Saturday, November 23, 2013

Family Stories

Stories We Tell is a prize winning documentary by Sarah Polley, a film maker who isn't afraid of complexity, in fact, needs it and seems to revel in it as she tells the story of discovering her actual paternity. The film weaves real interviews with family members with home movies and with acted scenes from the past as well as some, I think, faux home movies.  The honesty and love and searching for words to handle a complex set of emotions is deeply affecting. 

Strange to say, seeing this documentary yesterday afternoon was just one part of a 24 hour period in which I heard more family stories told than, probably, I've heard in the last year.  Thursday evening at a monthly story slam at the Cape Cod Chat House (my family and I are regulars and addicted to the format), the topic was family. So several people including daughter and son-in-law told stories, as did quite a few other people (not I). At lunch yesterday Patti told me of recently discovering an extended Swedish family that she knew nothing at all about and then after the film, Lili, who produces this class of documentaries, told about recently discovering branches of her complex family and that she'll go to Texas next week to meet members of the family she hadn't known about until very recently.

I'm amazed that these stories all were told in such a short period of time.  They are all complex, as Sarah Polley's story is. That she, with help from her two writer fathers (the one she grew up with and the one she discovered is her biological father), produced a very coherent, beautifully edited, beautifully produced film.  It won a grand prize at a Canadian film festival (she is Canadian) and was the hit at the Sundance Festival earlier this year. I would not be surprised if it's  a nominee for an Oscar and I very much hope Sarah is nominated for an Oscar as best director. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Snow away

The snow lasted less than 24 hours but beautiful flowers did not pop out immediately.  The new header flower (is it a columbine? I don't now wild flowers by names.) was on Wheeler Mountain in New Mexico. It's lovely to remember warm and wonderful days -- even hot ones -- during our vacation, just when the weather here is turning from that lovely period I call "sweater weather" to days when a serious jacket is needed and maybe gloves as well.

Yesterdays documentary film was Time and Tides, one of, I think, three documentary films made about the Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldswothy  It was a quiet, meditative film with nonintrusive music showing the artist who works with only natural materials (rocks, water, ice, sticks) and uses only his hands to create-- although for some large commissions like a stone wall at Stone King Art Park in New York many stone masons did the actual building -- but used no mortar. Goldsworthy is a  patient, extremely inventive, and often playful man; many of his creations disappear rapidly -- ice constructions may melt in hours, sand constructions are washed away by the tide. But the stone walks and stone shapes like the conical one in the photo might last many, many years. The movie was not didactic about the environment--more a tribute to all the natural elements -- everything was fodder for his imagination.  Repeatedly we saw serpentine structures - the wall at Storm King winds sinuously (yes, a stone wall can be sinuous) among a stand of trees. He often drew sinuous designs or made them out of stones or sand.  Nearly all his work has natural grace and elegance.  It was a beautiful film.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Power of Poetry

Susan is fairly new to the poetry class.  She's an excellent poet, capable of considerable variety  of subject and style.  She is friendly but she is not one of the ones who chat about personal matters.  Yesterday, i.e., just a day after Veteran's Day, she read a long poem that accounted for a boy's life starting at age one and moving on to twenty-one, told in rhyming quatrains in colloquial language that was smooth, flowing and full of intimate detail.  We knew the title at the outset "Forever Twenty-One"and most (later some admitted to not thinking ahead to the end) knew what that phrase meant. 

Susan read the poem aloud as we do in that class.  She reads well, no one reads dramatically in the style of poetry slams -- we are all too old for slamming anyway -- As she neared the end and the boy joined the Army, her voice broke. "I'm having trouble," she said.  Another woman quickly said, "I'll read the rest for you." She did. Of course the young man died in the Army.  It was a deeply affecting poem.  I think everyone was moved, especially by the wealth of intimate details about the child as he grew and then the sense of loss. 

The beginning of the discussion was awkward but finally someone said, "Is it your son?"

"No," she said.  "I was listening to all the discussion about veterans yesterday and I was moved to write this.  I don't have a son."  But she had genuinely been moved while reading it.  Her feelings about the loss of a young man's life were sincere.  "They're all our sons," she said.  She did not write a poem that made that didactic statement; she wrote a poem that made all of us feel the empathy she felt that moved her to write so well. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An early snow

We've had an extraordinarily warm and beautiful autumn.  Many trees are still red, orange, gold or bronze and holding onto their leaves.  But today the temperature dropped from the 50s in the early morning to the low 30s.  Snow began falling just at 10:00 when I went out and continued in a serious blowing spate for two  hours. Soft, wet, white, fluffy snow settled on the green and red and yellow leaves and outlined all the branches that had become bare.  It was very beautiful although I was not prepared and should have worn warmer clothing.

These two photos near my apartment show the surprised green of shrubbery and the still hardy looking vinca, partly protected by overhang at the very edge of the building.  The header picture was another nearby shrub with red leaves.  The snow is so wet, it will melt away  tomorrow unless the temperatures stay very cold.  The blue skies and beautiful autumn days will probably returned like a ballerina taking another bow.  But we cannot argue that it's not time for the gray days and barren branches of winter.  We who live in this part of the country mostly are happy to have four seasons.  Saying goodby to one does not always mean joyously welcoming the next.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Making Bread -- and poetry

I used to bake a lot of bread although I hardly ever do these days.  I enjoy the whole process but I am able to buy quite good bread from a local bakery and, being one person it lasts a long time -- so long that,if it's a large loaf, I usually put half of it in the freezer  immediately .

