Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Existential Threat to Existentialism

 Word usage changes over time, with new words appearing and old words getting bent out of shape due to ignorance or convenience until, in time, they settle into a new pattern of meaning. In a single work Sir Thomas Browne coined the words “electricity,” “hallucination,” “pathology,” and perhaps a dozen more that we still use today, including "approximate," "aquiline," "cadaverous," "causation,"  "coexistence," and "elevator."

It's interesting to be reminded that the words "conscience" and "conscious" were once synonymous, although one seems to be a noun and the other a verb.  How could that be?

More distressing, perhaps—though some might consider it an honor—is to be a witness to the wanton appropriation of a useful and perhaps even poetic word for use in a new and vulgar way.

We all have our pet peeves. One of mine is to hear the word "existential" dumbed down, battered out of shape, and put to an utterly banal use. This happens every time a newscaster makes use of the phrase "existential threat." Such a remark is meant to suggest, I think, that the thing or concept being referred to is a threat to our existence, or to the existence of whatever is being specified. For example, "Rising seawater poses an existential threat to all coastal cities worldwide."

It would have been far clearer, more accurate, and also more vivid, to have said, "Rising seawater threatens to submerge and destroy the waterfront of many major coastal cities." Don't you think?

Yet the phrase "existential threat" has a trendy and ominous aura that draws what strength it has from the disquieting concept with which it shares no real affinities, namely, existentialism itself.

Existentialism is a, to put it bluntly, a form of romanticism. On the other hand, it's highly prolix and intellectual, as may be suggested by the voluminous tracts produced by Soren Kierkegaard or the two-inch-thick tomb, Being and Nothingness, in which Jean-Paul Sartre masticates at great length the notion that things either are or are not

But at the same time, existentialism also tends to be vague. The three concepts with which it's most closely associated are ennui, anxiety, and dread. It might be said, in fact, that existentialism, like romanticism, is less a philosophy than a mood. But whereas romanticism rolled in on the surf of the French Revolution,  exhibits a hopeful or idealistic sheen, and often inspires meaningful activity,  existentialism gurgled up from the quagmires of the First World War, came of age along with the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation, and therefore, at a loss as to what to DO, dwells in passivity, fog, and depression, or at best focuses its attention on what has become known as "the gratuitous act."

Nowadays both moods are prevalent during adolescence, and there's a lot to be said, both at that stage and also later in life, for brooding, yearning,  and aspiring. The detachment such thoughts foster allow an individual to reevaluate things and change direction. The problems arise when such ruminations become an end in themselves, a badge of identity, or even a self-bestowed mark of distinction.

And this has been the fate of much existential literature.

As early as 1934, the Italian philosopher Guido de Ruggiero wrote:

Human life, when it is normal and balanced, is a synthesis of individual and universal elements, of freedom and discipline, of immediate spiritual movements and of abiding values, of existence and essence. When this vital synthesis is broken, one of the elements affirms itself to the detriment of the other and undergoes a pathological growth damaging the health of the whole organism. This is precisely what we find in the existentialist philo­sophy which, as a reaction against universal concepts and values, gives a pathological development to the individual and contingent element of existence by lifting it to a ruling position and making it the measure of all values.

This is somewhat of an overstatement, I think, but it does underscore the fact that existentialism is better considered a mood or a platform of inquiry than any sort of full-fledged doctrine. Philosophy in the guise of poetry, let's say. Beatniks and Parisian boulevards at its best, gulags and concentration camps at its worst. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who is sometimes credited with coining the term, soon rejected "existentialism"  as a label for his own work, preferring to associate his thought with broader currents of Socratic dialog. The essay "On the Ontological Mystery," which appears in the nifty paperback collection of Marcel's essays titled The Philosophy of Existentialism, would be a good place to begin an exploration of his subtle, questing, and fruitful approach.   

