Sunday, May 20, 2018

Prom Night: Beyond the Warbler Wave

"What brings you to this neck of the woods?" said the woman behind the desk at the Country Inn in Two Harbors.

"Birding," I replied.

That isn't exactly true. Hilary and I have gotten into the habit of taking a week off at about this time of year—my birthday also happens to fall conveniently within the range—to roam the countryside exploring new sights, revisiting old favorites, eating a lot of cheese and crackers, and camping or sleeping in motels, depending on availability, whim, and weather.

But the fact that many species of birds are passing through the state on their way to nesting grounds farther north—birds that we haven't seen in their prime, if at all, since last year's migration—makes the trip that much more interesting.

We usually head south down the Mississippi Valley, but this year the forecast in Preston (south) was 46 degrees and rain, while in Duluth (north) it was 65 degrees and sun.

The question was, had the warblers gotten that far north yet?

"Birding," I said to the woman behind the desk, then added, "But there aren't any birds!" That wasn't precisely true, either. We'd seen some very fine little creatures, including one spectacular close-up of a magnolia warbler, during a hike through Banning State Park on the drive up.

After getting settled in our room we drove down to the harbor and were surprised to find that the parking lot was full of cars. It looked like a wedding event, but the gowns were so diverse and the vehicles so many that we soon rejected that idea. A woman sitting on a bench told us: "It's prom night. Everyone comes down here to take pictures."

Indeed, there were lots of teenage girls in fancy dresses, lots of shoulders exposed and midriffs covered by sheer garments. The poor girls were probably freezing.  The boys, as usual,  wore a less imaginative (but warmer) array of suits and ties. Parents, friends, and siblings were also present with cameras. I even took a picture myself.  

Then I saw a yellow bird fly into the single leafless bush between the mass of teens and the breakwater. A Nashville warbler! Beautiful white eye-ring.

While I was looking at it, Hilary said, "Look. There's a horned grebe." It had just popped up from the depths of the harbor. (see above)

Just then I noticed a Lincoln sparrow sharing the bush with the Nashville warbler: beautiful breast, a band of pale gold under the sharp dark streaks. 
We headed off across the slabs of rock and I soon spotted a sparrow hopping around in a clump of last year's tall grasses. He had a yellowish wash in the streaks above his eye: a Savannah sparrow. That's a common bird, but I rarely see one.

We made our way along the shore keeping to the shelter of wooded fringe above the shelves of rock. It was cold, and there wasn't much activity, but as we rounded the bend we noticed a group of twenty-odd ducks pretty far out to sea. Long-tailed ducks?

Yes. And one of them, off by himself, had drifted fairly close to shore, from which point we could see his exotic plumage clearly.

By the time we got back to the parking lot the prom-goers had dispersed, leaving behind a few young boys and old men trying to make the most of the fishing opener by casting from shore.

Weddings are joyous events. Prom night? Perhaps slightly less so. How many couples will last the weekend? The next two years? Right now it doesn't matter. Who will become mayor, who will move to the Cities, who will find herself folding clothes at the local Laundromat to make ends meet? It doesn't matter. It's the excitement of the moment, the sense of participation, the drama of the social group and the expectation of a long, wild, and perhaps romantic evening ahead.

But maybe the long-tailed ducks have an easier time: find a mate within the floating mass of chattering kindred spirits, raise a brood in the Arctic, spend the winter vacationing together—a package tour—on the open ocean. Repeat.

I ought to say something more about the beautiful hike we took along the Quarry Trail at Banning State Park. There were few leaves on the trees, and that made it easier to see the warblers, which included not only the magnolia warbler but also several black-and-whites, palms, and myrtles. The trail follows a ridge above the Kettle River past an abandoned sandstone quarry. We took a spur farther downstream to the top of the whitewater at Hell's Gate.

Buddy Snow, a member of my Boy Scout troop, lost his life there when I was in junior high school. He was canoeing with his dad, it was early spring, the water was frigid. Buddy was older than me, I didn't know him at all, though I knew his sister, who was in quite a few of my classes all the way through high school.

As a teen I felt there was something awful and mysterious and somehow sacred about the event—the evident finality of it all. That might seem too obvious to mention, but when you're a kid such feelings are rare. And that lingering feeling lent a somber, almost metaphysical quality to the dark and fast-moving yet strangely beautiful and unruffled water we were looking at now, a half-century later.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Rites of Spring—Silver Maple

I'm not a procrastinator—not me. A procrastinator is someone who waits until the last possible moment before completing a task. My situation is different: it takes me a long time to decide whether a given project is actually worth doing. This "thinking through" process can take months, and during that time, it probably looks like I'm not doing anything at all. Yet I have found that during this long gestation period many problems conveniently vanish or fade into insignificance, while others turn out to be blessings in disguise.

