Monday, April 21, 2014

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed - the film



There are some beautiful souls among us who never shed their youthful idealism or their commitment to helping others find their way along the path. This is a film about one of them.

Antonio (Javier Camera) is a high school teacher in a small Spanish town at the end of the Franco era who uses Beatles songs to teach his students English. He’s inventive, kind-hearted, chubby, bald, and full of humor and intelligence. He’s also single and slightly lovelorn.

He tapes the new Beatle songs on Belgian radio before they're available in Spain, but some of the words remain obscure. Hearing that John Lennon has flown in to make a film in nearby Almeria province (Richard Lester’s How I Won the War), he decides to drive there on a long weekend to ask the famous Beatle to help him fill in the blanks in his transliteration of the song lyrics. It’s a naïve and Quixotic quest, but Antonio is confident he’ll be able to penetrate the film set and catch John’s attention somehow.

Along the way he picks up two hitchhikers, both of whom we’ve already gotten to know in other scenes. One is a young woman named Belen who’s pregnant and fleeing the Catholic institution where her parents have sequestered her. The other is a teenage boy named Juanjo who’s left home to avoid getting a haircut. He likes his hair long; his father, a cop, doesn’t.

This unlikely trio get to know one another on the road. When Antonio learns that Juanjo prefers the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, he slams on the brakes—they’re out in the middle of nowhere—and demands that Juanjo get out and walk. “Let Mick Jagger drive you,” he shouts.


He’s only joking, as it turns out. Antonio is actually a soft-hearted man who adores kids and quotes Antonio Machado freely:
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
 or
Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only waves in the sea.
 I say “soft-hearted” although Antonio stands up defiantly for his young passengers at several places in the film. “You cannot live in fear,” is his mantra, though in Franco’s Spain it’s difficult, and dangerous, to do otherwise.

 Almeria province at the time (1966) was a poverty-stricken place, and the unlikely trio soon hole up in a desolate bar-hotel frequented by agricultural workers and urchin-like children. The dialect is so obscure that Antonio can barely make out what the night-shift inn keeper is saying.


The good thing is, the film set is only a few miles away across the desert wastes.

I’m not going to tell you how that particular escapade turns out, nor describe in detail various other encounters Antonio, Belen, and Juanjo have with the locals and with one another. Living is Easy with Eyes Closed is a film about growing up, Fascist Spain, teaching, the importance of youth and idealism, and several other things. It’s a film where Antonio Machado meets John Lennon, in a manner of speaking. And it’s one of the most humorous and touching films I’ve seen in a long time.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Moliere on a Bicycle


If Shakespeare exposes the cosmic truths, Moliere does a better job at exposing the social truths of our time. He gets not only at the dissimulation and hypocrisy that sometimes seem endemic to social interactions, but at the delusion of imagining we can rise above such things and remain "social" ourselves. Yet there’s a humanity at the root of Moliere's vision, and he shows us that, too.

 In Moliere on a Bicycle, we focus on a few days in the life of a suave (and very popular) TV actor named Gauthier Valence who journeys to the Ile de Re, off the Breton coast, in hopes of entreating his colleague Serge to return from self-imposed exile and appear with him in a production of The Misanthrope.

The play itself, as most readers know, is about a man who divorces himself from society in much the same way that Serge has. “Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race,” Alceste remarks early on in the play, and Serge might well be following the same agenda.

Serge is played by Fabrice Luchini, who often seems out of place when he appears as a leading man in French films. He's perfectly cast here as a talented but perhaps slightly vain actor who feels he’s been wronged by his colleagues in the industry and wants nothing more to do with the theater. Serge now lives in a large but dilapidated home by the sea that he inherited from a rich uncle. “Of his ten nephews and nieces, I was the only one who sent him a Christmas card,” he explains dismissively.

Gautier is dismayed by the clutter he finds in Serge's house but eager to recruit his former acting colleague, whose talent he respects highly. It’s not so clear what Serge thinks of Gautier’s acting ability, though he does agree to rehearse the play for a few days before deciding whether to reject the proposal outright. But Serge is shocked when Gautier suggests that he play Philinte, while Gautier himself takes the central role of Alceste.

