Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Killing Time in St. Paul

It was a retirement party in a neighborhood without a name on the eastern edge of Highland Park in St. Paul. I dropped Hilary off—she was one of the organizers—and puttered north on Hamline Avenue past Randolph and St. Clair to Grand Avenue. On the CD player, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan was spinning an energetic version of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." Indeed.

I had ninety minutes to kill before the event got underway, and I had a plan. First stop, Kowalski's Market. It's one of those supermarkets where the lighting director makes more than the butcher or the produce buyer. Low light and dazzling displays everywhere, many types of "artisanal" crackers at $6.50 a box. I noticed that the display sign for one regional brand, Maple Terroir, had been misspelled as Maple Terrior. People in St. Paul do love their dogs, but all the same I thought I ought to tell someone.

There was no one in the booth, so I mentioned the goof to a passing woman wearing an apron, and she seemed pleased. "Oh, you must be an English major," she said with a big smile. It's been a long time since anyone took an interest in what my college major was! No. I  shook my head. "...but I do edit books for a living." Not exactly true, but the woman looked as pleased as punch.  I think I might have made her day.

My "plan" was a simple one: to pick up a box of Wasa crisps. They're sold in France under the name Cracottes; that's how Hilary and I first ran into them and how we refer to them to this day. Old habits die hard, and in any case, the word Wasa connotes those puffy but thick and hard crackers that are difficult to bite through and actually taste and smell like the farm. Cracottes, on the other hand, are airy and light—the perfect vehicle to carry slices of hard-boiled egg with wasabi mayonnaise on a bed of fresh arugula to your mouth—and at $3.50 per box, it seemed like a steal.

I wandered the store with my single item (net weight 4.9 ounces) dangling in a green plastic basket, feeling a little foolish as I watched people ordering quart containers of delightful looking salads from the deli. I briefly admired a sheet cake with a splendid rendering of Mt. Rushmore on top. I pondered the fresh fish sitting in beds of ice in a glass-fronted gondola, took in the strange aromas of fancy soaps in the cleaning aisle, and eventually added a box of Kind bars (net weight 5.2 ounces) to my stash. Why? I don't know. I haven't eaten one of those since the Luminary Loppet of 2016, where they were being given away out on the ice on Lake of the Isles.

Kowalski's doesn't have a self-check. I thought I'd found one, but it turned out I was standing behind an unoccupied cash register. The entry pad was incomprehensible, and nothing was lighting up. The woman at the customer service desk saw me, took pity, and called me over to her counter.

Finally back on the street with my purchases, I headed west on Grand Avenue a half-block to Sixth Chamber Books. I seldom visit bookstores these days--I already have quite a few--but I've been reading Dante's Divine Comedy recently and thought I might come across a mentor paperback edition of the Paradiso—the Ciardi translation.

Besides, I still had 45 minutes to kill.

I had no luck with the Dante, but ended up purchasing two books from the memoir section, Kafka was the Rage: a Greenwich Village Memoir by Anatole Broyard, and Finding Fontainebleau: an American Boy in France by Thad Carhart.  Carhart's other book, The Little Piano Shop on the Left Bank, is wonderful. I think of Broyard as the Adam Gopnik of an earlier era. Both were from French or quasi-French New World cities (New Orleans and Montreal, respectively); both fell in love with New York, had small, seedy apartments, studied art history with famous critics, had plenty of bohemian adventures, and read a lot of books.

Broyard made some money while in the service during the war, and among the first adventures he describes is opening a used bookshop in Greenwich Village.
I had imagined myself like Saint Jerome in his study [he writes] bent over his books, with the tamed lion of his con­quered restlessness at his feet. My customers would come and go in studious silence, pausing, with averted eyes, to leave the money on my desk. But it didn’t turn out like that. What I hadn’t realized was that, for many people, a bookshop is a place of last resort, a kind of moral flophouse. Many of my customers were the kind of people who go into a bookshop when all other diver­sions have failed them. Those who had no friends, no pleasures, no resources came to me. They came to read the handwriting on the wall, the bad news. They stud­ied the shelves like people reading the names on a war memorial.
Others came not to buy books but to tell their stories.
It was the talkers who gave me the most trouble. Like the people who had sold me books, the talkers wanted to sell me their lives, their fictions about them­selves, their philosophies. Following the example of the authors on the shelves, infected perhaps by them, they told me of their families, their love affairs, their illusions and disillusionments. I was indignant. I wanted to say, Wait a minute! I’ve already got stories here! Take a look at those shelves!
      While I pretended to listen, I asked myself which were more real—theirs, or the stories on the shelves ... In the commonplaceness of their narra­tives, some of these talkers anticipated the direction that American fiction would eventually take—away from the heroic, the larger than life, toward the ordinary, the smaller than life.
These excerpts may sound a little grim, but the tone of the narrative is consistently crisp and often funny. In one brief semi-Freudian episode, for example, Broyard inadvertently destroys several corkscrews while trying to open a bottle of wine in Anias Nin's apartment. Just standing there in the bookstore aisle, I got a renewed sense of Broyard's buoyant and  incisive prose, which I dimly recalled from his book reviews in the Times, but I hesitated before making my way to the front desk with the volume. Then it occurred to me that it cost only 25 cents more than the Kind bars waiting for me in the car. And the woman behind the counter had let me use the restroom. Let's give her some custom.

