Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Among the strange places Werner Herzog has taken us to over the years, the caves of Chauvet, in the Ardeche region of southern France, do not rank near the top. Nevertheless, we are glad that he visited them and took us along.

First, a few cold, hard facts. The walls of the caves contain painting s that are 32,000 years old. Discovered as recently as 1995, they’re the oldest works of art in the world by a good ten thousand years. They offer representations of a number of large mammals that haven’t walked the earth for quite some time. It’s impressive.

These caves are not open to the public, and very few film-makers with lights have been granted access. Therefore, even if the film itself was a piece of monotonous documentary fluff—which it is not—every man, woman, and child should be rushing to see it, or at least put it on the Netflix cue.

Why? Because these works of art were created by our ancestors at a time when “the world” and “the out-of-doors” were synonymous. Today we debate whether to install Wifi among the trees at state park campgrounds. In those days, other large mammals outnumbered humans by maybe 100 to 1, and nomadic bands hunted beasts, gathered roots, played music, built fires. In short, their lives were like our hobbies.

The sight of a string of horses sketched in charcoal on the wall of a cave force us to re-ask the question: “What is an image? What is its relation to “reality”?

Such images drag us beyond mysticism and metaphysics to a realm of awe and stupor, which is only intensified by the fact that we will never know any of the answers.

I have been to a few such caves myself. Hilary and I visited Faut-de-Gaume in the Dordogne region of France in 1978 (Lescaux had already been closed), walking down narrow tunnels and slithering over sills before arriving in those small dark chambers covered with polychrome images of bison and mammoths and who knows what. The extraordinary thing (aside from the paintings) is that we were accompanied by about fifty grade-school children from the neighborhood who were on a field trip.

We paid a visit to the Ariege region of the Pyrenees in 1999 to investigate the cave paintings at Niaux and Bedeilhac. The woman selling tickets at Bedeilac was tipsy and the tour was entirely in French, but the caves were massive and the images were superb. Later that day I made an attempt to master the art of throwing a spear with an atlatl at the Parc de la Prehistoire at Tarascon sur Ariege. (It isn’t as easy as it looks.)

And a few years later we toured a cave in Andalusia holding lanterns given to us by the “tour guide”—the local farmer who owned the cave. (To get his attention you drive up to the mountainside entrance and honk your horn.) There were images of fish scratched into the walls and a series of slashes that looked like a primitive version of a cribbage scorecard you’d create if you’d forgotten the cribbage board.

Staring at such primitive slashes forces us to reconsider how much time we spend keeping track of things. Did I fill out the time card correctly? Did I send the estimated tax payment on time?

Herzog intermixes his cave footage with interviews, focusing on smiling, long-haired French experts who are hippies in disguise. (One was formerly a circus performer.) Their comments are intermittently interesting, but they reinforce our impression that our guess is as good as theirs, regarding the meaning of it all.

Music plays a prominent role in the film, and some reviewers have found it intrusive. I would agree that at certain points it becomes a little “churchy” and overblown, yet it also contributes to an atmosphere of staggering awe that would be difficult to sustain through imagery alone. After all, a cave is a font of echoes. And singing came before talking. (Remember Vico!) And visual imagery is often created to revive experience that might otherwise be lost to memory.

Why did these men or women draw images of wild beasts on the wall of a cave far removed from “ordinary” life? One answer would be, Because things are hard to remember. The past will fade into mush, if we don’t make an attempt to take hold of it through enduring imagery. Such imagery naturally takes on a magical caste. And imagery is a kind of music, with echoes and overtones and patterns of repetition.

There is a long segment near the end of the film during which the camera pans repeatedly across a marvelous grouping of horses and bison while the music blares. Some viewers may find it monotonous, but I found it mesmerizing. The problem with visiting the caves is that you soon grow tired of looking at these astounding images in spite of yourself, and begin to think about the Coke machine back at the visitor’s center, and whether you should camp out tonight. Here we have no choice. We are forced to reconsider, to re-evaluate, to ponder once more.

Postscript on memory: I had a strong recollection of having read an essay by John Berger about the caves at Chauvet, at a time when I’d never heard of the place, but couldn’t find the book. The caves were only discovered in 1994, which rules out most his books that I own. It occurred to me that a library of books is like a wall of images, a memory palace, a lifeline to the past.