“I’ve been rehearsing Alceste for thirty years,” he explodes. The two overcome this obstacle by agreeing that they’ll switch roles daily based on the flip of a coin.  

Another element is added to the plot when Gautier, who doesn’t want Serge to think he’s desperate to recruit him, claims that he was just passing by, having come out to the island primarily to look for vacation property. Segre calls a realtor immediately, to Gautier's chagrin, and the two go on several agonized house-hunting trips in the course of the film.

One of the homes they visit is owned by a snappish Italian woman who’s in the midst of a divorce. She fails to recognize the famous TV actor, and Serge introduces Gautier to her. “I don’t know French TV,” she replies matter-of-factly, “and I don’t like actors. They’re too narcissistic.”

Yet after giving Serge a ride to the hospital (amusing in itself, though I won’t tell you why) she begins to hang around with Serge and Gautier in the evenings, which adds some additional spice to the pot.


 When  Moliere on a Bicycle was released in 2013, the Hollywood Insider predicted that it would find success in France, “with strong overseas possibilities if marketed to older art house audiences.”

I guess that’s me. I find it interesting to watch middle-aged men argue passionately over whether all twelve syllables in an Alexandrian line really need to be pronounced. “Are you calling me a TV actor?” Gautier shouts at one point. 


As Serge and Gautier run through their speeches again and again, subtle currents of tension and hostility blend with a shared professionalism and love of the theater. The lines they rehearse might just as well be lifted from the play and applied to them. The film raises the same questions that the play does--when does honor become mere vanity, when does tactful, courteous dissimulation become deceit? How can a balance between admiration and competition be maintained between friends? And how is one to judge when honest criticism begins to cut too deep?

Yet there’s nothing “stuffy” about Moliere on a Bicycle. The Breton countryside is nice and moments of slapstick abound. A few of the bicycling scenes will remind film-goers of Jules and Jim--and that's a pleasant association. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mpls/St Paul Film Fest: Three Films


You will seldom hear me complain about how busy I am, maybe because I’m seldom that busy. But I have been busy this spring season. How am I going to explain, then, that I’ve seen eleven films in the past fortnight? Can it be the arrival of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film fest, which gives us the opportunity to see two or three films in a row on a Saturday afternoon?

Perhaps.

Well, let me describe a few:

The Forgotten Kingdom

This beautiful film follows the path of an young man named Atang—angry, unemployed and adrift in Johannesburg—who’s forced to return to his home village in Lesotho when his father dies leaving a request to be buried there. Aside from the majestic mountain scenery, two things make the film work. First of all, it’s well-paced. Atang enters the village suspicious and rude, and it takes a long, long time for him to loosen up to the village environment.


The film also has a strong cast, which consists, aside from Atang,  of a young woman named Dineo whom he knew as a child (she’s now a teacher in the village); her arrogant and unpleasant father, who wants to marry her off to a wealthy suitor; and a boy, friendly and impish by turns, who appears out of nowhere on a mule to badger Atang.

“Who are you?” Atang asks.

“I’m the eyes of the black cloud that follows you around,” the boy replies tauntingly.

One additional character needs to be mentioned, though we rarely see her—Dineo’s sister, who’s suffering from AIDs. Her father is ashamed of her condition, and insists on keeping her shut away in her room. Dineo returned to the village from Johannesburg to care for her, but that dependent relationship has made it difficult for Dineo’s father to marry her off and collect the dowry he feels he’s entitled to.

The film has a pastoral quality, the villagers’ colorful robes are a sight to behold, and in time a vaguely supernatural atmosphere develops, mostly due to the boy’s gnomic utterances,  without stretching our credulity overmuch. The romantic element is similarly understated, and in the end, what might have been just another Utopian fantasy becomes a lovely examination of fathers and children, independence and the weight of tradition, and the power of place.     

Out of the Fire

This documentary examines a few months in the life of a potter in rural Virginia named Kevin Crowe, as seen by a young wonk from nearby Washington DC who decides to drop her fast-paced career to become his apprentice. It doesn’t entirely escape the tone of sanctimonious guru-awe that can easily doom such a subject. “He knows so much about the clay, the glazes, the kilns, the woods….” Yet both potter and apprentice are likeable, and brief interviews with the potter’s wife and kids add variety.

