Monday, December 28, 2009

Lovely Myths of the Season

We emerge from a season of festivities as if from a long dark tunnel, albeit one illuminated by twinkling lights and cheery faces. We’ve been bolstered along the way by pickles wrapped in ham, chicken chili with jalapeños, eggplant parmigiano, pork roast stuffed with cranberry jam, grilled salmon with pesto on home-made pasta, white wine, red wine, vintage port... A few gifts have been exchanged, though for those of us without children this is a very minor aspect of the occasion. We’ve taken in a few films—in the daytime, no less!; played a French Voyageur game that involves singing and passing shoes while kneeling on the floor (see photo above); taken a trip downtown through the slush to a service on Christmas morning where poinsettias hang from every light fixture; reacquainted ourselves with the entire gospel of St. Mark in front of the fire, reading out loud and snoozing by turns; and shoveled wet snow from the driveway, the front sidewalk, and the back deck, layer by layer. Four deer paid a visit to our backyard on Christmas morning before dawn to sample the shrubs, their elegant forms appearing as dark silhouettes against the snow; and by the time all is said and done more than forty people, family and friends, stopped over for a meal at one time or another, a few of them coming from as far afield as Miami, Dallas, Portland, and Dayton, Ohio.

These are dark times, but also good times. We inevitably read editorials about the consumerism of the season, but it isn’t hard to avoid. In fact, this year I did so little shopping that I didn’t hear a single version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which makes me a little sad. Nor did I hear the Beach Boys doing “Little Saint Nick” or Madonna singing “Santa Baby.” I kept waiting for Charlie Parker’s version of “White Christmas” to show up on my new iPod shuffle (a cast-off from my sister, who has three of them, though I do appreciate it). I guess I haven’t been going to the gym enough lately.

Around our house the turntable has been dominated by the Tallis Singers, the Alfred Deller Consort, up-beat orchestral Bach (keyboard concertos, violin concertos) and a somewhat dreary but atmospheric CD for quieter moments entitled “Musique Iberique au Clavicorde: Cabezon, Cabanilles, Coelho, Correa de Arauxo, etc.” On Christmas Eve I gave Arvo Part’s De Profundis a shot while cranking the pasta-maker as Hilary fed the dough down the slot, but that portentous downer didn’t last more than five minutes.

And speaking of music, I was cheered at one Christmas gathering to learn that my young niece’s favorite gift had been a set of Beethoven’s late string quartets. (Heavy stuff!) Another niece, who designs lingerie for a living by day, told me about the large paintings she’s doing at night incorporating mythic elements into portraits of women. When she described one that had bees arising from a woman’s hair I was reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and having my copy close at hand, I showed it to her. Scrooge that I am, I didn’t actually lend it to her, but Ovid is not the kind of thing you just read cover-to-cover and then return. I could have given it to her, but it was a beat-up copy, and besides, we agreed that myth arises from common experience, and from the psyche. Such fountains of inspiration and insight can easily be blocked by excessive learning.

There is a mythic element to the events that took place in a manger in Bethlehem under a bright star long ago, and they’ve been analyzed ad nauseam. A recent episode of Frontline presented a very sophisticated overview of how the various gospels differ in tone depending on whether the Temple In jersuelem had been torn down or not at the time they were written. And a few days before Christmas another powerful myth with slightly different overtones was broadcast on public television. I’m referring to Puccini’s La Boheme. This opera encapsulates perhaps the most powerful myth of the modern age as beautifully as any work of art I know. The story of young artists enjoying life and supporting one another as they freeze in a Parisian garret cultivates a notion that most of us believe in, at least to some degree, namely, that we’re all undiscovered geniuses with something unique to offer the world. “I’m a millionaire in ideas,” Rodolpho says at one point with great enthusiasm.

This theme is amplified by the appearance of Mimi, a shy but beautiful seamstress who lives downstairs. It’s love at first sight between these two, of course, and when Mimi returns to die in Rodolpho’s arms in the final act, we may also call that “love,” though all she really wants to do is die in the company of someone who actually knows who she is.