I eventually concluded that the essay may have appeared in Here is Where We Meet, a collection I reviewed in RainTaxi but only checked out of the library. In any case, I can't find it. You can read Berger’s very interesting essay here. If you read the essay and then see the film (or the other way around) it will give you an idea of how the power of words and images differ.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dew Point

Minneapolis broke a dew-point record today. The local atmosphere has never before held so much water vapor without raining—at least since records of such things have been kept.

I knew it was going to be an extraordinary day when I walked into the living room at 6:30 in the morning and saw a family of wild turkeys wandering across the front yard. By my rough count, there were nine chicks along with the parents, grazing my lawn, which I haven’t cut in at least two weeks. (Everyone knows that tall grass keeps the roots cool, and if the grass goes to seed, all the better!)

Yesterday we lost power for a while. I called Excel and the young man on the other end of the line told me my neighborhood should be back on-line by 4 pm. It happened to be 4:05 at the time.

“I could set you up with an automated message,” he added helpfully. “If it isn’t back up by 5 they’ll send you a message with the anticipated time.”

“Don’t bother,” I replied. “They’ll fix it when they can.”

Meanwhile, I asked the man where the substation was that had blown. (I thought maybe I’d wander over and see what was going on, maybe lend a hand.)

“We aren’t given that kind of information,” he replied. “But there are 753 homes without power in your area, so it’s not a major outage.

“Are we the only neighborhood down?”

“God no. We thought things would be worse today, what with the heat. It’s bad enough to keep everyone busy…but not bad enough to justify overtime.”

“Where are you? Denver?”

“No. I’m in Eau Claire.”

“Tell me, then,” I replied. “I was in Eau Claire a few weeks ago and everyone was tubing through town. Do they do that all summer, or only on Fourth of July?”

“All summer long. Eau Claire is a college town. You put in at the city park downtown and get out by the hockey arena two miles downstream.”

Today I kept inside most of the day. We lost power briefly…when Hilary plugged in the iron on top of the fan, the air conditioner, and the computer stuff. No harm done. But at a certain point I knew I had to get out of the house. Buy some bread and garlic for the gazpacho. Lemons and parsley. The atmosphere was oppressive.

But you have to get OUT in it.

Back from the grocery store, I replaced a board in our back deck. Then I planted a few annuals I got for free yesterday at Bachman’s while hunting for a new birdbath. Then I clipped off the buckhorns that were stealing sunlight from the Amur maples we’re trying to nurture as a privacy hedge now that our red cedars have bit the dust.

Then I mowed the back lawn. (A very small space.)

Then I moved our ancient pagoda-lantern out from the woods that have grown up around it over the years. I moved it six feet. In my book, that’s progress.

Then I was drenched in sweat. A lovely sensation.

Then I went inside and poured myself a glass of cheap Argentine chardonnay. I cut a slice of bread off the 99 cent loaf I’d purchased at Cub and dipped it into the gazpacho. (They say that the two essential ingredients of gazpacho are vinegar and bread.)

And then I started thinking about Robin Hood.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lo Jai on Bastille Day

Back in Bookmen Days, we in the receiving department hosted a poetry reading on Bastille Day every year, and cajoled someone new every year from the library division or the front office or somewhere, to recite a poem, in French, before we began slicing the baguettes and pouring the wonderful coffee. Apricot marmalade was also on hand, and perhaps even unsalted butter—though I doubt it. We were warehouse workers, after all.

Those days are long gone, of course, but Bastille Day returns again and again. I’ve chosen a short poem this year, it goes like this.

Nos mouches savent des chansons
Que leur apprirent en Norvège
Les mouches ganiques qui sont
Les divinités de la neige.

I don’t speak French myself, and you’re probably wondering if I recited the poem at all. Actually, no. But I’m listening to a remarkable album by a French band, now also long gone, called Lo Jai. Not the second album, with its slick Leger cover, but their first album, which seems to erupt from the hills of the Auverne with the cheerful, rugged, jarring, and irascible sound of the pipe and the hurdy gurdy.

