Monday, April 15, 2013

Film Fest 2: The Varieties of Biographical Experience

There was nothing premeditated about it, but looking back, I find that the three films I saw over the weekend were all biographical in one way or another. Can you imagine a more disparate trio than Thor Heyerdahl, Pete Seeger, and Hannah Arendt?
“That ass Heyerdahl.” The anthropology professor Robert Spenser, who lorded it over students at the University of Minnesota with arrogance and humor for several decades, never referred to the famous Norwegian explorer in any other terms. Well, Heyerdahl’s book Kon-tiki, sold 50 million copies: perhaps Spenser was jealous.
Now we have a film version of Heyerdahl’s epic voyage from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft, undertaken in 1951 to demonstrate that those Pacific islands could have been peopled by immigrants from South America rather than Asia.
It’s a very good film—a modest film. If you want to see a lot of sun and sea on a cold spring day, with a touch of adventure thrown in here and there, it’s the film for you.
The risk involved in the Kon-Tiki undertaking was considerable. These seven men didn’t sail, they drifted across the Pacific for three months, traveling 5,000 miles in the process. Naturally tempers flare from time to time. And sharks can be a nuisance. Also boredom, and clumsiness. The timbers begin to soak up water, the lashings fray. And did I mention sharks?
 Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, lacking a budget for computer-generated effects on the order of Life of Pi, nevertheless tell a good tale while resisting the temptation to wander into controversies regarding Heyerdahl’s character or later career. The two-hour film goes by in a flash.

Pete and Toshi Get a Camera is a delightful film patched together from footage Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi shot while on a year-long tour during the late 1950s, at the tag end of the colonial period. At the time, Pete was appealing a conviction for un-American activities that carried a ten-year sentence. They honed their skills with charming home movies, then filmed some of their friends including Odetta, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy, and even shot some footage of a chain gang in Alabama (fascinating if not charming), before setting off for Indonesia, Russia, Japan, and Tanzania among many other places. The family visited 28 countries by the time they were through. Their movements from place to place are conveyed on the screen by a little image of a prop plane following an arc superimposed on an old map.
Modern day interviews with Pete, Toshi, and the children provide a running narrative that’s mostly human comedy, with occasional jolts of political commentary and ethnographic research. The entire production is as quaint as Seeger himself—now 95 years old—and it’s an unmitigated delightful.

Less cheery is Hannah Arendt, the latest biopic by famed German director Margarethe Von Trotta. Arendt is best known in academic circles for her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism. She’s better known to the general public as the author of the phrase “the banality of evil” which she coined while covering the Adolf Eichmann trail for the New Yorker. Here we see her in the midst of her émigré and American friends, smoking endless cigarettes, engaging in intellectual talk (in German) and eventually enraging most of her Jewish friends by suggesting that Eichmann was a mindless bureaucrat, a non-person, rather than a demonic mass-murderer.
Martin Heidegger appears in flashbacks as a dotardly womanizer. Other intellectuals, including environmental philosopher Hans Jonas and novelist Mary McCarthy, drift in and out. But Arendt herself, played with fiery conviction by  Barbara Sukowa, is center-stage throughout the film, and she more than holds her own. The West Side New York conversations sometimes sound scripted, but the chilling footage from the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem more than compensates.
The film has the same appeal as Vision, von Trotte’s earlier work with Sukowa about Hildegard von Bingen: It may not have hammered home the salient issues fully, but it makes spirited conversation, serious-minded inquiry, and the pursuit of justice look damned attractive.

The cigarettes we could do without.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Filmfest

