Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscars 2016

I was going to boycott the Oscars this year, because I don't like Chris Rock. I'm glad I didn't.

It was one of the better ones in recent memory. (Then again, speaking of memory, does anyone remember a single thing about Boyhood?)

Chris Rock was funny. He was great. He dealt with the diversity issue in ways that had to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Let me give you a single example. Here's the Chris Rock joke: "This year, during the In Memoriam segment, instead of honoring the memory of film stars who have died in the previous year, we're going to memorialize black people who were shot by the cops while going to the movies." (nervous laughter)

If you didn't actually hear Chris Rock deliver those lines, it would be hard to imagine how they came off, or how funny they were—in a strange and embarrassing and horrifying way.

And there were many more similarly in-your-face yet not quite confrontational remarks along the same lines that advanced a simple thesis: everyone needs jobs, everyone needs respect, approbation, a bit of celebrity.

Perhaps we've made some progress as a society since Marlon Brando sent Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his Oscar for The Godfather in 1973, in protest of how native Americans were being portrayed in films. At the time his gesture was seen by many as one more tiresome blot on a career that had been mired in excess and failure for a decade.

At the recent Oscar ceremony Rock's remarks were widely embraced (I think) and not only because they were highly entertaining.

Meanwhile, the awards were judiciously (but unintentionally) distributed among a variety of fine artists, including a Swede (Alicia Vikander), two Mexicans (Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki), a Brit (Mark Rylance), a Muslim (Asif Kapadia, who directed Amy, selected as the year's best documentary), an Italian (composer Ennio Morricone), a woman of French-Canadian extraction (actress Bree Larson)...and so on.

The two films that received screenwriting honors focused on the unglamorous subjects of child abuse in the Catholic Church (Spotlight) and sub-prime mortgages (The Big Short). Needless to say, both films were excellent.

I haven't seen The Revenant, though I plan to. I certainly enjoyed the Hugh Glass story the way Frederick Manfred handled it decades ago in the novel Lord Grizzly

My list of favorite films for the year must include Spotlight, Brooklyn, Tangerine (Estonia), The Big Short, About Elly (Iran), Star Wars, Theeb (United Arab Emirates),  Papusza (Poland), Unlikely Heroes (Switzerland), Ex Machina, Bridge of Spies, The Martian, and Love and Mercy.

Near-great films from earlier years that I also got a chance to see recently include Particle Fever (2014) and How I Ended This Summer (Russia, 2010). Check them out--if you dare.

Oscar-night turned out to be a largely nostalgia-free evening: no Jack, Meryl, Clint, Martin, Ben, George, Angelina, Brad. How refreshing. Nor were there any labored attempts to attract the young by inviting presenters from the most recent teen incarnation of the Twilight series.

Indeed, Lada Gaga reminded me of Rosemary Clooney!

And I think they should have given a special award to A Walk in the Woods, in which geezers Robert Redford and Nick Nolte revive the spirit of Big Crosby and Bob Hope in The Road to Morocco...but without the crooning, or Dorothy Lamour.

That's one fun thing about the movies—seeing Mary Steenbergen appear out of nowhere and steal a scene.

Remember Melvin and Howard? Those were the days.   

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Remembering Umberto Eco

In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes the semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco as belonging to "that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull." Eco owned roughly thirty thousand books, Taleb reported, and separated visitors into those who were stupified by the sight of them, often asking him how many he had actually read, and a much smaller group who recognized that such a library served as a research tool.

"Read books are far less valuable than unread ones," Taleb continued. "The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means ... allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books."

Compared to Eco's vast collection, my own little cache hardly merits the name "library," but it is large and disorderly enough to lose books in, and I was distressed when I read that Eco had died and was unable to located a collection of his essays called Travels in Hyperreality.

I was pleased when I finally spotted the volume lying on top of a row of other books, its white spine and thin san serif lettering entirely obscured by the drooping copy of Rain Taxi magazine lying on top of it.

Eco wrote in long sentences, bringing his wily intellect and vast erudition to bear on subjects of popular interest such as Superman, wearing jeans, Casablanca, and the Peanuts comic strip. He wrote with a jaunty, off-hand humor that might have been more pleasing if the conclusions he arrived at had been more interesting. He begins an essay titled "Two Types of Objects," for example, with the following remark:

"What would be a better way to initiate a column devoted to signs and myths—which we will try to carry forward without any obses­sion with regularity, responding instead to the suggestions that arrive from all sides—than by making a devout pilgrimage to one of the sanctuaries of mass communication, the Milan Trade Fair?"

