Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Door III - The Man on the Bicycle


 On Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?) the weather turned cold and clear, and after a breakfast of cheese and Door County cherry jam on English muffins that I found in the refrigerator, I drove down to Weborg Point to see if any interesting birds had blown in. Not much. Highlights were a broad-winged hawk in a tree above the road and a single palm warbler. Back in Minneapolis the trees were already thick with myrtle and palm warblers—chalk it up to the Mississippi River effect. The trees had also leafed out a lot more in Minnesota. I could well understand why the warblers seemed to be in no hurry to arrive on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The morning lake was spectacular nevertheless, the marsh grasses were glistening with dew, and it was a pleasure to see a flock of buffleheads drifting in the mirror-like waters of the bay.


When I got back to the house, I noticed that a bicycle was leaning against a tree in the field across the highway, half-obscured by a clump of bushes. I set myself down in the living room with a cup of coffee and a copy of German Philosophy 1760-1860: the Legacy of Idealism by Terry Pinkard—it was a book that I found it easy to look up from repeatedly as I waited for the owner of the bike to return. Suddenly I heard a tapping at the kitchen door leading out onto the deck. Then louder. I got up to investigate. It was a robin, making the acquaintance of his reflection in the glass.

Returning to my chair, I was pleased to see someone approaching the distant bike on foot across the fields. Then the figure disappeared again, and it occurred to me that he or she might be harvesting the ramps from the woods and had gone back for more. There was nothing intrinsically suspicious about the event. After all, the cyclist could easily have laid the bicycle on the ground, entirely out of sight. But it was odd just the same, and I decided to go over and see what was going on, half-expecting to find a pile of ramps lying on the ground. Nothing. I walked a hundred yards down the path, saw no one, and returned to the house, as perplexed as ever.

I was sitting at the laptop at the kitchen table, typing out a morning report to Hilary, when I heard a knock on the front door, more forceful than a robin's.

"Come in!" I hollered without thinking, then ran hurriedly to the door to open it. An elderly man was standing on the front porch beside his bicycle.

"I don't mean to disturb you," he said, speaking very slowly, "but I often take a morning walk in your fields and woods across the road. I wanted to thank you for maintaining it. When I arrived this morning the parking lot was empty. Later I saw your car and presumed you would be awake."

"That's quite all right. In fact, I saw your bike when I pulled up. Then I saw someone come out of the woods and walk right past it. You must be doing several circuits around the loop."

"Yes, I go around three times. It's quiet. But I'm only here in Door County for four months of the year. I walk every morning."

A pair of metal walking sticks were protruding from his backpack. I could hear one of the Brandenburg Concertos booming from the earbuds that were dangling around his neck. Though the man had a kindly expression, he had an oddly fleshy face, and his eyelids were folded over in such a way as to almost obscure his line of sight.

"Where do you live the rest of the year?" I asked. There was a long pause.

"I hesitate to say," he said finally. "I spend part of the year in New Zealand and another few months in the Bavarian Alps."

"You really get around," I laughed.

"Do you live year round in Door County?" he asked.

"Heavens, no! This place is a writing center. I'm only here for a week." Another long pause.

"I presume, then, that you yourself are a writer," the man said finally. "I suppose that you're also a reader. I have recently been reading a biography of Goethe."

"Funny you should mention that. I was reading about Goethe just last night. The author was saying that Kant benefited from the atmosphere and the liberal university setup at Jena, which was largely due to Goethe's influence."

"According to the author of the biography I'm reading, Goethe considered his life to be his greatest work of art."

"That might well be true," I said. "I've never read anything by Goethe that I really liked."

"I've never read anything by him at all," he replied.

"No. let me take that back. The Sorrows of Young Werther isn't bad. But it's a book for adolescents. Goethe wrote it in a month and became the rage of Europe. Every writer's dream, perhaps. But what precisely is it that's so appealing about that? The wealth, the ease, the approbation? The feeling of being known and understood?" 

But I realized I was abandoning the thread of the conversation, and perhaps bewildering the gentleman, so I said, "Can I offer you a recommendation. For an entirely different slant on Goethe, you might like Immortality by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. The book is basically about Goethe's love life. I think it's a novel, but I don't remember. I read it a long time ago."

As I was jotting down the reference on a scrap of paper I couldn't help remarking, "Considering your life-style, you must have done well in the stock market." It was an idle remark, a query. Something that could easily have been ignored. The man didn't look like a hedge fund manager. He looked like a retired dairy farmer.  Another long pause. I was getting used to them. I wasn't in a hurry.

Finally he said, "I'm trying to think of a way to answer that briefly and humorously. My  father was Swedish. My mother was German. From her I learned thrift. I grew up in Iowa. There are lots of Swedes there. I never planned anything. I never planned to become the caretaker of a house in Door County. I went to New Zealand on a cycling trip; I never planned to move there. I appreciate every day I'm given. I try to walk every day, and when the good Lord comes to take me, I hope I'll be ready."

And on that note, he got back on his bicycle, put his helmet on, bid me a good day, and rode off. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

More from Door


To long-term residents every town on the Door County coast is rife with marks of character, no doubt, but a newcomer like me can only marvel at how varied and distinctive the names are.  On the west side of the peninsula, Egg Harbor could easily have been named by Mother Goose, or L. Frank Baum at the very least. Juddville pays homage to those simple rural types who could just as well hail from Kentucky as from the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Fish Creek carries the sound (and smell) of serious small-scale piscatorial endeavor, and Ephraim provides the Biblical rectitude that keeps a community alive from generation to generation. (The somewhat closed-in, New England flavor of the architecture reinforces that impression.) 

Sister Bay conjures a breezy summer line of clothing from J. Jill, and the town itself is open to both the fields and the sky. (Also worth noting,  its street and sidewalk construction are more modern than those of its neighbors.) 

Gill's Rock is a masterpiece of allusion. Who is Gill: first name or last name? It conjures images of fish guts on a rock, perhaps being eaten by gulls. "Gull's Rock" would sound terribly mundane in comparison.

Ellison Bay and Northport don't maintain quite the same level of poetic variety and interest, but it was a good run all the same.