I will admit, the passage of time more often underscores the fact that a given problem isn't going to disappear. But no one can dispute that there is always a "right time" to get started on something, and it's usually not right now. You have to have plenty of time at your disposal, you need the right tools.

And you need to consider the likelihood that you'll run into insurmountable obstacles half way through, with the water shut off or the back door disassembled. Then what?  

You need to consider whether it might be a good idea just hiring someone else.

For example, I have long pondered how nice it would be to remove the one branch of the silver maple tree in the back yard that blocks the morning sun from reaching the garden. It's about as thick as my thigh, and it's thirty feet off the ground. The main trunk of the tree rises at roughly a 75 degree angle, and more than once I've imagined myself shinnying up that steep incline with a Sven saw over my shoulder to remove the offending limb.

In my heart of hearts, I always knew this was a bad idea, and the likelihood that a strong gust of wind would do the job seemed remote, so this spring, when a local tree trimmer came to the door, I was psychologically prepared to direct him round back and show him the branch.

"Oh, I could get that with my—"and he mentioned some sort of mini-chain saw on a pole that I'd never heard of. "But the blade's pretty dull ... I'd do it for $200."

"That seems a little steep," I replied. (The remark about the dull blade seemed irrelevant, like blowing smoke, as if to say: "Because I neglected to sharpen the saw, it will take longer, and cost YOU more." Come again?)

"But why don't you give me your card," I continued. "Let me think about it and I'll give you a call."

A few days later I got my annual spring email from Rainbow Tree Service, soliciting business. I responded: "I've got branch thirty feet up in my maple. If you could remove it for $100 that would be great!"

The cheery reply wasn't long in coming. "Sorry. Our minimum is $300. Let us know if you're interested."

A week later Maximum Tree Service left a card in the door. I called. "Max can be over tomorrow morning to take a look!".

The next day a thirtyish man who could have passed for a country-western singer rang the bell and introduced himself as Max. "Are you the eponymous Max of Maximum?" I asked.

"That's me."

"Well, I'm honored," I said as I led him through the house and out onto the deck. He had taken off his well-worn cowboy boots, and they looked exotic to me.

"No, I got them at Red Wing," he said.

I showed him the offending branch, high up across the yard, and added, "I'd be happy to chop it up myself." He nodded thoughtfully and said, "I'll do it for $50." Deal.

As he was writing up the invoice he said, "We usually have a minimum, but we have other work in the neighborhood. I'll just send someone around at an idle moment ..."

"Should I write you a check?"

"Na. We'll do the work, then bill you."

I liked the way he wrote up the work order, especially the second part: "Remove limb from maple tree. Leave lay."

Later I began to wonder if he shouldn't have been more specific about which limb was to be removed from which maple tree. But a few days ago Hilary and I returned from a trip to the T-Mobile store in Uptown to find a big tree branch—the right branch—lying incongruously across the back yard.

And just yesterday I nipped off all the minor branches and sawed up the trunk. No need to ponder or delay, that job was easy, and obviously needed doing. It was a bright morning: 55 degrees, cool breeze. White-throated sparrows were singing plaintively in the distance, and my heart was soaring.

On the other hand,  I felt a little bad for the tender leaves that were just budding out on the branches and twigs that were now strewn across the yard or sitting in rough piles, their lives sacrificed to bring a little more sunlight and color to a different set of plants in another part of the garden.

I got over it. But the pile of wood that I eventually stacked under the deck is not impressive, and it makes me think how much space is amply filled, almost everywhere you look,  with small particles of life and energy and motion. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

More of the Film Fest

Becoming Who I Was

This documentary, eight years in the making, follows the life of Padma Angdu, a young boy of the Ladahki tribe in northern India who often dreams of Tibet (where he's never been) and is therefore considered a rinpoche — a reincarnate or “Living Buddha.” But there's a problem. If he really were a rinpoche, the monks from the monastery where his predecessor lived would come and find him. Years pass and nobody comes. Eventually the monastery where he's studying decide he's a false rinpoche and kick him out. At which point he and his elderly teacher and guardian, Urgyan Rickzen by name, decide to make the long journey to Tibet to find out what's going on.

The mountain scenery is spectacular, the child is curious and playful, his guardian is gentle and wise, the journey is colorful, and the entire film is infused with sweetness and unhurried grace. A total winner.

The Blessing, a documentary set on the Navaho Reservation in the vast, open spaces of north east Arizona, takes a look at the Kayenta Coal Mine, which supplies fuel for the local power plant and jobs for many reservation residents. We see this world through the eyes of Leonard, a recovering alcoholic who works in the mine though he's well aware that it's desecrating a landscape sacred to his people. Leonard's wife skipped town years ago, and his thoughtful, articulate daughter has difficulty telling him that she plays on the high school football team, or anything else of importance to her. 

