Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sulking and Soaring with Rusulka

Opera is the most enchanting art medium, what with the soaring music and the sets and the drama, but the plot can get convoluted, not to say goofy. The Minnesota Opera's recent production of Antonin Dvořák's Rusulka is a case in point, the enchantment due not only to the music but also to the dancing and the evocative back-projections of ferns and water grasses. However, the plot careens well past goofy into the realm of utter incoherence.

Yet it doesn't matter much. Maybe it's even a good thing: the fractured logic of the scenario frees the mind to groove more intently on the vast unsatisfied yearning that runs through the veins of the title character, and the opera itself, from beginning to end.

Rusulka is a beautiful water nymph. In the opening scene she falls in love with a young military man who's been hanging around her pond. Or perhaps she's loved him for a long time? In any case, he can't see her and she can't touch him, so there's an element of frustration involved. She implores her father to make her mortal so she can experience the thrill of love.

During her conversation with her father Rusulka sings the opera's most famous aria, the lyrics of which go like this:

Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people's homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.

For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don't disappear, disappear!

Her father thinks this is a bad idea, becoming mortal. He tries to dissuade Rusulka from pursuing this dream, but without success, and he ends up turning her over to a witch named Ježibaba, who agrees to grant Rusulka's request. But there are a few strings attached. If Rusulka becomes mortal, she'll lose the power of speech, and should the love she aspires to go sour, both she and the prince will be eternally damned. Undeterred, she agrees to Ježibaba's conditions.

The second act takes place at the Prince's palace, smartly furnished but far less appealing than Rusulka's forest domain. She and the prince have been together for a week, and things aren't going well. The prince loves her but finds her "cold." It's not only that she can't talk, but she seems reluctant to open herself to any kind of intimacy with her sweetheart. 

No explanation is given for this behavior, and it seems odd, considering how ardently Rusulka had longed to embrace just this type of experience. In any case, by the end of the act an evil princess has succeeded in alienating Rusulka from the prince, and Rusulka would like nothing better than to leave the world of mortals behind and return to her pond.

 Ježibaba agrees to grant Rusulka's request, but once again there are onerous strings attached. Rusulka will no longer be allowed to frolic with the other water nymphs. Rather, they'll flee at the very sight of her. Her appointed role will be to lure men to into the marsh grasses with her glowing green light. And if she does end up embracing anyone, they'll die instantly.

As you've probably already guessed, in the third act the prince shows up again, apologizes for having betrayed and abandoned Rusulka, and urges her to return to him. That's not going to happen ... but drawn once again by her love for the fellow, she can't resist giving him a little kiss.

Though it takes three minutes to tell the story, it takes three hours to watch it unfold onstage, and it's a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a very appealing Rusulka (an important factor in the production's success), and Ben Wager, in the role of her father, comes across as a likable and randy elder, rather than a grumpy old man. Dvořák's music has neither the catchy melodies we so commonly find in Verdi's works, nor the swooping emotions that run through Puccini's ever-popular creations like an electric shock, but it grows on you.
But does the opera actually mean anything? I don't think so. Ježibaba's conditions seem arbitrary and Rusulka's behavior inconsistent and sometimes inexplicable. We might as well set the opera beside other fin-de-siècle works like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions, and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, in which logic counts for less than atmosphere and the cracks in the plot open passages to the mysteries and pleasures of the subconscious.

If there is a lesson to be learned, I guess it would be this: be careful what you wish for. But Rusulka remains the heroine of the piece from start to finish, and the beauty and gravity of her yearnings, though they lead her (and others) to disaster, are more appealing than the dancing of the other nymphs, who seem comfortable but giddy in the submarine world where the temperature is nice and the flow is unceasing, though it's difficult to tell where you stop and the rest of the world begins.
By chance, a few days later I came upon a passage in a novel that cultivates the same associations between femininity, water, youth, love, beauty, and sadness. About midway through that long, rugged Icelandic classic, Independent People, the crofter's daughter is filled with anticipation of her first visit to town with her father. Laxness describes the scene on the riverbank in the moonlight as follows:

