Sunday, April 23, 2017

Film Fest II

This Egyptian film, the best that I've seen at the festival so far,  is shot entirely within the confines of a police paddy wagon. Of course, the people incarcerated in the van sometimes look out the windows, and we see what they see. But the point of view is always from within the van, and most of the action is centered there.

Who are these people? The first two to be jailed are journalists, one of them Egyptian, the other Egyptian/American. Others are tossed in during the first ten minutes of the film. Some of them are casual protesters, others are members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whom the police are on the lookout for. Later a Mullah and his daughter are rounded up. Eventually, after a few missteps, even  a member of the police force finds himself inside. Thus, the film falls into that time-honored genre that also includes Maupassant's short novel Ball of Fat, which takes places in a stagecoach during the Franco-Prussian War, and John Ford's Wild West classic Stagecoach.

Inside the van, tensions arise between various factions. Meanwhile the violence ebbs and flows outside, and soon doctrinaire religious arguments wither in the face of more personal problems: someone catches a bullet; someone needs to pee. With no room in the local prisons to inter anyone, the police eventually abandon the van entirely.

Perhaps eighty percent of the dialog is delivered at shouting level. But as darkness descends things quiet down ... for a while. A harrowing, visceral experience, from which there appears to be no way out. 

The King's Choice
Most history texts give the German invasion of Norway three sentences at best. In this superbly realized film, we experience it moment by moment. The film focuses its attention on the decision facing King Haakon VII whether to abdicate, collaborate with the new pro-German government of the unpopular Fascist Quisling, who has seized power via a coup d' etat, or attempt an escape. The German ambassador to Norway is convinced he can work out a peaceful solution, though he can't seem to convince his fellow Nazis to put the invasion on hold while he does so. The king himself recognizes that further resistance would be futile and cost many Norwegian lives, though if he capitulated, it would further undermine the democratic institutions Hitler is seeking to destroy.
The period detail is expertly rendered, and also the panic that arises when civilian life is suddenly upended by aerial attacks and the arrival of foreign troops.  Further drama is supplied by the differing approaches of Haakon and his son, Olav, as to how to respond to the situation.

One Week and a Day
A comedy about grieving? Indeed. Eyal and his wife, Vicky, have lost their son. As the last day of the week long Shiva comes to an end, Eyal remains bitter and cantankerous. (Maybe he's always been like that?) But when he returns to the hospice to retrieve a blanket, he comes upon his son's medical marijuana, and decides to "loosen up." Trouble is, he can't seem to roll a joint successfully. He enlists the help of a neighbor kid, Zoller, who was once his son's friend, and together the two of them embark on a series of silly, touching, and absurd adventures.

The film works because director Asoph Polonsky keeps to the essentials, and establishes a delicate counterpoint between Eyal, who never quite loses his latently hostile attitude toward everything from playing checkers to air guitar, and Zoller, who turns out to be a true space cadet. Genuine humanity shows its face now and then, especially at the cemetery and also at the hospice, where a sweet young girl lightens the mood at a critical juncture as this unlikely trio perform an "air" operation on her dying mother. The ending is also perfect--though I'm not going to descfribe it here.

----But not every film in the festival is a masterpiece. Far from it. The following films were worthwhile, but not entirely satisfying ...

The Theater of Life
During the Milan 2015 World’s Fair, renowned chef Massimo Bottura had an idea. Rather than tossing out the food being wasted every day at the expo, why not create meals for the refugees and homeless of Milan out of it? The result was the creation of Refettorio Ambrosiano, a stylish soup kitchen serving meals prepared by some of the world's most eminent chefs.

The filmmakers listen in on the kitchen-chatter of the chefs, and also include a number of mouth-watering food segments, but they spend more of the film interviewing the homeless individuals involved to find out who they are and what brought them to such a low point in life. Some are refugees from Africa, others are drug addicts, or simply unskilled laborers whose lives have come undone.

Director Peter Svatek comments: “What is home for a homeless person or a political refugee? Massimo says chefs can no longer cook for just the elite ignoring the ethical issues about feeding the planet. These are the questions the film tackles. The Refettorio became a home. It was fascinating and beautiful to see how these great chefs transformed waste food into delicious meals."

All the same, it makes for an odd juxtaposition of worlds, raising the question of whether haut cuisine should even be pursued or supported  in a world where, for many, misfortune and suffering are always right around the corner.

Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

This documentary is ostensibly about poet, essayist, and agricultural reformer Wendell Berry, but we learn very little about the man in the course of it, except that he liked to look out the window of his office toward his farm. Much of the film is devoted to interviewing one or two farmers who found it necessary to buy more machinery, chemicals, and land in order to survive economically. But this is a very old story by now, and it has been told better elsewhere. We spend another large chunk of time listening to a man named Steve Smith talk about how he got into organic farming because industrial farming simply wasn't much fun. (At the time, Smith had never heard of Wendell Berry.) A likeable guy, but once again, very old news.

Some of the most rewarding moments are given over to an interview with Berry's wife, Tanya, who has some quizzical and insightful things to say about her husband and the life they led together. Berry himself is represented only in still photographs, sound bites from a debate he engaged in long, long with then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, and a video of a short segment of a speech he gave in Spokane, WA back when people were wearing bellbottoms.

Lipstick Under My Burka

The single word that might best describe this film is one that, in my day, was popular among junior high kids: immature. It chronicles the love lives of four women in a small town in India, with a voice-over drawn from a Harlequin Romance that one of the four is reading. (Really.) All of these women want to have a more adventurous and sexually fulfilling life, free of the oppressive demands of their neighborhoods, fathers, boyfriends, or fiancés. Such desires are not only understandable, but they lead to plenty of humorous and moving episodes of generational and cross-gender conflict and self-revelation. The issues raised by the film are very real, and touches of humanity are everywhere, but the film is overly ambitious, and as a result, the characterizations are shallow, the situations stereotypical, the resolutions jejune. In comparison with any film by Asghar Farhadi, for example, nothing in the movie has much gravity.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Film Fest 2017 -the First Weekend

You try to resist it. (Yet you drive down to St. Anthony Main to get a program several weeks before the fest.)

You thumb through the catalog muttering to yourself: Afghanistan, Serbia, India, Azerbaijan—they all sound alike. (Yet you find yourself circling things for future reference.)

You say, "No point in going on the first weekend; everything will be so crowded." Then you read a review that sounds good in the Tribune or ArtScape and start to worry that the film will sell out. (Some of them probably already have.)

So you buy a six-pack pass online and secure a few  tickets. Just four films during the weekend, three more trickling on during the week, and that final, hard-to-get ticket to the bio-pic about Emily Dickinson way off in week two. That ends up exhausting  two six-packs but what the heck. It's fascinating stuff, and most of it will never be showing in the vicinity on the big screen again.

There tend to be long lines stacked up to get into each show, due largely to the fact that the scheduling is tight and the five theaters seldom clear out swiftly. That's often because the directors are often present to answer questions after the screening.

But film fest crowds are perhaps the most interesting, lively, and diverse of any you'll come across in the Twin Cities, and eavesdropping is often part of the fun.

J: Beyond Flamenco (Spain) The latest installment of director Carlos Saura's long string of films devoted to Iberian folk culture, J: Beyond Flamenco focuses on a form called the jota. Few people have heard of the jota, which may explain why that word doesn't appear in the film's title, though "flamenco," which everyone has heard of, does. The jota isn't "beyond" flamenco, however. It's a far less exotic form from the northern region of Aragon, and it occasionally seems related to Portuguese and even Alpine dance and song forms. Stringing together a long series of staged set pieces shot in the studio, Saura convinces us that the leaping jota is just as interesting as fado or flamenco, with numerous sub-regional variations and urban modifications. A total delight.

El Classico (Iraq/Norway) This simple love story about a "little person" (AKA dwarf) who is rejected as a candidate for marriage by the father of the woman he loves becomes a road movie stretching from the deserts of rural Iraq to the Green Zone of Bagdad and eventually all the way to Madrid. No, the protagonist doesn't kidnap his bride to be. Rather, he steals a pair of shoes from his prospective father-in-law and heads off with his brother on his four-wheeler across the barren countryside, with the idea in mind of delivering the shoes to the soccer superstar Ronaldo. Mostly charming, though occasionally horrific.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Finland) This lush black-and-white film tells the true story of Finnish boxer Olli Mäki and his efforts to win the world featherweight boxing title in 1962. Mäki was a baker by trade, and from the first he seems a bit out of his league as the American champion and his entourage appear on the scene. In fact, it appears that his promoter and his big-spending sponsors are far more eager to win the title for Finland than Olli is. He has to lose a good deal of weight to qualify for the bout, and all the media attention surrounding the build-up doesn't make things any easier for him. Nor does his good-natured girlfriend, whose radiant presence lights up the screen whenever she appears. Less of a sports film than a nostalgic look back to a bucolic landscape and a simpler era, you leave the theater with the urge to head to the Iron Range, take a sauna, and then jump shrieking into a lake with the woman you love.