The film bounces back and forth awkwardly between Native spirituality, the economic life of the reservation, and a young woman's coming-of-age, like an unmaneuverable truck heading down into the pit, but if it comes up short on coherence and sociological detail, it still has lots of flavor, which is only enhanced by the Santana-esque guitar soundtrack. And perhaps that's all we need. (Specifics about the mine are available on line; for example, read The End of Coal Will Haunt the Navajo.)


Rainbow: a Private Affair

The Italians have a weird take on World War II. Allied with the Nazis, then overrun by Germans, then reconquered by the Americans, split in half, north and south, with or without Mussolini at the helm. Who's side are you on? Rainbow focuses on a few days of fighting near the end of the war, with partisans and Fascists occupying farms and villas on neighboring hilltops and skirmishing with one another when the mist coming in from the sea dissipates. Soldiers are captured and ransomed, local residents are reduced to slave labor or executed.

In the midst of the confusion, a partisan named Milton visits an abandoned villa where he used to lounge around with his best friend, Giorgio, and Fulvia, the beauty with whom he's still smitten. (Lots of flashbacks here.) The housekeeper, now the villa's only resident, inadvertently gives him the impression that Giorgio and Fulvia were much closer than Milton had imagined: a troubling thought. When Giorgio is captured by the Fascists, Milton must secure a "roach" and arrange for a prisoner exchange. But is he trying to merely save his old friend, or confront him?

The Taviani brothers have been making films since 1960, and there is something stagy about this production (one reviewer refers cruelly to the film’s "nostalgia-drenched affectedness")that bespeaks increasing old age. Then again, Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) was also a little stagy. In any case, the flashbacks make it pretty obvious that Giorgio, unlike Milton, is a charmer. Giorgio and Fulvia like to dance: Milton doesn't. Giorgio and Fulvia like to climb trees: Milton doesn't. Milton and Fulvia do share a love for Emily Brontë, but in times of war, perhaps that isn't enough.

Yet stagy though it may sometimes be, Rainbow offers some nice scenery and also some harrowing images of civil war, when your neighbors suddenly become your allies, or your enemies, and the tree where you once carved your girlfriend's name might now be the one where they string you up.

Trespassing Bergman

Here an odd assortment of film directors ranging from Iñárritu and Woody Allen to Wes Anderson and Lars Von Trier discuss Ingmar Bergman's work, personality, and influence. Some of them have descended on Bergman's home on a remote island in the Baltic Sea, others are interviewed wherever it's convenience. Along the way we also get an overview of Bergman's career from Summer with Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night to Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander.

I would have liked to learn more about where the island is located, if there are villages on it, how the main house is situated with respect to the sea, and what all the various out-buildings we see in the footage are used for. But I did learn some things about Bergman's career, and also about his vast collection of VHS tapes. Evidently Bergman watched three movies every day, and he wasn't very discriminating about which three they were.

The next morning (a Sunday) I returned to the theater at 9 a.m. to see Bergman's early classic, 

Summer with Monika. I don't feel like describing it in detail--it came out in 1953--but I will say that it had some great scenes of Stockholm as seen from the water, quite a few good camping sequences on barren islands that look a lot like the BWCA, and two brilliant close-ups.

The Guardians might almost be considered a documentary of preindustrial agricultural life. Sound dull? It's not. The film could have taken place anywhere, though both the buildings and the lighting are probably more attractive in rural France, where the film is set, than ahywhere else, and that locale also provides an important element of the plot. The men are away fighting in the trenches of WWI. The women are trying to keep things going back home. 

The matriarch, Hortense, hires Francine, a young woman from the local orphanage, to help with the chores. She's a top-notch worker and everyone likes her—even Hortense's son, Georges, who returns on leave several times. That could be a problem. (She's lower class.) American soldiers arrive the buy vegetables and moonshine. They pay well, but they seem to like all the young women on the farm. Another problem. 

It's a rich ragout of passion and labor, family ties and moral quandaries. And a good ending.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Mpls. St. Paul Film Fest One

A scene from Bottomless Bag (see below)
While Minneapolis was being blanketed with seventeen inches of snow, Hilary and I made a well-timed India, Israel, Pakistan, Hungary, and the nation of Georgia. I'm referring, of course, to the opening weekend of the Mpls. St. Paul International Film Festival.

On Friday night we saw The Confession and Village Rock Stars (described below).  I had volunteered to be a greeter, and I stood in the hall in front of the information office all Saturday morning in my office pink volunteer T-shirt, watching people try to find the ticket booth, which has been set up around a corner and entirely out of sight of passing film-goers. I recommended to several members of the theater staff who passed by that a sign with an arrow saying


would be very useful, posted on the pillar, and even volunteered to bring one from home, but two days later, nothing had been done to solve this problem.

