Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bly at Blue Mound

On August 25 Robert Bly gave a reading at Blue Mounds Interpretative Center in the southwest corner of the state as part of a year-long series honoring the 100th anniversary of novelist Frederick Manfred’s birth. I reserved a walk-in campsite at the park, stuffed the backpack with the bare necessities, and was on the road by eight, hoping to reconnect not only with Bly but also with that relatively untouristed part of the state.

Outside of Belle Plaine I saw a man chasing a horse down a gravel road—always a funny sight. Two police cars and a pick-up were parked along the highway. I suppose the man was transporting the horse in the pick-up, and when the cops pulled him over, the horse jumped out. But I have no idea what’s really going on in rural Minnesota. It’s a whole different universe.

The skies were gray but the route along Highway 169 up the broad floodplain of the Minnesota River Valley toward Mankato was lovely. The rosemary-apple scone I picked up at the River Rock Coffee shop in St. Peter was also topnotch. I’d dropped a recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s 7th Book of Madrigals into the CD player radio; angelic voices, both male and female, were intertwining with tireless bright emotion in pleasingly incomprehensible Italian, and I said to myself, “I could listen to this all the way to Luverne!”

By the time I got the Windom, I’d taken a wrong turn down 169, driven through a patch of heavy rain, and was thoroughly sick of Monteverdi. The expansive sea of corn through which I’d been driving, dotted with islands of thick woods as far as the eye could see, was impressive. All the same, I was happy to depart Highway 60 onto a county road where the landscape was hillier and the shoulders were narrower or non-existent.

I was on my way to Kilen Woods State Park, tucked into a fold of the Des Moines River. I’d never been to this park before, and found that there isn’t much to do there, especially with the hiking trails being so wet. The park does offer some views down into the valleys, and the largely treeless “prairie” campground loop has a few nice sites looking out across the countryside.

At noon, having passed a fair number of wind-turbines in Jackson County, I was sitting in the parking lot at a Burger King in Worthington under a gray sky, looking out the windshield at a Walgreens, a Hy-Vee gas station, and an O-Reilly’s Auto Parts. I was listening to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau trying to breathe life into “Still Crazy After All These Years” and I was also struggling to keep mayonnaise from dripping out of my hamburger onto my shirt.

Half an hour later I was in Luverne, scoping out the Art Rocks art fair on the county courthouse lawn. I listened to a woefully off-kilter rendition of “Under the Boardwalk,” then went inside to the Brandenberg Gallery to look at the same ten Brandenberg photos I’ve been seeing for the last fifteen years.

I was crossing the street on my way back to the car when I was stopped by a woman in a passing SUV who asked me where the Brandenberg Gallery was. “It’s not in this building here,” I said, pointing, “but the one next to it.” Then I noticed Robert Bly was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Robert,” I said, as if we were old friends, “I drove down from Minneapolis to hear the reading. I’m camping at a walk-in site at the park.” (As if he needed to know that!) He smiled wanly, tried to look pleased, and nodded his head.

Blue Mound State Park lies just a few miles north of Luverne, and I doubt if there is a better time to see it than in late summer under an overcast sky. The “mound” rises a hundred feet and more from the surrounding countryside. It’s made of pink Sioux Quartzite, one of the hardest rocks on earth; local farmers found it impossible to cultivate the thin layer of soil scattered on top of it. Patches of virgin prairie remain amid the exposures of quartzite, and quite a bit of it is now used as grazing land for the park’s sizable herd of buffalo.

Three hiking trails cut along the length of the mound at different levels from one end of the park to the other. That afternoon I hiked a few miles of the middle trail, moving along the crest of the mound, then cut down through a break in the cliff face to get a view from the grassland below. The pink slabs of exposed rock veritably glowed, and the lichens, the grasses, the stunted sumac, the cactus, and other flowers and shrubs roundabout all took on a remarkable intensity in the filtered light.