La Danse (U.S.A.) Frederick Wiseman had documented the inner workings of prisons, strip clubs, art galleries, and many other institutions. In this film, which dates from 2009, he takes an extended look at the Paris Opera Ballet. I'm not a big fan of ballet, but I thoroughly enjoyed these sequences, during which the dancers are wearing T-shirts, the studio spaces have the worn-out look of nineteenth-century buildings, and the choreographers running the sessions are calling out points of criticism every two or three seconds."Elbow down." "Don't move your hip; sweep the hand and the hip will follow." "You're frowning all the time."  To my unpracticed eye, all dance moves look not only difficult but exquisite, and often a little bit silly, too. Little did I know how much is required to get things right--or what "right" looks like. And the episodes get even more entertaining when the choreographers start bickering among themselves.

Wiseman also takes us onto the performance stage from time to, and into the cafeteria, and the offices where the group's artistic director discusses dancer selection with a guest choreographer or encourages a very young member of the troupe not to become too self-critical. But unlike most ballet movies, which fuel themselves on melodramatic conflict between high-strung and competitive dancers, Wiseman's portrait is devoid of personal interactions between individual dancers aside from the ones they engage in physically as part of their routines. None of the dancers are interviewed. It's as if we wandered into the building, stood in a corner, and no one seemed to mind, or even notice.

Watching La Danse is a lot like spending a few hours in Paris, but with no croissants or espresso in sight. It's a pleasant experience, and after the three-hour film the presenters dialed up Wiseman himself in Paris via Skype, projecting the image of his face onto the big screen.

He turned out to be a very sharp and good-humored guy. Someone in the audience asked him how he arranged to get such intimate access to a vaunted, three-hundred-year-old institution.

"I'll tell you a secret," he replied. "I've never told this to anyone before...I asked them."    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stabat Mater Dolorosa

The Christian narrative has traditionally been broken up into a series of static tableaus that can easily be absorbed by an illiterate congregation of the faithful—the annunciation, the nativity, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection. These events and many others were rendered time and again on canvas and in stained glass and stone to serve not only as architectural decoration but as objects of contemplation, solace, and guidance.

The literary element came into play during the service, often most powerfully as an element of musical performance. Masses were (as they are today) patched together from various compositions, some of which took on a life of their own. One of these was the Stabat Mater Dolorosa—the Grieving Mother who stands before her crucified son.

Scholars have not been able to identify with precision who composed the verses of the poem familiarly known as the Stabat Mater, but the thirteenth-century Franciscan Jacopone de Todi is the most likely and also, perhaps, the most colorful candidate. Few read Jacopone today, but In his magisterial History of Italian Literature, Francesco de Sanctis argued that the simple friar opened out "a new road" in poetic expression, with greater sincerity and humanity than we find in the poems of his Provencal predecessors.

Iacopone’s poetry is that of a saint moved by divine love. Not for him the Provençals, the troubadours, the Courts of Love; that whole world is non-existent for him. He knows nothing of philosophy and theology, and is quite un­scholastic. Nor does he value art, or language, or style: indeed, he seems purposely to speak like the common people, just as the saints took pleasure in dressing themselves in the garments of the poor. His whole longing is to unload a heart overflowing with love—a heart exalted by religious feeling.

The fact the St. Francis's religious mission was inspired by the poetry of the troubadours ought not to be forgotten, but this doesn't undermine de Sanctis's  argument that Jacopone's poetry has a  "true vein of popular, clear, and spontaneous inspiration that we miss in the works of the learned poets..."
De Sanctis continues:

Iacopone’s works reflect Italian life under one of its aspects more truly than those of any troubadour. He gives us the reli­gious feeling in its first native expression; religion as it is found in the uncultivated classes, not clouded by theology or scholas­ticism and carried to the heights of mysticism and ecstasy. He communes directly with God, the Virgin, the saints and the angels, speaks to them with domestic familiarity, and paints them with perfect freedom of imagination, with those touch­ingly pious and affectionate details that could only be imagined by a fancy moved by love. His chief idol is Mary, and he speaks to her with the insistence and intimacy of a person who is sure of his faith, and knows that he loves.