The film picks up when a host of artist-friends descend on the studio for the semi-annual firing, which takes four days. At this point the kiln itself takes center stage. Will the proper temperature be established and maintained? Will the pots turn out OK, or will they sag and crack? Will the ash glazes be cool? A round-the-clock work schedule is set up, people play the guitar as others shove wood into the mouth of the blazing oven.


It’s difficult to capture a spirit of genuine camaraderie on film, and Out of the Fire succeeds only intermittently, but it’s well worth watching nonetheless. For whatever else it may be, the potter’s life is full of wood chopping, messy clay, mysterious natural processes, relative poverty, and the sense of doing something earthy and rewarding and right. What’s more, many of Crowe’s pots are quite good.

Needless to say, the film will appeal more strongly to viewers who are actually interested in hand-thrown pottery. Like me.  

The Amazing Catfish

A perfect film-fest film --  too inconsequential to receive widespread distribution, in all likelihood, yet perfectly nuanced within its own sphere of reference.

Claudia lives alone in an industrial warehouse and works in a supermarket offering free samples to passing shoppers. One night she develops appendicitis, out of the blue (well, that’s how it happens) and in the hospital she finds herself separated by a thin sheet from a woman named Martha and her four odd-ball children, who happen to be visiting. When Martha spots Claudia later at the bus-stop, she offers to give her a ride. Claudia ends up going home with Martha and her kids, and before long she’s sharing meals with them, taking the kids to school, watching TV with them. 


It’s an odd situation which is never really examined or discussed. At first no one knows who Claudia is, but they do need a babysitter. The kids are all wayward to begin with, though in different directions. They’re used to taking care of themselves, because Martha visits the hospital regularly: she has AIDs. In time Claudia learns a bit about the various men Martha has been with, which helps to explain how Martha’s kids can be so different. And Martha learns that Claudia lost her parents at the age of two, and has been living a sort of shadow life since then that we can hardly imagine.

All the kids in the film are good at being kids, though their mother remains a cipher. The film’s success is largely due, I think, to the aplomb with which Ximena Ayala holds to the character of Claudia. She might easily have been bitter, resentful, depressed, or antisocial in some other way, given her history and circumstances, but Claudia, though slow to react, shy, and often puzzled by the things going on around her, is also attracted to the vibrancy, and even the chaos, of "normal" life as she has never known it.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Death of Paco de Lucia


I’d been listening to some CDs with my friend Tim, who plays six or seven instruments and is conversant with musical styles from Serbia to Santa Fe. “In the end, you have to ask yourself,” he mused, as we were finishing off the Rioja, pecking at the last crumbs of oily Manchego cheese, and otherwise bringing the session to an end, “Is flamenco really my music?’”

I suspect he was referring to the fact that flamenco singing is harsh to the point of absurdity, and its rhythmic onslaught is relentless. Flamenco’s low profile on the world-music scene, in comparison with Latino genres, for example, suggests that even among those who take an interest in exotic styles, many would answer the question, “Is flamenco really my music?” in the negative. Outside Spain, and inside Spain as well, flamenco remains a world apart.

Paco de Lucia was unique in that he established a large following for himself in the wider world of music without losing his stature as the most extraordinary flamenco guitarist of his time. His death, at the age of 66, shocked many, not only because he was still relatively young and healthy, but also because, well, Paco was a god. And gods aren’t supposed to die.

Any attempt to explain or describe the appeal of Paco’s music must begin with the assertion that it’s firmly rooted in flamenco. This is important to note because relatively few people know what flamenco is.

What, then, is flamenco? The answer is almost an exercise in set theory. Flamenco music is gypsy music, though very little gypsy music is flamenco--certainly not the music of the Romanian gypsies of the Taraf de Haidouks or the Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reihardt.

Flamenco music is Spanish music...yet very little Spanish music is flamenco; not the music of the folk-singer Equidad Bares, the spirited sound of the pipe-and-drum band La Muscaña,  the ballads of the torch rumba singer Aurora, the moody atmospheric airs of the Galician Celtic band Milladoiro, or the scorching and acerbic sounds of the Spanish-Arabic band Radio Tarifa.

