Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mr. Turner - the film


In Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh adds new shades of meaning to the phrase "warts-and-all biography."
His portrait of the famous English painter during the final decades of his life (Turner died in 1851) is spectacularly robust—the streets, the wharfs, the salon galleries, the artist's studio have all be vividly recreated, like a Dickens film without a plot. It's no wonder the film garnered Oscar nominations for both costume and production design.

And the acting is first-rate. Timothy Spall, in the title role, mumbles and grunts his way across the screen like a cretinous lout (good enough for Best Actor kudos at Cannes), and various relatives, servants, and artist-friends also fix themselves in our imagination immediately. Marion Bailey is worth singling out for her portrayal of a jolly boarding-house matron, twice-widowed, who possesses an unaffected intelligence and sensitivity that Turner finds appealing. If she likes Turner, then maybe he's OK.  


Director Mike Leigh presumes that the audience already knows a good deal about Turner's personal life—or else he feels that such details are unimportant. For example, it seemed evident to me that the shrewish woman who shows up from time to time with Turner's daughter in tow is his estranged wife. 

Not so.

Yet unlike most "period" English dramas, Mr. Turner is utterly devoid of romantic sentiment. For Turner the art is all-important, and the rest of his life (which is what the film is mostly about) is of only secondary concern. By the time the film gets underway Turner is already famous and wealthy, so there will be no undiscovered-genius plot-line for us to feed on. He adores his father (who now mixes paints for him) and harbors deep wounds as a result of his mother's incarceration due to insanity and his sister's death at an early age. On the other hand, he brutally manhandles his maid and insults people wherever it suits him.


Artists are traditionally granted such eccentricities. But here we run up against the film's most serious weakness. Turner is obviously dedicated to his art, but I, for one, had trouble believing that the individual whose career we were following was actually moved by the seascapes he was painting. He doesn't seem like the type. And the paintings themselves are seldom presented with any degree of detail or conviction. They lack emotional ballast.


All the same, this two-and-a-half hour film moves ahead with all due speed. There is a lot of thought behind it. Because there is no plot, nothing is predictable. Mike Leigh has always made odd films that stick in the mind, though we usually have a quarrel with them. I'm thinking of Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy, Another Year, Happy Go Lucky, and the strange and abominable Life Is Sweet.   

Mr. Turner is one of his better ones.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saturday Morning Downtown: Vermeer, Bluegrass, Selma


A painting by Vermeer blew into town the other day and we stopped at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Saturday morning to see it. Wow! 

There aren't many Vermeers in existence, and they're all worth an extended look. The composition, the luster of the fabrics, the perfect tones (which suggest a natural source of light, usually coming from a nearby but unseen window), the remarkable highlights (take a look at the studs on the chairs), and the often mysterious atmosphere of the event being depicted (what does that letter say? Did it arrive unexpectedly? Is it significant that the woman is pregnant?) create an effect that defines some sort of limit as to how much life and beauty a static image can convey.  


After examining the painting at length in the company of six or eight other people and reading the poem "Vermeer" by Tomas Tranströmer on the wall next to it (interesting...but less interesting than the canvas itself) we wandered the third-floor collection of European masterpieces, but came upon nothing comparable. Even the splendid Chardin still-life in the museum collection seemed a little lackluster. This may explain why Vermeer was forgotten for two-hundred years.


The canvas that struck my fancy most strongly was an early landscape by Claude Lorrain. (What you see above is merely a chunk of it.) In the museum text we're told that here Claude is at the "height of his promise." Now there's an odd phrase for you.


Several other exhibits looked interesting but we were on our way to meet some friends at the Aster Cafe for a Bluegrass Brunch with the High 48s. From there it was down the hall to the St. Anthony Main theater to see Selma.


Don't let the LBJ controversy keep you away. It's a powerful film depicting a crucial episode in American history.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ida - the film


Anna, a young Polish novitiate, is about to take her vows, but before doing so, her superiors demand that she pay a visit to her single surviving family member—an aunt whom she’s never met.

Wanda turns out to be a sullen, hard-drinking woman who informs Anna almost immediately on arrival that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She’s Jewish, and her parents were murdered during World War II.

Ida has been in the convent since infancy and knows very little about the world. She seems astonished simply to be traveling on a bus, and it takes a while for her to digest this new information about herself and the evils of the wider world.


Wanda agrees to help her niece find her parents’ burial site—a mission that takes them to the bedraggled farmhouse Ida’s parents once owned. It’s now inhabited by God-fearing Poles who claim that “Jews never lived here.” Wanda knows they're lying, and they know she knows.