However, after reading through the many verses of the Stabat Mater, it strikes me that there is more poetry in De Sanctis's prose than in Jacopone's Latin verses. The poem is highly repetitive, referring repeatedly to Mary's suffering as she stands before her son hanging on the cross. Evidently the poet himself cannot drum up any particular compassion at the gruesome sight of a crucifixion, because he asks Mary repeatedly to help him feel:

Come then, Mother, fount of love, make me feel the strength of your sorrow so that I may mourn with you.

The sentiments are slightly bizarre. The poet is asking Mary to help him feel her sorrow, but he doesn't seem to be directly  interested in Jesus's suffering. Yet he later decides he wants to share in that suffering, too, and he asks Mary once again to help him:

Make me by his wounds be wounded, make me inebriated with the cross and  with the flowing blood of your son

Chock it up to extreme viceral bewilderment in the fact of suffering. But as sixty years of rock 'n' roll have taught us, repetitive and nonsensical  lyrics can have a powerful effect when they're driving music of genuine emotional power. And that's what the Stabat Mater has done, time and again. Many eminent composers have set the poem to music, among them Palestrina, Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Boccherini, Haydn, Schubert, Rossini, Verdi, Szymanowski, Poulenc, and even Arvo Pärt.

I have CDs of most of the famous works, mostly by coincidence, and I was almost starting to think of them as a "collection," but I recently came upon a blog maintained by a man who owns more than 500 recordings of different compositions based on Jocopone's poem. He's reviewed most of them on his blog, which also provides eight or nine English translations of the poem itself.

We went down to the Ordway the other day to hear the SPCO do Pergolesi's version, which is my favorite. (You can listen to a performance with a slightly larger orchestra here.) I learned in the program notes that based on its publishing history, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater might well have been the most popular composition of the eighteenth century. I can see why. An economical forty-minute piece written for soprano, alto, organ, and small orchestra, it consists of a series of solos and duets, and the music is plaintive, cutting, haunting, lyrical, and occasionally quite buoyant, considering the subject matter.

In the first half of the SPCO program, a concerto grossi by Loccatelli was coupled with a very early symphony by Haydn; it seemed interminable, though it was only half an hour long. The second half was devoted to the Stabat Mater, and it went by in a flash.

The streets were glistening as we walked back to the parking ramp in the rain through downtown St. Paul, surrounded by clumps of women and men wearing green Minnesota Wild jerseys. The Wild had just lost their second straight playoff game at home, and a promising season was on the verge of going up in smoke, but no one seemed too upset about it. Well, what can you do?

I probably should have been thinking of the suffering of Mary, but I was actually thinking about the beauty of female voices in close harmony. Death is the mother of beauty, Yeats says somewhere. (Or was it Kawabata?) But I think Pergolesi deserves most of the credit here for weaving these two voices into such a complex and moving emotional experience. Sorry to say, he died at the age of 26, not long after completing this enduring work.      

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Foreign Tongues - Three Concerts

The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé was of the opinion that poetic expressions become more evocative when the things they refer to remain elusive. He even went so far as to suggest that the  ‘point’ of a poem should reside for the most part in the beauty of the sounds rather than the content of the "message."  I suppose this is a gross simplification of a subtle approach to poetry, but it dovetails with my own experience to some degree. I have to admit that most of the vocal music I love and return to is being sung in languages I don't understand.

Even the most stirring lyrics are likely to become banal with repetition, if you happen to know what they say. On the other hand, stripped of their meaning, the same words float on the music, conveying its emotional content with little need for context. Well, this isn't entirely true. If you're listening to a song by Schubert, say, or Edith Piaf, it helps to know the gist of what it's about. That's why they invented supertitles, and I wish they made use of them in recitals as much as they do at the opera house.

By chance, I attended three vocal concerts last weekend, all of them in foreign tongues. On Thursday night Hilary and I drove to St. Paul to hear Swedish soprano Miah Perrson sing songs by Grieg and Schumann.

Not being adept at describing nuances of vocal expression, I can do no better than to echo the remarks of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who heard the same concert a week before I did.

