Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Literature and Empathy


In 2013, two social scientists from the New School published the results of a study suggesting that reading literary fiction made people more empathetic. A recent study has failed to find the same correlation.

Good.

When I read the original story, I cringed. In the first place, there is no need to pinpoint a value to reading beyond the pleasure people get from the reading itself. It also struck me that such a study would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with true scientific rigor.

It would not be sufficient simply to compare the responses of readers and non-readers to a bank of questions designed to identify empathetic characteristics. That might "prove" that readers were more empathetic, but not that the reading itself made them so. A more likely explanation would be that empathetic people naturally take pleasure in the emotional content of books, whereas those who aren't empathetic have little desire to share the daily ups and downs of characters who, after all, don't really exist.

To prove the point scientifically would require an large, undifferentiated pool of people who had never read anything. Half would be given novels. The other half would be deprived of them. Years later, tests would be given to see where the greater empathy lay.

I seriously doubt if the studies in question were actually conducted along those lines.

Then again, we ought to ask ourselves: Is empathy always a good thing? Where does it rank on the hierarchy of qualities in comparison to honesty, perspicacity, ingenuity, drive, and tact, for example? Are there situations in which empathy would be out of place—a war tribunal, for example? Can empathy be harmful to the individual who feels it?

Is it appropriate to become annoyed if a friend wants to share our pain when we're doing our best to forget about it?

As I ponder these issues, I'm reminded of the surveys that crop up here and there in the sketchbooks of the Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch. Opening the volume from 1966 to 1971 I hit immediately on a questionnaire about hope, which I've shortened for the present purpose:

1. How often must a particular hope (say, a political one) fail to materialize before you give it up. And can you do this without immediately forming another hope?

2. Do you sometimes envy other living creatures who seem to be able to live without hope (for example, fish in an aquarium)?

3. When some private hope is at last realized, how long as a rule do you feel it was a valid hope, that is, that its realization has brought you as much as you had been expecting from it all these years?

4. What hope have you now given up?

5. In regard to the world situation, do you hope:
a. that reason will prevail?
b. that a miracle will occur?
c. that everything will go on as before?

6. What fills you with hope:
a. nature?
b. art?
c. science?
d. the history of mankind?

7. Assuming that you distinguish between your own hopes and those that others (parents, teachers, friends, lovers) place in you, when are you more depressed: when the former or when the latter are not fulfilled?

8. What do you hope to gain from travel?

9. When you know that someone is incurably ill, do you arouse hopes in him that you know to be false?

But we're getting off the track here. The thing about literature, I think, is that it expands our horizons and allows us to experience all manner of things without really suffering the consequences personally. The most important lesson we take from it, perhaps, is the one I got from Jack Burden in freshman English while reading All the King's Men: "Whatever you live, it's life."

In other words, as far as life is concerned, there are no models or standards. Each one of us cuts a new path, good or bad, light or dark, most likely dappled but perhaps with a cool breeze blowing through it.


And it just might be that reading Lord Jim or My Antonia has helped us find a better and a more worthy one.

To which Max Frisch might ask: "Worthy? How so?"  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Saturday on the Town


Sometimes it's not so bad when a plan falls through.

We'd planned to see the exhibit of Reformation Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (First time out of Germany in 300 years!) But the more we read about Luther, the less compelling that idea sounded. On the morning we were planning to visit I had trouble securing tickets on the museum website, and we decided to scotch the idea entirely—at least for the time being.

So, an empty Saturday yawned in front of us.


Our first stop was to the Bell Museum of Natural History, which is scheduled to close permanently in a few weeks. (They're moving to a new building on the St. Paul Campus.) Being on campus again brought up a few vague memories, mostly pleasant. The very idea of being a student is pleasant. Hanging out with your friends, reading books, working part-time. (Gee. It sounds a lot like today.)

As we approached the Bell Museum, I was reminded that I took E. Adamson Hoebel's final anthropology class in the auditorium there. For many years that hallowed space was also the venue for the University Film Society, where I first saw Jules and Jim, Pierrot le Fou, Chimes at Midnight, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, L'Avventura, and many other classics in an era when a film screening was the only way you could see a rare or European film. 

We requested the senior rate at the front desk, and then I said, "I used to take little kids on tours through this place. Is that good for an additional discount?"

Both of the women behind the counter were barely out of their teens. "We get quite a few former tour guides through here," one of them said, smiling. "maybe we could come up with something."