Touch the Sky Prairie, established in 2001 by the Brandenberg Prairie Foundation, can be reached via paved and gravel roads three miles east of the park. It lacks the drama of Blue Mound’s pink cliff-face, but the site seems more remote and windswept, and the prairie grasses more all-encompassing. The peculiar positioning of the quartzite chunks scattered here and there call to mind Zen gardens or menhir alignments, though I suspect they’ve been sitting that way for eons.

Communing with these solitary, elemental environments put me in a good frame of mind for the Bly reading, and even the tired lettuce in the salad I bought for dinner at the local supermarket couldn’t dispel it. Bly isn’t a “nature” poet, but he does draw much of the imagery for his illogical, fabulous, musings from the plant and animal kingdoms—mice, dogs, birch trees, the sea. Benedetto Croce once described a work of art as “a compendium of universal history” and as far as Bly’s poems are concerned, the definition almost fits: guilt, love, infatuation, vanity, deceit, longing, all bundled up with dream-images from the farm and allusions to classical literature.

But I don’t care to analyze Bly’s “style” here. Some like it, others don’t. I will say that he’s a marvelous reader of his own poems, giving them a conversational yet musical emphasis that renders the “meaning” almost secondary. He’s also good at pacing an evening of readings, leaving long breaks between poems and reciting others twice.

There has always been a compulsion underlying Bly’s work, not merely to assert his personal genius, but to get us to change—like a Biblical prophet, but with a far more eclectic pantheon. And though he peppered the evening with little quips and jokes, it’s clear that he thinks it’s important for us, as listeners, to dig more than a little deeper into our relationships with our parents, children, and neighbors, and also into our religious beliefs.

I found some of the quips endearing. After reading the short poem “Clothespins” (reprinted below) he remarked, “That says about as little as a poem can say, I suppose.”

I’d like to have spent my life making
Clothespins. Nothing would be harmed,
Except some pines, probably on land
I owned and would replant. I’d see
My work on clotheslines near some lake,
Up north on a day in October,
Perhaps twelve clothespins, the wood
Still fresh, and a light wind blowing.

At the conclusion to one poem he said, “I have no idea what that means.” Then he added, “You write a book of poems, and years later you look at it again and say to yourself, ‘Did I write that?’”

But perhaps the most touching aside came at the conclusion to “When My Dead Father Called.” Robert read it twice. He honed in on the line, “He was stuck somewhere.” Then he asked the crowd, “Maybe your father has been stuck somewhere. What would you do?” There was a pause, and then he said, almost dismissively, “Write a poem, I guess.” The sense of resignation with which he delivered this remark left me with the impression that this is what he did…and it wasn’t an adequate response. And it still pains him.

David Whetstone provided beguiling sitar accompaniment throughout the reading—he was skilled and relaxed and congenial, adjusting Robert’s microphone, stopping and starting on command. And Robert’s wife Ruth helped him pick out selections to read, eventually coming on stage to sit behind him. “It’s nice to have a wife who likes some of your poems,” he remarked at one point. It was a truly loving scene, and the thirty or so guests sitting alongside me down in the pit, most of them from Luverne and the surrounding countryside, I suspect, were lapping it up. (But as I mentioned earlier, I have no idea what’s really going on in rural Minnesota.)

The Laverne Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, if I’m not mistaken, and they also provided the free bottled water and ice-cream bars!

At one point Bly, uncomfortable dominating the proceedings, asked the audience to contribute, to say something. This is an awkward moment. We’ve all been thinking about the words Bly has been reading. We’re going to have a hard time coming up with a response to:

You become whatever
steals you, the tree steals a man,
and an old birch becomes his wife
and they live together in the woods.

Bly had stolen us. But we had not yet become Bly.

I was going to say something about the nighthawks circling outside the building, or the blue grosbeak I spotted earlier on a dead tree down in the valley below the interpretive center. But I held my tongue. Saw some birds? Where’s the import? Where’s the catch?

