Monday, February 28, 2011

Skiing the Oscars

Weather doesn’t mean much. And the months are merely conventions. Eighty mallards fly across the sky above our neighbor’s garage every night at sundown, again and again. I think he’s putting out corn, but I’ve never gone to look.

Perhaps it’s the corn that’s been drawing the deer, who wander desultorily across the yard at odd times of the day and night. Last Thursday they decided to spend the night—or a part of it, at any rate—hunkered down in the snow out there in the dark. They looked so content and sculptural and Buddha-like, sitting there silently in the snow with their heads erect, while we, inside the glass, were watching a bizarre French movie from another era called Diva, with gangsters and opera-singers and motor scooters and bootleg tapes.

Put the deer and the mallards together, and that’s far more wildlife than we saw last weekend in three days of Nordic skiing up in Itasca Country. I did spot a fisher by the side of the road just south of Big Fork, however. I backed up the car and we saw it again as it bounded off into the deep woods.

We skied the Sugar Hills (south of Grand Rapids) and the next morning we did a bit of the Suomi Hills north of town. Our morning ski was cut short when Hilary expressed concern that her cheeks were numb—it was -18 below at the time. One glance told the story. Her cheeks were bright red…except for a large triangle of white in the middle of one of them.

Yeah, we should probable head back.

At lunch we talked with a waitress in Big Fork about diamond willow. “People don’t realize, but it’s all over the place out here.” I told her about my grandpa McIlvenna, who used to stop the car and wander off into the woods looking for it, while his wife and daughter (my mom, who was just a little girl at the time) sat patiently in the car.

We eventually skied four different trails and didn’t see a soul. I guess everyone was over at Leech Lake watching the snowmobile drag-races out on the ice. Or the Stud Club Ice Racing finals out in Mille Lacs, which we passed on our way back to the Cities.

Had to get home to see the Academy Awards! It went in a flash. Anne Hathaway flashing her wide toothy smile, full of sincerity, and James Franco looking askance with his lips contorted into something between a sheepish smile and a supercilious grimace. He almost looked like he was trying to look like Billy Crystal (without the jokes) who, in turn, looked old as he came on to tell some funny stories about Bob Hope.

That was about the extent of the nostalgia. (Kirk Douglas no longer counts.)

There was never a dull moment. I would have given the Best Film to The Social Network, but The King’s Speech was flawless and moving. True Grit was good, too. (So was How to Train Your Dragon, for that matter.) Winter’s Bone. 127 Hours. They were all good. (The Kids Are Alright was a dud, but so it goes.)

The opening montage brought back memories of Billy Crystal’s intro pastiche of The English Patient, with David Letterman in a bi-plane.

Colin Firth was in that one, too. It's time he won one.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Winter’s Bone

Have you ever been driving down a country road past a ramshackle house on the edge of a bog, with a broken pick-up (or three) in the yard and a few mangy horses in the corral, and said to yourself: “I wonder what’s goin’ on up there?” If you happened to be passing through the Ozarks, Winter’s Bone would give you some sort of an answer—and it ain’t pretty. But it makes a pretty good movie.

Ree, the main character, is seventeen; she’s raising her two younger siblings because her mother is largely catatonic and her dad has been missing for a while. He makes crystal meth for a living—everybody knows it. (Half the people in the valley probably use it.)

When the sheriff informs Ree that her house will be repossessed if her dad doesn’t show up for a court appearance, she sets out to find him. But no one wants her nosing into the local “crank” industry. Even her uncle, “Teardrop,” tries to scare her off the hunt. Each person she meets is more hostile than the last, though many of them are neighbors and shirttail relatives.

It’s true, the woman across the way brings over a haunch of venison from time to time, and Ree’s girlfriend, who’s already a mother, finally wrangles the keys to the pick-up from her ornery husband, so they can poke around the countryside a bit. In the course of her investigations people tell her things that sort of make sense, and sort of don’t (just like in Chretien de Troyes!) all of which adds to the atmosphere of unrelenting confusion and fear that hangs over the proceedings, relieved only by a few mournful bluegrass numbers and Ree’s dogged determination to come up with a way to find her dad and keep her family—such as it is—intact.

Does Ree’s dad eventually turn up? I wouldn’t want to spoil the film by saying. But that issue aside, the conclusion leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions—things that Ree herself may never know, and probably would be better off not knowing.

Winter’s Bone is a backwoods family drama that steers clear of the hay-seed, cornball, Hee-Haw stuff, and skirts out-and-out melodrama with equal success, thus keeping our attention focused squarely on what these people’s live are actually like.

