Friday, May 29, 2009

Peter Handke

We had planned to spend Memorial Day weekend in Bayfield with some friends, but I had a nagging cough and we rescheduled the trip, which left us with a pleasantly vacant stretch of days. The mornings were cool and sunny, and we made our way to the farmers market three days in succession, coming home with impatiens, “Martha Washington” geraniums, browallias, and other shade-tolerant plants along with the fixings to enjoy lots of grilled bread topped with fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic out on the deck.

With oceans of time in front of me, I scanned the shelves and came up with Across (1984), a short novel by the Austrian writer Peter Handke.

Handke may be best-known to American audiences as the author of the screenplay to Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, though he received a mild degree of international notoriety with his recent book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. In Europe he’s well-known as an aging infant terrible of the literary scene. When Elfriede Jelinek won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2004 she is reported to have said: “They made a mistake. Peter Handke should have won it.” She’s probably right.

The critics, with their perchance for schools and categorization, have put Handke into the German Neoromanticism pidgeonhole, and Across definitely fits the bill. It’s the personal narrative of a man who’s left his family and his job as a teacher to work out some things in an apartment above a supermarket in a village on the outskirts of Salzburg. A good deal of the book consists of minute and exacting descriptions of the buses arriving and departing at the village station, the noises arising from the street, the character of the light that glances through the apartment at various times of the day, the quotidian activities the narrator witnesses on his incessant walks, and the shifting appearance of the nearby mountains. For example:

I sat in my usual corner, with a view of the two small groups, and also, through the cleft of the curtains, out into the open. There in the northern sky gleamed the gray prison wall of the castle, toward which the canal flows in gentle meanders, in the foreground traversed by one of its many bridges. Two cars were standing side by side on the hump of the bridge, the drivers talking to each other through open windows as if they had just met. Between them slithered a moped, whose rider’s body while on the bridge seemed airier for a moment. The bridge was empty. An old man and an old woman sat on a bench on the embankment, which oddly enough, like all the benches along the canal, faced away from the water….

One long section deals with a card game. But the central event is this: the narrator, while walking in the nearby mountains, comes upon an old man painting a swastika on a tree trunk. He kills him with a stone and tosses the body off the edge of the nearby cliff.

Near the end of the book, the narrator receives a kind letter from his former mentor and current headmaster reqesting that he return to his post at the school.
The reader of the letter sat down and wept; not over the praise, but over the salutation, "Dear Andreas." for it seemed to me that for years no one had called me by my first name.
By the end of the book…but I don’t want to give away the ending! I’m sure that before long everyone will be scouring the stacks of the local branch library for a stray copy. Suffice it to say that Across is strange, poetic, engaging book.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Spring Birding

Many people in our neck of the woods associate the middle of May with Mother’s Day or the fishing opener. Though we love our mothers, and also love to eat fish, for us, mid-May is also the time when the warblers pass through the region on their way to their summer homes in the north woods. For quite a few years we’ve made a weekend trip down to Forestville, an exquisite state park in the hilly upper reaches of Root River Valley near the Iowa border. From there we invariably make our way downstream to the Mississippi and then north to Hok-Si-La campground on the shores of Lake Pepin, where the warblers often pass through the trees in thick waves. It’s the only time of the year when we keep track of our sightings—perhaps because it’s the only excursion on which we see quite a few different species. The tally usually falls somewhere between 75 and 95, which doesn’t seem too bad to me, considering that all but a few of the ducks are gone and we don’t spend much time hunting down sparrows.

But though the pattern has become familiar, the details change year by year, and 2009 was no exception. We hadn’t been on the road more that fifteen minutes when I missed an exit to a detour heading east from Highway 100 onto interstate 494. Rather than backtrack, we decided to cross the Minnesota River on Highway 169 and cut back through Savage to the freeway. But on the spur of the moment, we turned south on Highway 13 to New Prague and continued on across the beautiful rolling farm country to Waseca. We returned to the freeway at Owatonna, and before long we were in Albert Lea!