There was a time when I enjoyed dipping from time to time into an essay by Heidegger, a religious tract by Kierkegaard, or a clutch of aphorisms by Nietzsche. Though I seldom agreed with the ideas being advanced, I wasn't sure I really understood them, and I got the impression they'd arisen from a deep-rooted anguish or a need to untangle the seeming contradictions of "existence." In recent years I find myself lingering in those forests less often, having become convinced that the initial frisson such radical critiques provide is the best thing they have to offer.

Nevertheless, I cringe whenever I hear a journalist associating existentialism, albeit inadvertently, with pandemic, global warming, or some other looming disaster. Existential threat? Never. Existential crisis? Perhaps. Existentialism is a land of theory and poetry that we enter of our own free will in an effort to diffuse the fog, confusion, and distress we sometimes feel in the face of existence, and perhaps, find a way out.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Film Fest Wrap Up

 As the film fest winds to a close, we're torn between film fatigue and the awareness that only a smattering of the films on offer will return later—and it's difficult to say which. We took two days off to do a little camping near the Iowa border and returned to the small screen with renewed enthusiasm.

Here are a few of the films that made the effort worthwhile:

Havel.  This frothy biopic of the Czech playwright and statesman Václav Havel would be largely incomprehensible to anyone who didn't already know he was a famous playwright and statesman. It's full of bohemian drinking, smoking, adultery, minor run-ins with the authorities followed by more serious clashes, prison terms, cloak-and-dagger episodes, and dramatic betrayals that turn out to be theatrical performances. Cinematically speaking, it doesn't quite measure up to the thematically similar The Lives of Others, but it paints a vivid portrait of Havel and his times, which inspired me to scour the basement stacks for my copy of his essay collection, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice.   

If the Wind Drops. This low-key, moody work follows a French auditor who's been sent to the tiny independent nation of Nagorno-Karabakh to certify that its airport meets the technical and safety requirements for international flights. The country is so small that no other kind of flight could justify building such a facility, and the locals know if the airport is allowed to open, it will increase their visibility on the international scene many fold.

The airport is likely to meet most of the requirements. The only problem lies in the fact that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a slow-burn war since Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence in 1991 to repossess it, and there isn't enough airspace to turn an airplane around in case of changing wind conditions without flying over "enemy" territory.

The local officials are tight-lipped about the exact nature of the fighting in the hills, which we never see, and the auditor can't seem to get an accurate map of the area from his superiors in Brussels to establish where the borders really are. As he checks one thing after another at the terminal, it's as if a surreal, existential fog hangs over the valley, exemplified by the little boy we see repeatedly wandering on the airport runway with large water bottles that he fills in the terminal bathroom and later sells at the local hospital.    

(Though it isn't mentioned in the film, a few months after it was shot, troops from Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh clashed violently. The locals lost and were forced to cede important territories after a ceasefire signed under the auspices of the Russian government, which is planning to take over the airport for military purposes.)

After Antarctica. I've been hearing the name "Will Steger" for about as long as I can remember, but beyond the facts that he's an arctic explorer and an environmentalist, I wouldn't have been able to tell you much about him before seeing this documentary. The film moves back and forth between several points of focus: Steger's historic crossing of Antarctica with an international team of adventurers in 1989; his current solo treks in the Arctic, and personal musings on his checkered personal life and ongoing efforts to sustain an environmental center at his property in the woods north of Ely. Steger comes across as a modest, down home guy with a lot of stamina and an unusually deep-rooted affection for the outdoors.   

I Was, I Am, I Will Be follows an unusual plot-line, as a successful German pilot facing a cancer diagnosis goes on vacation in Turkey with her paramour and takes it into her head to befriend an indigent Turkish gigolo. The film is full of unexpected turns and insights, some of them touching, others not so much, as this unlikely pair negotiates bureaucratic formalities, language  challenges, and social roadblocks together, but from different points of view and with largely different motives.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Film Fest - Two Comedies

Many of the film fest offerings vanish from the site Sunday night, but we managed to catch six films over the weekend, and several were outstanding, including two comedies, Hollywood Fringe, and My Dad is a Sausage.