Might this also be the ultimate message of Christianity? That we ought to attend very carefully to one another? I don’t know, but I’m suddenly left wondering if that sort of message is anywhere to be found in the Metamorphoses?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Up in the Air

If you like George Clooney, you’ll probably like this slick entertainment vehicle, which keeps the laughs on a slow simmer and throws in a heart-tugging scene from time to time to mask its conceptual shallowness. It’s matinee fun, though the more you think about it, the worse it becomes. (If you plan to see it, you might want to stop reading here.)

Clooney plays a man who travels the country firing people. He’s not the hatchet man who decides whom to fire, merely the anonymous individual from outside the corporation who delivers the bad news. He lives in his suitcase and he likes it that way. In the opening scenes he is portrayed as easy-going but callous, a Teflon apparatchik who considers himself wise in having determined that all human relationships constitute a burden of one sort or another. Early on in the film he meets up with a woman (played by Vera Farmiga) who shares both his lifestyle and his good humor and they have one or two mildly witty romps together.

The film takes on added interest with the arrival of Anna Kendrick in the role of the young executive who overturns Clooney’s world by proposing that the termination process could easily be done through computer screens. This would take the fun out of Clooney’s airport lifestyle, of course, and suddenly his persona shifts from the devil-may-care termination engineer to the caring, seasoned pro who must show Kendrick why remote termination wouldn’t work by taking her out on the road with him. Kendrick is a more interesting person to watch than Clooney or Farmiga. Though her professional facade is even more brutal than Clooney’s, there’s a real character underneath it. When her fiancé dumps her, she grows confused and weepy, and an entertaining dialog ensues between this young woman and her two older and slightly more liberated (or jaded) colleagues.

There are some fun scenes at an electronics convention, and Clooney and Farmiga get nostalgic at his sister’s wedding in Rheinlander, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, every so often we actually sit in as Clooney and Kendrick deliver the bad news to some auto worker or office clerk. If the film were actually about job loss these scenes might be meaningful, but it isn’t, which makes them a little gratuitous. They’re merely emotional props to set in contrast to Clooney’s glib cheeriness. We’re glad they’re there, because it puts us in touch with “real life” for a moment or two, but they clash with the humorous episodes we’ve been enjoying during the rest of the film and expose the underlying shakiness of the plot.

What then, is the film about? It’s about the importance of family connections. Clooney finally figures this out, but everyone in the audience already know it, and after spending most of the film chuckling about his liberated lifestyle, we can hardly be expected to get all warm and fuzzy when he finally sees the light.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Spill the Wine

I have always liked that part of town. It’s a frontier of sorts between the labyrinth of the University and the whirr and noise of downtown Minneapolis, an open expanse hemmed in by strange freeway entrances, the cheap, unlovely Metrodome, and a bend of the Mississippi that can still accommodate houseboats while also cuddling up to a quaint power plant or two from a bygone era.

Washington Avenue cuts an expansive swath through the center of this ragged urban zone, and it’s lined with equally odd establishments including an indoor skating rink, an Old Spaghetti Factory, The Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the local headquarters of the Red Cross, and, capping its east end, the formerly Swedish neighborhood known as Seven Corners, where the elegantly broken-down Southern Theater serves as a favorite venue for various dance organization.

In recent years the Guthrie theater and a raft of condos have arrived in the neighborhood, and in their wake a few interesting nightspots have opened up in the warehouse spaces nearby.

The other day we decided to check out the Happy Hour at Spill the Wine.

The deal is this: from 4 to 6 p.m. appetizers are ½ price (i.e. 4-5 dollars apiece) and they offer an assortment of $15 bottles of wine. These “special” wines aren’t actually printed out anywhere, and the waitress who served us initially had a very shaky command of who the vintners were, but really, does it matter? We ordered the chardonnay, which was fine, and later tried the pinot grigio, which was also fine.

As for the appetizers, they were slightly classier than one might desire; we ended up having more than our fill of sashimi, gnocchi, calamari, and crab cakes. But they were tasty enough and fairly priced. No complaints.

The ambiance of Spill the Wine is quite nice—a sort of peach-crate elegance with a few tables in front looking out across Washington Avenue (nice view) and a warmer, darker room stretching back from the street alongside the bar. The noise level was pleasant—animated but not overwhelmingly loud, which made it easy for the eight of us to talk back and forth across the table.