"The owners are here most days," she told me as she was ringing me up.

"I live in Golden Valley," I said. "I rarely get over to this neighborhood."

"They also keep a meticulous record of their stock online, so you should check the website if you don't find what you're looking for. They might have it in storage. They also run a shop in River Falls."

"I think I've been to that shop," I said. "I got a copy of volume one of Walter Benjamin's collected works out there. Are you familiar with his work?"

"I've never heard of him."

"Well, I wouldn't recommend him."

Back in the car, I took the first left turn off Grand, and then a strange thing happened. I thought I was on Hamline, which I was not. I was planning to turn left on Hartford, which would have been a mistake. In any case, every left turn seemed to go immediately down a hill into the woods, which seemed very odd. When I finally looked at the signs, I discovered that I was at the corner of Edgecumbe Drive and Ford Parkway, which seemed impossible. (Nice neighborhood, though.)

Curling west back to familiar territory on Snelling Avenue, I made my way easily to the house, just in time to take a look at Celeste's hand-made books (a head start on one of her retirement projects) before all the guests arrived, and to pour champagne, both white and pink, into an array of tall thin glasses of various sizes and shapes.

Let the party begin!    

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Film Contrasts

I left the theater at the end of The Shape of Water thinking: That was pretty good. But when it comes down to describing Guillermo del Toro's latest film in the clear light of day, the words that spring to mind are "sentimental," "didactic," "unsubtle," "in bad taste." The varnished and stylized sets reminded me of films I didn't like much, such as Hugo and Amelie, and I was also reminded more than once of a film I liked a lot more than this one, the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! another film set in the Eisenhower era with a Cold War subplot and elaborate dance numbers. But the Coen brothers have learned how to provide specific details that elevate their characters above the level of caricature. Del Toro's characters, good or bad, don't develop or surprise us much. Therein lies the problem.

In the role of Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman at a top-secret government research facility, Sally Hawkins shines, as usual. The rest of the cast, not so much. Richard Jenkins plays Elisa's roommate, a hapless, unemployed illustrator, with less pizzazz than he showed in The Visitor

Octavia Spenser plays Elisa's no-nonsense friend among the cleaning crew with the same gusto she delivered in The Help and Hidden Figures: you can't help liking her. On the other hand, Michael Shannon is especially one-dimensional as the vain, cruel, and arrogant security chief who recently discovered an exotic sea creature somewhere in Brazil, brought it back to the lab, and now delights in torturing it with a cattle prod, for no apparent reason. Del Toro, who loves cartoons,  might just as well have gone all the way and given him the name "Snidely Whiplash."

Eliza bonds with the mysterious creature, who's bright and sensitive but just as lonely and misunderstood as she is, and this connection gives the fable much of its appeal.  Some of the effects are nice. There are touches of humor and adventure here and there. A thoughtful scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, fresh from the Coens' A Serious Man) is harassed by his communist superiors (Boris and Natasha, fresh from Rocky and Bullwinkle). But everything moves a little slowly—as if it were taking place under water.

The last few scenes are among the best, I think, but they take their strength more from voice-over words than images: "Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere."

The creature is a healer, if not a god. He could defuse the Cold War, ease racial tensions, and all the rest. This is the mystery the film takes great pains to bring to life, without us knowing it. And cumbersome and two-dimensional though the narrative may often be, in the end, it sort of succeeds.

I was only hoping that as we sink to the bottom of the harbor, we'd come upon an old sedan and solve the BIG mystery, the one that has keep film fans of The Big Sleep tossing and turning for decades: who killed Sean Regan?

The Insult: This Lebanese film takes us in the opposite direction, away from dreams of love and peace toward seemingly irreconcilable strife.