Hollywood Fringe is a more-than-slightly goofy but largely delightful piece directed by Minneapolis-transplants Megan Huber and Wyatt McDill. It focuses on a few weeks in the lives of a married couple, Travis and Samantha, whose relationship is strained by the fact that after ten years of struggle on the fringes of the entertainment industry, one of their story ideas, Rainbow Farm, has been accepted by a major studio—though Samantha herself has been deemed too old to play the female lead. Travis is willing to drop the project for the sake of marital harmony, but he argues that this might be just the break they've both been working toward. Much of the film, however, is devoted to Samantha's attempts to bolster her self-worth during her idle days by polishing, casting, rehearsing, and putting on a play she wrote years ago that both she and Travis agree is terrible.

The core of affectionately antagonistic marital tit-for-tat between the leads, played by Justin Kirk (of Weeds and Perry Mason fame) and indie stalwart Jennifer Prediger, is solid from the get-go. Kirk is pragmatic and wry as he tries to maintain family harmony while watching the couple's project get distorted out of recognition by the whims of the new producers, but as the film develops most of the humor and energy come from Prediger and the small cast she assembles to put on her play. 

The casting process itself is hilarious, with a long string of wannabes emoting histrionically in front of a white sheet in the couple's apartment, but the three actors Samanta chooses are all amusing and fully capable of holding the screen. The activities Samantha puts them through seem more like psychotherapy than drama rehearsal to me; then again, what do I know about modern theater? In any case, they provide some of the more unlikely and hilarious episodes in the film, and they also underscore one of the movie's central themes. Travis and Samantha had moved to L. A. from Minneapolis out of a desire to escape from a bourgeois life, express themselves, and change the world. What they have come to discover in ten years on the Hollywood fringe is that, to quote one of the executives involved in developing Rainbow Farm,  "show business isn't about shows, it's about business."

Without carrying on too long about the film, I ought to mention one additional element. The title alludes not only to Travis and Samantha's position in the Hollywood entertainment industry but also to the fringe festivals that now take place in many cities in Europe and the United States, including Minneapolis. Performances at these multi-day fests are usually brief, invariably low-budget, and often staged at ad hoc venues or on-the-fly. In quite a few of the scenes in Hollywood Fringe, the camera eventually pulls back to reveal that what we had presumed to be an intimate dialog taking place in a bedroom or kitchen is actually being performed in front of an audience. We accept the scene as having taken place because it makes sense and  furthers the narrative—unlike some of the bizarre time-loops in Mulholland Drive, for example—but this self-reflective perspective adds a subtle tinge of "playing house" or of absurdist drama to the mix, allowing us, for example, to accept and enjoy even the most jejune of Samantha's existential cries de coeur.   

It isn't easy to make an entertaining film in which the characters poke fun at their youthful idealism while at the same time continuing to espouse it effectively, but Hollywood Fringe succeeds at doing so. It reminded me not only of local fringe fest performances I've seen, but also of the early dramas of Max Frisch or Peter Handke (only much more cheerful) and that under-rated film, I (Heart) Huckabees, in which an all-star cast that includes Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, and Isabelle Huppert keep an absurdist eco-metaphysical plot-line afloat by sheer chutzpah.   

The Dutch comedy My Dad is a Sausage explores a vaguely similar theme, as a middle-aged banker almost arbitrarily quits his job and decides to become an actor—a profession about which he knows almost nothing, although his friends told him he was good in his high school. His wife, who's usually off in China securing contracts for her father's line of chocolates, is shocked by her husband's decision, and she becomes even more distraught when she learns that he has taken their twelve-year-old daughter Zoë, who has experienced bullying at school, out of class on sick leave. She now helps him rehearse and accompanies him to auditions when she's not creating imaginative collages in her room that depict her troubled family life.

Much of the film's appeal lies in the rapport that develops between father and daughter, though the comic elements proliferate when he finally lands a job portraying a meatless sausage in a TV commercial. Zoë's drawings, which become animated on the screen, are also wonderful to see, and in time the film becomes almost saturated with a sophisticated and delightful sweetness not unlike the chocolates Zoë's mother used to design, before she took on the marketing responsibilities of her tiresome and conservative father's business.  