The only real blot on the evening was our waiter, an energetic fellow who reminded me of a thinner, cheerier version of Newman, the misanthropic postman in Seinfeld. He insisted on pouring out the wine glass by glass, which is a real no-no in my book, especially with such a large group, people arriving at different times, and two types of white wine on the same table. Worse than that, he brought out quite a few dishes we hadn’t ordered. “We didn’t order this,” I said at one point. “It’s on the house,” he replied and darted away as if on roller skates. As the dishes piled up, the only explanation I could think of was that a private party had canceled at the last minute and they had a lot of raw fish sitting around in the kitchen attracting flies. Meanwhile, Newman neglected to bring out a few things that we had ordered—the cheese plate, for example.

When he brought the bill, he mumbled something about “two of the dishes are on me.” Hmmm. “Is something wrong?” he asked sheepishly when I went over to talk with him. “I’ve been going to restaurants for decades,” I replied, “and I’ve never experienced anything like this. We didn’t order half of these things.” “What do you want me to do?” he said, with an anxious tremor in his voice, as if he were genuinely concerned, “Knock $20 off the bill?” “Forty minimum,” I replied, and he immedately agreed.

Later Newman came over to the table and apologized for any “misunderstanding.” He seemed not only contrite but genuinely melancholy, like a dog who’s just been kicked by someone he’s always trusted. It was a strange scene all the way around, and it cast an faint but ugly shadow over what was supposed to be a festive little get-together.

All the same, I’d like to go back to Spill the Wine, it’s a nice place to sit, maybe try the hummus and the cheese plate. Next time I’ll bring a pad and pencil, so we can keep our order straight…even if the waiter can’t.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Dangerous Games"

Books devoted to the subject of historiography seldom make it to the best-seller list. Did I say seldom? Make that never. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, that Margaret MacMillan’s slim volume, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, seemed to be enjoying some sort of popular success this summer. MacMillan is the author of highly regarded works on the Paris peace talks that ended WWI, and on Nixon and Mao. Glowing reviews of Dangerous Games carry terms such as “smart,” “wise,” “persuasive,” “compelling.” I put my name on the waiting list at the Hennepin County Library, and became 24th in line for the three copies that the nation’s 6th-largest library system had seen fit to purchase. Four months later I was 17th. In the end I gave in and bought the thing. That was a mistake.

MacMillan’s book isn’t a compelling read, but it makes for an interesting skim. It isn’t really about the uses of history—only the abuses. She never asks herself what history is, or how it works (though I have little doubt she has pondered these issues) but limits herself to exposing the ways that it can be misused. These fall into various categories—defenses of nationalism, ethnical identity, territorial legitimacy, gender oppression, museological controversy and correctness, Israelis and Palestinians, Serbians and Albanians, Germans and Frenchmen, etc etc. For those who can read between the lines, the book suggests that whenever politicians draw upon history, they are likely to be abusing it, because history offers no easy answers. It is never anything other than complex, and should those complexities be successfully diagramed and illuminated, the result would be utterly absorbing but not necessarily relevant to other times and circumstances.

We can be thankful, I guess, that although the study of history has never been shown to be useful, many find that there is no substitute for the realness it offers. I am not referring here to entertainment value, but to truth value. Historians are cautious creatures, by in large, more concerned to get the details right than to speculate about the overarching meaning of things. Yet there is a strong, albeit largely implicit, moral current to the best historical writing. Most historians would be unable to articulate what that current consists of, and we ought not to expect that from them. It would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Like asking the artist to explain how he (or she) goes about his work, and what it all means. That’s for others (like us) to judge.

History is the only truth. That is not an absolute mystery, but it’s a tough nut to crack. MacMillan makes no attempt to crack it, though her flutterings around the periphery are sometimes thought-provoking. They make us want to read a real history book. Even one of hers. Yet there is also place on the shelf, and in our hearts, for a book that’s really about historiography. (Yes, but who is going to write it?)

Friday, December 11, 2009

“That Beet’s All”

They call it the season of lights—because it’s so dark, I guess. We begin to appreciate the things that sparkle, like new-fallen snow as it catches the morning sunlight. But silhouettes of deer are also beautiful in the backyard moonlight and the vigor of our resident red-bellied woodpecker is striking as he shushes away the finches and chickadees.

Other lights of the season?

