Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Star Wars

In 2007, forty years after the fact, film critic Jim Emerson wrote: “To see Star Wars in 1977 was to experience a moment in pop culture that seemed universal.” He added:

"Sure, the movie was criticized for being infantile, but that misses the point. It's aimed at a sensibility somewhere between infancy and the second year of college (or high school). A space fantasy with the emphasis on interstellar swashbuckling (and with romantic mush kept to a minimum), "Star Wars" appealed to the 3- to 12-year-old boy in all of us -- and still does."

Universal? I beg to differ.

When Star Wars came out, I was 25. I went, I saw, I liked.  But I found it difficult to get excited about a film with non-actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in prominent roles. (It didn't seem to make much difference.) It seemed to me, furthermore, that the plot really had nothing on Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Dawn Patrol. (It's no secret that the plot to Star Wars was lifted from a minor samurai film, The Hidden Fortress, by a major Japanese director, Akiru Kurasawa.)

I found it a little disturbing that so many film-goers--even adult film-goers--were getting so revved up about such a "minor" movie.

To give the film credit,  Star Wars was refreshingly, unabashedly simple, and the effects were certainly cool—though not nearly so cool as the effects in 2001: a Space Odyssey. Star Wars was entertaining in the same way the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the westerns of Earnest Haycox and Louis Lamour that I'd read in junior high school were entertaining. But it wasn't deep or challenging or stimulating, the way I knew films could sometimes be.

Before long journalist Bill Moyers and classical scholar Joseph Campbell had teamed up to create an elaborate exposition of the mythic dimension in the original Star Wars trilogy for public television. In the course of five or six hour-long shows they examined all sorts of religious myths, all the while underscoring the underlying similarities. They also explored the psychic need many of us feel to reconnect with such templates of deep meaning and truth.

It was a good show, surprisingly literate, global, and ecumenical for the time. (I still have a copy on VHS tapes somewhere in the basement.) But that didn't make Star Wars a great or even a "mature" film. It was still a comic book.  Thirty-five years later, I've seen quite a few cinema comic-books—some far better than others.

At the time—so the argument goes—Star Wars brought a breath of fresh air into a dark and moribund film industry. I don't remember it that way, and looking back at the films of the mid 1970s, I see that it isn't true. Scanning a list of the top 100 films of 1977 alone, I spot nearly every kind of film being made today, including a SNL-esque comedy (Kentucky Fried Movie), a dark and grisly "date" movie (Looking for Mr. Goodbar), a cinema remake of a Neil Simon Broadway blockbuster (The Goodbye Girl), a Ridley Scott adaptation of a minor literary classic (Joseph Conrad's The Duellists), a trendy youth film (Saturday Night Fever), a sci fi potboiler (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), a jazzy star-driven musical (Martin Scorcese's New York, New York), and a far-out Robert Altman film (Three Women).

Star Wars would not be out of place on this robust list, but nor would it stand out. It definitely breathed new life into that moribund genre, the space opera.

The art house crowd of 1977 might have been satisfied by one of Truffaut's lesser films (The Man Who Loved Women), a slightly stodgy Italian drama with a gay protagonist (Etore Scola's A Special Day), or a wild and crazy film by the young Werner Herzog (Strozek).

The three best films of the year, in my opinion, were Woody Allen's comic masterpiece, Annie Hall, William Friedkin's adventure masterpiece, Sorcerer, and perhaps Wim Wenders last really good movie, The American Friend.

We've made arrangements to see the new Star Wars episode with some friends on Friday afternoon. But another film is showing at the same time at the same theater. It's called Theeb. It takes place in the Arabian desert in 1916. A British soldier, a nomadic tribesman, a little boy, some camels, a poisoned well, a railroad terminal. I've seen it, but the other haven't.

Let me tell you. It's great.  


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Season of Darkness, and Music, and Lights

The absence of snow has made the season seem darker. We got a little dusting on Monday night—just enough to remind us what we're missing. The next morning there were raccoon tracks all over the street, running from one curbside drainage grate to another. They also proceeded around our garage and up onto the back deck. I didn't need to check if there was any feed left in the feeders. Not a chance.

Out on the road there were also a few deer tracks, one squirrel, and perhaps a cat. As we returned to the house I also saw two huge sets of tracks, identical except that one set was much larger than the other. This was a clear sign that Hilary and I had set out on a stroll a few minutes earlier in the pre-dawn light.

Evenings have been brightened by music. A Messiah sing-a-long which was plenty rousing, though slightly less compelling at Orchestra Hall than the one we attended a few years ago at Central Lutheran Church downtown. An Anglican ceremony of lessons and carols at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. Ah, these are the familiar readings, the familiar hymns, along with some beautiful renderings of unfamiliar carols sung by a very polished choir. And how convenient that we could participate on a Sunday evening at five, rather than struggling to stay awake on Christmas Eve.

The most unusual concert we heard was given by the Rose Ensemble, who performed a selection of Christmas pieces written during the seventeenth century for the cathedral church on the island of Malta. None of the pieces were familiar, which isn't surprising, considering the scores have been languishing in some archive on a  Mediterranean island for the last three hundred years. And the lyrics to the pieces were in Latin, with one or two exceptions, so the event had very little of a Christmas "feel" to it.

Yet the concert was gorgeous, due to both the quality of the voices and the richness of the harmonies involved, which struck me—unschooled in the period though I am—as less flamboyant that the music of Monteverdi, more concerned with texture, less with ornamentation and vocal display.

