It was against my better judgment that I went to see North Face (Nordwand). When it comes to heights, I am not your man. But the approaching summer blockbuster season means less foreign films so I figured I'd better see it while I still could.
The film is based on the true story of four mountaineers who attempted to climb the north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland in 1936. Berlin would soon be hosting the Olympics and it had become a matter of national pride (as well as a Nazi propaganda triumph) that it was Germans who scaled the heights and solved what was known as “the last problem of the Western Alps”.
Editors at the Berliner Zeit newspaper bemoan the lack of aspiring alpinists until Luise, who makes the coffee, notes that she grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who will scale anything. She is immediately dispatched to Berchtesgaden where Toni and Andi where the Army has stationed them. Luise finds them still climbing and tries to convince them to scale Eiger's north face. Andi is up for the challenge but Toni, with whom Luise was romantically involved, is unwilling.
After Luise returns to Berlin unsuccessful, Toni finally comes around and he and Andi head to Switzerland and the imposing "death wall". There they find other aspiring climbers as well as Luise and her boss, Henry Arau, who have come to cover the event. This sets up the structure of the film which will bounce back and forth between the daring ascent and the wealthy voyeurs who safely wine, dine, and, in general, have a nice vacation while other people ply their derring-do in the distance.
Toni and Andi begin their ascent early one morning and soon discover that two Austrian climbers are following them. As our heroes climb, a small rockslide starts and a chunk of limestone ends up hitting one of the Austrians on the head though he vows to carry on. These scenes are absolutely terrifying with cinematographer Kolja Brandt often placing the climbers at the far edge of the frame with the sky and a steep drop filling up the majority of the screen. I often found myself looking at the seats in front of me for some reassurance that I was firmly attached to the ground. With the summit just a short distance away, the guy who'd been hit on the head takes a turn for the worse and the two groups unite in order to get him to safety. This involves descending a snow-covered ice sheet and rigging a system to lower the man down from ledge to ledge during a blizzard which is increasingly taking its toll on the climbers with frostbite.
With the potential thrill of victory and a worthy story gone, Arau decided to return to Berlin. But Luise isn't ready to give up on her friends and Toni in particular. With things looking worse by the minute, she walks the tunnel that was bored through the mountain which allows a trolley to take visitors up to admire the view from a lookout point. The sound of the film was marvelous here as her screams for Toni through the din of the wind and snow echoed from speakers behind me. A small thing, perhaps, but it reinforced Toni's isolation on the sheer rock face.
Overall, North Face was simply harrowing to watch. The shots of the alpinists climbing in good weather were bad enough but the film slowly turns the screw as more impediments present themselves. While the scenes of Luise, Arau, and the other chalet guests along with a modicum of social commentary on Germany at the time were the weakest of the film, they at least had the virtue of providing some momentary relief of the vertigo induced by watching Andi and Toni scaling the mountain. Towards the end, Luise climbs out onto a ledge from one of the lookout points in order to be within earshot of her love. Although she had earlier mentioned how her friends had taught her some climbing skills, I found someone with no equipment being able to wander out onto the icy rock to be unbelievable. But I guess the filmmakers had to play up the love story between Luise and Toni.
As far as visceral thrills go North Face has them in spades and is quite a ride. One could argue that it is also a love story and a commentary on loyalty to and sacrifice made for loved one but, at the end of the day, it's an adventure story. On that note, it succeeds wildly.
As a follow-up to a post earlier this week pondering the fate of the Viking Brewing Company, I can now confirm that it has "ceased brewing operations" on what is hopefully a temporary basis until the Lees get the business sorted out so that it can continue.
I wish them the best and I really enjoy their brews and would hate to see them disappear completely.
Let me begin by noting the headline at the Badger Herald for this event: "Transportation expert argues for creation of 2 rail stations in city". I find this to be misleading. The issue of rail stations in Madison was alluded to during his talk when he noted that the Wisconsin State Journal article about him said that he was arguing for two stations - one downtown and one at the airport when his comment had more to do with Milwaukee. During the Q&A after McCommons' presentation he was asked about the issue and said that having two stations is how they approach the issue in Europe and that it has the advantage of delivering people to city centers, where people often want to go, and of letting passengers off where they have easy access to other forms of transportation that can get them to their final destination. Furthermore, he said that, if he had to choose one, he'd choose a downtown stop for Madison but that he was not sure because he wasn't familiar with the devil that is the details.
McCommons spent the vast majority of his time last night speaking in very general terms and not about the choices facing Madison. In his first half hour or so he gave a very condensed review of the history of intercity passenger rail in the United States and talked about the current state of Amtrak before introducing his book and making a case for more passenger rail in the future and what the prospects for realizing that are.
He began by saying that he began riding trains around 1975 while he was in college and he noticed in 2007 that passenger rail service in this country hasn't changed much in the intervening 32 years. We have an "anemic system" where only 0.1% of all passenger miles are done on rail and only 2-3% of Americans have ever ridden on a passenger train. But it was not always this way. Our system used to be massive with 380,000 miles of infrastructure with trains delivering passengers, the mail, packages, and freight and they were all privately owned. Today, we only have 144,000 miles of train infrastructure. McCommons' main point here was that, when the rails were first laid in the 19th century, they were heavily subsidized by the government, including land grants. But by the 1970s, passenger rail suffered, in part, because of government subsidies to other modes of transportation: air and automobile. Amtrak was essentially a bailout of the rail industry as it relieved the railroad companies of unprofitable services.
Amtrak ended up being the bastard child of U.S. transportation and inherited a fleet of old equipment and some dilapidated stations. It has been received a pittance over the years in funding when contrasted to automobiles.
McCommons argued for a robust rail system here in the United States but he was very blunt that it would only come with a heavy price tag. Rail can fill a niche, he said, in our collective transportation scheme of trips in the 100-500 mile range which are lengthy car rides but very short flights. America's population is projected to grow by 100 million come 2040 which will produce massive highway and aviation congestion. Expected constraints on oil and environmental concerns bolster a pro-rail view for the long term. He also stressed the need for more intermodal stations such as the one in Milwaukee as rail was, in his view, one part of the larger transportation scheme here in the U.S. which also included planes, automobiles, and bicycles.
If I give you the impression that McCommons didn't talk about his book a while heck of a lot it is because he didn't or, at least, he didn’t place most of the information he gave in the context of what he'd written. He did give a brief overview of the book, however. It was the result of traveling 26,000 miles on trains over the course of nine lengthy trips. Along the way he interviewed historians, transportation officials, passengers, rail executives, etc. Most references to his book came in the form of stories that he'd gather in doing his research. For instance, he noted that an official with Florida's Department of Transportation gets a call at least once a day from Europeans who'd flown into Miami and were inquiring about which train to take to Disney World. The guy had to inform them that there was no train and to either fly or rent a car. Such anecdotes populated his entire presentation.
For we Madisonians, I think the evening gave us two main points to ponder:
1) Think intermodal. Let's build an intermodal station downtown which connects Amtrak to intercity buses, Madison metro buses, and bicycles.
2) Think long-term. Gas prices are likely to grow beyond $3/gallon in the not-so-distant future and the population of the region will also be expanding. We can either make rail a viable regional transportation option or widen our highways and build more airports which will eat up more land and countless billions of dollars.
The only true moments of serenity in Joon-ho Bong's Mother bookend the film although it's unclear whether the calm is the result of inner peace or insanity because the rest of the film resembles the oedipal nightmare of a song by The Police with the same name that goes "Oh mother dear please listen - And don't devour me".
The titular character remains nameless throughout the film. She is, in this sense, a generic maternal figure. Here, Mother runs a herbalist shop and performs illegal acupuncture on the side. She is in her shop cutting plants with one eye and using the other to monitor her son, Do-joon, who is out on the street horsing around. Do-joon is not all there. While we are led to think that he suffers a mild form of mental retardation, we don't really know what causes his memory problems or why he's a bit slower than everyone else. In a tense scene which presages the Hitchcockian suspense of the latter half of the film, Mother's fingers draw ever closer to the blade as she becomes ever more vigilant of her son across the street. The shop is dark while the street outside framed by the front doorway is brightly lit. She is watching him like a hawk. A car hits Do-joon and, although he is pretty much unhurt, he and his friend Jin-tae chase the car to a country club and assault a gaggle of golfers. When the dust settles and justice meted out, Mother learns that Jin-tae is not trustworthy as he pawned the blame for a broken car mirror on the hapless Do-joon.
Soon after this, a girl is found murdered. Do-joon was known to have been in the area where the body was found around the time of her death and he once again has the blame laid at his feet. The police seem more interested in an open-and-shut case than justice and a lawyer hired by Mother proves to be an ineffective advocate for Do-joon who Mother is convinced is innocent. And so she begins her own investigation to catch the true killer.
