Author: Charles Mayo

Philosophy department observes holiday

Though many may not have been aware of it, Thursday, Nov. 19 marked World Philosophy Day. The international holiday’s moderate obscurity is understandable. Established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2005, it is fairly young. UNESCO’s General Conference sets World Philosophy Day annually as the third Thursday of November.

But as one may expect, the St. Olaf Philosophy Department is keen to spread awareness of this lesser known holiday. For the second year in a row, the department forewent their weekly sponsoring of pizza-fueled philosophical discussions among students and instead set up a stand just outside of the Cage during community time.

“It’s exciting to celebrate a United Nations sponsored day recognizing the value of philosophy and the way that it can influence understanding in the world,” Assistant Professor of Philosophy Arthur Cunningham said. “It’s exciting for philosophy students to think of something like the United Nations as a body recognizing the value of what students are studying here and to think about the transformative power that philosophy can have.”

Though Cunningham was present at the stand, it was primarily run by students, including Annika Beck ’17, Pedro Monque ’16 and Maggie Schenk ’16. Students stood in front of the table, actively engaging their peers to inform them about World Philosophy Day and offered them complimentary pizza slices. Other volunteers stayed behind the table and managed the sale of World Philosophy Day buttons.

There were two styles of button available, both emblazoned with the Owl of Athena – a universal symbol of philosophy. The first button had only the owl, while the second overlaid the image with an etymological deconstruction that defined “philosophy” as “love of wisdom.”

These buttons were given away for free at last year’s World Philosophy Day celebration, however the Philosophy Department introduced the new $1 charge in order to raise funds for non-profit organization Empoderando Latino America.

“It’s an organization that Oles have helped work on and helped to create the curriculum for the Latin American students that are coming through,” Beck said. “These students apply for the program and then they go through a three week intensive and they learn about philosophical skills like peacebuilding. They then bring these ideas back to their communities.”

Celebration of World Philosophy Day was not limited only to Buntrock Commons. Last year, Philosophy Department Chair Charles Taliaferro connected the students in his classes to philosophy students in Tehran, Iran. This year, Taliaferro invited visiting Kierkegaard scholar Dr. Leo Stan to his class as a guest lecturer.

Overall, students and professors involved in the celebrations were pleased with the interaction they had and appear likely to celebrate the holiday again when it comes back around Nov. 17, 2016.

“It’s a great day to think about how philosophy can impact our individual lives. It’s a great day to celebrate our differences as we move together forward in philosophy,” Beck said.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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Cherry Orchard proves tragic, comedic

“Life has gone by as if I never lived.”

This is one of the final lines of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, the most recent production in the Theater Department’s 2015-2016 season which premiered on the ominous date of Friday, Nov. 13. Directed by Gary Gisselman and staged in Kelsey Theater, the seven show run began with three performances last weekend and will continue with another four starting on Nov. 19.

The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s final play, tells the story of an aristocratic Russian family at the turn of the 20th century, after the abolishment of serfdom. The family’s wealth has dwindled to the point where their opulent estate and the titular cherry orchard that surrounds it are to be put up for auction to pay off their debts. Much to the frustration of those around them – particularly a former serf turned enterprising businessman – they take no real action to save their home, instead choosing to wallow in their old ways, waiting for some miracle cure.

In writing the play, Chekhov intended the show as a farcical comedy. However Constantin Stanislavsky, who directed the very first run of The Cherry Orchard in 1904, considered it a tragedy. Since then, scholars of Chekhov’s work have spent countless hours debating the show’s proper genre classification. St. Olaf’s production falls somewhere in the middle, finding a happy medium between the humor of a cast of eccentric characters bouncing off one another and the tragedy of a family on the road to ruin.

Tara Schaefle ’16 stars as Liubov Ranyevskaya, the family’s matriarch and owner of the cherry orchard. While sometimes humorous in her misunderstandings of and disregard for financial matters, Schaefle’s Liubov is the linchpin of the show. She epitomizes the tragic aspect with her despair over the loss of the cherry orchard, which is her last connection to everything she has lost: her husband’s affections, her son’s life and her entire way of life.