Wanda has an even darker past to deal with. Not only did she lose her sister and son during the Holocaust, but after the war she was a prosecutor who conferred death sentences on a number of Polish soldiers resisting the communist regime. Now she’s a small-town judge, hanging around in bars and bringing men home at night.


The story grows a shade lighter when Wanda picks up a young hitchhiker with a saxophone in his case. Ida takes a fancy to him, though it’s hard to discern through the deer-in-the-headlights expression that seems to be planted on her face.


The film’s black-and-white cinematography is extraordinary, and the pace is slow enough to allow us to savor it scene by scene. Forests, crumbling buildings, Wanda’s stylish apartment, city streets, a well-lit dance hall. The luminosity of the footage acts as a welcome counterweight to the sometimes grim drift of the plot. We see the world afresh through Ida's limpid but strangely unfathomable eyes, both the good and the bad. And in the lines of Wanda’s jaded but expressive face we see decades of unexpressed agony, guilt, and disappointment.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station

I liked it ... but I skimmed it. How's that for an equivocal endorsement of Ben Lerner's widely-heralded first novel Leaving the Atocha Station.

The novel consists of a succession of scenes (and states of mind) described by a young poet named Adam Gordon who's won a prestigious fellowship to live in Madrid while he does research in preparation for writing a long narrative poem about the Spanish Civil War. Gordon doesn't spend much time doing research, however. He's far more likely to be sitting in the park smoking a joint and observing the passing scene. At times his routines allow him to approach a state of euphoria but he's equally likely to descend into a dark well of anxiety and panic, which is why he's usually well-equipped with anti-anxiety medication, too.

He avoids the events sponsored by the foundation that's financing his studies. He doesn't speak Spanish well and besides, he's afraid someone might inquire into the progress of his research. For the most part he sits in the park or hovers in bars in the trendy Salamanca neighborhood of Madrid, making sure to position himself  between groups so anyone who sees him there will presume he's with the other group.

Gordon's life takes on added dimension one evening when a gallery-owner named Arturo mistakes him for someone else and greets him warmly. He buys Arturo a drink, others see that he and Arturo are friends, and before long he's got some other friends, including Arturo's sister Theresa.

Other meetings and parties follow as Gordon is "taken in" by Arturo's set, though he's never quite sure what's going on due to his lack of Spanish and also to the fact that he's usually stoned and/or drunk. Yet the descriptions are vivid, rather than vague and dreary, and there's humor in Gordon's attempts to clarify what others are saying through the fog of his linguistic deficiencies. For example:

[Theresa] described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl when she thinks about it ... The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn't deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole...

Eventually he agrees to attend a reading at Arturo's gallery, where it turns out he's the featured poet. His sponsor from the foundation is present, happy to see him again and to see he's getting involved in the local "arts" community.


Gordon's descriptions of this inchoate, "floating" life are heavily laced with bemused indifference, but also enriched by a hyper-ironic awareness of how pathetic his situation and frame of mind really are.

At a certain stage in his existential "journey," as it were, both of Gordon's girl-friends dump him. He begins to suffer from insomnia, increases  his dosage of prescription medications, and reaches a state of unfeeling that he finds very disturbing. But he also begins to notice an element of euphoria lurking somewhere in the background of his moribund senses. He writes:

[This] euphoria, if that’s what it was, was very far from my body, and there­fore compatible with my anhedonia; it was as if I were suspended in a warm bath outside of myself. I felt something like a rush of power, the power to experience the world as though under glass, and this detachment, coupled with my reduced need or capacity for sleep, gave me a kind of vampiric energy, although I was my own prey. I could read and write for hours on end with what felt like total con­centration, barely noticing nightfall, and in the early hours of the morning, I would wander around Madrid, passing Isabel’s apartment or Teresa’s gallery just to show myself I could do so without a spike in agony. I would often watch the dawn from the colonnade in El Retiro or one of the benches on El Paseo del Prado or take the Metro to a stop I didn’t know and watch the sunrise there, return home, sleep for a few hours, wake and take white pills, hash, coffee, and with an uncanny energy resume my adventures in insensitivity. I was vaguely afraid, of what I couldn’t say; maybe that I would throw myself in front of a bus without knowing what I was doing or break into Isabel’s apartment and tear apart her brother’s notebook or put a trash can through the gallery window or otherwise act out, pow­erless to stop myself from such a distance. But I also felt, for the first time, like a writer, as if all the real living were on the page...