My job, meanwhile, was to scrutinize the faces of the people who came around the corner from the front door. If they looked puzzled, I would say, "Are you looking for the ticket booth?" Usually, the answer was yes. "Right around this pillar," I would reply, gesturing nonchalantly with my thumb. 

Strange but true, there is a huge sign that says RUSH LINE in plain sight, but during the blizzard the audiences have been meager and it has served no useful purpose.

My four hours of volunteer work were occasionally enlivened by conversation with a film fan. One tall, red-haired woman with a passing resemblance to Julianne Moore had been to 45 films last year. "But that was down from 60 the year before," she told me.

So we discussed last year's films—the ones we could remember. And also The Confession. "Not as good as the director's previous film, Tangerines," she said, "but still pretty good." I agreed.

An hour later Hilary and I were watching Wajib, a slow-burn of a film set in Nazareth.

Here are some brief descriptions.

Confession (Georgia) A priest is assigned to a remote village in the Caucasus Mountains, along with his hair-brained assistant. They try to win over the local inhabitants to Sunday services by showing American films in an abandoned barn on Saturday night, and that's how they learn about the local piano teacher, who keeps mostly to herself but bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. The priest makes the woman's acquaintance, she eventually agrees to come to confession, and problems ensue, though they're not the ones you might imagine. A solid tale, expansive scenery, rich choral singing, and beautiful  church interiors.

Wajib (Israel)Father and son, Abu Shadi and Shadi, spend the day delivering wedding invitations up and down the hilly streets of modern Nazareth. Shadi has returned home from Italy only because of his sister's wedding; he fled years ago to escape the incessant government persecution of Palestinians. 

The two men carry on a gently antagonistic conversation throughout the day: Abu Shadi, a respected local teacher, is doing Wajib, the honorable thing, in delivering invitations by hand, even to Jewish officials whom he takes to be friends or colleagues, though his son considers them spies and enemies. Beneath the generational discord common to many families lie two different visions of the Palestinian future. The acrimony is compounded by the fact that the father's wife ran off years ago with another man, who is now dying. Perhaps she'll make it back for the wedding, perhaps not.

Much of the film is devoted to the pleasantries, evasions, and half-truths exchanged between old friends and relatives as each invitation is delivered.  In the course of a single day a stirring portrait of a neighborhood, a fractured nation, and a single family springs to life before our eyes. This is art.

Village Rock Stars (India) Young  Dhunu wants a guitar. Her family has no money. They live in a mud compound and work a rice field that floods every year, obliterating the crop. Dhunu spends a good deal of time playing games in the fields and climbing trees with the neighborhood boys. The story is thin, but the landscapes and the incidental details of daily life in Assam are rich. Scenes seem to begin and end at random...yet the film won Best Picture at India's National Film Awards, and its quiet beauties have considerable appeal, with or without the Styrofoam guitars.

Armed with Faith (Pakistan) This straightforward documentary follows the activities of an underfunded bomb squad who defuses IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan at the risk of life and limb. We get to know their motivations, fears, rewards, and frustrations while following them on their daily routine...which is never routine. Simple but moving.

Aurora Borealis (Hungary) In old age, Mom has moved from Austria back across the border to Hungary, though her high-powered daughter wonders why. When the old woman falls into a coma, her daughter pays her an extended visit, and begins to unearth a post-war family history that's a lot more complicated than she thought. Fitted with several extended flashbacks, the film is dramatic, complex, and convincing.  

Bottomless Bag (Russia) The director, Rustam Kamdamov, is also a jewelry designer, which may explain why this slightly surreal film has elaborate costumes and jewelry but very little coherent  action. It tells the same story that Akira Kurasawa drew upon for his classic Rashamon, and the black-and-white cinematography is, if anything, more compelling. But the narrative is largely submerged under the weight of medieval Russian robes and necklaces and the Wagnerian sensibilities. Where is Toshiro Mifune when you need him?

So Help Me God (Belgium) This documentary gives us a peek into the life of a Belgian examining magistrate named Anne Gruwez, who passes judgment on criminals and suspects daily in her cluttered office in Brussels. Unfortunately for the viewer, most of the cases are grisly, and involve prostitutes and small-time grifters. Gruwez seems to relish the sleeze, and she obviously takes pride in the fact that she's "seen it all." There are touches of humanity and even humor in the proceedings, but it's a slice of life most of us don't care to know that much about.  

