Sunday, May 28, 2017

On a Binge - Fado

I'm not a binge TV-watcher--not much of a TV watcher at all--and I keep my drinking strictly under control—for the most part.

But the other night I became a binge-listener.

Looking back on that wild night, it strikes me that the causes—in so far as causality can have any bearing on the exuberance and spontaneity of human behavior—were three.

1) A few days earlier a friend had come over for dinner, and I was trying to describe the part that standards from the Big Band Era play in my new book, All the Things You Are. This reminded him of the recent string of albums that Bob Dylan released consisting entirely of such tunes. He's a big fan of those discs. The next morning I drove down to the library and checked out a copy of Shadows in the Night. I liked it. Dylan's craggy voice and droll phrasing were perfect for a tune like "I'm a Fool to Love You."

2) The next night we were having dinner at the house of some musician-friends who are going to the Azores soon. Naturally the conversation turned to that old-fashioned  Portuguese folk-form, fado. There is no way that anyone can fully explain or describe the "saudade" that lies at the root of fado's melancholy charm, but many have tried. Our host pulled up this description on his phone and read it out to us as we sat on the porch under the stars :
Saudade is ‘the sorrow of not having enjoyed that which was there to be enjoyed; it is the vehement but resigned desire to enjoy a thing we were deeply attached to; and also the yearning to see, or be in the company of, someone from whom we have reluctantly been parted’.    
3) The third and undoubtedly least significant causal element may have been the glass of wine from the Dāo region of central Portugal that I poured myself the following night while I was sautéing the onions for an egg pie. I put a CD by Christina Branca that I hadn't heard in years on the stereo while I was cooking.  It fit the mood of the moment.

Next up on the queue was Sylvia McNair singing the songs of Jerome Kern, but that seemed a little frantic and artificial after what we'd just been listening to. "Why don't we put on some more fado?" Hilary said. And thus the binge began.

In the course of the evening we listened to every fado record we own from start to finish. Six albums: that isn't such a big deal. After Christina Branca we went with Ana Moura, and then Mariza. After that it was Amália Rodrigues, the undisputed queen of fado for thirty years and more back in the WWII era. A second CD by Branco, and a wrap-up with Mariza.

Six hours of unrelenting melancholy, mostly transmitted by nothing more than a bass, a woman's voice, and a Portuguese guitar. Occasionally a guitar would also appear, but neither orchestral nor electronic sounds intruded. There were no drums. Branca's tunes sometimes seemed to be drifting into pop, and Mariza'a albums had an occasional cello or muted trumpet, but things never got out of hand.

And I ought to add that unlike American blues, which can become dreary, fado usually has a lilt (hence the accuracy of the description quoted above: resigned but vehement. And it also has another quality that's as important to it as the bent guitar note is to blues: an ornamental catch in the throat near the end of a line, like an extra squeeze of the heart.

The lyrics tend to be simple, to judge from the ones Hilary read to me from the liner notes occasionally during the course of the evening.

“Last Sunday I passed by the house where Mariquinhas once lived, but everything is so changed that I didn’t see anywhere the famous windows...I saw nothing that could remind me of her.”

“The old women in the beach say you’re not coming back. They’re mad! I know, my love, that you never really left, everything around me says you’re still here with me.”

In the same way that flamenco vocals thrive on a fierce, coarse, open-voiced singing style (the rajo gitano), fado draws much of its appeal from the purity and focused intensity of the singer's voice, as well as the crispness with which even the most long and mournful notes are terminated. Thus fado is typically melancholy but seldom maudlin, and the rapid-fire picking of the mandolin player (a Portuguese guitar is basically a mandolin) also tempers the prevailing mood.

Anyone who wants to learn more might find the website The Place of Longing interesting. Better yet, make a stop at iTunes and sample a few numbers. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Terroir of Door

There is something a little odd about living in the spacious suburban home of someone you've never met. And I hadn't made things easier by zipping off regularly to visit some park or preserve. On my third day at Write On! I finally met Jaime, the organization's administrative assistant—a title that I'm sure doesn't do justice to her role in keeping things afloat.

One problem the center faces is finding places to hold workshops, readings, and other events in a part of the world where community spaces are scarce. (My upcoming workshop was scheduled for the basement of an art gallery in Sturgeon Bay.) Jaime showed me an impressive architectural rendering of the new residency building they were going to build (evidently designed to house five or six writers at the same time) and an enormous events center, which would be located across the road in the field where the mystery bicycler now loved to roam. 

"Now that Egg harbor is in the process of building a new community center," Jaime told me, "We're trying to determine if we really need to build such a grandiose center ourselves."

Poking around online, I noticed that in March a group of concerned citizens sued the city of Egg Harbor seeking an injunction to halt construction of the community center, arguing that the village never held a public referendum on the project, as required by law. Evidently the city overcame that hurdle at its next meeting by rescinding the statute requiring a referendum, and later formed a Friends of the Library group to more easily move the project ahead. Such controversies are endemic to village life, I suppose. From what I could tell, the "concerned citizens" are mostly concerned about their taxes, and it got me to thinking about old Ibsen plays and the squabbles that occasionally erupted on Northern Exposure. But this is for real, and it undoubtedly affects the community vibe.

