Thursday, April 28, 2016

Int'l Film Fest Wrap-Up

Many people don't realize that going to the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival is not quite the same thing as going to the movies. That may be because they haven't gone. Or haven't gone enough. Or don't have friends who go.

Going to the festival is less about story-telling or cinema aesthetics than about experiencing new elements of life. The festival itself is a gathering place for people who don't mind asking the stranger standing next to them in line, "What have you liked? How many have you seen?"

The scheduled films have not been widely reviewed, the actors are not early candidates for an Oscar nod. The only "buzz" you'll hear is generated at the festival itself. In choosing from among the hundreds of films being shown, all you have to go by is word-of-mouth, the brief and invariably laudatory descriptions in the festival brochure, and your own predilections.

For three weeks, you enjoy the bustle in the lobby, wait in the same lines, see the same introductory trailer, and listen to the same speech about becoming a member delivered over and over again by the "venue managers," who are usually about twenty years old. After a film you might wander over to Punch Pizza where they're giving three dollars off to anyone with a ticket stub. (They used to give you a free pizza!) Between films you might stop at the nearby Aster Cafe for a drink.

There's a certain pleasure associated with lining up three films one after another. On what other occasion can you travel to Kazakhstan, Peru, and Iceland on the same afternoon? If you stretch out your schedule, you'll see less, but perhaps you'll remember more.

Films that come back to me from previous fests include the Estonian film Tangerine, the Spanish film Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, the Icelandic film White Night Wedding, the Jordanian film Thebe (later short-listed for an Academy Award), the Thai film Agrarian Utopian, the American documentary about Charles Lloyd, the British film Son of Rambow, the South African film Twilight Kingdom.

What films will stick in memory from this year? Well, we were out of town, missed the first week entirely, and ended up seeing only six or seven films. The range was decent: USA, France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Estonia, Denmark. And consider the contrasts.

Marvelous Boccaccio, directed by the hallowed Taviani brothers (who also directed Padre Padrone, Night of the Shooting Stars, and Caesar Must Die), is a retelling of five tales from Boccaccio's Decameron. Unlike Pasolini's obscene and unsavory interpretation (1971) this film exhibits both the elegance of a Botticelli masterpiece and the stately deportment of Rossellini's Age of the Medici

Iraqi Odyssey is a three-hour documentary detailing the history of that sorry nation as seen through the eyes of one affluent family whose members depart for New Zealand, Russia, Switzerland, and the USA in the course of time—and sometimes return home.

 The Fencer is a simple tale of a young Estonian man who was forced to fight with the Nazis when they occupied his country, and is now being hunting by the Soviets for the same reason. He's been sent back home by his fencing coach, but is frustrated by the utterly bored teaching that discipline to the local kids. But it seems they have talent, and now they've been invited to compete in Moscow ... Should he take them to the tournament?

Ice and Sky is a documentary about the man who spent much of his adult life in Antarctica taking ice core samples to determine the changes the climate the earth has undergone in the last 40,000 years. There's a lot of good footage of the Antarctic wastelands, virile scientists drinking brandy and hoofing across the snow, with an occasional penguin or plane crash thrown in for good measure.

Home Care is about a woman who works for the Czech health service administering home health care to an assortment of peculiar people who live nearby. She starts the day with a shot of slivovitz, drunk straight up in the kitchen alongside her husband, and moves on from there. There is no plot to speak of, but the woman's depth of hard-headed industry and maternal compassion contrast starkly with her husband's comical but also destructive egotism.

In Transit chronicles three days on an Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to Seattle. We're on two trains, in fact, following the same route in opposite directions, jostling back and forth throughout the film from east to west. Along the way we get to know quite a few of the passengers, many of who have hard luck stories to tell. Everyone seems to be heading home or escaping from some domestic imbroglio. It's a little bit dull but also intermittently "real" in a way that many films aren't. The oil fields of North Dakota figure prominently in the tale. But of course, there is no "tale."

On the festival's final day, I was planning to see a comedy-drama from Albania called Bota, but I got a toothache and went to the dentist instead.