The ensemble knows how to program a show, interspersing choral pieces with solos and small vocal parings. One of my favorites was a tenor solo Tre Lezioni Per Il Primo Notturno (per la Nativita del segnore) sung by Andrew Kane. It certainly had plenty of ornamentation, and the lyrics also struck me as unusual.

...You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born ...

The program also included the world premier of a piece by composer Timothy Takach that had been commissioned by the ensemble. It somehow succeeded in sounding fresh and modern without fracturing the tonal atmosphere within which the rest of the concert unfolded. It contained quite of few of those close (shall we say 'dissonant'?) harmonies that would have sounded dreadful, had they not been executed with the utmost grace and precision. It turned out to be a highlight of the evening.

As it happened, Hilary's brother Jeff was sitting with his family two rows in front of us, and we enjoyed chatting with them all at intermission.

On the longest night of the year, we were visited by two great lights. The lesser of these was the fire I built in the fire pit out on the deck. The greater was the arrival of our friend Dave, who visits us annually  at about this time of year. Dave and I have been friends since high school, and Hilary has known him almost as long. He moved to Texas maybe forty years ago, but he still has family in Minnesota, and we've kept in touch.

Over the years we've followed Dave's career in the world of art handling, which got more complicated about ten years ago when he and a few colleagues decided to start their own business. At about the same time, Dave bought a warehouse in a run-down neighborhood near the Trinity River. Alongside the living quarters, the space was suitable for storing his vast collection of mission furniture. Dave also had the idea that when a proposed bridge was built across the river, his property might end up being worth a lot more than he'd paid for it.

A decade later, Dave's business is thriving, the bridge has been built, development is well underway all around him. But the city of Dallas has been putting the squeeze on him, granting an easement to widen the road in front of his building, threatening to condemn the property—doing everything in its power, in short, except pay him a fair market price for it. (This is a simplified and inaccurate recount; if you want more details, you can find them here.)

Dave fought city hall, and he lost. But during the process, the developers finally realized that they were also losing vast sums waiting for Dave's endgame with the city to play itself out, and they made him an offer. It wasn't what the property would have gone for on the market, but it was enough for Dave to buy 78 acres of land in the country, complete with living quarters, warehouse,  pond, woodlot, creek, and plenty of buzzards and coyotes.

Meanwhile, he's been gradually stepping back from the business he started, and is now in the process of selling his shares. Dave will soon be a gentleman farmer—"What do you mean? I am a gentleman farmer!" he says—and he's already got plans for building a bridge across the creek, buying a tractor and some goats, and sitting out on the front porch in the evening, watching the sun go down and listening to the whippoorwills.

It's a far cry from the hype and worry of the Texas art world, and not a life-style Dave was thinking much about a few years ago. But he's taken risks and made bold decisions before. There's been dissonance in his life from time to time, but hearing about these new developments around the campfire, it sounded to me less like a false cadence than a grand resolution, rich in elements to be whipped up into an entirely new movement.

I wouldn't mind learning a little more about Texas birds myself.    

Friday, December 18, 2015

Liza Sylvestre at Public Functionary

On a dark December evening (made darker by the lack of snow) we made our way through northeast Minneapolis along Broadway Avenue, the narrowest major thoroughfare in town, where railroad bridges  often pass overhead at an angle, turning a four-lane street into a two-lane street for a few yards. It had been drizzling, and the neighborhood was glistening.

At one point I made a wrong turn and drove past the Able Brewery, a handsome brick building in the middle of nowhere housing a start-up brewery dedicated to buying its grain locally and malting it on-site. I wouldn't have mentioned it except there were about fifty cars in a lot across the street and a food truck parked outside. As we passed in front of the building, looking for a place to turn around and get back on Broadway, we could see quite a few hipsters through the large glass windows, holding glowing pints of beer and chatting with one another in the low light of the interior. A pleasant scene.

A few blocks further on, we came to Public Functionary, a gallery housed in a white, cinder-block building where LIZA SYLVESTRE : MERIDIANS was scheduled to open. A train passed overhead as we approached the building, as if on cue. (What was it carrying? Shale oil from the Dakotas? Or wholesome Durham wheat to make Macaroni?)

In fact, the show had opened, and the room was peppered with women and men chatting in small circles or examining the art on the walls. I recognized a few people, not because I'm an art "insider," but  because Liza is my niece, and it was easy to spot relatives and friends here and there amid the crowd.

A band was playing off in a cover near the bar. A photographer wandered the floor, taking pictures. I butted into a conversation between two women who turned out to be Kate Iverson and Robyne Robertson.

Kate is involved in planning the events at the gallery space, which are sometimes unrelated to the art hanging on the walls. (I had no idea that I was talking to someone who'd been voted "Best Social Director" and "Power Party Person" by Minnesota Monthly.)

And Robyne is well-known in the Twin Cities as a jeweler, former newscaster, and gallery owner. I learned in conversation that she now works as the Arts and Culture director for the Minneapolis airport.

The art itself looked familiar, though it struck me immediately that while Liza's focus hadn't changed radically since the last time I saw a selection of her work, her methods had become looser and more expansive.

Liza has experienced hearing loss since childhood, and she sometimes describes her work as the visual representation of aural impulses that have lots of visceral energy without representing anything specific. We might call it "action painting," with the proviso that the action is taking place inside.

That's almost certainly putting it wrong, especially if it suggests that there is something undisciplined or chaotic about Liza's creations. On the contrary, in her work remarkable draftsmanship is put to the service of rendering flowing, hair-like, nerve-like, spaghetti-like forms, with knots of color, washes, and patterns seemingly drawn from a microscopic slide serving as centers of gravitation or nervous emanation. In the past, these conglomerations were often coiled into nervous blobs, though occasionally line gave way to texture, so that the images more closely resembled colorful scarves being tossed in the wind. 

