Lawrence of Arabia

Original 1962 movie trailer

Recently, I heard on Classical MPR the Main Title music to the movie Lawrence of Arabia. My first thought was “Oh, I love that music!” My second thought was “Oh, I want to watch that movie again!” I’ve seen the movie countless times — I stopped counting at 30 times years ago, a substantial time commitment because the movie is 3 hours and 45 minutes in length — but I love it. It’s my all-time number 1 favorite movie. Best seen in a theater with a big screen, the last time I saw it in a theater was in 1989 after the restoration, and I went with an acquaintance who had never seen it. The screen was curved about a third of the way up each side so we had the sensation of being surrounded by it. I was in heaven.

Why on earth do I love so much a movie with no female characters, set in the unforgiving heat of the Arabian desert, and full of war and politics?

First is the music. Maurice Jarre composed the original soundtrack music, and it functions in an almost operatic way, revealing the emotional grounding of a scene, revealing character, moving the story forward. The movie begins with a black screen, then music — drums signaling that this movie is not set in America or Europe, and then the lush strings playing Lawrence’s heroic theme. The overture ends, there’s a pause, and then the Main Title begins with the opening credits over symphonic drums that explode into a light-hearted almost dancing theme of Lawrence the Englishman. These two Lawrence themes are intertwined throughout the movie, right up to the end credits when Lawrence drives away from Damascus in a jeep. The continual use of these themes underscores the purpose of the movie — to reveal who Lawrence was.

Second is Lawrence himself. The movie actually opens with his death, but how he dies is important — it shows his love of speed and risk-taking. The scene following his official funeral involves various characters who had been a part of his life commenting on him, and a reporter asking questions about him. The reporter asks the same question: Who was Lawrence? He doesn’t mean the historical figure, but the human being, the man, who was he? The movie then jumps back in time to Cairo which was where Lawrence began his Arabian adventure. He’s young, a bit ungainly, an outlier, but smart, and desperate to get in on the action in Arabia. Lawrence hasn’t a clue what he’s getting into, but he plunges in head first. The risk-taker. The story encompasses Lawrence’s service during the Arab Revolt against the Turks while the First World War raged in Europe.

What he does and what happens to him in Arabia as he unites successfully the Arab tribes against the Turks changes him. The good-hearted Englishman is ever in conflict with the heroic soldier, and he learns how powerless man is in the face of events other men have set in motion. What do men do when they feel or are powerless? For years I thought the movie was about the folly of men at war and in politics, but I think it goes deeper than that. It’s about the effects that one man’s actions have on another, and it’s about power.

Third is the film-making. Freddy Young, the cinematographer, shot every scene for the richness of the landscape vs. the encroachment of humanity. Anne V. Coates gave the cinematic world the “match cut,” the famous cut between Lawrence holding a flaming match to the sun rising over the desert. That was a first. David Lean and his production crew had to find ways to shoot scenes in the desert in appalling heat, with wind whipping the sand into every little crevice and threatening to damage expensive cameras and other equipment, as well as shooting moving scenes — long tracking shots. A special camera dolly on tracks, called a Wickham dolly, was created for those long tracking shots. The result was worth all the hard work and frustrations. The look of this film is magnificent, rich, almost romantic. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize early on that the dialogue in this movie is sparse but to the point except when Dryden, from the Arab Bureau, speaks. I loved Dryden. He has some of the funniest lines in the entire movie, and I’ve never been certain if they were intended to be funny. But there are long sections without any dialogue at all (which is one reason the music is so important).

Lawrence of Arabia is a biographical movie about a young British soldier sent into the Arabian desert who played a pivotal role in the Arab Revolt against the Turks. How did that experience affect him? Change him? Who was he? The set-up for the biographical exploration occurs after his funeral at the beginning. The movie presents one view of the man. Lawrence of Arabia is NOT a historical documentary about the Arab Revolt, nor is it a movie of Lawrence’s book about his experiences in Arabia The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I know people who don’t like the movie because it is not historically accurate or that it didn’t follow The Seven Pillars of Wisdom closely. I think if you want a strictly historically accurate movie about something, you seek out a documentary. The title of the movie is the giveaway that it’s a movie about the man, not the history.