The "insult" referred to in the title is personal. It comes at the end of a series of petty tit-for-tat exchanges on a day much like any other. A construction foreman loses patience with a local resident in the neighborhood where he's working who flaunts the regulations regarding a drainpipe on his balcony. The foreman, Salameh, happens to be Palestinian; the resident, Tony, is a right-wing Christian. Salameh fixes the drain, Tony destroys the new pipe with a hammer, and Salameh in turn calls Tony a "fucking prick."

Tony demands an apology. When Salameh, at the urging of his boss, finally returns to the neighborhood to offer one, he finds it impossible to do so over the din of a Christian political rally Tony's got blaring in his repair shop. Eventually Tony shouts in Salameh's face, "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out," and Salameh punches him in the gut.

Things only get more complicated from there, and eventually these almost accidental adversaries end up in court. The contending lawyers peel away layers of personal history and memory to expose the scars and wounds both men carry after decades of sectarian strife stretching back to the civil war of 1990. Meanwhile, the Christian and Muslim camps attending the trial get rowdy, and fighting spills out into the street.

This is not one of those courtroom dramas where we're all rooting for Tom Hanks and he convinces the jury in the end. It's a tense and sometimes ugly affair in which the protagonists, both decent people, perhaps, are often just as uncomfortable as we are about the their respective lawyers' arguments and techniques. The acting is superb, the pace well-modulated, the tone even-handed. The resolution? Non-existent. 

And yet Director Ziad Doueiri has been quoted as saying: “The film is so positive, in spite of the darkness that’s looming over the Middle East. The Middle East has never been in such a bad, hopeless shape, and this film offers a lot of hope, it has a lot of humor and is pretty sympathetic to everyone. You could watch it and think we might not be so doomed after all.” 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Super Bowls

The other day I came upon a small book of poems on the shelf by the Argentinean surrealist Julio Cortazar, and it reminded me of the value of letting one's associations roam—fun for the writer, maybe not for the reader.

Bowls have been on my mind, for some reason. We stopped over to the American Swedish Institute the other day, where an exhibit called CraftBowls is in full swing. In the modern showroom near the door more than a hundred bowls of various shapes, sizes, colors, and materials have been set out, each with a story told on a little card from its own point of view. Some are ceramic, others are made of metal, glass, felt, or wood. Some are fanciful, others "primitive." Among my favorites were a pair of Sami bowls that look like spoons; and also, of course, many of the hand-thrown pieces.

In the lobby restaurant I felt the urge to order a bowl of tomato-basil soup (though I hated tomato soup as a child). It was the highlight of the lunch, far better than Campbell's, though the duck terrine was more picturesque. When eating at Fika, the smell and crunch of a single piece of toast can inspire rhapsodies of appreciation.

Next door in the mansion, works by several contemporary artists from Scandinavia were on display. But here the attempt to combine modern craft technique with ancient lore and tradition was on shakier ground.

Bertil Vallien, identified in brochures as "Sweden’s leading figure in international glass," has made some peculiar glass vessels that may be technically brilliant but struck me as toy-like and juvenile rather than mythic in conception. Videos give us glimpses of the man philosophizing about the thin membrane of the vessel upholding its contents against the mystery and danger of the surrounding depths. It sounded poetic, indeed, but the pieces themselves, though spectacularly lit, looked rather makeshift and obvious.

Then again, if I actually owned one of those glass boats, and had it expertly displayed on the mantle above the fireplace, I'd have more time to examine it and feel its presence; in time, I'd probably warm to its subtler meanings and emanations. 
In a nearby room a selection of wooden spoons, chairs, "shrink-boxes," and objects d'art by Swedish woodworker Jögge Sundvkist are on display. He often crafts them with nothing but an axe and a knife, and can whip one out in half an hour or less to the pounding rhythms of Swedish rock'n'roll. He was in town a few days ago to show us how he does it—or so the docent roaming the galleries told me.

Sundvkist is sort of a rock star himself, at least in the eyes of Hemslöjden, the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies. Yet I'm not convinced that his approach to craft is in any way philosophical or deep, as it's being described in the promotional material. I have seen better utensils on display recently at the Swedish Institute that were crafted by local Minnesota artisans—better because more delicate and utilitarian, and with a greater appreciation of the nuances of the wood.

And they don't cost $400 apiece, either. 