In Liza's new work, there are fewer tightly-controlled linear fields and more spaces given over to colorful washes. At the same time, these organisms (probably a better word than conglomerates) more often move out beyond the edges of the canvas, thus drawing us more fully into the scene while also intimating worlds beyond view.

I saw one of Liza's recent works (not in the current show) on Facebook, and it reminded me of a raw salmon fillet, viewed from on edge, and also of a computer-generated contour diagram of a glacier.  Well, I like glaciers and I like salmon. But the piece in question took me beyond such mundane tastes into a world that was its own world, neither flesh nor diagram, but one that evoked those moods and elements along the way.

Using fewer lines and more washes, Liza is probably saving herself some back pain, but she's also summoning a distinctive synaesthetic world, where orchids have flavors and kelp has nerves. Pleasing ... but intense.

The show will be up util January 9.

The gallery is located at  1400 12th Ave NE, Minneapolis 55413

And Mary Abbe reviewed the show in the Star Tribune.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Aging Improves Brain Function

The New York Times reported recently that researchers have discovered significant differences in the way young people and middle-aged people process information and solve problems. When young people undertake a cognitive task, the part of the brain they activate tends to be "highly localize." Older people draw upon a broader spectrum of cognitive facilities when approaching the same task.
The researchers—who probably wish they were still young, so they could be doing something  more fun than looking at brain scans—have come up with a perversely inaccurate acronym for this phenomenon: HAROLD. This stands for "hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults." According to the article, most researchers agree this phenomenon represents "a general reorganization and weakening of the brain’s function with age."
But is that true? Has it been established scientifically that the solution arrived at most rapidly, and using the least amount of brainpower, is invariably the best? Frankly, I think it's more often the other way around. Young people tend to have plenty of energy, but they often mistake their own tiny corner of the world for the world itself, and as a result, they make snap judgments that often prove to be inaccurate and can sometimes be personally harmful.
Older people, tempered and enlightened by such experiences, are much better at seeing the connections between things, reserving judgment, pondering alternatives. Due to these qualities, (which, prior to the age of acronyms, went collectively under the name "maturity") they often become adept at charting a safe, effective, creative, and reliable course between A and B.
(In the photo above, we see some seasoned adults pondering alternatives: mushrooms laced with truffle-oil, camponata with cocoa powder, prosciutto.)
Rather than burdening older folks with yet another dreadful syndrome, HAROLD, researchers ought to be studying, and celebrating,  HEART—this is, Hemispheric Equilibrium and Reflective Temper.

(And by the way, did you see the frost on the grass this morning, glistening in the low morning sun?)
On the methodological level, the study once again reminds us that it isn't easy to design experiments involving the complex tasks that older people typically have to deal with, where one of the options might be to ignore the task altogether.
(Which reminds me: I still have time to clean out the gutters before the snow hits!)
So the researchers took the easy way out once again, designing a simple study focusing on simple tasks. The conclusions were hardly startling: the elderly subjects who were best at solving simple tasks happened to be in better shape physically.
(And that reminds me: I haven't been to the gym in a week!)

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Day on the Île d'Orleans

About three miles downstream from Old Quebec, a long stout island plugs the St. Lawrence River, separating it into two channels. Though it's easy to spot from the Dufferin Terrace in front of Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the island was accessible only by boat until 1935, and even today it retains a largely rural character. A few villages are scattered around the island's periphery, but as far as I could tell the central mass is given over entirely to growing fruit and vegetables.

We thought it might be fun to visit the place, and in order to insure that we took the time to soak up the atmosphere rather than merely touring the perimeter highway and rushing off, we booked a room on the island at an inn called Les Ancêtres Auberge overlooking the bridge and the channel.

Hilary had spotted it on a website on one of our evening planning sessions, during which we sit in different rooms, me at the desktop, she with her iPad, staring at Travelocity, TripAdvisor, and other sites.

"Check this out," She called out the name and I found the listing:
"In front of the Montmorency Falls, at the entrance to the Île d'Orléans, a rural inn and restaurant situated at 15 minutes from Old Quebec. Enjoy attractive sunsets on the panoramic terrace, under the glass roof or in the privacy of the tercentenary house. Discover the chic and rustic Les Ancêtres Auberge. In an enchanting decor, be delighted by an inspiring fine local cuisine or a traditional cuisine. A comfortable and intimate inn where tradition live side by side with innovation. A charming conviviality in a natural setting. Welcome! "
The rooms looked big, the stone walls looked plenty rustic, and the price wasn't too far out of line, especially considering we'd probably be spending the previous night camping out.

"Shall we do this?"  Five or six weeks before departure and fifteen hundred miles inland,  we were about to commit ourselves. Then I noticed the auberge also offered a "traditional French-Canadian dinner" for $26.

Once again. "Shall we do this?"  In a flush of giddy pre-travel excitement, we decided to add the meal to the tab, using as an excuse the fact that we'd be arriving on the evening before our thirty-ninth anniversary.

A month and a half later, we found ourselves on a good-sized suspension bridge crossing the St. Lawrence River to a large, long, rounded island. We took a right turn at the first traffic light and three minutes later we arrived at the inn. Having studied it so carefully on the website, I almost felt like we'd been there before.