It was not yet dark as I made my way down the path to my little campsite. A lump of Sioux Quartzite about the size of a tank sat just beyond the fire ring, half-covered with wild grapevines. The Rock River gurgled through the woods in the shadows nearby. I’d purchased a load of firewood at the ranger’s office and I sat on the picnic table staring into the fire, sipping the Irish whisky I’d brought along in a little metal flask, thinking about nothing.

A vast contingent of families from SE Asia had occupied the group camp a few hundred yards away, and the pleasant shriek of children chasing one another and playing games came wafting through the woods in the dark.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Middle Class Busts a Button

The Star-tribune ran an article recently on a Pew Research finding that the middle class is shrinking; it now accounts for barely half of the US population. That’s a ten percent drop from a similar poll conducted forty years ago. It sounds bad.

But wait a minute! The same study revealed that 20 percent of Americans are now in the upper class. Yet only 14 percent fell into that category 40 years ago. So where did the missing ten percent of the middle class go? More than half of them got richer!

Therefore, the use of the word “squeezed” in the headline is misleading. It might better have read Middle Class Leaps Forward, or Middle Class Busts a Button. In any case, such studies are based on a rather arbitrary statistical determination of where one class stops and the next one starts. The same Pew study also revealed that approximately the same percentage of whites, blacks, and Latinos considered themselves to be “middle class,” even though the data exposes significant differences in the financial well-being of these groups.

Some of the more interesting findings of the Pew study are to be found in the back pages that don’t show up in the newspaper reports. For example, the median family income for all income levels rose significantly in the last 40 years. I also find it interesting that those segments of the population that are moving ahead the most slowly, blacks and Latinos, are the most optimistic about America’s economic future, with 78% and 67% respectively seeing better things ahead, while those who are doing best, the whites, are far more glum about their prospects (48%).

No less surprising is the fact that the young, who have been hit hard by unemployment, tuition debt, and a real estate nightmare, are the most optimistic segment of the population; meanwhile, the old, whose welfare has improved more than any other segment in recent years, are the most discouraged about the future of the economy. Are we measuring the economy here, or are we measuring hormones, or eschatology?

The standard wisdom to be drawn from the headlines is that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poor. Maybe. Yet one of the big mysteries raised by the statistics is this: Why can’t the rich hold on to their money? It would surprise many to learn that 60% of those who were in the top quintile forty years have watched their offspring drop out of that category, while the same percentage of individuals in the bottom quintile (60%) watched their children climb out of that category into what might be called the lower middle class. Yes, things are always changing. Things are always in flux.

All this niggling about numbers seems to carry a hidden message about “our society” and it isn’t a happy one. But the real story of what’s going on has less to do with quintiles and classes than with technology. As one economist put it:
Much of the technological change in recent decades has been skill-based; it impacts skilled and unskilled workers differently. For example, the computer revolution has increased the productivity of skilled workers, but blown unskilled ones out of the water. Skilled, computer-literate applicants job hop to ever-increasing salaries. Former clerks and assembly-line workers, now displaced by computers and robots, pound the pavements unable to replace their former wages. In almost every market and occupation, those workers with the education and skills to adapt and take advantage of new technologies have prospered relative to those who cannot.
One of the most encouraging pieces of data comes not from the Pew study, but from a recent article in the Atlantic, which showed that Millennials have significantly less interest in buying cars and houses than their parents did. This may be simply because they can’t afford to do so. But perhaps it also reflects a more mature understanding of how much those things actually cost. Many young people nowadays can get along just fine with a smartphone, a bicycle, and a flat uptown.

So perhaps the revolution has finally begun.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Top Ten Films

Sight and Sound Magazine has come out once again with its once-in-a-decade critic’s poll of the top films of all time. Vertigo topped the list, which seems strange to me. An unusual, quirky film, to be sure, but when you start thinking about how long someone had to wait to drop that body off the top of the monastery tower, the whole finale becomes absurd. And if you’re going to go that route, why not go all the way with Mulholland Drive (which did finish in 28th place on the poll, by the way)?

The list leans a little too much toward the “arty” for my taste. But spurred by the sight of so many fine films—I’ve seen all but four of the top twenty—I decided to make a list of my own. I wouldn’t say these are the greatest of all time. What I will say is that I’ve seen most of them all more than once, and they hold up very well. A top twenty list for the common man.