"Well, it would be pretty hard to verify," I said. "Anyway, we're happy to chip in."

By a stroke of luck, the Minnesota Ornithological Union was holding their annual Paper Session in the auditorium. We're not members, but the man in the lobby said, "Go on in and listen to a few of the presentations. If you find it worthwhile, pay on your way out."

I looked at the schedule:

Tracking Movement Patterns of Common Terns in the Great Lakes Region
Contaminant Research on Loon's Relating to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Wastewater Stabilization Pond Birding Access Initiative
Owls to Orchids: Magic and Mystery in our Northern Bogs
Genetic Insights into the Evolution of Red-winged Blackbirds
Mapping Change and Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas: Citizen Science and Museum Practice in the Digital Age
Kirtland's Warbler Population Status in the Upper Midwest

I mean, it might be interesting. Or not.


A session had just concluded, but stepping inside the auditorium, I got the impression that most of the seats were already spoken for. We went upstairs to take a look at the famous dioramas, only to find the halls clogged with birders chatting in twos and threes or looking at the booths that had been set up by a variety of ornithological and "outdoor" organizations. 

Among them we spotted an old family friend, Chet Meyers, at a booth for a society dedicated to bringing back the red-headed woodpecker.

"We saw a red-headed woodpecker on the trail up into the hills at Sherburne last summer," I said.

"We've been working to get a nesting pair up there," he said, "and there's also one on the nearby Mahnomen Trail."

The woman behind the table for the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden urged me to take one of their newsletters. I declined, telling her that I was very familiar with it, because I had designed it. That idea didn't quite sink in, but little matter. We were soon discussing great horned owls, acorn flour, and buckthorn removal like old friends.

At the Sax-Zim Bog display I asked the man behind the table what he thought of the Trailside Restaurant in Meadowlands.

"It's OK, " he replied, "but I usually go to Wilbert's over in Cotton."

Then I said, "I've never seen a boreal chickadee. Do you have any ideas about where I might get lucky?"

"Sure," he said. Then he grabbed a map of the bog, which extends over many square miles, and proceeded to mark three places that could hardly miss.


The booths were interesting and informative, but the dioramas were better. I have looked at them many times, though I see a lot more now than I did when I was twenty—the wolves, the bear, the caribou, but also the smaller displays with martin and fisher, rough-legged hawk, woodcock, lynx. I looked lovingly at the marshland exhibits that bored me forty years ago, largely because at the time I didn't recognize any of the birds. 

And I looked very fondly at the landscapes rendered in the background to the dioramas because they were not only intrinsically beautiful, nut because I now recognize many of them, having been there, and because winter is approaching and pine woods and gray cliffs and open water are the things many of us will soon be yearning for.


Our next stop was for lunch at Obento-ya, a Japanese bistro on Como Avenue in the Van Cleve neighborhood north of Dinkytown—a neighborhood previously associated in my mind largely with the onion rings at nearby Manning's Bar, and the derelict grain elevator with the word Bunge on top where young urban adventurers injure themselves with some degree of regularity nowadays. 

Then it was off to the St. Paul campus of the university, with a few stops in between: first at Potter's Pasties, which occupies a truly bohemian space in the basement of a convenience store on E. Como, and then at the Sisu cross-country ski and sauna shop on Eustis to look at the back-country skis. (Winter is just around the corner.) 


As we approached the Ag campus we also happened to pass the site of the new Bell Museum, still under construction. But our destination was the Goldstein Gallery, tucked away on the third floor of McNeal Hall. A forty-year design retrospective was supposed to open at 1:30, but at 1:45 the gallery was still dark, and we made our way back to the car. On another day I might have been irritated or disappointed, but looking into the gallery spaces through the window, I could see there wasn't much to the exhibit, and the view from the third floor of the building out across the state fairgrounds was superb.

The sun had come out, and suddenly it didn't seem like such a big deal to hightail it down to the Barnes and Noble in Galleria, at the opposite end of town, to hear Michael Chabon read. 

That B&N has been located on two floors of the same high-class suburban mini-mall for decades, but it recently moved to a different space across the hall on the lower level to become one of three "flagship" Barnes and Noble stores in the country offering a new concept—bookstore plus restaurant; the others are in suburbs of New York City and San Francisco. So the woman on the floor told me.


"We have the advantage in that we've been in business for years, know the stock, and have a well-trained staff. The other two stores are starting from scratch."