Liubov’s tragic nature is contrasted by her brother, Leonid Gayev, played by Will Ibele ’18. Gayev is the source of the show’s comedic peaks, especially in a scene where he converses with a bookcase and his many quabbles with Firs, the family’s butler played by former St. Olaf pastor, Bruce Benson. Gayev is much more attentive than his sister to the estate’s dire situation, but ultimately fails due to his lack of drive and habit of fantasizing about billiards when faced with adversity.

If Liubov and Gayev represent the show’s tragic and comedic aspects respectively, it can be said that Firs the butler is a consolidation of the two. This is epitomized in the play’s final scene, where Firs wakes to find that the family he served all his life has forgotten him as they abandoned the house in the wake of its deconstruction. Each of Benson’s lines alternated emphasis between the Home Alone-esque hilarity of that situation and its depressing loneliness. During that scene, the audience restricted themselves to loud snuffs and quiet gasps, refusing to ruin the silence of the borderline magical moment.

Most of the characters in The Cherry Orchard are either Liubov’s family or servants. Two figures that fall outside of this categorization are Yermolai Lopakhin, played by Memo Rodriguez ’16, and Petya Trofimov, played by Dylan Stratton ’16. Both are young men who have a history with the Gayev’s estate; Lopakhin’s family was once their serfs and Petya was a tutor to Liubov’s late son. Since then, the two have embraced two radically different ideologies. After serfdom was abolished, Lopakhin worked his way to become a wealthy, enterprising landowner, whereas Petya continued his education and became a radical left-wing political idealist.

The Cherry Orchard is a story of several antithetical characters, all of whom are portrayed neither favorably nor dispassionately. Petya and Lopakhin embody this idea. Both characters are relatively unscathed at the play’s end; Lopakhin has achieved financial victory and Petya embraces the fall of the aristocracy. Despite having opposite views, the two respect each other and Chekhov does not give either an ethical advantage.

Either Petya or Lopakhin could be interpreted as The Cherry Orchard’s hero, but Chekhov leaves it to the audience to ponder their personal morals to decide. But Chekhov also does not make either of them invincible. Despite thinking that his education and connection to the ‘common people’ puts him above the Gayevs, Petya is reduced to childish yips when Liubov lays into him for the airs he puts on. And when Lopakhin reveals that he has bought and is going to destroy the cherry orchard where his ancestors toiled as serfs, his joy is spoiled when he realizes that he never actually desired victory, but rather for others to bear witness to that victory, something which no one is particularly interested in doing.

The show’s sound design was one of its most impressive technical feats. Particularly impressive is the song and dance that reopens the play after its intermission. The lively Russian tune sets the tone for the following scenes and enlivens a potentially dull script. But by far the most impactful sound was the famous cue listed in the text as “the sound of a string snapping” that occurs in the middle of the show and again at the end. The ominous noise was created by dragging the bow of a violin across the edge of a drum cymbal, and it unnerves both characters and audience alike in the plays most critical moments.

The set, too, was impressive, as imposing set pieces were either rolled in and out, or dropped and lifted from above with seemingly little effort. Casting realism aside, these structures fit the show’s surreal tone and added an element of spectacle to the production.

One weak point of the design was the show’s use of projections. While the images themselves were well-made, many clashed with the design of the set. Additionally, the choice to project these images onto black scrim fabric made the originally vibrant images appear dull and even ugly.

The designers opted to project a forest made up of birch trees rather than cherry trees. Maybe the production crew came up with a reason for this in their production meetings, but the audience never learns why. The lack of cherry trees comes across as a glaring design oversight.

In one performance, the projections malfunctioned early on and went out for the duration of the first act. The scene seemed to work better without them.

