Wednesday, July 11, 2007

La Vie en Rose

Traditional French culture seems to float in a scented bath of beauty and joie de vivre, so that people love, eat, drink, whine, cheat and betray one another, and occasionally commit crimes of passion within a hovering atmosphere of timeless sensuality and existential rectitude (now there’s an interesting phrase) that renders the particular events being depicted somewhat inconsequential, no matter how germane they may be to life or the development of the plot. The pervasive charm of the whole trumps the moral implications of the storyline, and the message is always the same: C’ est la Vie. We like the wine, the fresh bread, the streets of Paris, the rows of poplars leading up the drive to the country estate, and the commanding logic of l‘ Amour, which, for good or ill, obliterates everything in its path.

In recent decades—to judge from the films they’re putting out—the French seem to have lost their charm. No sooner are these words out of my mouth, however, than I’m reminded of Joyeux Noel, a truly charming French film about trench warfare. So all is not yet lost. Yet the trend is marked, and the latest French blockbuster, La Vie en Rose, only serves to confirm it.

Now, everyone ought to have an Edith Piaf record. (The question is, Does anyone need two?) Though her signature numbers tend to be a little strident, they evoke the atmosphere of Parisian cabaret life during the inter-war years, which is when Piaf rose to prominence as a popular entertainer. None of us were alive then, but it’s easy to appreciate the romantic, nostalgic, bitter-sweet and also hard-edged flavor of the music, and Piaf’s voice has no rivals in its power to get the mood across. There is enough crisp energy in a single one of her rolled “r”s to shatter glass, and her vibrato is so tight you could hang your wash out to dry on it. Piaf was only 4 ft 8 (the little sparrow, you know) and yet she could belt out melodies with remarkable intensity. No one who knows her music, I think, would hesitate call it “great.”

Yet alongside the music, there is also the Piaf myth. She was raised in the street, in a brothel, in a circus. She was “discovered,” she wowed chic and wealthy Parisians with her expressive power. She became famous, performed in America, was on Ed Sullivan eight times, and along the way became an icon of her own nation, like Amelia Rodriguez in Portugal or Frank Sinatra (?) in the United States. Yet through it all she retained the impulsiveness of her lowly origins (Good for her!) became addicted to morphine, frequently spat on her patrons and benefactors, and burned out at the tender age of 47.

At any rate, that is the story we receive from La Vie en Rose, which is a strange and unsatisfying film, in which Piaf comes across as an egotistical maniac. Why is there no mention of her (often successful) efforts on behalf of French prisoners during WWII, or her contributions to the fledgling careers of Yves Montand or Charles Avnesvour? On the other hand, Piaf’s affair with the Moroccan boxer Marcel Cerdan is elevated here to a position of Olympian devotion, “The love of her life!” yet she had so many affairs during the course of her career that no one could count them up. Piaf’s artistry always seems to take a back seat to her brash and arbitrary personal whims, though the film does underscore how important song-writers were to her success. And far too much time is devoted to her final years, when she was worn out and ill—she died of cancer. In fact, the director, Olivier Dahan, handles the many time-shifts as if he had just been watching The Great Train Robbery (1903) rather than Citizen Kane.

In short, Edith Piaf was a far more interesting and attractive figure than the one being presented to us here. Yet like most bio-pics of musicians, La Vie en Rose, for all its shabbiness, does holds our interest. There is always the next song, the next insult, the next overdose. A more sympathetic portrait, and a better film, is Claude Lelouch’s Edith and Marcel. And an excellent documentary was released in 1999 or thereabouts. I have a copy on VHS if you want to borrow it.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Last Days of Pompeii

In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted, hurling rocks through the rooftops of the surrounding villages and cities, and later spewing forth a rich and lethal flood of ash, fumes, and molten lava. Pompeii, the most famous of the cities at the foot of the mountain, was utterly obliterated, and lost to history for almost two thousand years. Early in the nineteenth century excavators began to unearth the streets, homes, and businesses of Pompeii, many of which had been preserved intact by the hardened volcanic material. And during the 1850s they began to fill the unusual cavities they found in the rock with plaster. When the rock was subsequently chipped away, the forms of men, woman, and animals were exposed, revealing the twisted, horrified positions these individuals had assumed the moment they were engulfed by the relentlessly advancing lava.

It's powerful stuff, and it has captured the imaginations of both children and adults for generations, making Pompeii by some accounts the most visited tourist attraction in Italy--a country that has more than its share. Recently, a few of the artifacts uncovered by the excavations at Pompeii were mounted into a traveling exhibit, along with scale models of villas, audio interpretation, and computer-generated images of both daily life in the city, and the more unusual events that took place on August 24, 79 AD, when all hell broke loose.

The chief drawback of the show, which arrived at the Science Museum in St. Paul a few weeks ago, is the price. It will cost you $20 to get in, though the fee also includes entry into the other sections of the museum and use of the audio device. Is it worth it? That depends on how interested you are in volcanoes and daily life in ancient Rome. I would say yes, though I used a museum library pass to shave $8 off the fee.

The show is modest in size, and a number of the artifacts on display are similar to things many of us have seen before--roman coins, amphorae, gold necklaces, funeral urns. The interpretation is clear but hardly brilliant, and anyone who studied Roman history in college will probably be thinking from time to time: "The Romans were far more interesting and idiosyncratic than this," but without quite remembering how. For example, the commentary about Roman burial practices along the roads leading into Pompeii seems to belittle the rituals and beliefs of the time, emphasizing the status-seeking motives of the survivors rather than their devotion to their ancestors, whom they considered minor gods deserving of gifts and veneration. Even this sort of mental jog is of value, however, and as you move through the museum the small but select exhibits about laundry, cooking, commerce, gaming, and other aspects of daily life contribute to a full-blown picture of a foreign, yet strangely familiar way of life.

The cooking and eating habits of the citizens of Pompeii are among the more interesting of the subjects covered by the exhibit. You can see carbonized walnuts and fava beans, baked bread that has somehow been preserved by the disaster( a little on the burnt side, to be sure), and handy little clay firepits with "burners" on three sides, under which the burning coals could be positioned once the fire had reached the desired degree of heat. Though the odiferous substance itself is not on display, the fish-paste called garum (a complicated mixture of fermented tuna and anchovy innards) is discussed at length. It was the salsa of Pompeii--fishy, salty, and no doubt very strange-tasting to us (though tapenade may harbor a dim modern echo.)

I found it interesting to learn that many homes in Pompeii did not have kitchens. People ate and imbibed on the run at fast-food outlets located throughout the city, while waiting to be invited to banquets at the homes of their wealthy friends. At such banquets guests ate while reclining--three to a couch. The less esteemed guests had to be content to sit on chairs.The furniture in the homes of Pompeii was scanty in any case, and was often moved from room to room as required by the occasion. (That's a habit I like.)

There were very few dioramas or models depicting city streets, which surprised me, but it seems that greenery was reserved for the interior courtyards of private dwellings. Among the statuary included in the exhibit two pieces stand out. One is a statue of one of the Muses that looks more Mexican than Roman--blocky yet powerful and handsome. I've never seen anything like it. And there are also two elegant ten-foot marble columns with floral patterns that are very nice. One case holds a display of small marble garden ornaments each of which depicts an animal tearing a smaller animal to shreds. (I prefer the plaster bunny that sits under the euonymus bush in my back yard.)

Even more striking are the frescoes that have somehow been removed and transported here to Saint Paul. We've seen these images before, or others like them, on the covers of paperback books containing the poems of Horace or the letters of Seneca, but it's something else again to see them in the flesh. Though the tales being depicted are sometimes bizarre, the people look just like us! And the animals and plants in the background look attractive, suggesting that although the Roman's were well aware that nature could be brutal, they also considered it to be a sort of garden paradise.

Nature's brutality is on full display in the last room of the exhibit. This darkened room contains a few of the plaster casts that have been made of the victims of the eruption. The casts are rough and white, like a George Segal imitation of Rodin's bronze representation of Balzac. But the positions are chilling, to say the least. One man holds a cloth to his face, another sits huddled in a corner with his legs pulled up under him. One man is in shackles. And one of the casts is of a couple with arms outstretched around one another.

The casts rest in beds of reddish pumice, and they are powerful examples of an art that is not art. We are moved by them, because without knowing anything about these women and men (there are a few animals too) we see and feel the pathos of the final moments they experienced before death overtook them. In their gestures, their anonymity, and their realness, they convey a depth of humanity that art seldom approaches.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ethics and Poetry

What brings perfection to one’s way of life is to spend each day as if it were the last.

So said the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. On the face of it, the notion is absurd. Our lives consist largely of a complicated bundle of plans and commitments that we nurse lovingly to their completion. We build a deck. We volunteer at the church. We return day after day to our place of employ. We dutifully send in our mortgage payment month after month to the men who have so obligingly financed the purchase of our house.
Marcus Aurelius didn’t have to go to work. He didn’t have to pay the bills. He was the emperor! People worked for him, paid the bills to him.

If today were the last day of my life I wouldn’t go to work. I wouldn’t pay the bills. What I would do is..... What?