Don't get me wrong. All of these small exhibits are well worth seeing. But they raise questions in my mind as to whether "mythic" or traditional themes can be revived or preserved at will, rather than developing naturally out of the midst of a community for whom such stories and artifacts are essential elements of survival and meaning. 
One small room was devoted to the work of Ingegerd Råman, who carries the official designation of a Swedish National Living Treasure. Her plates, cups, and glasses look a lot like the things we might buy at Ikea, but they're a little bit better: simple, lightweight, elegant. There is unquestionably something commercial about them, but nothing of the faux-folk or the faux-mythic, and in her vases she gets to create one-of-a-kind pieces in which years of practice result in flowing, unostentatious vessels.

 A few days later we wandered down to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see a very minor exhibit of ceramic bowls thrown by twentieth-century Japanese masters of the art. The Institute has become so labyrinthine—so full of small, square, interior spaces with numbers like 232 and 434—that I had to ask a guard where the "exhibit" was. (I had tried, without success, to find its location on the iPad sitting on a bench in the lobby that now serves as an introductory guide.)

The "bowls" were nice, and more than nice, though technically they weren't bowls but water jars used to bring in the water to be heated for a tea ceremony and also to clean the utensils after the ceremony is over.

On our way through the Asian wing we stopped at the exquisitely recreated scholar's study, and also the small display case containing a dried mushroom (good for longevity) and two ceramic trays about the size of my fingernail that were once used to feed pet crickets. I couldn't help thinking of that long tradition of scholars and writers (until recently almost invariably men) who derived great satisfaction from sitting alone in a room reading the thoughts of others or recording their own thoughts in the hope that others would read them, or recording them merely to focus, reflect, and get their heads on straight.

Finally, so as not to ignore entirely the bowl that's come to our humble village of Minneapolis, we went downtown a few nights ago with friends to experience a little of the Superbowl hysteria in which many segments of the nation have been gripped for a week or two. We rode the train in from Midway, and as we traveled west I had a tough time determining where we were, exactly, through the frosty windows. Dinkytown? Stadium Village? The West Bank?

I reminded my friend that in 1972 we'd lived together with seven other young women and men in a three-story house on that street—a "house" later known as the Zoo. I had ridden my bike down that street, day after day, or hitchhiked, or walked. 

We eventually arrived at Nicollet Mall, got off, and wandered south through various security check-points, listened to snatches of the New Power Generation (or was it Mint Condition?) performing in their thick parkas, and saw bored sportscasters we couldn't identify getting ready to broadcast on ESPN (or whatever) in the Crystal Court, where, in an earlier era, we had once seen Andy Warhol walk by.

It was fun. But the liveliest element of the scene was the brightly lit ski sprint competition running back and forth over the Birkebeiner Bridge.

Corporate sponsors were everywhere—Target, Verizon, Doritos—but the event had the feel of a county fair, where everyone is enjoying the flashing lights and the community vibe but there isn't really that much to DO. You could get your picture taken in a snow-globe, or step briefly into the Anderson Windows warming house. The line to get into the Target Bull's Eye Lodge was too long, and the free skate-rental at the rink on Peavey Plaza required a lengthy sign-in that seemed to augur a life-long relationship with Hyundi vehicles. 

One block off the mall, we grabbed a quick dinner at a sports bar called the Union Grill, where all the TVs were tuned to basketball games. It started to snow, and on the way back to the light-rail station my face was unpleasantly lacerated by tiny icy crystals. We skipped the NFL merchandise mart and were not even aware of the pop-up Prince museum nearby, but the good news is, I found a student rail pass lying in the street which got me on the train free of charge. 

Not that anyone was checking.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Crossing the Urban-Rural Divide

I attended a MinnPost Social event at the Happy Gnome with a friend the other day. The ostensible focus was on the "urban-rural divide." Is it a reality, or is it a myth?

The featured speaker, Gregg Ammot, is a MinnPost staff reporter, and he's written some interesting articles recently about things going on in places like Crosby and Montevideo. His presentation the other night was less specific, and therefore less interesting. Ammot's talk was peppered with phrases like "to some extent," "cuts both ways," "you can't generalize," "it's a complicated picture," or others in a similarly evasive vein.

Perhaps he was worried about exhibiting a bias, but it would have been useful to present some relevant facts about (for example) how urban and out-state population, legislative representation, and funding sit with one another. Instead, Ammot hemmed and hawed and failed, in the end, to say anything substantive about the topic at hand. 

Lucky for us, the audience was peppered with individuals with expertise in various aspects of Minnesota culture and politics. I'm not well-versed in Minnesota politics myself, and I don't remember the names, but to take an example, someone asked a question about the need for more broadband in rural areas, and there happened to be a woman in the audience who had been in charge of the state's grants program in that area for the last three years.