Another very exciting French album that will be hitting the turntable soon is Face to Face, a collection of duets by Eddie Louiss (Hammond organ) and Richard Galliano (accordion.) It’s incredible.

And having logged nine hours on various books today, I think the time has come for a glass of wine. Cote du Rhone?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Many of us Baby Boomers grew up with Woody Allen. I thought Bananas (1971) was so funny I dragged my parents—and my baby sister—to see it, and was somewhat embarrassed during the bogus under-the-sheets sex scene narrated by Howard Cosell. From that film I also remember a few of the pronouncements of the Latin American dictator. “From now on, Swedish will the national language.” “From now on, everyone must wear their underwear on the outside!” Also a few jokes about leprosy. Memory fades.

When Annie Hall was advertised as Woody’s “breakthrough” movie, I knew there was trouble ahead. The maker of Sleeper and Love and Death really didn’t need to “break through” to anything. He had already arrived.

Annie Hall
holds up very well; I’ve seen it several times since. The jokes work and the plot works. It’s a classic. Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton add a lot to the film’s specific gravity. But Woody’s later career is all but foreshadowed near the end when we see a few scenes from a high school theater production. The romance is hackneyed, the acting in stilted.

Many of Woody’s subsequent films are like that, from Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) up to the vastly over-praised Vicky Christina Barcelona, which seemed to me like it was largely cribbed from an adolescent woman’s private journal. In short, beautiful people cheating on one another. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) might be the best of the bunch. I saw it again recently and it struck me as a minor masterpiece, both visually and conceptually. (I’d like to see Stardust Memories (1980) again, just to make sure.)

That having been said, let me hasten to add that Midnight in Paris is a delightful film, bringing Woody’s strengths into play while minimizing his (dare I say it) somewhat puerile take on human relationships.

Woody’s two great strengths are his shtick and his nostalgic romanticism. His two great weaknesses are that his plot-lines are driven by the most commonplace romantic impulses and imbroglios, and that everyone in his films ends up talking like he talks. (Mia Farrow was the worst.)

In Midnight in Paris, the focus is on a single character, a novelist named Gill (Owen Wilson), and his affection for the era during which Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and all the rest were living the life of artistes in Paris. By a strange quirk of fate, he ends up traveling to that time period. (This is the imaginative element that had been lost from Woody’s films for so long. Remember the giant strawberries in Sleeper?)

It’s true that Gill talks just like Woody talks. But it would spoil the effect if Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein also talked like Woody. So Woody is forced to create characters different from himself, and he (or the actors) do a very god job of it. The charm lies in the fact that these characters are comic parodies of themselves, while also seeming exactly like themselves. Thus Hemingway is ridiculously blunt and forthright, Fitzgerald is suave and obliging, Zelda is pleasantly scatterbrained and direly suicidal, etc. etc. We are approaching the brilliant realm of Love and Death, with its ridiculous glosses on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. “I never want to get married. I only want to get a divorce.”

Adrian Brody, in the role of Salvador Dali, is probably the best of the lot. And Gill’s late-night café conversation with Dali, Bunuel, and Man Ray might well be the best scene in the film. (Yes, but where, I ask you, is Ford Maddox Ford?)

And then we have Marion Cotillard, in the role of Picasso’s mistress Adriada, who hits it off quite well with Gill. She has a remarkable screen presence—which may explain why she is one of only two actresses to have won a “best actress” Academy Award for a film shot in a foreign language. (The other was Sophia Loren.)

She isn’t classically beautiful, in the manner of the ageless Medusa Catherine Deneuve, but is infinitely intriguing. (She was also good in the under-rated Ridley Scott film, also set in France, A Good Year, playing opposite Russell Crowe.)

Meanwhile, the modern-day sequences with Gill, his fiancé (the winsome Rachael McAdams) , and her parents, are lame and predictable—though there are quite a few good son-in-law one-liners scattered here and there to keep us amused. Wilson himself is pretty lame and predictable in many of these scenes too. The idea that this person might ever have written even a chapter of a novel seems rather hard to believe.

Similarly, Woody gives us no reason to believe that Gill and his fiancé ever liked each other much, though this allows him one of his classic Allen-esque falling-off remarks. Gill is trying to explain the relationship to the mysterious Adriana: “We agree on most things, on the big things…Actually, we agree on the little things. We both like Indian food…Well, not all Indian food…we both like pita bread.”