I drove up to Northport on my second day in the county and bought some smoked fish at Charlie's Smokehouse. Then I headed down County NP to a little parking lot in a field by the edge of the woods. The sign said Mink River Estuary. I took a walk through the woods.

Pristine Great Lakes estuaries are few and far behind, which explains why the Nature Conservancy owns most of the land surrounding this one.

I had marveled the previous day that the dead leaves of the ironwood trees, generally strewn across the semi-open woods at eye level, looked paler and fatter than they do in Minnesota. But now, as I got close to them for the first time, I realized that they were actually the dead leaves of beech trees, a species that doesn't grow in Minnesota. In fact, I was walking down a very wide path through a spacious hemlock-beech forest.


After fifteen minutes of walking under gray skies I reached the estuary, a reed-lined watercourse maybe a hundred feet across. A large flock of scaup began to drift off downstream as I approached the water's edge. This would be a good place to visit in a canoe, I thought. Rent a canoe at Rawley's Resort. Nothing to it.  


I never made it to Rawley's, but a few days later I took a hike in the northern stretches of Newport State Park, on the advice of one of the rangers there. It was a nice hike, though the flat limestone geology of the Niagara Escarpment rising from the green, green waters of Lake Michigan will always seem slightly undramatic, if not downright mucky, to anyone who's spent some time amid the steely blue waters and imposing cliffs of Lake Superior's North Shore. (Yet this is a shallow, mucky judgment itself. We must always make an effort to see what a thing or an environment is, rather than what it isn't.)

The highlight of the walk, in any case, came during my return through the woods, when I spotted a strange bird crossing the boardwalk in a boggy stretch of woods a hundred feet in front of me.  At first I thought it was a very fat robin holding a very stiff worm in its beak. (Thus do we bend our sensations to resemble the things we know.) Then it occurred to me that I was looking at a snipe. And he was doing a little dance as he crossed the boardwalk—a rumba combined with a tail shimmy.



It took him ten minutes to walk ten feet, and I watched him the whole time. Once he'd dropped down off the boardwalk into the bog on the other side, I approached slowly, trying to catch sight of him before he flushed, but he flew off into the deep woods when I was ten feet away. I saw the golden feathers on his back as he took off, but no other bird flushed. He had been alone, practicing his strut.

Only later, after examining YouTube videos, did I determine that I had actually been watching a woodcock rather than a snipe. Well, these are not birds I get a good look at every day.

On my way back to the writing center I stopped for coffee and a sandwich at a place in Sister Bay called Base Camp. It's located in the basement of a deconsecrated church. Nice vibe. 

While I was waiting for my vegan hummus sandwich (which I ordered due to the roasted peppers) the young woman who had taken my order got to chatting. She had lived in Morocco with her grandparents for a while, and they had inspired her to read widely and to travel widely. She'd moved to Sister Bay recently from Madison to escape a stressful bank job and hang out with her boyfriend, who runs an organic farm nearby that supplies all the greens to Base Camp, as well as the fresh tomatoes to a nearby pizza place called Wild Tomato.   


That evening I took a drive through Peninsula State Park. The weather was brighter, but still gray. I didn't pass a single car in the park, only a woman walking hurriedly along the roadside.

I saw six deer, and behind the pottery studio up on Highway 42 I watched a sharp-shinned hawk dive in and nab a sparrow, while two others escaped.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Week in Door County - Solo


As near as I can recall, I cooked up my residency at Write On! Door County in November, when I was in the process of putting together a new collection of essays. Door County would be a great place to focus my thoughts, I said to myself,  and put the finishing touches on this thing. On the strength of the recommendation of a friend who had stayed there and was actually on the board and the graciousness of director Jerod Santek, I was given a slot in early May.

As it turned out, by the time my week of solitary scribbling and polishing arrived, the book I had been working on, All the Things You Are, was done and back from the printer. (In fact, you can buy a copy here. Better yet, come to the reading at Magers & Quinn on July 11.) Not a problem. I would devote the week to developing new ideas and gathering new impressions.


The Write On! facility is actually a suburban rambler set on a very large parcel of semi-wooded land in Juddville, a wide spot in the road on the plateau a few miles south of the much larger bayside conurbation of Fish Creek. One of the most beautiful views in the county greets you from the highway as you sweep around the corner from Juddville down the hill toward Fish Creek with the bright blue waters of the harbor glistening in the distance and the green trees of Peninsula State Park just beyond. Several signs along that curve say No Stopping or Walking, but I was tempted on one occasion to stop and take a picture of the woman who had gotten out of her car ahead of me and was holding up her cell phone toward the bay just under one of those signs.  

Juddville itself consists of an Italian restaurant housed in a bungalow, a pottery studio, and a chiropractic office, each of which occupies one of the corners formed by the intersection of Juddville Road and Highway 42. In short, Door County in microcosm. The Write On! center sits less than a quarter-mile inland from that intersection. It's a spacious home and there's a nice wooden table (butternut?) in the kitchen looking out toward the fields and woods through three tall French doors. I would often look out those windows and say to myself, What am I going to do now? Then I would pour myself another cup of coffee and continue jotting notes in my journal or leafing through a copy of Door County Living.



Reading, Writing, and Rambling were my three Rs. I felt duty-bound to make the center serve as something more than a crash pad for touring the countryside, and I did my best to "apply" myself, but as the days passed I became a little disconcerted by the fact that whenever Jerod stopped by the office (also located in the house) I happened to be out gallivanting.

On the other hand, one of the attractive features of the center is its setting in the midst of a bucolic landscape endowed with five state parks, hundreds of miles of shoreline, several islands accessible by ferry, and numerous county parks and wildlife preserves.

A year or two ago the center succeeded in purchasing an old chicken coop that had been used by Norbert Blei, the "oracle" of the Door County, as a writing shed, and they moved it to a secluded spot on the property behind a bank of pines. I wandered out that way under gray skies on the first morning of my stay and  liked the coop immediately; it had far less floor space than the house and a more rustic, intimate feel. A little stack of Blei's books was sitting on a table, and a few of his Native American knickknacks were sitting on shelves here and there.


