Thursday, June 28, 2012

Living Your Dash

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog's 2011 moving documentary about a triple homicide case in Texas, evoked emotions similar to those I experienced while watching Dead Man Walking and In Cold Blood - fear, sorrow, pity, compassion. But Herzog's distinctive voice and empathetic discussions with surviving family members and friends of the victims as well others involved in the Texas criminal justice system raises his film to a higher level. As in his remarkable Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which he explored the Chauvet caves of Southern France, Herzog probes the mysteries of the human psyche without forcing an overriding agenda.

At the end of the film, a retired death row prison officer talks about "living your dash." It borders on the Oprah-esque, but the true meaning of the film is in this phrase. What do we do between when we're born and when we die?

Next week, my mom would have celebrated her 70th birthday and my parents their 50th wedding anniversary. She enthusiastically lived her dash until pancreatic cancer recently took her away after a long struggle. I like to think that I have lived my dash pretty well so far and hope to continue to do so for some time. But the truth is, we never know when the dash will be followed by a date. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Kind of Nothing

Studying Shakespeare was one of many enjoyable aspects of being an English major undergraduate. Of his 38 plays, we read, discussed, acted out, and wrote about the big ones: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello. Some of us, captured by Shakespeare's words, explored other works on our own in films or in theater. For instance, I saw some of his plays performed on stage when I worked at the Royal National Theatre in London. And still more at Shakespeare in the Park in New York.

But Coriolanus got by me - that is, until recently. Ralph Fiennes debuted as a director and starred in a 2011 film adaptation of the play. It's a modern, exciting take on the story of a Roman leader who refuses to cater to the whims of his fickle subjects. This mistake costs him his kingdom and eventually, his life. It's set in a "city that could be Rome," one that looks like Serbia in the 1990s. I liked the CNN-like constant updates on the war, courtesy of Fidelis TV. And how iambic pentameter as spoken by talented actors in 21st century clothing is completely believable. A comrade describes a soulless, bitter Coriolanus in exile - "He was a kind of nothing." After over 400 years, these words still have the power to chill blood and bones. 

I've liked Ralph Fiennes enough in Schindler's List, Quiz Show, The English Patient, Red Dragon, The Constant Gardener, Bernard and Doris, In Brugges, and the Harry Potters. But he is astounding as Coriolanus, a definite something. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Julia Ormond (Smilla) and Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth)

I was pleasantly surprised to see Julia Ormond guest star as Megan Draper's mother on Mad Men this season. Her appearance reminded me how much I have always liked this actress - from her earliest role in the excellent 1989 BBC series Traffik (the 2000 remake was bland), to Captives with Tim Roth, the Sabrina remake (Ormond was the only good thing about it), several TV and HBO series, and My Week with Marilyn to name just a few.

Ormond's steeliness has only gotten better since her performance in the 1997 film Smilla's Sense of Snow, which I recently rewatched. This film is a great adaptation of the Danish writer Peter Hoeg's novel of the same name. I loved Smilla's strength, her non-asinine behavior, her compassion, and her "don't mess with me" demeanor. I see Smilla as the precursor to Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson's tough Scandinavian protagonist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

Maybe it's the snow and darkness that gives these women their mettle. Whatever it is, I'd like to see more characters like Smilla and Lisbeth. Another good one is Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. I haven't seen her in The Hunger Games yet, but I hear she's great. Here's hoping that we are plagued less by helpless females in film and literature and treated to more inspiring women. Let's be on a roll.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Eric Rohmer and The Perfect Sense

For those who have long appreciated the intelligence, beauty, and simplicity of French New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer's films, his death two years ago at the age of almost 90 was a sad blow. Fortunately, most of his work can be seen on DVD and indirectly in the films of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh, all of whom have cited Rohmer as an influence.

In 2006, Criterion released a box set of Rohmer's Six Contes Moraux (Six Moral Tales), which also included extensive essays as well as early Rohmer films, discussions with the actors, and interviews with the notoriously reclusive director. In one of these interviews, conducted by close friend and producer Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer talks about his original idea for the Moral Tales. The theme is the same throughout all six, i.e. a man committed to a woman in some fashion is diverted by the attentions of another and then goes back to the original woman. All six stories take place in different locations with different actors and in different years, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. Rohmer discusses stage directing, aspect ratio, acting and improvisation, and many other technical elements of his film-making.

