Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Secrets in Their Eyes

The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentine film that won the Oscar for best foreign film this year, is a quiet but haunting work—the kind that cannot be shaken away through analysis or appeal to genre conventions. Up to a point, it’s a police procedural, in so far as it deals with an investigation of a brutal rape-murder on the part of a middling investigator and his brilliant but alcoholic sidekick. Yet the story is made richer by the response of the victim’s husband to the loss of his beautiful young wife, and also by a romantic subplot concerning the investigator’s boss, an equally beautiful but conservative and seemingly unapproachable young woman from the upper classes. Halfway through the movie we’re given a further jolt when the … but it’s difficult to discuss a film of such quiet richness without giving away too much. Suffice it to say that in an era of fascist ascendency, justice is not entirely served by due process, and at a certain point, life becomes dangerous for the investigator himself. The twists and turns of the plot are largely unpredictable and we’re never confident we know what it’s all about.

The Secret in Their Eyes is less a murder mystery or a love story than a film about love—and passion. And the director, José Campanella, deserves credit for placing the most intriguing image in the entire film on the screen for only a second or two. Our investigator (Ricardo Darin) has developed a lead by examining photographs from the dead girl’s photo albums…but take a closer look at the photographs of his boss’s engagement party, which he himself attended.

The film would not be nearly so engaging, however, were it not for the performance of Soledad Villamil in the role of the winsome supervisor with whom our hero is hopelessly in love. Her expression carries a variety of ambiguous nuances, from hurt to affection to annoyance to propriety to self-protection, every time she appears on the screen. Darin himself is hardly less intriguing as the man who’s wasted his life in the presence of a woman who’s clearly beyond his class—though did he ever make the effort? Thus, four or five stories intersect (we must include the victim’s widower and the assailant himself, though we don’t have the time to explain why ) in a way that’s quite rare on screen.

The Secret in Their Eyes has been described as the best mystery/romance since L.A. Confidential. Maybe so. But let’s be honest. The American film packs a far greater wallop. On the other hand, the Argentine film introduces us to people as full as ambiguities and doubts and the anguish associated with missed opportunities and underappreciated friendships as we all probably are. It grows in the mind, and having seen it once, there can be little doubt that before long we’ll see it again.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Suddenly Summer

Following a week of desultory gray weather, summer arrived on Sunday in these parts—hot, muggy, windy. As luck would have it, we were bicycling with friends on the Sakatah Trail, which runs through the woods and across the fields alongside Cannon Lake and then Sakatah Lake, an hour south of Minneapolis, a few miles west of Faribault, in the heart of Minnesota’s “southern lake district.” Wearing shorts. Cumulus clouds building joyously. Warbling vireos and house wrens singing from the recesses of the forest. Picnic in the hamper, consisting of various scraps of cheese, a cheap Macon-Village, some delicious three-bean salad, red grapes, smoked salmon, lemon bars. Orioles chirping above us in the trees, hidden from sight by the now-thick foliage.

Unfortunately I got a flat a mile or two along the trail and had to return to the car on foot. I met my confreres later at the state park, having enjoyed the walk and seen a lot more things than you can see when hunched over the handlebars of a bike peddling away at great speed. One plant in particular, I remember it still, the little white flowers and … I should look it up.

Summer can come suddenly. And summer is a lovely thing. But it strikes me that one big difference between summer and spring is that spring changes daily while summer is here for the long haul. It’s already gotten to 97 degrees, for Christ sake. I don’t mind the heat, what with the air conditioner firmly in place once again here in the window of the “office” and the fan blowing the cool air out into the rest of the house. No need to worry any longer about the “last frost,” I guess.

Today I bought a bike tire lined with Kevlar at Freewheel Bike Co-op on the West Bank, put it on the bike (along with a new tube) and took my standard summer ride down and around Cedar Lake—it was only 87 degrees. Along the way I helped a fellow-biker to find her way. She’d moved west to Golden Valley from St. Paul, and looked confused. She’s a project manager at Capella University downtown. I explained where the Burlington line went and how to get to the Greenway. When I told her I edited books she said, “Next time we meet, you’ve got to tell me how to get that kind of a job.” And I said, “Well, it’s great, especially if you like to think other people’s thoughts all the time.” (I do like it, though.) Then I mentioned that I’d been working on a new book of my own, which is due out in July, and had an event scheduled at the HarMar Barnes and Noble for August 3, in case she wanted to continue the conversation.