And now that the fest is over, it's time for the rain to stop.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On Burning Your Tax Returns

National poetry month is practically over, and I've done nothing to move it along, celebrate it, or ponder its significance. And that's a shame. Why? Because life is poetry. Our days are improvisations, which are nothing more (nor less) than a series of poems we haven't written down yet.

I think of the moment we stepped into the Third Bird Restaurant the other day, where we had arranged to meet some friends. It's down on Loring Park, you enter by way of the alley, light shines in from the big front window though the back of the place looks and feels like a Spanish bodega. The music was "ethnic"—vaguely middle eastern but not in an annoying way. 

The wines were overpriced but the food was excellent. The five of us shared plates of grilled carrots and balsamic beets, gnocchi, sunflower-seed risotto, and glazed wood-fired chicken. I was reminded of the old Loring Bar, though the Third Bird is far more orderly and upscale. Something about the shadows, the relaxed hipness of the place, the unabashed pursuit of faux-patina, and the rubber-stamp images on the menu.

Later we wandered down the alley and across the street to watch a silent film about the trial of Joan of Arc, the impact of which was intensified by a full-blown choral accompaniment.

There was poetry in the air that night...perhaps less in the retelling. 

No, what one really must do during Poetry Month is write a poem. Here's mine:

On Burning Your Tax Returns
It sounds devious, almost criminal.
Maybe it is. But I'm talking here about the old ones
that you're no longer required to keep.
Perhaps it's not the most earth-friendly solution;
then again, has anyone calculated the environmental impact
of manufacturing, packaging, and shipping a shredder?
The past runs before your eyes as you toss the sheaves of paper into the flames.
You were working for that firm way back in 2006?
And you got that much for the book about that basketball player. Not bad!
The editor that left town, the proofer you no longer use, the publisher who died—
they're all there. But in fact, they've all moved on.
It was a long time ago, though it seems not, and it's weird to think
that this year is a lot like any other year--a stack
of forms smoldering on the grate, engulfed in smoke but
too dense to catch fire, except, perhaps, a little around the edges. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Pen Pals: Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams spoke in Hopkins Thursday night as part of the Pen Pal series. Her subject was the National Parks, about which she's written a book. She was stately, eloquent, slow-talking, and concerned about our decreasing attachment to the natural world. She told a few stories about the parks, the longest one dealing with the death of a bison in Yellowstone, and the response to this event by other bison, wolves, coyotes, and ravens.

Another story involved an evening she spent with her dear friend Doug Peacock, the real-life model for Heyduke, one of the characters in Edward Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang. They drank a bottle of "fine Bordeaux" and between sips they read a poem to each other out loud about wolverines—a seldom seen species of weasel that had been denied "endangered" status by the federal government that day.

To those of us who came of age during the 1960s, environmental concern is a familiar subject—extremely important but perhaps a little dull to be rehashing at a literary event. I would rather have heard more about the spectacular features of some of the parks she's been writing about. Images flashed through my mind of the wonderful landscapes of Williams' home state of Utah, not only Canyonlands and Arches, but also Capital Reef, Hovenweep, the Wedge Overlook, the San Raphael Swell (maybe a good name for a book?), Horseshoe Canyon, the Burr Trail, Cedar Breaks, Waterpocket Fold, and Powell Point, not to mention Bryce and Zion national parks.

I was reminded of a night Hilary and I spent at an otherwise deserted Windwhistle Campground, a BLM facility south of Moab that's surrounded on three sides by luscious buttes; a hike we once took up the narrow slots of Little Wild Horse Canyon; and the day we went in (under escort of the state archaeologist) to see the Fremont artifacts at Range Creek.

In short, my mind was wandering a little, but that's not unusual. And it was a nice wander.

Williams' thoughtful and sober-minded talk was full of unusually long pauses, as if she were listening to a feed that went dead from time to time. More likely, she was just thinking of the next thing to say.  At the conclusion of the speech she turned on a recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (I think)  reimaged and electrified by the composer Max Richter. It was nice—a sort of non-verbal evocation of the rhythms and the power of nature. When it was over she said nothing, and after a few seconds of silence, she was greeted with thunderous and well-deserved applause.