Director Joon-ho Bong proves quite adept at bringing us along for a ride that caroms about from dead end to dead end. At first Mother suspects Jin-tae to be behind the murder and she enters into his home to look for evidence of the misdeed. In a wonderfully suspenseful scene, she finds a golf club imbued with blood but Jin-tae comes home as Mother is poking and prodding which forces her into a closet. We get POV shots and close-ups of her eye as she peers out at her son's friend who is bedding a young woman. While they lay in post-coital slumbers, Mother creeps out of her hiding spot…I won't betray what happens but I will say that I was on the edge of my seat.
Mother is Psycho inverted. Here both mother and son are alive but it is the former who is the central character and is also, I would argue, the one who loses her mind although the viewer cannot be sure. At the beginning of the film she is already obsessive bordering on paranoid, but her search for the killer ends up being like Willard's voyage up the Nung River in Apocalypse Now - she finds her own heart of darkness. By the end, Bong has shown his characters to be unreliable and he unwilling to offer much of any firm closure. Do-joon has memory problems has recalls bits and pieces seemingly at random while Mother is being driven mad by her quest. Do we really know who the killer is by the time the last reel finishes? I'd argue that we don't but also that this isn't important because the film is about Mother and the bonds she shares with her son and not a strict attempt at a who dunnit.
I'd love to see the movie again because I'm sure I missed a lot on the stylistic front. Bong and his DP Kyung-Pyo Hong made some good use of the widescreen format. If my memory serves, shots which are the most ostentatious in that they place objects at extreme ends of the frame tended to introduce or end sections of the story whereas the meat of the plot is dominated by close-ups of people's faces that dominate the frame. For instance, the first section of the film introduces us to the main actors and gives us the basics of their characters. It closes with a scene in which Do-joon is urinating against a wall and Mother approaches him with a bowl of some kind of herbal remedy. As the son relieves himself, she reaches up and puts the bowl to his mouth so he can drink it. This is shot at a high angle with Mother and Do-joon drinking at the left with a river of urine flowing down the sidewalk at the upper-right part of the screen. The composition here is great and it serves as a denouement for introductory part of the movie.
Mother is notable for me in that I didn't feel that I missed out on something by not speaking Korean or being familiar with Korean culture. I don't doubt that there were bits here and there which went over my head but, for the most part, it's a universal story of a mother and how her devotion to her son results in madness. OK, this may not be a universal story per se but Mother is a tale of consanguinity and suspense that transcends borders.
New & Improved Daleks: Now With 50% More Exterminating Power
Last week saw the return of the Daleks and their first appearance for Matt Smith as the 11th incarnation of The Doctor. I think that it was the first time since the first series of the new Who that the Daleks didn't warrant a two-parter.
At the end of "The Beast Below", The Doctor gets a call from Winston Churchill inviting him round to see his new toys and so this episode begins with the TARDIS materializing in the prime minister's war room. They briefly catch up on old times before Churchill takes The Doctor and Amy up to the roof in order to see England's new top weapon – the "Ironside" – in action against a German air raid. When The Doctor sees the squadron easily dispatched by a laser, he knows something is up. And when a Dalek emerges from the sandbag wall, he is positively perturbed.
These Daleks were supposedly designed and built by Professor Edwin Bracewell, a Scotsman. Personally, I found that one Dalek that was serving tea to be hilarious in a very tense way. I mean, come on – a Dalek holding a serving tray with its sucker is funny – but you know something isn't right and that they could start exterminating any minute. The Doctor goes about trying to prove to Churchill that these Daleks are evil and not servants of the Queen by mocking them and hitting one with a very large wrench. These attempts prove futile at provoking the desired reaction but saying "I am the Doctor and you are the Daleks!" does. They relay this info to the Dalek mothership and transport themselves there.
A mere handful of Daleks survived the big showdown a couple seasons ago and they are looking to make more of themselves. While they have a Progenator Device bursting with 100% pure evil concentrate Dalek DNA, the survivors are children of Davros and the device doesn't recognize them as being Daleks and, ergo, no progeny. However, the proclamation from their mortal enemy that they are, in fact, Daleks causes the device to kick in and start the production of a new race of Barney Bad-Ass killing machines. These are like the Panzer versions compared to the old Sherman tank ones. These new baddies will no doubt prove to be a good nemesis for The Doctor in future episodes.
This is all well and good but there were a couple elements that just didn't work for me. First was the bit with the modified Spitfires that flew into Earth orbit to take on the Dalek mothership. Bracewell is not all that he seems and he is able to take British fighter planes and couple them with Dalek technology in about the same amount of time it takes to boil water for tea. I found this really cheesy and a bit too much on the deus ex machine side of dramaturgy.
Secondly, at the end, the Daleks reveal that they have placed an oblivion continuum bomb inside of Bracewell. (He's a robot, you see.) The sonic screwdriver proves useless and The Doctor's only hope is to convince Bracewell that he is human by imploring him to go through all of his memories. (Shades of Blade Runner here.) This tack doesn't work but when Amy asks the robot if he had ever had feelings for someone he shouldn't have, the countdown mechanism reverses and disaster avoided. While I didn't find this scene as annoying as the whole Spitfires-in-space, it reminded me of a similar scene that I just don't like. And that one is in The Abyss where Bud brings the drowned Lindsey back to life by calling her a bitch and saying that she's never given up on anything in her life. Such pleadings just don't cut the mustard with me because they are easy ways to negate countless minutes of exposition. If all you have to do in order to save the world is ask someone a question, then why bother with anything else? I understand that this scene mirrors The Doctor's yelling at and banging on Daleks earlier but that was about trying to provoke our hero and merely a part of a larger plan while the here it is a last-ditch, last minute act of desperation.
Despite all this, I found "Victory of the Daleks" to be a lot of fun. The Daleks are always a hoot and great villains. Plus that scene with The Doctor alternately pondering and hitting the subservient Daleks was really intense. Would they start shooting or what? And we got to see the new & improved Daleks as well. Towards the end, Amy reveals that she has no memories of the Daleks when they invaded Earth back in series 4. We see one of those nasty cracks in time and space on the wall as the TARDIS dematerializes. Lastly, Ian McNeice does a bang-up job as Winston Churchill, playing it with all the bluster the part deserves. Overbearing, shrewd, and skeptical of The Doctor's claims, it was just a wonderful, over-the-top performance.
Now, if I could just bring myself to watch this past weekend's episode with those incredibly scary weeping angels…
Arizona's new immigration laws have stirred up a real shitstorm. The ability to trample on civil rights by giving authorities the right to ask brown people for identity papers has brought about calls for boycotts of the state. Close to home, Matt Rothschild of Madison's Progressive magazine is urging his readers to avoid Arizona this summer while the city of San Francisco is attempting to sever economic ties to the Grand Canyon state. Just south of the Cheddar Curtain, a Chicago Congressman has taken up Rothschild's cause and is asking people not to go to Arizona.
Personally, I boycott Arizona because the place is too goddamn hot. No desert dweller am I but are boycotts the best way to go about bringing change in Arizona?
For one thing, why is Arizona to be boycotted whereas Wisconsin's denial of marriage to homosexuals doesn't? Let's look in our own backyard before we cast stones. Here's the Wikipedia entry on the referendum to ban gay marriage and recognition of anything like it here in The Land of Cheese:
As required by the constitution, the amendment was approved by both houses of the legislature, in two consecutive sessions. The legislative history of the amendment is as follows:
* March 5, 2004: Approved by Wisconsin State Assembly by a vote of 68-27.
* March 12, 2004: Approved by Wisconsin State Senate by a vote of 20-13
* December 6, 2005: Approved by the State Senate a second time, by a vote of 19-14.
* February 28, 2006: Approved by the State Assembly a second time.
* November 7, 2006: Approved by referendum, by a margin of 59.4%-40.6%.
For two consecutive sessions Wisconsin legislators decreed that gays and lesbians were second class citizens and that their government will not recognize their relationships as secular marriages. And then 59.4% of Cheeseheads went to the polls and said that this state of affairs was just hunky dory with them. This is a good example of Wisconsin treating a group of people like absolute scum and relegating them to second-class citizen status. How about boycotting Wisconsin? Perhaps when we Cheeseheads have our own house in order we can then mount the soap box and claim moral superiority. Until that day, such talk is just throwing stones in a glass house.
This same reasoning applies to Congressman Gutierrez's statement. But treble. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in this country. The same place where Fred Hampton was murdered by the CPD and where, during the blizzard of 1979, the L trains were ordered to avoid stopping in black neighborhoods so that they would be on time for the white folk. Discrimination? In Chicago? Forsooth!
Lastly, try walking a mile in the shoes of the citizens of Arizona. We here in Wisconsin aren't being flooded with passport-less Canadians crossing the border and we aren't spending $1.7 billion per year on dealing with illegal immigrants so it's really easy for us here to merely express outrage and just call for a boycott. To be sure, immigrants are vital to Wisconsin. A whole helluva lot of farms would disappear if it weren't for the new arrivals to these shores. Heck, I'd wager that the future of America is dependent on immigrants. But simply telling people in Arizona that they're assholes for making a mockery of civil rights doesn't address the very real concerns and problems that illegal immigration causes in that state which have essentially been ignored by the federal government under whose purview immigration resides.
