Friday, July 21, 2017

my tool is spanish

If you miss the fights on Gillette's Cavalcade of Sports, don't fret. Just tune into our local message board -- Tom Zap. There is always a fight brewin'.

A week ago, an acquaintance led off a new thread with "English spoken and understood, that's the key to success for any young Mexican ... if there were ever 2 life skills courses to be taken in school in Mexico, grade 1 and up, the mandatory courses should include both English and economics/money management."

Now, I don't think he meant to start a fight. He was just expressing an opinion that English opens additional job opportunities for young Mexicans. And a number of message board posters agreed.

That is, until one poster picked up what he thought was a gauntlet. "Let me say it once again. Those of you who live here, and don't speak Spanish, are absolutely clueless about the Mexican culture. The culture is, in fact, what Mexicans think! If you can't talk to them, how can you possibly know what they think? ... This is a culture that is so polite, so kind, so creative -- but you'll never know this, because you don't live here. You live in a tropical suburb of Montreal or Vancouver."

The tone went down hill from there. Who says that Americans are the only people who have trouble talking to one another civilly?

I do agree with part of what the second poster had to say. It is important to speak Spanish in Mexico. Otherwise, you miss a lot of what is happening around you.

But the underlying assertion that language is culture is simply not true. Language is a tool of any nation's culture. But it is the means to communicate. Learning Spanish may be a step toward learning how our Mexican neighbors think.  But it will be just a step. The fact that I own a hammer does not make me a carpenter.

I thought of that exchange this week while wrestling with my bed rest. Searching through Youtube (what else is a young man going to do lying flat on his back?) for something to distract me, I ran across a little gem I had been searching for during the past twenty years -- the opening score to Clear and Present Danger. And there it was in all of its Hornerish glory.

Film scores have long been one of my favorite types of music. I started collecting movie albums in the 1960s. When I gave away my collection to Goodwill, I had over 1000 scores.

And, like everyone else with a taste for music, my preferences would change. Alex North. Elmer Bernstein. Jerry Goldsmith. John Williams.

But I finally landed on James Horner as my favorite. Starting with his quirky score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, it was his work in Glory that sealed my respect for him.

In the middle of the film, there is a musical montage that honors the glory of the black soldiers marching off to the Civil War that fades into the muggy heat of the South where most of them would meet their fate. The score captures the counterpoint perfectly.

Looking through my DVD collection, I decide to sponsor my own James Horner film festival. I have only a small part of his work, but I decided I would watch each of the eleven movies I own -- listening particularly to how the score helps create the mood the director wanted to convey.

  • Star Trek II  The Wrath of Khan -- the best of the Star Trek movies. Horner's score is a masterwork of war scenes and melancholy.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock -- nothing could save this dog's dinner of a movie. Horner's music is, at best, sentimental.
  • The Name of the Rose -- each piece of the score helps to underline the ongoing murder mystery in a medieval Italian monastery.
  • Glory -- one of my favorite Horner scores, relying heavily upon black choral pieces.
  • Patriot Games -- Horner extensively incorporated Celtic instruments and chords to propel this tale of IRA terrorism.
  • Clear and Present Danger -- a rather silly movie that turns Iran-Contra into a comic book villain piece, but Horner's score pulls the pieces together with an interesting mix of traditional Colombian instruments, and the movie eventually passes for a political moral tragedy. Tom Clancy hated the final print.
  • Braveheart -- more traditional instruments. This time Scottish. Brave. And with Heart.
  • Titanic -- yes, I forced myself to watch it again. Maybe because the score is far better than the story itself. More ethnic sounds. Celtic.
  • The Perfect Storm -- not a perfect movie. A good score.
  • Avatar -- all of the Marxist nonsense Cameron could not fit into Titanic, he stuffed into this green fantasy piece that is visually interesting. And Horner makes it a pleasure for the ears. It is almost as if he had become a part of Pandora. 

Horner's scores helped me through this movie marathon. And it was interesting to analyze how his style changed over the years, how he used his early work as motifs for later scores, and how he used the works of other composers to enrich his own distinctive style. It is almost impossible to listen to eight bars of a Horner score and not know the composer.

But there will  be no more. He died two years ago in California when he augured the airplane he was piloting into the ground.

While watching Clear and Present Danger, I realized the logical flaw in the argument that to know a language is to know a culture. An individual could have learned the intricacies of English, but that would still not help to understand the cultural layers of American politics in the Iran-Contra affair. Or to understand the racial tensions in Glory. Or to even begin to unpick Cameron's social Marxism in Titanic and how the British and Americans simply see the world differently.

That is not to say I do not believe that those of us who live or spend a good portion of our year in Mexico should not learn Spanish. We should.

I can testify from my own experience that even the most halting grasp of the language has introduced me to the first layer of my neighbors' world. And I am content with that. I suspect the subtext will always be a mystery to me.

But that is one reason I live here.

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