During the Q & A, Williams was invited by one member of the audience to visit our beloved BWCAW, and she graciously accepted the invitation. (I'd be happy to guide the trip myself.) Others expressed their concern about how little most young people seem to care about the outdoors, though I'm not sure that's true. (But what do I know about such things?)

One young female fan in the audience said: "I've been wanting to meet you for years. I was crawling out of my skin all day today!" to which Williams replied, "I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds horrible."

As is often the case at such events, its value lay less in what was being said than in the presence of the person saying it. Yes, Williams was gracious, poetic, and even somewhat sentimental, while somehow exuding a depth beyond politics or literature.

It's a little early to be planning another trip, but I did find myself buying a bag of Boulder Canyon Avocado Oil kettle chips at the co-op today.... 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Home from Virginia

This feeling, when you're home from a trip, surrounded by familiar things once again, free from worries about negotiating the traffic in Washington, D.C., finding a place to stay in Stanton, deciding whether it's warm enough to camp in the Shenandoah Mountains. (Answer? No.) You read through the mail, catch up on the Timberwolves and the Twins, slip a frozen pizza into the oven.

But you don't want the impressions you've gathered during your time away to fade, or the freedom of mind that comes with the traveler's life, a serial life, one thing at a time, most of them fun and enriching. It's far too soon to download the pictures, which will distance you from events and eventually replace that beautiful flow of incidents with an episodic narrative chained to a succession of "slides." You're between worlds ... It's pleasant, but also frustrating, even paralyzing. And the tree pollen in the air only adds to the sense of inertia.

Thinking back on ten days spent in northern Virginia, the first thing that comes to mind is ... osprey.

Sure, there are ospreys in Minnesota, but they're few in number, always nesting unglamorously on power-line poles and other utilitarian structures, some of them erected by naturalists for no other purpose than to host ospreys. On the rivers that flow into Chesapeake Bay, the osprey are far more numerous, and they nest in trees, on gazebo roofs near the swimming beach, anywhere that's convenient.

There are sometimes as many as five in sight at any given time, keening, soaring, or diving for fish.

We saw them on the backwaters of the James River near Jamestown, where the first semi-durable English settlement in the New World was established in 1607. We saw them at Stratford, where the ancestors of Robert E. Lee settled in the 1630s. We saw them at Mason Neck, where the plantation of George Mason (who wrote the Bill of Rights, more or less, but later refused to sign the Constitution) is situated. We saw them out at the end of Northern Neck, in Reedville, nesting in pines along the inlets from which skipjacks once sailed out to harvest oysters.

These osprey are only a small part of the generally bucolic tone of the countryside that buts up against the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers: fields and woods, shaped by eons of erosion into graceful bends, with islands and sandbars here and there off-shore.

There are no large towns, and the rivers themselves are incredibly wide, considering how short they are.

Heading out to Jamestown on Highway 5, you take a right turn at a small, white sign and soon come to a two-story brick building facing the James River. This is the Shirley Plantation—the oldest business in America, founded in 1617, and now inhabited by the tenth generation of the family who built it.

The building isn't huge—there are many homes on Lake Minnetonka that are larger—but someone was mowing the grass when we arrived, and that smell sent me into minor ecstasies of nostalgia.

Berkeley Plantation stands a mile or two down the way. It's famous for its boxwood garden, and the long sward of grass, maybe 300 yards, opening out onto the river, with a small shrine near shore commemorating the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America, in 1619.

Eventually you come to Jamestown itself, and are surprised to discover a flock of Caspian terns squawking on a sandbar in the lagoon. The history of the place is interesting, no doubt, but the beauty of the countryside is more impressive. They work together, in fact, like a dream, and it's easy to see, once you get there, why Terrence Malick decided to make a movie about the place—The New World.

That beauty is fading already from memory, though the atmosphere remains. So we stack the Netflix cue with The New World and other show-biz reminders of what we've just experienced, namely, the musical 1776 and the Merchant-Ivory costume drama Jefferson in Paris.

We didn't go to Virginia for the history, but it socked us in the face. The tour guides at Williamsburg and Monticello were remarkably erudite and more eloquent than any professor I ever had.

So while I wait for a new DVD to arrive in the mail, I'll try to wrap my head around Joseph Eliss's American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson, or Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters.