Friday, April 27, 2012

Film Fest 3

As the film festival enters its third week, one might expect the fever to dissipate, the enthusiasm to wane, as a certain ennui descends on the scene. But no! Where else can you approach the ticket-taker and be greeted by the pleasant inquiry, “Women with Cows”? From what other event do you find yourself rushing home (from a matinee, no less), seizing a pitchfork from the garage, and scampering to the compost pile in the backyard to see what’s “cooking”?

No, the film festival never gets old.

And it’s not even that important to choose wisely among the hundreds of screenings. Even the most obscure entries are likely to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. Perhaps they more than any!

I found myself, last week, attending several films devoted to agricultural subjects. The best of the lot was Symphony of the Soil, a documentary that could hold its head high alongside that classic from the 1950s which many of us watched in grade school during the 1960s, Our Mr. Sun.

Where does soil come from? In the opening scenes we watch water trickle out from the base of a Norwegian glacier. The glacier has ground the rock into very fine dust, and as it drifts with the current it forms a luscious gray slurry—entirely mineral.

Eventually such stuff solidifies and attracts the attention of microbes, bacteria, lichens, and other stuff, most of which is too small to see. At that point the fascinating dance begins during which organisms extract what they need from the earth, die, and deposit organic material that accumulates, little by little, until something on the order of genuine soil is formed.

We watch people dig deep into Irish peat bogs and Hawaiian volcanic fields to find soils of various provenance and consistency, cradling the rich brown stuff in their hands with sensual delight.

There follows a sophisticated animated sequence explaining how plants emit chemicals to entice the microbes they favor into the soil, thus creating the environment they prefer for growth. Biologists explain how important nitrogen is to the soil, and describe how a particular set of plants—the legumes—have succeeded in capturing that often self-satisfied and inert chemical. Eventually we arrive at the point, following the bomb-making frenzy of WWII, where artificial fertilizers and Round-Up arrive on the scene. And we travel to India to experience, first-hand, the horrible legacy of the Green Revolution.

This is fascinating stuff. Not the perfect date movie, perhaps. But the thought crossed my mind on several occasions, “I’d like to see this again…I’ll bet Hilary would like it.”

Everyone loves forests, and lakes, and wildlife. Director Deborah Koons Garcia and her team have succeed in making soil itself an object of intrigue and affection and even reverence.

Near the end of the work some Biblical scholar—I don’t remember who—remarks that Adam and Eve, in the Hebrew, might just as well be called “earth” and “life.” His comments seem an appropriate wrap-up to all that has come before. The interchange between mineral and vegetable has taken on a poetic dimension, and as a result, I suspect those who view this film will never look at a piece of lichen in the same way ever again.

Slightly less engaging, perhaps, but certainly worth a look, is In Organic We Trust. Director Kip Pastor has asked, and answered, quite of few of the questions that face us every time we go to the grocery store. What does “organic” mean? Is it worth the money? There’s a cheery, Happy Days atmosphere to the film, as Kip marches up to the nation’s capital to grill the Department of Agriculture (they cancelled the meetings), or interrogates a member of the Hoover Institute (who gives some straight answers).

The best statistic from Symphony of the Soil was: “It takes 1,700 gallon of fresh water to make a gallon of ethanol.” The best statistic from In Organic We Trust was:“In 2010 there were more than 13,000 applications for “organic” certification. Only ten failed the test.”

But Pastor’s intent is not to pooh-pooh the organic food industry. His conclusions dove-tail nicely with those offered by the more scientific and cinematically sophisticated Symphony of the Soil.

And his film has a more practical bent, examining school lunch programs and urban farming initiatives, for example. Kip's graphics are charmingly crude. And both films end with more or less the same conclusion—stop growing so much corn! Stop eating so many hamburgers! Visit the farmer’s market more often. Try growing a few things yourself.

(Yes, but how many people who eat hamburgers or grow corn go to the farmer’s market, or for that matter, attend the Mpls. / St. Paul Int’l Film Festival?)

With the film Women with Cows, we get an inside look at a Swedish farm enterprise that’s totally detached from current debates about organic farm practices. Two sisters manage eleven cows on a farm bequeathed to them by their father. (Their mother died when they were infants.) Britt has become a hunchback, due to accidents with the cows. Yet she loves them and can’t think of any other life for herself than milking them. Her sister Erica hates the cows, hates to milk. She’s raised a family herself, yet she feels impelled to help keep the operation going for her sister’s sake.

It’s a character study, as much about cows as about people, perhaps. But it captures a certain dedication to the things a person has grown to love that outstrips many of the conventional romances we meet up with at the Cineplex. Flies and cats and cows and helpful neighbors abound. Lovely rural landscapes. Nettles and hay.