Friday, May 21, 2021

Film Fest 2021

 The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Fest never disappoints, though, like fishing for muskies or visiting the casino, you can't expect to hit the jackpot right away.

The number of entries might have been reduced from previous years—it's hard to tell because the short films are listed along with the features—but there are still far more offerings here than most viewers are likely to see in a week. Hilary and I have seen only eight films since we got back from Ely. In case anyone is in the mood for a film on a rainy Saturday or Sunday, here's a brief rundown, starting with the winners.

Luzzu tells the story of Jesmark, a Maltese fisherman with a sick child and a leaky boat. But he also has friends, and a stolid determination to continue in his solitary profession, although the fish populations are declining and the EU is encouraging independent fishermen like him to take a generous bailout and find other work. 

His wife, who was raised in an affluent environment, would like him to get a job on a trawler to insure the steady income required to pay the doctor bills. He considers that a sell-out; the trawlers are the ones who are ruining the fishing in the first place. The plot becomes more intricate as Jesmark, who's hard-working but taciturn and somewhat naive, begins to learn more about bribery and corruption in the local fishing industry, which extends from whose catch gets auctioned first at the daily market to the nefarious sale of illegal fish.   

Balloon, set in the high altitude valleys of Tibet, depicts the daily life of a sheep-tending family. The landscape is stark and there's plenty of almost random movement, but the atmosphere is refreshing as we follow the activities of Dargye, his ever-cheerful wife Drolkar, their two young sons, and Dargye's aged father, who mostly sits around reciting Buddhist chants. 

The ethnographic material is worth the price of admission, but as the days roll past and the couple's third (and oldest) son is brought home from boarding school by Drolkar's sister, a melancholy Buddhist nun, several thorny issues develop having to do with balloons, Chinese family planning policy, and reincarnation.  

The narrative line of Under the Open Sky is easy enough to describe: former Yakusa gets out of prison and has trouble reintegrating in society. But it would be a mistake to describe the film as some sort of polemic about injustices met up with by ex-cons, as many reviewers have done. The central character, Masao Mikami, is a complex character—vaguely charming, slightly naive, independent by nature, liable to speak his mind, and prone to explosions of violence when he witnesses acts of injustice or intimidation. Upon his release he gains the support of a sponsor and a social worker, and is soon receiving welfare benefits. If he's eager to find work, it's only because he hates to sponge off the government. Unfortunately, the only thing he learned how to do in prison was sew aprons.

But Mikami has soon been befriended by the owner of the grocery store down the block, and a young screen-writer also takes an interest in his story. From these elements director Miwa Nishikawa spins a tale that begins to feel long at the one-hour mark, but picks up speed again as Mikami regains his social bearings, with flashbacks to his troubled youth and to the trial that sent him to prison adding additional  layers of complexity to his character. A final undercurrent surfaces when Mikami decides that he wants to locate his mother, a geisha who abandoned him at the age of four.

Also worth a look:

Co-op Wars, a locally produced documentary about the early days of the food co-op movement in the Twin Cities, when hippies sparred with Marxist-Leninists and disputes about whether to stock brown rice or Coca Cola led to violent warehouse takeovers.  

Asia, which follows the intertwined but often independent lives of a mother and her adolescent daughter who suffers from a degenerative muscle disease.   

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Clash of the Titans

Two global forces met head to head recently, and it was a struggle to decide which side to be on. On the one hand, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Fest was arriving in town. But at the same time, a potential flood of warblers and other migratory bird species were due to pass through town on their way to nesting sites farther north.

Hilary and I decided to split the difference and spend six days on a cross-country trek that included stops at the Ice Age Trail north of Bloomer, Wisconsin; Hunt Hill Audubon Camp an hour north of there; the wild and strange and ragged landscapes of the Totagatic Pine Barrens west of Minong; Wisconsin Point, just east of Superior; The harbor and rock shelves of Two Harbors; Crosby-Manitou State Park; a number of woodsy trails in the vicinity of Ely; and one final stop at the Sax-Zim Bog north of Meadowlands, where we'd been often but never in the springtime.