"So here I sit in Norbert Blei's chicken coop," I wrote in my journal, "which he used for a writing shed, I think. I like it out here, though I might not last long. The heat isn't turned on, so I guess it's 45 degrees, the same as outside. The switch on the fuse box is turned off, but it seems a little presumptuous to fiddle with it." 
   
One afternoon a few days later, once the sun had come out, I went out to the shed again. The sunlight had warmed the room considerably, and I jotted several lines in my journal at that little table before I noticed that five or six wasps had also been aroused by the afternoon rays. I found it difficult to "dig deep" while also looking up every few seconds to see where the wasps had wandered off to.

But back at the house I did bear down from time to time. An example:
Reading the intro to Vargas Llosa's Making Waves, the editor notes that Vargas Llosa applauded Bataille's defense of literary associations with "obsessions, frustrations, pain, and vice," and his description of the literary vocation as a quest for sovereignty.
Is that actually true? Perhaps to "get published" gives one a sense not only of self-worth but of superiority. After all, the reader adores the writer; the writer seldom knows the reader. The writer has a well-formed "body" outside himself, the reader wants to leave himself behind and enter into literature.
On the other hand, the writer is susceptible to feelings of neglect. He has put himself "out there" and no one seems to care or even notice. Far from being adored, he suspects that readers are unimpressed, or privately even derisive.
In short, the sovereignty of the writer is only a sovereignty over himself. And such a position is only possible if the writer is convinced he's said what he wants to say, rather than something else entirely.
If others take an interest, it's a connection, an added bonus.
I found myself discussing these things with Peter Sloma, the proprietor of Peninsula Books in Fish Creek, a few days later. Peter faces this issue (if it is an issue) from the opposite end. "People come in every day. I could fill my entire store with self-published books if I wanted to," he said. "But just getting something into print isn't enough. It's just the beginning. You've got to market it. Get it reviewed. Develop a reader-base. It's not easy."

He was preaching to the choir, of course. Playing the devil's advocate, I brought up the example of Michael Perry, a natural-born storyteller with a vast fan base who does makes it look easy. (I was unaware that Perry spends quite a bit of time with friends out on Washington Island.)

Peter's shop is open seven days a week, and as far as I can tell, he runs it almost entirely himself. Watching the pedestrian traffic for months on end, He's come up with a few insights into the rhythms of life in Fish Creek.

"The foot traffic shuts down at 5 p.m.," he told me. "Everyone goes back to their cottage or motel, heads out to dinner, then on to a show or some other entertainment. I tried staying open late for a few months but it was a bust."

Our conversation moved on to the market for old maps, the rise and fall of various invasive species from round gobies to phragmites, and the art gallery in Sturgeon Bay where I was scheduled to give a talk at the end of the week.

(to be continued)


Monday, May 1, 2017

Three Films About Women


A Quiet Passion

I must confess at the onset that I have never been fond of Emily Dickinson's poetry. I'll tell you why: she uses too many abstract nouns. A poet should avoid using the word "eternity," for example. Also, Dickinson's lines tend to be very short, and they usually rhyme, and this has the effect of making many of  her poems sound like epigrams, mystical theories, or mere ditties rather than genuine acts of expression. This combination of objectives—bring out the rhyme while saying something staggeringly profound—tends to be deadly.

Yet I realize that many people do like Dickinson's poems. There must be a reason. I went to A Quiet Passion hoping to gain further insight into her appeal. That didn't happen, though I now have a better sense of the environment in which she lived and worked.

Director Terrence Davies has gone to great lengths to establish the period within which Dickinson's talent developed, the obstacles she faced, the atmosphere of patriarchal love she thrived in and the concomitant hypocritical striving for moral rectitude she abhorred. She was a complex soul who thought about everything too much. She couldn't help it. She was devoted to her family, and she also had a few trusted female friends. She was concerned about the fate of her poems—about her own immortality--but she had a great deal of trouble opening up to the wider world. It didn't interest her much, obsessed as she was by the inevitable disappearance of her loved ones and the nothingness beyond.

As she grew older, Dickinson found it increasingly difficult to conduct a normal conversation, and tended to speak in riddles and contradictions. This habit irritated her siblings no end, though they were almost as good at such metaphysical raillery as she was. Evidently it was the argot of her class and times. 


The film explores a succession of themes--greatness, immortality, poetry, romance, integrity, melancholy, disillusionment, death. But by the time we reach the end of it, the overriding tone is one of bitter anguish. It's a portrait of one unusual woman's life, and though I don't know if all the details are accurate, it seems clear that Davies, to his credit, has been guided far more by biographical fact than by screenwriting conventions.

Sami Blood


Countless films have been made about the destruction of native cultures by the spread of industrialized society. Tale of individuals who find that they like tribal life and "go native" are also popular. Less often, I think,  do we hear stories about the roadblocks that are put in the way of "native" individuals who would like nothing better than to participate in the ongoing life of their more “civilized” neighbors.


Such is the theme of Sami Blood, a moody, well-structured film that follows the life of Elle-Marja, a fifteen-year-old Sami girl. She and her sister have been sent by their mother, recently widowed, to a boarding school. Elle-Marja is bright, picks up Swedish easily, and soon feels the urge to leave both the nomadic life in the midst of which she was raised and the simple-minded and sometimes brutal life of the boarding school behind and get a real Swedish education. Trouble is, Sami kids, even the brightest, aren’t allowed to continue on. The powers that be are convinced that they would all be better off staying on their rocky and largely treeless turf in the far north, tending their animals.


Swedish-Sami writer-director Amanda Kernell follows Elle-Marja’s desperate and ingenious path to Uppsala, the risks she takes, and the obstacles she overcomes. It’s all beautifully rendered though often painful to watch. The film effectively highlights the contrast between urban Swedish culture of the 1930s and the nomadic lives of the Sami people without weighing in on the relative value of the two or the wisdom of abandoning one for the other. It’s just a story of someone who aspired to lead a different kind of life. It’s just an unforgettable work of art.