On the Beach at Night Alone (South Korea) A fading actress named Young-hee retreats to Hamburg following an affair with the director of her last film. She and a friend discuss relationships and take long walks in the parks while she waits for the director to join her. He doesn't show, and soon enough she's back in Korea, meeting up with old friends, all of whom have heard of her affair. Various discussions take place in bars and coffee shops, and everyone's views about relationships and love get thoroughly exposed, and often trashed: Young-hee tends to get belligerent and insult her friends after a few drinks. 

Actress Kim Min-hee has been widely praised for her portrayal of Young-hee, though I found it difficult determining when she was being serious and when not. A New York Times critic wrote of the film:  " For all its intimacy, the drama has a vast scope, a fierce intensity, and an element of metaphysical whimsy (including one of the great recent dream sequences), which all come to life in the indelibly expressive spontaneity of Kim’s performance."

That seems like an exaggeration to me, though I like the phrase "metaphysical whimsy." I found the music of the language and the unhurried pace of conversations sort of mesmerizing. 

A young Korean-American woman was ushering. She'd already seen it. "I love this film, "she told me. "I hope you like it." I heard another woman say as she came out of the theater: "I slept through that one. I'd give it a 1."

You never know about these things going in. I guess that's half the fun.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Give It Five Stars

In the realm of customer satisfaction surveys, there are no wrong answers, which is nice. But have you noticed that the questions are invariably phrased in such a way that they are almost impossible to answer at all? "On a scale of one to ten, how likely would you be to recommend this [concert-motel-restaurant] to your friends?" Well, recommendations tend to be a yes-or-no thing. In any case, it depends on which friends.

Even giving out stars isn't as easy as it might seem.

Not long ago we rented a cabin in Park Rapids, Minnesota, with some friends, and I was later asked to evaluate our stay. There was a problem with the rental: the septic tank froze right after we got there, putting the bathrooms and the sink out of commission. Hard to give that place five stars. On the other hand, we can hardly fault the owner for a problem that arrives unexpectedly and is widespread in Minnesota at this time of year. He graciously allowed us the use of the bathroom in his place, a hundred yards away through the woods at the top of the hill. Most of us made use of a convenient snow bank nearby, but  by all accounts his house was—dare I use the word?—untidy.)

There were a few other problems. The cabin was listed as having accommodations for eight but was equipped with only five forks. It had only one wine glass—a serious deficiency—and there was a desiccated fox-fur coat hanging in the closet, which reminded me of Psycho for some reason; a Jim Dine bathroom poster sitting on a chair in the living room; and a wedding picture in the kitchen—man, woman, child—none of whom resembled the owner in the slightest.

On the other hand, the cabin had large windows looking out across a frozen lake and was costing each of us only $25 per night. I might have given it three stars, but I want the owner, a potato farmer by trade, to do well. He's obviously a beginner on the vacation rental scene. He was close to despondent over the plumbing freeze-up, but also a bit shocked at how much it was going to cost to fix it. Three-and-a-half stars? 

I sometimes receive satisfaction surveys from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra following a concert, and the issues are always the same. The music is interesting but varied in quality, the introductory patter often a little too long, and the program-rustling in the audience invariably annoying. These outings, considered as a whole, remain enriching. Four stars?

Not long ago Hilary and I attended a performance of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ at the Ordway Concert Hall. The timing couldn't have been better. It was two days before Easter, and it also happened to be Haydn's birthday. We arrived early and caught an informative Fanfare lecture given by a professor from Macalester College. 

The performers, members of the SPCO, had chosen to do a stripped down version of the piece for string quartet, and they had also decided to play it on the gut strings in widespread use during Haydn's time. During his opening remarks violinist Kyu Young Kim told us that he and his colleagues almost had the impression, due to the slow-moving and often somber character of the piece, that they were merely playing for themselves, and cellist Jonathan Cohen remarked that he considered the performance as an act of personal meditation. However, the choice of gut strings worked against such an effect. They tend to groan where metal strings sing, and due to the fact that they go out of tune easily, there were long pauses between several of the movements while the musicians retuned.

I was a little bored.

But that's not the end of the story. After the concert, on the advice of a friend, we drove up the hill for lunch at Tori Ramen, a hole-in-the-wall place that was bubbling with activity. Tasty food, too.
And that night, as we were sitting down to a pre-Easter dinner (lamb shoulder chops with asparagus risotto) I put a recording of Haydn's Seven Last Words on the stereo. It fit the moment perfectly.
Perhaps this reaction reinforces the remarks of the musicians that the piece is more of the personal meditation than a concert crowd-pleaser. And maybe it's easier to appreciate a fine but quiet piece of music when you're eating a nice meal in your own home than within the stuffy confines of a concert hall.

I think another factor might also have been in play. Haydn wrote The Seven Last Words for orchestra, and later produced a stripped down version for string quartet. I believe that's the version the  SPCO musicians were using. But the one we were now listening to had been created from the score of the oratorio version, which Haydn wrote years later after having visited London and been impressed by Handel's work in that vein.   