Rules of the Game (France, 1939: Jean Renoir) The Rules of the Game remains the greatest film ever made, for the simple reason that it has more life, incidental detail, fluidity, energy, historical nuance, and moral import than any other film. Certainly it has a political dimension as well, with the weak-kneed French “hero,” the brittle and aggressive Alsatian gamekeeper, the slightly effeminate Jewish millionaire, the perky French chambermaid, and the naive Austrian countess. Love, betrayal, propriety, aristocracy, violence, diffidence, loyalty, charm, ribaldry, conviviality—it’s all there, and it displays itself with a vigor and economy that seems almost to spring from the eighteenth century.

The Big Sleep (1946, USA: Howard Hawks) Bogart and Bacall star in the most satisfying and fully realized Hollywood detective film, It’s famous both for its snappy dialogue and its incomprehensible plot. Who killed Brody? What happened to Sean Reagan?

Un Coeur en Hiver (1993, France: Claude Sautet) In this unusual film, Sautet, a past master of the subtleties of the human heart (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others) explores the relations between a pair of violin-makers and the concert performer (Emmanuelle Béart) who’s in need of their services. The soundtrack of Ravel chamber music compounds the atmosphere of attenuated romanticism, and the presence of students, mentors, and agents gives the film a multi-generational resonance.

The American Friend (1977, Germany: Wim Wenders) A very slow and uneasy story about a frame-maker with a terminal illness (Bruno Ganz) and an American entrepreneur (Dennis Hopper,) loosely based on themes from the novels of Patricia Highsmith.

L’Attlanta. (France, 1937: Jean Vigo) In this film about newlyweds on a barge the expressive potential of black-and-white cinematography is put to the service of a poetic and surreal rendering of the beauty and strangeness of becoming a couple. The presence of Michael Simon as the crusty old deckhand adds to the film’s ballast.

Rashomon (1951, Japan: Akiru Kurasawa) A bandit accosts a couple traveling through the woods. Later, as each of the protagonists relates his or her version of what “actually” happened to a judge, we see the events unfold before our eyes not once, but three times, colored in each case to reflect the personality, and the vanity, of whoever happens to be telling the story. Needless to say, the three versions bear only a vague similarity to one another. A fascinating meditation on truth, self-image, and compassion.

L.A. Confidential
(1997, USA: Curtis Hanson) An altogether absorbing tale, its top-flight production values are overshadowed by the growing tension,complexity, and violence of its storyline.

Cover Girl (1948, Vincent Minelli) Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, and Eve Arden. With music by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Need I say more?

Latcho Drom (1996, France: Tony Gatlif) A semi-documentary rendering of the movement of the Gypsies from Northern India to Spain by way of Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Belgium, and Provence, told entirely by means of musical set-pieces.

Dark Eyes (1987, Italy/USSR: Nikita Mikhalkov) And speaking of Chekhov, this complicated retelling of the Russian master’s story “Lady with a Dog” describes the attempts of a dissolute Italian architect to redeem himself by pursuing a relationship with a Russian woman of a very different background whom he’s met at a fancy spa. This is the best of Mikhalkov’s many fine and lyrical films.

Sorcerer (1977, USA: William Friedkin) Friedkin’s remake of The Wages of Fear focuses on the background of the four men—a Palestinian, a German, a Frenchman, and an American—who will eventually take up the challenge of driving over-ripe nitroglycerin through the jungles of Central America. The beauty, economy, exactitude, and restraint—in a word, the ART—of the shooting make this film a genuine, if little known, cinema classic.