Shall we narrow the field by saying that flamenco is Spanish gypsy music? If so, then we’re going to have to explain why several of its greatest practitioners, including Chano Lobato, the dancer Christina Hoyos, Miguel Poveda, and Paco himself, aren’t gypsies.

Reflections on this order will lead us, in the end, to a consideration of a largely gypsy culture that for generations has sustained itself in scattered barrios in a small triangle of Andalusia defined by the cities of Cádiz, Seville, and Jerez de la Frontera. 

It isn’t necessary to say that all flamenco comes from here—in fact there have been famous and talented performers from Granada, Córdoba, Extremadura, Málaga, and even Barcelona. Sabicas was from Burgos, for heaven’s sake! But ethnomusicologists have traced nearly all of the traditional flamenco forms to this tiny triangle, and even today, when the center of the flamenco world has long-since moved north to Madrid, the purest and deepest sources of traditional flamenco are still, perhaps, to be found in the delta of the Guadalquivir.

We return to the question, slightly re-phrased: What, then, is the deepest essence of flamenco? Sephardic and Andalusian echoes are often distinguishable within its kit of expressive tools. This fact, noteworthy in itself, also serves to highlight the single quality that sets flamenco most distinctively apart from these and other worlds of expression. Unlike Sephardic music, Arabic music, or Andalusian folk music generally speaking, flamenco is animated by relentless and agitated intensity.

Cutting to the chase, let me assert that this is the single quality that gives flamenco its enormous appeal, and also its marginal popularity. Although Flamenco forms are divided into a more serious and plangent cante jondo type and a lighter tone traditionally refer to as flamenco chico, a genuinely restful or gaily sing-song flamenco doesn’t exist, as far as I know.  

Two terms that are almost invariably associated with this locus of pain by journalists and aficionados duende and jondura.

My  Spanish dictionary defines duende as a goblin, elf, or malign spirit. In the world of flamenco it refers to a quality of darkness that’s faced, accepted, and even celebrated, in so far as it’s inseparable from the act of living itself. To say, of a flamenco performance, that it has duende, is to say that the performer (animated by a dark or evil spirit, perhaps) has made contact with some part of his or her soul, on a level of unusual depth and unpleasantness—and nobly embraced it. Horror, terror, or shock  may startle and repel us momentarily, but the effect isn’t aesthetic. These things will never move us deeply. Duende offers a us a kind of grueling pleasure.


Flamenco vocals often begin with an extended cry of “ayee, ayee,” which may last for half a minute or more. This phrase means nothing, and it allows the singer to prepare his or her vocal chords for the strenuous work ahead, but it also seems to say “I’ll tell you about my pain, but first let me acquaint you with the level of pain we’re dealing with.” It introduces us to a God-forsaken world where any litany of specific misfortunes is largely beside the point.

Jondura is nothing more or less than depth itself. In the world of flamenco, this term is associated with that form of almost arrhythmic lamentation known as canto jondo, or deep song. The canto jondo isn’t the most popular flamenco style today, and perhaps it never was, but the friskier or more rhythmically complex forms—the bulerias, the tangos, the alegrias—which appeal to younger audiences, invariably carry echoes of that more primitive and emotional realm.

Yet listeners soon pick up another stand of the idiom, which sounds for all the world like an ongoing party.
In a typical flamenco performance, several levels of expression typically alternate like the andantes and allegros of a classical sonata. Spontaneous  shouts and whistles interjected by performers and bystanders alike add to the festive mood and the communal feel, as does the clapping, which often serves as the only form of percussion.

Many flamenco recordings also have a chorus of voices that interject an informal response or counterpoint to the cantaor’s “melody.” At their best, these voices sound bratty and “immature.” They conjure visions of a spontaneous songfest at the riverside or the town square while clothes are being washed, with one woman bragging or lamenting and her companions challenging her egotistical vision or echoing her plight. At other times, like a Greek chorus, they seem to re-iterate and confirm the fatalistic truths contained in the lament.

I say “seem” because I don’t speak Spanish.