Thus we accompany the semiological scholar as he descends from his ivory tower to apply his arcane concepts and categories to common life. And we're happy to do so, eager to absorb whatever insights a learned academic enlivened with abundant joie de vivre might care to share with us.

At the fair Eco notes two types of objects: On the one hand, beautiful consumer items that the visitor might desire and want to purchase—easy chairs, lamps, motor boats, ash trays, liquor; on the other hand, functional but ugly industrial machines that few consumers would take an interest in, though the "proprietors of the means of production" find them fascinating.

Eco describes this as a "semiology of objects." That is to say, these two types of objects may be taken as a rudimentary system of signs that "must be seen within the concrete system of the society that creates them and receives them, so they must be seen as a language listened to as it is being spoken, and of which we try to discern the regulating mechanism."[ p. 184]  

Eco's conclusion? That a visitor to the fair thinks he has made a choice between types of objects, while in fact he has "only accepted his role as a consumer of consumer goods since he cannot be a proprietor of means of production." He will never buy a lathe because the fair has told him he doesn't want one.

Is any of this true? I have never been to the Milan Trade Fair, but based on Eco's description, I would have to say no. If the visitor was thinking of starting a woodworking business, he or she would certainly take an interest in the relevant industrial machinery. And no one would stop him. 

Meanwhile, the notion that the fair presents us with a system of "signs" constitutes an obvious and irrelevant intellectual overlay to the reality of the situation, which is a simple matter of buying and selling things.

I would even go further and suggest, contra Eco, that some people who have no intention of starting a business find industrial machinery fascinating. I do. For most of us, there would be little point in buying such a thing, even if we had the means, but the structure of the fair itself doesn't dictate which choices we make.

In short, Eco's semiological analysis amounts to nothing more than a primitive, quasi-Marxist gloss that obscures, rather than illuminating, what might actually be a fascinating event, were we allowed to come into fuller contact with the relevant details.

No doubt, Eco poured his energy, curiosity, erudition, and love of life most fully into his novels, of which The Name of the Rose remains the most popular. In photographs he appears as a slightly oversized but lovable uncle—a Philippe Noiret of the intelligencia. I heard him speak once in St. Paul, but we'll leave that event for another time.

In honor of his death, I just now requested a copy of his book, The Aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas, from the Hennepin County Library. (Travels in Hypereality just won't do.)

I'll let you know how it all turns out. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Gorgeous Thaw

The sun came out after a blustery rainy morning, and suddenly everyone was out on the street. I went out too, but only to hack down the bushes under the windows outside the den.

"Hack down" might not be the proper phrase to describe this delicate and artful process, by which I succeed in taming the twelve-foot-tall shrubs—forsythia, yellow-twig dogwood, and highbush cranberry—that have thrived in the six-foot-tall space under those windows for thirty-odd years.

The theory is that if you cut back a shrub before the sap starts to run, adventitious buds will develop further down on the branches, and as it leafs out, the plant in question will become fuller and more shapely while also remaining shorter.

Most years I forget to do this. It takes a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-February when the temperature reaches 45 degrees to alert me to the task.

Meanwhile, Hilary went out to the street to chat with the neighbors. Stephan was walking his son Logan home from school, Brendan appeared from his garage to return a vase we'd given his wife, Sarah, along with some flowers, to cheer her up while she was convalescing from an operation. And Alice, who moved into the house next door only last October, joined the party because—why not?

Hilary and I then set out for a brief stroll through the neighborhood. A pale moon was visible, but we saw no turkeys in the trees, no deer tracks in the vanishing snow. We were both reminded of the joy felt by young people listening to the sound of water running down the street and into the storm sewer grates. It excites the deepest recesses of one's being. We felt it ourselves.  I found a twig and tossed it into the flow of melt-water, but it was too heavy—or the stream was too shallow, the current too slow.

A week ago the temperature was -24. At that time we were on vacation 200 miles north of here, but still. Yet I have little doubt that it will snow again more than once before we emerge into summer's garden.

But right now the sunlight hits the trees in a celebratory way, and it almost seems that the earth is starting to breathe again. 

Returning inside, I search in vain for my copy of the I Ching. The book of changes. We used to pronounce it the way it looks. Nowadays I believe they pronounce it "E Jung." 

For heaven's sake, just write it the way you pronounce it!