A nice town, situated on a hill between two large lakes. A nice state park to the east, where, along with the pelicans and coots, we began to spot redstarts in large numbers.

By the time we reached Austin it had begun to drizzle. We decided to leave the SPAM museum for another time, hoping to settle in at our campsite at Forestville before the precipitation grew serious. Which we did. A few trout fishermen were spread out along the banks of the river below our site. Virginia bluebells everywhere. But the birds were largely undercover.

Chips for dinner under the tarp. Twenty minutes of serious rain, and then things grew quiet again. I had brought along some fire-starters and a big box of kindling, and the campfire won its battle with the elements.

The morning was cold (40 degrees) and clear. During our hike up the valley of the Root, we began to spot a few of our feathered friends—gold-winged warblers, a Wilson’s warbler, common yellowthroats, a rufus-sided towhee. (Often these birds are in the same field or bush where we spotted them last year.)

A surprise this year was a scarlet tanager who leapt out of the underbrush onto a dead log a few feet in front of us. We watched him for ten minutes. Spectacular bird. But there were no blue-winged warblers in the trees where we’d spotted them in former years.

Down near the old town of Forestville (now a ghost town) orioles were dashing here and there in the sunlight. We spotted a magnolia warbler, a few palm warblers, a Nashville, and a blue-gray gnatcatcher. And Hilary found four morels on the fringe of the woods that we stuffed into a plastic bag for future use.

Later, as we motored down the Root Valley, we stopped at the farmer’s market in Lanesboro and a farm auction in Fountain. We spent a few minutes in a used bookstore in Winona, took a leisurely drive through the dunes north of Weaver, and arrived at Hok-Si-La to find that a wedding reception was taking place there.

But though the parking lot was full, the park itself was mostly empty—everyone was inside the pavilion eating chicken breasts and pesto. The highlight of that afternoon ramble was the bay breasted warbler, a perfect sighting with his rich brown feathers glistening in the light.

We were fairly exhausted by this point, and the evening low was forecast at 32 degrees, so we made the 90-minute drive to Motel Golden Valley (i.e. our house) and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning we were back at Frontenac State Park by 9:30. We passed a woman on the road going in and I asked her what she’d been seeing. Henslow’s sparrows, she said (never heard of them) and sedge wrens (ditto). But when she mentioned orchard orioles I perked up a little. I knew they existed but I’d never seen one.

“They seem to like the apple tree at the first visitor parking slot in the campground,” she said. “Or maybe if you wander toward the group camp.”

We parked directly under the apple tree at the first visitor parking slot in the campground. No orchard oriole. We wandered the beautiful trails, picking up the blackburnian (one of my favorites) , the Cape May, and the blackpoll. A red-eyed vireo.

We helped an elderly woman who had never seen a Baltimore oriole, though they were singing non-stop from every corner of the campground, to finally see one—and undoubtedly made her day.

Finally, we cut through the woods back to the road and began to trudge back to our car parked beneath the apple tree. And at that point a dark sleek bird flew in front of us and alighted on a sumac stalk that had not yet developed a single leaf. The bird was largely black, but parts of it were a deep brownish red. It sat motionless, facing us, ten feet away, and we knew that it was an orchard oriole. We drew our binoculars to our eyes and scrutinized it at length. There it was.

There is a big difference between seeing a picture of something in a book and seeing it “in the flesh.” It’s not only a matter of detail or luster or vividness. It’s the difference between representation and reality. Yes, orchard orioles exist. We can read that in a book. But has anyone seen one lately? Or are people merely reiterating things they’ve read in other books, ashamed to admit that they’ve never seen one personally? And if these birds do exist, why is it that I’ve never seen one?

And then suddenly you do see one, and your universe expands. The rumors are true. Orchard orioles do exist!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wild Plums

Wild Plums. It sounds like the title of a Yasujiro Ozu movie. And the association may be apt. This morning Hilary and I strapped our bikes to the car, intent on a bike ride up across the loping hills of Elm Creek (which is in Maple Grove) but decided along the way that it was too gray and cold for such foolishness and turned east on 694 in the direction of Stillwater. Our destination? The annual St. Croix Valley pottery tour.