One aspect of flamenco singing lies beyond the grasp of those of us who don’t speak Spanish: the words. The emotional tenor of a piece may be obvious, but we don’t know what’s really being said. A glance at the song-titles of a recording by the rough-and-ready Gypsy singer El Agujetas, to take an example at random, offers us a clue regarding some common themes. 1. I Killed her with a Dagger 2). I don’t Like Blonds 3) The Moorish Girl has Gone Out Walking 4) Let No-one be Sorry for Me 5). And I watched Her Leave 6). You Can Buy Me if You want to 7). You Have to Bear a Cross 8). Because You Saw Me Cry 9) It’s What You Want 10). A Holy Christ.

And this simple lyric, from a late-night performance recorded “live” in the village of Moron de la Frontera, is also suggestive:

Why do you mistreat me so?
Come to my side
And live your life with me,

You scoundrel.
We’ll live like the Moors
In the Moorish Quarter.

In this new world
There is a clock:
A clock with no hands.

Why not take a hammer and chisel
So you can carve my body
Then say it isn’t real?

Here’s a favor I’m going to ask:
When you see me coming
Don’t move away from the door.

Don’t look at me that way:
You’re going to stay with me
All night long.

When I sleep I dream of you,
I am lost and cannot see you,
And cry out for death to come.

Paco’s father was a middling amateur performer who was determined that his children would do better. He drove them relentlessly, so that as an adult Paco, Like Michael Jackson, somewhat ruefully remarked, “I never had a childhood.” At the age of fourteen he was working as a guitarist in the dance company of Jose Greco, who appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show. “I never wished to be a concert guitarist,” he later revealed in an interview, “because what I had liked from my childhood was to sing. But I was very shy, very fat; I felt very ridiculous and I hid behind the guitar. I am a frustrated singer.”

Yet Paco’s talent was as an a guitarist was extraordinary, and it was soon recognized as such. One critic describes the scene as follows:

[Paco] was recognized in the streets; hounded for his autograph, lionized by society, played standing-room only concerts in Madrid’s Royal Theater, was news throughout the media. Against his wishes he became too big for an accompanying role. In the last festival in which I saw Paco accompany he was attempting to hold back and accompany like the Paco of old, but the public would not hear of it, drowning out the singer with demands for Paco to do something sensational. Finally, to shut them up, Paco was forced to open up with an extraordinary chord progression followed by an incredible picado run, all in countertime. The crowd screamed its approval, the singer was forgotten, Paco was helplessly embarrassed.

By the turn of the 1970s Paco’s guitar-work was widely known. In fact, he was the first flamenco guitarist in history to become a national hero in Spain. A tireless innovator, he explored the worlds of rock and jazz, made a popular Bossa Nova record with his brother, collaborated with pianist Chick Corea, and appeared on a number of albums with John McLaughlin and Al de Meola. Yet performing with “western” guitarists was a challenge. Paco once remarked, "Some people assume that they were learning from me, but I can tell you it was me learning from them. I have never studied music, I am incapable of studying harmony—I don't have the discipline, playing with McLaughlin and Di Meola was about learning these things.”

Paco met Camarón de La Isla when the latter was a little-known performer, and, as Paco later described it, “fell in love with him forever.” They played together incessantly, recorded frequently, and in so doing, dramatically revitalized an art form that was perhaps on the brink of succumbing to its own stereotypes and clichés.


It’s sometimes observed that all flamenco singers sound alike. So, too, do all swing bands and reggae groups—at least to those unfamiliar with these idioms. But whatever else may be said about the form, flamenco singing is never pretty, tender, or nice. The classic flamenco voice is raw, open-throated, and cracked, as if the performer were reaching beyond his or her natural ability and strength. Cantaors and cantaoras seem always to be on the verge of destroying their voices, and some of them do.

It’s almost universally agreed that among cantaors of his generation Camarón was in a class by himself. Paco was his accompanist. Paco’s dad insisted that Paco’s name also appear on Camarón's album covers.  They recorded nine albums together before Camarón dumped Paco for Tomatito, a talented but much younger guitarist. Paco was busy with other things, and had developed the idea the  human voice was “too limited.”   

For the beginner Paco’s career presents a challenge: How are we to best approach his massive oeuvre? It seems to me that one could do worse than to pick up his  widely available disc Luzia (1998), a deeply felt and truly “flamenco” group of mostly solo compositions written on the death of his mother, who was Portuguese. Paco also sings for the first time on this recording, on an elegy-track to his old friend Camarón, who died young. (After Cameron's death in 1992, Paco cancelled all his performances for almost a year, and even considered retirement.)

