Thursday, April 28, 2011

Willie Nelson - King of Luck

I have a generally sunny view of humanity, but it gets ramped up a few degrees higher every time I head down to the Mpls/St. Paul Film Festival. In the lobby you'll see interesting characters from every walk of life who have dragged their butts down to the Mississippi to watch a film they’ve never heard of--just for the fun of it.

We were feeling like we’d neglected the event a little this year, having seen only seven films, two of which were not part of the festival line-up. We’re leaving town in a few days for the Gulf of Mexico, and will miss the "Best of the Fest" reprise. I doubt if the film of Finnish men exchanging stories of their peak experiences in the sauna will ever find a local distributor. Nor the Bollywood retelling of the epic Ravaanan, suitably modernized.

But we did make it down one last time last night, to see a musical biopic—to get us in the mood for the trip south, I guess. Two years ago we saw a film about Maria Callas at the fest. Last year it was Glenn Gould. And last night it was Willie Nelson. All three films were shot in black and white, and all three were good.

The King of Luck is made up of stills of truck-stops and rickety old towns, shapshots from Willie’s family albums, interviews with Willie’s band members and technical crew, his sister, kids, and wives. There’s an affectionate, easy-going tone to the thing, and lots of live performance footage. We also see Willie playing poker with Owen Wilson and Woody Harelson, and there are some choice scenes from the 1960s of a very young and clean-shaven Willie talking about the song he wrote, “Hello Walls,” with Faron Young (who made it a hit), Kris Kristopherson, and other Nashville song-writers.

In one of the film’s last scenes, Willie plays a song he’s just written. Billy Bob Thornton (who directed the film) is listening. It’s got complex harmonies and an interesting, unpredictable tune. Another “Stardust” in the making?

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Spring Confession

I don’t read poetry much, but that’s not because I don’t like it. I love poetry, poetry is my religion. But after reading one poem—presuming it’s a good one—I find myself filled with awe and admiration for the poet, the poem…and life. Then I stop reading.

Can I put it more simply than that? I don’t think so.

I picked up a copy of Alan Dugan’s new and complete poems this afternoon in the shop at Ridgedale Library. One dollar for a National Book Award winner, Poems Seven—How could I resist? A few hours later, after I’d finished editing an article about revolutionizing the World Bank, made a bowl of tzatziki (the cucumber was definitely over the hill), downed a glass of cheap red wine, and listened to a few minutes of Darius Milhaud’s Saudades do Brazil, I opened Dugan’s book and read the first poem. “This Morning Here.”

It was everything a poem should be. Brief, descriptive, cosmic, and very down-to-earth. So much so, that I had to put the book aside. I want to read more of Duggan’s work…someday. Maybe later tonight.

Then I got to thinking about the remarkable thing I’d seen today—the leaves on the honeysuckle bush. They opened. I watched them all day. This morning they were nascent. Now they’re bona fide. I can see them out the window beyond the computer screen even now. And just beyond them, I see the robust red orbs of the maple seed clusters. They almost look like blossoms, though they’re not. But shaggier than yesterday. As “orbs,” they’re past the prime.

I spoke with a client today who’s turning sixty. Two of her sons are getting married this year. And she’s going on a “girl thing” with some college friends of the same age to celebrate the occasion. That’s beautiful.

Then there’s the patch of wild ginger near the trellis by the garage. I’d never seen it before, where did it come from? And a few stray scilla—deep blue—amid the periwinkle, which are just beginning to flower. This is the time of year when a single day can make an enormous difference. It’s kind of thrilling.

But of course, every day is sort of like that. If nothing else comes to mind, crack open a book of poems.

Monday, April 18, 2011

International Film Festival

As the weekend comes to an end, I finally settle back into an easy chair, having visited Mali, Rajasthan, Israel, Romania, South Ossetia, the Congo, and Kashmir—all without leaving town. Yes, the Twin Cities International Film Festival is upon us once again down at St. Anthony Main. Better organized than ever. The Aster Café, at the other end of the building from the theater complex, has also been transformed into an inviting place, with $3 house wines (poor) and $5 Happy Hour flatbread pizzas (good). It’s a nice place to meet friends before a show.

Steering clear of the dark European love triangles and Scandinavian vampire flics, we caught Kinshasa Symphony, a delightful documentary about an amateur orchestra in the Congo rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The city of Kinshasa itself has “third world” written all over it, with sewage running down the unpaved streets past crumbling mud and concrete buildings. But the camera-man has adroitly kept our attention focused on the extraordinary energy, life, and color all around, and the musicians themselves are uniformly high-spirited, though most of them are self-taught and the music is a challenge.