Following that itinerary, we still arrived back home in time to catch plenty of films before the festival left town.

The days were breezy and cool, the leaves were barely unfurling, the serviceberries were in bloom, and the ephemerals dotting the forest floor were bathed in dappled sunlight. The woods and fields were full of song, especially in the early morning, and the word "idyllic" cropped up in conversation more than once or twice.

I'm not going to give you a complete rundown of the eighty-odd species we came upon during our trip, but I will mention a few things we did not see: We did not see a boreal chickadee at the Sax-Zim Bog; We did not see an upland sandpiper OR a sharp-tailed grouse at the Totagatic Barrens; and we did not see a single shorebird at Wisconsin Point. On the other hand, while we were sitting in the car on Barker's Island eating a miserable lunch from Taco John's, I did see two common terns fly by overhead. (Not a common sight, actually.) And at Vermilion State Park we got an extended point-blank look of a magnolia warbler at eye level. Wonderful bird.

And here's an odd fact. We had spotted ten other warbler species before sighting our first redstart or myrtle. Go figure.

I sometimes think that the black-throated green warbler is the most common bird in the north woods, but on this trip his song was overshadowed by the high-pitched ascending ratchety sound of the northern parula by a wide margin. This was true especially during an early morning hike we took along the shores of Bass Lake, a few miles north of Ely.

The sun was just coming up at the far end of the lake, the morning was very cool, and the woodsy smell of balsam filled the air. That combination of sensations evoked a random collection of outdoor memories including some associated with my summers as a canoe counselor fifty years ago, which include playing chess, reading  Scientific American, and listening to the Neil Young Song "Helpless," which one of the other staff members used to play endlessly in the bunkhouse after dinner. The entire concatenation presented itself to me in a flash, bundled up in a wrapping of adolescent melancholy that strikes me now as sweet. 

It also occurred to me, as Hilary and I strolled through the woods along the shore of the lake, that I have always approached that evocative woodsy environment with a reverence that I have never tried to further conceptualize, objectify, or converted into a theology. But it has often been present, during excursions like this one, as a source of pleasure and gratification and focus.

In short, it was a very nice walk.


Monday, April 26, 2021

New Arrivals


The cold spring rain is refreshing, and the sun broke through the clouds just long enough for me to take a stroll through the back yard, where long lost friends are slowly reappearing.

These include the vinca minor, flowering here and there (see above) and the wind ginger, unfolding nearby.

The pachysandra has always looks slightly artificial among the native species, but still very nice when in bloom (or in a Japanese tea garden!)

A few trout lilies struggle to hang on way out in the woods. These were planted by the previous owners, maybe forty years ago.

And within the "garden" proper the brunnera have started to produce their tiny petals, while closer to the deck I see the jack-in-the-pulpit starting to emerge.

And then I hear a rapid, stuttering, melodious song I haven't heard for a year. It's the ruby-crowned kinglet! And I soon spot him flitting around from branch to branch on the Amur maples a few feet in front of me. Ah, now I see him.

This tiny butterball of a bird is easy to identify for that very reason; he flits around nervously like no other bird. You seldom see the ruby crown except during mating season, but he was flashing his crest wildly this morning, and, snapping a few frames with my little Canon Powershot, I got lucky.

After I lost sight of him, I could still hear his crisp, melodious chatter in the woods nearby. And several white-throated sparrows, as if to balance the mood, were singing their mournful, slightly-out-of-tune three-note descent. 

A brief but exhilarating expedition before breakfast. What will the rest of the day bring?    

Friday, April 23, 2021

Oscar Shorts

Perhaps no form of film is better suited to watching on a computer screen than a short subject. We spent three evenings engaged in that pursuit, independently ranking each entry from zero to five, and judged only a few to be less than a four. Now, two weeks later, some of them are a little hard to remember.