Attacca Quartet cellist Andrew Yee, who did the new arrangement, remarks in the liner notes to this version that "in examining the arrangement for string quartet, one is struck that this version bears little of the careful crafting typical of the father of the string quartet. The string parts from the orchestral version remain mostly intact, [but] the crucial wind parts are left out almost entirely."

Yee goes on to suggest that the oratorio version, crafted ten years after the original, conveys "Haydn's reflections, and perhaps reconsiderations, during this hiatus of one of his most personal and intimate pieces." That's the version Yee used to create the quartet we were listening to that night. The changes include adding double stops here and there, adjusting unison passages to octaves, and adding melodies and counter­melodies extracted from the oratorio score that are not present in Haydn's earlier versions.

Whatever the reason, this new rendering, which I bought years ago on a whim in a little shop in Stanton, Virginia, during a road trip through the Shenandoah Mountains, and  listened to only once, was now approaching the sublime.

So, how are we to rate the event? The SPCO performance wasn't outstanding, but the programming was, if only because it brought renewed attention and appreciation to a forgotten musical masterpiece.
Four-and-a-half stars?   

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Before the Fest

The last few days have been cold and amazing. The sun is fairly high—more than halfway to its zenith—and the ground will never give off more reflected light than it's doing now. In the summer the sun beats down more fiercely but the vegetation-covered landscape gives nothing back and there's far more humidity in the air. Last week's brightness will be hard to beat.

I was out for a few hours recently, in the midst of that splendor, delivering programs in Robbinsdale for the upcoming international film festival. My first stop was Video Universe, one of the few remaining high quality video stories in the Twin Cities. The young man behind the counter is the same one who was working there ten years ago, and even today he doesn't look to be over seventeen.

"Sure, you can put those fliers in the rack. The Camden Times doesn't own it."

We discussed last year's films as I scrutinized the new video releases displayed on the front shelf: Dunkirk; I, Tonya; Lady Bird.

"Three Billboards just arrived," he said.

"I don't know. I'm not keen on revenge movies," I said. " I hear it's sort of crass."

"Well, nearly everyone I've talked to has liked it."

From there I drove a few blocks over to West Broadway, parked, and walked into the darkened, cavernous hall of the Wicked Wort Brewery, where a young couple was sitting in a booth with a laptop, apparently going over the books.

"Sure, I'll take a few fliers," the man said.

At the sunny café across the street, I said, "What's that smell?"

"Food," the woman behind the counter replied with a smile. She let me put a stack of tabloid-sized programs on the broad sunny sill under the front windows.

At nearby Woellet's Bakery the young woman behind the counter let me put some flyers in the rack. "How can you work here amid such wonderful aromas?" I said.

"You get sick of it real quick," she replied.

At Beyerly's Big Bowl café in the Spring Brook shopping center I worked my way up to the assistant manager, a friendly fellow who was happy to take a few of the tabloid-size schedules. Then I was off to "downtown" Golden Valley, a glorified strip mall with a circular pedestrian arcade leading nowhere and a few benches overlooking a well-landscaped drainage ditch along Highway 55. But they also have a Starbucks and a D'Amico and Sons. Then off to Triple Espresso (right across the street), Mort's Deli (why is the chicken liver $17.99 a pound?) and finally the Golden Valley Public Library, where the librarian seemed eager but hesitant.

"Are there fees involved?" she asked.

"Well, you do have to pay to get into the movies."

"But I suppose it's cultural..."

"It's the greatest cultural event of the year!" I tried to keep my voice down.

Yes, the greatest cultural event of the year hereabouts. But on my way home I got to thinking of the big-time Hollywood film year just past, and how good and varied it was. Everyone is sick of hearing about the Oscar contenders, no doubt, but it's interesting to reflect on how solid, but also how different, are such films as Lady Bird, The Phantom Thread, and The Shape of Water.  

I can now add Three Billboards to the list. I saw it just the other day—a Nexflix DVD that was diverted to us from Hilary's parents on its way back to the post office. I was prepared to dislike it, based on reviews. As I mentioned, I tend to avoid revenge movies and "angry" movies, and I think Frances McDormand is at her best in supporting roles—for example, the mother in Almost Famous or the professor's wife in Wonder Boys.

The gratuitous swearing in Three Billboards took some getting used to; it isn't funny and nobody really talks like that. But as the story developed I found myself being drawn into this odd mixture of soap opera, psychodrama, and morality play, where no one is absolutely right or wrong and we begin to see beyond the logic (or not) of the plot into the crippled dynamic of individual lives. It's a film about grief and loss and guilt and bigotry and bad luck, and forgiveness, and it could have collapsed into absurdity at several turns of the path. Somehow, it kept getting better.

