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?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Cafe Lurcat

The setting has always been perfect--looking south across a park, catching a few rays from the setting sun, with people playing tennis in the distance and the bustle of urban traffic all around. For many years the Loring Bar occupied the site, and somehow succeeded in making faux-bohemian decor seem cool. The removable glass in the windows helped on those breezy summer nights. That the space was taken over by the D'Amico folks seemed like a classic sign of the times--the wealth few horning in on the fun. The new place is a far sleeker and more upscale establishment. Not quite the "let your hair hang out" place it used to be.

Yet the food was alleged to be very good (and a friend had given us a gift card) so we paid the Cafe a visit on a recent Thursday evening.

The space is light and airy, with exposed brick, and white cloth draped over both tables and chairs. During the course of our meal enough linen napkins were put to use to sail the Mayflower. The taped music varied from John Coltrane's Ballads to soft and sultry Brazilian vocalists--Ceu?--in short, it was an altogether pleasant environment: European/American relaxed chic. Our waiter was well-informed yet pleasingly unpretentious. He didn't tell us his name, and it was easy to imagine that he was a bright economics major from Grand Rapids with an interest in food who was working his way through college, rather than a food-snob who had sized you up immediately and determined that you couldn't tell a turnip from a parsnip if your life depended on it.

The wine list is extensive though few come in at under $30. Many of the offerings are available by the glass, however. and you can get a glass of Verdillac white for $7.50 or a "Kermit Lynch Selection" Cote du Rhone for $9, for example, following the "one glass costs one bottle retail" formula. I suspect it would be possible to have a pleasant evening sampling the extensive range of 2-ounce pours, which are in the $3-5 range, along with a few appetizers.

The menu is entirely ala carte. Everything sounds interesting, and everything we ordered was perfectly presented and remarkably tasty. I would not normally have ordered the fois gras with proscuitto on toast (here the gift card comes into play), and perhaps the waiter could read the look on my face when the dish arrived and I was reminded that fois gras is goose liver, not goose liver pate. The dish looked like a half of a pear sitting on a piece of fine bacon and drizzled with some delicate caramel sauce. It tasted like heaven. These are flavors of such succulent richness that they lie in an entirely different domain from the one our taste buds (or our psyches) commonly inhabit. The crisp toast and the salty proscuitto provided a perfect balance to the oily fatty liver, and the flavors lingered in the mouth for what seemed like an eternity. Well, enough about that. (And nary a thought about the poor goose until just now!)

The salad, which our waiter thoughtfully delivered to us on two plates, was light and tasty, and the grilled honeyed almonds that accompanied it, set in tiny beds of dried currants, were scrumptious.

And now, having used up quite a few gushing adjectives already, the rack of lamb arrives, four pairs of little ribs set on the plate tepee-style (that's what they call it at the Cordon Bleu, I believe) served on a whisp of mirepoix with some truffle oil and bordelaise sauce drizzled here and there. It was very fine, as was Hilary's grilled sea bass, a heafty chunk of fish caked in a carmelized miso sauce. We also ordered a gratin of root vegetables, which provided just enough down-home familiarity to keep us from drifting off into the nether-world of etherial food essences.

The bill, with tip, wasn't much more than we spend to heat our house for a month, on the budget plan.

Twin Cities International Film Festival

The dollar is weak and travel becomes expensive. Hilary and I just finished a week-long trip to such exotic locales as Lake Benton, Faribault, Milan (Minnesota), and Luverne. We heard winnowing snipe high above our heads and ate deep-fried chicken breast smothered in raison-almond sauce. It was all very interesting--well, most of it, at any rate. But such excursions will only take you so far. Lucky for us, when we returned the local film festival was still in full swing, and this gave us the opportunity to visit a few even more exotic places.