So, instead of boycotting Arizona, how about boycotting the Democratic and Republican parties who pay a lot of lip service but haven't done jack shit to address this issue.
A homebrewing friend of mine with aspirations to open a brewery told me last week that he had spoken to the folks at Viking Brewing Company about buying their brewing equipment. At the time, I assumed that brewmaster Randy Lee was getting rid of the old dairy tanks he had and was upgrading the facilities. When I was there last summer, he had a new tank waiting to be installed. But over the weekend I was in Woodman's wearing my Viking shirt when one of the guys behind the register made a comment to me that the shirt would be a collector's item as they were going out of business.
I am hoping against hope that the gentleman was mistaken and that Viking remains in business. Their Hot Chocolate brew is The Dulcinea's beer of choice for the winter months and I'd prefer she not be all grumpy come December.
Jeff "Germans only brew boring lagers" Glazer at Madison Beer Review has not noted Viking's demise so I'm confident that we're talking about a temporary shut down for installation of new equipment but I'm preparing for the worst.
It must have been difficult to have written the recent episodes of LOST. The writers have to make things interesting while at the same time set things up for the series finale. You've got millions of people anxiously waiting to find out the answers to dozens and dozens of questions such as "What is the Island?", "Who are Adam & Eve", "What is the fate of our heroes?", etc. yet you've got episodes in which you have to keep the interest of the viewers without piling too much on nor giving too much away. Knowing that some of the big questions will be answered soon makes it difficult to appreciate the mid-season offerings.
Last week's episode, "The Last Recruit", was at times interesting and frustrating. The best episodes of this season have generally been the ones that take a narrow focus and show how a character or series of events are important or how they fit into a larger scheme. I'm thinking of "Lighthouse" and "Ab Aeterno", mainly, but there are certainly others which at least have the virtue of not being as scattershot as "The Last Recruit".
The scenes in the flash-sideways world are all over the map and feel like the writers were trying to kill multiple birds with one stone. Sawyer chats with Kate and busts Sayid with help from Miles. Jack meets his half-sister and finds Locke on his operating table which causes him to say, "I think I know this guy." Of course we're not sure if he's referring to their encounter at the airport earlier this season or to their lives through the looking glass on the Island. I guess everyone who was going to get an episode dedicated to their life in the flash-sideways world has gotten it so now it's time to start moving everyone in a particular direction. Last week just felt to me like the writers were overwhelmed and had to put as much narrative direction in as they could squeeze. Everyone gets an update so we can then go concentrate on what's happening in the "real world".
Back on the Island things focused on Jack specifically and Esau's band of merry Widmore hunters more generally. Esau and Jack have a confab in which the former welcomes questions. Jack inquires as to whether it was he that appeared as his father back in season one. Indeed it was. The Losties needed water and he – Smokey – has been Jack's guardian angel this whole time by trying to help him leave the Island. Add in some Locke bashing and you have a grand wasted opportunity. I just felt that, since we're getting to the close of the series, one of the characters could actually avail him- or herself of the opportunity to ask some more meaningful questions and really interrogate one of the Island's inhabitants. You're talking to a cloud of smoke that has taken human form so how about some more pointed questions. When Smokey avoids a real answer, press him and throw in "What is this place?" or "How did you get here?". Instead Jack does him Tim Russert imitation and lets non-answers come and go.
And is it me or was the Sun/Jin reunion one of the great anti-climaxes of the show? They've been separate for well over a season now and the two finding one another felt like a minor plot point that was now finally gotten out of the way. They trade I love you's and Frank says, "Looks like someone got their voice back." Lame.
My last gripe here is when Zoe visits Camp Smokey and tries to intimidate Esau by having him witness the firepower of a fully armed and operational rocket launcher. What was the point? Did Widmore really think that display was going to do anything? It just seems pointless to throw some rockets over at a smoke monster
On the plus side, Sawyer describes Lapidus as someone that "looks like he stepped off the set of a Burt Reynolds movie." The Losties have been very single-minded lately and such small details like colorful insults and nicknames which help flesh out and make for interesting characters has been absent. I also like Sawyer's rebellion. It made for some good tense moments wondering how Smokey would react to this mutiny. Sawyer and Jack have their spat with the end result being that Jack jumps off the boat and returns to shore only to be warmly greeted by Esau.
This brings me to my new completely unfounded theory of Lost. I now think that Esau is cursed. He and Jacob surely have a long history which pre-dates the Island. At some point they were both ordinary average guys but something happened to Esau which made him malevolent - he's the wine being stopped by the Island's cork – but he is essentially unaware of it. Jacob either believes or has been told that, like Darth Vader, there's still an iota of goodness left in Esau and it's his job to bring that out. Bringing people to the Island is Jacob's way of inducing anamnesis. Our Losties in the flash-sideways world are seeing the cracks in their local reality and that of the Island bleeding in and it is exactly this that Jacob is trying to induce in Esau. He's trying to show him that people are good and that there is goodness in him. There is only one end (Esau remembering who he really is) and the rest (being stuck on the Island while Jacob brings castaways) is just progress.
A couple final things:
1) Desmond can't be dead. Not sure why Sayid would suddenly lose the cold-blooded killer attitude but Desmond is too important to suffer such an ignominious end.
2) Jack is a beaten man. But I have faith that he will regrow his balls.
With her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deb Blum has done just that. Blum takes a page from the "CSI" franchise, and moves that familiar narrative of crime, intrigue, and high tech bad-guy catching back into the early days of the 20th century. There, in jazz age New York, she chronicles the birth of forensic chemistry at the hands of two scientific and public health pioneers—the city’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris, and his chemistry whiz side-kick Alexander Gettler.
Peter Straub, a native son of Milwaukee, has set his latest novel, A Dark Matter, in Madison. From Amazon's description:
In this tour de force from bestseller Straub (In the Night Room), four high school friends in 1966 Madison, Wis.—Hootie Bly, Dilly Olson, Jason Boatman, and Lee Truax—fall under the spell of charismatic wandering guru Spencer Mallon. During an occult ceremony...
Occult ceremony. Enough said. Only bad things can happen: death, Elder gods awakening, etc.
Dear Vincent O'Hern and Bill Lueders: Go Light a Candle
A couple of Isthmus' grizzled veterans, with the emphasis on grizzled, have decided that now is a good time to coordinate efforts at lashing out at many of the publication's readers by denouncing blogging, social networking sites, and the like.
Bill Lueders launched the first salvo a week or so ago with his invocation of Henry David Thoreau. This was followed up yesterday with the bloviating of publisher Vincent O'Hern in a spectacular display of hypocrisy worthy of Isthmus' own (gasp!) blogger David Blaska.
O'Hern uses as his starting point the cover story of this week's issue, a profile of Madison blogger Ann Althouse which isn't even a profile of the woman. The beleaguered publisher writes:
Judging by the title of the article, "The Ego Has Landed," and the fact that Ms. Althouse would not stand still for a typical interview, we'd have to say that camaraderie is not a part of the ethos of the blogosphere.
Judging by O'Hern's use of the hasty generalization, I'd have to say that critical thinking is not a part of the ethos of Isthmus. Would he publish an article that generalized in order to traduce the character of other groups with a nebulous membership? Using O'Hern's logic, it is completely fair and consistent to say that Jayson Blair represents the whole of journalism.
Furthermore, his whole tirade smacks of hypocrisy. On the one hand, we bloggers are a paperless menace to the pulpy arbiters of truth in addition to lacking camaraderie but, on the other, O'Hern has recently bolstered the Isthmus stable of bloggers so that there are now three. To make matters worse, he launches his SCUD missile of opprobrium as a preface to the paper's cover story: a blogger, Jack Craver, pouring over someone else's blog. O'Hern describes himself as someone who "labor(s) at turning dead trees into public knowledge". With such a grand epistemological purpose in life, you'd think he could dedicate the front page story of his publication to something more than a profile of a blog. Thanks, Mr. O'Hern. Your paper's fluff piece has enhanced the realm of public knowledge immeasurably and we are forever in your debt.
Lueders, to his credit, is more considered. Still, I find his "you're either with the print culture or against it" mentality sad. He says:
The pace of modern information dissemination has become blindingly fast, which has blinded providers and purveyors to considerations of quality. And yes, I blame Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere, mediums that glorify shallow expression. Our pretty toys have become toxic.
Either you use the Internet in handy, wholesome, Lueders-approved ways or you're hurried, shallow, and unwise. I can't help but think of Glenn Greenwald who maintains a blog at Salon.com and whose posts are lengthy, researched, and well-written. Well, lo and behold, Greenwald now has a Twitter account.