She also liked the food in the restaurant. "There's nothing frozen. Everything's made from scratch."

I was surprised to see that far more space in the store's music section was devoted to vinyl LPs than to CDs. There were even two turntables on sale! Was Gibt? Yet the sight of them made me want to hook up my own turntable again.

The revamped store opened just last Tuesday—too early to develop much of a remainder section. But I must say they did well to snag Chabon as their inaugural author. (Don't you think?)


I have never read anything by Chabon, though Hilary is a big fan, and Wonder Boys is one of my favorite movies. He read briefly and then conducted a long Q &A full of humor, insight, humility, charm. Enough, perhaps, to fill a second blog....  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Go Surfing Now (Everybody's Learning How)


In the introduction to his collection of essays, Learning to Curse, cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt describes the time he spent in graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s under the tutelage of the magisterial William K. Wimsatt, who was at that time the doyen of the New Critics. Wimsatt, along with Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and many others at the time, espoused the theory that poetry was an autonomous realm, to be understood largely on its own terms as an aesthetic act. Greenblatt admits to be only mildly interested in that approach.
[Wimsatt’s] theory of the concrete universal—poetry as “an object which in a mysterious and special way is both highly general and highly particular”—seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would go in the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club—all male, a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumber sandwiches and tea—and listen to Wimsatt at the great round table hold forth like Doctor Johnson on poetry and aesthetics. Wimsatt seemed to be eight feet tall and to be the possessor of a set of absolute convictions, but I was anything but certain.
Greenblatt had earlier spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge, and he had been struck during his time there by the “intellectual power and moral authority” of the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. The New Critics didn’t think much of Marx. In one then-popular text, Wimstatt and Cleanth Brooks had written that “Marxism and the forms of social criticism more closely related to it, have never had any real concern with literature and literary problems,” and that the Marxist approach fundamentally “destroys the literary viewpoint.”


Greenblatt, on the contrary, had found Williams’ approach to literature fascinating, and also liberating.
In Williams’s lectures all that had been carefully excluded from the literary criticism in which I had been trained—who controlled access to the printing press, who owned the land and the factories, whose voices were being repressed as well as represented in literary texts, what social strategies were being served by the aesthetic values we constructed—came pressing back in upon the act of interpretation.

Greenblatt eventually chose this path, which he describes as “a shift away from a criticism centered on ‘verbal icons toward a criticism centered on cultural artifacts.” He originally described the work he was doing as Marxist aesthetics,  but later began to apply the terms “cultural poetics” and “new historicism” so as not to unduly circumscribe the approach.

I find this personal narrative interesting not only for what it describes, but also for what it leaves out. The path Greenblatt chose became popular, and nowadays I suspect you would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the university level considering poetry or any other art form from a purely aesthetic point of view. That's really a shame. What Greenblatt fails to note, and perhaps doesn’t even recognize, is that the two approaches to poetry have nothing in common except the text they might happen to be scrutinizing. 

Greenblatt recognizes that his focus has changed, but he doesn’t quite see how. It isn’t away from verbal icons toward cultural artifacts. What he meant to say was, “I thought I was interested in poetry. In fact, I was interested in sociology.”

There is nothing terribly wrong with the field of sociology, of course, and using literary texts as indicators of social conditions or historical change might have a certain validity, too. But it’s a mistake to image that such an approach has anything to do with literature itself. The conflation of these two realms has done serious harm to the modern psyche by excluding the possibility that life can be seized and appreciated in its fullness (which is what poetry does) rather than merely picked apart to expose examples of injustice and oppression (which is what both sociology and literary “theory” tend to do.)


Let me give you an example of how far the rot has spread. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, critic Ben Ratliff takes up the case of the Beach Boys, on the lookout, it would appear, not for beauty but for “relevance.”
Time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector.
It never occurred to me that the Stones or Paul MCCartney might be socially relevant, but be that as it may, is that what art is supposed to do? Help people toward social rights? Influence other artists? I don’t think so. At least not exclusively, or even primarily. I don’t listen to the Beach Boys now, but I did when I was twelve, and I still get a kick out of their vocal harmonies … for about thirty seconds. And having spent quite a bit of time on the California coast, I now see more clearly than I did as a teen how liberating and eternally cool surfing can be. 