"The lukewarm mud spurted up between her bare toes and sucked noisily when she lifted her heel. Tonight she was going to bathe in the dew, as if she had never had a body before. On every pool of the river there was a phalarope to make her a bow; no bird in all the marshes is so courtly in its demeanour on Midsum­mer Eve. It was after midnight, wearing slowly on for one o’clock. The spring night reigned over the valley like a young girl. Should she come or should she not come? She hesitated, stole forward on her toes — and it was day. The feathery mists over the marshes rose twining up the slopes and lay, like a veil, in innocent modesty about the mountain s waist. Against the white sheen of the lake loomed the shape of some animal, like a kelpie in the pellucid night.
A grassy hollow on the margin of the river, and leading up to it through the dew the wandering trail left by two inexperienced feet. The birds were silent for a while. She sat on the bank and listened. Then she stripped herself of her torn everyday rags under a sky that could wipe even the sunless winters of a whole lifetime from the memory, the sky of this Midsummer Eve. Young goddess of the sunlit night, perfect in her half-mature nakedness. Nothing in life is so beautiful as the night before what is yet to be, the night and its dew. She wished her wish, slender and half-grown in the half-grown grass and its dew. Body and soul were one, and the unity was perfectly pure in the wish."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Metaphysics and the Common Cold

In the fog of a mid-winter cold, I find myself whistling "I Should Care," a lovely, insouciant ballad that establishes an atmosphere of emotional ambivalence from the opening line. It's been recorded many times since it was introduced by the Tommy Dorsey band in 1945 for the film Thrill of a Romance. In fact, it was recorded four times that first year. The young Frank Sinatra sang it, and it's a favorite of pianists, with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Barron among its many interpreters.

We might expect the opening line, which is also the song's title, to be followed before long by "... but I don't." yet further expressions of diffidence follow. The vocalist embroiders the theme with, "I should go around weeping...I should go without sleeping." She (or he) goes on to report that "...strangely enough I sleep well," though here a minor caveat is introduced: "except for a dream or two."

So does she care after all?

The contours of the tune work toward the same ambivalent effect. It's been described as "strongly chromatic, with several deceptive resolutions." My own untrained gloss would be that the tune is  slippery. It's not easy to whistle. The melody seems to drift off the mark, descending by slow steps through a harmonic field rich in melancholy and yearning.

What's really at issue here? It's a break-up, of course, and the last two lines fill in the story as the melody reverses direction, ascending to a high note:

"Maybe I won't find someone as lovely as you..."

Mistakes made, love lost, self-protective indifference. keeping a stiff upper lip. The challenge lies, I think, in making the song sound light and wistful, before it finally folds back on itself to reveal its emotional core.

"But I should care ... and I do."

My favorite rendering is a recent version by the Italian vocalist Diana Torto with the Kenny Wheeler Big Band. Her voice is playful, maybe a little coy. And the big band sound that follows immediately upon the final confession, "...and I do." carries an explosion of romantic feeling, though the musicians are nevertheless obliged at that point to follow the descent of the chart into melancholy ambivalence once again.

Yes, I should care. Well, caring is what people do. The social fabric consists of myriad threads of affection, loyalty, enthusiasm, duty, and heartfelt concern. Some are reciprocal, others not. In any case, such connections serve as the foundation of our self esteem and the burden of our days. We care instinctively because we find natural affinities all around us—loved ones, friends, exciting events and activities, beautiful works of art. The cultivation of such things is what give our lives body and direction. But we also care because we know we should. To turn away from someone in need would be a crime, a transgression against humanity, a betrayal of our nobler selves.

Yet we do turn away, every time we drive past a panhandler at a freeway exit, for example. We might feel bad about it, yet hold back due to a calculus of sympathies by which we overlay both our fellow-feeling and our suspicious streak with a skein of tightly reasoned arguments as to what the most effective distribution of our charitable resources might be.

Powerball winner Roy Cockrum tells the story of a time when he was in holy orders, and handed out cash to a homeless person who had turned up at the monastery gates. One of the senior brothers pointed out that there would be a line of people the next day, after word got around, and then he would be able to help nobody. "That is where I was trained that boundaries are essential," he said. "There are people in need all over the world. I hear from such people every day. Every day. But without boundaries, I have nothing left."

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that Jesus envisioned a universe where loved ones and abject strangers are treated alike—an odd vision, if you ask me, which expands but also dilutes the meaning of the word "love." Love is a preferential thing, an act of judgment and discovery, inexplicable and profound. Happy is the man (or woman) who has succeeded in developing a social universe rich of such reciprocal pleasures and obligations, shared values and interests.

One of the values active in such a world should be to extend those pleasures to individuals who have never had the benefit of such an environment. Though it's only one element among many, we love and admire people due to the breadth of their compassion.  

I was thumbing through Jean-Paul Sartre's youthful novel, Nausea, the other day, in the course of another errand, and I came upon a passage near the end of the book where the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, is desperate. He's lost interest in everything, his friends bore him, and he finds himself withering:

Now when I say “I,” it seems hollow to me. I can’t manage to feel myself very well, I am so forgotten. The only real thing left in me is existence which feels it exists. I yawn, lengthily. No one. Antoine Roquentin exists for no one. That amuses me. And just what is Antoine Roquentin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin . . . and suddenly the “I” pales, pales, and fades out.