The Moon is Jewish examines the life of a young man who was once a Polish skinhead soccer fanatic, dedicated to brawling with black and Jews—not to mention fans of the opposing team—but later found out he was Jewish himself. He turns to Orthodox Judaism and applies the same intensity to that “calling” that he once exerted in the name of the home team.

But this film fails to deliver. The soccer fanaticism is only weakly portrayed. (And they never show any soccer!) And our hero’s newfound dedication to Hasidic Judaism seems shallow and only tangentially related to the humanity and compassion one tends to associate with religious conviction.

In short, our hero is a fascist, whether he’s beating up rival soccer fans or cleaning up a hotel restaurant kitchen seeking to meet the requirements of kosher operation. We leave the theater feeling that he likes his new “calling” because it allows him to boss around his wife and children the same way he used to attack fans of the opposing soccer team. Not good.

Meanwhile, Ub Lama offers an avenue of ingress into the lives of poor folk in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The main character is 12 years old. He’s no good at school, and prefers to sell cigarettes in the local market. His father is dead, and his mother hopes he’ll be accepted as a lama at the local monastery. He listens to rap on TV, and is a pretty good break-dancer. Nothing much happens…Yes, but have you ever been to Ulaanbaatar?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Film Festival 2

Halfway through the film festival, we reach new heights.

Harbor of Hope
The Holocaust is a horrible thing, though half a century old now, and more. Harbor of Hope focuses on one of its more inspiring moments—the efforts of the Swedish Red Cross to bring 30,000 concentration camp internees from Germany to Malmö, Sweden, in the waning days of WWII, with the permission of the German government, who knew by that time that the jig was up.

The film makes good use of government film archives, but focuses on the relatively few passengers on those boats who are still alive and could be located. The director, Magnus Gertten, (who was present at the screening) made a few simple but effective decisions regarding the shape and content of the film—for example, of showing the faces of those speaking but not at the time when they were speaking—which resulted in a far more immediate and moving narrative than such documentaries usually offer.

Many were saved. We see them disembarking from the boats. We hear the voices of those who have being identified and recently located on the soundtrack: “Oh, look! There’s my mom. And there’s me!” I had a lump in my throat throughout most of the film.

One of the featured survivors, Joe Rosenberg, ended up in Minneapolis, and he was present at the screening. In the film he had remarked that he was “angry at God” for what had happened, and during the question-and-answer someone in the audience asked him if he was still angry.

After a moment’s hesitation he replied, “Yes.” Then he told us a story about how some of the men who had been saved were urging all the Jewish survivors at Malmö to get together and say a Kaddish for those who had died. The Kaddish, he explained to the goys in the audience, is a funereal expression of gratitude on the order of “May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity.” And Rosenberg replied, “No! How could you be praising the Lord for the death of all your relatives.”

We follow other survivors to South Africa or Poland. It’s a rich experience, setting a bourgeois yet powerful humanity against the dark shadows of Nazi atrocities.

West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson
Canadians with an aesthetic bent are very proud of the Group of Seven, or the Algonquin School, who painted the landscapes of the Canadian Shield during the early decades of the 20th century. Many of these artists were inspired by Tom Thomson, who developed a radical approach to painting in the years preceding the First World War.

West Wind tells the story of Thompson’s development as a painter and his frequent trips to the lakes, pine forests, and bogs of eastern North Ontario. The story is made more compelling by the fact that Thomson, a reticent individual, was likely murdered in 1917 on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park. The mystery has never been solved. It’s officially presumed that Thomson drowned, though he was an expert swimmer and canoeist. Several alternative scenarios are offered in the film, and a few even more interesting possibilities were offered during the Q & A with the director and the producer, who were both present at the screening.

The film details Thomson’s training at a business school in Seattle and his subsequent employment at a design firm in Toronto. It goes on to chronicle the influence of a exhibit of Scandinavian Impressionist and Art Nouveau paintings held in 1913 in Buffalo, NY, which convinced Thompson and his colleagues that they could fashion a similar school devoted to the unique beauties of the Canadian countryside.

When painting on location in north Ontario, Thomson used a small wooden sketch box to carry his oil paints, palette, and brushes. The resultant sketches were executed on bits of wooden planking. The best of them were later recreated on canvas. These painting on wood are usually small, and one of the great merits of the film is to enlarge them many-fold on the screen, where their radical beauty can be more fully appreciated.