The diction is almost Jamesian. Perhaps that's an association Lerner would appreciate. There's a scene early on in the book where he comes upon a man weeping in front of a painting in the Prado, and observes that he himself has never felt such emotion for any reason. It might have been lifted from James's novella The Beast in the Jungle. All the same, the self-referential turn of subject and often spaced-out tone eventually grows tiresome—hence the irresistible desire to skim.


The pace quickens whenever Gordon is with others. And two events give the last part of the book a lift. The first is the terrorist bombing at Atocha Station—an event that it's hard for anyone to be ironic or detached about, though Gordon's descriptions of how his Spanish friends react is discerning. The second is that Gordon's Spanish improves to the point where he can no longer maintain his persona as an exotic foreigner mouthing vague profundities. He eventually comes to realize that Teresa, Isabella, and Arturo hold him in a different and more critical light than he'd previously supposed.

There is enough vivid description of Madrid's nightlife in Leaving the Atocha Station  to make this reader wish the author had given us even more. But his rendering of a young and acute consciousness, swimming in a sea of pills, weed, and half-comprehended Spanish, has quite a few good patches just as it is.      


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Wild - the film


By now nearly everyone has either read Cheryl Strayed's book Wild or knows someone who has. So it's no secret that it tells the story of Strayed's attempt to hike the Pacific Coast Trail and the troubled and messy life she led prior to taking on that challenge.

It's a solid film, buoyed by all the foibles Strayed encountered during her trek, which are humorous for the most part, and especially by Reese Witherspoon's talent at keeping the character tough and  interesting. The countryside is also nice, though it doesn't seem that Strayed appreciated it much, and the film seldom focuses on it for any length of time. 

Many outdoor-folk will enjoy details about water filters, ill-fitting boots, sounds of the night, bad weather, persnickety camp stoves, unpalatable freeze-dried food, and hard-to-erect tents.


The fact that Sheryl is hiking alone brings an added element of danger to her encounters with men along the trail. Many of them help her along. A few are distinctly sinister. My favorite is the encounter she has while hitchhiking around snow in the high country. One man who stops can't pick her up, but he wants to interview her. He's a reporter for Hobo Times

It's one of the few encounters in the film she doesn't need to fear but has no way to exploit.
   
Walking through deserts and woods for weeks on end can be tiresome, of course, not only for the hiker but also for the viewer. Director Jean-Marc Vallée deftly punctuates Sheryl's epic journey with flash-backs, thus fleshing out her character while also conveying how a radical divorce from day-to-day life can give someone almost too much time to mull over the past. We're introduced to her abusive father, her alarmingly cheerful mother, her very decent ex-husband, and the substance abuse and wanton promiscuity she'd indulged in for years before attempting the hike in an effort to cut through all the crap of normal life and feel something genuine.


It's pretty obvious that our hiker-heroine is angry at life and suffers from delusions of grandeur. By the end of the film she's learned how to grieve for her mother and she's exorcised a few demons. She's also done something difficult, something she can be proud of. Whether that was her intention remains unclear. Speaking later about the experience, Cheryl remarked, "I think it wasn't a heroic hike. I think it was a heroic battle to get back to myself." In any case, Witherspoon instills a sort of dignity and independence of spirit into her rendering of Strayed's effort that adds immeasurably to its impact.  

The film is also a testament to the power of books. That Strayed has been influenced by Adrienne Rich and other authors is made clear in voice-over quotations. But the book that influenced her most profoundly is The Sierra Club Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail.


Wild is a first-class "outdoor" film, though in the end it doesn't quite measure up to such classics as Into the Wild, Touching the Void, or even The Way or Smoke Signals, which also ends with a soliloquy on a bridge in Washington State. Maybe this is because it remains focused too relentlessly on a single character who's trying to learn things many viewers already know. It's like a mountain stream, rugged and beautiful but also turbulent and difficult to cross, and more or less the same on either side.       


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Interstellar - the Space Opera


As I watched this film, I found it useful to keep reminding myself: It's just a space opera. That is to say, it's an adventure story set in outer space. Considered in those terms, Interstellar is largely satisfying, though it might almost have been assembled from spare parts taken from other films—not only Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but M. Night Shyamalan's Signs.

The earth is drying up, crops are failing, dust is everywhere, to the point where the only crop that remains viable is corn. Cooper (Mathew McCanaughey) is a test-pilot turned farmer who's upset that his son, due to middling test scores, is destined to become a farmer, too, rather than an engineer.