The New Critics were right, in other words, when they defended the autonomy and universality  of works of art and the inadequacy of biographical and sociological interpretations to take their full measure. Such things as "beauty" aren’t easy to discuss in class, however, and recourse to phrases such as “concrete universal” soon become tiresome and unilluminating, as Greenblatt points out. A remark by John Crowe Ransom that I came upon decades ago, when I was an undergraduate, has stuck with me, though I might not be remembering it accurately: “A piece of literary criticism is a small work of art that we dedicate to a great work of art.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shaking the Post-Election Blues


I. Outdoor Expo

When November gloom arrives, you could do worse than head down to the Outdoor Expo that Midwest Mountaineering hosts every year on the West Bank. The event consists of films, lectures, booths tended by outdoor organizations, and a store-wide sale on colorful tents, sleeping bags, hi-tech clothes, and assorted camping paraphernalia.

Approaching via Washington Avenue North, I was astounded to see how many glitzy coffee shops have sprung up along that warehouse canyon. And on a Saturday morning they all seemed to be hopping. 

Along the way we passed countless purple-clad football fans who had snagged affordable parking and were heading for their designated tailgate parties (four hours before the game). We parked in the gravel lot behind Caesar's (is Caesar's still there?), then hurried over to Hanson Hall to listen to a 90-minute talk about hiking in the Dolomites. The pictures were stunning and the presenter was personable. It would seem that no one knows more about the trails in that vast region than he does. He has also gotten to know the locals over the years, the best hotels and restaurants, the cable cars, and so on.

It was a pleasant way to spend a part of the morning. However, I doubt if I'll be spending $650 a day to take a guided tour of the region any time soon. Evidently many people have. Part of the guide's philosophy is that it's more fun to take day-hikes using a single village as a base than to do a cross-country trek. After the talk someone asked him where his "base" was. "I can't tell you that," he said. "I've spent too much time, too much time..." 

  
The second talk we attended was given by a man who'd hiked the Coast-to Coast trail across England with his wife. It took them fourteen days. His photos weren't quite as good. For that matter, the countryside, beautiful though it may be, wasn't quite so stunning as the Dolomites. But the talk was informative, and he offered some very useful information for arranging sherpa services and booking rooms along the way.

Both presentations made it easier for me to imagine visiting such places, and I guess that's the point.

In the nearby canvas tent, we ran into a succession of organizations that brought back memories of adventures I had decades ago. At the Border Trail booth I was reminded that I hiked that route before there was a trail of any kind along the south shore of South Lake, and was lucky to come upon a guy with a boat who ferried me across the neck of Magnetic Lake. In retrospect, the hike seems almost mythic.


At the booth for the Kekekabic Trail Association, I was reminded that I have hiked that 44-mile trail three times, but that was way back when, in the early 1970s.

A young woman in one booth was setting out small portions of tepid freeze-dried beans and rice on little paper plates, without much enthusiasm. They looked GROSS ... but I ate one. It was so-so, though it would probably taste much better after a long day on the trail. (I don't remember the brand. Backcountry Pantry?)


Vistabule Trailers had a booth. Also the Parks and Trails Association, of which we're members. Sierra Club. The Superior Hiking Trail. The two guys in the winter camping booth looked like they'd just climbed out of a tent after a rough night in the wild.


An entire chamber of the huge tent was devoted to cross-country skis. When we finally made it into the store itself, we soon ran into Hilary's cousin, John. He was standing in the clothing department chatting with a salesman and clutching a small hatchet with a fine leather sheath. "I've always wanted one of these," he said, gripping the shaft and suddenly taking on the look of a twelve-year-old boy.

It was the Hultafors Axe, I later learned, which the Swedes have been making since 1697. The store also stocks hand-forged axes from Granfors Bruk and Wetterlings.


I've never heard of any of these manufacturers. Maybe I should do some research. My hatchet is so dull, I think you could pound a nail with the blade. And the rubberized grip is no longer firmly attached to the stainless steel shaft, so you have to be careful when you're splitting wood to avoid sending the business end on a dangerous trajectory across the campsite.

November is when we dream of the adventures that lie ahead. Maybe we're looking less at the maps these days and more at the air mattresses. But that's because we've become more adept at finding our way, and we've also learned that there are plenty of staggering sights to be had just a few miles down the path.

II. Poetry Night

A poetry reading can be fun. When Margaret Hasse gives one, it's often more than that.

In part, this is because Margaret has gotten to know so many interesting people during her years as a poet, teacher, and arts organizer. At her recent reading at the Loft, she called upon a few of them to choose one of the poems from her new book, Between Us, and explain briefly how they came to know Margaret and why they chose that particular poem to read. 