This is a classic existential lament, gussied up with abstractions but also harboring a truly poetic element. I was impressed by it when I was in high school. It struck a chord.

 ... Outside there were streets, alive with known smells and colors. Now nothing is left but anonymous walls, anonymous consciousness. That is what there is: walls, and between the walls, a small transparency, alive and impersonal. Consciousness exists as a tree, as a blade of grass. It slumbers, it grows bored. Small fugitive presences populate it like birds in the branches. Populate it and disappear. Consciousness forgotten, forsaken between these walls, under this grey sky. 

In the same year that Nausea appeared (1937), Sartre's one-time teacher and elder contemporary, Gabriel Marcel, described a similar metaphysical uneasiness more analytically in an essay with the heady title, "Value and Immortality."  

It seems to me probable that metaphysics amounts to nothing else but the activity by which we define an uneasiness and manage partially (and, moreover, mysteriously) if not to remove it at least to transpose and trans­mute it, so that far from paralyzing the higher life of the spirit it tends rather to strengthen and maintain it... . To be uneasy is to be uncertain of one’s centre, it is to be in search of one’s own equilibrium ... If I am uneasy about the health of one of my relatives it means that the apprehension I feel on their account tends to destroy my inward stability ... Uneasiness is the more metaphysical the more it con­cerns anything which cannot be separated from myself without the annihilation of this very self.

Marcel sums up these observations in the following terms:

A secret voice which I cannot silence assures me in fact that if others are not there, I am not there either. I cannot grant to myself an existence of which I suppose others are deprived; and here “I cannot” does not mean “I have not the right”, but rather “It is impossible for me.” If others vanish from me, I vanish from myself.

In their different ways, Sartre and Marcel expose an obvious truth: the interconnectedness of beings and the fundamental role played by the threads of the social fabric in our sense of ourselves. But the word "social" might be out of place here, in so far as it connotes norms and conventions that don't necessarily answer to our deepest personal need for connection, for recognition.

Sartre went on to fashion a career out of dissecting alienation, shame, and other attenuated states of mind, while Marcel explored the more complex dialectic at work in mature relationships. But be that as it may, I find it intriguing that at the end of Nausea, when the protagonist is at his wit's end, feeling that he has neither past nor future, he gets a lift from a recording he hears of a woman (Bessie Smith?) singing a jazz number:

Some of these days
You'll miss me, honey

He sees glimmers of salvation in the recording; he's moved by it, and he celebrates the efforts of the singer and also the songwriter, whom he envisions sweltering in the summer heat as he pens the tune on the twenty-first floor of a New York skyscraper.

She sings. So the two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Maybe they thought they were lost irrevocably, drowned in existence.

The metaphysics of caring can get a little thick—to the point of hysteria and cliché. Let me give you an example that might be easier to relate to: that cold I was talking about. My head is full of cotton and I don't really care about anything. I can lie on the couch for half an hour without being bored or thinking about anything. Nor is this a condition of Zen-like attentiveness. Rather, it's a condition of vacuity. And the little voice that would normally being urging me to get up and do something, or questioning my ambition, my sense of self, is silent.

But a few minutes ago I stepped to the window, looked out at the melting snow on the yew bushes just outside, and felt a flicker of emotion. I could feel my eyes, my self, reaching out more actively to things I've always cared about—the passing birds, the beauty of the morning. I could feel myself becoming active and engaged again.    

I guess caring about a yew bush isn't such a big deal. But you've got to start somewhere.

In the last two days, I've given two ninety-minute talks about travel to audiences totaling more than two hundred people. I did it because I said I would, and I said I would because I thought people might enjoy it. I also enjoy it--enjoy spinning narratives on the fly, guided only by the images I'm projecting on the screen. Small town restaurants, the glory of the mountains, oceans, and deserts, long frigid nights in the tent, the smell of sage in the air, the interesting people you meet along the way. Those attending seemed to enjoy this kind of story-telling, too. After the second talk, which was open to the public, a woman came up to me and said, "Will you be teaching your Minnesota course again next year?"

"Well, I don't know," I replied. "That's a long ways off."

"I hope you do," she said. "I wanted to take it this year, but it filled up in ten minutes."  

Would any purpose be served in distinguishing between things we care for (which are people, animals, and plants) and things we care about, such as coin collecting or cross-country skiing? I don't think so. More interesting, perhaps, would be to examine the difference between things we care about naturally and instinctively, and those we care about because we think we should. Alongside the joyous interest we would place the troubled concern of which Marcel speaks, and the obligatory efforts that a thinker like Kant might urge us to undertake, driven by a sense of duty. 