One big question every summer is whether the woods in the back yard will fill in sufficiently to shield us from the neighbors. We’ve tried to plant things but they don’t do well, and the deer come and eat them, and every four years or so the power company comes and cuts everything down again anyway to protect the wires that run through the woods there. (The photo at the top of the page is from a few years ago; it shows power-line workers destroying the last piece of woods we’d built up.) At its best the woods is full of buckthorn and prickly ash. At its worst, it’s a disaster.

This year I took advantage of an offer from a neighboring suburb to buy some bare-root shrubs for $7.00 a piece. Two nannyberries, two lilacs, two pagoda dogwoods, and two weird sumacs—heaven only knows what attracted me to them. I was amazed to find, two weeks after I’d planted the naked sticks, that they’d sprouted leaves! If they survive the summer I’m going to build a fence around them to keep the deer away. But that’s a winter thought, and not relevant to the current conversation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Javier Marias

A year or so ago I spent a dollar at a library de-acquisition shop to purchase a novel by the Spanish writer Javier Marias. (I don’t read much fiction any more but he’s one of my favorites.) When I got home I noticed it was volume two of a three-part series. My first thought was simply to toss it, but I eventually went on-line and discovered that there was a single copy of volume one available from a bookshop in Point Reyes, California, for $7.00. A dilemma. The novel might well be great, but at 1200-odd pages, would I ever read it? On the other hand, what if that’s the only copy left in the entire country? Forever? Tossing good money after bad, I brought the book, and read both volumes with relish.

Let us hope that no one ever asks us for anything, or even inquires, nor advice or favor or loan, not even the loan of our attention, let us hope that others do not ask us to listen to them, to their wretched problems and painful predicaments so like our own…

That’s a strange way to open a twelve-hundred page novel in which the narrator never stops talking, don’t you think?

But Marias is a thoughtful person, adept at generating those interior monologues that have won Proust such favor with readers. He's less interested than Proust in manners and refinements in feeling, however, more interested in adventure, intrigue, duplicity, truth, courage, cowardice and betrayal. It seems to me he also has a better grasp than Proust of how memory actually works.

The best brief indication of the sophistication of Marias’s approach that I know of appears in an interview he gave to BOMB magazine in 2000. At one point the interviewer asks Marias to define what he means by “literary thinking” and Marias replies, in part:

A character within a book can say two totally contradictory things, yet both can be true. Shakespeare does that all the time. You read Shakespeare and generally you understand everything easily. But when you stop and reread a bit, often you begin to ask, What’s he saying? What is this? I give an example of this in my latest novel, or “false novel,” as I have called it, Dark Back of Time (Negra espalda del tiempo). It’s the beginning of the famous monologue in Othello, in which Othello, before he kills Desdemona, says something like, “It is the cause, my soul, it is the cause. Let me not name it. You chased stars. It is the cause.” You read that, you’ve listened to it a hundred times, you’ve seen it in films and generally you say, Okay. But then you stop and ask yourself, What’s this? What does he mean? Which cause? What is the cause? You come upon things you apparently understood on first reading, but you haven’t really—they are mysterious or even contradictory. That’s literary thinking: something producing itself in flashes. It’s less a form of knowledge than of recognition, at least in the kind of novel I like most, which would include Proust, Faulkner, and Conrad. Reading them, you recognize things you didn’t know you knew. And sometimes I try to create the same effect in my books.

Eager to read volume three of the trilogy, which had not yet appeared in English, I secured a review copy from RainTaxi magazine and finished the journey. In case you’re interested, you can read the review I wrote here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Singin in the Rain

A damp gray Thursday morning—just the right weather to get one in the mood for an orchestra concert featuring those larger-than-life rivals, Wagner and Brahms. I whizzed downtown along Plymouth Avenue, passed the spectacular new Twins ballpark, Souls Harbor, and the bus depot, and settled in alongside a parking meter on eleventh street, two blocks from Orchestra Hall. No need to spend $10 in the ramp when I can get two hours for $3.00 right here, I say to myself. It’s true, I reason further, I could get the same amount of time for $1.00 over on Harmon Street, just two blocks further away, but I’ll have to plug a few more coins in the meter at intermission to cover the second half of the program, and that gets to be a lot of running around.

As I walked toward the hall I passed an apartment building with a quaint backyard park (just like London) and admired the trees bursting into leaf in the yard in front of the limestone façade of the Presbyterian church. It started to rain in earnest as I turned the corner onto Nicollet Mall and I ducked into a Caribou Coffee to pass the time until the concert started. Lots of raillery there—it seemed everyone one knew each other but me! I sat in a corner on a stool feeling overdressed, and as I waited for the coffee to cool I thumbed through a three-week-old magazine I’d brought along for just that purpose. How would the British elections turn out, and what sort of people were those Liberal Democrats everyone was getting so excited about?