Another thought: when was this golden age of wise news-givers, anyway? How far back must we go to find a news utopia? As was noted in Slate, The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit." Am I supposed to look at the Hearst newspapers from the first half of the 20th century for a good dose of fair and balanced? Does Lueders seriously mean to say that CNN and the 24-hour news channel didn't make information dissemination much, much faster? I recently read Heat Wave by Eric Klinenberg and he had some choice words for the pre-Internet media of 1995 in terms of shallowness and an unwillingness to let important in-depth reporting happen because of time constraints and people's desire for the novelty of the new. Neil Postman was inveighing against the primacy of image over the word and the ascendancy of shallowness in our news back in 1985 yet Lueders maintains that Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are to blame.
Lueder's quote above comes in the context of the mainstream media's coverage of the Tiger Woods brouhaha. He references an article which
recounts how major media organizations essentially shucked all standards of responsible journalism in covering the Tiger Woods eruption. While the central fact of Woods' infidelity was affirmed, much of what was reported (including the ever-escalating number of women with whom he allegedly trysted) was unsubstantiated and, it now appears, untrue.
And it's all Facebook's fault. Since when has the media not tried to create the most sensationalistic stories out of the personal lives of celebrities? Has anyone ever studied how the media dealt with the Lindbergh baby case? Was it a paragon of slow, deliberate investigative reporting? Or did it have its share of sensationalism? Did Hearst papers give Fatty Arbuckle a fair shake during his scandal?
If journalism has declined – it is shallow, gives primacy to images instead of words, and the like – it is not Facebook's fault. Perhaps all the parts of the Internet that Bill Lueders hates have exacerbated things but the trend started long before the World Wide Web. Instead of laying the collapse of civilization at the doorstep of bloggers, perhaps Lueders can start looking in his own backyard. Because, if anyone has made the news less informative and more prone to sensationalism, it is the journalists, editors, publishers, producers, etc. You make the news, not us. You run hours and hours and pages and pages about Tiger Woods without any blogger or social networking person holding a gun to your head. You wrote the articles full of anonymous and virtually unchallenged sources that galvanized support for invading Iraq. It is you who follow every step of Brett Favre and put his every move on the front page and not us bloggers.
Perhaps instead of cursing the darkness by insulting a chunk of your readership you can light a candle instead.
My post yesterday on poverty in Madison drew comments from a foodie named Jenna. In it she said, "Madison has the LOWEST unemployment rate of any city in Wisconsin at 7% right now - take a look at Janesville in comparison at 12%. I know that poverty and unemployment are not the same thing, but it is an indicator..." The idea was that since Madison has a low unemployment rate, poverty and the disparity between the have and have nots here is probably not greater than it was in the past.
Food pantries are valuable resources that continue to feel a strain on their services, in large part because of the ailing economy. Over the last several years, St. Vincent de Paul, the largest food pantry in Dane County, has seen many people using its services for the first time.
Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, a private, nonprofit organization that distributes food to 16 counties in southwestern Wisconsin, including Dane County, has also been stretched in terms of fundraising, according to Dan Stein, its president and CEO.
According to a hunger study compiled every four years on both a national and state level, Second Harvest had formerly served an estimated 78,000 unique people per year. Today that number has increased to 141,000, of which about 43 percent are children.
According to Chris Brockel, food and gardens manager at Community Action Coalition, also a nonprofit organization, 65 percent of all households—including seniors and people with disabilities—who visit food pantries in Dane County have at least one working person.
“It’s not that they’re not working, they’re just not getting paid enough for a living wage,” he said. “People who visit pantries spend 50 percent of wages on their household, including paying bills, and this is too much.”
The emphases here are mine. They correlate to a statistic I cited yesterday which is that 50% of students in the Madison public schools are receiving subsidized lunches and my reply to Jenna, who I would add is sensitive to the issues here, which was that being employed according to the government doesn't mean you're not poor or not having problems putting food on the table. Poverty is increasing here in Madison and southwestern Wisconsin generally. As I noted in my review of Eric Klinenberg's Heat Wave yesterday, I perceive that Madison is adopting a "big city" attitude that poverty is acceptable and simply a part of urban life and the struggles of area food pantries in light of a proliferation of stores and restaurants proffering expensive organic/locally-sourced foods reinforces this notion.
Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg
With summer edging closer I decided to read Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, in which author and sociologist Eric Klinenberg analyzes the week-long heat wave which descended upon Chicago in July 1995 and resulted in the deaths of over 700 people from heat-related causes. While the intense heat (highs in the 90s-100s) and humidity serve as the proximate cause of death, Klinenberg digs deeper than the weather to look at the social environments of many of the decedents to find man-made causes of death.
While it was true, as the city claimed, that people from all area of Chicago died from the heat, most of them were elderly, black, poor, or some combination thereof. Indeed, blacks were more likely to die from the heat than any other racial group. Why should this be so? The real meat of the book comes when Klinenberg discusses the "social ecology" where these "typical" decedents lived. He compares and contrasts North Lawndale, a predominantly black neighborhood on the west side, and South Lawndale, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood bordering North Lawndale. Despite having similar numbers of elderly living alone, South Lawndale had a very low death rate from the heat whereas North Lawndale had the ignominious distinction of having one of the highest.
Klinenberg goes into great depth about the large numbers of elderly living alone. Children grow up and move away to seek their fortunes while their parents "age in place", as they say. But what we learn from comparing the two neighborhoods is that, depending on the social ecology, the experiences of the elderly can vary dramatically. In addition to health issues, many older people are fearful to leave their homes. North Lawndale is ridden with empty buildings and lots which fosters gangs and crime. Seniors are often afraid to go out because they're afraid of being mugged. And, when the heat wave came along, opening a window meant exposing oneself to intruders. Poverty enters the picture as we discover that some seniors who are lucky enough to have an air conditioner refused to turn it on because it would generate bills they could not afford to pay with the end result being their electricity would be cut off. South Lawndale, on the other hand, had a social ecology which included busy streets full of people, shops, restaurants, etc. People in the neighborhood were out and about which contributed to a much lower crime rate than its neighbor to the north and less gang activity. The elderly of South Lawndale weren't anywhere near as afraid or isolated and so were more likely to leave their homes, open windows, and the like.
When Klinenberg looks at the role of the city in the disaster, he cites "five key features of the current mode of urban governance":
1) The delegation of key health and support services to paramilitary organizations, such as the Fire and Police Departments, where administrative systems and top officials are not always attuned to the new demands for such "soft services".
2) The lack of an effective system for organizing and coordinating the service programs of different city, county, state, and federal agencies.
3) The lack of political will and public commitment to provide basic resources for the protection of city resident.
4) The expectation that city residents, including the elderly and frail, will be active consumers of public goods, expert "customers" of city services made available in the market rather than "citizens" entitled to social protection.
5) The practice of governing by public relations.
It was #4 that struck me the most, although it certainly goes hand-in-hand with #3. (Klinenberg notes that #3 is the result of attitudes which find such things acceptable and a "taken-for-granted feature of urban life". I think that these attitudes are beginning to permeate Madison, hence my previous post about poverty here.) The heat wave happened in 1995 and I wonder if things have gotten better or worse as far as the notion of citizens being consumers in a marketplace as the Internet has rapidly spread. The first thing that springs to mind is the recent Greyhound pick-up spot debacle here in Madison. Yes, this is not strictly about the government, but it gets to a larger concern of mine which is that Internet access is becoming more and more important for people to understand their options in any given marketplace. As Brenda Konkel noted when the Greyhound pick-up spot dust settled: "you still can't buy tickets without internet access and a credit card".
As more and more citizens gather information about city services on the Internet, are cities also responding to those who don't have Internet access? If a heat wave hits Madison, what would be the city's response? Will it simply send out text messages saying "Go to the library to cool down" or would it actively seek out the most vulnerable and most likely to not be on the Internet (presumably with the help of various governmental and non-governmental groups) to check in on them or offer a ride?
Lastly, the book takes on the media. I've read plenty of books which critique the media so, although the content was new to me, the ideas weren't. That is, I understand ideas about image-obsessiveness, deadlines, and framing the story. Klinenberg is pretty harsh on the Sun-Times and Tribune for essentially using pictures of the dead bodies piling up at the morgue as a launching pad for framing the disaster in non-social terms with city officials getting their views out loud and clear. Plus he also chides editorial opinions which simply blame families for abandoning their elderly relatives. And it was interesting to see that the Tribune used photos of white kids trying to keep cool for suburban editions of the paper while those in the city got photos of Latinas.
Tellingly though, neighborhood rags and the Chicago Defender brought the issues of poverty and fear into the mix when explaining the disaster.