Most interesting for me was when the interview turned to the subject of music. Rohmer famously never used scored music in his films, allowing only diagetic sounds (those which are part of the scene, like a radio playing or Paris street noise). He said that "music was the easy way out," and condemned the tendency of most film makers to intentionally manipulate the audience's emotions, insulting them in the process.

Eric, I completely agree! This has always been one of my strongest pet peeves. Unless there is a compelling reason for the music to be there, I quickly lose interest in the film the moment I hear unnecessary soaring string instruments. (Don't even get me started on running soundtracks that play throughout the entire film.) In  The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique, and the Trois Couleurs series by Krzysztof Kieslowski, for instance, the music is crucial to the story. However, it is interesting that the composer for these films, Zbigniew Preisner, has even criticized the overuse of music in films, stating that the directors must not believe in the strength of their own stories if they need to use music as a constant crutch. When music is absent, the audience must focus exclusively on the dialogue and action and form his/her own judgment on what is taking place. This is how it should be.

I also recently saw Perfect Sense, starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor. The film has been described as  "an apocalyptic love story," and while I think this is partially true, the story's most interesting facet for me was the intense exploration of the senses and what would happen if we were to lose them one by one. Frightening. The plot: a mysterious plague is sweeping across the world, causing people to first lose their sense of smell, then taste, then hearing (this segment of the film was eerily silent), and finally, sight. Only touch was left, but the film ended without addressing that specifically. The characters adapted to the gradual loss of their senses and started focusing on the importance of love and human connection. In some ways, the movie was overwrought - sadly in the music department, too - although there were some very pretty pieces of music. But the film made me appreciate the silent beauty of Rohmer and how removing extraneous sounds from films (and from our lives) forces us to let other senses take over and become stronger.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Art of Deaccessioning

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, an unusual exhibition called First 50 deserves a visit. Why? The element of surprise. The show's title implies that the viewer will see the first 50 of the MCA's acquisitions, a very interesting concept inspired by the museum's 45th anniversary; however, First 50 contains just 19 tangible works of art. The remaining 31 are accounted for with wall text, pictures, the date these works were deaccessioned and little else. Deaccessioning is the process by which a museum eliminates an artwork from its collection; it occasionally provokes strong opposition in some, while others accept it as necessary to a museum's organic growth. Generally, works are deaccessioned according to guidelines which allow for replacement of the works with similar works, whether by the same artist, or in the same style. Certain things are verboten, however, like selling an artwork to cover the museum's operating costs.

First 50 made me think about the things we keep and the things we let go. Everyone has gone through the laborious task of  figuring out what we really need in our lives - usually, this is precipitated by a move. Right now, I have three good friends who are either preparing for or have already done transcontinental moves. Two other friends are relocating within the same city, but the process is the same whether you move 10 or 10,000 miles away.

I haven't moved very recently, but have done so many times in my life. I actually quite enjoy the jettisoning of things, whether giving them away to friends, donating them to charity, selling, and/or recycling. I feel lighter and better-prepared for whatever the next chapter holds in store. Despite my Minimalist tendencies, though, there are ten (smallish) boxes of items that I can't let go of. They contain mementos, photographs, journals, letters, diaries, and art work. Five years ago, prior to a major relocation, I deputized my brother to sell my 300+ book collection, which had added another 20 boxes to my collection. I kept a handful of books which had dedications, were gifts, or which had been autographed by authors I'd met. I suppose I used an internal deaccessioning method not determined by any museum regulations. I decided that since the Since the contents of the books I chose not to keep were all in my head, it was time for others to benefit from them.

Whether human being or cultural entity, deaccessioning is a paring down, a renewal. It provides the opportunity to shed unwanted layers while retaining elements of the original. Until it's time to move again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Elles at the Music Box

My vote for a great place to spend a 95-degree day is inside a beautiful old air-conditioned movie theater (the Music Box in Chicago) complete with an organist for your ears and stars and clouds floating above you for your eyes. Not to mention an intriguing film for your mind.

