Thursday, April 28, 2016

Int'l Film Fest Wrap-Up

Many people don't realize that going to the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival is not quite the same thing as going to the movies. That may be because they haven't gone. Or haven't gone enough. Or don't have friends who go.

Going to the festival is less about story-telling or cinema aesthetics than about experiencing new elements of life. The festival itself is a gathering place for people who don't mind asking the stranger standing next to them in line, "What have you liked? How many have you seen?"

The scheduled films have not been widely reviewed, the actors are not early candidates for an Oscar nod. The only "buzz" you'll hear is generated at the festival itself. In choosing from among the hundreds of films being shown, all you have to go by is word-of-mouth, the brief and invariably laudatory descriptions in the festival brochure, and your own predilections.

For three weeks, you enjoy the bustle in the lobby, wait in the same lines, see the same introductory trailer, and listen to the same speech about becoming a member delivered over and over again by the "venue managers," who are usually about twenty years old. After a film you might wander over to Punch Pizza where they're giving three dollars off to anyone with a ticket stub. (They used to give you a free pizza!) Between films you might stop at the nearby Aster Cafe for a drink.

There's a certain pleasure associated with lining up three films one after another. On what other occasion can you travel to Kazakhstan, Peru, and Iceland on the same afternoon? If you stretch out your schedule, you'll see less, but perhaps you'll remember more.

Films that come back to me from previous fests include the Estonian film Tangerine, the Spanish film Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, the Icelandic film White Night Wedding, the Jordanian film Thebe (later short-listed for an Academy Award), the Thai film Agrarian Utopian, the American documentary about Charles Lloyd, the British film Son of Rambow, the South African film Twilight Kingdom.

What films will stick in memory from this year? Well, we were out of town, missed the first week entirely, and ended up seeing only six or seven films. The range was decent: USA, France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Estonia, Denmark. And consider the contrasts.

Marvelous Boccaccio, directed by the hallowed Taviani brothers (who also directed Padre Padrone, Night of the Shooting Stars, and Caesar Must Die), is a retelling of five tales from Boccaccio's Decameron. Unlike Pasolini's obscene and unsavory interpretation (1971) this film exhibits both the elegance of a Botticelli masterpiece and the stately deportment of Rossellini's Age of the Medici

Iraqi Odyssey is a three-hour documentary detailing the history of that sorry nation as seen through the eyes of one affluent family whose members depart for New Zealand, Russia, Switzerland, and the USA in the course of time—and sometimes return home.

 The Fencer is a simple tale of a young Estonian man who was forced to fight with the Nazis when they occupied his country, and is now being hunting by the Soviets for the same reason. He's been sent back home by his fencing coach, but is frustrated by the utterly bored teaching that discipline to the local kids. But it seems they have talent, and now they've been invited to compete in Moscow ... Should he take them to the tournament?

Ice and Sky is a documentary about the man who spent much of his adult life in Antarctica taking ice core samples to determine the changes the climate the earth has undergone in the last 40,000 years. There's a lot of good footage of the Antarctic wastelands, virile scientists drinking brandy and hoofing across the snow, with an occasional penguin or plane crash thrown in for good measure.

Home Care is about a woman who works for the Czech health service administering home health care to an assortment of peculiar people who live nearby. She starts the day with a shot of slivovitz, drunk straight up in the kitchen alongside her husband, and moves on from there. There is no plot to speak of, but the woman's depth of hard-headed industry and maternal compassion contrast starkly with her husband's comical but also destructive egotism.

In Transit chronicles three days on an Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to Seattle. We're on two trains, in fact, following the same route in opposite directions, jostling back and forth throughout the film from east to west. Along the way we get to know quite a few of the passengers, many of who have hard luck stories to tell. Everyone seems to be heading home or escaping from some domestic imbroglio. It's a little bit dull but also intermittently "real" in a way that many films aren't. The oil fields of North Dakota figure prominently in the tale. But of course, there is no "tale."