It’s easy to imagine Woody Allen saying that. And Owen Wilson does a good job of delivering those lines, too. Plot and character development are being thrown out the window here in the interest of the comic sketch. But that, after all, is what Woody Allen does best. Why not settle back and enjoy it? And while we’re at it, why not give a round of applause to someone who obviously loves Europe, and “old-fashioned” literature in which romance and heroism command the spotlight—with a touch of Surrealism here and there for good measure.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Oh! Oh! Eau Claire!

Long before the Republican Party decided to torpedo the state of Minnesota, we had made plans to spend the 4th of July weekend in Wisconsin. The plan, specifically, was to ride the Red Cedar Bike Trail from Menominee to the Chippewa River and back, spend the night in Eau Claire, explore that city, hook up with a few segments of the Chippewa Valley Trail the next day, and be home in time for the evening news.

What a marvelous itinerary! The Red Cedar Trail follows that river for fourteen miles, and for most of its length it seems more like a very flat two-lane logging road than a rail bed or an improved bike trail. That’s nice. It often hugs the river, though there are very few places where you can actually get down to the banks to soak your feet. Along the way you pass groves of locust and basswood and sumac and box elder, limestone quarries, swamps, and rocky cliffs covered with jewelweed and moss and topped with majestic white pine.

The spiderwort was blooming in profusion on the trailside, and there was yarrow and bindweed and purple vetch here and there, too. At one opening in the trees we spotted some Sandhill cranes in a corn field. Much of the trail is covered in dappled sunlight, though on one of the sunny stretches we came upon a family of lark sparrows in a stunted oak tree. I hadn’t seen one of those for quite some time. A few hours on (we stop a lot) we finally came to the bridge spanning the Chippewa River. The river is wide and edged in dunes at that point. It makes you want to get out your canoe. We proceeded on to the T and headed south toward Durand for a few miles before turning back. Along the way I suddenly came upon a very large snake on the path—definitely not a garter snake. Looking at photos and distribution maps later, I would guess it was a Eastern Hognose snake or a Western Fox snake. I didn’t see it very well in the shadows of the forest before I ran over it. I let out a shriek but couldn’t swerve in time. It slithered off into the underbrush before we had a chance to view it carefully.

By the time we got back to the bridge across the Chippewa a number of boaters had arrived at the beaches. Several teenage boys were jumping off the bridge with mid-summer braggadocio. Everyone seemed to be having fun, though to me it looked excruciatingly hot out there in the full sun.

We made our desultory way back to the car and drove the back roads to Eau Claire, arriving on the outskirts via County C. I suppose that city is a tangle no matter how you approach it. It’s shaped like a horseshoe with the downtown on the rim, the Chippewa River below, and both the campus and Carson Park occupying the lowland in the center. There’s also a half-moon-shaped lake nestled within the arc of the horseshoe, which doubles your chances of hitting a dead-end or otherwise veering off your intended path. Neither the freeway nor Highway 53 get anywhere close to downtown. I suppose most people don’t care.

We spent a good deal of time going back and forth down Menominee Street, Clairmont Avenue, and Craig Road, and passed Lakeview Cemetery several times before finding our way into Carson Park. Evening was approaching and the park was simply gorgeous. Anglers were congregating on the pier at marshy Braun’s Bay, and the parking lot in front of the handsome limestone ballpark a hundred yards away was beginning to fill up. Families with picnic baskets and young couples were also approaching along trails through the woods. (The Eau Claire Express was playing the Wisconsin Raptors.) I caught sight of two uniformed players in the sunlight out on the field as we crept by, and was visited by a memory of that anticipation that greets any player prior to a game—relaxed but nervous.

We drove on through the pines past several less substantial ball fields before coming to a reconstructed logging camp and the Chippewa Valley Museum. Both were closed, which was just as well. We were content to sit on a park bench and look out across Half Moon Lake toward the city in the gathering twilight.

On our way out of the park we passed the longest string of horseshoe pits that I have ever seen. Returning downtown, we sat on a bench and watched a congeries of college kids floating quietly downstream on a variety of colorful plastic flotation devices. What a pleasant summer custom!