We stopped in the long gravel driveway, which sloped gently down to the inn, the restaurant, and the barn, and I got out to take a picture in the pleasant mid-afternoon sun. It was far too early to check in, and we still had a lot of exploring to do, so we immediately returned to the highway and continued our circumnavigation without bothering to knock.

A half-mile on, we pulled into a winery overlooking the river, but agreed that sampling wine after a longish driving day would probably just wear us out. Once again we pulled a Louie in the white gravel parking lot and continued on our way. (The phrase "pull a Louie," by the way, means to do an abrupt U-turn and depart rapidly, hoping no one has seen you arrive. At least, that's what it meant in Mahtomedi in 1968. Now I'm wondering if the expression has a French derivation on the order of "taking French leave.")

As we approached the southwestern tip of the island we entered the village of Sainte-Pétronille. The road grew narrower, the dwellings closer together, the trees thicker, and as we passed one short street leading down to the waterfront Hilary caught sight of the sign and said, "That's the street I read about. We should pull down there."

Too late.

Immediately thereafter we saw a shady parking lot on the inland side of the street. It look idyllic, but it seemed obvious to me (on the basis of no prior knowledge or current evidence)  that it was a private lot reserved for tour buses and people buying ice cream cones at the nearby gift shop. The truth of the matter was that it looked touristy to me and I didn't want to stop there, just when we were about the traverse the length and breadth of the lovely Ile d' Orleans.

"Well, we've got to stop somewhere," Hilary observed, a little heatedly. "Besides, I want an ice cream cone." A hundred yards of silence down the street I saw a sign indicating public parking and turned.

We were experiencing a late-afternoon meltdown—our first of the trip.

A quarter-mile up the hill we came to an empty church parking lot and pulled in. We cooled off during the long, shady walk down the hill. The houses were large, white, and well-spaced, with low rock walls marking many of the property boundaries. We passed a woman walking a dog who smiled and said "bonjour," as did we in reply. She probably wondered why we were parking way up on the hill.

It was a genteel exurban space, with little paths running off into the woods that local children probably used to reach their tree houses. It reminded me somewhat of Old Frontenac, Minnesota, though at the time it never occurred to me that the association was more than superficial. Yet Old Frontenac was established in the 1850s, and several of its earliest buildings are French in design, due to the fact that the people who built them as summer homes and hunting lodges came from Cincinnati and were familiar with the French riverside architecture along the Ohio and Upper Mississippi rivers—the Creole Corridor.

The French had established a fort at Old Frontenac as early as 1727—it was called Fort Beauharnois, in honor of the then-governor of New France, Charles de la Boische, Marquis de Beauharnois. That may seem sort of irrelevant, and I guess it is when you're standing at the site of the fort, which is now a muddy hill in the woods beside a nunnery overlooking a very distant Mississippi River. But when you're standing in New France, now called Quebec Province, it's fascinating to conjure those men who took the St. Lawrence upstream to the Great Lakes, thence to Green Bay, then up the Fox River to the Wisconsin, down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, then up that wide river through a labyrinth of channels to Lake Pepin, just to build a crummy fort to trade for beaver pelts! 

I wasn't thinking about that as we strolled down the lane to the St. Lawrence ... but I'm thinking about it now.

At the time I was thinking about the thick clump of Cimicifuga racemosa (bugbane or black cohosh) we passed on our way down the hill. It was growing under a set of windows in a private home, and it was much more robust than our little clump back home, even though ours had made great strides during the summer.

Though entirely haphazard, this was the perfect way to enter the village of Sainte-Pétronille—down hill, on foot, in the quiet of the late afternoon sun. We had been in the car for much of the day, and it was a pleasure to stretch our legs. 

We eventually arrived at the waterfront, then strolled down the dead-end street we'd missed before. We stood on the sidewalk near shore, and watched an ocean-going freighter heading upstream in the sun-flecked  river toward Quebec City, which dominated the distant skyline to the west .The vessel looked like an ore boat to me, but it was probably carrying some other bulk commodity.

We walked past the home, half-hidden by shrubbery, of a famous Canadian painter Hilary had read about in a guidebook—previously unknown to us and now once again lost to memory. Then we returned to the shady parking lot near the ice cream parlor, which turned out to be public parking after all.

Hilary finally got her ice cream cone. (I continued to insist that I didn't want one.) A bus had just arrived, and a line soon formed extending quite a ways out the door of the ice cream parlor. We sat in the little park for a while, observing the other tourists. Then we hiked back down the coast road, up the wooden lane back to the car, and continued on our way.

Though local residents would probably disagree, to me the island remains charmingly underdeveloped. The tourist office has created an interactive map of the island that you can customize by interest, and just now I counted more than forty sites devoted to food alone: bakeries, chocolate shops, pick-your-own fruits and berries, cheese-makers, cider houses, restaurants, and sugar-shacks. However, most of these establishments are located in simple rural buildings retrofitted for the task at hand, and as you drive along the narrow highway the countryside looks both agricultural and pristine.
The road runs for long stretches along the top of a gentle ridge, with fields on either side and the majestic river far below, but it is narrow, and there are no shoulders in many places, which makes it difficult to pull over and enjoy the view. The island was originally plotted in the seigniorial style, with long strips of land running from the ridge down to the river, but such a scheme wasn't apparent to me. Some of the distant stone farmhouses were built of stone; they looked old and "classically" French-Canadian, with gables, steeply-pitched roofs, and narrow eaves. Others didn't.