Meanwhile, Cooper's daughter, Murph, keeps hearing ghosts in the library upstairs that are trying to tell her something. Cooper finally begins to take his daughter seriously, and they deduce that little dunes in the ubiquitous dust spell out some GPS coordinates. The two of them head off into the desert, where they come upon the underground  NASA facility where the meat of the story lies.

At this desert outpost Michael Caine and a team of thousands have been working secretly on a project to save the human race by either establishing colonies in space or populating distant planets with newly created individuals. They have no idea how Cooper found their base...but as it happens, he's precisely the man they need to fly the mission!

In the ensuing two hours, Cooper and three or four other astronauts put themselves to sleep for two years, fly through a worm hole, visit a few planets in a remote galaxy, skirt the edge of a black hole, age about seventy-five years in a few hours, and just barely escape a huge tidal wave—or whatever such things are called on planet Xyzrtemm. 


Much of the footage is slightly awesome and we can enjoy it more fully by fighting back the impulse to make sense of it. There are no ray guns involved, but the narrative is enlivened by a few fist fights and some head-butting that's rendered comical by the thick space helmets. It's also weighed down by some heavy-handed soliloquies about love and the survival instinct. We don't need to be reminded that saving the human race is a worthwhile thing to do, and it seems a little bizarre to suggest that the future of mankind might be decided on the basis of whether or not Brand (Anne Hathaway) has a crush on Edwards (whom we never see).

Some viewers may find fault with Interstellar's premise, arguing, perhaps, that if the money being spent on space ships had been directed toward agricultural research, the earth might remain a fine place to live for generations to come. But I left the theater feeling thoroughly entertained. I'd been on a grand adventure full of time loops and logic loops and seemingly endless crashing interstellar debris.

And it's also worth pointing out, I think, that though the soliloquies are sometimes overblown, Interstellar is essentially a drama rooted in human interest. Its most touching moments arise due to passages of time, not space. They echo things we've all experienced without coming anywhere near the speed of light.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Computer Love Song


They say that losing a spouse through death or divorce, getting fired, and moving, are the most stressful things we commonly live through. 

Not far down the list, I think, is losing a computer.

It isn't that we loved our computer so much. But so much of our selves is invested in it, sustained and remembered by it, that getting a new one is hardly a satisfactory solution—though it may be the beginning of a solution.

And to make matters worse, we don't really know how the darn things work.

I don't, anyway.

It's like the human body. Muscles, bones, oxygen and blood running around every which way. We rely on it, but who really knows what's going on in there?

I can remember all of my computers, from the IBM-XT that drove my huge daisy wheel printer, back in the 1980s, to the Macintosh Performa that crashed, to the Gateway (Windows Millennium) with 32 gigs of disc that was so easy to buy on-line.

Then there was the Compaq Presario with the boxy screen and 250 gigs of disc that I bought used from my brother-in-law Paul for $300. I was moving up.

That machine was doing fine, though nine tenths of the memory was gone, until just recently, when it got finicky about  turning on. It's disturbing when you push the button ... and nothing happens.

Maybe it's the switch (I thought). Or maybe there's some storage battery inside that's wearing out. The machine was using the XP operating system, which was becoming  a little risky in itself.

Meanwhile, my InDesign program was taking five minutes to appear on the screen. Once it showed up, it was usually fine. But I knew the time had come to move on.

I don't like to buy new things, especially when the thing I have still works. I'm "uncomfortable" with change, to adopt that ever-so-cautious post-modern phraseology. But after some cursory research at Best Buy and MicroCenter and a few emails to my friend Tim (who's a computer expert, among many other things) to get some advice about graphics cards and RAM, I pushed the button indicating the purchase of a Windows 7 machine with a huge screen and a terabyte of disc from CostCo.

So my two machines were sitting side by side, and they both worked. (I didn't turn off the Compaq for weeks.) I moved most of the files from one to the other using a terabyte external drive. But what about the program files?

Now the hard part begins. First of all, I've got the get some virus security on my new machine but don't want to drop it on the old machine. I finally arrange a "network" deal at no additional cost to me, thanks to some customer service rep who genuinely sees the situation.

I reload the Adobe Creative Suite using the discs I've saved in the basement. Then learn from Rashmi (my on-line chat interlocutor in India) that the discs won't work. I must download from the website. But he fails to mention that the serial number I bought and paid for and preserved so carefully no longer works either.

Further "chat" a few hours later  reveals that there's a generic number no one told me about.

