Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Iron Man and Orlando

 Just when you thought everything that could be said about Iron Man had been said—presuming you thought the subject was worth discussing at all—yet another wrinkle appears. Having just returned from a 4 o’clock matinee of Iron Man Three at the Hopkins Theater, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I found myself comparing the trilogy to that venerable Renaissance classic, Orlando Furioso. Why, because both are slightly tongue-in-cheek adventure yarns that don’t lampoon the epic form so much as they have fun with it.

Orlando Furioso, the work of the Ferrarese poet Ludovico Ariosto, first appeared in 1516 and eventually became popular throughout Europe in various translations. It’s set in the midst of the wars that raged intermittently between Christians and Saracens, and its title character, Orlando, is none other the Roland, slightly better known to American audiences, perhaps, as the hero of the earlier (1170) and more crude and sober-minded French poem, Chanson de Roland

Orlando Furioso means “Orlando goes mad,” roughly speaking, and that’s more or less what Iron Man does, too, in Iron Man Three, succumbing to anxiety attacks at inopportune times. 

Then again, Orlando discards his armor in grief when he learns of Angelica's love for Medoro; Ironman discards his when it stops working. 

And now that I think of it, when Gwyneth Paltrow dons some armor near the end of the film to KO a few of the bad guys, she’s following in the footsteps of Ariosto’s Bradamante, who wore white armor and made short work of anyone she encountered on horseback.

Though it undoubtedly sounds better in Italian, the appeal of Orlando Furioso lies in its fanciful make-believe language no less than in its convoluted story-line. 
Not brindled bulls or tawny lions spring
 To forest warfare with such deadly will
 As those two knights, the stranger and the king.
 Their spears alike the opposing bucklers thrill:
 The solid ground, at their encountering,
 Trembles from fruitful vale to naked hill:
 And well it was the mail in which they dressed
 Their bodies was of proof, and saved the breast.
 And Iron Man Three (like the first two) is a sort of adventure ballet. The exploding houses and red-hot glowing monster mutants come and go at a rate that’s nothing less than musical. There are a few classic lines, somewhat fewer romantic moments. The rest is pure action-theater. The “kid” who appears midway through the film helps to keep it from becoming too one-dimensional, and the transformation we witness in the character of the evil terrorist also contributes to the general levity.

There was a time when Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers made a splash comparing the deep similarities between Star Wars and ancient myths. I hope I've made it clear, I'm not talking "deep."

And the conclusion leaves us with the satisfying sense that there won’t be another sequel. Why mess with perfection?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Science Delusion

In The Science Delusion Curtis White, well-known author of The Middle Mind and other works of social criticism, takes on the outlandish  pretensions of the scientific community with regard to the significance of their discoveries. Leaving aside the physicists who believe they will soon know everything, more or less, because they’ll know what it’s made of, White reserves his criticism for another group—the neuroscientists and geneticists who are confident that once they “map” the brain and genome, we’ll know everything we need to know about what it means to be human.

To judge from the title alone, White seems also to be attempting a counterthrust to atheistic arguments for the all-encompassing reach of science on the order of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Yet he’s not much interested in defending traditional religious doctrines. The troops he masses in defense of his position come largely from the battalion of nineteenth-century Romantics—Byron, Shiller, Schelling, Hegel, and even Nietzsche—all of whom had important things to say about what scientific investigation can and cannot reveal.

It’s refreshing to read a book written by a thinker with more than a superficial grasp of the West’s long intellectual tradition. All the same, I wish he’d shaped the book differently, and perhaps called it The Defense of Poetry, following in the tradition of Sir Phillip Sydney, Shelley, and Benedetto Croce.  

White’s core argument is that many aspects of human experience can be captured far more effectively through art, literature, poetry, and even metaphysics, than by generic models of how “the brain,” for example, works. He spends a little too much time, it seems to me, punching holes in the claims of  Damasio, Seung, and other neuroscientists, and not quite enough mustering his own views into a coherent and compelling statement. But maybe I feel that way because I already accept his criticisms of scientific rhetoric and therefore find the arguments he presents along those lines slightly tedious; while his distillation of Schiller’s views on the ego, for example, strike me as far more interesting.

Among the points White returns to repeatedly, and with good reason, is that the jargon scientists use to describe their studies is almost invariably metaphoric rather than scientific. It’s considered a great journalistic gift to convey a complex scientific principle in language that comes alive for the common reader, but such language almost invariably falsifies the nature of the research and exaggerates its significance.