Into the Wild (2007) Into the Wild chronicles a few years in the life of a young man named Christopher McClandliss, who decided to get away from it all and live the simple life in the wilds of Alaska. Much of the film is set in the deserts of southern California, however, and there’s enormous sociability, energy, and uplift circulating through the story. Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, and Hal Holbrook befriend the kid. An no one who see the film will soon forget the zany German couple camping on the banks of the rapids. Even the eccentric sculptor with his gigantic mud-and-metal monument to love somehow comes off as the genuine article.
Into the Wild is above all else a road movie, and it captures the spirit of that impulse as well as any movie I’ve seen. And yet…

Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Two buddies travel by motorcycle across South America from their home in Buenos Aires to see as much of the world as can be seen without leaving the continent. Alberto is eight years the senior, and he’s also much more robust and fun-loving. Ernesto is an asthmatic; he’s hesitant, a little uncertain, almost in a daze at times. The one dances, the other doesn’t. The two bicker frequently, sometimes almost violently, but affection also runs deep. The film is packed with motorcycle crashes, spectacular scenery, hostile and friendly strangers, problems with funds, encounters with beautiful women, village dances, bad weather, and mechanical problems, all of which are presented with a slightly faded majesty that evokes the innocence of a bygone era. (The fact that one of the two happens to be the young Che Guevera is hardly relevant to the plot.)

Touching the Void (2003) Two young men decide to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, Alpine-style. That means, quick up, quick down, little equipment. Things don’t go the way they’d planned. The fuel runs out, bones are broken, safety ropes are cut. The two men are narrating the film in person, so we know they survived. But while you’re watching it, you tend to forget. It’s a true story and a gripping drama, recreated for the big screen so that you feel you’re right there…and wish you weren’t.

Twilight Samurai (2002) The samurai movie, like the Western, is a magnificent genre providing endless variations on a few basic plot-lines. Twilight Samurai, which won eight Japanese Oscars, incorporates many of them, and adds a few new twists of its own.
The hero of the tale, Seibei, is a low-ranking samurai who spends his days doing the books for his lord and his evenings caring for his mother and two young daughters. (A widower, he’d married a woman from a wealthy family and impoverished himself financing the wedding.) His colleagues refer to him as the “twilight” samurai because he’d rather spend his evening making bird cages to support his family than go drinking with the boys.
By chance, Seibei defends the sister of a childhood friend against her drunken samurai husband and she, grateful for her old friend’s courageous act, starts coming to the house to help him look after the kids. News of the donnybrook get around and the clan elders decide to send gentle Seibei on a suicide mission to root out a renegade samurai who’s refused to commit hari kari in honor of his vanquished lord.
It’s a great story, full of nuances and complexities, and just enough swordplay to keep the pot simmering.

In America (2002) Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical family drama chronicles a few years in the life of a spunky Irish couple who move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood with their two young daughters to start life afresh. It’s a rough environment, with bums, transvestites, drug addicts, and alcoholics seemingly around every corner, and work is hard to find. Yet the film is laced with humor, and it’s moving to watch this young family face and (for the most part) surmount the challenges of inner-city life in a new country. Sheridan wrote the screenplay with his two grown daughters—so this is probably what it was really like.

Fanny and Alexander (1983, Sweden: Ingmar Bergman) In this film Bergman brought both his talents and his idiosyncrasies into a more powerful and satisfying whole than at any other time in his career. A sprawling epic set at the turn of the century, the narrative focuses on the members of a fun-loving extended family, several of whom are members of a theater troupe, and (as the title suggests) especially on two young children within that family whose lives change radically when their widowed mother marries the local bishop. The radiant tone of the cinematography suits the generally glowing affection that passes between family-members, friends, and servants who, as the film opens, are celebrating a candle-lit Christmas together. Watching the story develop we are reminded repeatedly of themes and even scenes from other Bergman movies, but in each case they’ve been expanded and enriched.

Hamlet (1996, Great Britain: Kenneth Branagh) The longest Hamlet at four hours, this is also far-and-away the best Shakespeare film ever made. In fact, Shakespeare or not, it is simply a masterfully realized creative work. Branagh, Kate Winslet, Ian Holm, Julie Christie, Richard Briars, and even Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, give Shakespeare’s lines intelligence and emotion, as if the characters might actually be trying to say something coherent. The complexity and interest of the story itself—”Student returns home to find father dead, mother remarried,” as TV guide would have it—has never been so forcefully presented.