Among those that shared this information with us were a woman from South Dakota—a good friend of Margaret's older sister who, decades after leaving home, ran into Margaret, first in a Nodin Press poetry anthology, and then in person on a bus in South Minneapolis. Another was Clarence White, who first met Margaret while he was a student in St. Cloud; now, decades later, he co-curates the Banfill-Locke poetry series with her.

Another long-time friend, a Jungian psychoanalyst by trade, read a dream poem about a bat; Margaret's son Alex, jazz trumpeter and tennis pro, read a poem about a boy being taught by his father to ride a bike, giving as a reason that "I think it's about me."

In short, the performance, far from being that of hermetic literary associations and references, demonstrated how many ways poetry can reach out beyond purely literary concerns to illuminate relationships and experiences of all kinds.

The poems Margaret read herself amplified the effect. Her poem "Come Home, Our Sons," which touches in a personal way upon the Philando Castile shooting, was a striking example of how poetry can take us beyond politics, without trivializing the political problems we struggle with. Another poem, slightly humorous, was about memory loss. But the image that sticks with me now came at the end of a poem about a young woman who cuts herself, not because she wants to die, but because she wants to draw "deep pain" out of herself and drain it, so she can live. "She will flush the blotting tissue," the poem concludes

in the toilet like red paper roses
some other girl might wear to a prom.

After the reading everyone gathered in the lobby for wine, nuts, chocolate cake, and publisher Norton Stillman's famous spinach dip. A long line curled through the middle of the room of guests eager to buy books signed and personalized by the author--their teacher, neighbor, friend. This is the point at which I usually make myself scarce. I know Margaret and her husband, Dave, fairly well, but did not expect to see too many other familiar faces. I was glad to meet up with a few old friends myself, and even brazenly horse-collared Margaret's sister, Ellen, whom I recognized by sight but had never met before. We were soon exchanging our enthusiasm for public libraries and Louise Penny mysteries. And she convinced me that I ought to pay another visit to her adopted home town of Iowa City.  

"But that's Trump country," I said.

"Oh, no," she replied. "There's a little corridor running from Iowa City north to Cedar Rapids, and on to ..."


III. ¡Sacabuche!

The James Ford Bell Library invited the Renaissance Canadian ensemble ¡Sacabuche! to give a performance as part of its "Celebrating Venice!" series, which also included lectures on subjects such as "Mapping Muslim Jerusalem in Late Medieval German Pilgrimage" and "A Knight of the Italian Renaissance: Pietro Bembo and the Order of Malta." I signed up for the lectures, which were free, but failed on each occasion to drag myself away from the computer, down to the U of M campus, and up to the fourth floor of Wilson Library.

We did attend the concert, and it turned out to be a treat. It was billed as a multimedia presentation, but that was only barely accurate. The major visual element was a large woodcut map of Venice circa 1500 that was projected onto either side of the nave of First Methodist Church on Lowry Hill, where the performance took place. Aside from a dozen or more musicians, both vocal and instrumental, two readers were involved in the show, and as they dramatized a particular text, a circle would appear on the maps indicating the location of the event or institution to which it referred.


The main draw, of course, was the music, and it was very fine indeed. Renaissance music comes in several varieties, of course, but you can be sure that the progressions and cadences will be altogether different, due to their polyphonic construction, from the ones baroque and classical composers liked to work with. Less dramatic, perhaps, more floating, texturally complex, and ethereal, notwithstanding the prominent role played by sackbutts of several sizes. Sacred or secular, these pieces by Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Mainerio, and other masters of the period carried a jewel-like perfection that could easily have been marred by bad entrances or shaky pitch.

The program also contained three new pieces by New Brunswick composer Kevin Morse, which served as refreshing points of contrast without disrupting the mood overmuch. Sephardic, Turkish, and Acadian folksongs were also on the bill. (Venice was the New York of its time, after all, the crossroads of the Western world.)

I even found the audience interesting. Who were these people, many of whom seemed to know one another? Professors, musicians, grad students who had attended the lectures, early music specialists or students of comparative literature? Some showed up in suit and tie (well, it was a Sunday afternoon) while others seemed perfectly comfortable in jeans and t-shirts.  
     