“It’s created this feud and disharmony in the village that is affecting a lot of people,” one member of the friends group remarked in a recent Door County Pulse article. “That is a really bad side effect. People are angry. There’s tons of misinformation out there. This is a pretty nice little village and to have this fight going on is not a nice thing. It’s going to take time to heal."

The judge who heard the case denied the request for an injunction but described the actions of the village as "bad." Removed from the realities of the situation, I am charmed by a world in which words and phrases such as "tons of," "bad," "pretty nice," and "not nice" are still in common use.

I finally met Jared, the center's director, the next morning, though the timing was not propitious. I arrived at the center at the same time as a woman with whom he'd scheduled a meeting, and the three of us stood together in the front hall shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. I knew that Jared wanted to make me feel welcome, but that he also wanted to get on with his meeting, so I thought I would add a touch of levity by showing him what I'd just bought at a hardware store in Fish Creek. Fumbling awkwardly through the plastic bag I was holding, I finally produced my contribution to the writing center—a plastic hard-boiled egg slicer.

"We used to have one of those," Jared said with a smile. "Sometimes people accidentally walk off with things."

On that note I made my exit, though for the next hour, as I sat at the desk in I my upstairs bedroom/study, I could hear the murmur of voices below me, punctuated from time to time by Jared's deep, mellow, rolling laugh, which reminded me of a pot of water slowly coming to a boil. It was a "nice" sound.

The pieces were beginning to fall into place, though no visitor can ever succeed in acquiring even a fraction of the rooted knowledge that the natives possess. Of course, long-time residents often develop very different views of the same neighborhood or and environment. No one—not even Norbert Blei—has ever gotten to know the peninsula fully.

I was discussing this issue with Peter Sloma, the bookseller, one day. I think we got on to the subject by way of a discussion of how the vocabulary of a given language shapes the thoughts of anyone who uses it. I believe this theory can easily be overstated. To be bound by our language presumes that we already know it fully. But during our discussion I brought up an example of a French word that has become useful to English speakers: terroir.

That word probably has meanings of which I'm unaware, but it's often used in the wine trade to refer to the effect that subtleties of a given locale—soil, weather, drainage, climate—have on the flavor of a wine. And it's true that wines from plots in Burgundy a few hundred feet apart can have distinctly different tastes, due to the differing terroir.

I mentioned to Peter that I'd been reading a little book called The Novelist's Lexicon: Writers on the Words That Define Their Work, in which Annie Proulx makes a case for expanding the application of that term to include the way that a given work of fiction is tied to the locale where it takes place. In short, the soil we walk on, the air we breathe, and the people we rub shoulders with—our personal terroir— shape who we are and how we behave. "The characters bear the same relation to a region as the grapes do to their vineyard," she writes.

It all sounds a little deterministic to me, and perhaps Proulx would agree. She adds:
"Just as grapevines are subject to the vagaries of weather and cli­mate, so are the lives of the characters affected by forces they cannot control: weather and climate, as well as economic and political decisions made by strangers in distant cities. This half-recognized powerlessness often afflicts the characters with submissive resignation (mythologized as “toughing it out”) and hopeful faith in a deity. And those humans and animals who came before, and whom we know only through archaeological evidence, still cause deep reverberations of the past which continue to sound in the fiction, if only faintly."
I find this theory unappealing and inaccurate, which might explain why I don't like Proulx's work much. On the other hand, I evidently accept it to some degree, because when I visit a place, I'm on the lookout for details that will offer a point of ingress into "what's going on," as if I could come to an understanding of the soul of Door County by watching people buy jam at a local farm market.

I made my most fruitful contacts along these lines on Thursday morning at the Great Lakes Book Club. It was a brilliant morning and I wasn't sure the conference room in the Marine Museum in Sturgeon Bay was where I wanted to be, but I took the plunge, and was very impressed by the men and women, most of them retired, perhaps, that I met there. They were serious-minded, articulate, concerned about their beaches and woods and communities, and surprisingly well-versed in environmental law. No one butted in, no one rambled on, and Jared, who was running the meeting, hardly felt the need to say a word. It probably helped that the book under review, Dan Egan's The Life and Death of the Great Lakes, is fascinating, well written, and pertinent to the club's theme.

One of the Write On! board members had brought along a retired ore boat captain who showed us a video and answered questions about his trade. Someone said, "You should write a book like the one we read last summer. What was it called? Captain's Daughter?"

"You might be referring to a little blue book called Ship Captain's Daughter," I said.

"Yeah. That's the one." I had to smile. I had been involved in editing and designing that little book, and I was happy to know that people way off on the shores of Lake Michigan were enjoying it. 

One woman told me after the meeting that she'd lived in Door County for seventy years. "And I'm fifth generation," she added.

Another man, originally from Cleveland, told me he'd written a book about the good old days in Sturgeon Bay. I could find it downstairs in the gift shop.

And I was chatting with another man when his phone rang. After taking a look at the text, he said, "I have to get going. The water has been over the causeway to the Cana Island Lighthouse, and I've got to go re-grade the road now that the wind had shifted. But one thing I want to tell you. If you haven't been there already, you should go see the Ridges."    

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.