Jennifer Lawrence is superbly ordinary as young Ree, and John Hawkes is compellingly creepy as uncle Teardrop.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Before a new week of work begins—work so heavy I’m developing a pain in my elbow and another one down in my wrist—I feel obliged to salute one of the great holidays. Obliged by whom, or by what? By the blogger’s imperative, I guess, to send forth remarks into the mute and unresponsive universe. It’s a love impulse, I assure you.

However, Valentine’s day is essentially a private occasion. An occasion for couples to indulge themselves however they think best. To splurge on that rib-eye streak, open that bottle of Glen Carlou chardonnay (South Africa) or some strange and long-forgotten red from the cellar such as the Capitel de’ Roari Amarone della Valpolicella 2003 that I’m looking at right now. The word Amarone sounds romantic, though the wine itself is the result of a late-harvest process known as appassimento or rasinate (Italian for “to dry and shrivel”) which concentrates the remaining sugars and flavors, making the wine “raisin-like.”

Asparagus is also likely to be on the menu.

This combination of privacy and shared indulgence can be delightful, of course, whatever form it takes, and its sanctification in a holiday may help us shake off the ever-present feeling that all pleasures are guilty pleasures until we make an effort to extend them as widely as possible to those less fortunate than we are.

There are times for extending our concern, and times for focusing our affection near-at-hand—concern and affection being two different things in any case.

These two impulses came together, I guess, back in grade school, when we were all required to exchange valentines with everyone else in the class, stuffing them into cardboard boxes we'd decorated with construction paper and snippets of red and white paper doilies. Most of these cards had some form of "I Love You" as the message on the inside. For some reason, I found the ones that had "not really" hand-written in parentheses on the bottom strangely disquieting.

On Saturday we went to hear a wise man from West Africa, Malidoma Somé, speak at Augsburg College. The gist of the presentation was familiar enough. Each of us has a mission. Each of us wants to be recognized for who we are—though “who we are” remains a mystery. Everything we experience is an initiation…and a homecoming. Grandparents and grandchildren get along well together because the one just came from where the other will soon be going.

Much of it sounded to me like Platonism, distilled and purified by village experience. The idea of making an effort to "recognize" others might be part of the Valentine message.

This morning the very earth has a big smile on its face, with melt-water trickling down the gutter-pipes and vast puddles giving a marvelous sheen to streets and sidewalks everywhere. At such a time I’m not much inclined to reexamine the theories of Rene de Rougemont (Love in the Western World) or Octavio Paz (The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism). Rather, I open a book of poems called What I Love, by the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, and read:

Emotion. The leaves tremble living together and living apart on the poplars sharing the wind.

Then I open the door to the deck, and breath in a few lungs-full of moist 40-degree air. The wind’s no longer howling like it was last night, but for the first time in months, it carries hints that are strangely, pleasantly reminiscent of California.

More time for that later. Right now I've got some grocery shopping to do.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Another Year

Mike Leigh’s strange new film is thought-provoking. I’m not sure if it can be called “good.” It focuses on one year in the life of a middle-aged woman named Mary, in the course of which we learn that—well—she doesn’t have much of a life. She works as a secretary at a counseling clinic and occasionally goes out for a drink with a staff counselor named Gerry, who listens patiently to Mary’s daffy, long-winded analyses of her past mistakes and future prospects with something more than professional courtesy. The two are long-time friends, in fact, and it appears that Mary has been invited to dinner parties given by Gerry and her husband Tom on numerous occasions, though less often lately.

Early on in the film, we learn that Mary married young, got divorced, took up with a married man, got dumped, and now finds herself entering a lonely middle age with few comforts except a seemingly ever-present bottle of wine. Tom and Gerry, on the other hand, are a mellow couple who cook together, garden together, and read magazines on the sofa together. They have a grown son named Joe who’s on his own now but still enjoys their company.

When Mary comes over for dinner, it seems almost an act of charity on Gerry’s part. As Mary proceeds to get soused once again, Tom and Gerry humor her as well as they can. It’s painful for us in the audience, too, listening to Mary’s good-natured but delusional monologues.

The pain is amplified by the arrival of Tom’s old high school buddy Ken, a Sad Sack if ever there was one. Ken drinks too much, eats too much, smokes too much, and seldom shaves. He and Tom no longer have much in common beyond an occasional flash of adolescent rough-housing camaraderie. At an afternoon garden party held during Ken’s brief visit, he takes a liking to Mary, who finds him repulsive. She, meanwhile, begins to fancy young Joe, suggesting they go out for a drink some time.