Though the projections are generally counterproductive during the show, they nearly redeem themselves in the first and last moments of the play’s final scene. Before Firs enters, the empty stage captivates with just the remnants of the Gayev’s estate and the forest glowing behind it. Then again, as Firs dies at the end of his monologue, that mesmerizing effect returns as his corpse blends into the wreckage of the crumbling aristocracy that he served all his life.

Despite technical issues, The Cherry Orchard succeeds as a lively revival of Chekhov’s last play with great performances by the cast and an energetic translation of the hundred year-old script.

The Cherry Orchard continues its run with 7:30 p.m. shows on Nov. 19-21 and a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Nov. 21.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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Why kill a baby Hitler?

Recently, much debate has broken out from an online poll from The New York Times Magazine that asked readers if they would be willing to kill a baby Hitler in order to save the millions of lives lost in World War II and the Holocaust.

The Opinions editors have asked me to unleash my divine wisdom and weigh in on this argument by providing the definitive answer on what the best course of action is for that first time traveler when they have to deal with this moral quandary. However – and I hope the esteemed editorial team can forgive me – I will be doing no such thing. It is a narrow-minded query with no truly interesting answer. Instead, I will be dissecting this question and the implications thereof.

But first, allow me to explain why I do not wish to answer this question directly. Among those who have actually reached a firm decision in this debate, there are three primary groups. The first says that one is morally obliged to kill baby Hitler to prevent the millions of casualties that resulted from his Germanic reign. The second claims that one should not kill baby Hitler because no one has the right to kill, no matter how “justified.” The third group is a myriad of dissenters who oppose the death of the Nazi poster child for reasons of logistics rather than morality. These range from diminishing Hitler’s role in the orchestration of the Holocaust to being wary of a Butterfly Effect-esque time warp from that large of an historical alteration.

So, now, let us truly analyze this question: if you could go back in time, should you kill baby Hitler?

My first thought is this: why is it a baby Hitler? Obviously, the murder would have to ideally be before his rise to fuhrer status at 45, as this is supposed to be a preventative measure. Forty-five years is a pretty big window to only limit the hypothetical to the moments immediately following Herr Wulf’s birth. It seems to me that the only function of making it baby Hitler who is killed is to increase the amount of naysayers in the poll, leading to more debate, leading to more page views, leading to more advertising dollars. I wonder how answers would change if in the scenario, the time traveller had an annoying, angsty teenage Hitler – presumably sporting a greasy, peach-fuzz version of his iconic ‘stache – at the edge of their blade.

Secondly, why is this a binary question? Is there a particular reason that I am purely bound to kill or to do nothing? This is a scenario in which time travel is possible; the possibilities are endless. Could I not bring him only a few decades ahead in the timeline, get him hooked on Lord of the Rings and let his productivity drop to zero as he gets sucked further and further in the grips of fandom? Or could I not – if I wanted a kinder alternative – take baby Hitler and raise him right into a fine, loving and upstanding citizen?

Imagine a world where you could open to the obscure back pages of your newspaper of choice and read a small article about the president giving honors to scoutmaster Adolph Hitler for his commendable ability to organize his troops in an orderly fashion as they made campfires with ruthless efficiency. It sounds a lot better than a front page story of some psycho who shot a poor little baby for no apparent reason.

My final concern is that this debate may grant the first time traveler a disturbing freedom from ethical liability. The end goal of this debate is to reach a concrete answer as to whether or not one should massacre the swaddled Aryan, yes? If a consensus is reached, are we not at risk of setting a dangerous precedent of setting necessary violent objectives in time travel? Are we saying that the first time travel is fated to also become the first temporal hitman? Food for thought.

In the end, this is just a silly hypothetical question to be exploited by various publications on slow news days. But it is important, especially in such divisive questions, to ponder why the question has taken the form that it does. Answers are not the only things that are debatable; the questions themselves may be as well.

Chaz Mayo (mayo1@stolaf.edu) ’18 is from Rice Lake, Wis. He majors in theater.