By way of contrast, The Phantom Thread is an exquisite film in which every scene is like a well-constructed and beautiful movement from a string quartet, leading—nowhere.

I was playing racquetball with a friend the other day and The Phantom Thread came up. "What did you think of it?" he asked, with a pained and anxious look on his face. I shrugged indifferently.

"I know," he said. "Why did he make that film?"

Yet The Phantom Thread lingers; it stays with you a little. I wouldn't mind seeing it again. It's less of a romance than a film about mothers (dead) and sons and craft and "the legacy of the past." It shows us a certain kind of life and attentiveness that has always been rare, but was nevertheless further undermined by the arrival of "chic." The New York Times called it the best "food movie" in ages.

Having mentioned how much I dislike angry movies, it strikes me as very odd that the most powerful film I saw last year was The Clash, an Egyptian work that's full of shouting from beginning to end. The entire film takes place inside the confines of a police paddy wagon in Cairo during the unraveling of the Arab Spring.   

We might compare The Phantom Thread to another recent but less well known film, Things to Come.

Both films are dominated by an actor of unimpeachable credentials playing a character of unorthodox interests. Daniel Day Lewis is a dressmaker; Isabelle Hubert is a high school philosophy teacher. Lewis lets nothing encroach on his craft; Hubert, having spent a good part of her career reading Spinoza and Pascal, seems to have developed such a dispassionate approach to life that her husband, early on in the film, announces that he's leaving her for a young Spanish woman. She's not too happy about this, though it seems she's mostly disappointed that she'll no longer be able to tend the lovely garden she created on her husband's estate in Brittany. 

Hubert has been described as "prickly" and "aloof," but she's adept at projecting a variety of emotions at once: distain, confusion, determination, disappointment. Frances McDormand (switching comparisons here) is numbed and jaded by grief and rage; Hubert seems to be adjusting to a new situation with the inscrutable aplomb of a Buddha, though she also has her weepy moments, and most of the time it's hard to tell how she's getting on. 

In the midst of this unsettling situation, her batty mother's health is deteriorating, and  further disappointments await at a meeting with her publisher where she's informed that her anthology of philosophical extracts is going to be redesigned in garish colors for a new generation of students, and her monograph on Theodor Adorno is in danger of being dropped.

Yet the most moving scene in Things to Come takes place near the end of the film in a hospital where Hubert's daughter has just given birth. Both parents are present. When Hubert's ex finally quits cooing at the infant and departs, Hubert says, "I thought he'd never leave," and her daughter bursts into tears.

In all the hoopla surrounding Huppert's performance in another film of 2016, Elle, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, Things to Come got swallowed up. Or maybe it was just that, like The Phantom Thread, it leaves the viewer feeling ... what?   

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Easter and the Pelicans

My dad never said much, preferring to listen gnomically from the sidelines in the time-honored curmudgeony Swedish tradition, but when he did say something, it was invariably brief and to the point.  I recall discussing religion around the dining-room table one evening back in my high school days; I was saying, "Religion is sort of tiresome and repetitive," to which he replied, "Well, nature is repetitive."

On the face of things, that's true. We see the same succession of the same things, year in and year out: the buds on the maple tree swell, the red-winged blackbirds return. Yet I would argue that if nature repeats itself once a year, religion repeats itself once a week, which is a little too often. Meanwhile, the progress of the seasons is so complex and diverse that it's far from predictable. 

And that explains, I guess, why I still find it worthwhile to head downriver, year after year, to see which birds are coming toward us in the opposite direction on their way to breeding grounds up north. We never know quite what we're going to meet up with.

In case there are any birders in the audience, let me report that we encountered 50 species by the time we were through. Some were residents that we'd been seeing all winter—downies, hairies, chickadees, mallards, cardinals, crows. Some were déclassé specimens that few observers are going to get excited about, beyond the simple fact that they've returned: grackles, starlings, turkey vultures, red-winged black-birds.

Others may disagree, of course, but I would rather see a bluebird than a crow. And we did see a single bluebird on our two-day journey—the spring  avant garde, as it were.

The thrilling species—and I mean thrilling—are the waterfowl.  This is because they tend to be beautiful, they tend to travel in groups, and they tend to pair up on their way from the tropics to the north country, thus giving us a sense of a complex and mysterious life about which we know very little. It's common to see ducks of three or four species milling around together in the open water, ignoring each other. Yet we never know precisely which ducks we're going to see.

On our two-day road trip down the Mississippi Hilary and I saw plenty of common mergansers, though the word "common" is entirely out of place when describing those immaculate and handsome white bodies. We also saw some golden eyes, very alert and compact, and seven or eight shovelers, whose oversized bills hardly detract from their lovely green and rufus flanks. The ring-necked ducks look like aristocratic cousins of the scaup—greater or lesser? Who can tell?