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The First Snowfall


It does something to the heart—deflates it, I think, and sends it scurrying for shelter. But it isn't an altogether bad feeling. There's an element of relief involved, and also one of surrender. At the same time, one feels a secret and almost conspiratorial joy. Now we can start thinking about "inner" things, sit in front of the fire at 5 p.m. while the cauliflower for the spaghetti sauce  roasts in the oven.

With whom are we conspiring? With the night, of course. And with that inner flame that begins to reassert itself as the abundant heat of summer dwindles.

When the snow started to fall, I was sitting in a cafe with my father-in-law, Gene, who's ninety-two. He said, "When the Armistice Day Blizzard hit, I was in the bar of the Lemington Hotel with two friends. We were trapped there for three days."

I had never heard that story before.

Gene and I had just attended a morning concert together. Three of the four composers involved—Smit, Schulhoff, and Karel—died in concentration camps. The lobby of the church where the performance took place contained an exhibit of brightly color photographs taken recently of men and women, all residents of the Twin Cities, who had survived those camps and are presumably still alive.

The music being performed was full of festive French carnival colors in the manner of Poulenc, 
Milhaud, and Auric, and sprightly Czech folk dance tunes, somewhat rearranged and homogenized for the concert stage—though they kept the 5/4 time. I liked them all.

At the end of World War II, Gene was among the GIs who came upon and liberated the concentration camps. No one told them what to expect. No one told them the camps were there.

I have heard that story before. Gene didn't feel the need to bring it up again. 

No, we talked about the son-in-law of a family friend, a seasoned chef who had catered the Ryder's Cup and was then invited to do the same for Prince's funeral. We talked about the historian Joseph Ellis and the travel writer Norman Lewis. We talked about nieces and nephews, jazz singers and retirement homes.

The concert hall had been filled with elderly women and men who sometimes had trouble making their way across the lobby, but who were nevertheless continuing to find ways to enjoy life. And here we were, as the snow flashed by the window in violent streaks and began to obscure the still-green grass, chowing down as if there were no tomorrow.



Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Joy of Compost


Perhaps "joy" is too strong a word to describe the quiet pleasure one derives from a low mound of rotting leaves and vegetable scraps. Then again, must all our joys be feverish and exhausting?

The beauty of compost lies in the connections between the carrot peels we stuff into a clear plastic container by the sink, the leaves that enjoy a brief moment of glory before dropping every fall, and the rich dark organic matter that develops over time in the wire-enclosed bin in the far corner of the back yard. We live in the midst of these connections, which operate on several levels of time. The vegetable scraps get carried out maybe three times a week. The leaves fall once a year. (You knew that.) I dig deep into the pile perhaps once every three years.

We water the pile occasionally in dry weather, but almost never climb inside the wire enclosure, which might be six feet in diameter, to "turn" the leaves and scraps. Mostly the pile takes care of itself, overfull by the time the snow falls, but sunken again soon enough after warm days return. 

The lovely weather this fall made it easy to delay raking the leaves, and that presented an opportunity to extract the mature compost over several days, a few wheel barrel's full at a time. I dumped some on the tomato patch in the front yard by the driveway, and another good pile on the wedge-shaped plot of annuals near the front door.
A few days later I brought some compost over to the terraced beds under the bedroom window, and I also spread some out around the turtleheads and the black-eyes susans.

None of this could really be called work.  I spent a lot of time pondering garden strategy—far longer than I needed to. 

One of the pleasures of the composting  process is that it gets you out into the further reaches of the yard, places you wouldn't otherwise visit so often, thus giving you a fresh perspective on things 
you've looked at many times before. These are the moments when you begin to dimly comprehend how beautiful and precious life is, or can be, when things are going well and the weather's nice and you've got the time to zone out, attentive to the moss and the clouds and other things that mean nothing to you or anyone else--things quietly proceeding on their own path.


Is compost really worth anything to the plants? Evidently it can improve soil structure, add nutrients, attract earthworms, and reduce problems with pests.

I simply like the look of it. At this stage it's almost fluffy, but by next spring it will have flattened out and basically disappeared. Perhaps I'll even have forgotten I ever messed with it, as the violets and bleeding-heart emerge and a new pile of leaves, compressed by the snow, sinks down ever further in its wire bin.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nine Films About Art


I haven't been to many films since the weather turned warm back in April. Now that the evenings have gone dark and we've revived our Netflix subscription, I thought it might be worthwhile to throw out a few comments about films I have seen recently, all of which seem to have been about music, literature, the theater,or some other type of art.