Little Wing also focuses on the life of a young woman. In this case it’s a Finnish girl named Varpu, just turning thirteen. Her mother, Siri, is having a hard time managing some of the simpler things in life, like getting up in the morning and passing a driving test. Yet she’s trying hard and is determined to raise her daughter well. All the same, when things really start to crumble, Varpu decides to go see her father, whom she’s never met. Trouble is, she’s far too young to have a driver’s license, she’s driving a stolen car, and the man she’s going to visit isn’t really her father.

Siri is shocked by this turn of events, and decides reluctantly that the time has come to introduce her daughter to her real father. But now a new and perhaps even more troubling set of issues arise, just as Siri no doubt feared they would: the man talks constantly, he hears voices, he has a paranoic aversion to cell phones and cameras, and he has agreed to leave his home town for the first time in years to watch his newly-found daughter compete at a horse show.

The two introverted protagonists don't exactly sear the screen with their performances, and the plot moves ahead one slow step at a time, but the end result is an indelible portrait of how mental illness can derail people's lives, and reassemble them.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Film Fest III


Uncompleted Song
I wouldn't have attended this French slacker hip-hop film except that I had volunteered to be an usher and was assigned to it, but in the end I enjoyed it quite a bit. The two costars, Orelsan and Gringe, evidently have a large following in Europe, and Orelsan has even been compared stylistically to Eminem, but as far as I know, they aren't well-known on this side of the Atlantic. In any case, the film is a loose collection of episodes chronicling (guest what!) a few days in the lives of two hip-hop artists who are on the verge of being dumped by their producers because they haven't finished a song in five years.


Orelsan is a middle-class youth, thirty years old, who holds a job as the night manager of a local hotel. Gringe doesn't seem to do anything much except a) visit the hookers who turn their tricks in vans in an abandoned parking lot down by the river and b) compose multi-page text messages to young women he's never met. The duo performs hip-hop regularly on a live radio station, but otherwise they mostly just hang out together, get drunk, or go to the mall.

When the two artists are given an ultimatum by their producers—finish a song by tomorrow or you're out—it keys up their aimlessness slightly, and forces them, as they wander the city trying to come up with some good lyrics, to question whether they're really on the right path. But the existential dimension of the situation is hardly new to them.


What makes the film not only palatable but often very funny is that although the lyrics to the songs are often obscene, Orelsan comes across as a sweet, generally sincere and clueless kid who's determined, above all else, not to slide into the comfortable but numbing bourgeois lifestyle that his parents and his girlfriend envision for him. Both he and Gringe, despite their ridiculous stage names, seem artlessly "real" in a way that has more in common stylistically with Jim Jarmusch's low octane Stranger Than Paradise than with the more manic productions of Judd Apatow.

The film also benefits from a bouncy hip-hop soundtrack, and a few zany montage sequences ala A Hard Day's Night.

Orelson himself was present at the screening, and afterward he fielded questions about translating hip-hop jokes into English and directing a film where most of the "actors" weren't actors at all but personal friends. I ran into him in the hall later and asked him how he liked Minneapolis. "It's cool," he said. "It's nice to get away from New York and see the country. Tomorrow I think I'll just wander around downtown."

Always the booster, I said, "You ought to go down Hennepin and check out the Uptown neighborhood. It's a little more youth-oriented. There's a beautiful chain of lakes. Take a bus..."

"Or a tax-EE," he replied in his French-inflected English.

Strange to say, I ran into Orelsan again the next day as Hilary and I were leaving the theater in the rain following a Holocaust film called Aida's Secrets. He was alone, sans rain gear, heading for the second showing of his new film.

"Are you enjoying the city?" I asked.

"Yes, very much. I went down this morning and  jogged around the lake. Very beautiful."


The Distinguished Citizen

The citizen in question, Daniel Mantovani, has had a successful career in Europe writing novels based in Salas, the small Argentine town where he grew up, but the awards he's won, including eventually the Nobel Prize, seem to have stifled his creativity. He hasn't written a word of fiction in five years, and spends most of his time deflecting honorary degrees and invitations to speak in front of prestigious organizations. But when he receives a note from the mayor of Salas, which he hasn't been back to since he left forty years ago, he decides to accept, almost on the spur of the moment.

The residents of Salas are thrilled to have a Nobel laureate in their midst, and they've arranged for Mantovani to participate in a full slate of events including a local art competition, a fireman's parade, and the unveiling of a statue in the town park. Mantovani naturally runs into several friends from his youth, including his old girl friend, Irene, and his old friend Antonio, who married Irene after Mantovani left town.

There are plenty of opportunities for comedy as Mantovani politely endures the well meant but often tasteless or incipit gestures of hospitality that are thrown his way during the four-day visit. Oscar Martinez won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his deft portrayal of the worldly-wise sophisticate ingratiating himself good-humoredly with a succession of public functionaries, shopkeepers, and ranchers, many of whom have special favors to ask. To take a single example, Mantovani is invited to appear on a local TV show, where the host feeds him one or two lackluster questions and then bursts into a lengthy pitch for the locally produced fruit soda.

But Mantovani has always been a fiercely independent soul, and he can't help rubbing some of the citizens of Salas the wrong way. Meanwhile, the hospitality that Antonio offers to his old friend—a lavish dinner, a trip to the bar, and even a wild boar hunt—carries an aggressive tinge, as if he considers Mantovani's presence a threat to the stability of his marriage. 

It's obvious that Ramiro, the hotel clerk, and Julia, the young woman who all but throws herself at the distinguished citizen, are bright, literate individuals who are perhaps just waiting for their chance to flee Salas the way Mantovani did decades ago. 

As for his old flame Irene, it might have been worthwhile getting to know her better. She seems to be the only one who still connects with Mantovani on a personal level. When she describes her life as "pleasant" he chides her good-naturedly for her bad choice of adjective. When he refers to her work with children condescendingly as "service," he's trying to be appreciative but she's offended. Later, when he describes her house as "beautiful," she scoffs at the unimaginative word choice.