A patriotic theme runs through the movie—Thompson is consider the “quintessential” Canadian artist. On the one hand, this might be considered odd, in so far as 75% of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border, and have probably never been to the bogs and lakes that Thompson and his admirers and successors depicted so dramatically. I suspect that more urban Minnesotans, with the BWCAW right in their backyard, have actually experienced such stuff than have Canadians. I could be wrong. But that’s why we came to the film.


Payback, reputed to be a documentary about debt, is in fact a rambling think-piece about crime, punishment, forgiveness and restitution, human and environmental degradation, capitalism, and social responsibility. It jumps back and forth from the mountains of Albania to the BP oil spill to the Florida tomato-fields, with repeat stops at an unnamed Canadian prison, an abandoned prison that seems to have been turned into a museum, and a university economics classroom.
Unlike such popular and compelling documentaries as Inside Job, An Inconvenient Truth, and Food, Inc., the theme of Payback is too ill-focused, and the shifts in scenery too frequent, to establish any sort of compelling argument or thesis. We return too often to a wealthy executive (and former convict) expounding fatuously on the Canadian system of justice, and in one segment a counselor of some kind—I never caught her name—who tries laboriously to explain that when the perpetrator of a crime is forgiven, it doesn’t mean that everything has returned to the pristine condition before the crime took place.

Theologian Karen Armstrong gives us a mini-lecture on the golden rule as described by Confucius. And Margaret Atwood, who wrote the book on which the film is based, appears again and again, delivering a lecture, typing on her laptop, crossing out a phrase on a typed document as she muses about what she’s written, reciting a tale about Ebenezer Scrooge, or “thinking out loud” in some other way that adds little to the punch of the film and sometimes all but insults the viewer’s intelligence.

In short, Payback is a perfect film festival entry. The mountains of Albania are spectacular and the rural life-ways we witness there is fascinating; the Gulf oil spill is gorgeous, seen on the big screen from the window of a helicopter; and the adroitness with which Latino migrant workers toss heavy buckets full of green tomatoes high into the air toward a slow-moving truck has to be seen to be believed.

As we struggle to identify and assay the unifying concept at work (there isn’t one) the individual stories begin to sink in, and we leave the theater frustrated at having been jerked around so haphazardly, but also convinced that we need more and better 1) drug rehabilitation programs for prison inmates; 2) labor laws; 3) environmental regulations; 4) documentaries about social conscience.
As for the Albanian blood-feuds, I’m not sure there’s much that we, or even the Canadians, can do about that.

Absurdist farce may seem like just another tired and slightly irrelevant genre these days, alongside fey Noel Coward comedies and dour Ibsen melodramas. But how often do you get to see a film written and directed by the long-standing former president of a major European country?

Václav Havel is the brains behind this light-hearted work, which lends a little more weigh to remarks delivered by the protagonist on the order of: “Tony Blair once told me….”

The main character is a long-standing chancellor who’s just been voted out of office. The entire film takes place on the terrace in front of the government-owned villa that he fears he and his family will soon be required to leave. Our “hero” is surrounded by an entourage of loved ones, servants, and hangers on—especially the former advisor to a former advisor who mans the gate-house on the estate, announcing the arrival of journalists and photographers, rivals and friends.

There are bits of slapstick, chunks of arch political rhetoric, petty rivalries, some Shakespearean histrionics, a disco scene in the fountain, and a few surprise turns of plot, but the entire production seems more like an extended Laugh-In skit than The Rules of the Game. There is much to be enjoyed here, but little, in the end, to think about.

Shortly after being elected to the presidency of Czechoslovakia in 1990, Havel remarked in a speech he gave in Jerusalem:

I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to some quarry to break rocks. Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.

At the end of Leaving,the former chancellor departs from his villa in a covered wagon piled high with trunks and furniture and driven by someone who might well be Gabby Hayes’s grandson. A fitting exit, perhaps, to a very unusual career. (Havel died shortly after completely the film.)

Argentinian Lessons

When we think of Argentina, we think of Buenos Aires first, perhaps, then Patagonia. This film takes us to the remote village of Azara, in the northeast part of the country, where the director, Wojciech Staroń, moved with his wife and son after she secured a two-year appointment teaching Polish there. Staroń, better known as a cinematographer than a director, got his camera out and shot footage of his son’s struggles to adjust to this new and strange locale. The film actually focuses less on seven-year-old Janel than on his new neighbor and friend, eleven-year-old Marcia, who lives in a large brick garage nearby with an antique car, her unstable mother, and several siblings.

Shot in 16-millimeter, and with very little dialogue, the film has the look and feel of a home movie, but Staroń, with twenty-some productions behind him, knows how to frame and cut a scene, drawing us into a dream-like environment of gravel roads, primitive houses and schools, flowing brooks, run-down vehicles, fields, sunshine, and the slow creep of time.

