Saturday, January 31, 2015

Boyhood, Parenthood, and Beyond

At one point Richard Linklater was planning to call Boyhood, his decade-long film project, simply "Twelve Years," but the release of Twelve Years a Slave put the kibosh on that idea. He might just as well have called it "Parenthood" ... but Steve Martin had long since grabbed that title.

Boyhood isn't a bad title, but it somewhat obscures the fact that the film follows the lives of a mother, her two children, and assorted spouses, neighbors, teachers, and playmates over the course of twelve years. Linklater's daring approach was to use the same actors throughout—a plan the necessitated extending the shooting schedule over the same amount of time.

The result is an unusual film, neither a real-life documentary nor a full-blown cinematic achievement of the order of Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life, but something in between. 

Much of the material is day-to-day stuff—siblings fighting in the back seat of the car, not wanting to do their chores, or drinking beer at teen parties—and it can be painful to watch because it reminds us of ourselves, back when we were egotistical kids hungry for friendship but also some sort of personal ascendancy among our peers, and a little bit mad at, or at least indifferent to, our parents and the world for no reason in particular.

Much of the film's drama comes from the adults, who generally try to be good parents while also squeezing their own continuing development in somewhere. Patricia Arquette has been justifiably praised for her portrayal of Mason's mom. Ethan Hawke has a slightly easier job in the role of the divorced dad who cares about his kids but thinks what they really need is to become more flamboyant—like him. But no one could have handled the role better.

At the heart of Boyhood is the interface where the generations meet and interact. No event in the film is more important than this living membrane where values are exchanged implicitly over the course of many months and years. Parents feed and shape it. The kids often seek to escape its influence.

Watching squirrelly kids turn into young adults before our eyes is a thing of beauty, and likewise watching adults turn into happier, better adults. Perhaps the final grace of this unusual film is that it comes across as the story, not of scripted actors, but of real people sort of like us. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Rose Ensemble

I took a few hours off the other day (off from what?) to drive across town to the downtown Saint Paul Public Library, where the Rose Ensemble, perhaps our most distinguished local vocal group, was giving a free concert sponsored by the Friends of the Library.

One architectural historian describes that splendid building on Rice Park, recently renamed in honor of former mayor George Latimer, as the premier Beaux Arts building in the Twin Cities, superior to both the state capitol and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in design. I wouldn't know about that, but I might point out that it's smaller than those other buildings, and its various reading rooms can seem simultaneously classical and intimate.

The performance was held in the magazine room on the third floor. The program was Il Poverello: Medieval and Renaissance Music for St. Francis of Assisi. I arrived early, threw my jacket across a seat on the center aisle in the first row, then wandered over to the magazine rack to pick up a copy of The Atlantic Monthly that contained an article about the early career of Joseph Stalin, who graduated with honors from seminary but developed theories of politics and human nature quite different from the ones St. Francis espoused.

Counting the tiles on the floor, I determined that I was sitting eight feet from the performers. When they struck the first chord of their opening number, tears came to my eyes. The voices are rich, strong, confident, and pitch-perfect. The singers invariably start and stop at the same time. It all sounds so simple...

The program ranged from medieval plainchant to sixteenth-century motets, as I recall. That's quite a spread. Several were by a composer I'd never heard of, Johannes Ciconia. He was described by the woman who introduced the first of his numbers as Franco-Italian, and that reminded me of how impressed I was, visiting Assisi years ago, with the beautiful Romanesque (that is the say, French-inspired) churches in the upper town. We sometimes think of the Italian Renaissance as bursting out of nothing, but of course there are medieval French antecedents everywhere. 

For that matter, the name Francis basically means "Frenchy."       
Ciconia himself, I later learned, was born in Liege. His father, however, lived for many years in Avignon, where he was a clerk for Pope Clement VI's nephew's wife. Perhaps he knew Petrarch?

All of this doesn't matter much. What does matter is that musical forms at the time were very strange and interesting—far more interesting than the sonata form. The members of the ensemble sang one song in which two vocal lines move forward, not only out of synch with one another rhythmically but also with different lyrics. 

Jordan Sramek, the ensemble's founder and director, did a good job of introducing the numbers, explaining why they had been composed, and what the odd musical instruments involved were--the rebec, the vielle, and the hurdy-gurdy. His patter would have been suitable for children, but contained nuggets of interest for adults, too.