On the festival's final day, I was planning to see a comedy-drama from Albania called Bota, but I got a toothache and went to the dentist instead.

And now that the fest is over, it's time for the rain to stop.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On Burning Your Tax Returns

National poetry month is practically over, and I've done nothing to move it along, celebrate it, or ponder its significance. And that's a shame. Why? Because life is poetry. Our days are improvisations, which are nothing more (nor less) than a series of poems we haven't written down yet.

I think of the moment we stepped into the Third Bird Restaurant the other day, where we had arranged to meet some friends. It's down on Loring Park, you enter by way of the alley, light shines in from the big front window though the back of the place looks and feels like a Spanish bodega. The music was "ethnic"—vaguely middle eastern but not in an annoying way. 

The wines were overpriced but the food was excellent. The five of us shared plates of grilled carrots and balsamic beets, gnocchi, sunflower-seed risotto, and glazed wood-fired chicken. I was reminded of the old Loring Bar, though the Third Bird is far more orderly and upscale. Something about the shadows, the relaxed hipness of the place, the unabashed pursuit of faux-patina, and the rubber-stamp images on the menu.

Later we wandered down the alley and across the street to watch a silent film about the trial of Joan of Arc, the impact of which was intensified by a full-blown choral accompaniment.

There was poetry in the air that night...perhaps less in the retelling. 

No, what one really must do during Poetry Month is write a poem. Here's mine:

On Burning Your Tax Returns
It sounds devious, almost criminal.
Maybe it is. But I'm talking here about the old ones
that you're no longer required to keep.
Perhaps it's not the most earth-friendly solution;
then again, has anyone calculated the environmental impact
of manufacturing, packaging, and shipping a shredder?
The past runs before your eyes as you toss the sheaves of paper into the flames.
You were working for that firm way back in 2006?
And you got that much for the book about that basketball player. Not bad!
The editor that left town, the proofer you no longer use, the publisher who died—
they're all there. But in fact, they've all moved on.
It was a long time ago, though it seems not, and it's weird to think
that this year is a lot like any other year--a stack
of forms smoldering on the grate, engulfed in smoke but
too dense to catch fire, except, perhaps, a little around the edges. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Pen Pals: Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams spoke in Hopkins Thursday night as part of the Pen Pal series. Her subject was the National Parks, about which she's written a book. She was stately, eloquent, slow-talking, and concerned about our decreasing attachment to the natural world. She told a few stories about the parks, the longest one dealing with the death of a bison in Yellowstone, and the response to this event by other bison, wolves, coyotes, and ravens.

Another story involved an evening she spent with her dear friend Doug Peacock, the real-life model for Heyduke, one of the characters in Edward Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang. They drank a bottle of "fine Bordeaux" and between sips they read a poem to each other out loud about wolverines—a seldom seen species of weasel that had been denied "endangered" status by the federal government that day.

To those of us who came of age during the 1960s, environmental concern is a familiar subject—extremely important but perhaps a little dull to be rehashing at a literary event. I would rather have heard more about the spectacular features of some of the parks she's been writing about. Images flashed through my mind of the wonderful landscapes of Williams' home state of Utah, not only Canyonlands and Arches, but also Capital Reef, Hovenweep, the Wedge Overlook, the San Raphael Swell (maybe a good name for a book?), Horseshoe Canyon, the Burr Trail, Cedar Breaks, Waterpocket Fold, and Powell Point, not to mention Bryce and Zion national parks.

I was reminded of a night Hilary and I spent at an otherwise deserted Windwhistle Campground, a BLM facility south of Moab that's surrounded on three sides by luscious buttes; a hike we once took up the narrow slots of Little Wild Horse Canyon; and the day we went in (under escort of the state archaeologist) to see the Fremont artifacts at Range Creek.

In short, my mind was wandering a little, but that's not unusual. And it was a nice wander.