I usually don't read reviews of films before I see them, but in this case, I did. What I found was that all the reviews (all by males, but for this excellent one) were negative. My curiosity thus piqued, I looked forward to seeing why the film disturbed men so much.

Elles, a film by the young Polish director Malgoska Szumowska and starring Juliette Binoche (Anne), follows a journalist who is writing an article about two young students (Charlotte and Alicja) who work as call girls to support themselves. Anne interviews these young women and we also see (though Anne can only vividly imagine) quite graphic, sometimes brutal, sex scenes between the women and their customers. Darkness in the male psyche is not easy for anyone to watch and this is why men may find it uncomfortable. But the darkness in the female psyche also has the power to disturb.

Anne is simultaneously repelled and attracted to what she perceives as the economic and psychological freedom that Charlotte and Alicja experience through their exchanges with men. But the emotional toll it takes is just barely touched upon. Szumowska juxtaposes scenes of Anne's bourgeois, non-passionate marriage (like preparing a dinner for her husband and his clients and dealing with unruly teenage sons) with the sex scenes involving the women and some when she is alone. We see the emotional turmoil Anne is going through and so we expect that a stronger resolution will emerge by the end of the film. But if there was an indication that Anne's life had changed significantly as a result of her relationship with Charlotte and Alicja, I missed it.

I am a fan of unresolved endings, and most non-American films don't disappoint in this regard. However, I wanted the conclusion of Elles to provide a glimpse of a new Anne. And though there are brief mentions of it, I would have appreciated more insight into what drove Charlotte and Alicja. Their story is the bigger one to be told.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Michael Robbins at Printer's Row Lit Fest

On a hot yesterday afternoon, my friend and I heard Michael Robbins read from his latest collection of poetry, Alien vs. Predator, at Chicago's annual Printer's Row Lit Fest. Robbins is a funny, self-deprecating reader of his own work - which is lively and loaded with references to Walt Whitman, consumer products, and hip hop -  and this is a big deal. Some writers aurally and visually captivate with charismatic readings of their written work, while others...don't. But should those already gifted with writing ability be obliged to promote themselves by telling people how many Twitter followers they have, for instance? Alas, these are the realities of publishing today. In Robbin's case, he seemed not to care; in fact, he was more concerned with the odd noises coming from the fans blowing in the tent. At one point, he wondered if we were being breached.

I was not surprised when Robbins said that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had a life-changing effect on him. In particular, he was moved by the emotional power and imagery the bizarre combination of words inspired. You can clearly see this influence in poems like Alien vs. Predator.

I asked Robbins what the tattoo on his left forearm said. He shyly said it was an excerpt from a Yeats poem. He was wearing a Strand Bookstore T-shirt and baggy jeans. He smokes. He likes Prince. He is not what you think of when you think of poets, and maybe this is a good thing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ten Days in Portugal

Things to consider doing in Lisbon:

Ride (often) the 1930's-era Tram 28 through narrow, winding, HILLY streets (and occasionally cope with long wait times because of workers' strikes); 

Enjoy the marble and tile art of the subway stations and buildings; 

Stroll through Jardim de Estrela amid a riot of green parrots, a profusion of lavender jacarandas, and old Portuguese gents playing games of cards and chess;

Explore the Jardim Botanico and see plants from all over the world coexisting side by side; see the Dragon tree, strangest of all; be enchanted by the Borboletario (butterfly garden);

Think of The Mysteries of Lisbon while imagining life in centuries past;

Eat Portuguese food, especially sausage, seafood, soup, and steak;

Sample Portuguese wines from Alentejo and Minho (vinho verde);

Decide not to eat in John Malkovich's restaurant after all and go instead to a place also located on the river, but with views of people sitting in pastel-colored planters, many sea birds, and the 25 of April Bridge (twin to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco) and the Cristo Rei statue (spiritual companion to the one in Rio de Janeiro);

Take the Elevador de Santa Justa, designed by a Portuguese apprentice to Gustav Eiffel, for magnificent views of the city;