Luzia is deeply flamenco…yet it was the first album Paco had recorded in nine years. It took him that long to feel he had come up with something genuinely new. Deeply flamenco--yet new.

Alongside this rich and complex work I might set one of the early recordings of traditional cante he made with Camarón. I’m listening right now to Camarón's album Canestera (1972). It's great. Here is Paco the tasteful accompanist, somehow sounding fresh and new without straying from tradition.

What we note, comparing early Paco to late Paco, is that as he aged, he developed a lighter and more intricate touch with more plucking and less hammering. (Paco’s father, ever mindful of his son’s career, had, at a certain point, urged him to stop accompanying singers entirely, reasoning that too much hand strain is involved in playing vigorously enough to be heard above the singing, clapping, and jaleo.)

In any case, the complex layering, tonal nuances, and varied moods that characterize Luzia give it a depth of expression that might almost be described as symphonic, or at least Chopin-esque. But with a rougher, deeper, more fatalistic edge. 


With the death of Paco, we lost not only a great musician, but a great soul.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Comes to Carver Park


Most years, there comes a day when the sun is out, the snow is melting…and the birds are coming back. We head out to the country—Carver Park, as often as not.

Today was that day.

Unlike days of winter skiing, when you appreciate the landscape and the exercise but don’t expect anything to be much different from the last time you were out, this afternoon it was obvious that everything was different. Last summer’s grasses were protruding above the snow. Rivulets were forming, maple buds had swelled. The tips of willow branches were more colorful.

Large flocks of geese pass high overhead, and then a group of swans, their honking chorus slightly higher in pitch. A killdeer calls repeatedly as it passes this way and that, perhaps looking for a patch of gravelly ground to nest on. He’s a little early, I’m afraid.

A flock of cedar waxwings arc out and back from naked branches and then move on.

Life is afoot, though mostly on the wing.

The temperature is approaching sixty degrees, and the gentle wind, passing across the still largely snow-covered fields, is refreshing. We pass a deposit of very orange scat, a rabbit scurrying across the trail, a clump of bittersweet, high up in a leafless tree.


Hiked out from the Springview Picnic Area to a wooden tower high on a hill overlooking Lundsten Lake, we climbed to the top, only to surprise a man taking a nap up there in the sun. On our way back we inadvertently took the horse trail, covered with thick snow,  rather than the well-packed ski trail we’d come out on. But as is so often the case, this unplanned change of route offered us a reward. Being higher up on the hill, the path gave us a much better look at a small lake to the north, and as we sat on a bench enjoying the view, I noticed a black lump sitting in a pool of open water on the far shore. We thought it might be a muskrat, then began to wonder if it might be a mink, considering its lanky body. A closer look through binoculars revealed that it was an otter. It would disappear under the ice and reappear forty feet away, climbing up through another hole—only to disappear again.

On that same stint of trail we also got an excellent view of a sparrow sitting in a clump of naked sumac branches, maybe fifteen feet away. We hadn’t brought our bird book, which made it necessary to look more closely and take note of the characteristics, reciting them to one another verbally.

It looked like a field sparrow…but the head markings were more dramatic. The rufus crown was richer, the contrasts on the face more pronounced, the brown face patch curved distinctly downward, surrounded by a rich gray, and the bill was not so “cute” as that of the field sparrow, which is often referred to as being “pink.” This bird had a yellow under-bill and a black top bill. I would have said it was a tree sparrow, but didn’t see the characteristic dot on its pure buff chest—a dot that the field sparrow doesn’t have.

Then again, it never quite turned fully in our direction before darting off into the underbrush.


I think of the field sparrow as a summer bird, while the tree sparrow is here in the winter. But such things ought not to enter into an identification. It is what it is, not whatever should be here right now. And who's to say what season it is right now? The field sparrow often arrives in late March. Maybe this was the first!

Hard-core birders will long since have concluded that I don't know my sparrows very well. In any case, it was a beautiful bird, and perhaps we admired it more for not being sure what to call it.

Back at the nature center, I took a look at a bird guide and confirmed the sighting. Tree sparrow. Yes. But what about the missing spot?