 "Return journeys" have been a fertile source of humor and drama from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood to Fellini's Amarcord and even Charlize Theron's Young Adult.  Here director Gastón Dupra has chosen to paint on a broad canvas while following a relatively narrow arc from comedy to menace without lingering overmuch in the space between. It's a compelling portrait all the same, rich in incidental detail while also offering plenty of food for thought regarding the primal sources of creativity. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Film Fest II


Clash
This Egyptian film, the best that I've seen at the festival so far,  is shot entirely within the confines of a police paddy wagon. Of course, the people incarcerated in the van sometimes look out the windows, and we see what they see. But the point of view is always from within the van, and most of the action is centered there.

Who are these people? The first two to be jailed are journalists, one of them Egyptian, the other Egyptian/American. Others are tossed in during the first ten minutes of the film. Some of them are casual protesters, others are members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whom the police are on the lookout for. Later a Mullah and his daughter are rounded up. Eventually, after a few missteps, even  a member of the police force finds himself inside. Thus, the film falls into that time-honored genre that also includes Maupassant's short novel Ball of Fat, which takes places in a stagecoach during the Franco-Prussian War, and John Ford's Wild West classic Stagecoach.


Inside the van, tensions arise between various factions. Meanwhile the violence ebbs and flows outside, and soon doctrinaire religious arguments wither in the face of more personal problems: someone catches a bullet; someone needs to pee. With no room in the local prisons to inter anyone, the police eventually abandon the van entirely.

Perhaps eighty percent of the dialog is delivered at shouting level. But as darkness descends things quiet down ... for a while. A harrowing, visceral experience, from which there appears to be no way out. 


The King's Choice
Most history texts give the German invasion of Norway three sentences at best. In this superbly realized film, we experience it moment by moment. The film focuses its attention on the decision facing King Haakon VII whether to abdicate, collaborate with the new pro-German government of the unpopular Fascist Quisling, who has seized power via a coup d' etat, or attempt an escape. The German ambassador to Norway is convinced he can work out a peaceful solution, though he can't seem to convince his fellow Nazis to put the invasion on hold while he does so. The king himself recognizes that further resistance would be futile and cost many Norwegian lives, though if he capitulated, it would further undermine the democratic institutions Hitler is seeking to destroy.
The period detail is expertly rendered, and also the panic that arises when civilian life is suddenly upended by aerial attacks and the arrival of foreign troops.  Further drama is supplied by the differing approaches of Haakon and his son, Olav, as to how to respond to the situation.

One Week and a Day
A comedy about grieving? Indeed. Eyal and his wife, Vicky, have lost their son. As the last day of the week long Shiva comes to an end, Eyal remains bitter and cantankerous. (Maybe he's always been like that?) But when he returns to the hospice to retrieve a blanket, he comes upon his son's medical marijuana, and decides to "loosen up." Trouble is, he can't seem to roll a joint successfully. He enlists the help of a neighbor kid, Zoller, who was once his son's friend, and together the two of them embark on a series of silly, touching, and absurd adventures.


The film works because director Asoph Polonsky keeps to the essentials, and establishes a delicate counterpoint between Eyal, who never quite loses his latently hostile attitude toward everything from playing checkers to air guitar, and Zoller, who turns out to be a true space cadet. Genuine humanity shows its face now and then, especially at the cemetery and also at the hospice, where a sweet young girl lightens the mood at a critical juncture as this unlikely trio perform an "air" operation on her dying mother. The ending is also perfect--though I'm not going to descfribe it here.

----But not every film in the festival is a masterpiece. Far from it. The following films were worthwhile, but not entirely satisfying ...

The Theater of Life
During the Milan 2015 World’s Fair, renowned chef Massimo Bottura had an idea. Rather than tossing out the food being wasted every day at the expo, why not create meals for the refugees and homeless of Milan out of it? The result was the creation of Refettorio Ambrosiano, a stylish soup kitchen serving meals prepared by some of the world's most eminent chefs.


The filmmakers listen in on the kitchen-chatter of the chefs, and also include a number of mouth-watering food segments, but they spend more of the film interviewing the homeless individuals involved to find out who they are and what brought them to such a low point in life. Some are refugees from Africa, others are drug addicts, or simply unskilled laborers whose lives have come undone.

Director Peter Svatek comments: “What is home for a homeless person or a political refugee? Massimo says chefs can no longer cook for just the elite ignoring the ethical issues about feeding the planet. These are the questions the film tackles. The Refettorio became a home. It was fascinating and beautiful to see how these great chefs transformed waste food into delicious meals."

All the same, it makes for an odd juxtaposition of worlds, raising the question of whether haut cuisine should even be pursued or supported  in a world where, for many, misfortune and suffering are always right around the corner.


Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

This documentary is ostensibly about poet, essayist, and agricultural reformer Wendell Berry, but we learn very little about the man in the course of it, except that he liked to look out the window of his office toward his farm. Much of the film is devoted to interviewing one or two farmers who found it necessary to buy more machinery, chemicals, and land in order to survive economically. But this is a very old story by now, and it has been told better elsewhere. We spend another large chunk of time listening to a man named Steve Smith talk about how he got into organic farming because industrial farming simply wasn't much fun. (At the time, Smith had never heard of Wendell Berry.) A likeable guy, but once again, very old news.

Some of the most rewarding moments are given over to an interview with Berry's wife, Tanya, who has some quizzical and insightful things to say about her husband and the life they led together. Berry himself is represented only in still photographs, sound bites from a debate he engaged in long, long with then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, and a video of a short segment of a speech he gave in Spokane, WA back when people were wearing bellbottoms.

Lipstick Under My Burka

The single word that might best describe this film is one that, in my day, was popular among junior high kids: immature. It chronicles the love lives of four women in a small town in India, with a voice-over drawn from a Harlequin Romance that one of the four is reading. (Really.) All of these women want to have a more adventurous and sexually fulfilling life, free of the oppressive demands of their neighborhoods, fathers, boyfriends, or fiancés. Such desires are not only understandable, but they lead to plenty of humorous and moving episodes of generational and cross-gender conflict and self-revelation. The issues raised by the film are very real, and touches of humanity are everywhere, but the film is overly ambitious, and as a result, the characterizations are shallow, the situations stereotypical, the resolutions jejune. In comparison with any film by Asghar Farhadi, for example, nothing in the movie has much gravity.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Film Fest 2017 -the First Weekend



You try to resist it. (Yet you drive down to St. Anthony Main to get a program several weeks before the fest.)