Night Moves (1975, USA: Arthur Penn) A subtle study of an ex-football star (Gene Hackman) turned detective who is hired to find and bring home an eight-year-old girl. In the process he uncovers a smuggling operation and the truth about his friends, his marriage, and his own past. Low-key, confusing, and effective.

Knife in the Water (1962, Poland: Roman Polanski) Polanski’s first feature film relates the adventures and imbroglios of a middle-aged married couple who go sailing with a young stranger they’ve picked up hitch-hiking. That’s all there is to it—which only goes to show how much can be made out of little.

Shoot the Piano Player (1962, France: François Truffaut) Truffaut’s up-beat story of a bistro pianist attempting to hide from both his gangster siblings and his concert-musician past is full of insight, humor, and energy. The jaunty tone and loose camera-style leaven the dark subject matter, so that it comes as a genuine shock when someone actually dies.

Day of Wrath (1944, Denmark: Carl Dreyer) In a city riven with witch-hunt hysteria a young woman marries the local preacher. She falls in love with the man’s son, however, and as events unfold, the question arises whether she herself is a witch. It’s full of darks and lights, with glowing cinematography and subtle psychological tension. Of all Dreyer’s famous films (Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1931), Ordet (1955), Gertrude (1963),) this one, I think, has the best blend of entertainment, religiosity, weirdness, and cinema art.

Local Hero (1983, Great Britain: Bill Forsythe) A frustrated minor functionary for a Texas oil company tries to buy a remote Scottish village. The longer he stays, the longer he feels like staying.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, USA: John Huston) This gritty tale of three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico has both psychological depth and rich local color. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the paranoiac Dobbs is justifiably famous, Walter Huston won an Oscar for his performance as the wizened old-timer, and even Tim Holt, who seems out of his league here, is really only trying to be nice. The film, which contains the now classic line, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” never flags, and the ending is worthy of all the hardship, conflict, and tension that leads up to it.

Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978, Italy: Ermanno Olmi) Peasant life at the turn of the century, by the director who remained true to the neo-realist ideal. It may not be great, but it sure is long. No. It is great.

Alice in the City (1974, Germany: Wim Wenders) A photographer headed back to Germany from the United States enters into a brief involvement with a compatriot in New York and ends up with the woman’s nine-year-old daughter on his hands. A hilarious and somehow true-to-life series of misadventures ensues. Once back in Germany, they have to find the little girl’s grandfather’s house: she doesn’t know what city it’s in, but she has a photograph…

A Sunday in the Country (1984, France: Bertrand Tavernier) A married couple and their two sons visit the man’s painter-father at his nearby country estate. Father and son do not really get along, and the daughter-in-law is out of her depth, even before her husband’s brash sister arrives unexpectedly. Shot in an unusual sepia tone, this film is like an Impressionist painting of a Chekhov short story, which is saying a good deal. Even the lengthy scene of the housekeeper snapping beans is memorable.

Red Rock West ( 1993, USA: John Dahl) Nicholas Cage needs a job, but as it turns out, inadvertently impersonating a man hired to kill the bartender’s wife is not a good way to go about getting one.

Rio Bravo (1959, USA: Howard Hawks) This very long Zen Western finds sheriff John Wayne looking for recruits who are “good enough” to help him defend the town jail against an expected raid by local outlaws. He comes up with an inexperienced kid (Ricky Nelson) a gimpy old man (Walter Brennan) and a drunk (Dean Martin.) Deftly mixing comedy, violence, romance, and even a musical interlude or two, Hawks exploits every cliché in the book, and the result is magnificent. Who says fine art has to be boring?

Powwow Highway (1988, USA: Jonathan Wacks.) The modern West as seen from an Indian Reservation, this funny, spiritual, and entertaining film is a true rarity.

American Graffiti (1973, USA: George Lucas) A comic picture of small-town adolescence in Northern California during the early days of rock-and-roll. With a very young Richard Dryfuss and Harrison Ford.