White also exposes the close connection between scientific research and the oligarchic establishment that supplies its funding. The scientific juggernaut is a huge and expensive one, and its number one obsession isn’t truth, but survival at any cost.

White is determined to write a truly “popular” book on a seemingly arcane subject, and therefore avoids the strict analysis that would reduce his thesis to a few pages and undercut its sales. That line of reasoning would begin by observing that scientific research deals with “types” of things, whether it be neutrinos or gnats, molecular compounds or magnolia warblers. But the things that matter most in life—the things in which we take the most interest—are individual things, rather than types of thing. Science generalizes, thus allowing it to develop generic principles that are often, though erroneously, described as “laws,” while the subtlety and complexity of individual things slip through its fingers.

Let me give you a few examples.

Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking is a fascinating compendium of information on food chemistry. But the effect of reading it bears no relation to the act of eating a bowl of mussels Meuniere at the Smack Shack downtown.

The impact of reading a sociological treatise on race relations is altogether different from that of reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Black Like Me.
A study of pheromones is an entirely different kettle of fish from the act of falling in love. 

Hence the importance of poetry, literature, history, and personal experience, in bringing substance and truth to our world-view.  

But for science to miss the truth of things is one thing. Far worse, according to White, is when it denies the very existence of the things it lacks the tools to analyze. Such hubris, of which White offers plenty of examples, is nothing less than revolting.

In the end, White’s book reads much like a Romantic tract that Rousseau or Schelling might have written—flashes of illumination and lot of good quotations delivered scattershot along with a series of more or less random assaults on the pretensions of the men in the lab coats with all the money, who try to tell us how we think and feel—or that we don’t really feel at all.

We need more books like this. (Maybe with a better cover.)

For a slightly different slant on the same subject, check out this series of essays by Terry Eagleton.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Poetry and Dust

I got a package in the mail today from Amazon. It contained a book of poems by Tom Hennen called Darkness Sticks to Everything and a six-pack of vacuum cleaner bags. 

I thought there might be a poem hiding somewhere in the juxtaposition of those two things—a mundane product designed to gather dust and a lifetime of reveries focused on the significance (or not) of dust, gravel, the prairie, everything flying around with nowhere to go, or going nowhere. The mote in God’s eye. Dust Bowls and dust bunnies.

But I couldn’t come up with one.

Or maybe I was wishing it would be longer.

In any case, opening Hennen’s book, I came upon this little gem.  

Smelling a Stone in the Middle of Winter

I can’t remember
What gravel and weeds are for.
This stone becomes important
And starts to act big.
I expect it to orbit the kitchen stove
Any minute now.
Near my nose
It gets
Bigger and bigger
Until it’s a mountain I’m lost on.

This stone is different
From the stone that grinds me down
All day
At Work.

This stone smells as though
It’s been wrapped in flowers
As your dress does
On a spring afternoon.
It’s the hard feeling in my stomach
When I’m talking nonsense to you.

This stone is so inviting
Everyone wants to walk right into it
And become a fossil.

Hennen just might be our native Zen poet living under a bridge, or better yet, in a culvert. Praise be to Copper Canyon Press for bringing these treasures up out of the basement of our culture.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Three Summer Films

Mud is a movie about two teenage boys growing up in small-town Arkansas. One is an orphan being raised by his uncle, a small-time oyster diver. The other lives on a houseboat with his parents, who don’t seem to be getting along very well. The boys are monosyllabic, adventuresome, resourceful, and very curious about girls. They spend a lot of time on the vast river that flows near their town, puttering in a metal skiff.

Early on they come upon a good-sized fishing boat hanging twenty feet up in a tree—left there by a recent flood. Inside it they find girly magazines (good) and a half-eaten loaf of white bread (bad). Back on the beach they’re surprised by Mud (Mathew McConaughey), the guy who’s living in the boat. He has crosses cut into the heels of his boots and a pistol in his belt.

The rest of the film charts the friendship that develops between the kids and the mysterious fugitive. They find out who his girl-friend is and why he carries the pistol. They learn other things from neighbors in town; it seems Mud is a local boy who went bad. Or maybe he just got hooked on the wrong girl? The boys don’t really know who to believe, and neither do we.

The tale unfolds slowly and subplots abound, most of them rubbing up against relations between the sexes as witnessed (or tentatively explored) by a fourteen-year-old. There are also touches of suspense as Mud enlists the boys to help him with a grand scheme, the details of which remain obscure for most of the film.