Among the animated shorts, both "Burrow" and "The Snail and the Whale" tell tales of animal adventure. The former probes cheerfully into the tunneling habits of several rodent and insect species by means of a colorful but blocky graphic style; the later, far longer and more sophisticated in technique, relates the adventures of a snail who, longing to see more of the world, hops a ride on—guess what?—a whale's tail. It's narrated by the late Diana Rigg, with Sally Hawkins voicing the snail. Both films are cute, both held my interest in a child-like way.

“If Anything Happens I Love You” is a mostly black-and-white piece about a couple whose daughter was involved in a school shooting, and it's highly effective, in so far as it makes you feel sad, sad, sad.

"Opera," from South Korea, was a misfire, I think. It depicts some sort of underground mining operation, but the triangular mountain that dominates the screen remains static and the characters moving back and forth are so small they lack individuality. There may have been a profound message here about tyranny or cooperation. If so, I missed it.

In my opinion, “Genius Loci” was the best of the bunch. I found the story incomprehensible and the tone sour, but the graphics were highly imaginative, almost as if they'd been made with construction paper cutouts and stop-action photography.

All of the live-action shorts were top-notch. The challenge here is to bring a little complexity to the story in a short span of time available.

 In Feeling Through a young homeless man, black, having failed to find a place to sleep among friends,  comes upon a middle-aged blind and deaf man, white, sitting on a bench in the middle of the night. The man needs some help getting on the right bus. He also needs some water. Adventures ensue, with irritation, self-interest, and compassion fighting for the upper hand at every step of the way. 

 In The Letter Room, a lowly prison guard (played by Oscar Isaac) aspires for something better and is happy to be put in charge of reading the letters that are exchanged between inmates and their contacts on the outside. Frustrated by the administration's lack of interest in his ideas for prison reform, and intrigued by the correspondence between one death-row inmate and his girlfriend,  the guard decides to do a little free lance counseling. Bad idea.  

 The Present offers a brief look at the daily challenges Palestinians face crossing back and forth from their territory into Israel proper. A simple tale involving a refrigerator, believable and well-acted.

In White Eye a young Israeli spots a bicycle parked in front of a fish warehouse that was stolen from him a few weeks earlier. He calls the cops and is told, "We can't do anything. You never filed a report." He asks a tradesman working nearby to help him cut off the lock. The man who now owns the bike, an African, arrives. He claims he bought it legally, and needs it to take his daughter to kindergarten every day. The cops show up, finally. And here comes the warehouse manager. It's getting messier all the time.   

But the best of the bunch, I think, was Two Distant Strangers, in which a sophisticated young black designer, leaving his girlfriend's New York apartment, encounters a feisty cop intent on hassling him. The encounter ends badly, like the ones we so often read about in the papers. But it was only a dream!

The man leaves the apartment again but does things differently, in the manner of Run Lola Run. Funny thing, the sequence of incidents is different but the end result is exactly the same, or worse. Ah, but it was only a dream! Once again, he leaves the apartment ...

It should come as no surprise to learn that the live action documentaries are mostly about bad things. Hunger Ward focuses on mass starvation in Yemen, though it offers not a shred of insight into the causes of the civil war or possible solutions to it. A Love Song for Latasha relates, from a mostly teenage and family perspective, the death in Los Angeles of a young black girl who was sent by her mother to but some orange juice at the local liquor store. Both are heartrending.

Collette offers a portrait of an elderly French woman who joined the resistance during WWII, and now, half a century and more later, has teamed up with a young German historian to seek out information about her brother's death in the death camps. A Concerto is a Conversation consists largely of a warm and gentle conversation between a young black Los Angeles composer and his Georgia-born grandfather about music and life, making great use of close-ups.   

But I found Do Not Split to be the most ambitious and enthralling of the five. It documents a few days of protest in Hong Kong against the encroachments of the Chinese government. Lots of chaos, tension, danger, excitement, courage, and youthful ardor.