Heat Wave was an eminently fascinating book. I bought it because it pertained to my hometown but being a native son of Chicago certainly isn't necessary in understanding Klinenberg's social autopsy. It gave me much food for thought including how my home – Madison – is dealing with a growing population and a growing population of the poor. Furthermore, the Baby Boomers are aging which means more elderly than ever before. Will this simply mean more marginalized people? Lastly, I recalled my grandmother who died last year. Luckily she did not die isolated from family, unlike hundreds of people in Chicago in July 1995. And now that my mother is in her 70s, what obligations does that entail for me?
The A.V. Club has a brief review of Madison Sourdough which just opened on Willy Street in the space vacated by Escape Java Joint. The Dulcinea and I stopped by there on Sunday to grab some go-juice and here are some thoughts.
Firstly, I am a Just Coffee fan and am glad to see them carrying it. Secondly, the almond and chocolate croissants that she and I had, respectively, were quite tasty.
Now for the gripes. My first is that, while they had all of their other breads in stock, there was no rye bread. I was told that there was probably some day-old left but it was unclear to me as to whether it had sold out by 9:30AM or whether they just didn't bother to bake any. I mean, everyone knows rye is the superior bread eaten by Slavs everywhere. So where the hell was it? Lastly, their sandwich board advertised an almond butter and jelly sandwich which I was told went for $7. For that kind of money, it had better be made of organic almond butter and the jelly of berries picked by virgins. (Nichole – there's your cue.)
I recently read that the richest 1% of Americans now own more of the country's wealth than ever before and I'm sure that many an Isthmus liberal will recite this when confronting Republicans over one issue or another. But I can't help but think that a $7 AB&J sandwich on Willy Street as well as the seemingly ever-increasing numbers of people who buy organics and Madison's growing poverty rate are indicative of something similar. One moment I read that one out of two students in the Madison schools is having their lunch subsidized and the next I see Kobe beef tenderloins for $45.98/lb. I don't have numbers but it feels like Madison is becoming more balkanized. Perhaps it isn't but it seems that the gap between the poor and not poor is becoming more pronounced. I hear about how it's a scandal that so few Americans own so much wealth but am I alone in feeling that a similar situation is developing here in Madison?
Again, this may all be a problem with my perception but, speaking as a voter, watching Mayor Dave offering up $16 million in TIF money for a public patio and then heading out to bicycle in Europe on lobbyists' dimes while poverty grows just puts a bad taste in my mouth. It's not that he can't address poverty and move on the Edgewater project and learn about Copenhagen's bicycle infrastructure all at the same time, but I see him putting a lot more effort into the latter two than the former. He's the mayor so he can make anything he wants an issue. All he has to do is open his mouth. Perhaps instead of blasting the landmark commission for being undemocratic, he can instead start making poverty in our community an issue.
I offer this not to begrudge those with money but to note how Madison has changed in my eyes. It seems that at one time the Broadway/Simpson and the poor in general was a much more prominent issue than the poor and, say, Allied Drive are today. I think Madison has moved from being a big town to a small city. The poor and marginalized tend to get press only when the middle class don't want to see them panhandling on State Street and when a co-ed gets murdered.
Can the fact that one-half of Madison students are receiving a subsidized lunch simply be attributed to an influx of poor people? Or is it possible that more and more middle class parents are sending their kids elsewhere? I don't know but poverty is increasing here in Madison and as a community I don't think we're making it an issue. I suspect we're seeing the first inkling of white flight now but that remains to be seen. Either Madison addresses poverty now or we're going to become an increasingly divided city with the organic/bike path crowd further distancing itself from the rest.
A commenter noted at another review that they felt that the film festival guide's description of Cooking History was way off base and I agreed with them. However, the guide hit the nail on the head when it came to Sawan baan na (Agrarian Utopia). The shots of the landscape certainly remind one of Terrence Malick's work and the movie does have a documentary feel.
We see the plight of two Thai families who are sharecroppers and scrape together an existence from the land. The two fathers complain about their poverty, debts owed to the bank, and the meager government loan schemes which do little but push them further into debt. They feel used and helpless. From here we get a look at their lives out in the rice paddies. The families live in shacks without power or plumbing. And working the paddies is back-breaking work. We see the families planting and harvesting without the aid of modern technology and instead try to deal with a temperamental water buffalo. Mushrooms are gathered for extra money. The Michael Pollan crowd would be pleased to see the families catching a snake to roast and grabbing honey straight from the beehive. To say that life is tough for these people is an understatement and some scenes of political protest that take place in a city show that the poor farmers are not at the top of the government's list of priorities.
Their lives are contrasted with that of another landowner nearby who is a professor clad in spectacles and pony tail. Like many hippies here in America, he has gone back to the land. He is trying his hand at subsistence agriculture. When the families' landlord tells them that he must sell the land in order to make car payments, the professor offers them the use of some of his land but his charity comes with strings attached such as that they cannot use chemicals of any kind. It all has to be "natural".
While there are some scenes, such as of children playing in the mud, with detract from the harsh existence these families eek out, the movie concentrates on how rough their lives are. This is certainly one of those films where some knowledge of the country in which it was made would help understanding it. I get the general point but I think that knowing more about Thailand – its government, its political movements, and overall economic situation – would help illuminate the protest scenes as well as why the fathers have so little faith in the government.
Even so, I enjoyed Agrarian Utopia. Stylistically I found it quite interesting. In addition to the beautiful shots of the sky and rice paddies, I noted that it was shot with a very high frame rate. It has that hyper-real look where you can see every droplet of water – like the opening of Saving Private Ryan. This takes away from the illusion that what you're watching is strictly a documentary but it also plays on the irony of the movie's title. Just as what we witness is anything but a utopia, the look of the film conveys the idea that it is unattainable. Utopias exist only in movies.
My Saturday at the Wisconsin Film Festival began with the Brazilian film Chega de Saudade by Laís Bodanzky. According to Wikipedia, "Chega de Saudade" is the first bossa nova song and roughly translates to "enough longing", of which there is plenty in the film.
It opens with a host of people including a well-dressed older couple, Álvaro and Alice, as well as a young DJ and his girlfriend, Marquinhos and Bel, arriving at an old dance hall for an evening of drinks, dance, and fun. Once in the hall we are introduced to an Altman-like menagerie of characters – men and women – who dance or are not asked to dance, drink, and reminisce about their younger days. People gossip with one another and relationships are exposed.
Among them are Álvaro who has a bum foot and we learn that he was a dance hall champion in his younger days winning multiple competitions. But now he is a curmudgeon who must be dragged to the hall and is content to sit and quaff his drinks while lashing out at others. Elza with her low cut blouse awaits a man to ask her to dance but there are seemingly no takers for this self-imposed wallflower. Gordo Ferreira, an older man with a gut we Wisconsonians can be proud of gleefully inveigles Bel to dance the night away with him.
This brings me to one of the interesting elements of the film. Excepting a waiter, it is only Marquinhos and Bel who are under 50. The older cast adds another dimension to the story that is lacking with most American films which are preoccupied with people in their 20s. There is a lot of sexuality and sexual tension in the air and the vast majority of it is among older people. Cinematographer Walter Carvalho uses yellows and oranges, which along with the sweat visible on actors, gives the viewer a palpable sense of the heat. Then we have Rita, the wife of a rich man who comes to the hall to rendezvous with her lover. At one point in the film, Alice, who is a matron, of sorts, of the dance hall tells Álvaro, "Some things only happen when you're young" and immediately following this we see Rita, no spring chicken, touching herself in the bathroom.
Chega de Saudade keeps the action inside the dance hall and it all happens on one night. This allows Bodanzky to explore multiple characters but hone in on a few of the aspects of aging. The need for love and physical affection never diminishes and being middle-aged doesn't mean the loss of one's sexuality. In addition to companionship, growing old means coping with the past. Some things are the province of youth but the films tells us to not let that distract us from making the present worth living.
In addition to the lively, vivid characters, there was some ribald humor to be had which lightened things up. And I can't forget the great music. Chega de Saudade was a wonderfully poignant film which dealt with a subject matter all-too often avoided.
The Scenesters opens with a mock trailer for a film called Nothing But Everything which promises "Three people, two hours, one conversation" which, I presume, is meant to spoof mumblecore. As we find out, The Scenesters is out to parody another genre as well – the murder mystery. But it's not content with that and continues to poke fun at Hollywood and perhaps indie movie makers everywhere.
The director of the mock trailer is one Wallace Cotton who, along with his producer Roger Graham, is unable to find funding for their next movie. And so Cotton takes a job as a videographer for the Los Angeles Police Department. Bumbling from one crime scene to the next, Cotton befriends Charlie Newton who cleans up the blood and gore after the police are finished. Newton notices that a series of recent murders all have something in common: a CD at the scene by a band whose name pertains to the way the victims were murdered. Graham reckons him a genuine sleuth and convinces Cotton to shoot a movie about Newton tracking down the serial killer.
Along the way Newton meets an old flame named Jewell Wright who is now a TV reporter covering the murders. They strike up their relationship once again much to Graham's delight as he now has a beautiful woman in the story. Things get even crazier as the killer starts sending videos of his crimes to Graham and Cotton. Whoever he is, he knows what's happening and wants to join in on the fun.