For Heaven's sake, indeed.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sporting News

Last: I enjoyed watching the Super Bowl, not because it was the best game of the season, but because it was the last game of the season. It was a grind of a game, and the perfect spectacle for a sleepy Sunday evening, full of linebackers stunting and lunging, doing their spins and rolls. There were lots of personal fouls, and passes tended to wobble badly (Manning) or zing fifteen feet over the receiver's head (Newton).

One relatively unsung hero of the event was Jordan Norwood, who fielded a punt in heavy traffic and  returned it for 61-yards—the longest in Super Bowl history. There were so many Panther defenders around him that it was foolhardy of him not to signal, and if he'd drop the ball he would have gotten bloody hell from his coach. In fact, the Panthers seemed to think that he had signaled a fair catch, because they backed away (see photo above) as he caught the ball, giving him a crease to slip through.

And speaking of backing away—on another play, the commentators criticized Cam Newton for jumping away from a ball that had just been knocked from his hands, rather than pouncing on it. This ended up being the signature play of the game, supposedly illustrating Newton's lack of commitment to the team effort.  

It struck me that Cam was merely tired of being on the bottom of pile-ups, and who could blame him? (Answer: everybody.) It was obvious DeMarcus Ware was already scooping the ball in, and maybe Cam was just waiting to see if it would squirt loose. Not the best strategy to follow, perhaps, when there are five guys from the opposing team in the immediate vicinity. Better would have been to kick it, I think, and see where it landed.

First: Meanwhile, One of the first signs of spring is the onset of the Australian Open. Can't be long before we're in Paris,  eating croissants with marmalade outside the red clay courts of Roland Garros. Right?

It was depressing to see Raphael Nadal suffer defeat in the first round of the tourney. His decline (and frustration) continues, though he's achieved far more than anyone would have expected back in the day when he was known as a clay court specialist. Roger Federer experienced a similar phase of decline before he got a new racquet, a new coach, and renewed success on the court. Will Nadal do the same. Somehow, I doubt it.

Federer's return to form has been impressive, but he hasn't come all the way back, due largely to the presence of Novak Djokovic, who crushed Federer in the semi-finals of the Australian Open this year. In the post-match interview, Federer remarked candidly, " He can get one or two sets all of a sudden. Those sets run away very quickly." Federer lost the first two sets 6-1, 6-2.

Sports fans love greatness, of course, and Federer has won more Grand Slams than any other player, and with more "style" and artistry than anyone you could think of since the era of Australian domination in the 1960s. Greatest of all time? Such arguments were being bruited as far back as 2007.

Djokovic comes across as a less appealing player in the eyes of many. Outside of Serbia, he just doesn't get the love. In this he resembles the Czech Ivan Lendl, who still holds the record for most consecutive Grand Slam finals (eight), though he had a gloomy, if not petulant, countenance, and was never widely loved by the fans. 

Djokovic often seems brutally methodical on the court, and his beady eyes, sharp nose, and close-cropped hair don't stir the crowds. Yet he has been so hard-working, so consistently successful on the court, and so reverential of tennis tradition, that he has long since deserved to be more widely embraced. And if his demeanor doesn't inspire much affection, his play ought to: he has lost only one match since last August.

Djokovic finally won me over when I saw the video in which he and Serena Williams revived a Wimbledon tradition and danced at the championship dinner. Very sweet.

But now a wave of sub-zero weather is drifting in, and I find myself glancing at articles with such riveting headlines as "Vikings: Team seeks to take next step in offseason."

And wondering when those croissants will be coming out of the oven.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sulking and Soaring with Rusulka

Opera is the most enchanting art medium, what with the soaring music and the sets and the drama, but the plot can get convoluted, not to say goofy. The Minnesota Opera's recent production of Antonin Dvořák's Rusulka is a case in point, the enchantment due not only to the music but also to the dancing and the evocative back-projections of ferns and water grasses. However, the plot careens well past goofy into the realm of utter incoherence.

Yet it doesn't matter much. Maybe it's even a good thing: the fractured logic of the scenario frees the mind to groove more intently on the vast unsatisfied yearning that runs through the veins of the title character, and the opera itself, from beginning to end.

Rusulka is a beautiful water nymph. In the opening scene she falls in love with a young military man who's been hanging around her pond. Or perhaps she's loved him for a long time? In any case, he can't see her and she can't touch him, so there's an element of frustration involved. She implores her father to make her mortal so she can experience the thrill of love.