The Music of Strangers

The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma gathered together a group of musicians from various parts of the world as a musical experiment. The individuals involved might all be considered to be from places on the Silk Road leading across the desert spaces from China to the Mediterranean.  But would it be possible to find common ground for performance amid their disparate musical styles?


Part of the film is devoted to answering that question, but a larger part focuses on the stories of individual musicians from Iran, Syria, Galicia, and other places who have endured persecution or have otherwise encountered difficulties sharing their talents and promoting their art. (In many parts of the world, indigenous art forms are perceived as a threat to the authority of the unified "state.")

A third strand of inquiry involves Yo-yo Ma himself. The renowned cellist was a child prodigy who attained virtuosity without much effort—or interest. As he works in the film to make sense of these related but disparate musical traditions, Ma is also trying to reconnect to his own musical roots and revivify his passion for performance.

The film, in the best documentary tradition, is a loosely woven garment, held together by threads of rehearsal and performance, but more devoted to stories of individual musicians than to the ensemble which has brought them together.  Yet the musicians do connect with one another, and also with us. It's an easy garment to wear.


The End of the Tour

I have never read the novel Infinite Jest, and I'm pretty sure I never will, though I have read a few tennis articles by its author, David Foster Wallace. This film chronicles the last seven days of a book tour in which Wallace is accompanied by a reporter from Rolling Stone (played by Jesse Isenberg) who also happens to be a budding novelist. The two discuss literature, life, literature, work, fame, celebrity, junk food,  and other things as they travel together from one book event to another, slowly generating a camaraderie that's laced with suspicion and envy, professionalism and need, vanity and self-disgust. The interactions are complex and often edgy, as Wallace pursues the renown that will accompany the feature story while remaining wary of Eisenberg's power to "spin" the article any way he chooses. Whether these conversations offer an accurate portrait of Wallace I have no idea, but they make for an absorbing film experience.

Museum Hours

This film, released in 2012, is probably a cult classic by now. Much of it takes place in the Kunstehistorishes Museum in Vienna, where a tall, middle-aged guard named Johann sits on a bench thinking his private thoughts (in voice-over) as the patrons pass by. Just when we're beginning to think the film is a genuine slice-of-life documentary on the order of Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, Johann makes an effort to help a stranger named Anne, who has arrived in town from Montreal to visit a relative she hardly knows in the hospital. She has little money, doesn't know the city, and returns to the museum repeatedly as a way to fill her idle hours. Anne and Johann are both gentle souls, lonely but also widely curious, and they slowly begin to open up to one another as the empty days go by.


This plot line—it would be a misleading to call it a romance—never comes to dominate the screen, but serves as a counterpoint to the seemingly random but mildly engaging images the camera draws our attention to both within the museum and also on the city streets, which include bored children and cawing crows, streetcars in the snow, and closeups of Grand Master paintings. At one point we listen for several minutes to a lecture being given by one of the docents about the work of Breugel, and the parallels between his peasant-oriented work and the film we're watching become clear. One remark that she makes could stand as the theme of Museum Hours: a painting's ostensible focus and its actual point of interest are not necessarily the same thing.

Mary Margaret O'hara, a  folk-singer from Montreal, deserves a special note for her whimsical, slightly confused, and artfully understated portrayal of Anne, who often talks in a whisper and sometimes sings to herself, but moves through this difficult and disorienting episode in her life with quiet courage and genuine appreciation of the beauty that surrounds her.   


Eight Days a Week

Ron Howard's tribute to the Beatles focuses on the years during which they toured. It's a fine recapitulation that brings out the band's musical talent and wit, while also highlighting the challenges and drudgery of performing in large stadiums and responding ad nauseum to inane questions from the press. Those of us who grew up during that era will also remember the darkening tone, the groupies and drugs, the acrimony and divisiveness of the group's last years, but you'll hear little about those things here. When Howard was asked about such omissions, he replied with a smile, "I made the film I wanted to make."

It's a good one.

Words and Pictures

It's one of those films that carry you along on the strength of the bubbling plot and the actors' charisma. The absurdities of the plot only ring out later ... and by then it's too late!


The action takes place at a prep school where Jack (Clive Owen) teaches English and publishes the school's literary magazine. He's evidently a good teacher, but he hasn't published anything of note in fifteen years, and the school in on the verge of dropping the publication, which costs a lot to print and seems less than relevant when most of the students are glued to their mobile devices. Jack is also a drinker, and has been tossed out of the swanky local restaurant and gathering place due to outlandish behavior.  The story gets more interesting when a new teacher arrives on campus: an abstract painter named Dina (Juliette Binoche) who suffers from arthritis and hasn't painted much in years. Sparks fly immediately, and Jack turns up the heat by challenging Dina and her students to a battle to determine whether words or pictures have more expressive power.