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Filmfest is rolling once again. Hurray!
Charles Lloyd: Arrow into Infinity
Charles Lloyd is commonly referred to nowadays as a jazz legend. If you live long enough, and continue to produce great music even intermittently, the same fate might be yours.
In Arrows Into Infinity, director Dorothy Darr tells the story of  Lloyd’s youth in Memphis and his musical coming of age as an up-and-comer in the sixties, during which time he became one of the two or three most popular jazz artists of his generation on the strength of albums such as Forest Flower (1966), recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Forest Flower isn’t a “cross-over” album, however; it’s straight-ahead progressive jazz tending toward the harsh, noodling abstractions, and it sounds good even today.
It won the hearts of an entire generation of rock-n-roll fans who were looking for something beyond three-chord rock.
Lloyd continued touring for a few years (I heard him at the Guthrie in the late sixties), with a crack quartet that included wunderkind pianist Keith Jarrett. But in time he grew disenchanted with the crass commercialism of the music industry and increasingly enamored of “non-prescription” drugs; he withdraw from the scene to his property in Big Sur to study meditation, perform with local poets…and tour sporadically with the Beach Boys.
Lloyd remerged in the 1980s, recording with prestigious European label ECM and performing with a succession of small groups alongside Michel Petrucciani, Jason Moran, and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, among many others.
In the course of the two-hour film, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Handcock, and other musicians heap praise on the reedman, and Lloyd himself is often on the screen either performing or talking. As he matures we can see him changing from a young genius with an Afro in a perfectly pressed suit, carrying a heavy burden of unknown provenance on his shoulders, to a wizened elder in a canvas fishing hat absorbing life’s challenges with a light heart.
The film’s live footage is top-notch. Its chief defect is inordinate length. Several segments could be eliminated entirely—for example, the one involving Ornette Coleman. The two have little in common either stylistically or temperamentally, and they never played together (as far as the film lets on.)
By the same token, in one segment young bassist Rueben Rogers takes five minutes to say, basically, “With Charles you might not know what to play but you gotta jump out there and play.”
But the material is so consistently good that 30 seconds could easily be cut from almost every segment.
We can attribute the high quality of the personal footage to the director’s close association with the subject: Darr in Lloyd’s wife. But this fact also, perhaps, precludes the exploration of controversial aspects of Lloyd’s career. Meanwhile, Lloyd’s increasingly thoughtful and even meditative style is difficult to convey in one-minute bites with narrative voice-over.
As I write these words, I’m listening to “Tales of Rumi” from Lloyd’s album Canto (1997). Now that I know more about Lloyd’s career, and have seen him dance, and met his wife (She was present and graciously answered questions after the showing) it sounds even better.
The film will be repeated on Wednesday, April 17, at 9:20. You can get tickets here.

Earlier in the afternoon I caught a film that may set a new standard. The Last Time I Saw Macao is the kind of film that gives the phrase “art film” a bad name. Set entirely in the port city of Macao, the Las Vegas of the Orient,  it tells the story of a transvestite night-club performer named Candy who summons an old friend from Portugal because she thinks she’s in danger and he’s the only one she can trust. The two have entirely lost touch, and it seems odd that the narrator, whom we never see, would make a trip half way around the world on the strength of such a flimsy plea from out of the blue.
We never see Candy either--except in a lengthy introductory lip-synch. The film consists largely of shots of the decaying and occasionally glamorous city, men carrying bird-cages around, missed phone calls, and rendezvous that never take place, due to the traffic and the poor navigational skills of the narrator, who seems not to have a map of the city anywhere within reach.
His friend is in mortal danger, yet after wandering the streets for awhile he laments: “I thought I knew where Candy’s apartment was…”
The birds, we surmise, are to be used for a New Year’s festival organized by a gang of thugs. One or two of the couriers are murdered unceremoniously in dark towers for reasons that remain obscure. Yet the scenes of violence are as remote as, and even more stagy than, the rest of the film. There’s not a shred of tension or romance, not to mention suspense, in sight, and the documentary shots carry less visual interest by far than the snapshots my sister brought home from Vietnam a few weeks ago.
The signal merit of the print we saw is that the final reel didn’t have subtitles. We not only couldn’t see the main character, we couldn’t tell what he was saying.
I walked out well before the end, along with quite a few other viewers. The management graciously allowed me to exchange my ticket for another film, due to the subtitle malfunction. And to show them there were no hard feelings, in my newly found free time I went down the hall to the office and renewed my membership.
Yet while we were standing in the hall outside the door to the theater I heard one young woman say to her friends, “I love this film. I don’t care what the characters are saying. It’s all so arty and visual.”
Go figure.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Voice of Spring

Winter is lingering, but the birds don’t seem to have noticed.

I spotted my first ruby-crowned kinglet in the backyard last Friday afternoon. This cute bird, smaller than a chickadee, flits short distances from branch to branch nervously, making it easy to identify even at long range, especially at this time of year, when the leaves aren’t out and few birds of that size have returned north. (In fact, no other passerine is quite that small.)

The kinglet’s pale green coloring can look gray under overcast skies. If you spot one, grab your binoculars, because this bird is lovely to see, with its tiny beak, broken eye ring, roundish butter-ball shape, and subtle green shading.

You’re not likely to see the bird’s bright scarlet crown patch, but when the male is courting, it can expand to the size of a fingernail. At such times you might also hear its inordinately long, loud, and melodious song.

The fox sparrows, too, have returned. I see them rooting around in the leaves under the bedroom window, where they’re far outnumbered by the juncos migrating north.