The real Lawrence of Arabia — T. E. Lawrence.

Thank you, Osmo

Osmo Vanska (courtesy HarrisonParrott)

In the summer of 2007 when I began research for the third Perceval novel, Perceval in Love, I developed research questions about Helsinki and Finland. The beginning of the third novel, I decided, would be in Helsinki, with a rustic side trip somewhere out in the country one weekend. I wondered if Osmo Vanska would be willing to help me. A native Finn, the Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra had lived in Helsinki and performed with the Helsinki Philharmonic as their co-principal clarinetist. I asked my friend, Julie, who was the musicians’ personnel manager at the time, and she helped me arrange an interview with Osmo through his Executive Assistant. In preparation, I narrowed my Finland questions down to those I could not otherwise find through reading and websites, e.g. details that only someone who’d lived there would know. I also spent a lot of time researching Finlandia Hall in Helsinki where Evan Quinn would conduct. The internet can be an amazing research tool, but nothing like talking to a person who knows the place intimately.

I sent my list of questions the week before my scheduled interview to give Osmo an idea of what I needed. The day of the interview, I remained calm until I was approaching the stage door at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. It doesn’t matter whom I’m interviewing, I am always nervous. I checked in at the stage door and since I already knew where the Conductor’s Suite was, I was sent on my way. Osmo’s Executive Assistant, Michael Pelton, was waiting for me, and ushered me into the office, introducing me.

Osmo came out from behind his desk, windows looking out on a portion of Peavey Plaza behind him, and extended his hand. I remember telling him that I’d just heard a recording he’d done on the clarinet, a clarinet quartet by Bernhard Crusell. I confessed that I’d not heard of the composer before, but that I’d loved the music and the performance. He was dressed for summer in casual khaki, olive green shirt and sandals. We settled on the white sofa facing the desk and I gave Osmo an idea of the Perceval series — the protagonist Evan Quinn who is a young orchestra conductor and music director of the Minneapolis State Symphony (formerly Minnesota Orchestra) — and that the third novel begins in Helsinki. I’m glad I sent him the questions the week before. He was totally prepared and full of lots of really good details and tidbits about Helsinki, Finlandia Hall, the countryside in Finland. I knew already that Minnesota reminded him a lot of Finland, and hearing him describe Finland, I could understand why. He suggested places for Evan and his girlfriend to spend a weekend, to spend a romantic afternoon, hotels in Helsinki Evan would most likely stay at (with a side story about Sibelius and one particular hotel — I hadn’t known Sibelius liked to drink), places where Evan could run, the layout of Finlandia Hall and especially the conductor’s dressing room and if the stage door opened in or out.

Helsinki, Finland

I told Osmo about my 24-hour visit to Helsinki on my way to Russia (then Soviet Union) and my impressions of the city because I would be drawing on my own experience as well. We had talked for almost 50 minutes, and I’d requested only 30 minutes. I learned long ago, however, that if an interviewee wants to talk, let them. I was about to wrap it up, however, when Osmo interrupted me with a comment about concert programming. I had included Evan’s all Brahms programs with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the material I’d sent Osmo the week before. He told me that he could understand the reason I’d used the order of the symphonies that I had, but he said there was a more accepted order based on their timings. He then got up and retrieved a thick blue hardcover book that contained the timings of music performed on symphonic programs. I can see the book in my mind, but for the life of me, I can’t recall its title. Osmo showed me the timings and then rearranged the programs for Evan’s concerts. Osmo’s concern that I get the concert programming right surprised and moved me.

When I stood to leave, I had one last question, an important question for any interviewer to ask. Could I follow up with him if I had any additional questions? He nodded with a smile and said that I should work through his Executive Assistant, email him with any additional questions. As I left his office, I found a crowd of people waiting to talk to him — both musicians and staff. A few weeks later, as I began work on Perceval in Love, I had more questions for Osmo, this time how to say certain things in Finnish. He responded much faster than I expected, giving me exactly what I needed.

I completed the first draft of Perceval in Love in June 2020. When I look at the Finland chapters now, Osmo is everywhere. So I gave him a cameo appearance in the Finland chapters. Thank you, Osmo!

