Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Glenn Gould

A new and fascinating documentary, Genius Within, the Inner Life of Glenn Gould, was aired at the film festival last night. Gould has already been well-served by the film Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993), but this one has more original footage and extensive interviews with other musicians, Gould’s friends, engineering assistants, and the woman who seems to have been the love of his life, the German-American painter Cornelia Foss. Foss was married to composer, pianist and conductor Lucas Foss at the time she met Gould. The daughter of two art historians, she had studied at the American Academy in Rome, where composer Aaron Copland introduced her to Lukas. Gould was attracted by Cornelia's breadth of intelligence as well as her striking looks. She left her husband at the height of the affair and moved her two children to Toronto to be with Gould. A year before the move, Gould had asked her to marry him.

We all knew that Gould was not only an intense performer but also an intensely private man. All the same, it’s remarkable in this age of journalistic prying and exposé that the man considered by many to be the greatest piano virtuoso of the twentieth century could still, 25 years after his death, have an untold story to tell. These revelations make Gould a more interesting and appealing figure, I think, and the descriptions of Gould that Cornelia and her two children share in the course of the film add a good deal to our understanding of his personality, beyond the trademark gloves, overcoat, and incessant humming.

But that is only one of several aspects of Gould’s life that were new to me. One of his fellow-pupils as a teen describes how they were taught their staccato technique by a Chilean pianist named Alberto Guerrero. His long-time studio engineer describes how on one occasion, Glenn, an only child, asked if he could become the man’s brother. (The man replied that he already had four brothers and a sister.) From start to finish the film is full of interest, wonder, rare performance footage… and of course, music.

I have long been a Gould fan, though I would hesitate to describe him as the century’s greatest piano virtuoso. Gould’s technique is suitable for some composers and not for others. He can trash the fast movements of a Mozart sonata while wringing infinite pathos out of the adagio sandwiched in between them, for example. And beyond such diaphanous creations as Ravel’s Gaspar de la Nuit, I can’t imagine him getting very excited about the modern French piano repertoire. Of late, I’ve been listening to Murray Perahia’s version of the Goldberg Variations, rather than either of Gould’s. But this morning, inspired by the film, I checked his second, slower, rendering out of the library, and sometime soon I’ll give it another try.

For more about Gould and Foss click here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Film Festival News

The 28th annual Mpls/St.Paul Film Festival is now in full swing. It’s the most interesting cultural event of the year, I think, with films from every corner of the world being shown on five screens at a single multiplex theater on the banks of the Mississippi in the oldest part of the city. On the weekends the place is packed with people, often standing patiently in line to see tomorrow’s masterpiece (or soon-to-be-forgotten piece of junk.) Between shows you can wander down the river to Vic’s open-air terrace, where many of the wines on the list are below retail, or head up to NE Hennepin for the Happy Hour at Ginger Hop or a top-flight pizza at Pizza Nea. (Save your ticket stub and they’ll give you a free pizza.)

We’ve seen five films thus far, and they’ve all been worth the time. They and also give some indication of what a diverse array of films are being offered.

The best of the lot was the Thai film Agrarian Utopia, which depicts a family’s attempt to escape from debt by moving onto a farm in the northern part of Thailand. They live in a hut on stilts and plant rice, knock down bee hives, scour the countryside for mushrooms and grill an occasional snake or rat. It’s a quiet, outdoorsy life and the people themselves are also mild-mannered, though there are scenes of urban unrest at both ends of the film that could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines.

Equally good, but at the other end of the spectrum, Pink Taxi is set entirely amid the garish streets and run-down utilitarian apartment blocks of Moscow. It follows the lives of three divorced women who drive taxis for the city’s only female taxi service. These three are friends, and we accompany them as they drink vodka at a dascha and cheerily discuss their problems with men; we ride shotgun as they make their rounds and listen in as they engage in very personal conversations with their female passengers. We meet their children and share their radio favorites as the sprawling gray city whizzes by. The women are warm, melancholic, perhaps alcoholic, and very likeable, like your best friend's mother in high school, and we leave the theater feeling we’ve seen an unusual and authentic slice of Moscow life.