Perhaps we just didn’t see it. But I also learned later on-line that the western sub-species of the tree sparrow is much paler, and the spot is sometimes hardly visible.

Yet what I'd noticed immediately about this bird was that the coloration around the head was much more dramatic that what I’m used to seeing on the field sparrow. No, it wasn’t a pale sub-species of anything. Conclusion. Tree sparrow. The darn thing just should have turned a little more in our direction.

The parking lot at the nature center was almost full. A program on maple-sugar harvesting was underway. A large vat of the syrup was steaming away on the terrace outside.


Our final stop was the overgrown pond out by the highway. It’s hard to believe we used to see yellowlegs and Virginia rails on the mudflats here. Pulling in to the parking lot, we immediately noticed a bluebird sitting on a birdhouse. Another spring arrival. I’d been looking for one all afternoon.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Mystery of Matisse


Baltimore was recently ranked among the ten most dangerous cities in the United States—along with Detroit, Newark, Camden, Cleveland, and Memphis. It’s our good luck, then, that a magnificent collection of artworks by Henri Matisse owned by the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art is currently on exhibit here at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Everyone loves Matisse, I suspect, in the same way that everyone loves Monet, but for the sake of different effects. Matisse’s color schemes and decorative patterns are inordinately pleasing—so much so that they have influenced several generations of department store decorators. We’re more likely to be dumbfounded by the simplicity of his works than by their complexity. Anodyne rather than challenging, placid rather than angst-ridden, they subvert every value held dear by modernists, post-modernists, conceptual artists—and the critics who write about them. The same clichés may creep in here and there—pushing the boundaries, exploring new worlds. But Matisse, like Bach, filled a world rather than merely discovering one.

It seems that commentators often can find nothing better to do in describing Matisse’s work than cite the master himself, at those places in his letters and books where he speaks about harmony and line and sincerity. Such remarks could be applied to many artists in one way or another. And yet, they take on added meaning in the context of the specific lines and colors we're standing in the midst of.

"In speaking of a melon one uses both hands to express it by a gesture, and so both lines defining a form must determine it. Drawing is like an expressive gesture, but it has the advantage of permanency."

Reading these lines, we feel that Matisse is concerned about form and expression...but also that he likes melons.

And how about this one: "For me, the subject of a picture and its background have the same value, or, to put it more clearly, there is no principle feature, only the pattern is important. The picture is formed by the combination of surfaces, differently colored."

Paintings from every stage of Matisse's career are included in the show. This in itself makes it interesting. Looking at a given canvas, we're likely to be pleased. Then we ask ourselves: How can it be so simple? Then we begin to notice that the colors and patterns involved are actually a horrible mishmash. We notice that colors on different parts of a given canvas have been selected with less regard to what a window frame or an apple actually looks like than to how the color works within the ensemble. But then the opposite notion enters our head. The pages of that book there on the table are exactly the right color. That gauze curtain shielding the rainy day outside the window looks exactly like a gauze curtain letting in a little light.

An exhibit as large as the one on display here in Minneapolis gives us ample opportunity to compare and contrast. Some of the painting are overworked, and a few of the drawings epitomize “bad drawing,” with every line heavily over-sketched and every pattern laboriously complete.  

One entire wall of the exhibit is devoted to a series of photographs documenting the many iterations Matisse devised and rejected before at last completing the famous pink-and-blue “Large Reclining Nude”—an awkward, unsubtle painting that he might just as well have scuppered early on. 


But such evidence of laborious work over many months reminds us that even the drawings Matisse executed with unparalleled freshness and lyric grace were the result of years of training, practice, dissatisfaction, and repetition.  

And such work isn’t merely a matter of addressing a given subject arranged in front of him.

“I take from nature what I need,” Matisse once wrote, “an expression sufficiently eloquent to suggest my thoughts. I painstakingly combine all effects, balancing them in rendering and in color, and I don’t attain this condensation, to which everything contributes, even the size of the canvas, at the first shot. It is a long process of reflection and amalgamation."

I might also observe that Matisse took from nature what he liked--women, flowers, fabric.