In the end, Mud touches on quite a few of the big themes—love, loyalty, sacrifice, romance, and illusion—without losing its Southern, small-town, aimless summer, wild river ambiance, and the presence of Sam Shepard and Reese Witherspoon don’t hurt  much, either.

Two comments by director Jeff Nichol hint at why the film works so well. On one occasion he remarked,  "I wanted to capture a point in my life in high school when I had crushes on girls and it totally broke my heart and it was devastating. I wanted to try and bottle that excitement and that pain and that intensity of being in love and being a teenager." At another point, reflecting on why he set the film in southeast Arkansas, he said, "These places and people have such a particular accent and culture, and they're quickly getting homogenized. I wanted to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won't be there forever."

Neither of these elements—the teen heartbreak or the local color—are overwhelming in themselves, but put to the service of a better-than-average narrative unfolding at a suitably mellow pace, they make a satisfying ensemble.

So, the Southern trilogy, to be served with jambalaya and beer: Mud, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Winter’s Bone.

More Than Honey is a film about honey bees—what they do, why they’re so important to agriculture, and what perils they face. It’s also a film about bee-keepers. And that’s good, because you can watch a bunch of hairy bees crawling on each other for only so long.

One of the beekeepers is a German with a scraggly beard who’s following in his grandfather’s footsteps; he’s worried about the “racial purity” of the bees in his Alpine meadow. The queen mates in mid-air high above the valley, and yellow-striped bees have been flying over the peaks  from the next valley.

Another is a North Dakota beekeeper who drives a 3,400 mile circuit to California and back each year with his bees, stopping at almond groves and orchards. A third is an Arizona maverick who sees the future of pollination in the killer bees that escaped from a Brazilian lab decades ago.

I learned a lot about bees during the film, though the approach is scattered and some themes are randomly introduced and underdeveloped. Some of the science might simply have been over my head. As Hilary and I were walking back to the car after the movie our conversation went something like this:

Me: Now, what's the difference between pollen and nectar?

Hil: They didn't say anything about the wax?

Me: The Alps were sure pretty.

Hil: That's a little more than I needed to know amount parasitic mites.

Me: Well, at least no one got stung on-screen.

Another good thing about the film—no amount of popcorn chomping or ice-rattling could ruin the atmosphere. The buzzing was almost non-stop.

Twenty Feet from Stardom is a fascinating exploration of the world of back-up singers, underscoring how much they’ve given to pop music and how little recognition they’ve received in return. It focuses on the careers of five women: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, and Claudia Lennear. I’d never heard of any of them, and to tell you the truth, after seeing the film I still wouldn’t be able to put names to some of the faces. But they each have an interesting story to tell about life behind the scenes in the music industry.

Unlike so many biopics (Ray, I Walk the Line, Dreamgirls, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Crazy, etc, etc.) in which talent leads to success, which often leads on to drug abuse, family break-up, plane crash, or some other less-than-felicitous conclusion, these women never got to the top rung of the ladder, though they clearly had more than average talent. Director Morgan Neville explores the reasons why, with the help of interviewees Mic Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and of course, the singers themselves.

Some of them found they preferred singing in an ensemble to being front and center, others were mishandled and even cheated by the producers who shaped their solo careers. Lisa Fischer won a Grammy for her first single, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but never found the groove again, grew tired of the solo lifestyle, and returned to her star-studded back-up career. Darlene Love, who sang the lead in the Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel” (uncredited) cleaned houses for a living before returning to the studio later in life. (She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.)

Watching clips of these women at the peak of their solo effort, it might also occur to some viewers that they really weren’t good enough. For example, Merry Clayton is no Aretha Franklin, and Tata Vega (currently touring with Elton John) sounds a little harsh.There are more than a few bittersweet moments as we watch the singers ponder what might have been, while trying their best to underscore all the beautiful music they did create.  

The clips are choice, bringing us from the Phil Spector era to the present day, though the film makes no effort to provide a comprehensive history. Many of the women featured have known each other for decades, and the film bubbles with the wonderful camaraderie they generate when rehearsing or performing together. In fact, I  would have liked them to reminisce a little less, and sing together a little more.

But we’ve got plenty of time, now that we're better informed, to peruse the iTunes catalog.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In Praise of Fields

Everyone loves the ocean. Most people love the woods. Some people, including me, love the high deserts of the American Southwest. But how many people love the ordinary midwestern fields?