He makes mention of Persson's "radiant sound and refreshingly direct expressivity." That just about nails it.  He goes on the observe that "she brings bloom and sweetness to her voice when called for. But she turns her sound slightly earthy or pale when the emotional situation demands it."

Not knowing German, I really had no idea what any particular situation demanded, but I will say that I liked Ms. Persson personally. She sang forcefully but also plaintively, as if she wanted to please the audience, but wasn't sure she was going to do so.

Or maybe it was simply the material. A large section of the program was given over to Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” (“Woman’s Love and Life”). At a pre-concert lecture I'd learned that this song cycle depicts various stages in the emotional life of a woman, most of which seem to depend on how her relations with her boyfriend (and later husband) are faring. The titles of the songs, rendering into English, might be: "Since I Saw Him," "He, the Noblest of All,""I Cannot Grasp or Believe It," "You, Ring Upon My Finger," and so on.

Of course, it would be possible to keep the program open to the proper page and read along. Maybe I should have done that. But I can't stand the sound of rustling programs, and I don't want to contribute to it myself. Sometimes it reminds me of the sound I sometimes hear at night of worms pulling dead leaves down under the surface of the soil to eat them.

How do worms eat leaves? I can't imagine.

It would have been nice if Ms. Persson had said a few words to the audience during the performance. She was among friends, after all. Perhaps her English was shaky.

Her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, exhibited the flawless delicacy and selflessness that many accompanists do. He did a solo turn himself, and it was so simple and beautiful that the hall was ringing, not with virtuosity, but with sentiment and expressiveness.

Ms. Persson received a standing ovation, as do all performer in the Twin Cities, and she returned to the stage for a brief encore: Grieg’s “Jeg elsker deg” (“I love you”). She even announced the tune in English. It was a nice send-off.

The University of Minnesota Opera staged two-thirds of Puccini's Il Trittico over the weekend at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. In Italian, of course. The event was a hit—at least as far as I was concerned. 

The music was lovely, but the staging contributed just as much to the pleasure of the evening.

In the first place, by tossing "Il Taborro" out of the trio the producers gained an hour of show time. This made it more convenient to reverse the order of the remaining two numbers. In the original version, the comic tale, "Gianni Schicchi," appears third, following a) a grisly verismo tale of adultery and murder and b) a tale of heartless confinement followed by a tragic suicide. Appearing in that slot,  it tends to seem inconsequential—basically an elaborate farcical frame for the brief if unforgettable aria "O mio babbino caro." It plays much better considered on its own merits as a comedy, and the decision to set the story in modern times was also effective, making the class distinction between Gianni Schicchi and the scheming and avaricious Donati family whom he hoodwinks more obvious, and funnier.

The director of "Suor Angelica" took greater risks, setting the drama in a vaguely Asian setting. All of the nuns wore masks, and their gestures were choreographed in a brutal, mechanistic style that was probably meant to convey the joyless and repressive atmosphere of the convent. That was the effect, at any rate. The staging succeeded in stripping the opera of its latently sentimental trappings, but it grew tiresome long before the story was over, dehumanizing the nuns in a way that doesn't match the details of the story. Then, in the final scene, we're jerked in the opposite direction, as a huge portrait of a sweet little boy appears on a screen, fading to a graphic that's presumably a close-up of Christ's suffering.

Despite these shortcomings, the singing was lovely and powerful, and the supertitles kept us abreast of what was actually going on.

The following afternoon, we found ourselves on the campus of the College of St. Catherine to hear guitarist Sharon Isbin and soprano Isabel Leonard perform some Spanish music as part of the college's Women of Substance series. We'd gotten the tickets as the result of a reckless bid at a silent auction at a charity fund-raiser. The money went to Uganda. (Good thing).  We went to the concert. (Also pretty good). 

I have never liked O'Shaughnessy auditorium much. Perhaps nobody has. I think of it as concrete brutalist modern, but architectural historian Larry Millett has a more nuanced take:

This large theater—a confronta­tional hunk of brick, concrete, and glass that closes off the east side of the quadrangle—remains the most important, and most controversial, of St. Catherine's modern-era buildings. Scaled in a way that emphasizes its brawn, it's a shot of architectural tes­tosterone delivered to the heart of the campus, and it has a kind of bad-boy strut.

Also worth noting is that the auditorium, which seats 1800, has no central aisles. This means that you might have to squeeze past twenty or twenty-five people to reach your seat, and just pray there won't be a fire.