What makes The Scenesters really interesting is how the story is told. A courtroom scene bookends the proceedings with Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey from Twin Peaks) as the prosecutor trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Both Graham and Cotton take turns on the stand. Then there's the movie within a movie at the core of The Scenesters. Following a crime scene cleaner turned gumshoe in an attempt to make a new Chinatown was really funny. Behind the scenes footage shot by two interns found on Craigslist as well as other bits such as a training video from the crime scene clean up company that employs Newton round out the bill in a way that would make Oliver Stone proud. The scenes where our filmmakers realize the killer is on to them were genuinely creepy and suspenseful.
Although the movie dragged a bit in the middle, the interesting style, an endless parade of parodies, and the humorous rapport between Cotton and Graham made for some great entertainment.
I bought a ticket for Harmony and Me based on the review given it by UW film prof J.J. Murphy. In it he says, "Yet if I were to pick one indie film of the past year that I would jump at the chance to see over and over again, it would be Harmony and Me…"
The movie is a comedy which follows the trials and tribulations of Harmony, a 20-something guy who has recently broken up with the lovely Jessica. There's not much of a plot to be had here and it is instead a series of vignettes of Harmony dealing with family, having his friends try to help him over his loss, and the odd brief encounter with his ex. Justin Rice plays Harmony and he makes the character a self-centered sad sack who seems little different from many of the people who surround him. He constantly bleats "She broke my heart, but she’s still at it" while his mother is diagnosed with cancer and his boss is given but one day to live.
I did not find Harmony's slacker misadventures funny and I think I was the only person in the audience who felt this way. Not once did I laugh, although I smiled a couple times. By far the funniest moment was near the beginning when Jessica is talking to a friend of hers on the phone. She tells her that, while she and Harmony had dated for about a year, she knew it was over by 9 months in and got a leg up on the grieving process by starting while they were still dating. And while I felt the comic timing of the movie was good, I simply just didn't find much humor to be had which was worth laughing about.
Harmony's boss is a jerk and at one point makes a comment that he likes his women young. And so at Brad's funeral Harmony says a few words about his former employer and concludes by shouting that the guy was a paedophile before storming off. This got big laughs from the audience but I found it puerile and distasteful. Similarly, one of Harmony's friends, Mike(?), is in a loveless marriage and scenes at Mike's house invariably involve him berating his wife mercilessly until tears begin to flow. Again, not funny yet these scenes got big laughs.
The only redeeming feature to be had is how Harmony begins taking piano lessons and pieces together a song over the course the movie. It was (vaguely) poignant and provided something akin to a narrative thread.
Despite really wanting to like Harmony and Me I ended up feeling like director Bob Byington tried way too hard to create a childish movie and ended up succeeding. I mean this literally. While I like things crass, this movie was something my 10-year old stepson would probably fall over laughing at. I mean, I like The Three Stooges but this just gave shallow and insulting a bad name.
Byington gave a post-screening Q&A in which he gave some good info on production but he put me off. He came across as a really droll, self-important hipster, not unlike Harmony, so I can at least partly understand why I thought the movie was so bad.
Izulu Lami (My Secret Sky) follows two orphaned children, Thembi, 10, and Khwezi, 8, as they leave their rural farm in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa and journey to the big city. Initially, their mother's death means that they are left in the care of their Aunt Jabu. AJ had not come to visit the mother in her illness and she has no interest in being caretaker for her niece and nephew so the kids are left to fend for themselves. Thembi recalls that her mother had made a particularly beautiful Zulu mat that gained the interest of a white priest from the city. So she gathers the mat and her brother and sets off for the city to find the holy man hoping that he'd buy the mat.
The journey begins with the kids trekking through the gorgeous fields of South Africa. Everything is green except for the big sky overhead which dwarfs the children. They eat dinner beneath a tree as a dimming sun sets behind them. Eventually the pair make their way to a main road which takes them to a train station. There they sneak aboard a train for the last part of their journey. Arriving in the big city, these country bumpkins are overcome with awe at the large buildings and the hustle and bustle of city life. After Khwezi follows a couple street urchins who have robbed a pair of street performers, he and Thembi become acquainted with Chili-Bite, the leader of a small gang of kids.
C-B and his gang are antagonistic towards the rural refugees but they become integrated nonetheless. Thembi proves strong and gains C-B's respect by not caving in to his tricks and overcoming great adversity such as being rented to a paedophile. Plus she simply is able to adapt and survive on the streets. All the while Thembi maintains her search for the priest and watches over her little brother.
Both Sobahle Mkhabase and Sibonelo Malinga who played Thembi and Khwezi, respectively, gave wonderful performances. Considering that the movie concerned itself with the plight of two orphans, I didn't find it to be sappy. I felt more invested in Thembi's quest to find the priest than I did feeling sorry for any of the children left to fend for themselves on the streets. The scenes in the country are suitably beautiful while those in the city give the necessary opposition with overcrowding and cramped quarters.
My only criticism is the ending. Thembi's determination and ingenuity are once more on display – and rightly so – but I thought that her craftiness here fell a bit on the side of a deus ex machine, a bit contrived. Despite this, Izulu Lami was a nice portrait of a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is forced by fate to take on adult responsibilities and proves to be up to the task. It is likely that many elements of the movie went over my head with my stunning ignorance of South Africa, its people, and its culture, but Thembi's story will resonate with everyone.
Cooking History is, if my memory serves, the only documentary I'll be seeing this year at the WFF. I chose it because A) it sounded like an interesting topic and B) I was hoping for something other than a he said-she said bit of agit prop which the big names such as The Art of the Steal and The Most Dangerous Man in America promised to be. And the film didn't disappoint.
Conflicts of the second half of the 20th century are viewed from the bottom up as men and women who cooked for the combatants describe their experiences and their views of food as symbols of their side. It sounds like an odd premise and difficult to realize onscreen but director Péter Kerekes does a great job of combining testimony with staged footage and staged scenarios.
The film begins with a helicopter taking off with an army field kitchen as its payload. We then witness Russian soldiers being trained to cook on the battlefield. A voiceover from a soldier recalls eating mostly porridge during his tour in Chechnya until one day his fellow soldiers killed a cow belonging to a local. As you can imagine, this only made the situation worse. Over this recollection the trainees slit the throat of a cow and are shown butchering it. This opening epilogue gives us the template for the rest of the film as the airborne field kitchen returns periodically as does another element here: the recipe. In this case, it is for shashlik. Ingredient amounts are adjusted for the size of the army. In addition, it is notable that at least some of the scenes of the trainees are staged as evidenced by the camera angles.
We then jump back to World War II with an old German man who is measuring flour. He says, "German bread is the best in the world" and recalls the Kommist bread eaten by German soldiers during the war. His story is told side by side with that of an old Russian woman who declares that "bread is bread, regardless of nationality. She fed Russian soldiers bread and blini pancakes during the Seige of Stalingrad. (I think it was this battle, anyway.) The two talk of the horrific things that war brings and they both end up shedding tears.
I really appreciated how the interviews were done in staged scenes. One man who was a concentration camp survivor baked bread for captured SS officers and laced his loaves with arsenic. He killed about 300 of them. His interview is shown on a television that sits atop a counter in a kitchen. Another man, a cook on a German submarine in the 1960s, describes being the boat's only survivor after an accident on the North Sea. He talks of his experience as he prepares schnitzel on a beach with a rising tide. Eventually the water sweeps his food and takes the table away. In another instance, a French veteran of their conflict in Algeria has some toy figures of soldiers and they move briefly in an animated scene on the guy's coffee table.
In eschewing stock footage to illustrate the events at the time, such theatrical interviews personalize the accounts given by cooks in the front of the camera. The opening and its cow slaughter sequence reminded us of the dirty business that is war while the staged elements add a little humor to distance us a bit from the grim realities these people endured.
Food is also shown to have uses other than simply preparing men for war. The personal food taster for Joseph Tito, president of the former Yugoslavia, describes the deterioration of that country as Serbian and Croatian cuisines became weapons. During talks to keep the country from splitting apart, Serbs would serve food that was sure to displease the Croatian delegates and vice versa. We know how well that turned out.
The film ends with the story of the gentleman above who was the lone survivor of the submarine disaster. It stands as a stark reminder that, above all else, food is necessary for survival.
The series of five shorts Thursday night at Vilas Hall were all from the UK and tended to focus on children. There was a goodly amount of humor as well as some deadly seriousness.
Bale lead off the program. Three boys bicycle out to a large mound of hay bales and enjoy the youthful pursuit of pretending to be in a fort. Their fun is spoiled, however, when a group of joy riding teenagers arrives and decides to pick on one of the boys, Tom, with a battery of torments that includes flicking lit matches at him.