You thumb through the catalog muttering to yourself: Afghanistan, Serbia, India, Azerbaijan—they all sound alike. (Yet you find yourself circling things for future reference.)

You say, "No point in going on the first weekend; everything will be so crowded." Then you read a review that sounds good in the Tribune or ArtScape and start to worry that the film will sell out. (Some of them probably already have.)

So you buy a six-pack pass online and secure a few  tickets. Just four films during the weekend, three more trickling on during the week, and that final, hard-to-get ticket to the bio-pic about Emily Dickinson way off in week two. That ends up exhausting  two six-packs but what the heck. It's fascinating stuff, and most of it will never be showing in the vicinity on the big screen again.

There tend to be long lines stacked up to get into each show, due largely to the fact that the scheduling is tight and the five theaters seldom clear out swiftly. That's often because the directors are often present to answer questions after the screening.

But film fest crowds are perhaps the most interesting, lively, and diverse of any you'll come across in the Twin Cities, and eavesdropping is often part of the fun.


J: Beyond Flamenco (Spain) The latest installment of director Carlos Saura's long string of films devoted to Iberian folk culture, J: Beyond Flamenco focuses on a form called the jota. Few people have heard of the jota, which may explain why that word doesn't appear in the film's title, though "flamenco," which everyone has heard of, does. The jota isn't "beyond" flamenco, however. It's a far less exotic form from the northern region of Aragon, and it occasionally seems related to Portuguese and even Alpine dance and song forms. Stringing together a long series of staged set pieces shot in the studio, Saura convinces us that the leaping jota is just as interesting as fado or flamenco, with numerous sub-regional variations and urban modifications. A total delight.


El Classico (Iraq/Norway) This simple love story about a "little person" (AKA dwarf) who is rejected as a candidate for marriage by the father of the woman he loves becomes a road movie stretching from the deserts of rural Iraq to the Green Zone of Bagdad and eventually all the way to Madrid. No, the protagonist doesn't kidnap his bride to be. Rather, he steals a pair of shoes from his prospective father-in-law and heads off with his brother on his four-wheeler across the barren countryside, with the idea in mind of delivering the shoes to the soccer superstar Ronaldo. Mostly charming, though occasionally horrific.


The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Finland) This lush black-and-white film tells the true story of Finnish boxer Olli Mäki and his efforts to win the world featherweight boxing title in 1962. Mäki was a baker by trade, and from the first he seems a bit out of his league as the American champion and his entourage appear on the scene. In fact, it appears that his promoter and his big-spending sponsors are far more eager to win the title for Finland than Olli is. He has to lose a good deal of weight to qualify for the bout, and all the media attention surrounding the build-up doesn't make things any easier for him. Nor does his good-natured girlfriend, whose radiant presence lights up the screen whenever she appears. Less of a sports film than a nostalgic look back to a bucolic landscape and a simpler era, you leave the theater with the urge to head to the Iron Range, take a sauna, and then jump shrieking into a lake.


La Danse (U.S.A.) Frederick Wiseman had documented the inner workings of prisons, strip clubs, art galleries, and many other institutions. In this film, which dates from 2009, he takes an extended look at the Paris Opera Ballet. I'm not a big fan of ballet, but I thoroughly enjoyed these sequences, during which the dancers are wearing T-shirts, the studio spaces have the worn-out look of nineteenth-century buildings, and the choreographers running the sessions are calling out points of criticism every two or three seconds."Elbow down." "Don't move your hip; sweep the hand and the hip will follow." "You're frowning all the time."  To my unpracticed eye, all dance moves look not only difficult but exquisite, and often a little bit silly, too. Little did I know how much is required to get things right--or what "right" looks like. And the episodes get even more entertaining when the choreographers start bickering among themselves.


Wiseman also takes us onto the performance stage from time to, and into the cafeteria, and the offices where the group's artistic director discusses dancer selection with a guest choreographer or encourages a very young member of the troupe not to become too self-critical. But unlike most ballet movies, which fuel themselves on melodramatic conflict between high-strung and competitive dancers, Wiseman's portrait is devoid of personal interactions between individual dancers aside from the ones they engage in physically as part of their routines. None of the dancers are interviewed. It's as if we wandered into the building, stood in a corner, and no one seemed to mind, or even notice.

Watching La Danse is a lot like spending a few hours in Paris, but with no croissants or espresso in sight. It's a pleasant experience, and after the three-hour film the presenters dialed up Wiseman himself in Paris via Skype, projecting the image of his face onto the big screen.

He turned out to be a very sharp and good-humored guy. Someone in the audience asked him how he arranged to get such intimate access to a vaunted, three-hundred-year-old institution.

"I'll tell you a secret," he replied. "I've never told this to anyone before...I asked them."    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stabat Mater Dolorosa


The Christian narrative has traditionally been broken up into a series of static tableaus that can easily be absorbed by an illiterate congregation of the faithful—the annunciation, the nativity, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection. These events and many others were rendered time and again on canvas and in stained glass and stone to serve not only as architectural decoration but as objects of contemplation, solace, and guidance.

The literary element came into play during the service, often most powerfully as an element of musical performance. Masses were (as they are today) patched together from various compositions, some of which took on a life of their own. One of these was the Stabat Mater Dolorosa—the Grieving Mother who stands before her crucified son.

Scholars have not been able to identify with precision who composed the verses of the poem familiarly known as the Stabat Mater, but the thirteenth-century Franciscan Jacopone de Todi is the most likely and also, perhaps, the most colorful candidate. Few read Jacopone today, but In his magisterial History of Italian Literature, Francesco de Sanctis argued that the simple friar opened out "a new road" in poetic expression, with greater sincerity and humanity than we find in the poems of his Provencal predecessors.