For example, I once told a woman on a plane that I preferred Machaut to Dufay. "Oh, then you must love the hocket," she replied. I have been wondering for the last quarter-century what a hocket is. I found out that afternoon.

But the music itself is the main thing, and it was rich and varied. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that even some of the monophonic chants bifurcated into harmonic passages from time to time. And at just the right moment, when the power of the clear, strong, male voices--incuding the astonishingly rich and yet warm and friendly bass of Mark Dietrich--almost seemed to encroach a little, soprano Kim Sueoka appeared to execute a fluttering solo soprano number accompanied by Ginna Watson on a miniature harp.

Radiant light, strong and vigorous in love,
Saint Francis, you always had a noble manner.
Such was your angelic manner in contemplation
That you were lifted bodily into the air by willing it.

As I listened, I looked up at the terracotta ceilings of the Magazine Room, colorfully glazed in imitation of Renaissance patterns that were based, no doubt, on antique models. An entire history of beauty and love and nobility and sacrifice had come alive—or little parts of it, at any rate—in the rich sounds coming from the performers standing just a few feet in front of me.

St. Francis was right. Stalin was wrong. Let's all relax and sing, or at the very least enjoy the music all around us ... 
I was eager to rush home and sustain the mood by taking another look at Dante or Petrarch, or the Little Flowers of St. Francis himself. And after a brief interlude pondering who deflated the footballs during the AFC title game, I did just that. 

When Hilary got home we slid a frozen pizza into the oven (very Italian!) cracked open a bottle of wine, and settled into Dante's Paradiso. We made it to Canto Four before losing our way in all the wonderment as Beatrice attempts to explain to Dante what he is seeing as he "flies" toward outer space:

She sighed with pity when she heard my question
and looked at me the way a mother might
hearing her child in his delirium:

"Among all things, however disparate,
there reigns an order, and this gives the form
that makes the universe resemble God...

You should, in all truth, be no more amazed
at your flight up than at the sight of water
that rushes down a mountain to its base." 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mr. Turner - the film

In Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh adds new shades of meaning to the phrase "warts-and-all" biography.

His portrait of the famous English painter during the final decades of his life (Turner died in 1851) is spectacularly robust—the streets, the wharves, the salon galleries, the artist's studio have all been vividly recreated, like a Dickens film without a plot. It's no wonder the film garnered Oscar nominations for both costume and production design.

And the acting is first-rate. Timothy Spall, in the title role, mumbles and grunts his way across the screen like a cretinous lout (good enough for Best Actor kudos at Cannes), and various relatives, servants, and artist-friends also fix themselves in our imagination immediately. Marion Bailey is worth singling out for her portrayal of a jolly boarding-house matron, twice-widowed, who possesses an unaffected intelligence and sensitivity that Turner finds appealing. If she likes Turner, then maybe he's OK.  

Director Mike Leigh presumes that the audience already knows a good deal about Turner's personal life—or else he feels that such details are unimportant. For example, it seemed evident to me that the shrewish woman who shows up from time to time with Turner's daughter in tow is his estranged wife. 

Not so.

Yet unlike most "period" English dramas, Mr. Turner is utterly devoid of romantic sentiment. For Turner the art is all-important, and the rest of his life (which is what the film is mostly about) is of only secondary concern. By the time the film gets underway Turner is already famous and wealthy, so there will be no undiscovered-genius plot-line for us to feed on. He adores his father (who now mixes paints for him) and harbors deep wounds as a result of his mother's incarceration due to insanity and his sister's death at an early age. On the other hand, he brutally manhandles his maid and insults people wherever it suits him.

Artists are traditionally granted such eccentricities. But here we run up against the film's most serious weakness. Turner is obviously dedicated to his art, but I, for one, had trouble believing that the individual whose career we were following was actually moved by the seascapes he was painting. He doesn't seem like the type. And the paintings themselves are seldom presented with any degree of detail or conviction. They lack emotional ballast.

All the same, this two-and-a-half hour film moves ahead with all due speed. There is a lot of thought behind it. Because there is no real dramatic point at issue, nothing is predictable. In one scene Turner sits in a music hall while actors on stage lampoon both his canvases and the way he paints them. A few scenes later, someone is offering him a hundred thousand pounds for them.  
Mike Leigh has always made odd films that stick in the mind, though I usually have a quarrel with them. I'm thinking of Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy, Another Year, Happy Go Lucky, and the strange and slightly abominable Life Is Sweet.   