Year after year we receive the flyer in April, detailing the location of the many potters who live and work in northern Washington and southern Chisago counties; and year after year we make a mental note to visit them during this rural art crawl. But until today, we’ve never actually made the rounds. It may be because our cupboards are already overflowing with pots, bowls, tea bowls (neither of us drink tea), hand-thrown plates, pitchers….

Why should this year be any different? Perhaps because we spent a good deal of time yesterday looking at Chinese landscape scrolls from the Song and Ming dynasties at the Art Institute, and then ate lunch at a restaurant on Lyndale called Zen. Or maybe it was because we were talking about pots with some friends at a party last night.

In any case, we soon found ourselves at the boom site on the St. Croix, looking at a huge flock of cedar waxwings in the trees and a lone solitary sandpiper on the beach. A few minutes later we pulled into Guillermo Cuellar’s studio in the hills overlooking Osceola, where we looked at a large array of beautiful pots set out on eight or ten long tables on the lawn overlooking the crest of the hill above the valley.

There are many talented potters in the region, but it seems to me that Cuellar has the most earthy and organic style. Perhaps you don’t quite know what I mean. A great pot is a work of art, of technique, of thought and repetition and habit. Due to the materials and the hands-on method and the uncertainties of the firing, a great pot can capture the nonchalance of nature—its uncanny knack for incorporating accidents into its lovely creations—perhaps better than any other art form. And the fact that the object is designed to be used brings the individual who owns and uses it into the flow of those natural rhythms. Hence, earthy and organic.

We bought one of Cuellar’s very large serving bowls with a tenmoku glaze and very little decoration. We don’t have anything quite like.

We proceeded north through Taylor’s Falls to four other potteries. One had a wandering accordion player and a popcorn machine, at another they were serving red wine and sun-dried tomato hummus. Some of the “guest” potters were from as far afield as Connecticut and West Virginia. Many good potters, some whimsical potters—though that trend seems to be running its course. The parking was often difficult—the edges of gravel roads dropping off steeply into the woods. And although it was the tail end of the last day of the sale, the tables were still amply stocked with wares.

But half the fun of such an excursion is simply wandering the countryside. Just south of the Arcola Railroad Bridge we spotted a trail and pulled over. It led a half-mile down through the woods to the St. Croix, dropping steeply near the end, and along the way we saw plenty of wildflowers and two ovenbirds. (No luck with the morels. A week too early?)

On a county highway leading north to Sunrise we heard some crows harassing a red-tailed hawk and pulled over to watch. At first we couldn’t see where the hawk had landed but Hilary finally spotted him, and then she noticed that a gray squirrel was dangling lifelessly in his talons. When the crows had quieted down the hawk made a break for it, flying low across a swamp, but it was clear that the squirrel was weighing him down and the crows were soon in hot pursuit, cawing with clamorous abandon.

Ain’t Nature grand?

But perhaps what impressed me most about the day were the explosions of white flowers here and there along the fringes of the forest. Most of these trees were less than ten feet tall, but they were far more vigorous in bloom than the serviceberry we also spotted from time to time deeper in the woods. There is something very undisciplined about the branching pattern of these dwarf trees; and the rows of tightly-clustered white blossoms that define the branches, largely unobscured by leaves, come at you from the forest like a giddy and unbridled shout. Their appearance is quite unlike that of the crabapple trees, which are beautiful but seem rather lush and domesticated in comparison.

What are these beautiful little trees? Google Images was no help at all. I imagined they were hawthorns or plums, and finally, by resorting to my basement library of natural history, I arrived at a conclusion. In A Natural History of Trees by Donald Culross Peattee (1966), I came upon this passage:

Where, throughout its large but irregular range, the Wild Red Plum grows profusely, spring has a special loveliness. For the plum thickets, early in the year, foam with white blossoms piling like snow upon the naked wood. Alone or as an understory tree beneath hardwoods, this plum is a lacy note in the forest pattern. Though it grows usually little higher than 12 to 15 feet, and is commonly a mere shrub… its branches are comparatively widespacing, and even somewhat dropping, forming a broad-topped head. Since it sends up many sprout stems, it spreads wherever it finds the opportunity, and there the odor of the blossoms freights the spring sunshine—an odor faintly fetid but yet not wholly unpleasing to any who played as children in those flowering and but sparsely thorny thickets.”\

Does anyone still write like that? In a “scientific” field guide? I think not. But Peattee has hit the nail on the head, bringing that splendid little tree to life.

Nature is full of wildness. Everyone knows that, I guess. Is it so strange if we want to have a little wildness in our serving dishes, too?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Brad Mehldau

The new Dakota is a beautiful swanky place and it’s fun to go there, if you can afford it. I’m not sure I like it better than the old Dakota, where most of the seats were either too close or too far away, and the ringing of the cash register at the bar was an incessant nuisance. But that’s a moot point.

If I seldom go to the Dakota, it’s mainly because I’m an early riser, and find it hard to stay up for the second set…yet the first set is usually too short, and it costs more besides.

Perhaps as a result of this parsimony and discernment, the shows I have seen at the new Dakota have been uniformly outstanding, from Ravi Coltrane to Hiromi, from Dorado Schmitt to Bobby Watson. Brad Mehldau’s show last Sunday night was no exception.

Mehldau was once a wunderkindt of the jazz world; he studied with Fred Hersch at Berkley, performed as a sideman with many of the hallowed names of our era from Lee Konitz and Joshua Redman to Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd, and now, at the age of 39, has 14 albums to his credit as a soloist or bandleader.

Mehldau (who looks like Bill Murray’s skinny younger brother) is preeminently a trio pianist. He has the romantic temperament of a cocktail pianist (which is good) and the creative daring of an avant garde pianist (which is also good.) If an off-hand criticism could be leveled against him, it would be that he thinks too much—but this criticism would only apply when we’re chopping onions in the kitchen and would rather not follow the brooding paths laid down on the keyboard by an existentialist.

Often, when turning off a Brad Mehldau CD in mid-song, I’ve said to myself, “But I’d like to hear him live.” And I did. And it was rewarding and engaging. And the set was very long. And the martinis were good. And Mehldau himself was the essence of artistry and courtesy and depth. And we never got to the bottom of the basket of fries.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Benedetto Croce

The reviews in the New York Review of Books are so long and so well-written that we can usually convince ourselves that they make an adequate substitute for reading the books themselves. But I occasionally come across a review that describes a volume (usually a collection of disparate essays) that I am sorely tempted to purchase, and such was the case with the review of Worlds Made of Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, by Anthony Grafton. I was stopped short when it suddenly occurred to me that Grafton had studied with A. D. Momigliano, and I already had a book of Momigliano’s essays on the shelf that I’d never much looked at. Opening that long-forgotten collection, I noticed at once that it contained an essay with the title “Reconsidering Benedetto Croce.” Now, Croce is one of my favorite thinkers. I immediately got down to business.

Momigliano’s critique of Croce is well-informed and fair-minded, and it contains quite a bit of incidental information that I’d either forgotten or never knew. He deftly illuminates how Croce drew upon local Neapolitan history, Marxism, and aesthetic theory in developing his worldview, and offers a shrewd account of the role played by misunderstanding in Croce’s popularity in Italy before the rise of Fascism. He underscores Croce’s commanding position as Italy’s most outspoken liberal once Mussolini and his cronies had taken over, and he addresses the issue of Croce’s conservatism (as Italy’s minister of education he introduced the Catholic catechism to elementary schools) his blatantly nineteenth-century tastes, and how easy (and important) it was for the Italian intelligencia to break away from him.

In short, Momligliano has done about as well any anyone could be expected to in ten pages, in providing us with an accurate overview of a man whowas fully engaged in both public and scholarly life for a half-century and more during perhaps the most tumultuous time in history. The most important thing he has failed to do is suggest how intimately Croce’s philosophical and historical concerns were intertwined. It’s clear, in fact, that Momigliano has no real grasp of Croce’s metaphysics. He refers to the period during which Croce wrote his four-volume Philosophy of Spirit as a “phase,” and suggests (erroneously) that Croce derived many of his philosophical positions from his young collaborator Giovanni Gentile.

There is no reason why any of us should care whether one largely-forgotten Italian historian (Momigliano) has misconstrued the import of a long-forgotten Italian philosopher (Croce) except that Croce’s ideas are well worth reflecting on even today, and Momigliano’s analysis can provide us with an avenue of ingress. Here are a few key sentences:

“The liberalism Croce now put before his readers was the liberalism of Constant, Guizot, and Cavour…” Momigliano means this as a criticism, yet on the next page we read:

"But the liberty Croce spoke about was not just a philosophic notion. It was the liberty our fathers had won for themselves in the revolution and on the battlefields of the Risorgimento. Croce represented a constant reproach to Fascism, a constant reminder of what we had lost—freedom and honesty of thought, especially in matters of religion, of social questions and of foreign policy, tolerance, representative government, fair trials, respect for other nations and consequently self-respect."

What Momigliano is describing here is the liberalism of Constant, Guizot, and Cavour. It doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

Nor can such “nineteenth-century liberalism” be categorically differentiated from the “philosophical notion” of liberty that Croce describes in his more formal and systematic works. In Croce’s view, liberty is indistinguishable from creativity and development, which can only manifest themselves within the historical milieu. (In the abstract, such concepts mean nothing.) Croce insisted that philosophy and history are the same thing, because there is no way that we can explore the reality of liberty, creativity, development, except through the study of its manifestations in history. By the same token, history is the story of liberty, not because everything that happens is creative, but because thought only receives nourishment from moments of genuine creativity and development, and therefore, only such moments find a durable home in history. And this is no less true of the history of quilts or toothpicks than it is of the history of diplomacy or architecture.

Momigliano is wrong, therefore, when he writes, “[Croce’s] notion of history as the story of liberty was essentially fatalistic: it relied on Providence.” On the contrary, Croce’s notion of history rejected all abstract agents—not only Providence, but social classes, aesthetic movements, and partisan theories and ideals. Impressionism, the working class, the Absolute—it was all bunk. In Croce’s view, history is made by individuals. The individual human soul—thinking, reflecting on history, acting—is the locus of all historical develop, and should be the focus of historical research.

Near the end of the piece, Momigliano remarks that Croce’s philosophical system put him “automatically outside the mainstream of modern science.” Once again to his credit, Momigliano’s remark is accurate, if uncomprehending. One of Croce’s most valuable discoveries (which built upon a century of anti-positivist thought) was that science, which deals with atemporal laws and abstract genera and species rather than concrete events that have taken place in historical time, was categorically incapable of approaching the domain of truth. Croce’s system did not, in fact, lay outside the realm of science; rather, it offered a logical demonstration of why science lay outside the realm of truth, and must be subsumed under the rubric of practical life (which was also a part of Croce's philosophy). Momigliano’s remark implies (without defending logically) that Croce’s system crippled his attempts to "keep up" with scientific thought, whereas in fact, Croce’s system demonstrates conclusively that such “implications” are themselves philosophically jejune.

In the end, Momigliano's portrait is both penetrating and affectionate, and it reminds us why Croce has fallen off the map. Croce's suggestion that history and philosophy are the same thing is anathema to philosophers, who prefer hypothetical situations to the nitty gritty of real life; and it's no less distasteful to historians, who avoid the "big" questions like the plague.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Aujourdhui Personne Travail

Yesterday was May Day, and that means nobody works—in France, anyway. In the spirit of the day, I drove down to Surdyk’s to chat with the folks from Chateau Saint Andre Corbin, Chateau La Freynelle and the Aquitane Wine Company, who were in town to promote their products. (I’m not sure “products” is the right word, however, for the organic creation that the wine of any given year turns out to be.)
I’m always on the look-out for cheap red wines from Bordeaux that can evoke memories of the days when you could buy classed growths for less than $20.00. It’s true that in those days I was making $4.00 an hour unloading trucks, and $20.00 was a small fortune. All the same, nowadays even the cru bourgeois from the remote fringes of the area are running from $10 to $20, which is still the extreme upper end of my range.
The gentleman from Chateau Picque Caillou wore a suit, he had an old-fashioned haircut, and he could easily have stepped out of a Pierre Melville gangster movie or a Jacque Tati farce. His wine is from Grave—“Just down the road from Haut Brion,” he doesn’t mind mentioning—and it has greater finesse than body, which is fine with me. The 2006 lives in the shadow of the huge, Parker-esque 2005, he told me, but in a year or two it will be magnificent. In searching for the right word to describe the 2006 he kept returning to “classical—It’s more…classical.”
The two women at the next table, young and stylish, were promoting wines from their family vineyards. I had used up all my wine expressions at the previous table and was pleased to discover that I had purchased (and enjoyed) a bottle of the Freynelle Blanc a few days earlier. They told me how big their vineyards were—25 and 100 acres—how many workers they employed, what their production was, etc. The Mongavey was very nice, but all wines in that price range are nice, and it’s hard to differentiate when you seldom drink such things—especially at 9:30 in the morning. We ended up discussing the French film Seraphine, which I’d seen at the film festival a few days ago, and I’m sure they were relieved when I finally bid them adieu.
Did I buy any wines? Yes I did. May is my birthday month, and I had a few big bills burning a hole in my pocket that I’d picked up following a recent book presentation.

After that day of glorious idleness, which also included a bike ride along the Mississippi and an evening with The New York Review of Books, I made an effort this morning to get a few things done. It, too, was a glorious morning, the sun was bright and the air was cool. The leaves are in various phases of unfolding, the sand cherry under the bedroom window is blooming like an ikebana display, and the violets and periwinkle and just beginning to flower. I finished raking the leaves in the back yard, cut back the elderberry bushes, and gathered the dead branches from the silver maple that had fallen during the winter. Out front, I cleaned up the daylilies, removed a few dandelions with a sophisticated uprooting tool I bought last year, and apprised the task of reattaching a section of the lattice that fell off the front of the house a few weeks ago. The air is sooo fresh, and it’s warm enough to leave the front door open. And to top things off, I heard a loud squawk as I was tending the daylilies and looked up just in time to see a sandhill crane flying directly above me over the house.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Int'l Film Festival 3

The Silence Before Bach

The Silence Before Bach, a documentary directed by septuagenarian Spaniard Pere Portabella, is a very mixed bag. It’s intermittently intriguing to watch and never actually boring, but it promises a good deal less than it delivers. The most damning thing that might be said is that it’s less satisfying than simply listening to a competent performance of one of Bach’s masterworks. But Portabella has taken on a tall order—to make a film about Bach that gives us the cinematic equivalent of the great composer’s magic. Any film that attempts to approach such a subject sideways, as Portabella has done, deserves our attention and applause.

Among the highpoints of the film is the opening narrative sequence, in which two Spanish truck-drivers converse in a truck-stop over breakfast and later hit the road together. The driver had been extolling the value of playing classical music as a release from the tensions of the road, but his companion is the one who, as the flat beautiful countryside of Castile flashes by outside the cab, can deliver a mean Bach partita on the harmonica.

Another intriguing segment shows ten or twelve cellists playing a famous piece in the subway. We don’t know why they’re doing it—there seems to be no one else on the train—but it sounds nice.

One of the best segments involves two men in an antiquarian bookshop discussing Primo Levi, Cioran, the power of music, and the pain it brings to those who have no hope. And the sequence shot from a tourist boat on the Elbe River as it passes through Dresden is also engaging.

On the other hand, most of the historical recreations are weak. For example, we spend twenty minutes watching a man buy meat in an amateurish recreation of a nineteenth-century open-air market. He brings it home to his employer, Felix Mendelssohn, who opens the meat and discovers a Bach masterpiece written on the wrapping paper. But this episode is overdubbed with a woman singing a folksong about the myth of Mendelssohn’s discovery. The song she is singing is not by Bach, the episode is not dramatically convincing, the story itself (we are being told) is not true—so why has so much of the film has been devoted to it? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to provide some scholarly information about the true course of events?

In another scene, we spend perhaps five minutes watching a very beautiful young woman take a shower in a glass-lined shower stall. The scene may be unforgettable, but it has no relevance to the subject at hand, unless we are being asked to infer that the contours of a Bach Prelude are similar in form to that of a young woman’s body. Chalk this one up to septuagenarian voyeurism. (We later see the woman playing the cello for ten seconds in her bathrobe. So it appears she is a musician.)

In the end the misfires in The Silence Before Bach outnumber the successes, and anyone hoping to see a work on the order of such brilliant films as 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, Into Deep Silence, Helvetica, or Dutch Light is bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, as you watch it, you feel that you’re in the heart of Europe, listening to Bach from time to time, riding on a boat, looking at beautiful buildings, touring the Spanish countryside, or drinking a cup of hot chocolate in a café.
I can think of worse ways to spent a couple of hours.

Four Boxes

Four Boxes might best be described as a dystopian comedy-thriller, though the laughs and the thrills have the upper hand throughout. And that’s just as well, because suburban malaise has been with us for a long time now, and its contours have been explored more effectively in any number of films from Ordinary People and The Graduate to The Ice Storm and American Beauty. What makes Four Boxes remarkable is that the three protagonists are on camera practically from start to finish, they say absolutely nothing of interest—and yet the film becomes more engaging with every turn of the plot.
How can this be?

Credit must go, first of all, to the actors in the leading roles. Justin Kirk, well known to viewers from Weeds, Angels in America, and a long string of what used to be called B-movies, plays the thoughtful, taciturn half of Go-Time Enterprises, a youthful but morbid business whose purpose is to buy up the junk in the homes of recently deceased people and sell it on E-Bay. Sam Rosen plays his moronic side-kick. It’s almost as if Jeremy Brett were still playing Sherlock Holmes, but Adam Sandler had taken over the role of Watson.

As the film opens, the duo have latched onto an unusually creepy residence. The house is full of bean-bag chairs, futons, computers, golf tees, chopped up family photos, and plastic bins full of weird objects. The liquidators almost immediately discover that the hapless owner was also a fan of Four Boxes, a reality internet show that Rosen also watches. The jaded entrepreneurs, bored with their work and their lives, focus in on the split screen broadcast, filmed in a house—no one knows where—which was once the domain of a guileless ingénue, though it’s been taken over by a bizarre set of individuals who almost look like terrorists!

The mystery and intrigue generated by these crude internet images adds a dimension to the film, and the appearance of Terryn Westbrook completes the package. Westbrook plays Amber, Rosen’s current (and Kirk’s former) girlfriend, and the three form an irascible love triangle, sustaining a humorously nihilistic banter that must be heard to be appreciated. It’s been referred to as text-speak and Juno-talk, but as long as we’re throwing cultural references around, why not add Samuel Beckett?

One of my favorite lines is delivered by Westbrook. She’s missing her computer, and Rosen remarks disapprovingly, “Is there anyone who loves computers more than you?”
She turns to him and shouts, “My Brother!!”We’ve never met Amber’s brother. We didn’t know she had one. No one ever refers to him again. Is this funny? I guess you had to be there.

An atmosphere of youthful angst and disillusionment hangs over the film, but it can’t do much to dispel the irrepressible energy of the protagonists, and when the terrorist TV show begins to gather momentum, the drama becomes intense. (Then again, it’s hard to get too worked up about killers whose weapon of choice is a leaf blower.)

In For Boxes, writer-director Wyatt McDill, his producer-wife Megan Huber, and a bunch of talented associates have done much with little. An afterthought. McDill is well-known in Minneapolis to be a marvelous chef. Yet everyone in Four Boxes eats fast-food tacos. I’d like to see a movie about smart young people who have jobs, know how to cook, and buy their produce at Mid-Town Market.