Iacopone’s poetry is that of a saint moved by divine love. Not for him the Provençals, the troubadours, the Courts of Love; that whole world is non-existent for him. He knows nothing of philosophy and theology, and is quite un­scholastic. Nor does he value art, or language, or style: indeed, he seems purposely to speak like the common people, just as the saints took pleasure in dressing themselves in the garments of the poor. His whole longing is to unload a heart overflowing with love—a heart exalted by religious feeling.

The fact the St. Francis's religious mission was inspired by the poetry of the troubadours ought not to be forgotten, but this doesn't undermine de Sanctis's  argument that Jacopone's poetry has a  "true vein of popular, clear, and spontaneous inspiration that we miss in the works of the learned poets..."
De Sanctis continues:

Iacopone’s works reflect Italian life under one of its aspects more truly than those of any troubadour. He gives us the reli­gious feeling in its first native expression; religion as it is found in the uncultivated classes, not clouded by theology or scholas­ticism and carried to the heights of mysticism and ecstasy. He communes directly with God, the Virgin, the saints and the angels, speaks to them with domestic familiarity, and paints them with perfect freedom of imagination, with those touch­ingly pious and affectionate details that could only be imagined by a fancy moved by love. His chief idol is Mary, and he speaks to her with the insistence and intimacy of a person who is sure of his faith, and knows that he loves.

However, after reading through the many verses of the Stabat Mater, it strikes me that there is more poetry in De Sanctis's prose than in Jacopone's Latin verses. The poem is highly repetitive, referring repeatedly to Mary's suffering as she stands before her son hanging on the cross. Evidently the poet himself cannot drum up any particular compassion at the gruesome sight of a crucifixion, because he asks Mary repeatedly to help him feel:

Come then, Mother, fount of love, make me feel the strength of your sorrow so that I may mourn with you.

The sentiments are slightly bizarre. The poet is asking Mary to help him feel her sorrow, but he doesn't seem to be directly  interested in Jesus's suffering. Yet he later decides he wants to share in that suffering, too, and he asks Mary once again to help him:

Make me by his wounds be wounded, make me inebriated with the cross and  with the flowing blood of your son

Chock it up to extreme viceral bewilderment in the fact of suffering. But as sixty years of rock 'n' roll have taught us, repetitive and nonsensical  lyrics can have a powerful effect when they're driving music of genuine emotional power. And that's what the Stabat Mater has done, time and again. Many eminent composers have set the poem to music, among them Palestrina, Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Boccherini, Haydn, Schubert, Rossini, Verdi, Szymanowski, Poulenc, and even Arvo Pärt.

I have CDs of most of the famous works, mostly by coincidence, and I was almost starting to think of them as a "collection," but I recently came upon a blog maintained by a man who owns more than 500 recordings of different compositions based on Jocopone's poem. He's reviewed most of them on his blog, which also provides eight or nine English translations of the poem itself.
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We went down to the Ordway the other day to hear the SPCO do Pergolesi's version, which is my favorite. (You can listen to a performance with a slightly larger orchestra here.) I learned in the program notes that based on its publishing history, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater might well have been the most popular composition of the eighteenth century. I can see why. An economical forty-minute piece written for soprano, alto, organ, and small orchestra, it consists of a series of solos and duets, and the music is plaintive, cutting, haunting, lyrical, and occasionally quite buoyant, considering the subject matter.

In the first half of the SPCO program, a concerto grossi by Loccatelli was coupled with a very early symphony by Haydn; it seemed interminable, though it was only half an hour long. The second half was devoted to the Stabat Mater, and it went by in a flash.

The streets were glistening as we walked back to the parking ramp in the rain through downtown St. Paul, surrounded by clumps of women and men wearing green Minnesota Wild jerseys. The Wild had just lost their second straight playoff game at home, and a promising season was on the verge of going up in smoke, but no one seemed too upset about it. Well, what can you do?

I probably should have been thinking of the suffering of Mary, but I was actually thinking about the beauty of female voices in close harmony. Death is the mother of beauty, Yeats says somewhere. (Or was it Kawabata?) But I think Pergolesi deserves most of the credit here for weaving these two voices into such a complex and moving emotional experience. Sorry to say, he died at the age of 26, not long after completing this enduring work.      

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Foreign Tongues - Three Concerts


The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé was of the opinion that poetic expressions become more evocative when the things they refer to remain elusive. He even went so far as to suggest that the  ‘point’ of a poem should reside for the most part in the beauty of the sounds rather than the content of the "message."  I suppose this is a gross simplification of a subtle approach to poetry, but it dovetails with my own experience to some degree. I have to admit that most of the vocal music I love and return to is being sung in languages I don't understand.

Even the most stirring lyrics are likely to become banal with repetition, if you happen to know what they say. On the other hand, stripped of their meaning, the same words float on the music, conveying its emotional content with little need for context. Well, this isn't entirely true. If you're listening to a song by Schubert, say, or Edith Piaf, it helps to know the gist of what it's about. That's why they invented supertitles, and I wish they made use of them in recitals as much as they do at the opera house.

By chance, I attended three vocal concerts last weekend, all of them in foreign tongues. On Thursday night Hilary and I drove to St. Paul to hear Swedish soprano Miah Perrson sing songs by Grieg and Schumann.

Not being adept at describing nuances of vocal expression, I can do no better than to echo the remarks of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who heard the same concert a week before I did.

He makes mention of Persson's "radiant sound and refreshingly direct expressivity." That just about nails it.  He goes on the observe that "she brings bloom and sweetness to her voice when called for. But she turns her sound slightly earthy or pale when the emotional situation demands it."

Not knowing German, I really had no idea what any particular situation demanded, but I will say that I liked Ms. Persson personally. She sang forcefully but also plaintively, as if she wanted to please the audience, but wasn't sure she was going to do so.

Or maybe it was simply the material. A large section of the program was given over to Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” (“Woman’s Love and Life”). At a pre-concert lecture I'd learned that this song cycle depicts various stages in the emotional life of a woman, most of which seem to depend on how her relations with her boyfriend (and later husband) are faring. The titles of the songs, rendering into English, might be: "Since I Saw Him," "He, the Noblest of All,""I Cannot Grasp or Believe It," "You, Ring Upon My Finger," and so on.