We finally pulled off the road as we neared the northeast end of the island in the parking lot of a church— l'église Saint-Jean. A couple of classy antique homes stood just across the road, though I was more interested in looking across the river toward another cluster of islands just downstream —Île Madame and Grosse Île, I think.

We arrived back at the auberge late in the day. As we entered the shadowy building we were greeted by a young man who strode in energetically from the back kitchen. He was wearing a vest, and he looked like an Irish bartender to me. I liked him immediately.

"You must be the Torens. Yes? We've got you in the Rose-Anna and Omer Room, it's just above us. I see you've signed up for the traditional Quebecois meal? You'll enjoy it. In fact, I'll be your waiter tonight. Here are the keys to the room. Let me know if you need anything. You'll find me back in the kitchen."

We settled in to the first private interior space we'd had in forty-eight hours with relish, exploring the chairs, the bed, the view out the window, the faucets in the bathroom.

Soon enough we'd be heading downstairs for our evening meal. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Good Old-Fashioned Films

"They don't make them the way they used to." We don't hear that remark so much these days, in part because nobody remembers how they used to make them. The question is no longer "Who will be the next Katherine Hepburn?" but rather, "Does Star Wars 12 measure up to Star Wars 4?"

I saw a few films recently that struck me as old fashioned...in a good way—not self-consciously retro but simply solid, actor-driven dramas.


Brooklyn is a sweet, melancholy period piece, but it's more than that. It focuses on Ellis, a young Irish woman who leaves her family for better opportunities in America, and finds them. Things have been arranged for her by a local priest (Jim Broadbent) who left for New York decades ago—room and board in a boarding house, a job in a fancy department store—but that doesn't make the transatlantic passage any easier for Ellis, nor does it assuage the terrible homesickness she's stricken with on her arrival and for months afterward, as she learns to cope with the bustling city while pining to see her mother and sister again.

Saoirse Ronan is extraordinary In the central role of Ellis. Her face exudes shyness and fear but also intelligence and a pellucid dignity. Other characters are also well-etched, including the female residents of her boarding house (all of whom dine together with the proprietress), the Italian family she gets to know,  and the villagers she leaves behind in Ireland. The period atmosphere is delightful, and the characters fit in well to it, somehow preserving an almost cartoon-like simplicity that exposes the manners of the era rather than the comic stereotypes of more recent times.

Nick Hornby's screenplay is funny and thoughtful. Brooklyn in the early 1950s is made to look nice. There are soup kitchens and Friday night dances, baseball talk and other forms of romance. It's refreshing to see a movie where the Irish aren't drinking much, the Italians aren't extorting their neighbors or stabbing one another with ice picks, the priest doesn't have any skeletons in the closet, and no one gets mugged or raped on the late-night streets of the city. The film also deftly captures the charm of Ireland while pin-pointing its darker side of gossip, hopelessness,  and repression.   

Bridge of Spies

Move ahead ten years and we're in the heat of the Cold War. Straight-arrow insurance lawyer Tom Hanks is chosen to defend a Russian spy—just to show that "our" system is better than theirs. Everyone is confident the man is guilty, and they grow impatient when Hanks takes his role in what amounts to a show trail a little too seriously. Period details of U2 spy planes, bomb shelters, and concerns about communist infiltrators ring true, in the midst of which, Hanks and the alleged spy (played by the ever-morose Mark Rylance) develop some sort of bond of integrity.

The story gets more complex when Hanks agrees to facilitate an exchange of prisoners in Berlin, at precisely the time when the Wall is going up. Soviet, East German, and American interests are mutually at odds, and there's no James Bond-style figure in sight to clarify things with a few timely stunts. 

The narrative is tight, the tension builds. Though Hanks is in well over his head, he never loses his Henry Fonda-esque focus on doing the right thing. There are plenty of East-West contrasts in sight that still hold true today, but that's an old lesson, and it's not the one we're being taught here.

The Martian

I was undoubtedly the last kid of the block to see The Martian. Everyone saw it this fall, and why not? Matt Damon is abandoned for years on a hostile planet: let's see what he can do. 

It's a fun narrative, and Damon makes the most of it as he records his daily activities on a video-log—just in case anyone finds him. The landscapes are stunning, the scientific ingenuity is impressive. Meanwhile, the scenes at JPL in Pasadena show us an eccentric, multi-ethnic crew that carries the ring of truth.

Does Matt make it back? In the unlikely case you haven't seen the film, I'm not going to tell you. But I will say that beyond its summer-time entertainment value, The Martian is a bit thin. Director Ridley Scott has failed to bring much life or interest to the subordinate characters on board ship. Jessica Chastain, the captain, seems anguished that she left one of her men behind, but considering that the escape vessel was set to tip over in about three seconds and Matt had just been seen flying off at great speed in a big cloud of dust, it's obvious she really didn't have much choice.

Similar problems plague the NASA team in Houston, except in reverse, as the director (Jeff Daniels) tends to look more annoyed than seriously concerned by the unfortunate turn of events.

This bad acting (which is really bad scriptwriting) undercuts the emotional grip of the narrative to some degree. All the same, there are plenty of unusual developments to keep us engaged from beginning to end.

Potatoes, anyone?

The other day, the new York Film Critics handed its Best Actress award to Ronan, and the Best Supporting Actor trophy to Rylance. As darkness spreads across the frozen northland, let the winter film-going season commence!