Mr. Turner is one of his better ones.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saturday Morning Downtown: Vermeer, Bluegrass, Selma

A painting by Vermeer blew into town the other day and we stopped at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Saturday morning to see it. Wow! 

There aren't many Vermeers in existence, and they're all worth an extended look. The composition, the luster of the fabrics, the perfect tones (which suggest a natural source of light, usually coming from a nearby but unseen window), the remarkable highlights (take a look at the studs on the chairs), and the often mysterious atmosphere of the event being depicted (what does that letter say? Did it arrive unexpectedly? Is it significant that the woman is pregnant?) create an effect that defines some sort of limit as to how much life and beauty a static image can convey.  

After examining the painting at length in the company of six or eight other people and reading the poem "Vermeer" by Tomas Tranströmer on the wall next to it (interesting...but less interesting than the canvas itself) we wandered the third-floor collection of European masterpieces, but came upon nothing comparable. Even the splendid Chardin still-life in the museum collection seemed a little lackluster. This may explain why Vermeer was forgotten for two-hundred years.

The canvas that struck my fancy most strongly was an early landscape by Claude Lorrain. (What you see above is merely a chunk of it.) In the museum text we're told that here Claude is at the "height of his promise." Now there's an odd phrase for you.

Several other exhibits looked interesting but we were on our way to meet some friends at the Aster Cafe for a Bluegrass Brunch with the High 48s. From there it was down the hall to the St. Anthony Main theater to see Selma.

Don't let the LBJ controversy keep you away. It's a powerful film depicting a crucial episode in American history.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ida - the film

Anna, a young Polish novitiate, is about to take her vows, but before doing so, her superiors demand that she pay a visit to her single surviving family member—an aunt whom she’s never met.

Wanda turns out to be a sullen, hard-drinking woman who informs Anna almost immediately on arrival that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She’s Jewish, and her parents were murdered during World War II.

Ida has been in the convent since infancy and knows very little about the world. She seems astonished simply to be traveling on a bus, and it takes a while for her to digest this new information about herself and the evils of the wider world.

Wanda agrees to help her niece find her parents’ burial site—a mission that takes them to the bedraggled farmhouse Ida’s parents once owned. It’s now inhabited by God-fearing Poles who claim that “Jews never lived here.” Wanda knows they're lying, and they know she knows.

Wanda has an even darker past to deal with. Not only did she lose her sister and son during the Holocaust, but after the war she was a prosecutor who conferred death sentences on a number of Polish soldiers resisting the communist regime. Now she’s a small-town judge, hanging around in bars and bringing men home at night.

The story grows a shade lighter when Wanda picks up a young hitchhiker with a saxophone in his case. Ida takes a fancy to him, though it’s hard to discern through the deer-in-the-headlights expression that seems to be planted on her face.

The film’s black-and-white cinematography is extraordinary, and the pace is slow enough to allow us to savor it scene by scene. Forests, crumbling buildings, Wanda’s stylish apartment, city streets, a well-lit dance hall. The luminosity of the footage acts as a welcome counterweight to the sometimes grim drift of the plot. We see the world afresh through Ida's limpid but strangely unfathomable eyes, both the good and the bad. And in the lines of Wanda’s jaded but expressive face we see decades of unexpressed agony, guilt, and disappointment.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station

I liked it ... but I skimmed it. How's that for an equivocal endorsement of Ben Lerner's widely-heralded first novel Leaving the Atocha Station.

The novel consists of a succession of scenes (and states of mind) described by a young poet named Adam Gordon who's won a prestigious fellowship to live in Madrid while he does research in preparation for writing a long narrative poem about the Spanish Civil War. Gordon doesn't spend much time doing research, however. He's far more likely to be sitting in the park smoking a joint and observing the passing scene. At times his routines allow him to approach a state of euphoria but he's equally likely to descend into a dark well of anxiety and panic, which is why he's usually well-equipped with anti-anxiety medication, too.

He avoids the events sponsored by the foundation that's financing his studies. He doesn't speak Spanish well and besides, he's afraid someone might inquire into the progress of his research. For the most part he sits in the park or hovers in bars in the trendy Salamanca neighborhood of Madrid, making sure to position himself  between groups so anyone who sees him there will presume he's with the other group.

Gordon's life takes on added dimension one evening when a gallery-owner named Arturo mistakes him for someone else and greets him warmly. He buys Arturo a drink, others see that he and Arturo are friends, and before long he's got some other friends, including Arturo's sister Theresa.