Greenland: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

If you saw The Fastrunner, then you know how slow-moving, disjoined, and all but incomprehensible the films of Inuit directors Kunuk and Cohn can be. When we're dealing with the myths and spirits of a strange, arctic people these qualities are not necessarily bad, however. On the contrary, they free the mind from its "What happens next?" mode and allows us to absorb the atmosphere, thought processes, and world-view that is not quite like our own. Though less engaging than their earlier production, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen has more than enough shaman-lore, igloo song-fests, poor dentistry, and grueling marches across the frozen wastes to keep us interested. The acting style is also intriguing, with long silences between conversations and expressionless men and women often standing around in furs in the background. Throughout the film I asked myself repeatedly, "Aren't their ears getting cold?" If it were not for the program notes, it would be impossible to extract much more than a rudimentary outline to the story, even though the film is based on events that actually took place during a Danish exploratory expedition in 1922.

After the film a woman selling tickets for the next show started asking me questions about the rise of Christianity and food-distribution practices in the Arctic. (How did she know I'd studied with Spenser and Hoebel? Is it written on my face? ) Finally Hilary pulled me away, and we went out into the warm spring night where teeming hordes of young frat boys were drinking beer on dilapidated couches set out on the grass along University Avenue.

Romania: What Means Motley?

In 1999 a choir of 41 singers from Romania arrived in Dublin and vanished immediately, never to be heard from again. Here directors John Ketchum and John Riley envision how it might have happened. But the plot revolves around an Irishman down on his luck in Romania, and the difficulties he runs into with the Gypsy mafia. Fortunately he has an ally--a Romanian taxi-driver who wants to leave the country almost more than he does. The Irishman is a naive, never-say-die type, and he's been liberally endowed with the gift of gab. Once he's rescued a beautiful Romanian woman (whom her father has just gambled away in a poker game) from her pursuers a few times, the trio sets to work on a plan to make some money and pay off their underworld debts by smuggling some of the locals to Ireland as a Romanian folk choir.

Plenty of madcap confusion ensues involving Gypsy bands, the Irish consulate,a fake CD, and plenty of beer. The decrepid streets of Bucharest take on the golden luster of ageless punk beauties, the tired cars and abandoned buildings provide a perfect backdrop for a desperate scenario sustained only by good luck, imagination, and the comic chutzpan of Ardian Ciglenean in the role of the festival "agent."

India: The Journey

This tale follows a few days in the life of a celebrated writer named Dashrath who travels by train to receive a literary award. On the train he meets a young film director, and in the process of answering the man's questions about the novel, he also tells the story, which is largely autobiographical, to us. He had been a school-teacher in a small village, and had (unknowingly) rescued a young and very talented dancer from the clutches of her cruel husband. He and his wife had nursed the woman back to health, but found it prudent to head for the city when the husband finally shows up with a carload of thugs.

Now, years later, Dashrath ponders the Westernized and consumerist behavior of his adoring wife and children, and delivers a speech at the awards ceremony questioning the fate of the world, and so on. After imbibing a few two many Scotches, he then decides to revisit the singer whom he had saved years earlier. She is now a courtesan in Hyderabad. As it sometimes happens in films, she is still ravishingly beautiful, and she has not forgotten the classical dancing and singing arts of her former life--though they're of little use to her nowadays. Dashrath's sudden disappearance sparks alarm in the family and also the awards organizers who are responsible for the man's whereabouts. His reunion with Lajvanti is full of surprises, not all of which are pleasant.

The success of this film is largely attributable to the actress who plays the role of the dancer--Rekha. She has appeared in scores of Bollywood films since the 1970s and in 2007 won the "Forever Diva Award" from the industry. Her presence is remarkable--somewhere in the zone between Isabella Rosellini and Selma Hayek--and her dancing, to this uninformed Westerner, is consistently mesmerizing. But this can take us only so far in overcoming a rather slow-moving storyline and a central character who drinks too much, mouths platitudes about dreams and reality as if they were golden truths, and seems to have no regard for the feelings of his family, merely following his every whim as if he owned the world.