(courtesy Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Mind vs. Body

In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in my state, my city, and my life. Not having had prior experience with pandemics, I really had no idea what would happen, like the rest of the world. I knew, however, that I was terrified of contracting the virus, getting extremely sick, and dying. Looking back now, I know that I was fortunate in the boss I had at my job, and in understanding enough about my health status and viruses to take the steps I needed to take to protect myself. As an employee, I was grateful to receive paid leave. As a writer, after the initial week of confusion about what just happened, I knew exactly what to do to pass the time until I’d be allowed back in the office. I wrote and wrote and wrote, completing the first draft of a novel and beginning the first draft of another novel. What I wrote had nothing to do with the pandemic or life in lockdown, although I realized that I would need to somehow mention it in my novels set in the near future.

During the last 26 months, I’ve fared well. The coronavirus left me alone (or was terrified to come near me because of my strict adherence to the precautions) although it touched people I know. My introversion helped me cope with being cut off from people in general, friends and family during lockdowns. I’ve gotten vaccinated and then boosted, as recommended for a member of the high risk category. It is tempting to think that someday the virus will be eradicated, but I personally don’t believe that will happen in my lifetime. There’s too much vaccination reluctance in America and other parts of the world. The virus will continue to mutate in order to survive. I could still contract the coronavirus, but I’m not nearly as terrified as I was two years ago for two reasons: 1) effective vaccines, and 2) effective treatments.

I may have been successful in protecting myself against the coronavirus and dealing with the social effects of the pandemic, but the psychological effects will linger. For example, before the pandemic, I would not have felt that comfortable wearing a face mask of any design. Now, I feel uncomfortable without a face mask, or being among people who aren’t wearing face masks. Before the pandemic, I spent little time thinking about the distance between me and other people in situations. Now, I continue to be careful to social distance whenever possible, and I notice when others are not being careful. The pandemic has made me paranoid. Is it a healthy paranoia? Or is it the beginning of a new psychological syndrome related to the pandemic?

Other health issues have continued to plague humans as well. People are still having heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, broken bones, cancer of all types, influenza, and more. During the last 26 months, my pulmonologist and I have been watching a nodule in my right lung first grow for a while and then stop. I’ve had two colonoscopy procedures to dilate a bowel stricture that was threatening to cause a serious blockage. Then the last dilation procedure failed a month or so afterward and I took the difficult decision to have major surgery to remove the stricture. I stopped writing, any kind of writing.

When the body is in physical distress, the mind focuses on survival. It’s difficult to wrench the mind away to concentrate on being creative or imaginative. I’ve learned that it’s far more productive and healing to use my imagination to visualize successful healing and recovery. Creative endeavors must wait. Which is not to say that I haven’t thought about the novel I’m working on — the fourth Perceval novel — and other writing projects. Those thoughts have flitted in and out of my mind like butterflies, never alighting on anything. Accompanying those thoughts is an image of Ludwig van Beethoven in bed during his final weeks, still composing or trying to, even though his body was starting to shut down. Bela Bartok composed his brilliant Concerto for Orchestra during his final year of fighting leukemia. I wish I could discipline my imagination to work for me even when I’m sick.

Ideas abound. A sure sign that my body is feeling much better. I’m not yet ready to open up the chapter I was working on before the surgery, so I’m writing here, and I’m working slowly on short essays to stretch my writing muscles. The coronavirus didn’t get me. Instead, I’ve endured a successful major surgery, hospitalization, and recovery. Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean it’s not important to take care of the body’s other needs, other possible illnesses.

Take care of yourself in support of your creative imagination.

Music 101: Reblog from Interlude

Janet Horvath, cellist and formerly of the Minnesota Orchestra, has begun a series over at Interlude called “Music 101.” She plans to help people coming to classical music for the first time understand what they need to know and what they don’t. When I’m asked about listening to classical music, I have to agree with Janet. In reality, you really don’t need to know anything. Just open your ears and hearts and listen.