I have a fondness for gadwalls, large and subtle to the point of being nondescript. We saw exactly one. We also saw one green-winged teal, too far away to appreciate fully, even with the scope. Canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, redheads, pintails? Dream on.

Seventy pelicans
For non-birders, the star of any trip down the Mississippi is the bald eagle. We probably saw close to sixty such birds, either soaring or resting in the trees. Swans are also present in numbers, though they look less impressive sitting on a big slab of ice than floating dreamily in a narrow stream two hundred miles to the north.

More impressive than either of these birds, to my mind, is the pelican. These birds are often overlooked because they migrate in large, concentrated flocks, often far above the ground. My most thrilling sight of the trip was of a large flock of pelicans moving toward us in a long undulating line.

We were on foot, well out on Kiep's Island Dike Road in Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles north of La Crosse, Wisconsin. We watched them approach against the distant dark gray bluff-side, wings beating in rhythm. It looked like a military display, or better yet, a Chinese ink scroll painting. At one point their formation seemed to break apart in confusion; I think they were examining the fifteen swans resting out on the ice a few hundred yards beneath them. They had soon regrouped, and as the string of white creatures with black wing-tips, larger than eagles, passed overhead, I counted seventy birds.

This trip was a birthday present of sorts for Hilary, and I had scoped out all the best restaurants in La Crosse, prepared for any birthday taste or whim. But we had made the mistake of stopping at JJ's Barbeque in Nelson for lunch.

"Are you here for the brunch?" the woman behind the counter asked. "It's $11.95,all you can eat, and it includes coffee and juice."

The food was pretty good. They smoke the meat out back. But of course, there was too  much of it. So once we'd checked into our hotel in La Crosse, and driven up to Grandma's Bluff to watch the sun go down, and spotted our first red-winged blackbird in the park near the university campus, we were happy to crash back in our hotel room with some cheese and a bottle of wine.

Plenty of old buildings remain standing in downtown La Crosse, which is a mixed blessing. Most of them are occupied and open for business, but the wide range of signs and colors painted on the bricks gives the neighborhood a rundown look. Perhaps the major eyesore is the Bodega Brew Pub, situated at a prime location where the street makes a slight bend. It advertises the availability of 420 beers, and thirty or forty empty bottles are gathering dust in the window display. On a gray Monday morning in March, the place doesn't look inviting.

The coffee-shop next door was open but dark and almost empty when we walked by. A passage connects it to the Pearl Street used book store— an asset to any urban scene—and the shop across the street might contain the largest collection of rubber stamps in the world. (I have a few in the basement myself ... but do people still use these things?)

Other nearby shops include Kate's Pizza Amorè, Fayze's pine-paneled café and bakery, and a branch of the Duluth Trading Company.

Down at the riverfront things are different: everything has been spiffed up or torn down. An upscale wine shop and Piggy's smoked meats restaurant occupies a handsomely retrofitted nineteenth-century warehouse. The Radisson Hotel and convention center, along with its huge parking lot, dominates a block or two, and Viterbo University seems to have invested heavily in trim new brick buildings. A robust fine arts center stands on one corner, and though the trees are bare and the grass is still brown or gray, the string of riverside parks looked very nice from our seventh-story eyrie at the hotel.

The next morning, on a whim, we drove out to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is tucked into the hills a few miles southeast of town. It turned out to be a big complex, complete with a restaurant, bakery, and gift shop adjacent to the parking lot.

Following a path that wound up the hill into the trees, we came upon a stone building housing an enormous pyramid of blue glasses, each of which contained a  votive-candle.

A hundred yards further on, a large brick church, classically simple in design, stood in a clearing. From the plaza the path returned to the woods, continuing upward past the stations of the cross and then a rosary walk.  

We were the only people there except for a groundskeeper on a golf cart who opened the chapel for us, and a tall young man named brother Joe, whom we saw in his coarse gray hooded habit, scurrying around the church with a vacuum cleaner. 

We had plenty of time to soak up the spirit of sanctity that pervaded the place. The artwork—the paintings, the sculpture, the ceramic tiles—was all far better and less kitschy than I'd anticipated. In fact, the setting reminded me of monasteries Hilary and I visited years ago in Tuscany and Umbria, also in early spring. How much of the mood was due to the art, and how much to the solitude, the silence, the hills, the woods, the company? Who can say?

And to top it all off, a tufted titmouse--a bird we never see as far north as Minneapolis--started singing away in the woods nearby. Less a song than a rich but piercing and insistent single-note call, repeated again and again, it seemed like a sonic crystallization of the deep, chilly morning.