Enjoy restaurants all over the city, especially the one in the Jardim Amalia Rodrigues near the top of Eduardo VII Parque;

Appreciate the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chiado situated in a former monastery;

Spend time in the Museum of Decorative Arts and marvel at the gold and silver treasures from former Portuguese colonies as well as the hand-tooled mahogany furniture in the Manueline, or nautical motif, style;

Visit the Centro de Arte Moderna (Fundacao Gulbenkian) and the adjacent gardens;

After walking up and down all of Lisbon's Seven Hills for a week, try to avoid that sinking feeling in your heart and your tendons when a kind local giving directions instructs you to just go straight and then right, and then up the hill, particularly when you have just come down that hill. At this moment, even if you are an Athiest, thank Deus for the Elevador da Gloria and the Tram 28 (see above);

Have dinner with a Portuguese man with four surnames and mention that you saw a street sign with some of these names in one of the older parts of town. Ask about this and be told that this might have mattered when there were fewer people in the world, but it is not so important now. Discuss other topics like the meaning of life;

Be amused that, in harsh contrast to the status of most banks these days, some Portuguese banks have an elevated status, e.g the Banco Espiritu Santo;

Get intentionally lost in 12th century Alfama, the Moorish/Roman part of Lisbon; 

Peek into St. Lucia Church, a place sacred to the Knights of Malta, and wonder how many tongues St. John the Baptist really had because you're sure you've seen it somewhere else, too;
Check out the Feria da Ladro, the 25 de Julio Market, the 31 de Janeiro Market, and the Campo de Ourique Market. Beware of overwhelmingly strong fish odors on hot days;

Almost feel moved enough to perform some impromptu Fado songs at Tasco de Jaime, but realize that lack of Portuguese language fluency and actual knowledge of these melancholy songs are serious impediments;

Finally figure out the way to LX Factory in Alcantra, where a collection of cafes, shops, and galleries in warehouses under one of Lisbon's many bridges awaits. Think, this reminds you of DUMBO in Brooklyn. Meet artist Leonel Moura in his studio and chat with him about the Robot Action Painter (RAP) he designed in 2006 for a permanent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC;

Glide above the Tejo River in one of the telecabines in the Parque das Nacoes (located on the grounds of the former Expo '98) and see the Vasco da Gama Bridge; 

Play a few games of pool with some nice Portuguese fellows at Pavilhao Chines, a former Chinese tea house. Drink a couple of ginjinhas, a local favorite made by infusing sour cherries with alcohol;

Be content as you watch swallows swoop;

Love the magical light here;

Meet other tourists and locals enjoying Lisbon as much as you are; and

Think of ways to prolong your stay here.

Near Lisbon:

See Belem - take Tram 15 from Placa Figueira and get off at the Geronimo Monastery. Afterwards, visit the Cultural Center (CCB) and have lunch on the terrace where you can see the Henry Moore sculpture and view the river. Walk further west to climb the Torre de Belem, then walk east to the Discoveries Momument (and admire the navigational prowess of the Portuguese), then continue further east to the Electricity Museum and check out any Contemporary exhibitions therein. Last but not least, eat as many pasteis de nata as is humanly possible at Pasteis de Belem. Even if you are not a sugar addict, force yourself to have at least three. This is not to be missed. 

See Sintra  - take a train 40 minutes west from Lisbon to experience this UNESCO city. See the Pena Palace, the Castle of the Moors dating from the 8th century, and the National Palace and gardens.

Outside of Lisbon:

Visit Porto, another UNESCO site - take the high-speed Alfa train (comparable to the TGV in France) and travel at 220 km/hr three hours north from Lisbon to Porto. On the way, see the loveliest countryside you might ever see, e.g. lemon trees, olive trees, cacti, pine and palms, rolling hills, vineyards, horses, sheep, cattle, the odd ostrich or two, poppies, and bougainvillea. Once in Porto, be sure to visit the Musea de Arte Contemporanea (Casa de Serralves), take a boat tour, and sample port wines at one of many caves on the south bank of the Rio Douro. Be warned: Porto has even steeper hills than Lisbon!