Other meetings and parties follow as Gordon is "taken in" by Arturo's set, though he's never quite sure what's going on due to his lack of Spanish and also to the fact that he's usually stoned and/or drunk. Yet the descriptions are vivid, rather than vague and dreary, and there's humor in Gordon's attempts to clarify what others are saying through the fog of his linguistic deficiencies. For example:

[Theresa] described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl when she thinks about it ... The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn't deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole...

Eventually he agrees to attend a reading at Arturo's gallery, where it turns out he's the featured poet. His sponsor from the foundation is present, happy to see him again and to see he's getting involved in the local "arts" community.

Gordon's descriptions of this inchoate, "floating" life are heavily laced with bemused indifference, but also enriched by a hyper-ironic awareness of how pathetic his situation and frame of mind really are.

At a certain stage in his existential "journey," as it were, both of Gordon's girl-friends dump him. He begins to suffer from insomnia, increases  his dosage of prescription medications, and reaches a state of unfeeling that he finds very disturbing. But he also begins to notice an element of euphoria lurking somewhere in the background of his moribund senses. He writes:

[This] euphoria, if that’s what it was, was very far from my body, and there­fore compatible with my anhedonia; it was as if I were suspended in a warm bath outside of myself. I felt something like a rush of power, the power to experience the world as though under glass, and this detachment, coupled with my reduced need or capacity for sleep, gave me a kind of vampiric energy, although I was my own prey. I could read and write for hours on end with what felt like total con­centration, barely noticing nightfall, and in the early hours of the morning, I would wander around Madrid, passing Isabel’s apartment or Teresa’s gallery just to show myself I could do so without a spike in agony. I would often watch the dawn from the colonnade in El Retiro or one of the benches on El Paseo del Prado or take the Metro to a stop I didn’t know and watch the sunrise there, return home, sleep for a few hours, wake and take white pills, hash, coffee, and with an uncanny energy resume my adventures in insensitivity. I was vaguely afraid, of what I couldn’t say; maybe that I would throw myself in front of a bus without knowing what I was doing or break into Isabel’s apartment and tear apart her brother’s notebook or put a trash can through the gallery window or otherwise act out, pow­erless to stop myself from such a distance. But I also felt, for the first time, like a writer, as if all the real living were on the page...

The diction is almost Jamesian. Perhaps that's an association Lerner would appreciate. There's a scene early on in the book where he comes upon a man weeping in front of a painting in the Prado, and observes that he himself has never felt such emotion for any reason. It might have been lifted from James's novella The Beast in the Jungle. All the same, the self-referential turn of subject and often spaced-out tone eventually grows tiresome—hence the irresistible desire to skim.

The pace quickens whenever Gordon is with others. And two events give the last part of the book a lift. The first is the terrorist bombing at Atocha Station—an event that it's hard for anyone to be ironic or detached about, though Gordon's descriptions of how his Spanish friends react is discerning. The second is that Gordon's Spanish improves to the point where he can no longer maintain his persona as an exotic foreigner mouthing vague profundities. He eventually comes to realize that Teresa, Isabella, and Arturo hold him in a different and more critical light than he'd previously supposed.

There is enough vivid description of Madrid's nightlife in Leaving the Atocha Station  to make this reader wish the author had given us even more. But his rendering of a young and acute consciousness, swimming in a sea of pills, weed, and half-comprehended Spanish, has quite a few good patches just as it is.      

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Wild - the film

By now nearly everyone has either read Cheryl Strayed's book Wild or knows someone who has. So it's no secret that it tells the story of Strayed's attempt to hike the Pacific Coast Trail and the troubled and messy life she led prior to taking on that challenge.

It's a solid film, buoyed by all the foibles Strayed encountered during her trek, which are humorous for the most part, and especially by Reese Witherspoon's talent at keeping the character tough and  interesting. The countryside is also nice, though it doesn't seem that Strayed appreciated it much, and the film seldom focuses on it for any length of time. 

Many outdoor-folk will enjoy details about water filters, ill-fitting boots, sounds of the night, bad weather, persnickety camp stoves, unpalatable freeze-dried food, and hard-to-erect tents.