The lobby seems to have been an afterthought, awkwardly narrow, but that means it can seem bubbly and exciting even when the event itself is a flop.

And while I'm in complaining mode, I might also mention that the program notes leave a great deal to be desired. For the Music for Spain concert we attended, the brochure contains three pages of advertising and copious information about the performers, their recordings, and all the awards they've won, but absolutely nothing about the music to be performed beyond the titles of the works. Why? Those who receive a program have already bought a ticket. They don't need to be convinced that the artists they've come to see are worth their attention. But they might like to find out a bit about Xavier Montsalvatge, one of the composers whose work is being performed.

And how about García Lorca, who wrote all the songs on the first half of the program? Might this be the famous poet Federico García Lorca? Did he compose music? Did he also write the words to these songs? Are they folk songs? Did he compose the songs or collect them? Nothing.

The concert itself was worthwhile, and by the end of it I felt that I'd "gotten to know" both Isbin and Leonard a little better, due to their slightly caustic on-stage patter. But when all is said and done, the expressive range of music from Spain is fairly limited. And once you've developed a familiarity with the flamenco forms from which most of these compositions derive, the "classical" versions seem a little tame. That may explain why the "art" songs on the second half of the program struck me as more interesting than the Canciones espanolas antiguas on the first half.

Guitarist Isbin made matters worse by including three of the most threadbare pieces in the guitar repertoire in the program. I'm referring to Albeniz's "Asturias," Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra," and Granados's "Spanish Dance #5." Good heavens. I used to play those pieces! Every guitar student plays them. Sharon plays them better, but so what? How about something with more unfamiliarity and genuine musical interest, like Federico Moreno Torroba's Castles of Spain?

On the other hand, Isbin's instrument had a gorgeous tone. The notes seemed to ring out effortlessly, as if the instrument were playing itself, and the image of a hot knife cutting through butter came to mind several times. (Maybe I was getting hungry, though it was only 3 p.m.)


An hour later we were enjoying a pleasant dinner at a restaurant downtown—also part of the surprise silent-auction purchase—when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was hovering over our table, scrutinizing the half-eaten dish of scalloped potatoes.

"What are those?" the stranger said.

Looking up, I saw that it was Sharon herself. Evidently she'd come downtown to have dinner with some friends.

"We loved your show," I said. "Especially those two songs in the second set—"

"—the Montsalvatge?" she replied, sculpting the syllables of the name in the slightly clipped and edgy tone of high-class Spanish.

"...and also the de Falla."

"Well, thank you very much. The audience was wonderful," she replied in her strong, raspy voice.

It was a fitting end to a very musical weekend.

And it was in English.

Friday, March 31, 2017

First Day of Spring

Dinner time. Hilary is off at book club. 

It's a book about a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Grisly. 

Such things really happen.

Meanwhile, cool air is wafting through the screen door, which is open for the first time this year.

A dog barks in the distance. A cardinal chirps.

A point of correction: the screen door isn't open—though there would be no harm if it were at this time of year, presuming our chipmunks didn't decide to make an unexpected house call. No, the sliding glass door is open, allowing the breeze to pass through the screen door.

A mourning dove is cooing from the woods beyond the neighbor's house.

It's the first day of spring. Not according to the stars, but simply because I say it is. I can feel it. And in honor of the occasion, I've made myself a salade niçoise.

A confession. I made the salad, not because of the weather or the stars, but because there were two old potatoes in the pantry and I said to myself, "What should I do with those?" 

I picked up some lettuce, green beans, and Kalamata olives at the grocery store on my way home from the library, and I was in business. Hard boiled eggs, canned salmon. But strange to say, I decided not to add one of the essential ingredients: anchovies. Maybe because I was cooking for one and didn't feel up to eating the whole can. The red onion I simply overlooked in my haste to eat and enjoy.

As the sun drops, the light grows richer, but the air gets colder. I really ought to close that door. 

Instead, I head to the closet to find my fleece vest. This association of "inside" and "outside," daylight and shadow, cool and warm, is simply  sublime. Not to mention the sounds of the neighborhood.

And having made and eaten the salad, I can see how "right" it was for today of all days.

I was going to make a comment about "the cunning of history" but I'm through with ideas. Who needs them on a day like today?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt sets himself a formidable task—to make the discovery of an obscure manuscript in a German monastery  in 1417 into an event of epochal significance. He doesn’t quite make good on this attempt, but his historical excavations result in a narrative of surprising interest just the same.