Friday, November 27, 2015

How the Scots Invented The Modern World

"In love, a little exaggeration is OK," says the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and the same thing goes for book titles.  Thus, Arthur Herman's book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is a bit of a stretch, though the book does cover a lot of ground, from moral philosophy to economics, the Constitution of the United States to the growth of the  British Empire, from the Quixotic uprising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 to the birth of modern geology.  The Scots were deeply involved in all of these things, though Herman never goes so far as to claim exclusive Scotch inspiration for any of them. The result is a succession of fascinating historical essays, each one devoted to a slightly different topic.

A précis of the "case" for Scottish culture might include reference to Adam Smith, who pioneered our understanding of capitalism; David Hume, whose challenge to conventional notions of causality interest us less today than his political essays, which inspired James Madison to develop the system of checks and balances between branches and  also levels of government—a system that underlies the American Constitution; James Watt, who invented the steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution; and  Sir Walter Scott, whose poems and novels "single-handedly changed the course of literature," giving it the place it still occupies in modern life.
However, anyone expecting a strictly "intellectual" history of Scottish thought—tracing how one idea or movement led to another—is going to be disappointed.  Herman introduces us to something much more interesting: how a given idea or movement changed the ways that people organized their lives and institutions. Thus he devotes less time to David Hume's skeptical notions of what we can and cannot know than he gives to fellow-Scot Thomas Reid's "common sense" philosophy, which provided the title for the most popular pamphlet of the American Revolution, and might also have been the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." 

According to Herman, Reid's philosophy shaped American theories of education for a century. He writes:

It helped produce a cultural type that some consider typically American, but which is just as much Scottish: an independent intellect combined with an assertive self-respect, and grounded by a strong sense of moral purpose.     

Herman is adept  at drawing connections between technical  innovations and larger social and historic movements, and he also clarifies how various Scotch initiatives build upon one another with the passage of generations. He devotes relatively little time, for example, to exploring the validity or significance of Francis Hutcheson's ethical theories—they were largely derivative of Shaftsbury's theories in any case. (Shaftesbury was English.)  Yet he refers again and again to the influence Ferguson had on students who later in life did great things.

Herman would have us believe that it all started with John Knox, the iconoclastic firebrand who brought Presbyterianism to Scotland and smashed a lot of artwork in the process. On the one hand, the harsh strictures of his faith prohibited  dancing, playing the pipes, gambling, card-playing or theater. On the other, it maintained that political power was ordained by God...but vested in the people. 

Writing a hundred years before the Englishman John Locke, the Presbyterian spokeman George Buchanan argued that the people "have the right to confer royal authority upon whomever they wish," and also the sacred duty to resist tyranny whenever it should arise.

The notion that the Calvinist view of life, while singularly dismal in theory, tended to promote self-reliance and individual initiative, is not a new one, of course. For example, the Italian scholar Guido de Ruggiero, wrote in 1925:

This transvaluation of values was most perceptible precisely in that branch of the reformation which most strongly emphasized the aspect of human servitude, namely, Calvinism. While the Lutheran reformation stopped half-way along the oath of negation, and coming early under the control of political interests ended by consecrating a half-servile political consciousness, Calvinism on the contrary pushed its negation to the point at which the extreme subjection of the individual turned into the opposite. The follower of Calvin believed in the most fatalistic predestination; but in so far as he was bound to offer proofs of his own election by divine grace he acted with energy and self-control. His very preoccupation with the ‘ beyond ’ became the means to discipline his whole earthly life. He denied all saving efficacy to works and relied upon faith alone; but from the firmness of his faith sprang new works, which, if not means and vehicles of grace, were its signs and witnesses. His God was a distant God; no Church could come near him; but the worshipper’s very isolation, far from depressing him, strengthened him and gave him a sense of high responsibility towards the Deity and towards himself.

The author goes on to describe the effect of such an orientation to the divine.

Thus Calvinism became an education of the will and the character. It worked for conscientiousness and rectitude. It gave a systematic direction to the development of the individual’s activities. As such, it was an immense expansive power in the modern world. While Lutheranism remained the national and State religion of numerous German princi­palities, Calvinism invaded the whole of Europe and im­parted its energy to the majority of the dissident sects, Baptists, Quakers, Independents, Puritans. Even the great Methodist movement of the eighteenth century was a deriva­tive of Calvinism.

It's interesting to note that Ruggiero makes no mention of Scotland, John Knox, or Presbyterianism in his long book, thus confirming Herman's assertion that Scottish history has been consistently undervalued and remains  unknown to many. Herman argues the same point that Ruggiero's does, but in a  more entertaining, down-to-earth style. His theoretical analysis is less thorough than Ruggiero's but he fleshes out the argument far more convincingly.

The point of this book [Herman writes] is that being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it. This Scottish mentality was a deliberate creation, although it was conceived by many minds and carried out by many hands. It is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance, not to mention its origin. From this point of view, a large part of the world turns out to be “Scottish” without realizing it. It is time to let them in on the secret.

And as we pursue one theme after another, from the enclosure movement to the role of Glasgow in the Colonial American tobacco trade, we begin to realize that the specific argument on which the narrative hangs is often pretty much incidental to what's being described or discussed. Yet Herman's command of many widely disparate fields of inquiry, and his talents as a story-teller, insure that we'll seldom be bored, as our attention swings from James Boswell to Andrew Carnegie, or from the Darien Company investment debacle in Panama to a ship captain by the name of Sir James Blane, who, in 1795, finally convinced the British Admiralty to make lime juice a standard issue of His Majesty's ships—thus, once again, changing the course of world history forever.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Friendly St. Lawrence

The St. Lawrence is one of North America's great rivers, but it's not easy to pin down. It grows gradually wider at its mouth and it's hard to say where the river finally ends and the Gulf of St. Lawrence begins. Upstream from the gulf, it passes the attractive French-speaking cities of Quebec and Montreal  and several impressive archipelagos of islands before arriving at Lake Ontario; the waterway continues to be navigable, in a manner of speaking, all the way to Duluth. It is with a degree of irrational pride that I can report that the "headwaters" of the St. Lawrence River watershed lies at Seven Beavers Lake, in a remote area of northern Minnesota southeast of Hibbing. The lake is accessible only by canoe or snowmobile.

