Friday, January 12, 2018

Winter Reading

Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions
Valeria Luiselli

In 2015 Mexican novelist Valerie Luiselli, while waiting for her green card, took a job at the U.S. Immigration Office interviewing children seeking "immigration relief." Her job was simply to translate from Spanish into English the answers they gave to a series of standard questions regarding their current home, where they came from, why they left, where their parents were now, and so on. Unlike most journalistic treatments of the immigration issue, hers is anchored in descriptions of what individual boys and girls face as they attempt to leave behind a childhood scarred by gang violence, abandonment, and other troubles.

It soon became clear to Luiselli that her interlocutors faced a variety of issues in even answering the questions, ranging from fear to incomprehension. Her job was simply to translate what she heard, but it soon occurred to her that phrasing an answer in one way was more likely to help the child than putting it another way. Whether or not a child was eligible for legal representation was determined on the basis of these interviews . Children who are deemed worthy have three weeks to locate a lawyer on their own initiative or else face deportation.

Luiselli occasionally shared elements of one story or another to her young daughter, who would invariably respond: tell me how it ends. In most cases, her mother didn't know. Luiselli does succeed in staying in contact with one teenage boy whose best friend was murdered by gang members when he refused to sign up. He eventually gets accepted into the U.S. and relocated to a high school on Staten Island, where he meets up with the same gang that was harassing him and his friend in Honduras.

Along the way Luiselli also takes some time exploring her own feelings about applying for a green card: citizenship, nationality, identity. She also shares plenty of information about "coyotes," the hazards of border crossing, human trafficking, and so on. But her personal tone make for easy reading, the sad, unpleasant, and sometimes horrific  nature of the material notwithstanding.   

Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine
Andrzej Szczeklik

For most of its history the practice of medicine has been largely hit or miss—more often miss. In this elegant book-length essay  Szczeklik, a professor of medicine at the Jagiellonnian University in Cracow, reviews that history, telling us more about Greek mythology and medieval alchemy, perhaps, than about modern heart surgery or chemotherapy.

The key word in the title is "art." Szczeklik has an encyclopedic command of the pertinent history, but he's especially interested in what takes place between the patient and the physician during treatment. For example, he spends several pages analyzing the Münchhausen syndrome, named after an eighteenth-century baron famous for telling tall tales. Individuals with this condition come up with a fabulous constellation of incongruous symptoms, stumping one doctor after another. The patient seems not to be aware that the symptoms are fictitious, but enjoys moving from one physician to the next, elaborating on pains that fit no pattern and cannot be diagnosed.  

Münchhausen syndrome is very rare. Then again, so is the Great Doctor who, brought in from the outside and read a litany of symptoms that has stumped everyone on staff, touches a  patient, puts a stethoscope to his chest, and says, "You have such and such. Do so and so."
Suddenly everything changes. As in katharsis, a process of purification follows, and that’s when the doctor in charge of the patient, who has gone through weeks on end, sometimes months of anguish, trying to find a solution but getting nowhere, thinks about that unusual guest and says: “What a Great Doctor!”
Szczeklik argues that such scenes are tinged with something magical that "has its roots in the midst of medical prehistory." And much of his book is devoted to exposing what might almost be called the metaphysical roots of that magic. Unlike works such as Evan S. Connell's The Alchemist, which revel in the poetic illogicality of medieval medical practices, Szczeklik is interested in painting a sympathetic picture. So that when, in later chapters, he describes the early days of open heart surgery and the genome project, we place those efforts, in spite of ourselves, in the context of past practices that were speculative and often dangerous but also rooted in sound intuition about how the body works and interacts with its environment.

Chapter headings such as "Chimera," "Ribbons," "A Purifying Power," and "The Rhythms of the Heart," might convey something of the tone of this little book, which is so eloquently written and so chock-full of allusions and asides from classical and medieval literature that having finished it, I'm tempted to read it all over again and see what I missed.

The Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North
Robert Ferguson

I'm a big fan of European culture, and almost invariably enjoy those books in which the "soul" of a nation is laid bare. Luigi Barzini's The Europeans is a classic study, though now out of date. Similarly Gerald Brennan's books about Spain, and all of H.V. Morton's travel books. In fact, I've already moved The New Italians (Richards, 1995) and The New Spaniards (Hooper, 1995) to the basement. Sometimes the older volumes, less concerned with current trends, have more to offer. Patricia Storace's Dinner with Persephone (Greece), Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared, Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, Paul Hofmann's The Sunny Side of the Alps: the list goes on and on.