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In tired horror genre, Pontypool changes everything

October is an interesting time in the movie industry, particularly in its relation to the horror genre. The two seem almost mutually exclusive; horror movies are nearly always released in October and nearly all films released in October are horror movies. This exclusivity does not seem to be purely the consequence of seasonal genres either. For example, though December sees an increased rate of Christmas movies, as that is the seasonal genre, they are not the only major releases at that time. Often, we see the premieres of large budgeted – yet non topically festive – films in that month, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. In fact, the highest grossing film on a Christmas Day is Guy Pearce’s 2009 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. No Christmas movie even breaks the top 10 on that list.

Arguably, summer has a similar bond to the action genre, but this too seems to be not as concrete. Yes, many action movies come out in the summer. But so do many films of other upbeat genres. Summer is the ideal season for premiering star-studded comedies like Ted or Pitch Perfect 2, as well as children’s movies like Inside Out and Shrek the Third. Additionally, action is the predominant genre of this cinematic period and many action movies are released outside of the bounds of summer. One only has to look at the examples previously provided of non-Christmas movies released in December to see evidence of this.

Given this unique connection between the horror genre and the month of October, it is only natural that movie marathons in this season would have an inclination toward the macabre, especially as All Hallow’s Eve approaches. Curling up in front of a screen with a handful of friends for a night of spooks is an appealingly festive way to spend the holiday.

There’s just one problem with that concept: there aren’t many great horror movies.

Horror fans, allow me a chance to elaborate before erupting into anger-fueled rants. I am not attempting to invalidate your favorite genre. I am merely stating that for most audiences, the current state of horror films leaves a lot to be desired. Genre buffs may be quick to point out old classics: Nosferatu, Night of the Living Dead,Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist; the list goes on and on. These are all fine films, many of which are among my favorites, but for most folks, they do not have the same impact that they might have once had on first release.

This is for a couple of different reasons. First and most obvious, many audiences may not be able to get past outdated special effects, thus holding them back from becoming fully engrossed in the film. But another point that might not be as readily apparent is that old horror films are less likely to resonate thematically to the modern viewer. Horror films are often products of their eras, reflecting the anxieties of the times in a gruesome mirror. Unless a viewer can empathize with the morals of an older film or an find a way to apply those morals to the modern day (which can be difficult given the product permanence of the film medium), the experience is likely to fall flat. Again this is a broad generalization, but unless a viewing party is comprised solely of horror buffs or classic cinephiles, these observations are likely to ring true.

Yet contemporary horror flicks do not strike a chord either. When is the last time there was a compelling scary movie in theaters? Ever since Paranormal Activity minimized expenses while maximizing profits, the market has been saturated with found-footage and/or jump-scare movies. This is not to condescend those who find genuine thrill in the jump-scare. To be able to experience that thrill purely from not knowing what comes next is borderline commendable in my view. However, for those who do not have that same ability, the viewing experience can become boring. The dull period between spooky monsters jumping out of nowhere at relatively predictable points does not a compelling film make.

There are some smaller horror films, though, that thankfully bring refreshing innovation to the tired genre. A prime example is 2008’s Pontypool, directed by Bruce McDonald. Written by Tony Burgess as an adaptation to his 1995 novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, the film fell under the radar despite much critical praise.

Pontypool is a film so original that it is difficult to describe. Though, at the risk of oversimplifying the concept, the best one sentence summary I can provide for the movie’s premise is this: Pontypool plays like a zombie film as written by a linguistics professor. And given Burgess’ degree in semiotics from the University of Toronto, that description is not too far off. Compounding to that, Burgess graduated in 1995, the same year that he published the novel on which the film is based.

Unfortunately, Pontypool has not received widespread fame. As one might have guessed from my summary above, the premise of the film is complicated and difficult to market. On top of that, the film was produced independently in Canada on an incredibly small budget. With not much money to spend, and cut off from the power bloc that is Hollywood, Pontypool was left to hang in the nether. However, in recent years the film has been made available on content streaming services such as Netflix, which has allowed the film to find a somewhat larger audience.