On Saturday we headed south along the Mississippi. Stopping at the wayside near Prescott, we spied two loons out on Lake St. Croix, and a few hooded mergansers and scaup close under the bridge. Three eagles sat on the ice and an osprey flapped doggedly into the wind as it crossed the highway.

At Mercort Mill Park downtown we came upon a peregrine falcon hiding in the shadows at the top of the lift-bridge, then streaking out to chase down passing birds. Several large flocks of swans passed high overhead, juggling and reassembling their V-formations as they went.

We pulled off the highway in Diamond Bluff and came upon a phoebe and a fox sparrow. Out on the open patches of the river hooded and common mergansers were milling around, and we spotted three shovelers amid the coots at the riverside park in Hager City.

Yes, floods of migrants are coming north, trying to sort themselves out and find mates along the way. At a high-perched overlook north of Pepin we looked out at vast sheets of floating ice dotted with gulls. The sound of squawking filled the air. 

Right now, it’s the voice of spring.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The New Critics Vindicated

While waiting for Hilary to finish breakfast the other day, I slipped into the “office” to read an article about “Core Knowledge” education, little suspecting that I’d be returning to the land of New Criticism I left behind decades ago. The author, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., is a retired professor of humanities at the University of Virginia and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. At the age of 85, he thought it might be instructive for him to share one or two youthful moments that set him on the part of educational reform. Indeed it is.
Both experiences took place at Yale in the mid 1950s, when the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (both of whom taught there) were the rage. As Hirsch describes it:
The theory was that you didn't need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques.
At the time, a student challenged Hirsch’s analysis of a poem by Donne, arguing that the poet’s intention was irrelevant, and any interpretation consistent with the poem’s stated meaning would do. This response flummoxed Hirsch, leading him to ask the question:  So, why am I teaching this class? This is an important question, to which we’ll return.
Hirsch later went to Germany to study the influence of German thinkers on the poetry of Wordsworth and came home convinced that such background material was essential to a proper understanding of his poems.
Hirsch cites differing interpretations of an evidently simple poem by Wordsworth to prove his point. 
A slumber did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
            She seem'd a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
            Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Brooks, one of the founders of The New Criticism, finds in this poem a sense of futility -- the lover's "agonized shock" at watching his beloved turn into an inert object like a rock, stone, or tree. Brooks writes:
“Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object's being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl's falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones. ... [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched by and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.”
By way of contrast, the scholar F. W. Bateson, well-known for several exhaustive biographies of literary figures, sees in the poem a "pantheistic magnificence":
“The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime processes of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between the two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human "thing."
Comparing the two, Hirsch finds the later more accurate, based on his own researches in Germany. “As someone deeply immersed in Wordsworth,” he writes, “I could say authoritatively that Bateson caught the poet's intended sense pretty well: He knew that nothing was really dead in Wordsworth's nature.” And then he cites a passage in Wordsworth’s Prelude to support this position:
To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass 
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