Few today have heard of Poggio Bracciolini, the man who made the discovery in question; he was probably not a household name even in his own time, though he distinguished himself as a high-ranking papal secretary and later served as chancellor of Florence.  Among his fellow humanists Poggio was certainly well-known, carrying on a running correspondence for decades with Niccolo Niccoli, for example, and engaging in a highly publicized dispute with Lorenzo Valla. But nothing that he wrote has proven interesting or significant enough to hold the attention of later generations beyond a small circle of academic experts. For example, in his landmark 400-page History of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt mentions Poggio only in passing, with reference to an essay on nobility. Popular modern anthologies of the era contain essays by Valla, Pico, Manetti, Telesio, and other more or less obscure figures, but Poggio is not among those considered worthy of inclusion.

Poggio’s outstanding claim to fame for us is that he came across a copy of The Nature of Things by Lucretius moldering on a dusty shelf—a poem that was widely referred to and admired in ancient times but was entirely lost during the Dark Ages.

Among the several virtues of Greenblatt’s book is that he fleshes out the world of the early Renaissance—the in-fighting among members of the papal curia, the high-strung literary correspondence between humanists describing their latest bibliographic finds and projects, the responsibilities and excesses of the Florentine municipal administration, and the hermetic world of monastic life, where piety was too often a smokescreen for ambition, perversity, and sloth.

Shifting gears from chapter to chapter, Greenblatt also does an excellent job of describing the impact made by Lucretius’s book-length poem on cultivated Romans fifteen hundred years earlier, and contrasts those very modern-sounding atomic, if not Darwinian, theories—which Lucretius derived from the theories of Epicurus and Democritus—against the generally polytheistic mind-set of those times.

As luck would have it, among the five Popes whom Poggio served was John XXIII (now classified by the Catholic Church as an anti-Pope) who fled the Council of Constance before he was formally deposed along with two other claimants to the seat. In describing this string of events, which also includes the burning of the Czech protestant Jan Hus at the stake, Greenblatt once again fleshes out a time very different from our own—or maybe not.

Greenburg’s vivid description of such events, which are usually described in academic texts fairly cursorily and by means of cliché, is worth the price of the book.  But there are two important issues with which he finds it more difficult to deal adequately. These are

a) To what degree did Poggio’s discovery of The Nature of Things really “transform” the world, and

b) To what degree is this a good as opposed to a bad thing.

The implicit assumption is that the world-view described by Lucretius is not only more modern, but also more accurate, than the one provided by the Catholic Church. And it is further suggested, or at least implied,  that were it not for the serendipitous discovery of a unique manuscript in some unnamed German monastery, the Epicurean vision would have remained a mystery to us all.

Both of these notions are more than a little far-fetched.

In his defense of the idea that Poggio’s discovery was monumental, Greenblatt quotes a few lines from Romeo and Juliet that could have been lifted from Lucretius. Yet Shakespeare’s favorite and most often-quoted poet by far was Ovid. And it's interesting to note that in an overview of the period such as E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius is mentioned at all. That being the case, it comes as no surprise to find that Poggio doesn't merit mention either.

Greenblatt also highlights a few passages in which Montaigne seems to lean heavily on Lucretius, and here he is on firmer ground. One scholar determined that Montaigne quotes Lucretius 149 times in his essay, more than any other Roman poet. But Horace comes in a very close second at 148. Both poets were Epicurians. This seems to suggest that in The Nature of Things Lucretius provided Montaigne—and the modern world—with more attractive ways to express things that were already widely accessible from other sources.

Greenblatt brings his book to a close by observing that Thomas Jefferson owned copies of The Nature of Things in five languages, and sometimes described himself as an Epicurean. But that doesn’t tell us much about where he got his political views. (Epicurus was explicitly apolitical.) One historian of the religious views of the Founding Fathers writes:
In his youth, Jefferson studied the philosophers of clas­sical antiquity. And just as the Greek and Roman style shaped his architectural preferences in designing Monticello, the ra­tionality and balance of Socrates, Seneca, Cicero, and Epicurus appealed to his desire for a life disciplined by inward harmony and self-control.
Then again, Jefferson also edited the Gospels to excise the parts he didn’t like. In this scheme of influences and inspirations Lucretius was undoubtedly present, but certainly not essential.