Somewhere therein lies a zone of anguished soul-searching, and also an abiding mystery with transcendental overtones—both easily obscured, if not entirely obliterated, by the arrival of a common cold.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Art of Conversation

What was it Antonio Machado once said? "To have dialog, first ask ... then listen." That's all  well and good, but depending on who you're conversing with, you may end up listening quite a bit, while sharing precious little of your own experience. No, the same irregularity and exchange—musical, natural, and harmonious—that animates other aspects of life is also present when social intercourse is at its best.

I’m thinking of those times when conversation flows like the shifting configurations of a surf rather than the thunderous drone of a waterfall. Friends talk, listen, change the subject, crack a joke, inquire, and assert, spurred on by the energy of conviviality. Small groups of interlocutors form and disperse again as individuals head back to the bar or the buffet, only to form again in new constellations guided by an unspoken but widely shared aesthetic of variegated mingling.

You may step away from a conversation to grab a snack from the sideboard, fully intending to return, only to be caught up in a new coagulation of small talk. Anyone who proudly holds to the lofty ground—"I don't make small talk"—is not going to have much fun, because small talk is the foyer where we hang our coats, looking for the doors into a deeper exchange of thoughts and experiences. 

Playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers struggle to render such conversations convincingly. When they fail, we refer to the dialogue as stilted. When they succeed, we feel that a curtain has been lifted on the beating heart of life.

But the dialogue that appears in works of art is often antagonistic, or at any rate serves little purpose beyond the interactions it vivifies. It’s there to move the story along. People still read Shakespeare just for the music of the language, of course, but Chekhov is far better are rendering conversation authentically. I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Acadia not long ago, in which the dialog left me deeply impressed. 

I read a  book recently called, simply, Conversation. It consisted largely of references to what famous people have said about conversation and about the conversational habits of people they knew. You can probably guess who figured prominently: Samuel Johnson, De Toqueville, Thoreau, Henry James. 

What? No Goethe? No Diderot? The book is less a history than a miscellany, of course, because most great conversations are private, and the art of conversation doesn’t develop from generation to generation with the passage of time. Each conversation begins the world anew, once again alive and fresh—unburdened by history.

The book’s subtitle is “A History of a Declining Art,” to which the rejoinder would be—that depends on who you’re talking to! As the Egyptian aphorist Ptahhotep wrote some 4,500 years ago: “Good conversation is rarer than an emerald, yet we can hear it from a slave girl at the millstone.” 

I would love to have listened in on the conversations that took place between E. M. Cioran and Gabriel Marcel as they walked home through the streets of Paris after attending the theater together. Why? because they seem so different temperamentally. In his works Marcel limned the foundations of hope, the mystery of being, and the critical importance of "availability," while Cioran's habitual attitude toward life can be judged from the titles of his books: The Trouble with Being Born, The Temptation to Exist, The Fall into Time. And here’s another tantalizing bit: Joseph Brodsky once remarked that Roberto Calasso was the only man in Europe whose conversation was totally worthwhile. (Or was it the other way around?)

We invited some family and friends over to celebrate Hilary's retirement the other day. There was no way to know how well our guests would mingle, but the flow of conversation was lively and sustained. A few coincidences also fed the mix. Brian used to sit in occasionally (twenty years ago) with Don and Sherry's band; Jane is tutoring Somali students at the school where Michel used to work; my cousin Pat went to high school in Silver City, New Mexico, back in the late 1960s, when Dana was a Vista employee there. Brian, who's a marketing executive, arranged with my brother-in-law, David, who's a teacher, to speak to his class. Thus strangers soon became friends, and a frigid winter afternoon became a warm and human one.

Travel talk never hurt a party, and it was fun to hear about Jeff and Fran's recent trip to St. Lucia, and Brian and Marnie's fifteen-day excursion to Morocco and Andalusia. "At the medina in Fez, you choose the chicken you want, they take it away, pluck, butcher, and wrap the bird, and return it to you, ready to cook, in fifteen minutes."

Earlier in the day I had been working on a slide show for a talk I'll be giving soon on the National Parks, and I enjoyed sharing a few words of advice with Maggie, who's trying to decide between the Grand Canyon and the Northwest Coast for a spring trip. She also told me about a more harrowing trip: a Turkish friend of hers signed a petition for peace and found herself suddenly out of a job, wanted for treason, forced to flee.

Jane told me a little about how her new book is doing, Don and I made some plans for working together on the packaging design for Sherry's Kickstarter funded CD. Becca told me about her mother's tribulations getting her ailing computer back up to speed. Jeff told me about a new website called Agate that he thought I might be interested in. 