My tickets were on the main floor, eighth row, center aisle. Nice. The Wagner was sort of early middle stuff (Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhauser), beautiful harmonies in the winds, flowing if undistinguished melodies in the Germanic vein, but without a central core of structure to hang your attention on. I suppose many listeners like that sort of untethered, sweeping sound and those cheery, almost Strauss-like tunes interspersed with some huge and feverish passages. I don’t. At its best, the piece reminded me of background music to a romantic balcony scene in a Hope/Crosby Road movie. But without a crooner to provide a lyric focus, our thoughts become slightly addled and we’re left gasping for air.

The orchestra sounded great, all the same, and that sound was put to somewhat better use in the Brahms double-concerto Opus 108. It was a brilliant pairing, in so far as the concerto opens with an extended cello solo that’s melodious but somewhat cerebral, as if various attempts were being made to untie a difficult knot, without complete success. The entire first movement has a thorny character, in fact, though the architecture is rock-solid, and the performance was so stirring that many members of the audience burst into applause at the end of it.

I am sometimes amazed at how long 24 minutes can be. Not that I’m bored. But I found myself admiring the dress of the solo violinist, Sarah Kwak, which was a simple orange gown with pale yellow leaves scattered across it. I also started to wonder if it was still raining outside, and if, once I made it back to the car, I’d be motivated to return to the hall to hear a Haydn symphony. The Haydn seemed, once again, like a brilliant program choice, challenging us to consider if the added weightiness of nineteenth century musical conceptions really added all that much to the expressive capabilities of the orchestra.

But the Brahms held my interest for the most part. As it turned out, it was still raining when intermission arrived. The magazine I’d brought along proved useful once again during my race back to the parking meter, though I was fairly well spotted with water by the time I got there. Haydn? Maybe next time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Warbler Report

It’s become an annual thing—the mid-May trip to Forestville State Park in SE Minnesota to greet the warblers coming north. These colorful little birds pass through every year, sometimes in droves, on their way to nesting grounds in the north woods. A particular species might be in the area for little more than a few days. It’s true, they also pass through the Twin Cities, and they appear again in the fall on their way south, but they aren’t singing much by that time, having already mated and raised a family, and most of them have lost their color, too.

Let’s face it, part of the enchantment of the annual trip south is that we’re heading toward warmer weather. And Forestville itself, with its rolling hills, abandoned village, lovely flowing stream, high bluffs, and bluebell-strewn river flats, would be a pleasant place to be at any time of the year.

But this year was a little different. In the first place, the warm weather arrived in Minneapolis sometime in early April. And we had already stopped in Forestville in mid-April in the course of our visit to the Ibsen Festival in nearby Lanesboro. Due to the unusually fine spring we were having, we decided to make our official birding trip on the first weekend in May. It never occurred to us that the warblers in Central America weren’t paying much attention to the weather reports in Minnesota.

A few weeks does make a difference all the same. On our mid-April trip we saw 40-odd species but no warblers. Two weeks later the count had risen to 73… but still very few warblers. Last weekend, with the temperature considerably lower than it had been, we returned to the park, and on this occasion we finally began to catch sight of some of those lovely little denizens of the forest in healthy numbers.

The early-arriving species are always the same. You see the myrtle warblers, with their multi-dimensional but scattered and not-altogether-harmonious arrangement of yellow and black patches. Then, perhaps, you may catch sight of an elegant black-and-white warbler strutting along the trunk of a tree like a nuthatch, covered with thin black stripes from head to tail. The palm warbler is a humble bird, with a subtle splash of yellow under his incessantly bobbing tail, faint stripes on the breast, and a pleasant tan cap. And the waterthrush, always unexpected but welcome, though you may be hard-pressed to say whether it’s a Louisiana waterthrush or a northern waterthrush. The redstarts, often so numerous, were few and far between, and it was not until mid-morning of our second day that we began to see the bright yellow warblers chasing one another through the treetops. We heard a few ovenbirds—and Hilary got a good look at one of them. We heard some common yellowthroats, and I got a good look at one. But the list of common warblers that we didn’t see would be a long one. I listened to the ascending ratchet of the northern parula for fifteen minutes but couldn't spot him.

One bird that we see every year at Forestville—sometimes in the same tree—is the blue winged warbler. This bright yellow bird has a grayish-blue wing and a thick black mask across his eye. His call is very distinctive, the second part consisting of a relaxed descending slobber. He was there again this year. Several, in fact.