Robert Ferguson's new book about Scandinavia is current enough to deal with mass murderer Anders Breivik and soccer great Zlatan Ibrahimović, but also well researched enough to take us back to the grave finds of the pre-Viking Vendel Period. He's equally at home discussing the revolutionary reforms instituted by the physician to Frederick VII of Denmark in the late eighteenth century and the film version depicting those years, A Royal Affair, with Mats Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, which was released in 2012.

English by birth, Ferguson fell in love with Knut Hamsun after reading Hunger and later studied Norwegian, largely because he couldn't think of anything better to do. He settled in Norway when in his thirties and went on to write the first (and still the only) full-length biography of Hamsun, while also working for a Norwegian TV station on a six-part bio-pic. (I reviewed the bio for the Star-Tribune in the late 1980s—not something you're likely to find on Google.)

Ferguson's ostensible mission in writing the book is to determine whether the reputation Scandinavians have for melancholia is justified. But that's litle more than a pretext, a peg for the use of reviewers and blurb-writers. In pursuit of this elusive truth he spends a lot of time conversing with his Scandinavian friends while drinking in bars in Oslo and other places. This rambling and personalized approach works well because Ferguson is adept at shifting from the conversation at hand to his own deeper and more well-informed analysis of the same material, whether it be the Kensington Runestone, polar exploration, the films of Ingmar Bergmann, the German invasion of the Oslo Fjord, or the plays of Henrik Ibsen.

It's a discursive book, in short, but pleasantly so. It reads like a very long New Yorker profile—400 pages worth—though he tells us almost nothing about social customs or food.  

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Faces, Places

Documentary films have a freedom seldom granted to feature films to flit from one thing to another, held together by the thin thread of the narrator's curiosity. Some documentaries choose a more serious path, which is often cautionary and can usually be encapsulated in a simple statement: the world is heating up; you shouldn't eat at McDonald's; killing sharks to feed epicurean tastes is wrong; war is hell; grizzly bears are dangerous. There's nothing wrong with that approach, and I have found repeatedly that seeing such weighty film  is far more rewarding than merely acknowledging with a yawn the truths they're attempting to underscore.

Yet Faces, Places opts for the more discursive, playful, picaresque approach, and it works. It was directed by Agnes Varda, whose film roots extend back to the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s. A long-time friend of Jean-Luc Godard ( who is also still making thoughtful, quixotic, and bizarre documentaries) Varda's recent films, such as The Gleaners and Me, have a gentler edge, or no edge at all, and they're more firmly rooted than Godard's in rural sensibilities and affection for working people.

In Faces, Places she teams up with JR, a photographer and muralist I'd never heard of, to travel the back roads of France celebrating the lives of common workers by creating huge photo-based murals on the walls of factories, barns, villas, and other structures. They visit the worker housing of unemployed coal miners in the northeast; they create a mural of a young waitress in the tourist village of Bonnieux in the Luberon mountains; they do a long mural of the workers at a modern industrial plant that manufactures hydrochloric acid; and they create an enormous mural in the container port of LeHavre of three women who work there.

And let's not forget the extended visit to a goat farm, where the discussion turns to whether or not it's ethical to remove their horns, and the interview with another farmer who manages 2,000 acres all by himself with the help of seven huge machines. Once they've finished pasting a fifty-foot-tall reproduction of his image on the wall of his barn, they say to him: "You'd going to be the most famous farmer in town." To which he replies with a sheepish grin, "I already am."

It's important to note that Agnes and JR take a genuine interest in the people they're using as models. They interview many of the subjects about their work and their lives. And the workers involved seem eager to work together with their factory colleagues and JR's mobile production team to create something positive for their communities. Everyone recognizes that the murals are made out of paper and won't last forever. One image, pasted at low tide onto the side of a crumbled concrete bunker left over from WWII, is obliterated by the next high tide and gone before morning.

Several segments are devoted to Agnes and JR in conversation about their ongoing film, their unlikely May December friendship—she's 89, he might be 35—and why JR refuses to take off his sunglasses. We get to watch them eat French pasties, drink cafe au lait, chase through the halls of a deserted Louvre, etc. They visit JR's grandmother, and he takes some very fine photos of Varda's tiny feet, which he later enlarges and applies to the sides of a railroad car.