Rick was excited about a photographer he discovered a while back who was covering the water-quality story in Flint, Michigan—and still is. Greg is revising his book about anti-gravity to reflect the latest lab results (though from what he told me, it seems the relevant experiments haven't actually been conducted yet). 

Mary told me about a novel she's reading, Day After Night, about the Palestinian refugee crisis just after WWII, and Michel told me a little about a plan he has for a new system of musical notation focusing less on pitch and more on color.   

I fielded a few questions myself about life at home, now that Hilary is here every day. Short answer: "Nice!" Slightly longer answer: "We often go out, either singly or together, so the days do have a different flavor, but all the same, nice!"

I'm no Chekhov, and this brief litany of subjects has precious little of that conversational buzz that arose from every corner of the house during the gathering. That's one of my favorite sounds.

This morning, the rooms are still full of flowers. There are a few bottles of unopened champagne on the kitchen counter, quite a bit of middle Eastern food from Marina Greek deli in the fridge, and a palpable residual warmth left behind by all of the beautiful people who stopped by the celebrate Hilary's retirement yesterday. 

Yes, conversation is an art, and it seems to be alive and well, at least in this small corner of the universe.   

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ivory Gull: I Should Care

Nature is mysterious. Among the more intriguing of the inexplicable phenomena it throws in our path is the movement of birds. Bird migration is not well understood, and it's even more difficult to explain why birds occasionally diverge widely from their common range. But it certainly adds to the fun.

Duluth is a year-round hot-spot for unexpected arrivals from the north. Unusual sightings from my early birding days (the late 1970s) include the sight of a wimbrel wandering in a field at a resort near Castle Danger and a parasitic Jaeger harassing gulls just offshore out on Park Point.

In recent days many visitors to Canal Park have spotted an extremely rare visitor from the Arctic: an Ivory gull. I had heard about the sightings, and I knew we were heading to the North Shore for our annual new year's ski, but I didn't put two and two together until we were half way to Duluth, and Hilary was reading an article about the bird to me from the Star-Tribune.

"We could go out and see if it's still there ...  after we pick up some sandwiches at the smoked fish shop." Of course we could!

It wasn't hard to find the bird. We pulled into the parking lot next to the marine museum and wandered over to the small clutch of people fiddling with their spotting scopes. No one seemed very excited. It was as if they were tending their children at a neighborhood park, but not paying much attention.

Two of the men were discussing lenses. Finally one of them turned to me and said, "The ivory gull is over there, on the far side of the canal. And right here, in the second lamp-post down, you can see a black-backed gull."

The ivory gull was easy to see through binoculars. It was standing all alone, mostly white, but with black blotches on the face and a few black dots on the wings.

This little bird rarely strays from Arctic ice flows, where it feeds on fish and the remains of Inuit sea mammal kills,  and has been known to harass injured polar bears.

What was it doing in Duluth?

A mangled specimen of the same species was found a few days ago on Conner's Point in Superior, just across the harbor. Perhaps it had been attacked by the rare gyrfalcon that's been spotted repeatedly in recent days, hanging out amid the nearby grain elevators. Who knows? In any case, I found it nice to imagine that two young gulls decided to take an exploratory trip to more moderate climes, rather than that a single immature gull had gotten disoriented and later found itself a long way from home.

Taking another long look at the gull, I saw traces of neither sorrow nor confusion on its face. It just looked like a little white gull, with an inscrutable gull-like expression on its face.

An ore boat was approaching the canal through the light fog.

"I'm not a birder," one of the men in the little group said. "I'm a boat-watcher. I have 2,300 images on my website." He repeated the url but it was long and I didn't catch it. 

"That boat is a mile and a half out."

"What's it doing on the lake this time of year?" I said.

"It's a Canadian ship. It's coming into port to refuel," he surprised me by saying. "Then it will head up to Two Harbors to load with ore."

He didn't mention where it would be taking the ore, but as the vessels passed by I took a few pictures and I later looked it up.

The Michipicoten (formerly the Elton Hoyt II) has an interesting history. It was built in 1952 and towed up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Lake Michigan. Thus it isn't as large as many of the lakers, and was less often used over the years. But it was eventually retrofitted with a diesel engine and automatic unloaders, and its smaller size made it possible for her to visit some of the smaller ports on the Great Lakes.  

In 2003 Lower Lakes Towing, a Canadian shipping company, bought the vessel and renamed it the Michipicoten, in honor of the river near where the ship is likely to sail.