Today’s Special received a good deal of pre-festival hype, and the Friday night line was a long one, but it turned out to be an entirely conventional romantic comedy in which every turn of the plot could be predicted well in advance. A young chef (Aasif Mandvi) whose family hails from India quits his job when he’s passed over for a promotion. His father has a heart attack soon afterward and he finds himself managing the family restaurant. Clueless as to how to proceed, he solicits the help of a taxi driver (Naseerrudin Shah) who has been everywhere, done everything, and knows all the inner secrets of Indian food preparation.

I found it had to believe that someone of Indian origin with a decade of experience as a sous-chef would know nothing about Indian cooking, but in the end, the creeky plot served as an adequate vehicle around which to drape the ample cast of eccentric characters and to hang various pratfalls, jokes and fortune-cookie bits of wisdom about “trusting your heart.” Aasif’s mother was charming, and she looked familiar. The producer (who was present at the screening) reminded us after the show (many people in the audience already knew it) that she was played by the famous Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey. And indeed, the mystique of India shines through in the film, overcoming every cliche. It isn't Big Night, or Babette's Feast, or Monsoon Wedding, but it's a thoroughly fun film to watch.

No More Smoke Signals, a worthy Swiss film about a radio station on the Pine Ridge Reservation, had interesting interviews, expansive scenery, and a few live performances of Dakota hip-hop. It also had flashbacks to the Wounded Knee standoff of 1975, but didn’t delve as deeply into the complex history of that era as the events require.

For the Love of Movies, an affectionate look at the history of popular film criticism, touches on the careers of Bosley Crowther, James Agee, Vincent Canby, Siskel and Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, and many other film reviewers. It seems to be asking the question whether film critics can tell us anything we don’t already know about the films we’re about to see, but really need to know. However, it doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, because there is no film criticism in the film. Nor is there any criticism of the critics. It’s just an exposé of personalities.

The closest we come to criticism is when two reviewers offer different views of the French film Amelie, one loving it, the other hating it. Both reviewers are commenting on the same qualities but apprising them differently. (I think Adam Gopnik’s one-liner is right on the mark: “The clearest sign of the general decline in French culture is that even they liked Amelie.”)

We caught a glimpse down another interesting unexplored avenue when Richard Schickel remarked about Bonny and Clyde, “We didn’t care about the morality. We were just excited by the violence and turmoil of the film.” Or something to that effect. Another critic brought up the fact, evident to nearly all film buffs who have lived long enough, that American film took a nose-dive during the 1980s (with the arrival of Spielberg, Lucas, et. al.) from which it hasn’t yet recovered.

Which is one of many reasons why we may be thankful for the Twin Cities Film Festival, which got started in 1982.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ibsen in Lanesboro

Many adults carry an image in the back of their minds of a place—a beautiful place—that’s semi-rural, attractive, calm, slow-paced, and neighborly… and they’re going to move there someday. But it can’t be inhabited by farmers, penny-pinching shopkeepers out of a Balzac novel, Bible-thumping conservatives, and other assorted hicks. No, it must also display breeding and intelligence. An artist’s colony, if you will. Yet rooted and organic. The kind of town we saw in the TV series Northern Exposure, where the local DJ was an ex-con who spouted Kierkegaard.

For myself, I love the city. But I also love to head out into the countryside. And on a spring weekend, with the wildflowers sprouting and the birds heading north up the Mississippi, there can be no better destination than Lanesboro, Minnesota, a beautiful town tucked beneath the cliffs with the Root River flowing through it and a community theater that’s far better than average for a town of 778 souls.

The Commonweal Theatre has held an Ibsen festival annually for the last fourteen years, and we had arranged to see this year’s offering, John Gabriel Bjorkman. I’d never heard of that play, and now that I’ve seen it, I can see why. I’m not saying it was bad. I found it interesting and entertaining and sometimes dramatic. But how many plays by Ibsen do we really need to keep afloat?

We stayed at the Scandinavian Inn B & B, ate dinner at the Peddle Pusher Café, and attended the pre-performance art lecture catered by Kari’s Scandinavian Restaurant. (The restaurant itself, which adjoins the theater, was packed with professors from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and their spouses, who’d come up to see the show.)