Set in the small, real-life town of Pontypool, Ontario, the movie follows the story of Grant Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie, a former shock-jock radio DJ whose career has shriveled to the point where he is now only employable to small local stations. As Mazzy arrives to the station early in the morning to begin his daily ritual of trying to push the envelope of rural sensibilities on-air, much to the chagrin of his producer, he begins to receive reports of a large mob raging through the quiet town. Initially believing that he is the victim of a prank, Mazzy soon finds himself in the center of an international news story as the world struggles to understand the mysterious calamity that has befell the otherwise unnotable Canadian town.

It is important here to note that though I used the word “zombie” earlier, the antagonists of Pontypool are not exactly what come to mind when hearing that term. Even the director of the film has hesitated to use the word in interviews, preferring to describe the creatures with the rather lackluster nomenclature, “conversationalists.” You see, in Pontypool, the virus is not spread through bite nor is it directly comparable to known diseases. In Pontypool, the virus is spread through the understanding of a concept and the English language is infected. That notion is likely confusing, and though I could elaborate, I will allow readers the opportunity to see the film for themselves.

I would encourage anyone else who is as unsatisfied by most mainstream horror films to give Pontypool a chance. If it strikes your fancy, Burgess has a fine catalogue of novels and has also continued to write film adaptations of his work, such as 2014’s Hellmouth, again starring McHattie. Burgess has also adapted Pontypool for the stage with the script set for an April release. Pontypool is available on DVD, BluRay and Netflix Instant Watch.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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Philosopher discusses horror

On Oct. 5, Viking Theater held a guest lecture jointly sponsored by the departments of classics, philosophy and religion. Maria Pontoppidan, a Danish philosopher from the University of Copenhagen, gave a talk she titled Plotinus, Kurtz and the Horror: Reflections on an Ethical Ideal.

Before her lecture, Pontoppidan joined the weekly Classics table for their regular dinner and discussion. Afterwards, students filled Viking Theater’s seating capacity, and then some. Some sat on the floor, while others took a seat on the side of the stage.

Pontoppidan was welcomed to the stage by a choir made up of the front two rows of the audience. This makeshift choir belted a Greek translation of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” aptly retitled “O Come, All Ye Frightening.” Professor of Classics Anne Groton organized the choir and provided singers with a handout of the song’s lyrics.

After the song was over, Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro formally introduced Pontoppidan.

“I consider her possibly the closest living person to Galadriel. She is truly a Lady of the Light,” Taliaferro said.

Then Pontoppidan took to the podium.

“I thank Charles for his kind words, but I disagree with his assessment of my as a Lady of Light. I think it is quite the opposite; I consider myself more a Lady of the Dark,” Pontoppidan said.

In her lecture, Pontoppidan used the term “horror” not in the standard sense of spookiness and erieness, but rather in reference to the darker side of humanity’s actions. ISIS and the events of the Vietnam War were cited as examples of this kind of “horror.”

Pontoppidan talked extensively about the ancient philosopher Plotinus, who advocated a casual detachment from the world as way of coping with its horrors.

She also said she admired Friedrich Nietzsche’s endeavors to confront horror head on, though she warned that such attempts may come at the cost of one’s sanity.

Pontoppidan often used the story of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novells, Heart of Darkness and its 1979 film adaptation, Apocalypse Now as a metaphor for an obsessive search that ultimately leads to places irrevocablly dark and horrific.

“It was very intense,” audience member Herman Hannon ’18 said, “Afterward, I had to go find a corner and just think about it for an hour or so.”

Pontoppidan’s speaking style is unorthodox to say the least. Aside from completely prohibiting recording of any kind during her talk, she also has a version of the lecture where she cuts and slices a large slab of meat as she speaks. However, after consulting with Taliaferro, she decided to leave the butcher knives at home.

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