I had never heard in the Michipicoten River, but notice that it flows into Lake Superior north of Sault Ste. Marie near the metropolis of Wawa, Ontario. (Other ships in the little fleet include the Cuyahoga, the Saginaw, and the Mississagi.)

As the ship entered the canal someone on the lift bridge let go a blast on the horn, and the Michipicoten responded with several of its own. All the birders had come over to the canal to watch it go by. Some people waved at members of the crew who were scurrying along the side-decks. 

It's a majestic sight, watching such a large vessel make the turn toward Superior Harbor, framed by the lift-bridge. Before it had vanished from sight, we all headed back to the parking lot. The ivory gull seemed to have flown off. In any case, everyone had gotten a good look at it.

For most of us, the allure of a rare bird sighting fades pretty fast. But one avid birder, Jim Williams, who often writes for the papers, spent five hours with the bird a few days ago, during which time it only vocalized once.

You can read his report here.

We were happy to sit in the car eating a very spicy Sitka Sushi sandwich made from wild Alaskan sockeye gravlax, with cucumber, shredded veggies, pickled ginger, cilantro, chili sauce, and wasabi mayonnaise, all stuffed into a hero roll. I was saddened to see that the rolls are smaller than they used to be. But in retrospect, I wonder if they just seemed smaller, due to the fact that we'd agreed to split one sandwich, rather than buying our own.

We gave a passing thought to heading over to the Menards in Superior, where a snowy owl had been seen hanging around the parking lot. But to tell you the truth, I don't know where the Menards in Superior is, and we were eager to get up into the woods, where the snow and the trees and the rocks combine to give you a more robust embrace.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Star Wars

In 2007, forty years after the fact, film critic Jim Emerson wrote: “To see Star Wars in 1977 was to experience a moment in pop culture that seemed universal.” He added:

"Sure, the movie was criticized for being infantile, but that misses the point. It's aimed at a sensibility somewhere between infancy and the second year of college (or high school). A space fantasy with the emphasis on interstellar swashbuckling (and with romantic mush kept to a minimum), "Star Wars" appealed to the 3- to 12-year-old boy in all of us -- and still does."

Universal? I beg to differ.

When Star Wars came out, I was 25. I went, I saw, I liked.  But I found it difficult to get excited about a film with non-actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in prominent roles. (It didn't seem to make much difference.) It seemed to me, furthermore, that the plot really had nothing on Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Dawn Patrol. (It's no secret that the plot to Star Wars was lifted from a minor samurai film, The Hidden Fortress, by a major Japanese director, Akiru Kurasawa.)

I found it a little disturbing that so many film-goers--even adult film-goers--were getting so revved up about such a "minor" movie.

To give the film credit,  Star Wars was refreshingly, unabashedly simple, and the effects were certainly cool—though not nearly so cool as the effects in 2001: a Space Odyssey. Star Wars was entertaining in the same way the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the westerns of Earnest Haycox and Louis Lamour that I'd read in junior high school were entertaining. But it wasn't deep or challenging or stimulating, the way I knew films could sometimes be.

Before long journalist Bill Moyers and classical scholar Joseph Campbell had teamed up to create an elaborate exposition of the mythic dimension in the original Star Wars trilogy for public television. In the course of five or six hour-long shows they examined all sorts of religious myths, all the while underscoring the underlying similarities. They also explored the psychic need many of us feel to reconnect with such templates of deep meaning and truth.

It was a good show, surprisingly literate, global, and ecumenical for the time. (I still have a copy on VHS tapes somewhere in the basement.) But that didn't make Star Wars a great or even a "mature" film. It was still a comic book.  Thirty-five years later, I've seen quite a few cinema comic-books—some far better than others.

At the time—so the argument goes—Star Wars brought a breath of fresh air into a dark and moribund film industry. I don't remember it that way, and looking back at the films of the mid 1970s, I see that it isn't true. Scanning a list of the top 100 films of 1977 alone, I spot nearly every kind of film being made today, including a SNL-esque comedy (Kentucky Fried Movie), a dark and grisly "date" movie (Looking for Mr. Goodbar), a cinema remake of a Neil Simon Broadway blockbuster (The Goodbye Girl), a Ridley Scott adaptation of a minor literary classic (Joseph Conrad's The Duellists), a trendy youth film (Saturday Night Fever), a sci fi potboiler (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), a jazzy star-driven musical (Martin Scorcese's New York, New York), and a far-out Robert Altman film (Three Women).

Star Wars would not be out of place on this robust list, but nor would it stand out. It definitely breathed new life into that moribund genre, the space opera.