Casablanca (1942, USA: Michael Curtiz) Everyone knows about Casablanca, but it’s surprising how many people have never actually seen it from start to finish. The core of nostalgic romance is dwarfed by a wide array of character actors and sketchy sub-plots concerning Germans and refugees from Vichy France. It’s difficult to tell who’s a crook and who’s not, and there are few genuine heroes around, yet every scene strikes an uncanny balance between sincerity and cliché—perhaps because no one on the set knew quite what was going on.

Red (1994, France/Poland: Krzysztof Kieslowski) A young fashion model (Irene Jacob) and a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trinagnant) cross paths more than once in this study of love, fate, and coincidence. The most successful of Kieslowski’s Red/White/Blue trilogy, it’s a satisfying mix of troubled solitude, murky romance, abject bitterness, and unabashed sentimentality (the puppies), all of which has been brought to the screen with considerable élan.

Queen of Hearts (1989, England: Jon Amiel) A young Italian couple uproot themselves from their village to escape family pressures and set up a coffee shop in London. The story is told from their young son’s point of view, and there are one or two supernatural elements in it, but by in large it’s a comedy of Italian family life, full of arrivals and departures, squabbles and reconciliations, personal crises and dramatic reversals of fortune.

My Father’s Glory/ My Mother’s Castle (1991, France: Yves Robert) This duo of films detail the summer vacations of a school-teacher, his wife and child, and his wife’s sister and brother-in-law in the hills behind Marseilles at the turn of the century. Based on Marcel Pagnol’s autobiography, it’s a staggering example of simplicity, sincerity, and charm.

Chinatown (1974, USA: Roman Polanski) A gorgeous color classic mix of crime, politics, romance, and decadence set in Los Angeles in the thirties, with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975, USA: John Huston) The Kipling tale effectively retold with Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the lead roles.

His Girl Friday (1940, USA: Howard Hawks) The second, and perhaps the best, of Hawks three classic screwball comedies (see also Bringing Up Baby(1938) and Ball of Fire (1942)) here editor Cary Grant tries to get his star reporter and estranged wife Rosiland Russell back on the job, and back in his life.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, Spain: Pedro Almadóvar) A madcap farce in which a woman attempts to re-establish contact with her drifting lover.

Something Wild (1986, USA: Jonathan Demme) A recently divorced man (Jeff Daniels) encounters a young woman (Melanie Griffith) and accompanies her to her high school reunion, among other places.

Christ Sopped at Eboli (1983, Italy: Francesco Rosi) A beautiful and far from sentimental rendering of the experiences of a doctor exiled to the harsh and poverty-ridden fringe of southern Italy during the Fascist era.

Il Postino (1994, Italy: Michael Radford) A simple-minded peasant delivers mail to the famous poet Pablo Neruda. Soon they’re discussing metaphors and metaphysics. Throw in a little love and a little left-wing politics, and you’ve got a masterpiece.

L’America (1996, Italy: Gianni Amelio) A sharp and cynical Italian businessman sets up a phony business in Albania at just the wrong moment. First he loses the tires off his jeep, then he loses the senile Albanian who’s fronting as president of the business. Before long the business is gone, and then…but I don’t want to give too much away. An exploration of values, ideals, simplicity, and civilization that moves on the highest level.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reflections on the Dakota War

The Minnesota Historical Society has mounted an engaging exhibit about the Dakota War that erupted in the summer of 1862 in the Minnesota River Valley. There is nothing flashy about the exhibit itself—just text and maps and a few photos. It’s the events themselves that are engaging. To their credit, the designers of the exhibit have brought those events to the forefront, examining them from various perspectives in an effort to get a “true” picture of what really took place, and why, with nary an interactive kiosk or a “talking head” in sight. It’s a harrowing and heart-rending tale, to say the least.