The conversations are uniformly slow-moving and uninspired. How are you? How are you? Fine. Fine. I got a new car. What color? Would you like another glass of wine? I’m going to have one. What holds our interest is, first and foremost, the performance of Lesley Manville, who as Mary, delivers up an unending tour de force of nervous tics, hopeful glances, troubled shudders, wistful asides, and other indefinable and mercurial expressions. It’s also interesting to watch the expressions of Tom and son Joe, because it’s clear they both have a well-developed sense of humor, and as Mary prattles on, it’s difficult to tell where the graciousness and courtesy stop and silent mockery begins.

The film’s plot (such as it is) thickens when Tom’s sister-in-law dies and the family heads north to the funeral. And it really picks up steam when Joe brings a girl-friend home to meet the folks. Suddenly the conversations grow lively and we’re relieved to discover that Tom and Gerry are as interesting and articulate as we’ve suspected all along. The question arises: why have we been spending so much time with the likes of Mary, Ken, and Tom’s grief-stricken brother Ronnie?

The answer, I guess, is that Mike Leigh wants us to see what lives on the edge of abject loneliness look like, and to take note of how close that edge can be to “normal” life. Another Year is a film about compassion, but it’s also about “losers” and dead ends. Kindness and forbearance are admirable indeed, but the supply isn’t endless. As the atmosphere in Tom and Gerry’s household changes, Mary is cast further into the shadows and in the end, all Gerry can do is advise her to seek professional help.

Another Year isn’t much fun, but it has a haunting, unresolved, pathetic quality that’s memorable and rare.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saint Paul / the Universe

Friday afternoon in sleepy St. Paul, Minnesota, it’s surprising what you run into sometimes. The Winter Carnival is in full swing and the sidewalks that crisscross Rice Park are lined with evergreens brought in especially for the occasion. Ice sculptures and concession tents are scattered everywhere.

We’d come downtown to see the Imax show about the Hubble Telescope. It’s a remarkable experience—about as close as most of us will ever come to exploring the nether reaches of the universe. More than half the show is devoted to recent attempts by astronauts to repair the Hubble, which circles the earth every ninety minutes. That’s compelling enough. But even better are the sequences that take us into the heart of distant nebulae where stars are forming. Evidently there are a hundred billion galaxies in our universe (at last count) and each one has maybe a hundred billion stars in it. Quite a few glowing balls out there, with some enormous stretches of emptiness in between—to say the least. It’s awesome to contemplate, dazzling to look at, and hard to wrap your brain around. What more can I say?

After a cheap, satisfying dinner at Rhum Mit Thai, we stopped in at the Landmark Center to watch a slightly more down-to-earth show: the Bounce Team tryouts. Contestants take a running start, then leap up onto a large round piece of canvas being held in place four feet off the ground by ten or twelve burly men. The young woman sits cross-legged as she re-establishes her balance, bobbing gently up and down as the men work the canvas. Then the head bouncer says “Here we go. One-two-three-up you go!” At that point the men pull harder and the young woman flies about fifteen feet up into the air. The better ones smile and touch their fingers to their toes while remaining upright. The other ones smile, too, as they flail wildly to keep from spinning upside down and breaking their neck when they hit the canvas again.

Our next stop was across the street at Meritage, where we nabbed two chairs at the new bar. We happened to be directly in front of the bartender’s work station, and after I’d watched the fellow make a Hatter—bourbon, vermouth, Chartreuse, and lemon peel, served straight up in a curved martini glass—I ordered one myself. The couple next to us was enjoying a large iced plate of oysters. The tiny lights from the trees across the street were twinkling in the darkness like a stray galaxy from ten billion years ago. (Or maybe the Hatter was beginning to take effect.)

Our final stop was upstairs in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s third floor concert space, where we heard concert-master Steven Copes and friends make their way through a frothy Britten oboe fantasia, Mozart’s quintet K. 515, and Brahms quintet opus 111. The Britten was a pleasant appetizer, and the Mozart was rich (though I’ve heard that piece so many times I have a hard time appreciating it fully). But the Brahms quintet was truly magnificent. Complicated, tuneful, masterfully constructed. The danger, in performing Brahms, is turgidity (is that a word?) but these musicians kept the piece lively, with various voices ringing out in ways I hadn’t heard before. It made the Mozart quintet, for all its texture and brilliance, seem like a warm-up exercise. I guess that’s saying something.