No doubt more interesting than the boggy shoreline of Seven Beavers Lake is the civilized and picturesque section of the river that runs downstream from Montreal past Quebec and the Ile d'Orleans, the Saguaney Fjord, Tadoussac, and Trois Pistoles to the Gulf. It isn't muddy and confused like the Mississippi Delta, but expansive and sharply defined, due to the fact that it follows a rift between the Appalachian and Laurentian mountain ranges. Anacosti Island, lying beyond the horizon at the mouth of the gulf, is much larger than Prince Edward Island but only 240 people live on it. Most of them are lighthouse keepers.

From the wooden boardwalk in front of the Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City, the river looks truly expansive. Ferries are always visible moving commuters and tourists back and forth across the river from nearby Levis, and there is likely to be a cruise ship parked in the port down below.

As you wander the narrow streets of the upper city, the river is somehow always nearby, and down in the lower city it's often visible.

Hilary and I spent a full day of such wandering, but the next morning we left the city, heading upstream along the north bank of the St. Lawrence in search of her ancestors. Or at least, in search of the flavor of her ancestors.

I had my doubts about how much flavor had survived from the mid-seventeenth century, when Nicolas Sylvestre arrived as a soldier in Quebec City, served his term of duty, and received a strip of land facing on the St. Lawrence in nearby Neuville.  But once we'd threaded a few miles of suburbs on Highway 138, we found ourselves in a surprisingly pastoral setting, with old-fashioned stone buildings set back from the narrow two-lane highway here and there, and the broad expanse of the river, still more than a mile wide in many places, in plain view to the south intermittently through the trees.

The town of Neuville itself is a very loose conurbation. Though it has a gas station and a community center, its most prominent features are a marina along the river and a large stone church halfway up the hill. There wasn't much going on at the marina, and the church was locked. A Victorian-era house with a big front porch stood nearby, which I took to be a rectory of some sort, though as we approached it I saw a sign that said Bibliotech. Just as I was climbing the steps onto the porch to peer into one of the windows a woman emerged from the front door.

"Parle vous Anglais?" I said. (It's my best line.)

"Yes," the woman replied. "In fact, I'm teaching an English class inside right now. It's the first lesson. Would you two like to join us?"

We went inside and were greeted by eight or ten of the most cheerful faces I had ever seen. We told them that we were tourists from Minneapolis (basically just across the border from Winnipeg, donja know?) and Hilary explained that one of her distant ancestors had been given a grant of land in Neuville after serving with the Carignan-Salières Regiment back in the mid-seventeenth century.

He arrived on the second ship, not the first ship, Hilary mentioned.

"Oh, that was the Atalante," one of the women replied. (These folks evidently know their local history.)

As we chatted I became increasingly curious about who these bubbly people were, and I asked them finally if they'd each tell us briefly what they did for a living. I had imagined the community would be populated with farmers and merchants, but that was not the case: psychologist, parole officer, social worker, elementary school teacher, electrical engineer. One woman identified herself as a secretary, but her neighbor corrected her. "She's just being modest. She's the secretary of the Quebec Provincial Court."

We made our exit in a haze of good cheer, urging everyone to put Minnesota on their list of travel destinations—"It's just like here...but without the grand river, the gorgeous mountains, or the 300-year-old walled city"—and continued our way upstream.

To judge from all the exposed rocks and sand on the bank, the river is still tidal at this point. (Or perhaps the water level was just low due to the dry season.) We briefly explored a spit of land near Portnuef identified as a "site ornithologique" but saw few birds, and we spent some time wandering an antique church in the quaint village of Deschambault, where an art crawl was also underway devoted to aspects of flax and linen production.

But we didn't dally, because we were intent on reaching the village of Saint Barthélemy, which lies well back from the river on the far side of the city of Trois Rivière. That's the village from which Hilary's great-grandfather departed on a journey west to Crookston, with a winter stop in the lumber camps near Brule, Wisconsin. Isiah came from a large Catholic family, but he was the only one of his generation who emigrated, and Hilary's dad and uncle had always wondered why. After visiting the village, the reasonable answer would seem to be, "Why not?"

There isn't much in Saint Barthélemy, aside from a large church, a robust grocery store, a shady town square, and an antique store with old bicycles and oil drums spread across the front porch. The village sits in the midst of flat fields, and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for it to be there, other than the fact that it lies on the Chemin du Roi—the "royal road" connecting Quebec City and Montreal that was built between 1731 and 1737. The Chemin du Roi is a sort of  Canadian Route 66, though it's only 170 miles long. There are signs here and there all along Highway 138 pointing travelers down narrow back roads that follow the original trace more closely than the highway does. It's become a tourist route, complete with visitors' center, historic signs, and a website.

We stopped in the grocery store hoping to buy some gas for our camp store, and I asked the woman at the cash register if she knew of anyone thereabouts named Sylvestre. She summoned the butcher from the back of the store; his mother was from Miami and he'd worked for three years in Brooklyn.