Shot in 35mm, Bales is gorgeous and the ensemble of young actors does a great job. It's a brief yet poignant portrait of youth in different stages discovering that life gets all-too real very quickly.
Next came Love Does Grow On Trees. It opens with a humorous disclaimer that the story takes place in a time of innocence – the pre-Internet era of the 1980s. The story revolves around a pubescent boy who finds the photo of a nude woman from a porno magazine caught in the webbing of a football (soccer) net and stumbles upon the Porn Fairy as he goes hunting for more to satiate his budding sexual desires.
Also shot on 35mm, Love Does Grow On Trees looks really nice. Luke Ward-Wilkinson does a bang-up job as the young lad with his facial expressions of amazement and delight at the sight of naked women. A very funny film that, like highlights an awkwardness of youth.
The laughs continued with Oscar and Jim. At 28 minutes, it was the longest short of the set. It follows a young couple who are on a holiday in Paris wandering the Pierre Lachaise Cemetery in search of the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. The map they have has proven useless and they're lost. The two bicker with one another and trade clever insults as closing time approaches.
This one was less intriguing to me on a technical level because of my bias for film and this was shot on video. Still, it was definitely good for some laughs despite my not having found the couple to be all that interesting.
The penultimate movie of the night was Rule 2 which, in a paltry nine minutes, tries to give some sense of how a British soldier serving in the Middle East changes as he sees more and more of what war has to offer. Scenes of him chatting with his mum and girlfriend via webcam alternate with those of him reciting a monologue to the camera as images are projected onto his face and the screen behind him.
While I liked the style, Rule 2 just didn't gel. Projecting the images on the man's face worked for me in Natural Born Killers and it worked for me here. But nine minutes is just not enough time to convincingly explore the profound changes that war has on people. The movie's reach exceeds its grasp.
Lastly we saw Edward's Turmoil. Here we return to youth as a young lad accompanies his grandfather on a day out. The granddad is rather crotchety and prone to use of profanity. Unfortunately, the f-bomb causes the good, Bible-reading boy to have uncontrollable spasms. Things come to a head at a restaurant as the grandfather's attempt at provoking the boy into swearing himself ends with a punch to the face.
A funny glimpse at the eternal struggle between youth and age and a great way to end the night.
Doug Moe accompanied Paul Soglin to the FIB's cart on the Square and has the results. Soglin, a Chicago dog connoisseur, gave it a B.
It's a nice little profile of FIB's owner, John Handley, and explains why I haven't seen the cart down at Library Mall. I think he throws together a pretty good Italian beef and am sorry to see him relocate but he's is apparently doing well at the new location. Handley was always extremely friendly so I wish him all the best.
As for me, I am still working my way through my stash of Italian beef that I got in Chicago last time I was down there. Five pounds of tender beef goodness from Joseph's Finest Meats on Addison near Harlem.
My Wisconsin Film Festival 2010 began last night with a screening of Lourdes.
The opening shot established the deliberate pace of the film with a view of a dining room. Slowly waitstaff wheel carts in and begin to place food at the tables. Following them are those who are to dine. First comes a man who uses a walker. Then another man zips into the frame in his motorized wheelchair. Soon the room is bustling as the sick and infirm are led to tables by their attendants. All of this activity takes place in a single static shot before a slow zoom begins and moves towards a nurse at the center who announces that the visit to the grotto will be delayed until the following day. The scene had a very Altman-esque feel.
Lourdes centers on Christine, a woman in her late-30s who is afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis. She, like her fellow diners, is a pilgrim has come to Lourdes, a town at the base of the Pyrenees, seeking hope and healing. The sick and infirm began making the trek after a young woman named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a nearby grotto in 1858. A spring at the site supposedly had miraculous healing powers and things snowballed from there as ever more Catholics made the pilgrimage seeking to be free of their illnesses.
Christine has lost the use of her limbs and is tended to by a young woman who also spends a lot of time flirting with one of the men who assists the nurses that care for the pilgrims. Indeed, amidst the search for healing, most of the staff seems more concerned with the opposite sex playing cards, and drinking. The film's humor is very dry as illustrated by scenes of the infirm alternating with those showing the extreme commercial nature of the town. Statues of Mary are for sale everywhere and the lobby of the building where Christine is staying has a large statue with a neon halo above the head.
A routine is begun as the pilgrims eat, venture out to the grotto, go to a blessing, or some other activity, and then back for the night. As we follow Christine, we are introduced to other characters. There's a priest who is unable to satisfactorily answer questions about suffering and why certain people are healed while others are not as well as a male attendant who seeks skeptical of religion and never fails to poke fun at the priest. The head nurse is a Nurse Ratched-like woman who seems to spend most of her time enforcing discipline instead of comforting the ill. And there's also the pair of older women who are the gossip hounds of the group. The holy is contrasted with the profane constantly.
Despite not being particularly religious and making the pilgrimage simply to get away from the Sturm und Drang of her life, Christine appears to have been healed. Now able-bodied, she can make a trek up the mountain. There her own flirtation with the attendant for whom her nurse had eyes comes to fruition and they kiss. Later at the farewell party they are able to dance. But the film ends ambiguously. Christine falls while dancing and retreats to the side to recover herself. Her date is extremely uncomfortable and excuses himself. Christine retreats to her wheelchair, her future unknown as the screen goes black.
Lourdes is a slow movie that utilizes little camera movement and revels in long takes. Christine is very quiet and the film invites the viewer into contemplation as it gives mostly glances and facial expression as clues into her state of mind. Considering all the sick and infirm, the movie never makes a pitch for us to feel sorry for anyone and it manages to never lapse into raw sentimentality by mixing things up with its dry humor and the occasional jab at the hypocrisy of the place.
Now that I'm gearing up for the Wisconsin Film Festival, I don't want to forget my cinema adventure last week - The Secret of Kells. This Irish-French-Belgian production was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
It concerns young Brendan, nephew of Abbot Cellach. The abbot is a former illuminator who now concerns himself with designing and building a wall around the monastery and surrounding village to keep out the Viking hordes that are running roughshod over the land. Brendan hears the story of Aidan of Iona who is famed as the best illuminator in all of Christendom. When Aidan shows up at the monastery doors with his latest work in progress, The Book of Kells, Brendan is entranced. But the man is growing old and so he enlists the boy to his cause.
Brendan's first task is to gather some gall nuts outside the walls in order to make ink. The abbot has expressly forbidden Brendan from leaving the friendly confines so he must gather his resolve as well and disobey his uncle. Out in the forest he encounters a faerie who can take the shape of a wolf and she gives him a grand tour of the world outside the walls of his home before directing him to the nuts and eventually getting him home to finish the book.
The Secret of Kells is aimed at children and is not the deepest or most nuanced coming of age tale. Nonetheless it is a fun story of a boy maturing and coming into his own in the face of a strict guardian and moving to realize his dream. Furthermore the animation is absolutely splendid. Modeled after medieval illumination, it is unrealistic yet ornate and simply beautiful. Flames are rendered not as mercurial swathes of orange but rather as identical shapes with perfectly symmetrical curves and bordered in gold. It even utilizes the odd 2-D perspective of medieval art.
Unfortunately The Secret of Kells was only here for a week so be sure to catch it on DVD.
Compared to last week's LOST in which we see the show's Black Iron Prison receive its first frontal assault, this week's was more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we learned that the whispers are the voices of the dead, their souls unable to continue their journey. On the other, we get that bag with the draw string that Hurley finds eminently interesting but about which he keeps mum. Another mystery to ponder as the show caroms to its end.
The title was "Everybody Loves Hugo" and we find out via a Citizen Kane-like montage that in the flash sideways world the fried chicken magnate has donated lots of money to worthy causes. And the voice narrating was instantly familiar – Pierre Chang. It turns out that Hurley was being given a civic award of some kind and the montage was shown at the ceremony. Afterwards, his mother chastises him for not having a woman in his life and sets him up on a blind date. The date apparently bailed on him but Libby shows up and engages the lonely billionaire. He looks familiar to her – she has been undergoing anamnesis. Unfortunately Hurley has not. But a brief appearance by Desmond spurs him to meet Libby again and they end up having the picnic denied them on the Island. A kiss from her proves to be just what the doctor ordered to kickstart Hurley's memory and images from the Island come flooding into his mind.
Back on the Island, Ilana retrieves four sticks of dynamite from the Black Rock and tries to rally the troops for a voyage to the Hydra island where they'll blow-up the defenseless Ajira 316 to prevent Smokey from being able make his way to the real world. But in her haste and frustration at having to justify the plan, the candidates' guardian drops the backpack containing the explosives and she ends up pulling a Doc Arzt. A rather ignominious exit, if you ask me.
But it allows Hurley to rifle through her belongings and find a copy of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and the bag I mentioned above. My theory is that the bag contains Jacob's ashes. Although why Hurley looks at them like he's discovered the super-secret jackpot is something I haven't figured out yet.