There are set-pieces interspersed throughout the film of soloists performing in the midst of the urban throng, and also a few subplots. For example, the flautist is looking for a new “apartment” and one of the string players is building a double bass from scratch. But the film mostly bubbles over with the innocent joy of music-making, offering an inside look at the “African temperament” without the evil despots or the machete massacres.

Hopping from theater 3 to theater 5 down the hall (yes, we had tickets) we then saw Russian Lessons, a truly dreadful exposé of Russian efforts in 2008 to stir up ethnic strife, start a war with neighboring Georgia, and then convince the Western media that the Georgians had started it. And as we sit through a grueling hour-and-a-half of peasants describing how Russian soldiers murdered their loved ones in cold blood before their eyes, tortured priests, threw peasants down wells just for the fun of it, bombed schools, and worse, we may begin to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen this particular type of Friday night entertainment. Most people have no idea where Georgia is, after all, much less South Ossetia or Abkasia. And few of us have much personal influence in the region in any case.

But film-makers Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov, who are Russians themselves, have risked their lives to give the world a more accurate picture of what’s been happening on the southern borders of their country, and how the European community has reacted to war crimes committed by the nation that supplies them with much of their oil and natural gas. (The answer? Obsequiously.) It’s a situation worth pondering.

Our Saturday night feature was an Israeli film, The Human Resources Manager. You won’t find it in the festival booklet: it’s playing at the Lagoon in Uptown. But it’s the type of film the festival often shows. Director Eran Riklis’s previous outing, Lemon Tree, was a big hit at the festival a few years back. Riklis’s current films is more complicated and also better, though less overtly emotional.

In fact, the title is the worst thing about it. It deals with the irritable HR man of a prominent industrial bakery in Jeruselem, who finds himself in a jam when one of his employees (a foreigner whom he’s never met) dies in a suicide bombing. A variety of complications ensue, but the upshot is that the HR man must return the body to Romania, accompanied by an annoying tabloid journalist who’s writing an exposé on the insensitivity of the bakery to its employees.

He’s estranged from his wife and eager to return home in time to take his daughter on a field trip, but the unexpected challenges he runs into in Romania threaten to turn the film into an absurdist shaggy dog story. Yet by imperceptible degrees, our hero’s desire to dump the body and get back to Israel is subsumed by a new and stronger desire to “do right” to the employee he never knew and also to the odd-ball family she left behind when she emigrated to Israel. He meets the former husband, the angry son, and finally, after a perilous cross-country journey in a military vehicle, the woman’s peasant mother. Every turn of the path is unexpected, and there are personal details littered here and there along the way that leave us with a hundred things to think about.

The next day we bid farewell to the glorious afternoon to accompany Dutch filmmaker Sander Francken on a trip to three exotic locales—Rajistan, Mali, and Kashmir. For Bardsongs, Franken commissioned eminent folk musicians from each region to write and perform a song retelling a local folktale chosen by Franken himself. We watch the musicians performing, then enter into the narrative cinematically as the music continues on the soundtrack.

The stories are familiar and somewhat simplistic, though I wasn’t quite sure how any of them would end. The entire enterprise has a multi-cultural Arabian Nights feel, and the fact that there are three tales rather than just one guards against the premier danger that peasant films set in exotic locations succumb to—excessive length. Bardsongs is a perfect film--colorful, sweet, exotic, and just a little bit wise. The music itself adds a good deal to the atmosphere.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Field Trip--St. Peter

The day was humid, warm, and intermittently overcast. Spring was in the air, and we decided to venture southwest across some of the most beautiful landscapes in the metro area—up the valley of the Minnesota River. The river had overflowed its banks in most places, and vast forests of trees were rising from the gray-brown expanse of water. The bridge across the river to Chaska was closed. But the water was receding—albeit very slowly, a policeman in the riverside park in Shakopee told us.

It’s a historic part of the state, and the river towns still boast stone and brick buildings dating from the Civil War era. There are gravel pits and tree farms on either side of the highway, and various shelves or levels of floodplain from which to view the river valley, depending on which highway you follow. In many places the lowest level, which floods commonly year after year, has been turned into the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area.

At one point we turned down a gravel road and pulled into a parking lot at the Louisville Swamp trailhead, wandering from there through savannah-like landscape a few hundred yards to an overlook. A man returning to his car with a big white dog exclaimed, “There are snakes everywhere!” as he passed.

We didn’t see any. But we heard plenty of frogs croaking in a pond, and at the edge of the bluff I got a very good look at a field sparrow, whose attractive pink beak and subtle head-coloring set him apart from the brashly striped song sparrows we more commonly see flitting through the underbrush. The sun had come out and you could smell the moist grass as it heated up.