In an effort to enhance the play’s “relevance,” the accompanying literature stressed the greed of the title character, who ruins the lives of countless investors in his struggle for wealth and power, but this emphasis misses the point of the play entirely. John Gabriel Bjorkman wasn’t a greedy man. He had no interest in money per se. No, Bjorkman was a visionary and a megalomaniac, who felt that only he had the wherewithal to harness all the mining, shipping, railroad, and manufacturing potential of Norway. To generate the required capital would require some creative (and fraudulent) bookkeeping. The play deals with the aftermath of the collapse of Bjorkman’s schemes and his lingering effect on the several women who were attracted to his charismatic energy but subsequently cast aside in one way or another as he relentlessly pursued his dream of industrial mastery. Simple greed never figures into the story.

In the title role, artistic director Hal Cropp nails the character of Bjorkman, with his seething energy and utter obliviousness to the effect his schemes have had on other people. Adrienne Sweeney is also very effective as the long-suffering sister-in-law and former lover, who, to complicate matters, also served as a surrogate mother to Bjorkman’s son for many years. David Hennessey plays Sancho Panza to Bjorkman’s Quixote with true sensitivity and poetry, and is certainly the most likable character in the play—and probably the wisest. The one weak link in the cast is Siobhan Maya Bremer, who (unfortunately) plays the central role of Bjorkman’s embittered wife. Her portrayal is wooden, her delivery flat and harsh, her understanding of the role skin-deep. It may be that she is simply too young to play the part of a woman who’s been shamed by both her husband and her sister and all but abandoned by her son.

The next morning we chatted with the Amish women selling quilts and baskets in the town park—their horses were tethered in the woods nearby—and then dropped in briefly at the Sons of Norway Hall where people in colorful vests were exhibiting their woodcarvings and rosemaling. We skipped the documentary film about Bernie Madoff and the lecture “Confronting the Temptations of Greed, Money, and Power in Our Society” and went bird-watching at nearby Forestville State Park. The rue anemones were in bloom, and also the Virginia bluebells. The stream was dotted here and there with fishermen in waders, and the local trout society was giving lectures in the pavilian on sink holes and Oneota limestone. But the only warbler we saw was the myrtle. Not a bad bird. But always the first warbler, undistinguished, arriving in droves...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ports of Call

The Ethnic Dance Theatre has been around for more than thirty years now, developing shows that bundle music, costumes, and dances from exotic places into ambitious productions, many of them with a specific geographic focus. Aside from the technical difficulties presented by the music and dancing itself, the EDT has always faced the challenge of making its performances theatrical without undermining the homespun village flair that differentiates folk performances from more modern and idiosyncratic forms of dance expression. Dance journalists are likely to dismiss such productions as “homespun”—at best, fancy footwork that you can’t really see from a distance and rigid postures that bespeak antediluvian cultures where individuality of expression is a no-no. On the other hand, those who attend the group’s shows regularly know exactly what they’re in for—music, costumes, and dancing that you won’t see anywhere else which take you to places you haven’t been to for a while, if ever…at a very reasonable price.

Considered in those terms, the EDT’s latest show, Ports of Call, was a rousing success. The cruise-ship theme made it possible to range widely in cultures—far more widely than a real cruise ship ever has. It also allowed for a generous display of travel slides (and doesn’t everyone love a slide show?) The performance contained numbers from Bulgaria, India, Iran, Greece, Latvia, Norway, Brazil and Costa Rica, among others.

The EDT specializes in dances from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, yet the numbers were uniformly top-flight, perhaps because artistic director Don La Course drew upon the choreographies of local specialists to augment his own areas of expertise. The band recruited for the show, led by Tim O’Keefe, was similarly packed with performers well-versed in the traditions involved. Keyboardist Mohammed Lulu elicited a surprising array of sounds from his instrument and vocalist Natalie Nowtyski also played a prominent roles the proceedings, belting out tunes with utter confidence in more than a few languages I’d never heard before. As for the dancers, they seldom flagged, whether executing a simple Latvian Schottische, fighting with canes, or honoring the Mother Goddess, Gujarat-style.