Williams' thoughtful and sober-minded talk was full of unusually long pauses, as if she were listening to a feed that went dead from time to time. More likely, she was just thinking of the next thing to say.  At the conclusion of the speech she turned on a recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (I think)  reimaged and electrified by the composer Max Richter. It was nice—a sort of non-verbal evocation of the rhythms and the power of nature. When it was over she said nothing, and after a few seconds of silence, she was greeted with thunderous and well-deserved applause.

During the Q & A, Williams was invited by one member of the audience to visit our beloved BWCAW, and she graciously accepted the invitation. (I'd be happy to guide the trip myself.) Others expressed their concern about how little most young people seem to care about the outdoors, though I'm not sure that's true. (But what do I know about such things?)

One young female fan in the audience said: "I've been wanting to meet you for years. I was crawling out of my skin all day today!" to which Williams replied, "I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds horrible."

As is often the case at such events, its value lay less in what was being said than in the presence of the person saying it. Yes, Williams was gracious, poetic, and even somewhat sentimental, while somehow exuding a depth beyond politics or literature.

It's a little early to be planning another trip, but I did find myself buying a bag of Boulder Canyon Avocado Oil kettle chips at the co-op today.... 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Home from Virginia

This feeling, when you're home from a trip, surrounded by familiar things once again, free from worries about negotiating the traffic in Washington, D.C., finding a place to stay in Stanton, deciding whether it's warm enough to camp in the Shenandoah Mountains. (Answer? No.) You read through the mail, catch up on the Timberwolves and the Twins, slip a frozen pizza into the oven.

But you don't want the impressions you've gathered during your time away to fade, or the freedom of mind that comes with the traveler's life, a serial life, one thing at a time, most of them fun and enriching. It's far too soon to download the pictures, which will distance you from events and eventually replace that beautiful flow of incidents with an episodic narrative chained to a succession of "slides." You're between worlds ... It's pleasant, but also frustrating, even paralyzing. And the tree pollen in the air only adds to the sense of inertia.

Thinking back on ten days spent in northern Virginia, the first thing that comes to mind is ... osprey.

Sure, there are ospreys in Minnesota, but they're few in number, always nesting unglamorously on power-line poles and other utilitarian structures, some of them erected by naturalists for no other purpose than to host ospreys. On the rivers that flow into Chesapeake Bay, the osprey are far more numerous, and they nest in trees, on gazebo roofs near the swimming beach, anywhere that's convenient.

There are sometimes as many as five in sight at any given time, keening, soaring, or diving for fish.

We saw them on the backwaters of the James River near Jamestown, where the first semi-durable English settlement in the New World was established in 1607. We saw them at Stratford, where the ancestors of Robert E. Lee settled in the 1630s. We saw them at Mason Neck, where the plantation of George Mason (who wrote the Bill of Rights, more or less, but later refused to sign the Constitution) is situated. We saw them out at the end of Northern Neck, in Reedville, nesting in pines along the inlets from which skipjacks once sailed out to harvest oysters.

These osprey are only a small part of the generally bucolic tone of the countryside that buts up against the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers: fields and woods, shaped by eons of erosion into graceful bends, with islands and sandbars here and there off-shore.

There are no large towns, and the rivers themselves are incredibly wide, considering how short they are.

Heading out to Jamestown on Highway 5, you take a right turn at a small, white sign and soon come to a two-story brick building facing the James River. This is the Shirley Plantation—the oldest business in America, founded in 1617, and now inhabited by the tenth generation of the family who built it.

The building isn't huge—there are many homes on Lake Minnetonka that are larger—but someone was mowing the grass when we arrived, and that smell sent me into minor ecstasies of nostalgia.

Berkeley Plantation stands a mile or two down the way. It's famous for its boxwood garden, and the long sward of grass, maybe 300 yards, opening out onto the river, with a small shrine near shore commemorating the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America, in 1619.