 The only thing Bates (and Hirsch) failed to consider in their interpretation of the poem is what it actually says. They have succumbed to what critics call “the intentional fallacy,” by which the critic attempts to guess what the poet meant to say or  wanted to say, rather than considering what he or she did say.
Hirsch tries to suggest that Wordsworth meant something diametrically opposed to what he actually said, and calls the judgment “authoritative” on the basis of his years in Germany studying Shelling and phenomenology. Yet there’s nothing in the poem to suggest that Wordsworth thinks being rolled around is “grander” (Bates’s term) than being alive. Nor do the sentiments expressed in the poem match those  in the passage from The Prelude. Feeling the “moral life” of rocks and fruit is quite different from seeing life slip away from a beloved companion or relative. All the references in the poem under consideration are to things that have been lost. “She” can no longer feel, move, hear, or see. She has become a passive entity. It’s not a happy feeling.
In short, Brooks’s description of the poem is essentially accurate and his analysis is sound. He’s right. Hirsch is wrong.
Yet Hirsch is obviously a thoughtful, decent individual, deeply interested in students, and learning, if not poetry. (His theory of Core Knowledge strikes me as both sound and important. And opening a book about the history of lierary theory, I read, "A theorist who speaks unapologetically for rational values, E.D. Hirsch stands pretty much by himself in the landscape of contemporary literary theory.") Part of the issue he has with the New Criticism is that it’s hard to teach. After all, what can a professor of literature talk about if he can’t load his syllabus with biographical material? But the situation is not that bleak. The New Criticism exposed vast landscapes of thought to both teaching and reflection. His characterization of what the New Criticism is, alas, also wrong.
 The trouble with the New Criticism, he feels, is that “if there was no such thing as a "correct" interpretation, then a poem could mean one thing and its complete opposite. In other words, if the text was all you needed, you were led by a kind of Hegelian logic to the next dominant literary theory: deconstruction.”
But that’s not what the New Critics were saying. They were merely underscoring the point that a poem ought to be considered on its own terms as an act of expression, rather than as a clue to the author’s life or personality. It’s a work of art, after all, an entity; it ought to be considered as such. The clues contained within it point, not to the author’s life, but to the poem’s meaning. The value of the poem, in turn, depends on how well the elements are assembled, how interesting, beautiful, or profound the images and sentiments are. Contrary interpretations would be appropriate only if given words or phrases had meanings that were diametrically opposed to begin with—which is rarely the case.
No doubt the New Critics went too far on occasion in their single-minded devotion to the text.  Extraneous data about the times or the author’s other works are often relevant to appreciating a poem, but only in so far as they illuminate what a given word or phrase meant during the author’s lifetime. We might call this the hermeneutical element. Once such issues have been resolved, the real work begins—the aesthetic one, in which we consider why a poem ought to be considered beautiful, important, or good.
When deconstruction arrived on the scene, it represented, at best, a programmatic perversion of New Critical thinking. In place of an analysis of beauty and personal expression, it focused on a tiresome, one-dimensional investigation of various forms of oppression—linguistic, conceptual, societal. Not only the author’s expression, but also his or her intention and very self, disappeared. The poem became a generic symptom of a specific place and time, rather than a leap toward the universal. It was a bad era for literary studies, full of hypocrisy, sham scholarship, reductionism, and sheer idiocy. Hirsh’s characterization of this sad era (especially sad for the students, some of whom arrived on campus with a dream of exploring life’s mysteries rather than merely reiterating its angriest clichés) is spot on.   
“But deconstruction was far less tolerant than New Criticism. It said you have to read every poem as meaning one thing and its opposite. This was how the heady optimism of early New-Critical days evolved into a world-weary, endlessly recurring, formulaic self-contradiction: all texts in the end say the same self-subverting sort of thing.”
Throughout all of these academic fashion wars, and beyond, poets continued to write poetry, and readers—a few—even today continue to read it. I do.
Because it sanctifies the fleeting. It opens a worm hole to the heart of the cosmos.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bly and Tranströmer: Letters

I stopped down at the American Swedish Institute on Tuesday night to attend a book release party for Airmail: The Correspondence of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer. The real parties were going on elsewhere, of course, before and after the reading, but the public had been invited to listen in as Bly read a few letters on stage. 

Roland Thorstensson, a professor of Swedish at Gustavus Adolphus College, served as a stand-in for Tranströmer, who wasn’t present, and in any case can no longer speak since suffering a stroke in 1990. We were told during the introductions that Thorstensson has been involved with Bly and Tranströmer’s literary adventures for decades. In any case, he read wonderfully, with a rich, slow, confident delivery full of the droll humor that seemed to be the common tone of the epistolary exchanges.

Bly’s reading was more erratic. He has a lovely reading voice himself, and he milked some of the earliest letters in the book for their abrupt and vivid imagery. In one letter he describes poet James Wright sulking around  the Bly farmstead near Madison, MN, like “a stone with hair.”

But at some point Bly seemed to tire, or grow bored with the material at hand. With microphone held carelessly away from his mouth, he rushed through a few of the letters as if hurrying on to find the good parts. Near the end of the program he returned to form and sent a cheerful “take that” grimace to the audience after reading what must be some of his favorite Tranströmer stanzas:

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Perhaps he was tired. Jeff Shotts, senior editor of Graywolf Press, had given a longish introduction, and the book’s editor, Thomas R. Smith, followed with an even longer one. Both speeches were interesting; all the same, it was painful to watch Bly shifting uneasily in his chair up on stage like Olivier in Othello. I suppose he’s used to such things.

The most interesting revelation of the evening was that Smith had begun the project a decade ago and then dropped it. I wonder why? It was only revived after Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in 2011.

And the letters themselves? To judge from the small sampling I heard, they contain flashes of brilliance, numerous passages of historic interest, and quite a few merely rhetorical pleasantries. Volumes of correspondence are typically like that. Considering how outspoken Bly tends to be, I’ll bet this one is far better than most.

In the end, the evening was a success, and many of the 300-odd women and men in attendance lined up afterward to get their signed copies of the book. I left feeling I’d gotten a small taste of the Bly that has been much more “present” at other recent events—for example, the reading he gave at Blue Mound last fall.

For a hearty blast of vintage Bly commentary, check out this report of a translating seminar he gave at Stanford in 2008.