I couldn’t say if the costumes were authentic but they were certainly spectacular in more ways than one. The Cosa Rican number featured flouncy white outfits and straw hats; the women’s outfits for the numbers from Mumbai and Trabozn, though entirely different, must rank among the most elaborate silk pajamas I’ve ever seen. The men’s outfits tended to veer more toward the “Taliban look.” By dispensing with an elaborate encore to the finale, a foot-stomping Turkish line dance complete with flashing disco lights, the EDT put the final flourish of good taste on the performance.

We wandered down the street after the show(which was at the Ritz Theater) to a restaurant called the Northeast Social, a pleasant place offering $4 glasses of wine and a tempting menu. One minor blot: The accordionist near the door made conversation somewhat difficult, and his repertoire, though it ranged from Beethoven’s “Für Elise” to Don McLean’s “Starry Night,” suffered in comparison to the stuff we’d just been hearing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and it might also be true, as T.S. Eliot observed in one of the most-often quoted lines in poetry (outside of Shakespeare and the Beatles) that “April is the cruelest month.”

T.S. Eliot didn’t actually say this, however. It’s a line from one of his poems—The Wasteland, I think. Poetry gives us the opportunity to deliver beautiful soliloquies that may or may not support our personal views. Every poem is like a dramatic performance, with thrust and counter-thrust…sometimes off-stage. Every poem offers a mood, a speculation, a stance vis-à-vis the universe. We may be dealing with a death or a rush of giddy delight, a moment of dejection or an ironic observation in the manner of a joke. We attempt to honor and preserve such moments by encasing them in verse, choosing our words carefully and attending to the cadence of the sentences, the slither of the sibilants and the clatter of the “k”s.

For centuries the special attributes of a poem—the meter and rhyme and metaphor and all the rest—served the purpose of aiding the memory. Before the Ipod era it was words, rather than songs, that kept rolling around in our heads, and we had to keep them alive ourselves. Nowadays, when such needs have largely vanished, poets draw upon such literary devices less often, though a poem is still meant to be a special utterance, an elevated moment of thought, observation, or feeling—usually all three at once. Abstraction is also far less popular than it used to be. I suspect there are more abstract nouns in a single poem by Emily Dickenson or George Herbert than in the current issue of Poetry magazine.

Love built a stately house where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies she was heard to say
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame…

Critics sometimes complain that many contemporary poems are little more than glorified journal entries. There may be some truth to that, but if so, what of it? The question is, how interesting was the entry, and how effectively was it glorified? Thumbing through my own recent journals just now, I didn’t spot a single entry that seemed worthy of poeticizing. Yet when I read a poem by Louis Jenkins, Margaret Hasse, Robert Bly or Beverley Rollwagen, phrases that seem commonplace in themselves harbor a humor and depth and perfection in ensemble that ring in the ear (and the soul), and we are taken aback by the subtlety of the truth that’s being conveyed without being made explicit.

Truth in poetry? Now there’s a dangerous subject. Often the “truth” of a poem is little more than, “Look at that, isn’t it marvelous!” Poems with roughly comparable frequency advance the truth, “Look at me, aren’t I marvelous!” I am less often intrigued by poems that advance truths in the vein of “Look at that, isn’t it horrible!” Baudelaire was a master of the genre, and it seems to me an entire lexicon of adjectives related to disgust could be drawn from his work that ought never to appear in poetry—because they beg the Big Question.

In the end, poetry is an expression of personality. I have enjoyed reading the poems of A.R. Ammons recently, and have also enjoyed reading the poems of Linda Pastan, but not so much. Perhaps I would prefer to sit in an Adirondack chair beside Linda than A.R., but on the printed page Ammons wins out. Yet reading any poem gives our mind a jog, or a jag, or a jolt, or a jiggle. Scientists will someday discover the poetic lobe of the brain, but I already know where it is, and I can assure you, it’s well worth visiting. How do you get there? As a first step, try picking up a book of poems and opening it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


The royal “we” refers to the habit eminent persons sometimes have of referring to themselves in the plural—a famous example being Queen Victoria’s rejoinder to a social gaff by one of her subjects, “We are not amused.” It has been reported that Admiral Rickover once told a subordinate who used the royal we: "Three groups are permitted that usage: pregnant women, royalty, and schizophrenics. Which one are you?"