Eventually you come to Jamestown itself, and are surprised to discover a flock of Caspian terns squawking on a sandbar in the lagoon. The history of the place is interesting, no doubt, but the beauty of the countryside is more impressive. They work together, in fact, like a dream, and it's easy to see, once you get there, why Terrence Malick decided to make a movie about the place—The New World.

That beauty is fading already from memory, though the atmosphere remains. So we stack the Netflix cue with The New World and other show-biz reminders of what we've just experienced, namely, the musical 1776 and the Merchant-Ivory costume drama Jefferson in Paris.

We didn't go to Virginia for the history, but it socked us in the face. The tour guides at Williamsburg and Monticello were remarkably erudite and more eloquent than any professor I ever had.

So while I wait for a new DVD to arrive in the mail, I'll try to wrap my head around Joseph Eliss's American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson, or Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

All the Things You Could Have Had

I hesitate to mention all the things you could have had ... if I'd know you would want them.

But aren't many of us in the same boat? Trying to down-size (dumb word), to rid ourselves of "things" that we look at without seeing or store away and then forget where we put them?

The old expression "time will tell" comes into play here. There is nothing wrong with those lampshades you see, except that we've never had occasion to use them these last twenty years.

And that rocking chair is in good shape. It's just that we have a few other rocking chairs.

The ten-gallon glass carboy that I used to make a batch of third-rate wine a quarter of a century ago, just to see how it was done, has been sitting under the stairs to the basement ever since. It's time to let go.

 But what about that wooden chest my grandpa MacIlvenna made as a toy box for me (or someone else) a half-century ago? Do you think my brother in Baltimore might want it? I know my sister has no interest, because I asked her, and nor does cousin Pat. We used it for many years to store our VHS tapes, but lightning struck the VHS player five years ago, and last year we threw out most of the tapes. It's time.

A Danish/English dictionary smelling of mildew? No thanks. You'll probably pass on the English/Danish companion volume, too. We told our neighbors across the street that they could have whatever they wanted. Heirloom martini glasses? Margarita glasses shaped like saguaro cactuses? Ice skates so narrow they fit no one. A deflated football (Wilson T.D.) that my high school coach, Mr. Smith, gave me a few days before I quit?

Of course there are plenty of things left for round two: A wooden squash racquet, slightly warped; a globe that shows how the world looked when French West Africa still existed. (Ah, those were the days!) A pair of Alaskan Trapper snowshoes that I haven't worn since college.About a hundred LPs, lined up against the back wall of the basement behind numerous stacks of slide carousels.

The one great discovery of this clean-up campaign (of which I was not in command) was that the Bose book-shelf speakers still work. I hooked them up to the CD boom box (which had developed a hum) and the basement filled with sound. 

Inspired by the spirit of "cast-offs" I dug through a box of old flamenco CDs and came upon a five-CD box set of Bill Evans live trio recordings called Turn Out the Stars. It may have been the last recording he made before he died.

I probably found it a little too frantic when I bought it, but it suddenly seemed perfectly joyous and appropriate to the task of weeding through some of the books that I have not examined carefully in years.

But that's a story for another time.

One artifact I came across and know I'll have to dispose of sometime soon is a work of art created by one of my colleagues at the Bookmen, a warehouse where I used to work. The artist in question is Joel Dale. He wasn't there long, but while he was with us he started a collection of packing peanuts which he later mounted into a display that he gave me when he left. It's an extraordinary set, and what makes the display more interesting yet, he named all the varieties. For example: sugar cube, T-bar, egg shell, crow bar (lightning type), Joshua's Boomerang, potato chip, dinner mint, geometric waffle, The Claw, steak bone, Spanish dancer (pink, white, green, and smooth varieties), Macaroni (I like that one), sea slug, double trouble, and along the bottom row, ten varieties of "infinity."

