TCS Daily


The Phantom of the Operating System

By James Pinkerton - January 5, 2005 12:00 AM

PARIS -- Here at the Opéra de Paris it's easy to imagine that a Phantom could be lurking, deep inside the labyrinthine backstage and the basements and sub-basements of this city-block-sized beaux-arts structure, completed in 1875. So if there's magic here, this glorious building helps make it possible.

And that's the lesson I took away from my night at the opera: art, science, and technology are entwined, in an upward-spiraling triple helix. That is, art inspires science, science animates technology -- and the art-sci-tech progression is repeated, again and again. And yes, it all might seem magical. As science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke has observed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." But Clarke, a "hard" sci-fi writer, was describing the mere surface and appearance of technology. He, as much as anyone, understood that on the inside, magical processes are subject to scrutiny and reason.

So in the end, there's nothing magical about the art-sci-tech progression. And while the linkages are oftentimes unconscious -- indeed, the three components might regard each other outright hostility -- the process is nevertheless reliable. Together, the trio of art-sci-tech can be thought of as a kind of machine or, better yet, an operating system.

But even so, the art-sci-tech operating system sometimes gives us the chills. One's reaction to art and beauty may, in the final analysis, be a function of synapses and enzymes, but it's hard to shake the feeling that a little bit of mystery is hardwired into our brains, too. And it's within that twilight zone that one sees ghosts in the machines, and phantoms within the operating system.

And yes, like the Phantom story, it's sometimes a bit scary. In the late 18th century, the Romantics became obsessed with night and fog, with ghosts and demons. Francisco Goya's famous etching from 1798-9, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," epitomizes this dreading spirit. The English poet William "dark satanic mills" Blake recoiled against the coming of hard-edged science, manifested, in his despairing view, in the industrial revolution.

Other Romantics had more mixed feelings. The hinge figure in the fusion of science and Romanticism was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who in 1818 wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In that legendary novel, Mary Shelley fused the romantic and the scientific into an archetypal, prototypical oneness. In the author's mind, the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, was a dashing figure, seeking to steal the secrets of heaven, following in the tradition of the god Prometheus, who stole fire from Mt. Olympus to help mankind. In Shelley's telling, Frankenstein was no monster, and neither was his up-from-the-dead creation, whom Frankenstein audaciously dubbed "Adam." Yet at the same time, the story was intended to terrify; as Shelley later recalled, "Frightful it must be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

Yes, the Romantics clashed with God. And the figure of Frankenstein established the paradigm of scientist-as-daring-creator, morphing into the egomaniacal and diabolical mad scientist that remains part of our mythology today.

And alas, the Frankenstein saga, in our own time, has been reduced to little more than a horror story. That's indeed a sad commentary on the state of popular culture, in which scientific progress oftentimes becomes a cheap and easy synonym for madness and evil.

However, sometimes the arc of a story goes the other way -- the creative gift-giving figure becomes more sympathetic with the passage of time. That's the case with the Phantom of the Opera. The original novel, written in 1911 by the journalist-novelist Gaston Leroux, spins the story of Erik, a disfigured musical genius who offers a young woman, Christine Daae, a Pygmalion-like bargain. He will teach her to sing like an angel, and even write heavenly music for her; in return, she will love him, ugliness and all.

Leroux saw his protagonist as a Byronic figure, impelled by bad fortune to create great art; yet he mostly emphasized the Gothic creepiness of his tale. Similarly, the 1925 silent movie version, starring Lon Chaney, was an early exercise in cinematic shock-and-stun, as when naïve Christine pulls away the Phantom's mask. Scream!

By the time of the 1943 remake, the addition of not only sound but also bright Technicolor -- more gifts of technological progress -- changed the tone of the story. Now the Phantom, able to display his musical talents, became a more sympathetic figure.

But the Phantom's big break came in 1986, when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber made the ghostly figure into a true musical star, first in London's West End, then on Broadway. In Lloyd Webber's hands, the show became all the more a tribute to the transforming, transcending power of art -- "Close your eyes and let music set you free!" sings the Phantom. And yet as commanding as they are, Lloyd Webber's tunes don't exist in isolation; it takes the vast power of the theater, from architecture to electronics, to create the suspension of disbelief that makes the musical experience complete. That's the operating system in operation.

In the just-released movie, director Joel Schumacher has torqued up the show's hormones; he has made the Phantom young and sexy. And while the reviews have been mostly negative -- A.O. Scott of The New York Times described Lloyd Webber's compositions as "an act of cultural butchery akin to turning an aviary of graceful swans and brilliant peacocks into an order of Chicken McNuggets" -- one can't escape the feeling that the critics are so angry at Lloyd Webber's Tory politics and envious of his commercial success that their reviews are even more twisted than the Phantom's face. The Times' Scott, for example, actually wrote, "The songs fill your ears, but you are unlikely to find yourself humming any of them after the movie is over." As two decades' worth of "Phans" can attest, Lloyd Webber is nothing if not hummable. One can just take the Times' review as further proof, as if any more were needed, that one can't believe everything one reads in the newspaper.

Of course, even Lloyd Webber's Phantom tale still ends unhappily. But as Aristotle said, tragedy uplifts.

And the takeaway from the latest "Phantom" is uplifting. Like ancient Prometheus before him, the new Phantom is a creator. Just as fire set in motion a train of technoprogress, so music inspires new visions of earthly possibilities. Music requires rigor in composition, rigor in performance, and rigor in presentation -- as in the spectacular architecture and engineering of the Opéra de Paris. Only the listener in the audience has it easy.

So yes, the Phantom's efforts ended badly in the short run. That's the bad news. The good news is that over the long run, we remember what was composed and performed. And the better news is that the art-sci-tech operating system is still in place, still cranking out more music, more drama, more mystery. If some see inexplicable magic in that process -- well, why argue?

My tour of the Opéra de Paris felt like a visit to the inside of an early machine -- a machine for beauty, for the manufacture of beautiful memories. The beaux-arts building was the state-of-the-art musical operating system of the fin de siecle; no wonder it inspired Leroux to create his immortal character. So of course, there's an enduringly memorable phantom in that antique OS. Yet even now, a century later, there's still plenty of capacity for future flights of literary and musical creation. And that's something to warm me on a cold night, walking alone through dark streets.

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