Little point would be served in identifying the various weaknesses in this scenario as it plays itself out. Better to simply sit back and watch the story unfold.

Miles Ahead

It's difficult to remain "cool" and stay true to your art, without coming off like a jerk. Of course, being a jerk is OK too, if you stay cool enough to pull it off, though the inference is that you don't have time for the squares and the "little people." Which isn't very cool.


Miles Davis was perhaps never quite as cool as he thought he was. He was banned from Bradley's, the premier later-night hang-out for jazz musicians in New York City, because, as the owner's wife once observed, he "felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends without being obligated to pay for any of it."

But be that as it may, it's especially difficult to portray coolness on the screen. Don Cheedle has failed to do so in his conceptually imaginative but cantankerous and cliché-ridden portrait of the legendary trumpeter. It's an exercise in faux-coolness that I found very hard to watch. In fact, I turned it off half way through and dropped the last good album Miles made, Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), into the CD player. Now that's cool.

Herb and Dorothy

Most of us are reluctant to buy original works of art. They cost a lot more than posters and we're afraid that our interest is likely to fade with time. Many who do buy original pieces are inspired by the belief that the works they own will appreciate in value over time, which makes the art seem like a shrewd investment rather than a frivolous purchase, even when it's moldering in the back of the closet.


Herb and Dorothy Vogel were different. She was a librarian. He was a postal worker. They both loved looking at art, owning works of art, thinking about art, getting to know the artists and trying to understand how a given artist's work had developed over time. So they devised a strategy: live on Dorothy's modest salary and buy artworks with Herb's. They went to openings and visited unknown artists in their studios. Over the course of time they crowded their narrow apartment with a collection that's now worth millions.

As it happens, they began collecting in the early 1960s, and took a liking to Minimalist and Conceptual art by Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Christo, and other artists  who at the time were undiscovered or unappreciated.

This is the Vogel's story, told through interviews with the Vogels themselves and the artists they collected. We may remain unimpressed with the art they purchased, whatever its current price tag might be, but this charming couple pursued their passion, followed their instincts, and had a very good time doing so. And it's a lot of fun watching it all happen.   


Love and Mercy

You will meet few people nowadays prepared to defend the position that the Beach Boys belong on the same tier of the rock-and-roll pantheon as the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, and a few others. But most of us nevertheless want to know: Whatever happened to Brian Wilson? 

In his directorial  debut, producer Bill Pohlad tells the story of Brian's youthful naiveté and success, parental browbeating, recording studio magic, and subsequent manipulation by a self-serving pharmacological "expert" (Paul Giametti). The story is told in a series of flashbacks anchored by a modern-day love story. John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson, Paul Dano plays the youthful wunderkind. It's a complicated, sad, and inspiring tale, with less surfing music than we might have liked, but more depth and meaning.       


The Wrecking Crew

To get a more complete picture of the Beach Boys phenomenon, I would recommend sandwiching Love and Mercy between the surfing documentary Riding Giants (2004) and The Wrecking Crew (2008), which tells the tale of the studio musicians who actually played (and often created) the music we hear on the great Beach Boys hits. This small group of relatively unknown instrumentalists also created the instrumental backdrop to hit by Nat "King" Cole, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkle, the Mamas and the Papas, Dean Martin, Elvis, Cher, and many others.

Clouds of Sils Maria

It's difficult to make a film about a "famous" fictional actress because viewers have no idea how that fame developed or what kind of weight it now carries. Thus we have Juliette Binoche, an aging actress herself, playing an aging actress questioning her talents and struggling to decide whether to take the part of an older woman in a drama in which she made her name decades earlier playing the younger role. Whatever happens, it doesn't seem very important in the grand scheme of things. Everyone might as well go down to the basement of the ritzy Swiss lodge and play Foosball.


Nevertheless, Binoche and Kristen Steward (the young assistant) keep our interest up though a long series of interviews and conversations. One of the chief issue seems to be whether the clouds of fog will rise up through the pass.( Hence the otherwise incomprehensible name of the film.)

Strange but true: I enjoyed the film from beginning to end without caring for an instant what happened to anyone in it.