Near the end of the evening, audience members started asking more pointed questions about how much the Twin Cities subsidizes rural areas, and a gentleman from Swift County who owns several regional newspapers offered an interesting spin. "I spent a fortune educating my kids so that they could leave Benson and move to Minneapolis. So I've been subsidizing the Twin Cities for decades."

Someone asked an astute follow-up question: "Have you considered ways to make small towns in your region more lively and appealing to local youth?"

Coffee shop in Benson, MN
Another man in the audience brought up an interesting aspect of the subject near the end of the program: the death of the family farm. He told us that as a teenager in Pepin County, Wisconsin, he used to help his dad, an electrician, service 63 farms in the area. "Now," he added, "there are three farms in the area."

His remark reminded me of an article I read about Pepin County in Politico a few months ago with the title, Inside a Blue County Trump Turned Red. It offers a fascinating look at differing attitudes among locals and outsiders—and in some small towns, if you aren't a third-generation local, you're an outsider, no matter how often you attend church or shop at the local Cenex convenience store. The locals appreciate the business but are quick to detect an element of condescension in the air. Newcomers and summer residents are often oblivious to the vague feeling of resentment and reverse-snobbery their presence inspires.

Cafe in Pepin county owned by a real estate developer from Edina
I ran into an old friend the other day. He'd been raised in a small town on the North Shore but moved to the Cities for college and work. He and his wife were both outdoor enthusiasts, and they decided to relocate to Hibbing to be closer to the North Woods. However, when their son got to school age they moved back to SW Minneapolis. "I didn't want my kid developing those small-town attitudes in school," he told me. "You know what I mean." (I'm not sure I do.)

Now his son is grown and he and his wife are back in Grand Marias. It's hard to find good jobs there...but they like the pace of life; it's where they want to be. 

On the other hand, I met a young woman in Hutchinson not long ago who had moved there with her kids from Minneapolis. Housing was cheaper, and she found it much easier to get involved with local arts organizations there. Well, Hutchinson is a model of sorts among Minnesota towns. Just 40 miles from Minneapolis, it has a city park along the river, an attractive town square, a booming medical complex, and a 3M plant. Other mid-sized towns haven't been so fortunate.

Such tales can be multiplied many fold, of course. Connecting the dots between individual stories, what we come up with isn't a divide but a spectrum of attitudes and experiences, pulsing and shifting like the Northern Lights and similarly riven by streaks of darkness and illumination. It starts to look like a stark divide only when people are called upon to vote.

I suspect that on some issues--immigration, abortion, taxation, the environment--glaring crevises exist between city folk and country folk. I had hoped to learn more. At one point Ammot drew our attention to the town of Worthington, in the southwestern part of the state, where a third of the residents are now foreign born, but he didn't say anything much about how the old-timers in town feel about the situation, or how it affects their politics. 

The city mouse and the country mouse
The urban-rural split has a history extending back to Aesop, one of whose moral tales involves a city mouse lavishly entertaining a country mouse. When the cat arrives, the country mouse scurries home, convinced that personal safety is worth far more than fine wines and sauces.

A classic "recent" example appears in Marcel Pagnol's film and text versions of the rural saga Jean de Florette (remade in 1986 to great aclaim) in which a city man inherits some land, and the locals do everything they can think of to bilk him out of it.

The crafty villagers in Jean de Florette
In 2010  MinnPost ran an article by Sharon Schmickle in which she examined some demographic trends exposed by the then-recent census. Among the discoveries that I found most interesting is that “rural” folk own more vehicles than urban folk. Schmickle attributes this to the lack of public transportation options out-state, but I’m not so sure we need to feel sorry for our country cousins on that score. In the country, many people keep old cars around for spare parts. Then again, they might well have put the “closed” sign on the window of their beauty salon and are now out roaming the hills on their ATVs and snow machines. Meanwhile, we city folk remain cooped up in suburban office towers planning desperately how to avoid the rush hour traffic on our way home.

The annual 4th of July canoe trip in Appleton, Minnesota
Hilary and I enjoy visiting small towns, reading the local newspapers, admiring the quaint architecture, hunting out obscure diners, and taking every opportunity to strike up conversations with the locals, or at least do a little eavesdropping. The locals might accuse us of slumming or condescension, but more often they seem eager to share their experiences with strangers from the city who take an interest in what's going on locally. We have found that Wadena, Spring Grove, and Hackensack are interesting places to visit, not to mention Effie (especially during Rodeo Days), Milan, and Embarrass.