Joel was quite a character, but he outdid himself with that display. Well, the Bookmen was full of interesting characters, and every spring, on the first day when the temperature hits 70 degrees, I let myself off from work early, just like we used to do at the warehouse downtown.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jeremy Walker at the Vieux Carree

The other day a friend and I dropped in at the Vieux Carree, the subterranean jazz club in downtown St. Paul, to hear pianist Chris Lomheim play a solo set. The evening light was beautiful, glancing off the Landmark Center and the St. Paul Hotel, and the club was all but deserted.

It was Happy Hour. We ordered a plate of Basque olives ($5) and some Reuda for $3 a glass while we examined the menu. When our waitress returned I ordered a mufalleta that was good but dense and took a long time to eat, while Tim took a chance on the gumbo. Flavorful, though lacking in "hot" spice.

While we ate, the pianist delivered a succession of pensive ballads including Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica" and a string of standards including "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "Everything Happens to Me." Later Tim requested a Bill Evans number, which was also nice, though I didn't recognize it.

During his break the pianist over to our table to chat. Turns out we both have the same Jackie Byard "Live at Maybeck Hall" CD. 

"Most people who do a solo set end up doing stride," I said, "just to fill in the sound, I guess. You didn't do much of that."

"I like stride ... but I wasn't doing that tonight." He excused himself to go back to his table, eat some food, and study the scores he'd brought with him.

Our waitress was attentive throughout our visit. Little wonder. Aside from a few young hipsters at the bar, we were the only people in the place.  We noticed that she had a slight accent. When Tim asked her about it, she explained: "I'm from Wisconsin."

"Where abouts?" I asked.

"Amery," she replied. (That's a ninety-minute drive from Minneapolis.)

"Amery is a nice town," I said. "Lakes all around." (My dad used to rent a meat locker in Amery.)

"Yes it is," she replied. "But we lived in the country."

"Was your dad a farmer?"

"Until I was three," she said.

"What did he do after that?"

"Odd jobs. Anything. Now he's plowing roads for the city." She smiled wanly. "You should see them. They're great!"

"We'll have to get over there soon, before all his handiwork disappears!" I replied.

Later the manager stopped by to talk up the Happy Hour  (it goes until 7) and emphasize the Vieux Carree's philosophy of providing a venue for good local musicians at affordable prices. A wonderful strategy, though to my ear, there's something a little artificial about the New Orleans association.

Then she said, "I'm sorry Chris Lomheim couldn't make it tonight."

"What? Who is this guy?"

"I'm not sure. I'll go find out."

"Anyway, he's good."

The man's name is Jeremy Walker. And he is good.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

La Dolce Far Niente - Northern Style

It was hard to tell if there would be enough snow for skiing, but it didn't matter much.  We wanted to get away, and we hadn't been to Bayfield in quite a while.

Layer upon layer of doing the same things, not out of respect for tradition, but because they continue to be rewarding. As we turn east on Highway 70 from the freeway, the drive suddenly becomes more interesting. Winter sun, open fields.  long dip down and across the venerable St. Croix River. Brown signs directing passers-by to secluded but mosquito-infested campsites along the river bank. Crex Meadows? Nothing going on there. Siren, Hertel, Spooner. Finally north on Highway 63. The North Woods commences somewhere north of there. I never pass through Cable without thinking about the stuffed raven at the local natural history museum. It's huge.

There is no grand view at Grand View, though there might have been right after they logged the place a hundred years ago.

Washburn is a jivey town on a Friday afternoon, the streets in front of the bars already choked with parked cars. They're doing "Julius Caesar" at the local theater tonight. Will we go? I doubt it.

*   *   *
But now the Black Box wine is open, and we've cooked up the pasta with mushrooms and bell peppers on the little stove in our room. The room sits on a hill above the rest of the motel, which gives it an expansive view of Chequamegon Bay.  I see a single set of lights in the darkness far out on the channel that divides the mainland from Madeline Island. Either the ferry's still running or it's a propeller-driven ice buggy—I can't tell which.