Here’s the link to the first installment of Music 101:



The first and only other time I’ve read Animal Farm by George Orwell, I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school reading it as an English assignment. The title of the book struck me as odd, certainly getting my attention. I remember more the circumstances in which I read the book than the book itself, actually. I began it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it that evening while babysitting for a little girl who was a spoiled only child. She practiced a tyranny all her own. I vaguely remember discussing the book in English class, but beyond that, I do not remember specifics. After living through 2016 through early 2021 in the U.S., I decided it was time to re-read this classic satire of the Soviet Union’s version of tyranny.

George Orwell made no secret that he wrote this “fairy tale” as he called it to focus attention on how tyranny occurs. It didn’t have to be the tyranny of Communism, of course, but he had Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in mind, their disagreements, and Stalin’s ultimate establishment of his power. He wanted to show how tyranny begins, how a tyrant thinks only of himself and not at all about the people he leads — but he lies to them constantly that he cares, how the tyrant creates a different reality for his followers, and that he will do anything to maintain his power. The tools he uses include manipulation, lies, brainwashing, and creating that reality of his own in which he can do no wrong, and he controls the lives and futures of those he reigns over. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. We watched it break up into many separate countries, try to establish a democratic representational government, and a free market economy. We’ve watched that effort fail as some people saw an opportunity to grab what they wanted for themselves such as companies, money, and power, and practically turn the country into a criminal state. The Russian mafia emerged as a force. Eventually Vladimir Putin won the Presidency, and he’s been working ever since to return Russia to an autocratic tyranny.

I doubt Orwell would have been surprised. He wrote in Animal Farm about the early days of the Rebellion of the animals against the humans, and how Snowball’s influence introduced the animals to the tools they would need to be able to sustain a life of freedom, primarily education. Snowball envisioned a farm where everyone contributed to the success of their society, and because they were all equal, their contributions were as respected as anyone else’s. In fact, their Animal Farm begins quite well, and all the animals are happy, well fed, and more than willing to work hard for the success of the farm. What could possibly go wrong? Napoleon, that’s what. Napoleon and Snowball had shared leadership, but Napoleon wasn’t content. The first thing he does is take away the puppies born to the dogs on the farm, and raises them himself. No one sees anything really wrong with that, except the dogs aren’t happy about losing their puppies to a pig. If all the other animals on the farm had stood behind the dogs and demanded that they be returned to their mothers, perhaps Napoleon could have been stopped. But Napoleon convinces them that he will teach their puppies much more than they ever could and be better puppies as a result. And so it began.

As I read Orwell’s description of how a tyranny is created, I kept thinking of America from 2016 to early 2021, and especially the role of the media and the internet. America, led by a president who reveled in the power of the office, the attention it garnered, and the control he wielded over the White House, started the country down the road to tyranny by creating his own reality and telling the country that anything that wasn’t his reality was “fake news.” He wasn’t a leader. He didn’t lead. He demanded personal loyalty and demanded his staff work only for him, not for the country. A president who cannot tolerate his own flawed humanity, his mistakes, being wrong, or even not being the most intelligent person in the room, must create a reality in which he is the hero, all powerful, a genius, and always right. We witnessed that in the American White House, as well as an outright attempt to overthrow the democratic process in Congress. He couldn’t have done it, of course, without the support and collusion of the Republican Party, no longer a political party of democracy in America.

I imagined years ago that tyranny in America would be possible given the right conditions and called it The Change in the Perceval series. I’ve not written that backstory, i.e. how The Change occurred and why. It has remained very much on my mind, especially the last six years. Recently, as I’ve worked on the fourth novel in the series, Perceval’s Game, I’ve realized that I need to include it in that novel. Evan Quinn is in America only two years after his defection. Of course he’d be thinking about his life in America and what he’d learned since his defection. His observations of life in America become confirmations for his decision to leave America. At the same time, he is also working to help those who want to overthrow the tyranny and re-establish democracy in America.

Snowball (via George Orwell) understood that education i.e. teaching reading, writing, literature, history, civics, critical thinking, and the democratic process to empower each animal on the farm to be a citizen and participant in their democracy would prevent them from succumbing again to the tyranny of human beings on the farm. Snowball didn’t heed the warning signs that Napoleon wanted control. America in the Perceval series didn’t heed the warning signs as well. Both ended up with tyranny. Will America in 2022 heed the warning signs?