The art house crowd of 1977 might have been satisfied by one of Truffaut's lesser films (The Man Who Loved Women), a slightly stodgy Italian drama with a gay protagonist (Etore Scola's A Special Day), or a wild and crazy film by the young Werner Herzog (Strozek).

The three best films of the year, in my opinion, were Woody Allen's comic masterpiece, Annie Hall, William Friedkin's adventure masterpiece, Sorcerer, and perhaps Wim Wenders last really good movie, The American Friend.

We've made arrangements to see the new Star Wars episode with some friends on Friday afternoon. But another film is showing at the same time at the same theater. It's called Theeb. It takes place in the Arabian desert in 1916. A British soldier, a nomadic tribesman, a little boy, some camels, a poisoned well, a railroad terminal. I've seen it, but the other haven't.

Let me tell you. It's great.  


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Season of Darkness, and Music, and Lights

The absence of snow has made the season seem darker. We got a little dusting on Monday night—just enough to remind us what we're missing. The next morning there were raccoon tracks all over the street, running from one curbside drainage grate to another. They also proceeded around our garage and up onto the back deck. I didn't need to check if there was any feed left in the feeders. Not a chance.

Out on the road there were also a few deer tracks, one squirrel, and perhaps a cat. As we returned to the house I also saw two huge sets of tracks, identical except that one set was much larger than the other. This was a clear sign that Hilary and I had set out on a stroll a few minutes earlier in the pre-dawn light.

Evenings have been brightened by music. A Messiah sing-a-long which was plenty rousing, though slightly less compelling at Orchestra Hall than the one we attended a few years ago at Central Lutheran Church downtown. An Anglican ceremony of lessons and carols at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. Ah, these are the familiar readings, the familiar hymns, along with some beautiful renderings of unfamiliar carols sung by a very polished choir. And how convenient that we could participate on a Sunday evening at five, rather than struggling to stay awake on Christmas Eve.

The most unusual concert we heard was given by the Rose Ensemble, who performed a selection of Christmas pieces written during the seventeenth century for the cathedral church on the island of Malta. None of the pieces were familiar, which isn't surprising, considering the scores have been languishing in some archive on a  Mediterranean island for the last three hundred years. And the lyrics to the pieces were in Latin, with one or two exceptions, so the event had very little of a Christmas "feel" to it.

Yet the concert was gorgeous, due to both the quality of the voices and the richness of the harmonies involved, which struck me—unschooled in the period though I am—as less flamboyant that the music of Monteverdi, more concerned with texture, less with ornamentation and vocal display.

The ensemble knows how to program a show, interspersing choral pieces with solos and small vocal parings. One of my favorites was a tenor solo Tre Lezioni Per Il Primo Notturno (per la Nativita del segnore) sung by Andrew Kane. It certainly had plenty of ornamentation, and the lyrics also struck me as unusual.

...You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born ...

The program also included the world premier of a piece by composer Timothy Takach that had been commissioned by the ensemble. It somehow succeeded in sounding fresh and modern without fracturing the tonal atmosphere within which the rest of the concert unfolded. It contained quite of few of those close (shall we say 'dissonant'?) harmonies that would have sounded dreadful, had they not been executed with the utmost grace and precision. It turned out to be a highlight of the evening.

As it happened, Hilary's brother Jeff was sitting with his family two rows in front of us, and we enjoyed chatting with them all at intermission.

On the longest night of the year, we were visited by two great lights. The lesser of these was the fire I built in the fire pit out on the deck. The greater was the arrival of our friend Dave, who visits us annually  at about this time of year. Dave and I have been friends since high school, and Hilary has known him almost as long. He moved to Texas maybe forty years ago, but he still has family in Minnesota, and we've kept in touch.

Over the years we've followed Dave's career in the world of art handling, which got more complicated about ten years ago when he and a few colleagues decided to start their own business. At about the same time, Dave bought a warehouse in a run-down neighborhood near the Trinity River. Alongside the living quarters, the space was suitable for storing his vast collection of mission furniture. Dave also had the idea that when a proposed bridge was built across the river, his property might end up being worth a lot more than he'd paid for it.

A decade later, Dave's business is thriving, the bridge has been built, development is well underway all around him. But the city of Dallas has been putting the squeeze on him, granting an easement to widen the road in front of his building, threatening to condemn the property—doing everything in its power, in short, except pay him a fair market price for it. (This is a simplified and inaccurate recount; if you want more details, you can find them here.)

Dave fought city hall, and he lost. But during the process, the developers finally realized that they were also losing vast sums waiting for Dave's endgame with the city to play itself out, and they made him an offer. It wasn't what the property would have gone for on the market, but it was enough for Dave to buy 78 acres of land in the country, complete with living quarters, warehouse,  pond, woodlot, creek, and plenty of buzzards and coyotes.