When we ask ourselves this question, we begin to expose the value of the emperor’s less-than-profound but nevertheless interesting observation. Aristotle put it better. There are some things we do for the sake of other things. And there are some things that we do just for the sake of doing them. These things give us pleasure. They give us peace. They uplift our spirits. Their value is intrinsic.

It would be worthwhile for us to identify what a few of these things are, and make sure that we actually do them from time to time.

* * *

I once had a heated argument in a bar with a young man—a friend of a friend—who insisted that an ethical system could be established based solely on the individual self. I defended the position that ethics, by nature and definition, deals with the way we relate to others. I certainly would have won the debate, had we followed it to its conclusion, but at a certain point I got the feeling that my interlocutor was about the have a stroke, and since it was clear to me that the gentleman had thought long and hard about these issues (which is rather rare, don’t you think?) and was truly a sensitive fellow, I desisted, hoping that he would perhaps ponder our discussion later, and perhaps suddenly realize that his “ethics” was, in fact, more deeply rooted in interpersonal relations than he had suspected.

* * *

Yes, ethics is, by nature and definition, a matter of our relations with others. However, what we’re talking about here is not ethics. It’s poetry.

The things that we do just for the sake of doing them. The things that give us pleasure. The things that give us peace. That uplift our spirits.

You will notice that the feelings and interests of “others” do not figure prominently in this description. Am I trying to suggest that were it not for the skein of commitments we foolishly entrap ourselves in, each and every one of us would be brazenly selfish? Not at all. I will admit that the word “selfish” is an ugly one, and it usually rears its head very early in life, when some kid down the street starts playing with my toys. Mom tries to convince me that it’s wrong to challenge others who are bent on exploiting my private property. Or perhaps, taking a gentler tack, she tries to convince me that it’s a mark of virtue to share my things. I don’t think she understands what’s at stake here. My things!!!!

Yes, selfishness is both healthy and natural, in my opinion. But that isn’t exactly what I’m talking about. Selfishness may give us pleasure, but it doesn’t give us peace. It may uplift our spirits, but only momentarily, and only at the expense of others. The ones who can no longer play with my toys, because they’re MINE.

I’m talking about the life of poetry. Few philosophers give it much space in their elaborate systems. Yet poetry is an autonomous realm (as Benedetto Croce, for example, well understood). It needs to be highlighted.
When we enter that realm, we aren’t scoring or lording it over others. What we’re doing is luxuriating in experience. Things are being given to us. Life, beauty. The last day. The next day.

I saw some milkweed pods along the roadside. I never realized how fragrant they could be.

These are baby chickadees at the feeder. Their feathers look wet.

Have you considered the difference between the Argyle chardonnay from Oregon and the Louis Latour chardonnay from Macon “Les Charmes”? Same (low) price.

Spinoza smoked. That’s a very bad habit. In our day and age, perhaps unethical.

When I use the word “poetry” I suppose I am conjuring images of butterflies, flowery words, rhyme, and sentimental evasion. That would be too bad. In philosophical terms, “poetry” refers to two things simultaneously, intuition and expression. That means, genuinely seeing the world, and expressing our love of it. But the word “poetry” also refers to the act of “making,” and this would seem to imply that poetry is manufactured. If that is the case, then it is expressing something other than what it sees. In other words, it is some sort of a lie.

Those who follow this line of analysis fail to recognize that that there is an element of creativity in both intuition and expression. We describe the milkweed, or the chickadee, while telling you about ourselves. And this added element of personal glee is what gives this domain of experience its energy.

There may be times when we are struggling to reconnect with our inner glee. We pick up a book or poems (or a book of photographs, or a novel) and suddenly we are reminded of how the whole thing works. And this teaches us that the individual who is selfishly cultivating his or her individual glee, (or cultivating a very private sorrow, for that matter) is also providing a great service to humanity.

Ethics is a part of life, and so is poetry. This is what the philosophers should have told us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lee Konitz and Hiromi

It’s hard to image Lee Konitz and Hiromi performing together. Konitz is pushing eighty. Hiromi is twenty-five. More to the point, Konitz is (usually) a laid-back balladeer, Hiromi is a frenzied virtuoso. The two both happened to be in town this weekend, and I CAUGHT BOTH SHOWS.

I developed an appreciation of Konitz rather late. But there's a reason. As a teen I had a difficult time finding meaningful gifts for my parents. I knew my mother liked the feathery style of Paul Desmond, and I'd read that Konitz was a cooler and rather more intellectual version of the same. That year (1967?) Konitz won the Downbeat “record of the year” award, for a duet album, and I bought it for my mom. It was harsh and edgy and she hated it. In fact, she accused me of buying it for her, so I could HAVE IT FOR MYSELF! Gee, how was I supposed to know!! In fact, except for the opening duet with a trombone player, “Strutting with Some Barbeque,” I hated the album myself. Thus do adults heap injustice on their helpless offspring. But that’s another story...

I reconnected with Konitz only a few years ago via a brilliant album called Angel Song, which flows with beauty and intelligence and no drums. Later I found a few things in the used bins—a duet album with Michel Petrucciano, a cheezy album of Brazilian beach music, a brilliant early-fifties set of arrangements in what I think of as the “Lenny Tristano style,” called Subconscious-Lee.

So we went down to the Artist’s Quarter in Saint Paul on a recent Sunday night. Twenty bucks a seat, which is not bad to be sitting twenty feet from the “legend” who, later this month, is being honored at Carnegie Hall. A very good local rhythm section. Lee himself came across as something of a self-depreciatory goofball, which is nice to know. He asked for requests and rejected most of them as being either “too cool” or “not cool enough.” Ended up playing “Stella by Starlight” and “Cherokee.”

I was racking my brains to come up with something that would be medium cool. “Darn That Dream”? “Green Dolphin Street”? “I Can’t Get Started”? In the end I shouted out nothing. But now I know that “You Go to My Head” would have been perfect.

So Lee played. And the sidemen played. And the set was too short. And the time between sets was too long. So we left, with several nuggets of that brilliant elaboration of tunefulness which is jazz at its best. Thoughtful and romantic, tough on occasion, but above all else, KNOWING. Jazz is knowing, both musically and emotionally. At its best, it wanders in the zones of love lost and found, with no interface of words or “hooks” or anger or pretension.

There is something amazing about listening to a man who, by the age of twenty-two, had played with Lennie Tristano, Claude Thornhill, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, and Gil Evans. How many times has Konitz played “Stella by Starlight” over the decades?

Konitz’s style is “cool” as opposed to the febrile style of Charlie Parker, and Parker himself once expressed admiration that Konitz did not play like him. Be that as it may, in 1962 Konitz recorded one of the classic albums of all time, Motion, on which we find him with only bass and drums, spinning variations on a selection of standards with tireless breath and imagination. It’s like an Ornette Coleman album with more harmonic richness and depth. That is the key—understanding and working with the harmonies.

At the Artist Quarter Konitz displayed flashes of the same remarkable musicianship. (I overheard the man sitting at the bar behind me saying that he had attended every night of the three-night weekend stand.)

Jazzed up by the brilliant jazz, I decided to head down to the Dakota the following evening to hear Hiromi, the wunderkind pianist from Japan. It’s a different scene, swankier, but very nice all the same. Hiromi is classically trained, wears sparkles on her eyelids (though you can’t see them from any distance) and travels with a band featuring an electric guitar and bass. I had downloaded a few tracks from her most recent album, Sonic Boom, and I was impressed by the intelligence of the arrangements. The show itself was no less professionally coordinated—so much so that there was almost no clapping following the solos. There wasn’t time, and things were moving on. Hiromi obviously likes odd jagged rhythms. Yet her music seems to lack a lyric core of what we once called “expression.” (But perhaps all she’s trying to express is frenzied brilliance.) No one could deny that her set was full of life, and it was also plenty long—the great sin of jazz performers is short first sets. For myself, I like her album better.

be that as it may, Hiromi remains a very BIG jazz phenomenon, rather than a youth-crossover wannabe. The Japanese ambassador flew up from Chicago to see the show, for example. An elderly woman sitting in a booth in front of me was explaining to her white-haired friends why she was supporting Obama. And the black gentleman sitting at the bar next to me tried to fill me in on his favorite Hip Hop performers. (Fiasco somebody, and Slaw Daug, if I remember correctly.)

I can report that the martinis are both stronger and tastier at the Dakota than the Artist’s Quarter. They also cost twice as much. Being out is fun. Jazz is sublime. History just keeps rolls along. And honest, Mom, I did it for you.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Birds in Decline!!!

A report was issued by the National Audobon Society recently suggesting that the populations of many common backyard birds are in decline. I have read several versions of this story but none of them include a complete list of species with the data pertinent to each. Do they think the reader is too dumb to interpret such material? Or are they themselves mis-interpreting it?

It seems to me that some species are down, others are up. Red-headed woodpeckers have been way down for decades. That is not news. Prairie birds have naturally declined as more prairie habitat, and even the margins of fields, are given over to producing corn so that we fatten our cattle and can liberate outselves from oil dependency!?

On the other hand, it strikes me that pileated woodpecker are far more common than they used to be. I thought brown thrashers were a thing of the past, but I saw three on a recent trip through rural Minnesota. On the other hand, how about the black-billed cuckoo? (I haven't seen one in years.) Then again, on a recent trip to the North Shore I noticed that the woods were alive with black-throated green warblers.

Continuing my quest to get at the truth about bird populations I finally arrived at the Audubon website where the research report originated. It contained a number of very complete and complicated statistical charts in an appendix, but little interpretation. The main page of the site was dominated by a list (with pictures) of the twenty species that seem to have suffered the most precipitous decline in numbers. No where was there a list of the species that have experienced significant increases in population over the last forty years.

Bald eagles would probably be near the top of that list, at least in my region, with cardinals close behind. Bluebirds have returned in large numbers, wood ducks seem to be much more common than they used to be, and wild turkeys have become so common that the other day one greeted me on my suburban doorstep as I reached out to retrieve the paper. Kestrels have fallen into decline, though pelicans and sandhill cranes seem much more numerous than they used to be. (It may be that I'm spending more time in the areas they pass through.)

All of this is anecdotal stuff. But the point should be obvious: as habitat changes, populations wax and wane. A more accurate report from the Audubon Society would make that point clear. There is a whiff of apocalypse hanging over reports of the "sudden decline in colorful little birds." It may be an effective way to raise money, and it may also be true, as far as it goes. But we deserve a more complete picture, if not in the wire reports that appear in the newspapers, then at least from the organization that conducted the study in the first place.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Clay of Roland Garros

For those who don't really enjoy watching tennis--and that would include most of us--there is always the fascinating and curious anomaly called the French Open. It's not that the French have created something truly different. On the contrary, they have stuck to old-fashioned methods and habits, and more power to them. After all, the French invented tennis. Under the ancien regime a game known as 'Jeu de paumme' became wildly popular among the aristocracy. It was played in an enclosed court, and the rules were different, but the embryo of modern tennis is not difficult to discern. Take a look at the opening scenes of Richard Lester's very funny film The Three Musketeers and you'll see what I mean.

The game would begin when one of the contestants shouted "Tenez" (or "Play") and the rest is history.

One of the most important events of the French Revolution took place in a tennis court: the Third Estate declared itself the Nation, and good riddance to the clergy and the nobility. Yet tennis as a sport was not well-served by the decline of the French aristocracy following the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century it was revived on the country estates of rural England, however, as an outdoor activity. These Tenez contests took place on grass, and they set the stage for the diversity of surfaces that provide an angle for sportswriters even today. In the New Worlds of America and Australia tennis later became a game of hard-courts, and over time the "Grand Slams" were canonized--Wimbelton (grass), the French Open (clay) and the U.S. and Australian Opens (hard surfaces). (The Australians switched from grass to a hard surface in 1988)

Of the three hallowed surfaces it has long been recognized that clay is the odd man out, and more than a few great champions have failed to excell on that surface. Why? Because clay is slow, the ball bounces higher, and power gives way to speed at running down shots, endurance, and sheer doggedness. It's foolish to describe clay as "the great equalizer," however, as some do. It's not as if anyone can win on clay. But clay calls for different strengths, and that's why those stars who have won slams not only in England, Australia, the United States, but also on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, elevate themselves to a higher bracket. To win in France, on the other hand, is only a moderate achievement in itself. Thirteen of the last 17 French Open winners have never won a Grand Slam on another surface.

The yearly duel between the Spaniard Nadal and the Swiss Federer has taken on added dimension because of the remarkable success Feyderer has had on other surfaces. He's won four straight at Wimbledon, three straight at the US Open, and three over time at the Australian Open. Nine of the last eleven grand slams have gone his way. The French conisistently eludes him. And for the last three years, Nadal has been his nemesis.

Year after year I plan to buy some croissants and orange marmelade and watch the finals of the French Open from start to finish. That's the only way you really get the feel of what a titanic struggle it can be. (I remember Lendl coming from behind to beat McEnroe, and Chang defeating Edberg with an underhanded serve.) But in recent times it seems that something always comes up, though it often happens that I return home right as the final awards ceremony is taking place.

This year we went bicycling with my sister Nancy along the Mississippi, where the Frenchman Louis Hennepin portaged his canoe in 1680 or therabouts. I was eating a tempei sloppy-joe at the Longfellow Grill on Lake Street when I saw Nadal's face come on the screen of the TV above the bar, and I rushed over to see who had won. They'd just changed the channel, and no one at the bar seemed to know what was going on, but it was clear to me that Federer had won. Nadal looked sad and sincere and emotional, and Federer looked pleased but also gentlemanly and composed, as he usually is.

That's Great, I thought to myself. Now Federer can scratch that off his list. It was only a matter of time. Why not get it over with? And Nadal has had a great run too.

Later, when I read in the papers that Nadal had won, I was equally pleased. Three in a row! That, too, is a very unusual accomplishment.

Yet Federer's dominance of the other Slams is more impressive. In fact, it has driven some sportswriters, hungry for an angle, to throw out the query, "Federer, best of all time?" An alternative theory would be that the field of worthy opponents has simply declined. Consider that during the French Open Federer defeated Michael Russell, Thierry Ascione, Potito Staraco, Mikhail Yauzhny, Tommy Robredo, and Nikolay Davydenko. Who? Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Sampras, Agassi, Becker, Lendl, Courier, Ivanisovic, and others battled it out year after year. And the era of Borg, McInroe, Conners, Edberg, and Wielander was arguably even greater. Going back to the golden age of the Australians.... But I think you get my point.

Yet for all I know, the men Federer defeated on his way to the finals of the French Open are just as good as, if not better than, the colorful characters I've just mentioned. (Wielander colorful? That's going too far.) The problem is that winning a Grand Slam is what gives a ring to a player's name, and when one talented player wins all the Slams, the rest remain in relative obscurity, which (paradoxically) diminishes his achievement.

Those of us who have actually watched Federer play have no qualms about including him among the best ever. And watching Nadal play leaves us in no doubt that he is also among the best ever--on clay. The two make a truly classic match-up. Tennis needs more of them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Paris, Je T'aime

In one of the short films included in this anthology, a man is on the verge of splitting with his wife when she informs him she has terminal luekemia. He pulls back from his plan, and during the couple's final weeks together he learns to love her all over again, knowing she'll soon be gone. That's how the viewer is likely to approach these eighteen brief tales: we watch each episode with special attention and heightened appreciation, knowing that it will soon be over. The fact that they all take place in Paris adds a romantic luster to the collection, though none of the stories involves a classic boy-meets-girl scenario. An inventory of some of the plot-lines (without, I hope, giving too much away) might suggest how varied the stories are, as well as providing a challenging memory test:

A woman (Juliette Binoche) is mourning her son's death (he loved cowboys) when she hears his voice late at night. She runs out in the street and encounters Willem Dafoe on a horse.

A ramp attendant becomes friendly with a beautiful woman who's parking her car, and loses his job as a result. Things go from bad to worse for him, but she happens to be the emergency medic who arrives on the scene after he suffers an urban injury.

A couple about to be married have a spat about the importance of humor at the gravestone of Oscar Wilde.

A blind student gets a phone call from his actress-girlfriend cutting off their relationship. He relieves their time together Run-Lola-Run style.

A young man visiting a print shop feels a special affinity for a "deep" quiet man who works in the shop. We learn later that the quiet man simply doesn't speak French.

A fashion-product salesman pays a visit to a Chinese kick-boxing salon.

A single middle-aged woman from Denver describes her solo trip to Paris in stilted school-girl French.

A first-time visitor to Paris (Steve Buscemi) makes the mistake of staring at a kissing couple at a Metro station.

A wealthy, elderly couple (Ben Gazzara and Gina Roland) discuss their impending divorce with wit and style.

A young American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) makes a couple of drug deals before an evening of filming.

A young man (Elijah Wood) gets involved in a bloody vampire romance.

A young woman drops off her baby at a day-care center in the wee hours of the morning so she can spend the day caring for the baby of her wealthy employer.

The problem with short films is that there is insufficient time to develop anything. It's impossible to go very deep. And yet short films, unlike many short stories, are often suggestive, rather than merely contrived. At any rate, most of the selections assembled here stick in memory. I could do without the episode of the two mimes who meet in prison. And the short featuring Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant struck me as unsavory. In fact, I found several of the stories incomprehensible. But none were dull.

I was surprised when the final credits began to roll. What fun, and over all too soon.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Waitress

A film based on caricatures has got to be brilliant, original, or truly over-the-top to elevate itself above the level of matinee entertainment. The Waitress is mildly fun to watch, but there is nothing original or brilliant about it. In fact, the characters are thin and the plot carries few surprises. We have a waitress with unbalanced boobs and a disabled husband, a shy, nerdy waitress who's actually "beautiful," and the central character, Jenna, a sweet and attractive waitress who's married to a creep, though she's a genius at making pies and goes out of her way to come to the aid of all the people who ask her for help. As they say in the Gospel, "She saved others: herself she could not save."

The plot revolves around the fact that Jenna (played with charming ingenuousness by Kerri Russell) is pregnant, though she has no interest in having a baby. On the contrary, her goal is to win a pie-baking contest and leave her husband. She becomes involved with her gynecologist, a somewhat olfish but likable married man. Meanwhile, one of her fellow-waitresses falls in love with a man--the Stalker Dwarf--who pursues her relentlessly, against her wishes, after a dreadful first date, while the other waitress uncorks a torrid affair with the cafe's short-order cook, whose wife they've all known for years. Perhaps the most nuanced character is Joe, the owner of the cafe, whom we are told is "mean" though he doesn't act very mean. Chock up an Oscar nomination for the venerable Andy Griffith!

Yes, there are chuckles here and there, but it's all a little bit lame. The many variations on making a pie are fun to watch, but I couldn't help thinking of a far more creative film that makes use of a similar conceit, Like Water for Chocolate.The panic and confusion of an unwanted pregnancy come across clearly, and Jenna's letters to her daughter are touching, but all serious issues are avoided, and in the end the film is neither terribly funny nor particularly meaningful. What every woman needs, it appears, is a cute baby, a marketable skill, a supportive group of female friends/employees ... and a big pile of money from a dead man.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Long before the Coen Brothers made their famous film, the city of Fargo, North Dakota, had developed a reputation for dumbness. I don’t know why, but people who have never been there speak of the town with derision, perhaps for no other reason than because the name sounds a little brutish. The fact that Fargo is the most sophisticated city in North Dakota doesn’t add much luster to its reputation, considering that North Dakota is the country’s most rural state. The fact that Fargo is the coldest city in the United States doesn’t help much either.

We visited Fargo a few days ago, fresh from two or three days of exploring the Leaf Hills of western Minnesota, and we had a very nice time. Perhaps the gently rolling countryside of Ottertail County, with its farm fields, round flat lakes, and beautifully meandering streams, had put us in the proper mood to enjoy the amenities of a Not-So-Big city.


We began our visit in Moorhead, which sits just across the river. Moorhead developed as a transportation hub back in the days when goods were hauled back and forth between Winnipeg and Saint Paul in long trains of large wooden ox-carts, and it solidified its position when it was chosen as the Red River crossing site by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The trains still run right through the middle of town many times a day, and they blow their whistles the whole way through, so that even though the crossings are equipped with flashing lights and descending guard-arms, I found myself looking around a lot, a little unsure whether, at any moment, I was going to be obliterated by a speeding locomotive.

Moorhead’s two chief tourist sights are both replicas. Jerry Aps, a local shop-teacher, spent many years building a Viking sailing ship. The city of Moorhead later built a museum to house it. A few years later retiree Guy Paulson began a decade-long project to build a stave church on the banks of the river alongside the museum, based on the Hopperstad Church in Vik, Norway. Aps died of leukemia before he had a chance to sail the ship across the Atlantic to Norway, but at the museum you can watch a video devoted to his son’s efforts to complete the journey, with the help of a few seasoned Norwegian seamen. Both creations are well worth a look. As for the church, the construction is impressive and the ornamental carvings of dragons and woodland spirits are very pleasing. The Celtic cross in the church yard, on the other hand, looks as if it were carved yesterday. It ought to be removed, or subjected to a few years of heavy mechanical abuse.


Our appetite for history having been satisfied by these impressive wooden constructions, we skipped the county exhibits in the basement of the museum and drove across the river to Fargo. Along a two-block stretch of Broadway we passed a few coffee-shops, an art gallery that had mounted an exhibition of antique Schwinn bicycles, an appealingly divey pizza restaurant, a shop selling antiques and religious statuary, and an upscale bar. The bar is attached to the Donaldson Hotel, which has a dramatic sculpture in the foyer and a European-style walk-up second-floor lobby. We went upstairs to take a look, though with rooms starting at $175, we were not likely to be checking in any time soon. Nevertheless, the amiable desk clerk insisted on showing us one of the suites, and he explained that each one had been carefully designed by a different artist. The one we were shown was equipped with a large flat TV screen with Bose speakers and fine glass tumblers in the mini-bar. The suite’s artistic flourishes, which extended from the pictures on the walls to the shape of the bedstead, were intriguing, though perhaps not entirely conducive to a good night’s sleep. I was finding it difficult to imagine who would book a room in such a hotel in Fargo, and I asked our guide how the Donaldson was doing.

“Oh, we’re holding our own,” he replied. “After all, I’m still here after three and a half years.”

“Well, having an experienced staff is certainly important,” I mumbled lamely.

Back down on the street, we wandered north on Broadway toward the Fargo Theatre, and I was startled to discover they were showing two films that we’d wanted to see in Minneapolis but missed, Avenue Montagne and Into Deep Silence. If they’d been showing Caddyshack III and The Waterboy, our impression of the city might have been entirely different. As it was, we decided to see the two movies and spend the night in town.

We booked a room in the Radisson just down the street from the Donaldson (at half the price). The Monets on the wall were not original, but the mattress had a two-sided push-button adjustment for firmness, the glasses by the ice bucket were actually made of glass, and the views from our eleventh-floor room were fine. A petite convention center stood immediately below us, and we could see bridges and trees and church steeples and other buildings on both sides of the river in the distance. Off near the horizon a continuous stream of white smoke or steam drifted west from a giant smokestack.

The Fargo Theatre is a small, well-proportioned art deco venue with an orchestra pit and an aisle down the middle. A few years ago the theatre received a 2.6 million dollar grant to restore the interior, and the results are impressive. Whether the money was actually well-spent is another matter. At current rates, the same funds would have made it possible for 350,000 people to see a film for free. It’s Mary and Martha all over again.

A stout white-haired man played old-fashioned tunes on an antique Wurlitzer before the start of the second film. As the lights went down both man and organ descended slowly into the pit until they vanished from sight. This dramatic exit was marred somewhat by the fact that it was necessary to raise the organ into full view again to allow the man, who walked with a cane, to leave his post. (As he left the stage I was reminded of the French poet Saint-John Perse, whom I saw once in Minneapolis before his death in 1975). During its darkest days, the Fargo Theatre was saved from demolition by the local Wurlitzer society. Perhaps this very gentleman had been the central figure in Fargo’s grand cultural revival!

Between shows we had time to munch on a plastic container of fresh vegetables at the Atomic Coffee Shop which sits just down the street from the theatre. The thin young woman behind the cash register had homely glasses, and she was wearing a clean but rather old-fashioned calico smock, so that as she slowly swept the linoleum floor of the cafe during her idle moments, she seemed almost to be caressing the crumbs and dust with her broom.
Watching her sweep put me in a fine frame of mind to see the second film on the double-bill, a three-hour descent into the daily lives of Trappist monks in Switzerland. The footage was presented without even a brief description of how these men actually thought about their silent, cloistered lives, or why they had decided to take vows, or what good, if any, they imagined would result from all their prayers and singing and gardening and study.

Back out on the streets of Fargo, we were happy to return to our comfortable room, to our ice bucket and our push-button bed. We watched the light fade from the sky beyond Moorhead, and as the white stream of smoke, or steam, continued to drift westward from that sugar-beet plant (or whatever it is) into the beautiful emptiness of rural North Dakota, I was thinking that small cities are just pretty neat. And I also began to wonder if the reputation of the largest city on the Red River south of Winnipeg might have been a little different if it had changed its name, back in the days of the French-Canadian/Ojibwe Meti ox-carts, to Fargaux.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Busker Joshua Bell

A few weeks ago a video clip was being sent around featuring Joshua Bell in concert--at a subway stop. Men and women rushed past, and very few of them paused even briefly to listen. One man recognized Bell, and gave him a $20.

Journalists had a good deal of fun analyzing the event, pondering the risk to which Bell was submitting his priceless violin, and expressing disbelief that the passing hordes were so uniformly oblivious to the genius in their midst.Yet there is little to be surprised about here, it seems to me. In the first place, most people who ride the subway are not just passing the time--they're on their way somewhere. And in any case, a crowded subway passage is not a very pleasant place to stand around listening to Paganini or Bach. Classical music requires a degree of silence, focus, and concentration that even fine concert halls sometimes fail to provide. The man in the row behind you who's absent-mindedly rubbing his program across the wales of his corduroy slacks can ruin an entire evening, and make you wish you were sitting in a comfortable chair at home, listening to a CD.

And although Joshua Bell is by all accounts a masterful violinist, the world is full of violinists that are only a degree or two less adept and expressive than he. The cult of the rising super-star virtuoso has kept the classical music business afloat for a long time now, but it has the unfortunate effect of diminishing somewhat our appreciation of music being performed by far more obscure, though only slightly less talented, artists.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

God's Inner Life

I ran across the following remarks by Nicolas Berdyrev in the introduction to a book by the German mystic Jacob Boehme. They gave me pause for thought:

The Christian theological systems have elaborated a doctrine of God within the categories of Greek philosophical thought. Thus, the doctrine of God as pure act, containing within himself nothing that is potential, is based entirely on Aristotle. Christian theology has drawn its teachings of an immobile, satisfied, and static God not from the Bible, nor from Christian revelation, but rather from Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle. The static nature of Greek ontology has left its imprint on Christian theology. The immobile God, God as pure act, is a concept of God, it is not a living God. The predominant theological doctrine of God takes from God all inner life, denies all process, likens him to a motionless rock. The idea is idolatrous. The God of the Bible and of Apocalypse is not so. He is full of a dramatic inner life. He has movement within him.

Leaving aside for the moment the problem of lumping together three thinkers as disparate in their views as Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle, Berdyrev’s argument is clear enough. He is suggesting that Aristotle’s God is conceptual, static, and lifeless, while the God we meet up with in the Bible has personality, movement, and inner life. This distinction seems perfectly sound to me, and it might be worth adding that the Biblical God reveals himself through personal interactions with women and men, and more broadly speaking through stories, while Aristotle’s God is derived from logical categories that are based on, while standing at one remove from, day-to-day experience.

All the same, it strikes me as a little odd that Berdyrev refers to Aristotle’s God as one of “pure action,” yet goes on to describe him as an immobile, static God. Action is not immobile. Action is movement. In order to understand the Aristotelian world-view, it might be well for us, at the very least, to come to grips with the distinction Aristotle makes between action and potential.

This shouldn’t be hard. Aristotle uses these terms in much the same way we do. An acorn has the potential to become an oak tree. An Oregon lumberjack or an Alabama share-cropper has the potential to become the president of the United States. Plenty of mis-steps and accidents stand in the way of such things taking place. It’s difficult for anything to reach its full potential. But because God is perfect and eternal, he has no unrealized potential. He is pure unadulterated activity.

On the face of it, this is a beautiful image: perfection as activity, like music that always pleases and never repeats. But it seems to me that this theory has a few problems, too. It would be blasphemous to suggest that God is unadulterated mindless activity, of the sort that Aristotle admired when he saw the stars spinning around in perfect, unchanging circles. But I find it difficult to imagine what pure and perfectly mindful activity would look like. Even the most salutary acts we engage in produce unintended consequences, and leave us wondering if we might have done better, or perhaps left well enough alone. It would be uncharitable to attribute such second-thoughts, regrets, or pangs of conscience to the Supreme Being. And also uninspiring. Yet if we cannot attribute such things to God, then in what, precisely, does God’s “dramatic inner life,” of which Berdyrev speaks, actually consist?

I sometimes wonder if we, as individuals, are God’s inner life. The pain we feel when we read the newspapers, contemplate our latest faux pas, or toss and turn in our efforts to give our lives a meaningful shape, are the burning shards of that primordial supernova which was God. That’s a nice thought: a universe endowed, from the very beginning, with a conscience.

This position may sound a bit blasphemous. But perhaps its even more blasphemous to suggest that God has his own inner life. That would require that what he wills, and what he sees, do not correspond to one another.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The BWCA Fire

Forest fires have been raging through the forests along the Minnesota Ontario border for more than a week now, confirming our worst fears of what might one day happen in that area, where a massive blowdown in 1999 has been followed by years of drought. Firefighters from across the country have converged in the area, and they're doing what they can, though for the most part, their efforts merely confirm the old adage, "We fight the fire until Nature puts it out." And it's only mid-May!

The inevitability of the event does little to ease the pain of those who have lost their cabins, their property, and their businesses to the all-consuming blaze. On the other hand, the privilege of owning property on the edge of a wilderness area, many miles from the nearest fire station, does carry certain risks. It's not surprising that press reports focus on human interest stories and the loss of personal property. Perhaps a little space could also be devoted to the losses sustained by those adventurous souls that were planning to visit the area this summer. Though individual cases are less dramatic, the aggregate loss is immense. The BWCA is the most popular wilderness area in the United States, with upward of 200,000 visitors per year arriving from places like Atlanta, Pueblo, and Mamou. These folks may be camping out in farmer Jone's back forty this summer. Wherever they end up, it won't be much like that glittering jewel of lakes and forests on the Minnesota-Ontario border.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Morning Shower

Researchers at the Center for Neuropharmacology and Nueroscience at Albany Medical College have discovered that it feels good to take a shower. In their published report, they observe that the water stimulates nerve endings in the skin. Nor is it just any part of the skin. These scientists have determined that it’s the epidermis, the outer layer, that receives the stimulation. I suppose, though the report doesn’t probe quite so deeply, that this is because the stream of water that strikes us when we take a shower is coming from outside the body, and the outer layer is the one with which it makes contact.

The cells of the epidermis contain beta-endorphins, which are similar in chemical composition to opium. These researchers are suggesting that the pleasure we experience when taking a shower can be attributable to the release of such chemicals, which have a soothing effect on the nerve endings. In other words, it isn’t the sensation of little drops of water pounding our skin that makes showering pleasurable, but a chemical reaction that’s set off by the experience. But isn’t this just another way of saying that showering feels good?

Dr. Frank Rice, who did the study, seems to be hedging beyond the conclusions justified by the data when he goes on to report, “Just the stimulation itself raises the awareness level of the brain. That triggers activity that can lead to something that is a new thought.”

Dr. Rice and his colleagues have failed to explain whether it’s the stimulation itself, or the beta-endorphins released by the stimulation, that raises the brain’s awareness level. Nor have they made it clear if the brain’s awareness level become higher because the opium-like substance released by the skin actually travels to the brain, or because the nerves on the epidermis send an electronic message that says to the brain, “Hey, we’ve got some opium down here!”

And no where in the report is it explained why it is that many people don’t like to take a shower.

I've submitted quite a few grant proposals to study the issue, but none have been accepted. Yet years of personal experience have led me to the conclusion that the key elements in showering are the neck and scalp. If for some reason or another, you are prevented from taking a morning shower, simply dousing your head under a stream of running water in the sink will have almost the same effect. Such a theory has the virtue of solving the mystery of the elevation in brain awareness that we associate with shower-taking. The skull has an epidermis too, after all. The beta-endorphins released in that area are only a hop-skip-and-jump from the thought-generating zones of the brain.

This theory also explains, I think, why many people don’t like to take showers. For them, the momentary pleasure associated with the release of beta-endorphins is far outweighed by the lingering discomfort of having wet hair.

One troubling aspect of the situation was driven home to me a few weeks ago when we retiled our shower and installed a new shower head. The new head uses less water than the one we had before, but it fails to pound the skin with any degree of force. The base of the neck, in particular, gets much less of a workout than it had been getting. Can this explain why I haven’t had any good ideas lately?

They say that Rome fell because of the lead in the pottery. Will researchers one day report that Western civilization took a tumble when everyone installed water-saving shower heads in their bathrooms and the font of stimulating, innovative ideas simply dried up?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Films: Best of 2006

You’ve got to love the Academy Awards. As Helen Murrin said in a interview before the event, "It’s the mother of all awards shows." I don’t think she was trying to make a point, but it’s interesting that she refers to the Academy Awards as a show rather than an honor.

My greatest concern, with regard to the awards, had always been for the actors who win very early in their careers. It might not be such a good thing, you know. How will the career of Jennifer Hudson develop, now that she’s won? Maybe she should get some counseling from Patty Duke or Marisa Tomei. Better to win when you’re older, I think. Then you’ve got the respect of your peers and it really doesn’t matter that much.

Here are a few of my favorite films from 2006.

Three directors--Ken Loach, Ermanno Olmi, and Abbas Kiarostami, team up to film episodes that take place on a train traveling from Austria to Italy. Though a few of the characters appear in more than one segment, (well, they’re all on the same train) there is no significant tie between the three stories.

The first scene involves an elderly businessman (Carlo Delle Piane) who begins to fanaticize about the young female business colleague (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi) who has just arranged his rail journey back to Italy after a meeting. He begins to compose a letter of thanks to her on his laptop, and as he writes the expressions of affection get more and more elaborate. From time to time his reverie is interrupted by scuffles in the passageway between the railcars. An Albanian family is riding out there, and the conductor seems to be giving them a hard time. (Maybe they don’t have enough tickets?)

In the second segment a young man escorts a fat and demanding woman much older than he on a journey about which we know little. He takes every opportunity to remove himself from the woman’s company, and much of the episode involves a conversation he strikes up with a teenaged girl in the hallway outside his compartment. She’s from his home town, though he doesn’t know her, and she eventually reveals that she knows his sister, and also his old girlfriend.

The third follows three rowdy young Scottish soccer fans who are taking the train to Rome to see a European cup final. They strike up a conversation with an Albanian boy in the snack bar (we saw his family out in the passageway in the first episode) and they later suspect he stole one of their tickets. This leads to a confrontation even more heated than the brutal and sarcastic conversation they were having earlier amongst themselves.

Few viewers saw this film, I suspect. At any rate, reviews are scarce, with opinions ranging from "boring" to "unstressed loveliness." I found it mesmerizing. The entire film has an unhurried pace that allows the viewer to linger on the passing faces and casual interactions that take up most of the time within the confines of a moving train. The film’s promoters suggest that the stories are related through the recurrent themes of privilege and exclusion, the mystery of chance, and sacrifice. But Tickets has none of that slightly bogus metaphysical voodoo we meet up with in the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, for example. It leaves us with the lingering aftertaste of having not merely watched a tale or two unfold, but of having suddenly been given the gift to see things—big, little, emotional, trivial—more clearly than ever.

Casino Royale
Action at its best. The young James Bond has a glinty look in his eye, a chip on his shoulder, and a very modest kit-bag of electronic gadgets. Lots of fist-fights, car chases, explosions, with little of the suave smirkiness or high-tech camp that had worked its way into the Bond films like a malodorous rot.