I first heard about the war, formerly known as the Sioux Uprising, when my sixth-grade class took a field trip to Fort Ridgely in 1966. Since that time, my attitude toward it hasn’t really changed: the Indians got screwed, the settlers got massacred. Neither outcome is “acceptable,” as they say nowadays, but that’s what happened, and there’s little point trying to figure out how things might have been different. You accept and ponder history, or you ignore it. Or you twist it to suit your own agenda.

If we were to put the issues that spurred the war in a chilly, abstract light, we’d say that different land use strategies lay at the root of the conflict. The Dakota were a semi-nomadic people who sustained a modest population on a vast tract of land by means of hunting. The whites were interested in supporting a much larger population base by means of agriculture and commerce. At times the “needs” of incoming settlers is described in terms of wanton exploitation and Manifest Destiny. It may be useful to remind ourselves, as we read about these events, that many immigrants were humble folk, escaping starvation or persecution in Europe, or looking for a new life where the soil had not yet been depleted. At a slightly earlier time, a million people died in Ireland in a single year following a failure of the potato crop. More than a million escaped to start new lives in America.

In any case, the Dakota found metal knives and kettles and guns useful—especially considering that their traditional enemies, the Ojibwe, already had quite a few of them. They also enjoyed the tobacco, and were all too susceptible to the illegal alcohol that was widely available. The two nations had been engaged in commercial relations for generations.

In 1851 several treaties were signed giving whites title to large swaths of tribal land. The Indians got $40 a year each, while retaining title to a relatively small strip of land in the Minnesota River Valley.

I’d like to know how much $40 was worth back in 1852. That would be interesting. I’ve read some accounts of Dakota hunting parties, and that way of life hardly sounds idyllic to me.

I’d also like to know how the U.S. Congress could modified the terms of a treaty after it had been signed. I've never seen a proper explanation of how that works!

Parts of the exhibit probe in detail how badly the Bureau of Indian Affairs behaved in handing out the annuities, bringing out nuances I’d never heard before. Yet it surprises me that at this late date, no one seems to know for sure why the annuities were late in coming that year.

Other displays examine the formation of new warrior societies among the Dakota in the spring and summer of 1862—societies that explicitly excluded any males who had cut their hair, cultivated a field, or in some other way taken up the white man’s way.

Herein lies the second major source of the conflict. Some groups among both the Dakota and the whites felt that the only way to resolve the issues between the two parties was genocide. The remark of governor Alexander Ramsey, that all Dakota people "must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of Minnesota" is often quoted. The evidence suggests that the Dakota war societies had the same idea, though in reverse. One gruesome statistic presented in the exhibit is that 30 percent of the people killed by the Dakota during the uprising were under ten years of age.

Many Dakota were appalled themselves by such barbarity, of course. Even Little Crow, the reluctant leader of the revolt, urged his troops to stop killing women and children and start “fighting like white people.”

It may abe less dramatic, but perhaps equally barbaric, to refuse credit to starving Dakota families when everyone knows the funds are on the way.

One great tragedy of the conflict that tends to get overshadowed is the injustice done to Dakota people who had no interest in warrior societies or genocide or revolt. These men and women had often successfully adapted to a more sedentary way of life; in many cases they’d even adopted the white man’s religion. (Many Dakota lost their new-found faith only when they could no longer avoid noticing that very few of the whites actually took Christian values seriously.)

During the revolt these assimilated Dakota individuals guarded and protected the whites, many of whom they’d come to like and respect. They were targeted by the belligerents among their own people, because they, too, represented a threat to the success of the uprising. Yet all too often, once the fighting was over, these individuals were lumped in with the Dakota braves and sent to languish, and often die, in God-forsaken prisons in Iowa or Nebraska.

The stories of individuals from every side of the conflict are well-told in the course of the exhibit. One small display case contains 3x5 cards on which a woman who was only six years old at the time of the revolt later recorded the fate of anyone involved whom she could locate and interview.

It’s easy to see that the historical society has spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to present this dreadful and fascinating episode in the state’s history, which, in the minds of many individuals, both Dakota and white, remains a very personal source of righteousness, anger, or anguish. A number of events will be taking place in August which you can find out about here.