Meanwhile, he's been gradually stepping back from the business he started, and is now in the process of selling his shares. Dave will soon be a gentleman farmer—"What do you mean? I am a gentleman farmer!" he says—and he's already got plans for building a bridge across the creek, buying a tractor and some goats, and sitting out on the front porch in the evening, watching the sun go down and listening to the whippoorwills.

It's a far cry from the hype and worry of the Texas art world, and not a life-style Dave was thinking much about a few years ago. But he's taken risks and made bold decisions before. There's been dissonance in his life from time to time, but hearing about these new developments around the campfire, it sounded to me less like a false cadence than a grand resolution, rich in elements to be whipped up into an entirely new movement.

I wouldn't mind learning a little more about Texas birds myself.    

Friday, December 18, 2015

Liza Sylvestre at Public Functionary

On a dark December evening (made darker by the lack of snow) we made our way through northeast Minneapolis along Broadway Avenue, the narrowest major thoroughfare in town, where railroad bridges  often pass overhead at an angle, turning a four-lane street into a two-lane street for a few yards. It had been drizzling, and the neighborhood was glistening.

At one point I made a wrong turn and drove past the Able Brewery, a handsome brick building in the middle of nowhere housing a start-up brewery dedicated to buying its grain locally and malting it on-site. I wouldn't have mentioned it except there were about fifty cars in a lot across the street and a food truck parked outside. As we passed in front of the building, looking for a place to turn around and get back on Broadway, we could see quite a few hipsters through the large glass windows, holding glowing pints of beer and chatting with one another in the low light of the interior. A pleasant scene.

A few blocks further on, we came to Public Functionary, a gallery housed in a white, cinder-block building where LIZA SYLVESTRE : MERIDIANS was scheduled to open. A train passed overhead as we approached the building, as if on cue. (What was it carrying? Shale oil from the Dakotas? Or wholesome Durham wheat to make Macaroni?)

In fact, the show had opened, and the room was peppered with women and men chatting in small circles or examining the art on the walls. I recognized a few people, not because I'm an art "insider," but  because Liza is my niece, and it was easy to spot relatives and friends here and there amid the crowd.

A band was playing off in a cover near the bar. A photographer wandered the floor, taking pictures. I butted into a conversation between two women who turned out to be Kate Iverson and Robyne Robertson.

Kate is involved in planning the events at the gallery space, which are sometimes unrelated to the art hanging on the walls. (I had no idea that I was talking to someone who'd been voted "Best Social Director" and "Power Party Person" by Minnesota Monthly.)

And Robyne is well-known in the Twin Cities as a jeweler, former newscaster, and gallery owner. I learned in conversation that she now works as the Arts and Culture director for the Minneapolis airport.

The art itself looked familiar, though it struck me immediately that while Liza's focus hadn't changed radically since the last time I saw a selection of her work, her methods had become looser and more expansive.

Liza has experienced hearing loss since childhood, and she sometimes describes her work as the visual representation of aural impulses that have lots of visceral energy without representing anything specific. We might call it "action painting," with the proviso that the action is taking place inside.

That's almost certainly putting it wrong, especially if it suggests that there is something undisciplined or chaotic about Liza's creations. On the contrary, in her work remarkable draftsmanship is put to the service of rendering flowing, hair-like, nerve-like, spaghetti-like forms, with knots of color, washes, and patterns seemingly drawn from a microscopic slide serving as centers of gravitation or nervous emanation. In the past, these conglomerations were often coiled into nervous blobs, though occasionally line gave way to texture, so that the images more closely resembled colorful scarves being tossed in the wind. 

In Liza's new work, there are fewer tightly-controlled linear fields and more spaces given over to colorful washes. At the same time, these organisms (probably a better word than conglomerates) more often move out beyond the edges of the canvas, thus drawing us more fully into the scene while also intimating worlds beyond view.

I saw one of Liza's recent works (not in the current show) on Facebook, and it reminded me of a raw salmon fillet, viewed from on edge, and also of a computer-generated contour diagram of a glacier.  Well, I like glaciers and I like salmon. But the piece in question took me beyond such mundane tastes into a world that was its own world, neither flesh nor diagram, but one that evoked those moods and elements along the way.

Using fewer lines and more washes, Liza is probably saving herself some back pain, but she's also summoning a distinctive synaesthetic world, where orchids have flavors and kelp has nerves. Pleasing ... but intense.

The show will be up util January 9.

The gallery is located at  1400 12th Ave NE, Minneapolis 55413

And Mary Abbe reviewed the show in the Star Tribune.