One final but very important issue clouds the appeal of The Swerve: Greenblatt seems to think that the vision offered by Epicurus, through the medium of the golden poetry of Lucretius, offers a better vision of life than the one offered by the Christian program that dominated European life following the collapse of Rome. But he never provides any convincing proof to that effect. He makes the mistake of equating the genius of Christianity with the dogmas of the Catholic Church, and he too often confuses the hedone that Epicurus considered the ultimate end of human life with bodily pleasure  pure and simple. If we were to go into the matter of Epicureanism at any greater length, we would be doing more than Greenblatt has done. Suffice it to say that Epicureanism is a philosophy of the healthy and the well-off. Its impulses are quietistic. Christianity, for all its faults, is rooted in the peculiar sanctity of the human individual—a creature capable of reflection, conscience, genius, loyalty, sacrifice. These are social virtues. The Epicurean philosophy of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain will never be of much use to those for whom physical pain is endemic, yet who are inspired to pursue something more broadly meaningful in the midst of that pain.

But if Greenblatt overstates the case for the significance Poggio’s discovery, it doesn’t matter much. His book holds our interest due largely to his colorful rendering of fifteenth-century Humanism, thriving in the midst of a world of mostly hide-bound Catholic orthodoxy and largely venal religious institutions. It’s a book about people who loved books and believed the elevated Latin of Roman times had more power to express things fully and freely than did either the scholarly Latin or the local dialects of their own day.

It’s an attractive vision, and I was inspired, after finishing The Swerve, to pull my own copy of The Nature of Things off the shelf. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t get far before putting it down again.

A rotten translation? Perhaps. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Arbor Barbers

I suspect that in a former life I was an arborist. Or maybe a lumberjack. I like trees—the character of the individual species, the shape of the growth, their growth and decay.

Pruning trees is a rugged art. Maybe editing books is the next best thing. You're removing things to heighten the focus and bring out the beauty. But when you're pruning trees, each cut is irrevocable.

You can imagine how excited I was when I saw a truck pull up in front of the house the other day  hauling a trailer carrying a mobile cherry-picking pod. On the door of the truck it said Arbor Barbers. Before long there were four trucks lined up in the street.  A couple of guys were looking up over their heads, and it occurred to me I ought to go out and make sure they weren't planning to go to work on any of our trees.

"Oh, no," the guy said. "We've got a couple of jobs down the street. You can't park right where you're working." Of course.

"Hey, I've got an idea," I said. "I've got three walnut trees on the side of the house." I pointed. "Volunteers. Maybe you could cut down the one furthest from the street. As long as you're already here.  They aren't big, about the size of your arm. How much would that cost?"

In the course of my request I'd mumbled something about "fifty bucks" and I was surprised when the guy said, "I could cut it down and remove it for $40. We'll be here all day." OK.

A client stopped over an hour later, though he had some trouble finding the house with all the trucks scattered along the street. I told him I was having the tree guys cut down a walnut in the side yard.

"That's a great idea," he replied. "We had one cut down. Every fall the fruit fell off and dented the car, and the husks stained the driveway."

I'd never considered that element, and I began to wonder if I should see about having all three trees cut down. All morning long I could hear the intermittent grind of the chain saw, and later the noise of a hydraulic lift depositing debris into the back of a truck. By early afternoon I was beginning to wonder if they'd ever get around to my little project, but by that time I was figuring I could probably do it myself with a hand saw, and then I could keep the wood. I imagined myself hooking up a few ropes to make sure the tree didn't fall on the house or the neighbor's garage, then cutting the notch, hoping all the while that the neighbors didn't come home just as the tree was descending on their driveway.

But a thirty-foot tree weighs a lot more than you think. Did I have any rope of that quality?

Things were getting quiet. I was taking a nap on the floor in the den with the sun on my face, dreaming about firewood, when I heard a chainsaw start up, maybe a little closer this time. When I returned to the office I heard someone clumping on the roof above my head. I saw a cloud of sawdust fly past the window. A thick chunk of wood landed on the frozen ground with a thump. 

Then I saw the guy climbing down the tree through the window. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door.

"Well, I cut down the tree," the man said. "But my brother says we've got another job to do today. Do you have a firepit?"

I told him I did. And a fireplace. And a Jøtul stove.

"Well, why don't you just pay me $20 and clean it up yourself."

I handed him a double sawbuck and thanked him for his trouble.