Marcia’s father has left town to work on a rice plantation, and much of the film deals with her attempts to raise money for the family by harvesting yerba maté, making bricks by hand, and setting up a kiosk near the highway to cater to passing traffic—of which there seems to be very little. Janel tags along, lending a hand, and even accompanies Marcia on a midnight rail trip to her father’s plantation.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Mpls/St. Paul Int’l Film Festival 2012

The Mpls/St. Paul Int’l Film festival is underway once again, and the dismal weather has arrived right on cue. We’ve seen only four films thus far but they give some indication of the range of works on view.

My Mother’s Farm depicts the career of a Latvian farmer as seen from the eyes of her daughter who emigrated to Norway. The story takes us from the end of WWI to collectivization under the Soviet yoke to liberalization following the collapse of the USSR to yet a further currency and trade revolution when Latvia joined the EU. Most of these changes were devastating to farmers, and yet the portrait that emerges is of a remarkably bright and strong-willed individual who not only worked her tail off on the farm, but also found the time to become a citizen advocate for a wide range of civic causes.

The Art of the Islamic World follows the well-worn pattern of those TV shows where the talking heads are well-lit and their comments are so manicured and succinct as to be almost vapid. Interspersed with these sound-bites about Islamic art and religion are glorious pans across the surface of buildings, ceramic objects, panels of mosaic tiles, and beautifully wrought sacred texts.

Five themes—Word, Space, Ornament, Color and Water—serve as a framework for the exposition, though the underlying message is that Islamic art draws on an extraordinary range of cultures, from Sudano-Sahelian architectural forms to Chinese and Indian motifs. The most engaging interviewee is a bearded, burly gentleman from California who converted to Islam, became a master-calligrapher, and then went to Turkey to learn the art all over again from local masters. Segments on the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali (the largest mud brick building in the world), the Taj Majal, and the Alhambra were also interesting, though I left the theater with the feeling that by focusing on those elements of Islamic art that have “universal” appeal, some of the more idiosyncratic and compelling pieces might have been left behind.

Restoration is a brilliantly quiet Israeli film about a furniture restorer named Fidelman, his son Noah, his son’s pregnant wife, and a stranger he hires to work in the workshop. A few minutes into the film Malamud, Fidelman’s partner for forty years, dies, but his outsized character haunts the tale. It was Malamud who took on Fidelman as a partner, Malamud who kept the business solvent, secured the loans, kept clients happy. As the film develops, we begin to suspect that the shadow Malamud casts over Fidelman’s family is event longer than that.

Fidelman is an extraordinary craftsman but he’s a taciturn, sour-faced man in a dying business. Noah wants him to build apartments on the property and make some money. (Strangely, Malamud willed the site to Noah himself, rather than his father). But Fidelman, who can’t imagine any other life than the one he has, wants to keep the shop open and take out yet another loan.

Anton, the young man Fidelman hires from off the street to help him in the shop, is an odd duck. He’s an icy soul, on the run from his family, but a good worker, and Fidelman takes to him in a way that Noah finds a little disturbing. Anton spots a piano in the back of the shop that may be worth a lot of money. If they can replace the sound board successfully, Fidelman might be able to sell it and keep the shop alive.

The final element in this complex web of conflicting interest and affections is Noah’s pregnant wife Hava. Noah is not only preoccupied by the task of convincing his father to close down the shop, but also anxious about an imminent promotion, and Hava brightens her day by joining Anton in the quest for piano parts. (A few sparks begin to fly.)

Restoration is one of those films in which faces do much of the talking, and Sasson Gabai, who plays Fidelman, carries a heavy load of pride, anger, and disappointment in his. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, in fact, and the string quartet that plays on the street outside the shop from time to time is only one of many minor touches contributing to the beauty of this slow burn of a family drama.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Globalism with Ernesto Zedillo

I drove down to the university on a glorious spring evening to hear Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico, discuss globalization with Tim Kehoe of the U’s Economics Department. The event was held in the Ted Mann Concert Hall, and by the time it got underway the auditorium was largely filled. There were a few very boring introductions, during which, for example, we got to hear the entire curriculum vitae of the College of Liberal Art’s new provost, whose name I forget. Everyone in the audience was fidgeting, looking up at the lights on the ceiling, or playing games on their computer.

Once the speakers got going, things improved. Kehoe had a few slides suggesting that the employees of US firms who engaged in exporting either their product or their services made roughly 15% more in wages than their counterparts feeding domestic consumption. He went on to produce a few charts and graphs to help him explain why the Mexican financial crisis of 1994 lasted only 6 weeks, whereas the current European crisis is entering its third year, and shows no signs of easing.