If you’re feeling the need to expand your appreciation, this would be a good year to do so. The summer of 2013 arrived late, violent, and wet. At one point, following a torrential windstorm, more than a fifth of Minnesota’s families were without power. That’s close to a million people.

One result of this combination of factors is that now, as we ease our way into midsummer, the rural vegetation is as lush as it’s ever been. Or at least as lush as I can remember it. (Perhaps that isn’t saying much.)

A few weeks ago we were out in the Minnesota prairies, exploring the rich, somewhat treeless countryside around Lac Qui Parle. A week later we were at Sibley State Park, north of Willmar, wandering the horse 
trails on foot at sunset, admiring the grasses, the oaks, and the dragonflies.   

Last Sunday we took to the Sakatah Singing Hills Bike Trail west of Faribault, and we were enraptured by the plant life. Some of the fields alongside the trail are under water, it’s true. Well, they probably shouldn’t have been planted in the first place. In any case, the egrets are loving it. I saw six of them in one field alone. I suppose that means there are a lot of frogs jumping around out there.

Parking our car in a small gravel parking lot just west of Warsaw, we were immediately accosted by a grove of walnut trees full of golf ball-sized green nuts. If you get close, they smell like wood, and also like lime. (Hilary advised me to take a whiff.)

In the next few miles the trail runs through intermittent patches of sun and shade, with open fields on either side, and the trail is lined with a veritable cornucopia of summer wildflowers. The cow parsnips haven’t flowered yet but the sumac is turning red. The dogwood flowers are fading, the elderberries are coming on, and the purple flowers of the vervain are half-way up their stalks. Bee balm and bindweed appear here and there, white and yellow sweet clover is common. One stretch of open grassland just off the trail was covered with leadplant, though that was the only place we saw it. Butterfly weed was sparse, though milkweed was all over the place. All the same, we only saw two monarch butterflies the entire three-hour trip.

But you don’t need to drive for hours to make contact with the glory of the fields. If you’ve got a morning free, and a bicycle, why not head up to the best urban/rural bike trail n the metro area, at Elm Creek Regional Park.

We always approach the park from the SE, taking Hennepin County 81 through Osseo with a right turn on  Zachary Lane. We park in the fire station lot near 98th Street. From there it’s a short jaunt up to the bike trail running into the park. Avoiding all visitor centers, this route saves you 30 minutes of drive time and bypasses a lot of recreational clutter along the way.

The loop around the park perimeter is 16 miles, I think, and it invariably takes us about 90 minutes.
(OK, so we stop a lot.)

We admire the vast islands of sumac that rise from the fields, and we noticed just this morning that a new generation of locust trees has sprung up at one point along the trail. We missed the plum trees this year, but spotted a very healthy wall of prickly ash. We also noticed a vine we couldn’t identify.

The trail passes through deep woods, but never for long. More often we’re screaming past fields of grasses with oaks and maples beyond. The landscape rises and falls, and one of the great features of the park is that though we’ve ridden it any times, we never know quite where we are at any given moment.

The trail crosses a few gravel roads, and it crosses Elm Creek twice. It’s a skanky rivulet, let’s admit it. But it’s an important part of the landscape; it reflects the sunlight admirably, and establishes a focus and direction that the rolling fields largely lack.

We hear clay-colored sparrows buzzing from the nearby bushes as we pass. And field sparrows trill. Catbirds send out their irresistible junk. (Maybe they should have been called “scatbirds.”)

The shadows of the deep woods belong to the eastern wood pewee, high-pitched and forlorn. The open, marshy lakes provide a home for swans, though we didn’t see any this morning.

No, it’s the grasses, the marshes, the fields, the clouds, the sky. It's the rhythm of the hills, the sweep of the vistas. 

And when we’re through, it’s the lemonade and Sun Chips from the gas station out on Highway 81. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Bastille Day

Bastille Day is the best holiday of the year—sort of. It comes in the middle of summer, unlike Midsommers Eve and other such holidays, and demands nothing beyond a celebration of freedom, pleasure, and fellow-feeling. It’s like everyone having their birthday at the same time, without the onus of being in the limelight all alone.

Though the holiday is French in origin, it has long since taken on universalist connotations. No one today (outside of France, anyway) associates it with the storming of the Bastille in 1789—a rather dreadful event that ended with an angry mob decapitating some poor souls who were defending a worthless and largely unoccupied fortress prison in the middle of Paris.