Saturday morning, sunny, blue ski everywhere. A little skiing, but mostly walking, on the Jerry Jolly ski trail. Down to Polk Creek, still covered in snow, then back to Bayfield for a stroll through town. 

We stopped into a coffee shop just as the man behind the counter, who was wearing an immaculate white T-shirt, was pouring himself a latte. "Look at this," he said. "Look at this."

I walked over to look at the design in the foam. Nothing extraordinary, but he seemed excited.

"And in my grandma's tin cup!" he enthused.

While I waited for the latte we'd ordered he kept saying "This is so good! This is so good!" as he paced back and forth behind the counter. His assistant was working the espresso machine.

When my order finally came up, I said, "I hope this will be as good as yours was."

"Almost," he replied with a grin. "I made mine with half-and-half. It's like drinking ice cream!"

Having disposed of the coffee and a bacon-and-cheddar scone, we walked down to the pier to look at the broken ice in the bay. A ferry was visible in the distance and we waited for it to arrive: The Island Queen. The service has been running all winter, we later learned, though the ice fishermen were also taking their chances out on the sheet on the north side of the pier.

Our next stop was Apostle Island Books, where we chatted with the proprietress for quite a while about books, author events,  the local fishing industry, and the challenges facing any small-town independent bookstore.

I was happy to see two books by friends displayed in the window: Jane St. Anthony's Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart and Brett Laidlaw's Trout Caviar.  And I hunted down another book of pressing interest on the shelf, Ann Lewis's Ship Captain's Daughter, which Demaris kindly set out on the display counter.

By the time we got set to leave, we've been in the store so long that it seemed heartless not to buy something. Demaris had been recommending a local publication about ice-fishing disasters called Lake Superior: Blood on the Ice —in fact, she was holding the thick paperback volume in her hand. Though it didn't sound too hot to me, Hilary was dead-set on buying it. And so we did.

Our final stop was to Bodin's fish market, where you can walk right in and see the workers gutting the day's catch. "Two days ago our men were out on snowmobiles," the man who took our order said. "This morning they went out in boats."

We ran into Mike, who owns the motel we're staying in, on the path that runs between the shipyard and the cliff on the south side of town. He was wearing short shorts—not uncommon for him when the temperature is above zero. He's a friendly guy, a good source of local information, and he likes to talk. "Yeah, in November the lake temperature was still 40 degrees, so they knew the channel could be kept open all winter, and they could continue to run the ferries. Even if the air temperature was below zero the ice would still be melting from the bottom up. That changes their whole year, because they usually lay people off and do repairs in winter."

Mike claims to put in a ninety-five hour week at the motel, and he admits he's ripe for retirement. I'm sure he was a little disappointed when his daughter and son-in-law, who were set to take over the place, announced recently they were moving to central Kansas.

Back in our eyrie above the big lake, we fried up and ate the fish, and then we settled in to read. The fact that your choices are limited helps you to concentrate--at least that's the theory. A lot depends on how well you chose your books in the first place.

I soon lost interest in Umberto Eco's The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, and had a hard time convincing myself to return to the Icelandic classic, Independent People, which it seems I've been reading now for months. I would like to have gotten my hands on Blood on the Ice, to tell you the truth, but Hilary was engrossed in that masterpiece of local color. I finally succeeded in focusing for a few minutes on a book about Orpheus that I'd grabbed off the shelf on a whim just before we left the house, but it was more pleasant simply staring out the window at the shifting ice a half mile out on the lake.

 We left early the next morning, driving in snow flurries under gray skies back down Highway 63. A wolf crossed the road fifty yards in front of us somewhere north of Cable. There was no one behind us, and as I slowed to a stop I spotted him staring back at us from the trees on the side of the highway.

Curiosity fading to indifference, he turned and wandered off into the shadows.