Our hero who communes with the dead hears the whispers at the beginning of the episode when he is at the Losties' Island boneyard and encounters Michael who tells him that he must not blow up the Ajira plane or else everyone will die. Later the whispers and Michael return. We are told that they are the voices of the dead who cannot move on.
But is the apparition of Michael trustworthy? Considering that the whispers have been heard in a variety of situations before, it seems odd for one of the souls to suddenly appear and offer advice. I don't remember hearing whispers when the ghost of Richard's beloved Isabella appeared. Then again, she only warned not to let Smokey off the Island – the whole idea of blowing up the plane was Richard's. Perhaps the ghostly Michael is trustworthy after all. The idea of using the plane to escape could be just another one of Smokey's subterfuges, a ploy to kill off the candidates. Maybe that is what Michael is warning against when he told Hurley that he wanted to make sure he didn't get everyone killed.
Back in "Ab Aeterno", Smokey convinced Richard that the Island was Hell and now an ethereal Michael maintains that the Island houses the souls of the dead who cannot reach their final destination. Perhaps the Island really is Hell. Jacob said that it was like a cork keeping malevolence bottled up. Well, evil incarnate resides in Hell so perhaps Smokey getting off the Island is the equivalent of that bottle being uncorked. And is Hell not thought to be underground? That's the pun behind the Dostoevsky book. In this scenario it is Jacob and not Smokey who is Cerberus for it is he who keeps Smokey from leaving.
Lastly, in the flash sideways we see that Desmond's crusade to find his fellow Flight 815 passengers and get them started down the path of anamnesis worked on Hurley but why hit the wheelchair-bound Locke with his car? I wonder if the two Desmonds are now one or are floating freely between each other. The on-Island version feels no fear and is one of the happiest-go-lucky people ever while the flash sideways incarnation feels motivated to run over Locke. Has the hit and run Desmond taken a leap of faith and decided that the two worlds are connected? If so, does this really account for his malevolent action against the disabled?
Some things for next week. First, Locke thinks that, with the arrival of the Hurley-led group, that he has his candidates and can now get moving on that whole busting out of Dodge plan of his. But does he? We know "Kwon" was on the list but was it Jin or Sun or both? I think Smokey will soon find out that he requires Jin who is being detained by Widmore.
And since most of the Losties are now at Camp Smokey, we'll no doubt find out more about the Widmore Energy Stratagem. I wonder if the old man's team is going to head to the Orchid Station as Smokey's gang make a dash for the Hydra island.
Lastly, who will die? The end of the show is nigh and I am thinking that more folks are going to bite the dust. My guess is that Sayid is next. Ever since his resurrection, he's been a heartless automaton with a darkness that's growing inside him.
I must admit that I was much more impressed with Doctor Who this past weekend than with the series premiere. "The Beast Below" addressed my main criticism of Matt Smith's debut, namely, too much in the histrionics department. Here he is still incredibly passionate but less hyper. And very funny.
The Doctor and Amy land on Starship UK which looks like a conglomeration of skyscrapers and contains the population of England (not Scotland, though) who are fleeing Earth which is under assault by solar flares. In seeking to console a girl who is crying, our heroes discover that not all is as it seems on the interstellar nation of shopkeepers. For one thing, there is no vibration from an engine. So what is propelling the ark? The Doctor and Amy must go below decks to the Tower of London to find the answer.
This should sound somewhat familiar as The Doctor and Martha visited New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York in "Gridlock" and the answer to the conundrum in that story lay below the surface just as here. Without wanting to spoil the story, I'll say that the two stories have some similarities but are quite different. Writer Steven Moffat cleverly plays against our expectations in "The Beast Below" and does so very well.
This story was a hoot. Much of what was done physically in "The Eleventh Hour" is now done verbally. The Doctor spends less time running around, spitting food, and hitting his own forehead and more time off-handedly dropping quips like the one to Amy about how he never interferes in the affairs of the places he visits. He has seemingly gotten over any post-regeneration hiccups and can now concentrate on enjoying himself and getting Amy acclimated to her new role as companion. Mania has been replaced by an avuncular congeniality. Considering his age, there were times when Smith's Doctor showed signs of Jon Pertwee as the third incarnation of the character. Tellingly, he avoids answering her queries as to whether he is a father but The Doctor does explain that he is the last of his kind.
Amy showed a lot of promise in her first episode but it focused on The Doctor. "The Beast Below" showed her to be adventurous and intelligent. We see her picking a padlock to go poking around that tent where she shouldn't be and she also overrides The Doctor's plan of pseudo-euthanasia after having pieced together what she could of the puzzle and then taking a leap of faith. Plus, since she is Scottish, there's always room for jokes about the Scots such as the aforementioned one about them building their own ark to flee the Earth instead of joining the Brits.
Sophie Okonedo was great as the badass Queen Elizabeth X. (Above w/The Doctor.) She proves herself to be a real gunslinger in the face of two menacing Smilers and recounts some previous encounters with The Doctor had by past British monarchs such as Victoria in "Tooth and Claw".
In addition to the slimy Star Wars-like garbage chute scene, I also appreciated the above "Smilers", which are surveillance devices that use clown-like faces to register official approval or opprobrium. They scared The Dulcinea and Miles pretty good. Plus I liked the vaguely Blade Runneresque sets. They retrofitted the English city really well.
Lastly I'll mention that the crack motif continues here. Introduced in "The Eleventh Hour" with the crack in young Amy's bedroom wall and Prisoner Zero intoning "the Pandorica will open, silence will fall", we see a large crack in the Starship UK.
This series may have gotten off to a bit of a slow start but "The Beast Below" gets things moving once again. To top things off, it ends with an introduction to next week's installment which is to feature the Daleks.
When I think of medieval mystery stories, my mind immediately jumps to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I heard about Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death when it was published in 2007 and resolved to check it out. I finally got around to doing and found that, while it is a very different book in contrast to The Name of the Rose but was nonetheless an extremely fun read.
It is 1171 and a group of pilgrims who had celebrated Easter at Canterbury are returning to Cambridge. Among them are the prioress and prior of the local nunnery and monastery, respectively, three knights who are former crusaders, a tax collector, and a trio of foreigners. This latter group has been sent to Cambridge by the King of Sicily at the behest of Henry II to investigate the murder of a young boy in the town. In addition, other children have gone missing. The townspeople have leveled accusations of blood libel against Cambridge's Jews who have been given refuge in the castle. For his part, Henry is perturbed at the loss of income as his Jewish servants who engage in usury are no longer paying taxes.
Simon of Naples, a Jew who is renowned in his homeland for his sleuthing skills, leads the investigation. With him is Adelia Aguilar, a doctor who is able to examine corpses to determine cause of death, and her manservant Mansur, a Saracen. While Franklin's story isn't concerned with metaphysics, extended metaphors, and philosophical conflicts as was Eco's, she does weave a great tale which touches on a variety of issues by using Adelia as a focal point.
The book's opening introduces us to the main figures in the town but also showcases Adelia's unique talents and her temperament. Prior Geoffrey has a prostate problem and cannot urinate. In a land where practicing medicine generally means preparing herbal remedies, Adelia is able to draw upon texts she's read and jury-rig a catheter to relieve the prior of his fullness. We learn that in her native Salerno, women are allowed to be doctors, unlike in England, and that a rational, scientific approach to medicine holds sway. Adelia is an intelligent, dedicated doctor who does not suffer fools easily.
At the heart of the story is a murder mystery and our investigators suspect everyone at first. The plot meanders as more information is gathered and the list of suspects narrows. But aside from simply being an engaging story, Mistress of the Art of Death touches on many issues, though it shies away from the metaphysical. Being a stranger in a strange land, Adelia's observations of 12th century life in Cambridge are in direct opposition to life in Salerno. The meals are heavy on the animal flesh and light on salad and people don't bathe much. But the book also gives anti-Semitism a prominent role as well as the subordinate role of women in England. These themes are not delved into deeply but rather are present throughout where they sit next to many others issues such as that of class and the dichotomies of superstition vs. reason and the individual vs. society.
With so many themes and issues abutting the basic detective story, Franklin creates a very vivid portrait of Cambridge in 1171. Sure, there are anachronisms but, overall, the world of the story is absorbing. And while there is a whole host of characters, she manages to flesh out a fair number of them. Simon is a Jew in a town seething with hatred of Jews, Adelia is a beacon of gender equality and rationalism in a town of misogyny and superstition, and Mansur is a Saracen. Franklin deftly tells us about the townspeople by how they react to the foreigners.
I don't mean to imply here that Mistress of the Art of Death is The Name of the Rose-lite because Franklin and Eco had very different motivations for their stories. Franklin has managed to create an intriguing protagonist in Adelia and placed her in a lovingly detailed world. Her mystery draws the reader in and is richly adorned with thematic elements that will resonate with contemporary readers.
I am looking forward to reading the three sequels.