Le Sueur is not an exciting or an attractive town, though Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, the Frenchman for whom it’s named, had a colorful life. He led the first white party up the Minnesota River in 1700 and established as fort upstream from Mankato, where it was suspected the “blue earth” was rich in copper. He had returned down the river with some big tubs of mud for analysis when the fort was overrun by Sac and Fox Indians and most of the inhabitants were massacred. Le Sueur himself died not long afterward in Havana.

Crossing the swollen river in Le Sueur, we continued through the bottoms down the west side of the valley (much narrower than the east side) past the wonderful museum of the Nicollet County Historical Society (didn’t stop) and the St. Peter municipal park (underwater) and on into town in search of a Mexican restaurant.

The main street of St. Peter is extremely wide, and the old store-fronts are in pretty good shape. Coffee shops and co-ops betray the presence of a college somewhere nearby. Indeed, you can see the campus of Gustavus Adolphus perched on its hill to the west from many places downtown.

Ignoring the Taco John’s, we stepped into a darkened Mexican grocery store on Main Street. A young, heavy-set bleach-blond stood behind the counter with her back to us, applying a coat of mascara to her lashes.

“Is there a Mexican restaurant in town?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Behind the bank, down there,” and she gestured with her little brush before returning to her pocket mirror.

She repeated the name of the restaurant several times, but her English was limited and I wasn’t sure if she’d said The Agape ( the Greek word for Christian charity) or The Agave (the plant out of which tequila is manufactured). And I was suddenly reminded that one scholar involved in deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls arrived at the conclusion that the word “Christ” in the New Testament actually refers to a species of mushroom.

It was a fine little restaurant with a yucca-like agave plant on the sign, crowded with families and students. A soccer match was underway on a big screen in the other room, though the sound had been turned down. We steered clear of the tequila. The newly-scrubbed tile floor was treacherous enough as it was.

After lunch we wandered down the street to check out the newly-opened Cedars Grille. Housed in a historic building with rough-hewn limestone walls, it looks like the kind of place students would take their parents to when they visit the campus for the day. “It used to be Richard’s,” the cheerful hostess told us. When that drew a blank, she said, “You’re not from St. Peter, are you?”

I can image that the Cedars Grille might turn into a fine restaurant. The owner is of Lebanese descent, and he says he’s dedicated less to “fine dining” than to “affordable meals.” (Well, I saw butternut ravioli and chicken tarragon pasta on the menu along with the kabobs.)

We stopped to examine the statue in front of the courthouse of three-time Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson—the first to be born in Minnesota, and a contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1908. We wandered into the art center on Main Street to see an exhibit of pottery by recent McKnight grant winners, but it’s a very small space and there wasn’t much to see.

There were at least fifteen bicycles parked outside the River Rock coffee shop just down the street, which seemed odd, considering that nearly everyone inside was hunched over a laptop. I came very close to buying a used paperback copy of Light in August but drew back at the last minute, though the book cost hardly more than the latte, and Faulkner is such a slow read that I certainly would have got my money’s worth.

During the long drive home we made one last discovery. The hamlet of Ottawa, Minnesota, sits in the woods on a terrace on the east side of the river a few miles downstream from St. Peter. It consists of twelve or fifteen buildings, eight of which were built of Oneota limestone during Minnesota’s territorial period. I’d never heard of it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Spanish Spring - Tortilla Española

Spring finally arrived in Golden Valley, Minnesota, yesterday. How do I know? I ventured outside without thinking of putting on a coat or hat, left the door to the deck open for more than ten seconds, and felt that faint glow of sunburn on my face at the end of the day. Things have been perking up for a while in the fields and woods hereabouts, too. Bluebirds at Highland Park Reserve, for example. Hilary and I drove to Hastings the other day, saw some loons in Lake St. Croix near Prescott, Wisconsin, song sparrows and phoebes in the park near the locks in Hastings, and quite a few kestrels on the wires in farm country, too! Egrets in the roadside swamps again, and a colony of elegant but unidentifiable terns well out in the Mississippi by Gray Cloud Island. (Unidentifiable from the seat of a moving car, at any rate.) I’m not sure what any of that has to do with Spain, but last night I made a gazpacho, and tonight I peeled a few potatoes and made my famous Tortilla Español. That’s a complicated way to make four potatoes and an onion, to be sure, but if you’ve got the time, it’s well worth the effort. I made the dish from memory, and inadvertently cut the oil involved by three-fourths. No wonder it stuck to the pan a little! Still, I pulled it off alright, like a seasoned pilot landing a 747 in an Iowa cornfield. God was not my co-pilot. All the while I was flipping the potato pie back and forth from the cast-iron pan to the white Noritake plate (part of a wedding gift from my uncle and aunt in Lincoln) my efforts were bolstered by the unearthly shrieks of Ginesa Ortega, flamenco cantaora extraordinaire, and her guitar accompanist Chicuelo. I hadn’t heard that CD in a while. I love that stuff.