The fact that Sheryl is hiking alone brings an added element of danger to her encounters with men along the trail. Many of them help her along. A few are distinctly sinister. My favorite is the encounter she has while hitchhiking around snow in the high country. One man who stops can't pick her up, but he wants to interview her. He's a reporter for Hobo Times

It's one of the few encounters in the film she doesn't need to fear but has no way to exploit.
Walking through deserts and woods for weeks on end can be tiresome, of course, not only for the hiker but also for the viewer. Director Jean-Marc Vallée deftly punctuates Sheryl's epic journey with flash-backs, thus fleshing out her character while also conveying how a radical divorce from day-to-day life can give someone almost too much time to mull over the past. We're introduced to her abusive father, her alarmingly cheerful mother, her very decent ex-husband, and the substance abuse and wanton promiscuity she'd indulged in for years before attempting the hike in an effort to cut through all the crap of normal life and feel something genuine.

It's pretty obvious that our hiker-heroine is angry at life and suffers from delusions of grandeur. By the end of the film she's learned how to grieve for her mother and she's exorcised a few demons. She's also done something difficult, something she can be proud of. Whether that was her intention remains unclear. Speaking later about the experience, Cheryl remarked, "I think it wasn't a heroic hike. I think it was a heroic battle to get back to myself." In any case, Witherspoon instills a sort of dignity and independence of spirit into her rendering of Strayed's effort that adds immeasurably to its impact.  

The film is also a testament to the power of books. That Strayed has been influenced by Adrienne Rich and other authors is made clear in voice-over quotations. But the book that influenced her most profoundly is The Sierra Club Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Wild is a first-class "outdoor" film, though in the end it doesn't quite measure up to such classics as Into the Wild, Touching the Void, or even The Way or Smoke Signals, which also ends with a soliloquy on a bridge in Washington State. Maybe this is because it remains focused too relentlessly on a single character who's trying to learn things many viewers already know. It's like a mountain stream, rugged and beautiful but also turbulent and difficult to cross, and more or less the same on either side.       

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Interstellar - the Space Opera

As I watched this film, I found it useful to keep reminding myself: It's just a space opera. That is to say, it's an adventure story set in outer space. Considered in those terms, Interstellar is largely satisfying, though it might almost have been assembled from spare parts taken from other films—not only Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but M. Night Shyamalan's Signs.

The earth is drying up, crops are failing, dust is everywhere, to the point where the only crop that remains viable is corn. Cooper (Mathew McCanaughey) is a test-pilot turned farmer who's upset that his son, due to middling test scores, is destined to become a farmer, too, rather than an engineer.

Meanwhile, Cooper's daughter, Murph, keeps hearing ghosts in the library upstairs that are trying to tell her something. Cooper finally begins to take his daughter seriously, and they deduce that little dunes in the ubiquitous dust spell out some GPS coordinates. The two of them head off into the desert, where they come upon the underground  NASA facility where the meat of the story lies.

At this desert outpost Michael Caine and a team of thousands have been working secretly on a project to save the human race by either establishing colonies in space or populating distant planets with newly created individuals. They have no idea how Cooper found their base...but as it happens, he's precisely the man they need to fly the mission!

In the ensuing two hours, Cooper and three or four other astronauts put themselves to sleep for two years, fly through a worm hole, visit a few planets in a remote galaxy, skirt the edge of a black hole, age about seventy-five years in a few hours, and just barely escape a huge tidal wave—or whatever such things are called on planet Xyzrtemm. 

Much of the footage is slightly awesome and we can enjoy it more fully by fighting back the impulse to make sense of it. There are no ray guns involved, but the narrative is enlivened by a few fist fights and some head-butting that's rendered comical by the thick space helmets. It's also weighed down by some heavy-handed soliloquies about love and the survival instinct. We don't need to be reminded that saving the human race is a worthwhile thing to do, and it seems a little bizarre to suggest that the future of mankind might be decided on the basis of whether or not Brand (Anne Hathaway) has a crush on Edwards (whom we never see).

Some viewers may find fault with Interstellar's premise, arguing, perhaps, that if the money being spent on space ships had been directed toward agricultural research, the earth might remain a fine place to live for generations to come. But I left the theater feeling thoroughly entertained. I'd been on a grand adventure full of time loops and logic loops and seemingly endless crashing interstellar debris.

And it's also worth pointing out, I think, that though the soliloquies are sometimes overblown, Interstellar is essentially a drama rooted in human interest. Its most touching moments arise due to passages of time, not space. They echo things we've all experienced without coming anywhere near the speed of light.