The Best of Youth
This six-hour Italian made-for-TV drama follows the lives of two brothers from their college years well into middle age. One becomes a psychologist. The other drops his promising studies in Italian literature to become a cop, we don’t know quite why. The psychologist’s wife becomes a terrorist. His sister marries his best friend, who eventually becomes a judge. Other friends lose their jobs. Various aspects of the Italian political scene make their way into the drama. There are children to raise, parents to tend to, lovers and girlfriends here and there. We get to know a few mental patients quite well. People die. But boy, do we like these people. Lots of things remain unexplained (like life) but the production flows beautifully and every aspect of the film is top-flight.

Little Miss Sunshine
I ask you, How often do we get to see a film set in the American Southwest in which Proust and Nietzsche both figure prominently? Yet Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy with character to spare. Though the cacophonous mayhem being raised by the family we’re watching has been referred to as dysfunctional, it seems fairly typical to me, if my upbringing can serve as a basis for comparison. In any event, it functions marvelously throughout the film, and Toni Collette, in the role of the mom, provides a core of concern and practicality to hold it’s centripetal elements together.

Director Pedro Almadovar has long been interested in the exaggerated and sentimental plot-twists of the soap opera, yet he has been able to consistently alter the contexts of such narratives and concoct imaginative modes of presentation that provide a veneer of intelligence to sustain our interest. His recent films have become simultaneously lighter and deeper, and in Volver, once again, he provides us with a unique and thoroughly entertaining family drama with plenty of signature quirks, sentimental touches, and unexpected turns of events.
The plot focuses on Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and the clutch of women with whom she spends much of her time—her daughter, her sister, and her aunt, whom she visits from time to time back in the village where she grew up. Cruz’s husband is clearly nothing special, and he meets a bad end fairly early in the film. Her attempts to dispose of the body are the stuff of farce. The plot thickens further when her mother, (played by veteran actress Carmen Maura) who is dead, re-appears on the scene. Without being in any way an indictment of men, Volver focuses on the mutual affection and concern that women both draw upon and provide for one another as they make their way in the world.

Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth touches upon the fantasy, hope, imagination, and sacrifice that give fairy tales their appeal. But unlike such pleasant if campy retellings as Ever After and The Princess Bride, it takes us back to the origin of fairy tales, when there was much more at stake than an invitation to the ball.

The setting is the Spanish Civil War, and the situation is dire for those who oppose the fascist state. The film focuses on an adolescent girl and her mother, who has recently married a brutal military commander for reasons of expediency—or perhaps we should say survival. The girl spends her time reading fairy tales while her step-father is out hunting down rebels. She is introduced by one of the cooks (who also figures prominently in the story) to an ancient labyrinth that stands in the forest just beyond the camp. In the depths of the labyrinth the girl encounters a fawn who challenges her to perform a number of heroic escapades. Is he evil? We really don’t know.

Director del Toro’s triumph has been to weld these two worlds together (hence all the Academy Awards for technical achievements). The film is chary of philosophic pronouncements, but when the commander utters the cry, ‘The girl’s mind has been corrupted by these fanciful tales!" the audience reaction is probably universal, "You should read a few of those books yourself, you bastard."
Earth and femininity and blood flow through Pan’s Labyrinth in an uncanny way. It may not be as fun as we’d hoped, but it’s a masterpiece—Rome: Open City meets Peter Pan.

The Lives of Others
The setting is East Germany, circa 1984. The main characters are security agents of the Communist government who were friends and students together many years ago. One is now a surveillance expert, the other a powerful government minister. The plan is to keep tabs on one of the nation’s most popular, and seemingly very loyal, playwrights. The minister has ulterior motives for ordering the operation. As the program unfolds, his friend develops reasons of his own for making sure that it’s unsuccessful. Much of the film focuses on the lives of the playwright and his actress-girlfriend, who has a few personal problems of her own. We’re given an inside look at a dreary world where mediocrity is rewarded and acts of conscience can carry a very high price-tag, but the film also exposes the latent honesty and heroism that can sometimes erupt in the most unlikely places. The Lives of Others is an espionage thriller, but it’s also a subtle human-interest story, meticulously crafted and full of choice details.

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu delivers yet another powerhouse. It tells three more-or-less unrelated stories concurrently. We might call them the Mexican wedding story, the Japanese teenager story, and the Moroccan shepherd story. It all sounds so benign! The settings are exotic, the camera work is jumpy, and we’re given little time to relax and enjoy the scenery as the film lurches from crisis to crisis. Iñárritu makes very good use of his settings and his actors, the music is varied and compelling, and the shifts from locale to locale are well-timed.

The film would have been better if Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett hadn’t been included in the cast. It’s not that they’re bad, but that they’re stars, and the foreign, gritty tone of the film is undermined by the presence of people we recognize. Babel remains a powerful tone poem of overwhelming emotion—loss, confusion, fear, and violence. The energy level remains high and the events unfold with utter naturalness. Perhaps, in the end, the film doesn’t add up to anything, but neither does a Mahler symphony. What it does do is burn the tribulations or a few ordinary people into our memories like a bad dream that we can’t forget. Yet it’s worth asking the question, I think, How much anguish and pain and dislocation do we have to put ourselves through these days, before we can be moved when a father clasps his daughter by the hand?

A Good Year
It’s long since become popular for art-school film directors to quote scenes from famous Hollywood films, and even to re-shoot films meticulously scene by scene. It’s rare to come upon a film nowadays that actually attempts not merely to quote from or parody the classics of that Golden Age, but to emulate their style. This is what Ridley Scott has done with A Good Year.

First you need a star, and no one fits that bill more completely than Russell Crowe. Then you need a hackneyed plot. The sentimental tales of Peter Mayle will do, with their Englishmen coming down to Provence to be seduced by the wine, the food, the women, the countryside, and the leisurely lifestyle.

It’s a treat to spend some time in the midst of all this stuff—especially during the winter—and Scott’s art directors and casting agents have done a good job of assembling it. In fact, there are so many beautiful women in this film that it borders on the absurd, though the differences are worth noting. Just consider the middle-aged wife of the man who tends the vines in comparison to Crowe’s young British-Indian secretary; or the waitress at the café who gets run down on her bike as against the young American woman who claims to be Crowe’s long-lost cousin. Brilliant, as they say in England. Even the woman in the bank, very proper and officious, is given an ankle tattoo.

On the other side of the divide, Crowe’s British business associates must give pride of place to the alpha male, but several of them do have a well-developed GQ stubble. And could you possibly do better than Albert Finney in the role of the worldly-wise uncle upon whose estate the film’s plot revolves?

Crowe himself is faced with the difficult task of convincing us that underneath the exterior of a callous, ruthless, heedless, arrogant prick of a multi-millionaire bond-trader, there lurks the soul of a sensitive lad who once cared for other people. He doesn’t really pull it off. In fact, his charmless abrasiveness is rather difficult to watch. Yet his associates and minions play off of him well, the action is well-paced, and the comic pratfalls—floundering in a mud-filled swimming pool, for example—are just good enough to do their part in sustaining our interest.
The crisp editing, snappy dialogue, unabashedly romantic theme, and sheer cinematic chutzpah that’s been put into every scene of A Good Year make it a very entertaining film. (How strange, no one liked it but us!) Several subplots are wisely left unresolved. As we were leaving the theater Hilary remarked, "That was a lot better than Under the Tuscan Sun."

Marie Antoinette
arie Antoinette is a stylistically adventurous and largely successful portrait of a intellectually light-weight but rather sweet individual who happened to be married off to the king of France at the age of fourteen. Whether it is an entirely accurate portrait I sincerely doubt. It remains a thoroughly entertaining spectacle and a convincing story that holds true to its tone from beginning to end. It belongs in the vicinity of Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, and it stands head-and-shoulders above such turgid works as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, for example.

Revolutions always begin at the top and work their way down. In Marie Antoinette Sophia Coppola gives us a touching and merciless portrait of the sentimental romantic and heedless consumer that, several revolutions later, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, far too many of us have become. But there is also a down-home freshness to Marie’s character that’s very appealing, and the story of her shifting relations with the court and its complicated routines is very interesting indeed.

also worth a note

Joyeux Noel
During World War I German and French troops often hunkered in trenches well within earshot of one another, waiting for the next bloody and futile exchange of lethal ordinance. Through a strange turn of events that must be seen to be believed, one Christmas Eve a few such sections along the Western Front called an unauthorized truce and celebrated the holiday together. They even held a soccer match in No Man’s Land! The flash of brotherhood was over all too quickly. The film dramatizes this event and explores both its causes and its unfortunate consequences for the individuals involved.

The Queen
The Queen takes for its subject the week following the death of Princess Diana. We watch as Queen Elizabeth and other members of her immediate family react with stoic restraint while the hoi polloi of England express their profound tabloid grief at the tragic event, and also turn their ire on their seemingly indifferent monarch. The crux of the film involves Tony Blair’s attempt to convince the queen that she ought to acknowledge the significance of Diana’s death publicly, even though it runs counter to protocol, and also to the deeper feelings of the royal family that Diana was a disgrace to their "line."

Helen Murrin’s portrayal of the queen is spot on, and all the other principles are equally fine. But the story, in the end, becomes slightly dull. The most dramatic person involved, Princess Diana, is already dead by the time the opening credits have run their course, and the second most interesting character, Tony Blair, only appears in his role as newly-elected prime minister trying to establish relations with the queen at an awkward moment in history. I’m waiting for Oliver Stone’s version of Diana’s life. That would be good. A film about Tony Blair might also be very interesting. But a film about the queen, even as well-done as this one is, can only be mildly interesting. Elizabeth reaches her height of emotive power when standing in a river by a broken-down jeep staring at an 18-point buck. If she weren’t the queen no one would be making a movie about her. So the question becomes: Why have a queen?

The Nativity Story
This retelling of a very familiar story captures both the strength of family ties and the depth of faith and tradition among rural Jews at the time of Christ. It’s a fantastic story, like The Lord of the Rings, but here the human element has been emphasized, which only adds to the film’s mythic allure.

Carlos Saura once again explores the byways of Spanish dance and music, using the same static cameras, large mirrors, and cavernous industrial settings that were featured in his previous film Flamenco (1995). Here the numbers are loosely patterned after Isaac Ibeniz’s classic piano suite Iberia, with ballet, sprightly jotas, experimental forms, and plenty of flamenco dancing along the way. The choreography is often beautiful and the camera work hardly less so. The film features Spanish artists of the first rank, including Sara Baras, Antonio Canales, Manolo Sanlúcar, Gerardo Núñez, the pianist Rosa Torres-Pardo, Chano Domínguez, Jorge Pardo, and Enrique Morente.

As with his earlier Flamenco, it’s as easy to applaud the care, artistry, and resources devoted to Iberia as it is to wish the film were more uniformly inspired. In an effort not too seem too ethnographic, perhaps, one long segment captures the twists and turns of a female dancer in a nude bikini trying to free herself from a big piece of cellophane. The changing light on the surface of the plastic is mesmerizing, but it’s entirely out of synch with the rest of the movie.

An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore has put together the world’s best powerpoint presentation to expose perhaps the world’s most compelling long-term challenge: Global Warming. The graphics are good, the pace is fairly brisk, and even though the material is familiar, it strikes us here with renewed force.

The Ground Truth
Survivors of the Iraq debacle discuss the physical and psychological scars of the experience. A film everyone ought to see.

Sweetland received an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. I didn’t like it that much. The flashbacks are amateurish and confusing, the "socialist" element is not clearly established, and the dumb Swede who marries the German girl is a cipher. All the same, the film does have its moments.

The Prestige
Christopher Nolan (Memento) examines the careers of two magicians in Victorian England. It’s a dark tale with a good cast (Michael Caine, Christopher Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johannson), some interesting science, a little bit of romance, and more than a few surprising twists.

The Curse of the Golden Flower

This film has almost none of the enchantment of Yimou Zhang’s earlier efforts Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. Li Gong is fascinating to watch in the role of the Emperor’s wife, but the plot is clumsy, the battle scenes are mechanistic, and there is little swashbuckling élan. On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for palace intrigue, shiny clothing, and a ninja here and there, the film is certainly worth a look.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

My Meeting with the Senator

A young man in a fairly sharp suit was already seated at the table when I came into the lobby of the Econolodge in Ortonville. In one hand he held a cup of coffee, in the other a single sheet of type-written paper, almost as if he were practicing a speech. We exchanged greetings and I went over to drop an English muffin into the toaster.

“Traveling on business?” I asked him idly when I’d returned to the table. He was. (Who wears a suit at a motel for any other reason?) After a moment of silence he courteously returned the inquiry.

“Oh, we’re just traveling around, exploring this part of the state.” My wife Hilary had come in by this time, and not long afterward a young woman in a brown suit entered and drifted past us toward the breakfast offerings. She looked very familiar to me, but I held my tongue. Everyone deserves a bit of privacy, and besides, you can’t be sure. And we were in Ortonville....

“We just drove for three hours to go to a one-hour meeting,” the man volunteered suddenly, seeming a little put out by the effort. “And where are you going next?”

I said something about doing some bird-watching at Big Stone Refuge, visiting Madison (Robert Bly’s home town), and Pipestone. I mentioned the windmills on Buffalo Ridge.

“We’ve seen the windmills,” the woman, whose back was turned, volunteered from across the room.

“What business are you in?” I finally asked the man. At that point the woman turned and said, “I’m US Senator Amy Klobuchar.”

“I thought you looked awfully familiar.” I said. “It’s a small world. I’m working with your dad on a book. There’s a story about your bike trip to the Tetons in it.”

“Yeah, and he won’t let me read it,” she said.

“It’s a very nice story. Nothing to worry about,” I replied. She asked which other stories were in the book, and I couldn’t help asking in turn what she was doing way out on the prairies. Meeting with some government honchos?

“No, we’re meeting with ordinary citizens, like we do in every part of the state. The big issue right now is the scarcity of honey bees.”

“It’s true the populations are declining, " I said. "I read about that somewhere. And do you know why?”

“That's what I want to find out.”

“Cell phones, " I said nonchalently. "The signals disrupt the bee’s navigation signals.”

“I see. So I’ll tell the farmers that cell-phones are disturbing the flight-plans of honey bees... and I’ll site you as a source. I can see the headlines now. Senator Claims Phones Kill Bees. I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you go give the speech, and I’ll go bird-watching.”

“You know, most honey bees aren’t even native to the Western Hemisphere,” I countered lamely.

“Oh, great. So you’re suggesting I tell the farmers to consider themselves lucky they had bees for a while, and simply go out of business?”

We agreed that this would not be a good plan of attack.

“One farmer recently bought $150,000 worth of bees from Australia. So I guess they’re not giving up hope,” the senator said.

While we chatted, it dawned on me that Amy was actually pumping this wild-haired, sun-burnt stranger in the lobby of the Econolodge for information. She certainly seemed to want to find out more, no matter what the source. I was very impressed by her concern, which was clearly personal rather than professional, and her utter lack of inhibition. In the end, the best I could do was: “Check the Conservation Volunteer. I think they had an article on the subject recently.”

As we finished our coffee Amy told us in some detail about her quest to win the "Golden Gavel," which made it necessary for her to fly back to Washington that very evening after meetings in five western farm towns.

And off they went to the Hilltop Cafe to meet the local folks, while we left town in the opposite direction to see about a flock of winnowing snipe.

The Defeat of the Mind: Alain Finkielkraut

In this remarkable new world, I can listen to the moody, intricate sounds of the Brad Mehldau Trio while sipping a green tea smoothy product in front of a gas fire you turn on with a switch, at a rented cabin on Lake Superior on the last night of the year. It’s cold outside, though there’s very little snow on the ground. I’m reading a book I picked it up at random from a library bookstore the other day for a dollar, by someone I’ve never heard of—a French intellectual named Alain Finkielkraut. It’s called The Defeat of the Mind.

A phrase catches my attention. The author is discussing Julien Benda, who, in his now long-forgotten book Treason of the Intellectuals (1926), decries the then-current habit of celebrating particular things rather than "upholding eternal values."This point gives me pause for thought. If I had to choose between the two, I would take celebrating particular things over upholding eternal values every time. It seems to me, in fact, that eternal is one of those slippery words, like infinite and absolute, that we ought never to use, because it doesn’t refer to anything real.

Who among us can say with confidence that our values are eternal? Thus is really just a manner of speaking, designed to convey an unusual depth of devotion or commitment. And I fear it’s often used inappropriately. "I would be eternally grateful if you would move the laundry from the washer to the dryer while I'm out."

I suppose it was just the mood I was in, but that little phrase, "uphold eternal values," also struck me as strange for another reason. It is not at all clear to me that values are something we can uphold. No doubt we can exemplify values. And we can clarify them in our thoughts and defend them in conversation. But the word "uphold" connotes some sort of physical bolstering, a mechanical form of elevation that might even carry along with it an element of disdain for the mire above which we labor to position those values—and ourselves along with them. In other words, in "upholding" values we may actually be transgressing against their reality and truth.

Genuine values don’t need to be upheld, I think, so much as they need to be identified, celebrated, and embodied. To take a generic example, it may be less worthwhile to deliver a speech upholding the values of grace and beauty than simply to act in a graceful and beautiful way. And here is where the second part of Brenda's formula--celebrating particular things--comes into play.

It may be a funny film, or the curve of a snowdrift that’s hanging from the gutter just outside the window. It may be a truffle-poached piece of Florida pink shrimp, or a kind note we received in the mail though we didn’t quite deserve it. Whatever the case may be, when we celebrate a particular thing, we’re implicitly underscoring its value. That's what makes it precious, and gives it a lingering liveliness.

This would suggest that if values ought not to be described as eternal, they are by nature at least durable. A transient value is a matter of expediency and opportunism. In other words, it isn't a value at all, but a heuristic trick.


In the early portions of The Defeat of the Mind, Finkielkraut underscores the difference between the attitudes of the Enlightenment—which were based not only on reason, but on an idea of the Good extending back to Plato’s time—and the idea of the Volk endorsed by Herder and de Maistre, in which the venerable prejudices of a "people" have greater value than novelties concocted by the rational mind. At one point he writes that "in the eyes of their critics, the philosophes, under the pretext of spreading enlightenment, worked furiously to obliterate the prejudices that constituted the cultural treasure of every nation..." As Kant observed, they chose as their motto sapere aude. Do not be afraid to know, be brave and challenge conventions. Have the courage to act as you see fit, without the help of received ideas, etc.

It’s clear that during the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, venerable institutions were destroyed and ridiculous ones were sometimes put in their place. But it would be wrong to suggest that the exercise of reason invariably obliterates the past. Nor is that what Finkielkraut is suggesting. He’s trying to unearth the roots of several modern lines of thought and he finds those roots in the romantic reaction to the philosophes and their celebration of reason. Referring to Herder, de Maistre, and others, he writes:
"Their hatred of modernity led them to conceive of a radically new view of man. Their nostalgia gave way to a mutation in thought that has continued to influence us to this day. In spite of themselves these relentless defenders of the past were inventors of something new. In their mania to restore man to his proper place, they discovered unconscious thought, which worked from within. And in so doing they founded the social sciences."

Finkielkraut doesn’t like the social sciences much, but he acknowledges that the effort to explore "exotic" tastes and expose the underlying logic of far-flung patterns of social organization does have value.
"From the perspective of the social sciences, high culture is only a fragmentary expression of a far broader category that includes food, clothing, work, games, in sum "all of the customs and skills learned by man as a member of society." And by subsuming the cultured under the cultural, the social sciences accomplish two things at once: they prevent us from being satisfied with ourselves and from making the world over again in our image. The social sciences cure us from imperialism and tribalism, from the belief that we are the lawful heirs of universalism and from the aggressive affirmation of our own specificity. Thanks to their teachings, our European identity is no longer a mission or a subject of pride; it is just one way of living and thinking to be considered alongside everybody else’s. "

It’s nice to read a book about world affairs in which the United States is never mentioned. (Americans think about themselves too much, both positively and negatively.) Of course, the issues Finkielkraut is exploring often echo the ones we face. Nor ought we to be surprised that they are so similar. The United States is only one of many heirs to the Enlightenment tradition, after all. And the fact that the United States is a more religious nation than most only brings home the fact more forcefully to us that the conflict between reason and various time-bound traditions will never be resolved once and for all. How could it be? Reason has nothing much to apply itself to other than experience, and to a large extent our experiences are drawn from the traditions of the culture within which we are being raised.

Our thoughts are not entirely shaped by our traditions, however. If they were, then the desire to alter or discard outmoded traditions would be far less common than it is. Educators in many fields find it difficult to escape the challenge of answering the question, "What should I teach?" This simple fact should make it obvious that culture dictates nothing. In this remarkable new world, we are continually expanding, or simplifying, or refining, or in some other way renewing our culture.
Yet the issue of cultural development is a stickler. The Romantic celebration of the Volk, and the argument that value rises from the soil and life of specific times and places and manifests itself in diverse ways, almost goes without saying nowadays. It seems equally obvious to me, however, that cultures differ in the degree to which, for example, their legal institutions are capable of administering justice. The cuisine of one culture may be more sophisticated than that of another, its art more robust. These are general remarks, of course, against which it must immediately be added that justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, truth and error, nobility and baseness are to be found in every culture and part of the world, though not, perhaps, in equal measure. It hardly needs to be added that each of us participates in many cultures simultaneously. When Finkielkraut speaks of European culture, we immediately ask ourselves if it’s Austrian, Italian, or French culture he’s referring to. Is it a Jewish-French or an École-Normale-Supérieure subculture? The possibilities are too numerous to mention. We arrive at the end of this line of thought concluding that culture may be a useful sociological construct, but it doesn’t really exist. An individual’s culture is the same thing as his or her personal history, and everyone’s personal history is unique.
oes this render the study of culture in its various manifestations pointless? Not really. But it ought to alert us to the fact that the norms and types which feed the constructions of sociologists and anthropologists can never tell us the complete story of any culture. Finkielkraut makes repeated (and unfavorable) references to the current ascendancy of "culture" over "the cultured," and with good reason. The presumption that the most commonplace artifacts and habits of a social group expose its "truth" is largely wrong-headed. On the contrary, it is the most extraordinary things a culture produces that end up defining it.

Let me give you an example. There has only been one Homer, and there is nothing typical about him. (Though scholars are confident that Homer’s works are the culmination of a long oral tradition, and were written by at least two people, one of whom may have been female, that doesn’t alter the fact that "his" epics are sui generis.) Yet fully one half of the books that have survived from classical Greek times are copies of the Iliad and Odyssey. In other words, Homer was both utterly unique and widely influential in the ancient Greek world. Sociologists might prefer to describe his works as "normative"—the ugliest word in the English language. That doesn’t alter the fact that they are extraordinary, atypical, unique.

The most significant aspect of Homer’s work remains to be highlighted—it continues to move and entertain many of us today! To classicists and historians this fact may be of little interest, and it would be a mistake for scholars to view the ancient Greek world exclusively in light of modern tastes. On the other hand, it would be difficult to give sense and meaning to any aspect of ancient Greek life, from Eleusian mystery cults to Spartan military procedures, without in some way highlighting their virtues in terms that everyone can relate to. This drive to expose the perfect "form" of continually evolving institutions, modes of expression, or ways of preparing fish, is often associated with rationalism, "universalism," and the theories of Plato, but it should be obvious that the events and artifacts we’re studying remain rooted in the habits of specifics time, places, and peoples. What we’re talking about here is not sociology, or Platonism, but history.

Finkielkraut notes at one point that Goethe once picked up a Chinese novel, hoping to be moved and impressed by an alien culture and a radically different type of work, only to find that the story closely resembled his own novels and the works of Samuel Richardson! Goethe pursued the notion of "universality" in art for a while, and even went so far as to assert that:

"We will have more success in achieving a degree of general tolerance if we leave undisturbed the distinctive qualities that make individual human beings and whole peoples different and remain true to the idea that the value of anything with true merit lies in its belonging to all humanity."

In the end, however, Goethe chose to join the camp of those who celebrated the unique aesthetic modes and standards of different cultures. That was a mistake. The issue need not, and in fact cannot, be decided one way or the other. If a work of art—German, Chinese, or Brazilian—is utterly alien to us, it will be impossible for us to make sense of it, much less actually appreciate it. If it’s too familiar, on the other hand, we won’t find it very interesting. The dialectic of familiar and unfamiliar, native and foreign, deepens our understanding of life and enriches our personal culture.

This cross-fertilization of cultures (and generations) underlies much that’s interesting in modern life. Among those who have examined the process analytically examples that immediately come to mind include the Scot Alastair Reid’s recount of his discovery of Spain (Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, 1987), V. S. Naipaul’s fascinating journey through the cultures of England, India, Africa, and his native Trinidad (The Enigma of Arrival may be taken as representative), and Pankaj Mishra’s youthful exploration of Western literature (see, for example, the early story "Edmund Wilson in Benares," 1998). It was a foreigner, D. H. Lawrence, who was the first to draw the world’s attention to the deeper significance and relevance of nineteenth century American Literature.
Yet Finkielkraut himself is less interested in underscoring the importance of personal judgment with regard to literature and other manifestations of culture than in addressing the unfortunate demise of its influence under the onslaught of what we in the United States call special-interest groups and political correctness.

"It was at the expense of their culture that European individuals gained, one by one, all their rights. In the end it is the critique of tradition that constitutes the spiritual foundation of Europe, a fact the philosophy of decolonization has let us forget by persuading us that the individual is nothing more than a cultural phenomenon."

By the end of the book, I regret to report, Finkielkraut is spouting eloquent laments that rock-and-roll, advertisements, and popular entertainment are obliterating all notions of what was once called "high culture." This may well be true but it’s certainly nothing new. A scholar of his level of erudition ought to be well aware that the conflict between mandarin and popular elements of culture is as old as culture itself. It’s like a deep-ocean current that continually stirs up the nutrients required by the life of thought.

Finkielkraut predicts the arrival of a world largely inhabited by zombies and fanatics. (Maybe during his research he watched Shaun of the Dead once too often?) Clearly I’m not in tune with the times, but I find myself surrounded on all sides by articles, essays, magazines, books, musical recordings, films, and other sundry artifacts of culture that make me giddy with excitement and sorely troubled by the very small amount of time I have to absorb it all. Finkielkraut is distressed that the youth of today find it difficult to make distinctions between Beethoven and Bob Marley, and speak of Montaigne and the latest talk-show host with equal enthusiasm. Yet it seems to me that more than a few people of all ages continue to read and explore.I consider myself an Everyman in that respect. I get my books from the public library de-acquisition shops. I read at random. I’ve long since given up any pretense of "covering the field" or of "keeping up."

The New Year is here. An ore boat bedecked with a long string of yellow lights moves slowly east through the darkness a few miles out on the lake. A bright star hangs above it. In fact, the stars are out in full force tonight. I stepped out on the frozen porch in my bare feet a few minutes ago to ogle them.

To stand on a frozen deck in bare feet in the winter night—is that part of out native culture? Is that what people in Minnesota do?