Do I really "know" those places? Of course not. But I'm learning. And I'm counting on future investigative reports from Ammot and other MinnPost reporters to help me out with that. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New Films: Mothers and Daughters

The other day, by sheer coincidence, we found ourselves watching two films about mothers and daughters back to back. Though radically different in tone, both films explored the same theme—that environment plays an important part in personal development. Everyone knows that already, but it was interesting to see how the stories played themselves out, one set in a run-down residential motel in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other amid the elegant and restful modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana.

The Florida Project follows a few days in the life of Moonie, a six-year-old girl who lives with her mother, Halley, in a single room of a purple, three-story motel called the Magic Castle. Moonie is hyperactive, and spends most of her time with her friends shouting, mooching from passing tourists, setting fire to buildings, and engaging in other random acts of innocent mischief. It's difficult to watch; she isn't a likable little girl, though it's easy to see she's been dealt a bad hand and is trying hard, day after day, to turn her childhood into something fun.

Moonie's mother, a professional dancer, black-market perfume hawker, and sometime prostitute, is, if anything, less mature than her daughter. Her vocabulary is invariably crude, her attention span is minimal, her vision of the future non-existent. She scrambles to get by, but parenting isn't high on her list of priorities.

In the midst of all the ugliness and chaos, the motel manager (played by Willem Dafoe), provides an element of rationality as he tries to maintain order, offering some level of attention and support for Moonie and her friends while resisting the ever-present temptation to make his life easier by kicking Halley and her daughter out of the motel permanently.

The film has its quiet moments—for example, when Moonie and her friend Jancey wander out into a field to look at some cows—but it would be a mistake to arrive at the theater expecting anything playful or uplifting. It's a sad, annoying, and agonizing tale—though it does stick with you.

Nothing could be farther removed from the frantic tone of The Florida Project than the rich tones and measured pace of Columbus. The film is set in Columbus, Indiana, a small town famous for its modernist architecture. In the first few minutes, a famous Korean architectural historian collapses on the pavement while examining a building with a woman we later learn was a prize student and is now his assistant. Soon afterward his son, Jin, arrives from Seoul where he's employed translating books from English into Korean. Father and son have never been close.

Meanwhile, Columbus native Casey prepares to give a tour of the city's famous buildings. She's bright, somewhat wistful, not sure what she wants to do with her life, but ostensibly happy to remain in her home town, living with her mother and pondering a MLS while her friends head off to Palo Alto and other more stimulating places.

Casey and Jin meet by accident. He's bored and eager to return to Korea, though he's tied to the ancient tradition holding that if a father dies alone, his unhappy ghost will roam the earth. He takes little interest in modern architecture, but he and Casey start spending time together, visiting buildings and getting to know one another.

Columbus is one of those films that grab you on the first scene—luminescent, perfectly framed, and wonderful to look at, although nothing is happening. The main characters are similarly engaging. Conversation is unhurried and thoughtful. Jin, though bored and jaded, remains courteous. He listens. And Casey has a youthful radiance that buoys her melancholy and  indecision. She feels the beauty and power of the local buildings, an experience that has been denied to Jin by his father's career. "You grow up around something, and it means nothing to you," he says. Many citizens of Columbus feel the same.

And what about Casey's mother? She, too, has a role to play in the drama--though I don't want to give too much of the plot away--as does Jin's father's assistant and Casey's nerdy friend at the library where she works. It's a lovely ensemble and a lovely film, and first-time director Kogonada has infused it with an intelligence that brings Flaubert's remark to mind: "An author in his book [or film director in his film] must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”


Friday, January 12, 2018

Winter Reading

Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions
Valeria Luiselli

In 2015 Mexican novelist Valerie Luiselli, while waiting for her green card, took a job at the U.S. Immigration Office interviewing children seeking "immigration relief." Her job was simply to translate from Spanish into English the answers they gave to a series of standard questions regarding their current home, where they came from, why they left, where their parents were now, and so on. Unlike most journalistic treatments of the immigration issue, hers is anchored in descriptions of what individual boys and girls face as they attempt to leave behind a childhood scarred by gang violence, abandonment, and other troubles.

It soon became clear to Luiselli that her interlocutors faced a variety of issues in even answering the questions, ranging from fear to incomprehension. Her job was simply to translate what she heard, but it soon occurred to her that phrasing an answer in one way was more likely to help the child than putting it another way. Whether or not a child was eligible for legal representation was determined on the basis of these interviews . Children who are deemed worthy have three weeks to locate a lawyer on their own initiative or else face deportation.