The reason? Mexico succeeded in making the adjustments required to redress the balance-of-payments issue that arose when investors suddenly pulled out their cash. In Europe, they’re finding it impossible to do that, because adjustments need to be made within the EU zone—between Spain and Germany, for example—and the single currency makes it difficult to do that.

That was the theme of the entire evening—everyone on the stage thought globalization was an obvious good. In fact, it’s been going on for two-hundred years at least. The challenge lies in redressing the imbalances it creates.

Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico and currently a professor at Yale, pointed out that such rebalancing, in the end, is a political rather than an economic issue. In the United States, for example, real wages haven’t risen in twenty years—not because of globalization, he adds, but because of advances in technology. This needs to be fixed. Similarly, in China more emphasis needs to be placed on domestic consumption, to improve China’s trade balance and reduce tensions caused by the weird accumulations of capital in that country.

Indeed, throughout the evening China was the elephant in the closet. Kehoe observed, at the start of the presentation, that investors consider the United States, rather than Europe or China, to have the most potential for future growth—a remark which called to mind something I’d read in the Economist not long ago: for every foreign dollar that’s invested in China today, $2.50 of foreign funds are invested in the United States.

And when someone asked why Mexico isn’t experiencing the same growth rate that China is, Kehoe replied that China, after all, is still a very poor country. (It ranks 131st in the world in per capita income. I looked it up.) Mexico is twice as wealthy, and has already been through the phase of growth China is now experiencing, which looks so impressive, coming as it does from such a low base.

Another member of the audience questioned Zedillo on how globalization has affected organized crime, with obvious reference to the drug wars going on in Mexico today. Zedillo suggested that the drug wars have little to do with globalization per se. They were fueled by President Nixon’s War on Drugs, initiated in 1969, which drove the price of controlled substances sky-high and filled the drug-lords' coffers. Kehoe added that the U.S.'s antediluvian policy on the sale of semi-automatic weapons has also had a profoundly deleterious effect on that situation.

The image we often get of economists in the media today is of grasping, conniving insects hustling to fill their own larders to overflowing before the next dust bowl arrives. I left Ted Mann Concert Hall last night with the impression that if our politicians were as reasonable and humane as these two economists seem to be, we’d be more than halfway to solving some of our biggest problems.

We’ll leave it to China and Germany to solve the other half.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Maple pods

On a gloriously cool and sunny afternoon, I sit on the deck, ruing the disappearance of the tiny, pale green leaves, which have given way already to the yellow-green leaves (soon to be followed by the dark green leaves). The seed pods on the silver maple are bright red, though you’ll need binoculars to see them. Before long they’ll be less red and scattered everywhere.

Ohio buckeye trees are sprouting here and there across the yard—I know they won’t do well in those shady places but find it difficult to pull them up. I did recently remove large chunks of the ferns that have been inching their way across the terraced garden under the bedroom window.

Chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches arrive and depart. But the junkos are also still among us. There are more junkos than people in North America. Soon they’ll be fanning out across the pine woods of Canada. A fitting subject for a children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown, don’t you think?

On such an afternoon, I find it difficult to focus on Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, which I’ve been doing a pretty good job of making my way through. For example:

To be a revolutionary Marxist was to make a virtue of your rootlessness, not least the absence of religious roots, while clinging—even if half-knowingly—to a style of reasoning which would have been very familiar to every Hebrew school student.
Or how about this one?

For Hayek, in short, the lesson of Austria and indeed the disaster of interwar Europe at large boiled down to this: don’t intervene, and don’t plan. Planning hands the initiative to those who would, in the end, destroy society (and the economy) to the benefit of the state. Three quarters of a century later, this remains for many people (especially here in the U.S.) the salient moral lesson of the twentieth century.
I’m more inclined to return to a potted essay on Plato’s theory of ideals that I’m working on:

And the soul is like the eye: when resting upon that on which truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands, and is radiant with intelligence; but when turned towards the twilight of becoming and perishing, then she has opinion only, and goes blinking about, and is first of one opinion and then of another, and seems to have no intelligence.
In my view, “becoming and perishing” is a part of truth and being. These days we stand in daily awe of the “becoming” part. Consider the serviceberry over there at the edge of the woods, just now creeping into bloom. My mother, who died in 1980, loved this humble, spindly shrub that does it best to look like a tree. So do I.

What to do, what to do?

The skies are clear. Heck, get the fire pit out from under the deck and await the appearance of Venus, which (according to my NASA web report) should be sitting smack dab in the middle of the Pleiades tonight!