During her conversation with her father Rusulka sings the opera's most famous aria, the lyrics of which go like this:

Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people's homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.

For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don't disappear, disappear!

Her father thinks this is a bad idea, becoming mortal. He tries to dissuade Rusulka from pursuing this dream, but without success, and he ends up turning her over to a witch named Ježibaba, who agrees to grant Rusulka's request. But there are a few strings attached. If Rusulka becomes mortal, she'll lose the power of speech, and should the love she aspires to go sour, both she and the prince will be eternally damned. Undeterred, she agrees to Ježibaba's conditions.

The second act takes place at the Prince's palace, smartly furnished but far less appealing than Rusulka's forest domain. She and the prince have been together for a week, and things aren't going well. The prince loves her but finds her "cold." It's not only that she can't talk, but she seems reluctant to open herself to any kind of intimacy with her sweetheart. 

No explanation is given for this behavior, and it seems odd, considering how ardently Rusulka had longed to embrace just this type of experience. In any case, by the end of the act an evil princess has succeeded in alienating Rusulka from the prince, and Rusulka would like nothing better than to leave the world of mortals behind and return to her pond.

 Ježibaba agrees to grant Rusulka's request, but once again there are onerous strings attached. Rusulka will no longer be allowed to frolic with the other water nymphs. Rather, they'll flee at the very sight of her. Her appointed role will be to lure men to into the marsh grasses with her glowing green light. And if she does end up embracing anyone, they'll die instantly.

As you've probably already guessed, in the third act the prince shows up again, apologizes for having betrayed and abandoned Rusulka, and urges her to return to him. That's not going to happen ... but drawn once again by her love for the fellow, she can't resist giving him a little kiss.

Though it takes three minutes to tell the story, it takes three hours to watch it unfold onstage, and it's a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a very appealing Rusulka (an important factor in the production's success), and Ben Wager, in the role of her father, comes across as a likable and randy elder, rather than a grumpy old man. Dvořák's music has neither the catchy melodies we so commonly find in Verdi's works, nor the swooping emotions that run through Puccini's ever-popular creations like an electric shock, but it grows on you.
But does the opera actually mean anything? I don't think so. Ježibaba's conditions seem arbitrary and Rusulka's behavior inconsistent and sometimes inexplicable. We might as well set the opera beside other fin-de-siècle works like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions, and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, in which logic counts for less than atmosphere and the cracks in the plot open passages to the mysteries and pleasures of the subconscious.

If there is a lesson to be learned, I guess it would be this: be careful what you wish for. But Rusulka remains the heroine of the piece from start to finish, and the beauty and gravity of her yearnings, though they lead her (and others) to disaster, are more appealing than the dancing of the other nymphs, who seem comfortable but giddy in the submarine world where the temperature is nice and the flow is unceasing, though it's difficult to tell where you stop and the rest of the world begins.
By chance, a few days later I came upon a passage in a novel that cultivates the same associations between femininity, water, youth, love, beauty, and sadness. About midway through that long, rugged Icelandic classic, Independent People, the crofter's daughter is filled with anticipation of her first visit to town with her father. Laxness describes the scene on the riverbank in the moonlight as follows:

"The lukewarm mud spurted up between her bare toes and sucked noisily when she lifted her heel. Tonight she was going to bathe in the dew, as if she had never had a body before. On every pool of the river there was a phalarope to make her a bow; no bird in all the marshes is so courtly in its demeanour on Midsum­mer Eve. It was after midnight, wearing slowly on for one o’clock. The spring night reigned over the valley like a young girl. Should she come or should she not come? She hesitated, stole forward on her toes — and it was day. The feathery mists over the marshes rose twining up the slopes and lay, like a veil, in innocent modesty about the mountain s waist. Against the white sheen of the lake loomed the shape of some animal, like a kelpie in the pellucid night.
A grassy hollow on the margin of the river, and leading up to it through the dew the wandering trail left by two inexperienced feet. The birds were silent for a while. She sat on the bank and listened. Then she stripped herself of her torn everyday rags under a sky that could wipe even the sunless winters of a whole lifetime from the memory, the sky of this Midsummer Eve. Young goddess of the sunlit night, perfect in her half-mature nakedness. Nothing in life is so beautiful as the night before what is yet to be, the night and its dew. She wished her wish, slender and half-grown in the half-grown grass and its dew. Body and soul were one, and the unity was perfectly pure in the wish."