Luiselli occasionally shared elements of one story or another to her young daughter, who would invariably respond: tell me how it ends. In most cases, her mother didn't know. Luiselli does succeed in staying in contact with one teenage boy whose best friend was murdered by gang members when he refused to sign up. He eventually gets accepted into the U.S. and relocated to a high school on Staten Island, where he meets up with the same gang that was harassing him and his friend in Honduras.

Along the way Luiselli also takes some time exploring her own feelings about applying for a green card: citizenship, nationality, identity. She also shares plenty of information about "coyotes," the hazards of border crossing, human trafficking, and so on. But her personal tone make for easy reading, the sad, unpleasant, and sometimes horrific  nature of the material notwithstanding.   

Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine
Andrzej Szczeklik

For most of its history the practice of medicine has been largely hit or miss—more often miss. In this elegant book-length essay  Szczeklik, a professor of medicine at the Jagiellonnian University in Cracow, reviews that history, telling us more about Greek mythology and medieval alchemy, perhaps, than about modern heart surgery or chemotherapy.

The key word in the title is "art." Szczeklik has an encyclopedic command of the pertinent history, but he's especially interested in what takes place between the patient and the physician during treatment. For example, he spends several pages analyzing the Münchhausen syndrome, named after an eighteenth-century baron famous for telling tall tales. Individuals with this condition come up with a fabulous constellation of incongruous symptoms, stumping one doctor after another. The patient seems not to be aware that the symptoms are fictitious, but enjoys moving from one physician to the next, elaborating on pains that fit no pattern and cannot be diagnosed.  

Münchhausen syndrome is very rare. Then again, so is the Great Doctor who, brought in from the outside and read a litany of symptoms that has stumped everyone on staff, touches a  patient, puts a stethoscope to his chest, and says, "You have such and such. Do so and so."
Suddenly everything changes. As in katharsis, a process of purification follows, and that’s when the doctor in charge of the patient, who has gone through weeks on end, sometimes months of anguish, trying to find a solution but getting nowhere, thinks about that unusual guest and says: “What a Great Doctor!”
Szczeklik argues that such scenes are tinged with something magical that "has its roots in the midst of medical prehistory." And much of his book is devoted to exposing what might almost be called the metaphysical roots of that magic. Unlike works such as Evan S. Connell's The Alchemist, which revel in the poetic illogicality of medieval medical practices, Szczeklik is interested in painting a sympathetic picture. So that when, in later chapters, he describes the early days of open heart surgery and the genome project, we place those efforts, in spite of ourselves, in the context of past practices that were speculative and often dangerous but also rooted in sound intuition about how the body works and interacts with its environment.

Chapter headings such as "Chimera," "Ribbons," "A Purifying Power," and "The Rhythms of the Heart," might convey something of the tone of this little book, which is so eloquently written and so chock-full of allusions and asides from classical and medieval literature that having finished it, I'm tempted to read it all over again and see what I missed.

The Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North
Robert Ferguson

I'm a big fan of European culture, and almost invariably enjoy those books in which the "soul" of a nation is laid bare. Luigi Barzini's The Europeans is a classic study, though now out of date. Similarly Gerald Brennan's books about Spain, and all of H.V. Morton's travel books. In fact, I've already moved The New Italians (Richards, 1995) and The New Spaniards (Hooper, 1995) to the basement. Sometimes the older volumes, less concerned with current trends, have more to offer. Patricia Storace's Dinner with Persephone (Greece), Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared, Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, Paul Hofmann's The Sunny Side of the Alps: the list goes on and on.

Robert Ferguson's new book about Scandinavia is current enough to deal with mass murderer Anders Breivik and soccer great Zlatan Ibrahimović, but also well researched enough to take us back to the grave finds of the pre-Viking Vendel Period. He's equally at home discussing the revolutionary reforms instituted by the physician to Frederick VII of Denmark in the late eighteenth century and the film version depicting those years, A Royal Affair, with Mats Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, which was released in 2012.

English by birth, Ferguson fell in love with Knut Hamsun after reading Hunger and later studied Norwegian, largely because he couldn't think of anything better to do. He settled in Norway when in his thirties and went on to write the first (and still the only) full-length biography of Hamsun, while also working for a Norwegian TV station on a six-part bio-pic. (I reviewed the bio for the Star-Tribune in the late 1980s—not something you're likely to find on Google.)