"I know of one Sylvestre. He owns a bar in St. Barnaby. But let me ask the women. They know everyone around here." A brief conversation ensued in French, after which the butcher said, "They tell me that long ago a man named Sylvestre once owned a store that stood right on this very spot."


At the antique store we got a different response. When I inquired about the name Sylvestre, the man replied, "Which one? They're all over the place!" Hilary showed him a list of family names, but they were all about a hundred years old, and none of them rang a bell.

The important thing was that a village which had previously been nothing more than a name in a data base had now become a place with streets, businesses, inhabitants, and a distinctive character.

It was late afternoon by the time we got on the freeway and headed north into the mountains. And hour later we arrived at the ranger station in La Mauricie National Park—just in time to secure a campsite and, more importantly, buy a bundle of firewood before the park closed for the day. We visited some lovely lakes and chatted at length with a man who'd been out all day in his hand-made canoe looking for moose.

"I have seen many many moose, but not today.  I look, I look, I look, I look. But I no see a moose."

I told him we have moose in Minnesota, too, and also lots of canoes.

"What kind of canoe?" he asked.

"Ours is aluminum," I said.

"Ah, yes. But the wood canoe is better. It makes ... the music ... of the water."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Delacroix (and others) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

There are many fine paintings to be seen at the new Delacroix exhibit at the MIA—and Eugene Delacroix actually painted a few of them. The artists included in the show range from relative unknowns such as Chassériau and Bonnington to post-Impressionist masters like Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, and even Kandinsky. In short, there is much to examine, ponder, and enjoy in these five rooms, even if, like me, you find the paintings of Delacroix himself slightly garish and histrionic, and the estimations of his influence highly exaggerated.

Yet that's the theme of the show: how artists of succeeding generations drew inspiration and insight from Delacroix's example. After an hour or two in the exhibit, I remained unconvinced. It's undoubtedly true that many of Delacroix's young successors expressed admiration for his work, and acknowledged the inspiration he'd given them. But looking at his paintings today, it's difficult to get excited about them or see where the merit lies.

It's like reading a bunch of tributes to American filmmakers Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray by French directors we continue to admire–Trauffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette. The fact that the tributes are sincere doesn't improve the quality of Pickup on South Street or Johnny Guitar.

The interpretive text accompanying the exhibit stresses that it was not just Delacroix's use of color, but also his theory of color, that fascinated the Impressionists. Yet I didn't see a single reference or quotation of specific aspects of those theories in the show.

I have read elsewhere that Delacroix would construct palettes of up to 23 colors, but I couldn't help noticing that he relies heavily on the same generic red and blue we see in many Baroque paintings. And there's a yellow-brown caste over most of his paintings that becomes obvious when we see them hanging next to works by Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Also conspicuously absent from the show are paintings by Dominique Ingres, Delacroix's rival and chief neoclassical competitor throughout much of his career. This is a curious omission, though it might have to do with the difficulty of securing the relevant paintings. Ingres, the most influential painter of the day, was a self-proclaimed master of "line," though nowadays he's justly celebrated for his psychological penetration. Delacroix, on the other hand, took pride in the freedom and looseness of his brushstrokes and his devil-may-care approach to anatomical accuracy. Both painters, though in different ways, excelled in those vast historical works that few viewers today take an interest in.

Strange as it may seem, some of the best of Delacroix's paintings included in the show are the murals he did for various public buildings in Paris. His ornate style fit in well between the gold encrustations on the ceiling of the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre, and the murals he did for the library of the National Assembly are even more appealing (see above). What we notice here, however, is a more serious approach to line, smoother surfaces, and a general lightening of the palette. 

You won't see these murals in the show, of course, but a 14-minute video devoted to them is showing continuously on a big screen in one of the galleries.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of paintings by other artists to occupy our attention. Among my favorites is Frédérick Bazille's "la Toilette" (above). The harmony of tones that Bazille establishes here goes well beyond anything you'll see in Delacroix's work. The painting seems to have escaped from Ingres's extreme exactitude while remaining proportionally accurate. The midnight blue on the striped fabric in the lower right is worth the price of admission in itself.

Fantin-Latour's "Tannhauser on the Venusberg"  seems to inhabit a space somewhere between the realms of Giorgione and Odilon Redon, while the same artist's group portrait "Homage to Delacroix" projects a straightforward dignity that made me want to rush home and take another look at the collection of Baudelaire's critical pieces, written during Delacroix's time, that have been gathered together under the title The Mirror of Art (Phaidon Press, 1955).

And speaking of Redon, this exhibit contains one of his crisp, subtle paintings of flower arrangements--complete with a stunning orange poppy--but also several sparkly, child-like renderings of bird wings and rowboats that are oozing with mystical import--profound or atrocious, depending on your taste.

In the end, by ignoring the narrative underpinnings of the exhibition and relishing the canvases one by one, we can be reminded again and again that the history of art and the history of art-style are very different things. One involves knitting together chains of influence, while the other is rooted in personal judgment regarding whether any specific work of art is beautiful, and if so, why? 

The former is preferred by curators and art historians, who usually prefer not to stick their necks out too far; the later approach serves lovers of art pure and simple, because while techniques and theories come and go, in the end every durable work of art draws its inspiration largely from within.

Or, as Baudelaire wrote in his critique of the Salon of 1846:
You cannot know in what measure Nature has mingled the taste for line and the taste for color in the mind, nor by what mysterious processes she manipulates that fusion whose result is a picture. Thus a broader point of view will be an orderly individualism--that is, to require of the artist the quality of naivete and the sincere expression of his temperament, aided by every means which his technique provides.