- Colored house lights have come into vogue, it seems, and for the most part I prefer them to the dangling strings of faux icicles that were popular a few years ago. Our neighbors to the west have a dense skein of tiny red and blue bulbs draped above their gutters, and the young couple with a new baby two houses down to the east have gone wild with a slightly less attractive mess of red, orange, and blue.

- The Happy Hour menu at Vincent. We parked in the Target ramp and bought enough laundry detergent inside to meet the Free Parking requirement, then sauntered two blocks down Nicollet Mall through the bitter evening to a couple of stool’s in Vincent’s dark and cozy bar. The menu now features a chicken liver pate served with golden slices of toasted bread.

“That’s a fine addition to the menu,” I said to the bartender, “though it’s a little sweet.” “There’s a sweet onion glaze on top,” he replied. “The French love their sweets.”

- Root crops. The furor of excitement over the turnip harvest has dissipated by now, but I was thrilled when Hilary came home from the farmer’s market the other day with a big bag of beets. I peeled them dutifully and they seemed to glow with the stored energy of summer sunlight. Alice Waters notes in her book on vegetables: “Unlike other root vegetables, the beet (Beta vulgaras) has intense, highly-saturated jewel-like colors.” And she’s right. And the effect is intensified with the brilliant December sunlight shining through them.

When they were peeled I ran them all through the food processor; they emerged as firm, thick, jiggly strips of glorious purplish red. Add carrots, onions, chicken stock, some pre-boiled stew meat and a healthy clump of fresh dill, simmer for an hour or three, and you’ve got Christmas borsht. (The white sour cream, with a spring of dill on top, completes the effect.)

But my love of beets has always been sullied by a perturbing undercurrent, a dark secret that takes the form of a very bad joke. A man is brought his dinner on a silver warming platter. Upon lifting the lid he sees that the platter contains only a single enormous beet. He turns to the waiter and says, “Well, that beet's all!”

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Messenger

The Messenger, an edgy, fluid little masterpiece, focuses on a few weeks in the lives of two army officers whose task is to inform the next-of-kin that their sons, husbands, daughters have been killed in action. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) has been doing it for years; his assistant Will (Ben Foster) is brand new to the job.

Harrelson is driven by traditional military machismo, but Foster is recovering from injuries sustained in combat and also struggling to adjust to life back home in the states. His girlfriend has moved on to something new and he's simmering with hurt and rage as a result of his tour of duty. Foster hates his new assignment and his boss.

The missions are assigned without warning and they’re unspeakably sad for the most part. Poor, affluent, white, black, Latino—the family situations are different and the reactions are too, but your heart will be in your throat repeatedly as the story develops. These episodes take up only a quarter of the film, however. They're accompanied by plenty of slice-of-life sequences and also an awkward romance that develops between Foster and one of the women who’s been recently widowed. (The widow is played by Samantha Morton, whom you may remember from the equally brilliant film In America.) There are moments of humor scattered throughout the film as the two officers get to know one another, go drinking or fishing together, and crash the engagement party of Foster’s ex-girlfriend and end up playing “army” in the parking lot outside the banquet hall.

Every scene contributes in one way or another to create a powerful portrait of the devastations of war, but it would be a mistake to label it an “anti-war” film. Rather, it places the operations of war firmly within the context of civilian life, exposing the day-to-day humanity of those who fight as well as the heroic sacrifices they often willingly make. (The men and women we see in the background on base are, in fact, real soldiers that have just returned from active duty.)

How was the director, Oren Moverman, able to create such a powerful sense of hurt and loss on the screen? In an interview with the Boston Globe , Foster remarked: “No scenes were rehearsed in the picture. For the notifications, he kept us separate from the people we were notifying. He talked to us separately. We never met them until we were knocking on the door. And these scenes were shot in single takes. There was rarely any coverage. We were encouraged to go off book, and most of all, listen to each other. The drug of it all is getting lost with other actors and forgetting that you’re not performing at someone, that you’re together in it... I think that’s what makes Oren Moverman one of the future greats, period. He’s more interested in the messiness of the experience, as am I.”

The Messenger
combines the best features of documentary with a gripping yet highly atmospheric narrative in which every scene contributes to the emotional impact—a “must-see” that will probably be gone from theaters well before Christmas.