Ferguson's ostensible mission in writing the book is to determine whether the reputation Scandinavians have for melancholia is justified. But that's litle more than a pretext, a peg for the use of reviewers and blurb-writers. In pursuit of this elusive truth he spends a lot of time conversing with his Scandinavian friends while drinking in bars in Oslo and other places. This rambling and personalized approach works well because Ferguson is adept at shifting from the conversation at hand to his own deeper and more well-informed analysis of the same material, whether it be the Kensington Runestone, polar exploration, the films of Ingmar Bergmann, the German invasion of the Oslo Fjord, or the plays of Henrik Ibsen.

It's a discursive book, in short, but pleasantly so. It reads like a very long New Yorker profile—400 pages worth—though he tells us almost nothing about social customs or food.  

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Faces, Places

Documentary films have a freedom seldom granted to feature films to flit from one thing to another, held together by the thin thread of the narrator's curiosity. Some documentaries choose a more serious path, which is often cautionary and can usually be encapsulated in a simple statement: the world is heating up; you shouldn't eat at McDonald's; killing sharks to feed epicurean tastes is wrong; war is hell; grizzly bears are dangerous. There's nothing wrong with that approach, and I have found repeatedly that seeing such weighty film  is far more rewarding than merely acknowledging with a yawn the truths they're attempting to underscore.

Yet Faces, Places opts for the more discursive, playful, picaresque approach, and it works. It was directed by Agnes Varda, whose film roots extend back to the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s. A long-time friend of Jean-Luc Godard ( who is also still making thoughtful, quixotic, and bizarre documentaries) Varda's recent films, such as The Gleaners and Me, have a gentler edge, or no edge at all, and they're more firmly rooted than Godard's in rural sensibilities and affection for working people.

In Faces, Places she teams up with JR, a photographer and muralist I'd never heard of, to travel the back roads of France celebrating the lives of common workers by creating huge photo-based murals on the walls of factories, barns, villas, and other structures. They visit the worker housing of unemployed coal miners in the northeast; they create a mural of a young waitress in the tourist village of Bonnieux in the Luberon mountains; they do a long mural of the workers at a modern industrial plant that manufactures hydrochloric acid; and they create an enormous mural in the container port of LeHavre of three women who work there.

And let's not forget the extended visit to a goat farm, where the discussion turns to whether or not it's ethical to remove their horns, and the interview with another farmer who manages 2,000 acres all by himself with the help of seven huge machines. Once they've finished pasting a fifty-foot-tall reproduction of his image on the wall of his barn, they say to him: "You'd going to be the most famous farmer in town." To which he replies with a sheepish grin, "I already am."

It's important to note that Agnes and JR take a genuine interest in the people they're using as models. They interview many of the subjects about their work and their lives. And the workers involved seem eager to work together with their factory colleagues and JR's mobile production team to create something positive for their communities. Everyone recognizes that the murals are made out of paper and won't last forever. One image, pasted at low tide onto the side of a crumbled concrete bunker left over from WWII, is obliterated by the next high tide and gone before morning.

Several segments are devoted to Agnes and JR in conversation about their ongoing film, their unlikely May December friendship—she's 89, he might be 35—and why JR refuses to take off his sunglasses. We get to watch them eat French pasties, drink cafe au lait, chase through the halls of a deserted Louvre, etc. They visit JR's grandmother, and he takes some very fine photos of Varda's tiny feet, which he later enlarges and applies to the sides of a railroad car.

What's the point? Art can be an occasion for celebration, fellow-feeling, and fun. Various lines of work are worth knowing about. Odd couples are interesting. Rural France is still pretty nice.
What does JR look like without his sunglasses? We still don't know. He does take them off at one point, but we see his face only from Varda's point of view, and she has horrible eyesight. It's just a blur.

I suspect he looks a lot like Jean-Luc Godard.

* * *

I suppose many film-goers don't have all that much affection for the golden age of French films. But some of us cut our cinephile teeth, so to speak, on The 100 Blows, My Night at Maud's, Pierrot le Fou, Shoot the Piano Player, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, and other now largely forgotten classics. Even the lesser Rohmer films had a certain appeal. And the string of French hits continued, albeit at a lesser rate, with A Sunday in the County (Tavernier), Un Coeur en Hiver (Sautet), Va Savoir (Rivette), and so one. 

This summer a three-hour documentary arrived in town, My Journey Through French Films, devoted to Bertrand Tavernier's retrospective analysis of the French movies that inspired him and influenced his own work. My thumbnail review: yes, everyone loves film clips ... but there was not enough Renoir, too much Jean Gabin, too much Jacques Becker.

Maybe Part 2 will be better?