I am wondering if there is a similar expression for what might be called the “journalistic we” or the “sociological we.” As in the headline I spotted in the Houston Chronicle this morning: “Some scholars fear we’re losing the religious meaning of Easter.”

When I come upon such things, I can’t help thinking of the Lone Ranger joke that ends with the punchline, “What you mean we, white man?” Jews, Muslims, athiests and Hindus certainly aren’t losing the religious meaning of Easter. They’re probably not familiar with it, and wouldn’t be too interested in any case. And while we’re at it, we might ponder why scholars would “fear” this loss of meaning, unless it happens that they also feel that religious interpretations of widely-celebrated Christian holidays are the mortar that holds our society in place. The sorry truth is that newspapers are designed to instill anxiety in their readers—hence the “fear.” And it’s true, you wouldn’t sell too many newspapers off the street with the more accurate but less gripping headline: “Scholars note decline among Christians in explicitly religious interpretation of Easter.”

In this case scholars (I wonder what their field of expertise is?) have been a little slow on the uptake. The importance of the religious meaning of Easter has been declining now for centuries. This is what we call Old News.

Of course, scholars can never be content to “note” something, however antediluvian it may be. No, their job is to explain it. And one such explanation offered here is that Easter is “safer” when the resurrection of Jesus isn’t so prominently displayed in it.

“Jesus is very challenging,” one assistant professor at a local Houston seminary remarks. “To encounter him is existentially challenging. It can be scary and uncomfortable.” Far more so than Easter bunnies, hats, and eggs, to be sure.

Yet it seems to me that the concept of bodily resurrection is not only challenging, but downright bizarre. For example, what is the spiritual merit of suggesting that an amputee will appear at the Pearly Gates minus an arm or a leg? And what about those unfortunate individuals who have been frozen solid and ground to a pulp in a wood chipper, ala Fargo? What’s to become of them in the next world?

The columnist admits that among Christians the spectrum of belief on who Jesus was and what the resurrection means is broad. The word “metaphor” appears, though it is summarily rejected.
“Let's don't try to water this down. Let's not try to make it just an idea,” one theologian remarks. “Jesus’s resurrection doesn't stand for something else, like a metaphor. Jesus's resurrection only represents his body, not his philosophy.”

But is that really true? If I'm not mistaken, there is a very powerful body of orthodox Christian belief that contends the crucifixion was not central to Christ's teaching or his mission. And if there is no connection between the body and the philosophy, which one should we be interested in?

The article concludes with a judgment by the Episcopal bishop for Texas, who admits that there is considerable confusion as to the exact nature and significance of Christ’s resurrection, though it doesn’t really trouble him much.

“While many may not be able to articulate fully the theology of resurrection, I think most Christians would say that they experience a sense of it in Christian community,” he says. “They experience resurrection through relationships with others, through the community a congregation offers and from service and outreach to other people. Christians testify that they experience, receive, and act out of the mystery of resurrection — this feeling of constant renewal.”

To me, it seems significance that year after year, Easter always happens in springtime. It's a fact. From the very first, it has been contingent on the spring equinox and the full moon. Sunlight, eggs, fertility, bunnies. It’s an attractive package. Family get-togethers, ham, scalloped potatoes, and the annual egg-fight. (I never win, gentle soul that I am.) These aren’t metaphors for something else. And they aren’t really a celebration of one individual’s resurrection. They’re elements of a social construct that has been passed down to us from our parents and grandparents. There is really no point in celebrating a resurrection which, considering the figure in question, was really a foregone conclusion. And who among us would be vain enough to celebrate his or her own resurrection, with the day of judgment still so far off and so problematical? What have we got left to celebrate, then, than the arrival of new birds, the quickening of the season, and the return of pastels to the blouses of the ones we love?