All of this is complicated by the fact that a while back I upgraded the InDesign program (part of the suite) to 5.5 without upgrading the rest of the suite—which you're not really supposed to do. But we won't get into messy details. My Creative Suite is finally in place. (Though I downloaded some parts of it to the wrong folder. Oops!)

But not so fast. The InDesign program seems to be missing a lot of the fonts it used to have! I should have known that I'd have to reinstall the ones I bought—including my trusty Sabon, Bembo, and Trend—and the free novelty fonts I've downloaded over the years for a specific purpose, including Babelfish, Croomby, Woodplank, Alien Ornaments, Litterbox, Fabulous Fifties, and Jokerman. But what happened to Giovanni Book and Jenson Pro?

So I went back into the old machine and somehow downloaded most of the fonts I was missing onto a flash drive. Two hundred in all. Then installed them en masse on the new machine.

By this time days had past, and I was getting frazzled. I could hardly bear to think what I'd forgotten about or what might happen next, and was incapable of doing any real work. Then I got to thinking about my WinZip software? And my barcode creator from SNX? (Out of business, I'm afraid.) And my FTP Commander, which I need  to access and modify the websites I maintain? (I always loved that name. Every time I logged into it some sort of tune would surface on the order of "Up in the air, Junior Birdman," which is from an old radio program my dad used to listen to.) 

And what about my Abby Finereader OCR software? Fortunately I'd purchased it recently enough that there were no problems re-downloading.

Then there was the driver for my Scanjet 5300c flatbed scanner. I don't even know what a driver is! After a good deal of on-line research, I spotted that device on a list of items that HP no longer supports. Oh, great!  So I needed to download a driver from a third-party with the hokey name of VueScan ($40) or buy a new scanner ($200) The second option would allow me to scan some old slides from Europe. How much is that worth?

And what about the addresses in my Outlook Express 6.0? (Export as a CVS file—or whatever—transfer to a flash drive, and then upload into the new system, dummy!) And what about my cherished game programs? Bridge? Backgammon? Impulse purchases from the check-out line at Office Max long ago. Those CDs must be lying around somewhere.

The new computer doesn't even come with a free cell program.

Perhaps the Dreamweaver XS 2004 saga is the worst. I paid real money for this program, which I use to make web pages. It works. But when I re-installed using the CD it wouldn't accept the legitimate registration number that I miraculously saved for all these years! It recognizes it as valid (green check mark) ...but claims I'm not connected to the internet!

Yes, I know. Adobe bought Dreamweaver a long time ago. And my version is too old. Adobe reps have no advice to give me except to consult the chat forums. If worse comes to worst, I guess I could download a copy of GoLive using the generic serial number they gave me?

For now, I'm watching the trial use date on Dreamweaver drop, day by day. I've got 14 days left. The question is this: If it's too dumb to accept my registration number, after all these years,  is it also too dumb to cut me off when my time is up?

We'll see. If it does, I suppose I could just re-install it using the disc. But once every thirty days? That would get old.

I know what you're going to say. "Your programs are old, you cheapskate. By some new ones."

Trouble is, the old programs work fine, and the new ones have all sorts of unnecessary "enhancements." Besides, the programs I've mentioned here would triple the cost of the new system. 

Then there are those who would say, "Hire a professional to do all that." But it should be obvious that I'd have to tell him my life story before he got everything right.  

About a week ago, I plugged an external hard drive into the old machine to extract a few folders I'd missed the first time and it bombed off again—with a little pop. It's never come on since.

I still push the on-off button every morning, but nothing happens.

Since then I've removed the keyboard from the desk, and I hauled the screen to the basement a few days later. The tower is still there at my feet; there's a pale green light blinking in the back, as if it's in a coma. And the memory lingers on...

Someone at Micro-center told me yesterday that I could remove the hard drive from the tower  physically and attach it via a special cable to the new machine to use  as a separate drive. "It's not a big deal," he said. "It's on the left, just remove a few screws."

I have my doubts. The cable was $15, but I didn't buy it. Maybe I'll try that some day.

Here are the silver linings. The new computer is darned fast! Microsoft supports it (for now). And the screen, as I mentioned, is huge—I'm getting a sore neck just looking at it. (The last screen looked huge, too, when I got it.)

The screen-saver allows me to set up a succession of rotating images, which I could never do on the Windows XP—or didn't know how to.

Right now I'm looking at a close-up of a white cleome from the summer garden.

I like it. I'm seeing things I never saw before. It's quite remarkable.