Bastille Day is a day not for guillotines but for accordions, the instrument of gayety, of the streets—the instrument of the people. It’s also a day for eating and drinking. Part of the beauty is that Bastille Day has no form, no real traditions, no protocol. Yet it rises above mere hedonism through its emphasis on the right of all women and men to enjoy themselves publically, en masse, from time to time. 

We are reminded daily by current events in Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere, that many people don’t actually possess such rights. Yet Bastille Day (at least outside of France) is not a day for issuing demands, beyond those of “Garçon, another glass of Chablis!” or “Let’s dance.”

Americans also seize upon Bastille Day as a celebration of the European sources of our arts, mores, and traditions. The ideas that went into the making of the American republic are largely European, of course, as are the languages we speak. The dialectic between American and European values and ideas is a source of unending fertility, intermittent and sometime acrimonious though it may be. From Franklin to de Tocqueville, from Henry James to Jean-Francois Revel, from Thomas Jefferson to Jean Baudrillard, the transatlantic scrutiny is never ending. 

For an overview, only slightly dated, let me recommend Not Like Us: How Europeans have loved, hated, and transformed American culture since World War II, by Richard Pells.

But on Bastille Day we probably won’t be reading such reflections, which don’t go well with croissants and orange marmalade. Better, perhaps, a few lines from the Breton poet Guillevic:
Prenez un toit de vieilles tuiles
Un peu après midi.

Placez tout à côté
Un tilleul déjà grand
Remué par le vent,

Mettez au-dessus d’eux
Un ciel de bleu, lavé
Par des nuages blancs.

Laissez-les faire.

Denise Levertov translates it as:

Take a roof of old tiles
A short while after midday.

Place nearby
A fullgrown linden
Stirred by the wind.

Above them put
A blue sky washed
By white clouds.

Let them be.
Watch them.

You may be wondering what’s become of the “freedom, pleasure, and joyous fellow-feeling” I spoke about a moment ago. Give it time, give it time.
Michel Foucault once remarked to Bernard Henri-Lévy that the question “Is the revolution possible?” had given way to a different and perhaps more troubling one: “Is the revolution desirable?” To which the answer, according to Henri-Lévy, a committed Leftist, is a clear “No.”

What does this mean? It doesn’t matter. On Bastille Day, such interchanges are no more (or less) amusing that an Edith Piaf chanson (though if you’re interested you can follow the argument in Henri-Lévy’s Left in Dark Times: a stand against the new barbarism).

Which brings me to the subject of music. Yes, it’s music that gives Bastille Day its panache. It’s a sign of our cultural development that the Twin Cities boasts at least six or seven accordionists of remarkable talent. But if, as is likely, you can’t make it to the fete put on by the local chapter of the Alliance Francaise at the Sofitel on Saturday, or the more raucous street party on the streets of Uptown outside Café Barbette on Sunday afternoon, here’s a suggested playlist, guaranteed to bolster the earthy, transatlantic, feel of the day.

Richard Galliano/Eddie Louis: Face to Face. The best accordionist with a great French organist. Together they sizzle.
Café de Paris: 18 accordion classics from 1930-41 with occasional vocal by Piaf, Gabin, etc.
Lo Jai: Acrobats et Musiciens. One of the pioneering modern French electronic folk-pop albums.
Gilles Chabenat: Musique por viel a roué. Hurdy-gurdy takes the place of accordion here. French folk music has never sounded lovelier. Chabenat’s more recent electronic hurdy-gurdy CD, Mouvements Clos, starts out with three great numbers but soon dwindles into New Age weirdness.
Les Nubians: Princesses Nubiennes. A French North-African sister act with an R & B lilt.
Reinhardt/Grappelly: Souvenirs. Django made lots of recordings in the 40s, but few, if any, measure up to these tracks with the Hot Club of Paris recorded in 1938-9.
Kepa Junkera: Bilbao 00:00. A Basque slant on the accordion, with an array of international stars to spice up (or water down, depending on your point of view) the collection.
Ritmia: Thus the Sea. This brilliant Italian  LP has never been digitalized, as far as I know, except by my brother-in-law Jeff. A decent alternative would be the 2-CD set called Trio: Accordion-Mandolin-Clarinet featuring some of the same musicians.

I’d like to say that these items represent the best of my collection. Alas, leaving aside some French Canadian, Cajun, and Tejano stuff, that’s virtually the entire collection. Party on!