Of course, it would be possible to keep the program open to the proper page and read along. Maybe I should have done that. But I can't stand the sound of rustling programs, and I don't want to contribute to it myself. Sometimes it reminds me of the sound I sometimes hear at night of worms pulling dead leaves down under the surface of the soil to eat them.

How do worms eat leaves? I can't imagine.

It would have been nice if Ms. Persson had said a few words to the audience during the performance. She was among friends, after all. Perhaps her English was shaky.

Her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, exhibited the flawless delicacy and selflessness that many accompanists do. He did a solo turn himself, and it was so simple and beautiful that the hall was ringing, not with virtuosity, but with sentiment and expressiveness.

Ms. Persson received a standing ovation, as do all performer in the Twin Cities, and she returned to the stage for a brief encore: Grieg’s “Jeg elsker deg” (“I love you”). She even announced the tune in English. It was a nice send-off.
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The University of Minnesota Opera staged two-thirds of Puccini's Il Trittico over the weekend at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. In Italian, of course. The event was a hit—at least as far as I was concerned. 


The music was lovely, but the staging contributed just as much to the pleasure of the evening.

In the first place, by tossing "Il Taborro" out of the trio the producers gained an hour of show time. This made it more convenient to reverse the order of the remaining two numbers. In the original version, the comic tale, "Gianni Schicchi," appears third, following a) a grisly verismo tale of adultery and murder and b) a tale of heartless confinement followed by a tragic suicide. Appearing in that slot,  it tends to seem inconsequential—basically an elaborate farcical frame for the brief if unforgettable aria "O mio babbino caro." It plays much better considered on its own merits as a comedy, and the decision to set the story in modern times was also effective, making the class distinction between Gianni Schicchi and the scheming and avaricious Donati family whom he hoodwinks more obvious, and funnier.

The director of "Suor Angelica" took greater risks, setting the drama in a vaguely Asian setting. All of the nuns wore masks, and their gestures were choreographed in a brutal, mechanistic style that was probably meant to convey the joyless and repressive atmosphere of the convent. That was the effect, at any rate. The staging succeeded in stripping the opera of its latently sentimental trappings, but it grew tiresome long before the story was over, dehumanizing the nuns in a way that doesn't match the details of the story. Then, in the final scene, we're jerked in the opposite direction, as a huge portrait of a sweet little boy appears on a screen, fading to a graphic that's presumably a close-up of Christ's suffering.

Despite these shortcomings, the singing was lovely and powerful, and the supertitles kept us abreast of what was actually going on.
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The following afternoon, we found ourselves on the campus of the College of St. Catherine to hear guitarist Sharon Isbin and soprano Isabel Leonard perform some Spanish music as part of the college's Women of Substance series. We'd gotten the tickets as the result of a reckless bid at a silent auction at a charity fund-raiser. The money went to Uganda. (Good thing).  We went to the concert. (Also pretty good). 


I have never liked O'Shaughnessy auditorium much. Perhaps nobody has. I think of it as concrete brutalist modern, but architectural historian Larry Millett has a more nuanced take:

This large theater—a confronta­tional hunk of brick, concrete, and glass that closes off the east side of the quadrangle—remains the most important, and most controversial, of St. Catherine's modern-era buildings. Scaled in a way that emphasizes its brawn, it's a shot of architectural tes­tosterone delivered to the heart of the campus, and it has a kind of bad-boy strut.

Also worth noting is that the auditorium, which seats 1800, has no central aisles. This means that you might have to squeeze past twenty or twenty-five people to reach your seat, and just pray there won't be a fire.

The lobby seems to have been an afterthought, awkwardly narrow, but that means it can seem bubbly and exciting even when the event itself is a flop.


And while I'm in complaining mode, I might also mention that the program notes leave a great deal to be desired. For the Music for Spain concert we attended, the brochure contains three pages of advertising and copious information about the performers, their recordings, and all the awards they've won, but absolutely nothing about the music to be performed beyond the titles of the works. Why? Those who receive a program have already bought a ticket. They don't need to be convinced that the artists they've come to see are worth their attention. But they might like to find out a bit about Xavier Montsalvatge, one of the composers whose work is being performed.

And how about García Lorca, who wrote all the songs on the first half of the program? Might this be the famous poet Federico García Lorca? Did he compose music? Did he also write the words to these songs? Are they folk songs? Did he compose the songs or collect them? Nothing.


The concert itself was worthwhile, and by the end of it I felt that I'd "gotten to know" both Isbin and Leonard a little better, due to their slightly caustic on-stage patter. But when all is said and done, the expressive range of music from Spain is fairly limited. And once you've developed a familiarity with the flamenco forms from which most of these compositions derive, the "classical" versions seem a little tame. That may explain why the "art" songs on the second half of the program struck me as more interesting than the Canciones espanolas antiguas on the first half.

Guitarist Isbin made matters worse by including three of the most threadbare pieces in the guitar repertoire in the program. I'm referring to Albeniz's "Asturias," Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra," and Granados's "Spanish Dance #5." Good heavens. I used to play those pieces! Every guitar student plays them. Sharon plays them better, but so what? How about something with more unfamiliarity and genuine musical interest, like Federico Moreno Torroba's Castles of Spain?

On the other hand, Isbin's instrument had a gorgeous tone. The notes seemed to ring out effortlessly, as if the instrument were playing itself, and the image of a hot knife cutting through butter came to mind several times. (Maybe I was getting hungry, though it was only 3 p.m.)

_____

An hour later we were enjoying a pleasant dinner at a restaurant downtown—also part of the surprise silent-auction purchase—when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was hovering over our table, scrutinizing the half-eaten dish of scalloped potatoes.

"What are those?" the stranger said.

Looking up, I saw that it was Sharon herself. Evidently she'd come downtown to have dinner with some friends.

"We loved your show," I said. "Especially those two songs in the second set—"

"—the Montsalvatge?" she replied, sculpting the syllables of the name in the slightly clipped and edgy tone of high-class Spanish.

"...and also the de Falla."

"Well, thank you very much. The audience was wonderful," she replied in her strong, raspy voice.

It was a fitting end to a very musical weekend.

And it was in English.