What's the point? Art can be an occasion for celebration, fellow-feeling, and fun. Various lines of work are worth knowing about. Odd couples are interesting. Rural France is still pretty nice.
What does JR look like without his sunglasses? We still don't know. He does take them off at one point, but we see his face only from Varda's point of view, and she has horrible eyesight. It's just a blur.

I suspect he looks a lot like Jean-Luc Godard.

* * *

I suppose many film-goers don't have all that much affection for the golden age of French films. But some of us cut our cinephile teeth, so to speak, on The 100 Blows, My Night at Maud's, Pierrot le Fou, Shoot the Piano Player, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, and other now largely forgotten classics. Even the lesser Rohmer films had a certain appeal. And the string of French hits continued, albeit at a lesser rate, with A Sunday in the County (Tavernier), Un Coeur en Hiver (Sautet), Va Savoir (Rivette), and so one. 

This summer a three-hour documentary arrived in town, My Journey Through French Films, devoted to Bertrand Tavernier's retrospective analysis of the French movies that inspired him and influenced his own work. My thumbnail review: yes, everyone loves film clips ... but there was not enough Renoir, too much Jean Gabin, too much Jacques Becker.

Maybe Part 2 will be better?          

Sunday, January 7, 2018

New Year's Reverie : The Pleasure of Limits

Well, cold is cold. And we've already had quite a bit of it.

Starting the year at -15 degrees, on the road to the North Woods. Sunny, but a dangerous chill over everything.

The first adventure—lunch at OMC, a smoked meat café in West Duluth we'd read about in the papers. Excellent ribs, chicken, brisket, jalapeño grits, and cole slaw. (We shared a sampler platter, which arrived on two enormous plates.)

A cheery waitress named Cassidy explained the four sauces. Later one of the owners stopped by our table, and she explained to us how her son's had traveled the south, working in a variety of kitchens, picking up authentic techniques.

There's a gift shop across the street, and a deli going in soon. Bent Paddle Brewery right around the corner. But it seems to me that the Lincoln Park neighborhood is in no danger of become over-gentrified.

We stopped by the side of the road at Leif Erickson Park and walked through the snow to the railing overlooking the harbor. Eight oar boats were anchored off shore—the most I've seen since the grain embargo of 1978. Later in our trip a woman explained to us that when it gets really cold, loading hatches freeze shut, machinery breaks down, and everything backs up. However, the locks at Sault Ste. Marie close on January 15, and some of the freighters may have to return to their home port empty.

In Two Harbors we stopped at the supermarket for pasties and M & Ms, then drove out to the harbor in search of a snowy owl. No luck. Though we notice along the way that Castle Danger Brewery has build a big edition to their warehouse.

Arriving at our cabin a few miles east of Castle Danger, we find that it's been fitting with a gas fireplace. I don't mind. The arrangement of fake logs is not very realistic—it looks like a modernist sculpture or the set for a miniature opera—but it's certainly handy. Just push the button on the wall and presto, you've got flames and heat.

A giddy thrill at having arrived. Tall windows facing the big lake. We went out for a walk around the grounds at sundown. It might have been 7 degrees. Golden yellow light on the snow, tinges of orange and deep blue shadows in the trees. The lake is relatively calm, small waves curl around the icy rocks from the south.

* * *

It's 5:15, pitch dark. We step out again to get a look at the stars before the moon gets too high, but it's already bright and the stars are pale.

* * *
"For Nietzsche's intention—and he was sure he had succeeded—was to break out of the enchanted castle of metaphysics. He himself had already defined that castle ... as a site of marvelous spells where the inhabitants are unaware of living under a spell. Of course, having emerged from this place, he claimed to have found not silent country paths, but a desert that extends endlessly and easily swallows one up, where there is no marked goal."  — Roberto Calasso
I would prefer to remain in the castle, of course. Nietzsche was banished, however, and could think of nothing better to do than to pound on the doors from the outside in an effort to attract others to his desert of torments.
* * *

Morning. 7:30. The lake is an ominous blue-gray. Wind from the south, stronger. The waves seem to pass us by without stopping, churning toward some distant rendezvous. Wisps of sea smoke moving in the same direction, and out across the lake to the east a bank of clouds a hundred feet high—or a thousand, who knows?—blocking my view of the horizon.

Cirrus clouds above and beyond are a pale peachy white. The sky is a pale bright blue, if that's possible. I've got the magic fire going, coffee brewed, just listening to the waves. Waiting for the sun to arrive.

On the one hand, I feel that I've brought the wrong books. Then again, when you're stuck with the wrong books, you find yourself reading them, which was the idea. All the same, there are too many theoretical books, not enough poetry and genuine literature. With Borges's This Craft of Verse somewhere in between.   

* * *
"The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. He only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits."  — Chesterton
* * *

Back from our morning ski at Gooseberry Park. A fine ski, though the snow was barely sufficient and a few of the downhill runs were dicey to the point of no control. I took one glorious tumble, self-induced, to avoid even greater speed and risks ahead.

"Are you okay?" Hilary called from the top of the hill.

"I'm fine," I shouted back. But I had a terrible time getting back on my feet and finally crawled through the snow to a nearby tree for support.

We were on the trail for almost two hours, but saw no one. Eagle, downy, raven, blue jay, chickadee. By the time we got back to the car the temperature had risen to 11 degrees. But the day is hazier and grayer than what the dawn had promised. Something the wind blew in.

Now the snow is coming down lightly and a hundred yards from shore the fog is impenetrable. The waves are getting big: it looks like the dawn of creation. Yet a few minutes ago Hilary saw a little girl just outside the window on the pebble beach below the cabin take her shoes off and stick her feet in the water.

* * *
"Remember what Emerson said: arguments convince nobody ... but when something is merely said or—better still—hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it." — Borges
* * *

I just stepped outside into the dark to greet the morning. Calm and cold, with half an inch of new snow on everything. Stars are mostly gone, but three bright orbs continue to dazzle to the south. Maybe I'll look them up later. Borges notes that the word "consider" originally meant to "bring the stars together," as in drawing a horoscope. Nietzsche would not have approved.

Hilary is reviewing trail conditions on her phone. A sliver of bright orange appears on the edge of the cloud bank to the east. Today the sun will shine. But it will be very cold ...

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What's the Matter?

It's so cold today that I found it necessary to go down to the basement and dig out the Basque beret I bought in St. Emilion in 1978. Even the lightest stocking cap presses down on my head too much for indoor comfort, though the leather band on this beret is entirely shot and it isn't all that comfortable, either.

I haven't opened a bottle of wine from St. Emilion in many years, but double-checking the wine cabinet just now I found a bottle of Chateau Tour d'Auron 2014. It's "Bordeaux Superior," which may sound better than it is.

Soon I'll head out to the garage to fetch some firewood. They say it's going down to -16˚ tonight.

I realize that metaphysics has never been a required subject in high school or college. All the same, I'm often surprised by the illogicality of phrases I meet up with in popular discussions of the meaning of life, history, the universe, and all the rest. I came across one in the New Yorker just a few minutes ago. Reviewing the year's best books, Joshua Rothman remarks of philosopher Daniel Dennett that "I know of no other thinker who so convincingly shows how human life, in all its vivid, soulful richness, might make sense as part of a purely material universe."

I am not familiar with Dennett's work, though I was intrigued enough by the title of one of his books, Freedom Evolves, to purchase a copy a few years ago. The phrase that caught me up short in Rothman's remark, as you probably guessed, is "a purely material universe."

If we had all studied metaphysics in high school, we'd be aware that "materialism," in all its forms, is useless as a descriptive or an explanatory construct. In the first place, the theory itself, "materialism," is not material. Thus it harbors an inner contradiction. Beyond that, no materialistic theory can explain why, to take a simple example, a hydrogen atom is different from a carbon atom. They're both "made of" matter, along with a bit of energy. Yet their shape, their properties, their character, are entirely different. Why?

These molecules are different, of course, because they're organized differently. Thus even the most primitive materialist theory much acknowledge a second element at work in the universe—structure. Matter may "hold" the structure, but the structure is something other than the matter.

An omelet and a soufflé are made from the same materials, but they aren't alike. Similar materials have been assembled differently.   

The first materialist theories were developed in classical times as a corrective to other theories in which gods, spirits, emanations, and other similarly vague and intangible forces and beings moved and worked. The best of them—that of Lucretius, for example—recognized that matter could be arranged in all sorts of interesting and distinctive ways.  But a major element in both their allure and their controversy lay in their conviction that nothing lay beyond or above matter. In short, there was no "spirit."

Yet this characterization of spirit as something separate from and somehow above matter is no less primitive than the undifferentiated matter it opposes--primitive, but widespread, and not entirely wrong-headed.  Most people feel the need for transcendence in a vague way, at least occasionally. I do. Seeing the brilliant sun on the crisp white snow outside the window makes me want to scream for joy, but I'd be hard presses to capture that effect, bottle it, or share it with others.

And looking a little closer at that snow, I see three deer huddled in the woods behind the house. There isn't much to eat there. And these creatures are a lot colder than I am.

Our "spiritual" moments might include encountering a deer, becoming enthralled by a novel, hosting a lively social event, or dishing out meals at a homeless shelter. In any case, the transcendence involved is often less a matter of escape than of connection, of greater or more expansive organization.

Alas, that word, organization, carries its own unfortunate connotations. We tend to associate it with rigor, set routine, "everything in its place." But the best organization isn't necessarily the strictest or the tightest. It's usually the case that sophisticated entities harbor a good deal of flexibility and "give" within their structure. Thus do the characteristics of "spirit" come more clearly into focus.

We don't live in a "purely physical universe."Anyone can see that. Light a fire, put the Well-Tempered Clavier on the stereo, grab that book you've been meaning to read, or spend a little time watching the amaryllis that your cousin gave you for Christmas grow taller by infinitesimal degrees.

Such shapely greenness. Such noble structure ... such spirit.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Genius of the Season

So much is conveyed by a single phrase—a single word. Thus, celebrating "the birth of God” carries a different connotation from celebrating "the birth of a god.” Maybe the word "birth” says it all.

I was chatting at a party the other day with a friend who's writing a book about how dramatists and psychologists differ in their view of human nature. In brief, psychologists are interested in exploring causal links to the past to explain illness and bad habits, whereas dramatists mine the explosive and unpredictable creativity latent in every moment of history. When Hamlet says, 'To be or not to be," he's weighing his options, trying to make a decision. To a psychologist, such decisions have already been made for him by his DNA.

Both points of view have elements of merit, though I'd much rather go to the theater than read the latest issue of the  Neuroscience and Behavior Psychology Review; there's likely to be a lot more life and truth in it.

A friend of ours was visiting from Texas, as he does every Christmas. We've enjoyed listening to his adventures over the years, from the era when he was building an art handling business and fixing up his warehouse space on the wrong side of the tracks, to more recent times, when he's largely occupied with working on the retirement ranch he bought 90 minutes from Dallas. Things have worked out well for him, but as he told us the other day, "There was really no plan. I did what I had to do, step by step. It was that or go back to what I was doing before. And I couldn't do that."

Listening to him reflect on his life path, I was inclined to remark that if there hadn't been a plan, there had certainly been a direction. To my ears, everything Dave has done he described to us long ago as something he wanted to do ... though I don't recall hearing anything much about a ranch in the boondocks.

The next morning, feeling a little "thick," perhaps, from the whiskey we'd been drinking the night before, I pulled from the shelves a collection of essays by Henri Bergson called The Creative Mind: an Introduction to Metaphysics. Choosing from the table of contents an essay titled THE POSSIBLE AND THE REAL, this is what I read:
I should like to come back to a subject on which I have often spoken, the continuous creation of unfore­seeable novelty which seems to be going on in the uni­verse. As far as I am concerned, I feel I am experiencing it constantly. No matter how I try to imagine in detail what is going to happen to me, still how inadequate, how abstract and stilted is the thing I have imagined in comparison to what actually happens! The realization brings along with it an unforeseeable nothing which changes everything. For example, I am to be present at a gathering; I know what people I shall find there, around what table, in what order, to discuss what prob­lem. But let them come, be seated and chat as I expected, let them say what I was sure they would say: the whole gives me an impression at once novel and unique, as if it were but now designed at one original stroke by the hand of an artist.
Isn't Christmas a little like that? Predictable and slightly oppressive in its prospect, enriching and often delightful as it "comes to pass."

On the morning after, light comes to a blank blue sky, the temperature's below zero, football's on hold, and the refrigerator is full of leftovers glowing with the warmth of recent gatherings. 

My Greek is a little rusty, but as I recall, the prefix “gen-” carries a range of inference that spans race, type, line of descent, origin, creation, sexual relations, and reproduction. Just think of the modern equivalents: generationgeniusgeneratorgender, genuine, and genesis.

But that simple prefix, "gen," can also take us in a different direction. Alongside that series of concepts having to do with novelty, creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness, it also underlies concepts such as genus, genealogy, and general, that lump things together into groups on the basis of their type or ancestry. Today we hold no one in higher esteem than the “genius,” yet reserve our most withering derision for the merely “generic.” 

These two sides of the expression will never be reconciled--one looks back, the other ahead--but it would be a mistake to imagine that they’re entirely opposed to one another. For example, we meet up with both at every social gathering: the idiosyncrasies and the differences between family members that stimulate us (though they can also annoy us) and the veins of affection that run ever-deeper and constitute the reality (rather than merely the pedigree) of the clan.

Praise be to whoever cooked up a universe replete with such affinities, both elective and congenital. May we become ever more generous and genial in our efforts to expand their reach.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

First Ski—Just Me and the Squirrels

I was sitting in the living room the other day reading a book about Basque peasants called In a Hundred Graves when a cooper's hawk landed on a branch just outside the window.

I think it might have been the most beautiful hawk I've ever seen. I've seen plenty of accipers in my day; the buffy, wavy, reddish-brown stripes on their chest is often lovely, standing in contrast to the soft blue-gray wing and back feathers. This one had the added virtue of looking relaxed as he perched on the branch, rather than steely-eyed and ever-alert for little songbirds to eat.

Or maybe it was just that I was relaxed, and the bird was right outside the window. I was tempted to leap up and run for the camera, which was on top of the piano on the far side of the room, but I would have spooked him, I'm sure. Better just to observe and enjoy. (That's a fake photo you see above, as you probably noticed.)

He changed his position once or twice, fanning his feathers as he did so. Then he flew off, dropping and then rising as he swooped around the corner of the house and out of sight.

That was the start of a beautiful evening. The next episode involved some short-ribs left over from a weekend gathering, a single turnip, some carrots, and a couple of Pillsbury pie crusts, which Hilary and I transformed, with the help of some thyme, nutmeg, onions, and garlic, into one of the best pasties I've ever had.  

When I got up this morning it was snowing, but the day was warm, and I decided to go for a morning ski—the first of the season. They've been making snow down at Wirth Golf Course, a few minutes from the house, for weeks, and also building a big new ski chalet. I happen to like things the way they were...but I'm also of the (minority) opinion that skiing is a exercise in woodsy solitude rather than feverish and hectic competition. I'm still wearing choppers and fish-net long underwear on the ski trails, and until recently Hilary was still using bamboo ski poles.

All the same, we benefit from the artificial snow and the sophisticated grooming techniques that have made Wirth Park among the best skiing destinations in the Cities, and I don't begrudge the city its annual $75 skiing fee. Yet I'm afraid the feature that excites me most about all the new construction is the café that's going to be inside the chalet. Maybe they'll serve pasties?

I had a hard time finding my way to any new show from the parking lot, what with the ground torn up by the tracks of big vehicles and snow machines going full blast alongside the trails. So I headed out toward the woods on thin but natural snow. That's my preferred route anyway. The gate at the far end of the par three course was closed, and there was a lock on it...but the gate wasn't actually locked, so I opened it and went on into the woods. 

Beautiful fields, woods, trails. The tracks of a single bicycle. And squirrels everywhere. As the trail looped past Twin Lake and curled back toward the half-built chalet, I began to wonder if the gate at the far end of the loop might also be open. It's the prettiest section of the trail. The problem is that the gate stands right at the bottom of a hill. I would have to come to an abrupt stop, or more likely just fall down, to avoid crashing into it.

In the end, I prudently walked down the final hill. The gate was locked. Rather than retracing my path, I decided to crawl under it. It was a tight squeeze. As I was lying on the thin snow, halfway under the gate, I noticed, looking up, how beautiful the trees looked that were arching above my head. Each species offered a different silhouette.

And I was reminded of my dad, who died a few months ago at the age of 94. I never considered him to be a poetic soul, exactly, but when we were up north, he liked to lie on the ground on his back and take pictures of the trees above his head. I think it may have reflected a sense of peace that he didn't experience all that often.

This one's for you, Dad.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Movie Season Begins

Now that it gets dark at 4 p.m. rather than 8, and the studios begin to unfurl their Oscar contenders, the idea of going to the movies once again gains force. Here are two early birds, and a few summer winners.

Lady Bird
It's the story of a teenage girl in Sacramento, California,  self-named Lady Bird, who vaguely aspires to something better than the life her caring and dutiful middle-class parents have given her. She endures the daily routine at a Roman Catholic high school, gets excited when she's given a part in the class play, becomes involved romantically with the handsome lead actor, fights with her mother daily, and seems to get her greatest emotional satisfaction from hanging out with her best friend, Julie, a bright and extremely good-natured but chubby girl with no pretensions whatsoever to a glamorous life.

