional centers, leading to a less satisfying choice.

But a key aspect of this experiment is that there wasn't one art poster among the choices, but two. A subject who chose either the Van Gogh or the Monet as her favorite may have felt that in order to adequately explain her choice to the scientists running the experiment (not just authorities, but representatives of the college faculty who would be judging her academic performance for the rest of her college career), she would have to discuss matters of art history or aesthetics, areas in which she may have not felt comfortable. Since a preference for a kitten poster was easier to explain, subjects may have rated them highest. So the ratings in the second experiment may not have reflected a subject's actual preferences, just her wish to avoid looking ignorant in front of a professor. It's little wonder most of those subjects felt dissatisfied later on.

Drinking champagne through a straw: Another preference experiment with design problems is the famous wine-tasting experiment, where subjects expressed a preference for wine that they were told was more expensive. The twist was that the wine the subjects were told cost $45 a bottle was actually the same wine that they'd been told cost $5 a bottle (its true retail price) when they'd sampled it earlier in the experiment. But brain imaging showed that their prefrontal cortexes were more active when they drank the "$45" wine. That is, they weren't just claiming to like the more expensive wine in order to appear sophisticated. When they thought a wine cost more, they actually enjoyed it more. When the subjects tasted the same wines without any price information, they reversed their preferences, and gave the highest rating to the cheapest wine.

The scientists were able to take brain scans of people who were drinking wine by having them sip it through straws. But the problem with this procedure is that smell is intimately bound up with our perception of taste--that's why food can seem tasteless when you have a stuffy nose. Sipping wine through a straw removes many of its flavor components. So wines drunk through a straw will taste more alike than when the same wines are drunk from wine glasses; the experiment doesn't allow the subjects to fully distinguish among the wines by flavor, leaving price as the only other information the subjects have.

Of course, the main point of this experiment that our expectations can affect our perceptions, which seems indisputable. But my own experience shows that things in the real world are less clear-cut than in this experiment. A friend of mine used to give regular wine-tasting parties, where three or four different wines would be sampled blind (only one person knew which wine was which, and he would indicate his preference last). At every single one of the more than half-dozen parties we attended, the group preferred the wine that turned out to be the most expensive. Occasionally a cheap wine would wind up in second place, but it was never close--the most expensive wine would typically be considered superior by a large margin. The difference between us and the subjects of the experiment? We were drinking the wine out of glasses, and so the differences in flavor and aroma were more apparent.

A bird in the hand, or...? But for me the most fascinating chapters of the book concern behavioral economics--the choices we make when money is at stake. Lehrer describes a game show that I'm glad I've never had a chance to see, because I'd instantly become an addict. It's called "Deal or No Deal," and it features 26 briefcases containing amounts of money ranging from 1 cent to a million dollars (or euros). At the beginning of the game you choose one briefcase, which is placed in a lockbox. Then you start opening the other briefcases one by one. After every couple of rounds, a man called The Banker makes you a cash offer for the briefcase you've set aside, and the amount of the offer fluctuates with what's revealed in each opened briefcase. As long as the big-money briefcases remain unopened, your offer rises steadily; as soon as you eliminate them, it plummets. That means your offer can change by a huge amount of money very quickly.

Lehrer describes the case of Frank, a contestant on the Dutch version of the show. With five briefcases left, the only high-value case that remained contained 500,000 euros. The Banker offered Frank 102,006 euros for his locked briefcase. Should he have taken the offer?

The answer is yes. There was only a one in five chance that Frank's briefcase contained the 500,000 euros, and he's being offered more than 100,000 euros for it.

But Frank said no. If he could eliminate another low-value briefcase, the Banker's offer would rise. But Frank was unlucky--the next briefcase he opened contained the 500,000 euros. The most the remaining briefcases could contain was 10,000 euros. The Banker then offered 2508 euros. In the space of a few seconds, Frank's offer had declined by 100,000 euros. Should Frank have taken this offer, painful as it was?

The answer is again yes. But Frank refused again, because of a mechanism that is termed "loss aversion." Losses are more painful to us than gains are pleasurable, by a substantial margin. Frank decided that after a loss of 100,000 euros that a gain of 2500 wasn't worth it, even though it was a fair deal. He still had the possibility of winning 10,000 euros, after all.

Finally, two briefcases were left: one containing 10,000 euros, and one containing 10 euros. The Banker made a very generous offer: 6500 euros. Frank should definitely have taken the offer: he only had a 50 percent chance of winning 10,000 euros, and he was being offered nearly two-thirds of that amount, guaranteed. But he decided to open his locked briefcase instead. It contained 10 euros.

Frank's experience makes you think that perhaps economic models in which all actors are assumed to be rationally maximizing their own utility might be a bit of an oversimplification...

How We Decide is filled with thought-provoking studies and anecdotes like these. Interestingly, the book avoids entirely the subject of romantic choice. That fascinating area is one that I hope Lehrer will explore in his next book on how the brain works.

Update 6 February 2010: WNYC's excellent science program RadioLab has a podcast episode on choice that I highly recommend; Jonah Lehrer is one of the interviewees.