Perhaps the most unusual bird we saw was a Bell’s Vireo. The temperature dropped below freezing in the night. And in the morning we discovered that we’d forgotten to bring one of the most important camp devices—the plastic holder for the coffee filter! But with coyotes howling and towhees chattering and barred owls hooting through the night, who cares?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Beyond the Film Festival

Just when you thought I was done commenting on films … I saw one final entry on Thursday night, a Norwegian film called North. It’s a comedy-drama about an ex-skier named Jomar who suffers from anxiety attacks and also has the bad habit of inadvertently setting buildings on fire. His girlfriend left him four years ago and moved to the far north (and in Norway, that's almost all the way.) When he learns from the rival who took his place that he now has a four-year-old son, he summons the courage (armed with an ample supply of pills but not quite enough booze) to jump on a snowmobile and head for the Arctic Circle.

Jomar is an enigmatic and not especially likable hulk, though he has one signal virtue—no matter how much he drinks, he never gets drunk. Yet this quality can take us only so far, and much of the film’s interest derives from the people he meets along the way. During an attack of snow-blindness he’s taken in by a young girl named Lotte and her grandma, and some of the film’s most charming scenes take place during this episode, which is reminiscent of parts of Wim Wenders’ early film Alice in the Cities (1974)—and that’s high praise indeed. Jomar also meets up with several other odd characters, including a ninety-year-old Sami who’s ice-fishing from a teepee in the middle of a frozen lake—chained to a snowmobile.

The mountainous, snow-covered landscapes are stunning, and when Jomar finally reaches his destination… But the ending is not the point. The point is: here are people and arctic landscapes like you’ve never seen before (though they’re strangely familiar) in a film that will never be widely released because it’s too short and doesn’t have enough plot twists to satisfy a fourteen-year-old boy.

Another point—a point of contrast. The Ghostwriter. A taut and stylish little thriller by Roman Polanski, expertly crafted from start to finish. Quite entertaining, though there is not a single character in it who’s outside the common mold. Every scene furthers the plot. And what do we learn? That the CIA controls the world. I find that hard to believe, but in any case, it’s hard to prove. (And even if you do, so what?) I’m a Polanski fan and I liked The Ghostwriter quite a bit, but I’d rather spend some time fishing in the arctic.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Film Festival Wrap-Up

The festival is drawing to a close, with the Best of the Fest showing on one or two screens and the theater lobby largely back to its sleepy ambiance. Highlights from the second week:
Miscreants of Taliwood. Might be one of the worst titles ever conceived. Yet this documentary covers a lot of ground with remarkable zest. It focuses on the attempts by the Taliban to eradicate film-watching in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan by blowing up DVD shops. Film-maker George Gittoes interviews various Taliban leaders and DVD shop owners, then moves on to the Pashtun film-making scene, where he signs on as a lead player in a couple of low-budget swashbucklers. Thus comic film-making adventures are interspersed with very serious footage of urban destruction to create a frontal assault on the Taliban’s attempts to keep women sequestered, keep men from watching films in which women appear, and generally squelch the spirit of play in village life.

Gittoes was present at the screening, and after the show the soft-spoken Australian offered a compelling account of why, as he approaches the age of retirement, he continues to make films in the world’s most dangerous war zones rather than go fishing with his grandson.

Letter to Father Jacob is a three-character film set in rural Finland. Father Jacob, a retired priest, is blind. A woman arrives at the rectory to read the mail he receives from individuals seeking guidance, solace or a simple prayer, and to write out his replies. She happens to be a felon, convicted of murder, who has been recently released from prison. The postman who brings the mail (our third character) is scared to death of her. She hardly says a word, though it’s pretty clear from the hard and suspicious look she carries on her face that she doesn’t have a sentimental or a religious bone in her body.

What will become of these three? I’m not telling. But this is one of those flawless films where the stubble on an old man’s face or a beam of light falling on a piece of untreated pine furniture is worth the price of admission. It will never be released commercially. Why not? Among other things, it’s only 82 minutes long. Too bad you missed it.

Small Crimes takes place on a Greek island, where the local cop wishes he were back in Athens, until the local drunk falls off a cliff and he decides to investigate. The plot is thickened by the return of the island’s local celebrity, a gorgeous young woman who hosts a talk show in Athens. She seems to have a connection with the old man’s death, and most of the film details how the cop, the celebrity, and various other village types interact. It’s all very pleasant and low-key, though never really gripping, except during the drunken tavern dance sequence. It has a touch of romance and several odd-ball moments of wacky humor.