The film works because the episodes, one after another, are both humorous and believable. Lady Bird is willful, heedless, and occasionally cruel; she often goes after the wrong things. But the episodes seem to be events that might have happened, rather than contrived opportunities for pratfalls and embarrassing situations. In fact, the film seems like one real teenager's coming-of-age story, and it would be reasonable to assume that the woman is Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film.

Whatever the case may be, the dialog is crisp, the parental pain excruciating, the flow of events unpredictable, the end-result satisfying. Saoirse Ronan is perfect in the title role—though it's quite different from the one she played in Brooklyn. [Spoiler alert: No pregnancies, drug overdoses, or car crashes.}

Lady Bird might be considered as a prequel to Frances, Ha!, which Gerwig co-wrote and also stars in. They'd make a good double feature.

The Meyerowitz Stories      
Here we have a second dialog-driven family comedy-drama, this one about adults, and set on the opposite coast. The focus in on half-brothers—played by Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler—who are trying to sort out their strained relationship in the context of a family environment shaped by the overarching presence of their father, the family patriarch, played by Dustin Hoffman. A largely forgotten sculptor, he was once considered promising but spent most of his professional career teaching, yet he still nourishes a grand self-image. His third wife (Emma Thompson) is an agreeable lush.

 Stiller dropped the artistic vein and became a successful real estate broker in L. A.; Sandler never got around to doing much of anything, though it's obvious he's a caring father. Yes, there's a granddaughter in the mix, on her way to college, and also a third sibling—a dutiful sister. The situations are geared more toward comedy than angst, and we pick up pieces of the puzzle one by one during conversations with gallery owners, former wives, former students, and former artistic rivals who have now made it big.

Hoffman is a little brittle, but Sandler is surprisingly good. It's great family chaos, skeletons in the closet, unshakeable misunderstandings, East Coast fun.


A Finnish film that translates as "Unexpected Journey," Saattokeikka bears comparison to the popular A Man Called Ove, in that a grumpy octogenarian's world is opened up slightly by a youthful and seemingly naive foreigner. The old-timer, Veikko, is played by Heikki Nousiainen, whom you may remember as the blind priest in Letters to Father Jacob. He can't stand the African music being played on the basketball court outside his apartment building, which is mostly inhabited by immigrants and refugees, but he eventually finds himself in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a local "Somali" lad named Kamil. The young man is actually from Nigeria, and he doesn't own the car, but he wants to earn money to reunite with his dad, so he agrees to take Veikko to his remote rural cottage for a large sum of cash. Thus yet another classic odd-couple road trip commences, full of laughs, pine woods, freezing lakes, romance, family reckoning, and pathos.
And while we're on the subject of films, I might mention two summer releases that will soon be available to stream, if they aren't already.

The Big Sick    

A Pakistani comedian falls for a winsome blonde in the audience at a comedy club. He never gets around to telling her that his parents are adamant about him marrying a woman from his own country. Difficulties ensue. But the continuing humor and interest in the film comes from the comic's interactions with his ex-girlfriend's parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) when she gets sick.


It tells the unusual (but largely true) story of a woman with spinal deformities named Maudie (played by Sally Hawkins, whom you may remember from Happy Go Lucky)  who becomes the housekeeper of a gruff woodcutter and fish salesman named Everett (played by Ethan Hawk). It shouldn't be such a tough job; his house is only 11 x 11 feet square. Maudie soon starts painting images on the walls in her free time. 

Before long her little cardboard images have become popular, to Everett's irritation. Her rising fame in the art world provides the meat of the story, but it's the ever changing relationship between Maudie and Everett that holds our interest. Along with the rural Nova Scotia countryside.

Not long after seeing the film, I went to a exhibition at the Swedish Institute at which paintings from the opposite end of the art spectrum were on display. Where Maudie's work is näive, the paintings of Karin Broos are highly realistic. Maudie paints cats and flowers; Broos paints troubled, anxious women, often in the company of their daughters.

There is no need for us to choose between the two. In the end, maybe neither aesthetic is completely satisfying. Perhaps both are. And maybe no aesthetic is completely suitable to every passing mood or condition. In any case, I find the contrast in tone interesting.