The show currently at the Institute gives us ample opportunity to spend some time in the midst of canvases and drawing, lithographs and sculptures, that exude the beauty and feeling that Matisse found in life and succeeded in capturing time and again on paper and canvas. Nor is the beauty merely in the colors and forms involved. It runs much deeper than that. It extends to the sensibilities of the individual who developed such a profound rapport with these things, and to the wider world we all share with him. 


The last room of the show is devoted to the illustrations Matisse made for books--especially that well-known paper-cut creation, Jazz. The colors are bright, the forms are direct. My heart leapt as I looked around--and not just because I love books. Quite a bit of text has been translated and put on display, too. Matisse's musings on art, color, God, work. A fitting conclusion to a remarkable show. 

In the gift shop next door,  it struck me immediately how much grayer the posters on sale were than the originals we'd just been looking at.


Later, having lunch at Gandhi Mahal on Lake Street, I noticed that the plate of food I'd assembled from the buffet looked a lot like a Matisse painting. Well, maybe a little...

I spent the afternoon thumbing through an old copy of Matisse: Rhythm and Line by Jaqueline and Maurice Guillaud, a 650-page, full-color tome that weights five pounds. Ah, bliss! 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Werther at the Met


The planet is full of bad news—jumbo jets disappearing, sovereign states getting nibbled away at, vanishing aquifers, rumbling earthquakes. We turn from these cataclysmic happenings, about which we can do nothing, and observe that modern technology has made it possible for us to jump in the car at dinner-time, drive for fifteen minutes, and watch a “live” performance by some of the world’s greatest musicians, beamed via satellite from the world’s greatest opera house, of a French opera written in the late nineteenth century based on a slim German book written in the late eighteenth century.

This, too, is the world we live in. A world of continuity, amplification, refinement, as experience is transformed into art and the art is subsequently recast, rethought, modified to suit a new sensibility.

The plot of Werther could hardly be simpler—unlike Il Travatore or Simon Boccenegra, for example. Charlotte’s mother has died, and she, along with her kid sister Sophie, is responsible for raising their four or five younger siblings. Her mother had expressed the wish that Charlotte marry the dependable and agreeable Albert, and Charlotte acquiesces, more to honor her mother than out of any deep-rooted affection. In fact, Charlotte is so deeply invested in her family life, which also includes her father, that the claims of personal passion don’t figure very prominently in her emotional landscape.


Then Werther shows up. He falls for Charlotte immediately, of course. He’s a handsome dreamer, a poet, a scribbler, rather than a Don Juan or a cad. Albert is away, perhaps fulfilling some military obligation, and Werther and Charlotte even go to a ball together! Sparks fly. Charlotte almost forgets herself in the darkness of the garden after the ball. But when push comes to shove, she makes her position very clear to the overly attentive Werther: she’s engaged. And she has no problem demanding that her tormented suitor leave town immediately, and stay away until Christmas.

The opera is now half over. Ninety minutes have gone by. (One of the great things about opera is that everything happens so slowly!) I didn’t mention the two local boozers—always looking for the next party—or how charming Charlotte’s sister Sophie (Lissette Oropesa) is.

But the performances of tenor Johann Kauffman (as Werther) and soprano Sophie Koch (as Charlotte) stand out. They maintain, in their features, bearing, and gestures, a confused erotic tension that comes through loud and clear in big screen HD close-ups.

The singing is also very good.

And in the second act it gets better, as Charlotte begins to realize how much she misses Werther, and begins to wonder, rereading his letters, whether he’s contemplating suicide. She sings the celebrated aria "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit /Ces lettres!" and a cadaverous Werther, appearing at her door that same evening, cuts loose with the empassioned "Pourquoi me réveiller?"


Some critics have found fault with aspects of the staging, and I would have to agree that the pantomime of the mother’s death and burial at the start of the opera—not in the original libretto—was a little obvious and unnecessary. But the back projections used during the scene at the ball—also not in the original—struck me as dreamily effective, and the tiny room where the opera’s final scene is played out, weirdly lit in blue, evoked the loneliness bordering on madness that Werther was in the grip of.

A critic for the Financial Times described Massenet’s opera as “a precarious fusion of flashy prose and perfumed poetry,” but very little of either quality made it through the subtitles. What we were left with was a soaring romantic drama, sustained by rich orchestral color and two or three of the best voices on stage today.