Anyway, I was very interested in a bread baking article in the current New Yorker magazine by Adam Gopnik and found his writing fun reading. At one point I said to myseslf, this prose is in nearly  poetry - the word "Ozamandias" was the trigger to make me look at several sentences leading up to that unlike name.  At the same time, I'd been mulling the poetry prompt for this week's class and was not inspired. The class is so relaxed and open ended that I didn't feel apologetic about not having anything on the prompt.  But I really enjoy writing poetry and reading what I write and I'm aware of the idea of "found poetry" which one fines in prose no matter where that prose may be, a passage that can be arranged as poetry -- as it is or with some judacious cuts of phrases that seem unnecessary to a poem. 

Once I happened upon "Ozamandias", I read back and saw that, indeed, within a couple of paragraphs was a very amusing poem -- minus a phrase here, a couple of words there.  I also went to Google and read Shelley's wonderful poem to make sure it fit -- pondered happily for some minutes m memory of having see the statue (or so a guide said) that inspired that immortal poem.  For some more minutes I remembered the whoele afternoon in the Valley of the Kings and the thoughts then and since about that ancient empire and its stunning constructions still moving and magnificent despite three to four centuries of ruination.

So here is the poem I read to my class (with appropriate reference to its original author)

About Bread

Yeast is really just a bunch of bugs
Rooming together, like Oberlon grads in Brooklyn.
Eukaryotic organisms of the fungus kingdom,
Kin of mushrooms.
When you mix the little bugs with carbohydrates –
Wheat is a good one –
They begin to eat up all the oxygen.
Then they pass gas made up of ethyl alcohol
And carbon dioxide. 
The carbon dioxide makes bread,
The gas they pass makes alcoholic spirits
And it makes the dough rise.
It puts the bubbles in the bread.
The high heat of the of the oven simply kills
The remaining little bugs, leaving their work in place.
The tasty bits of your morning toast are all tombs
Of tiny dead creatures – the Ozymandias phenomenon
On a tiny scale.  Look on my works, you mighty,
And eat them with apricot jam.

Found Poem -- J. Calender, from The New Yorker 11-4-13
    “Bread and Women”, Adam Gopnik

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Tuesday afternoon fix

I have written about the foreign (mostly) film series that I attend on Tuesday afternoons and the college -- officially a "course", it is free and I always hang around after my poetry class ends at about 2:30 to catch the 3:30 showing.  So far it's been a pleasure, including the over-3-hour Berman film, Fanny and Alexander which I saw when it was new and loved and loved again.  Last week I saw The Barbarian Invasions, a Canadian film from director Denis Arcand which was a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire (made 17 years earlier) still resonant in my memory as one of the most enjoyable domestic films I ever saw (domestic in the sense of being about family dynamics).

Both Canadian films have jaw dropping titles and don't hint that they are really about a family in Montreal (they are in French), husband and wife are university professors. In the first, the children were among the smartest (but not smart aleck-y) children I've ever seen on film and the dialog reflected people who are involved with intellectual ideas. Such a film is so much a rarity I forgot much  about it but not my delighted astonishment. In the 2003 film the father of the family has a couple of weeks to live. The daughter is somewhere in the Pacific delivering a yacht to a client but is sometimes seen on Skype talking to the father.  The son has become a multimillionaire through some kind of banking enterprise and lives in Australia but he comes to his father's beside. Immediately he begins using his wealth to make his father's last weeks comfortable and enjoyable -- money is no object but father refuses to leave Canada to go to a great US hospital. So the son situates dad in a swanky room (thanks to simple bribery of officials and labor union leaders) he procures heroin when morphine is inadequate to control pain, gathers ex-mistresses and ex-students and old friends and arranges a good death. In this respect (given the money and suavity needed) the story becomes a kind of fairy tale. Actor Stefan Rousseau is entirely charming, a magician who can do anything.  Once again the gathered friends and the sick man occasionally have philosophical discussions. They are smart people, none are stereotypes, family dynamics are complex. American movie makers seem to feel people are not intelligent and that deathbed stories won't sell.  Ridiculous! 

This week's movie is another oldie-but-goodie that I saw long ago, Wings of Desire by Wem Wenders, one of my favorite smart German movie makers. I'm looking forward to this one too.  Very good movies are to me in the category with very good books.  I can never read all the very good books I'd like because there just isn't time. I try to only go to very good movies because I do not have a TV and don't want to give my precious time to the junk one has to put up with on TV -- just as I hate to go to the big mall cinemas because one is subjected to half an hour of violent trailers at ear splitting decibels plus various advertisements before the film and there are few worth seeing. At seventy-five I do not have the patience to have my time wasted by commericalism that is ugly and distasteful. So I go to these movies and enjoy them greatly, and I go to the local art house which shows new movies with a minimum of ads. And I read books.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

More Men Making their Mark

 Men leaving a mark on the world seems to be the theme of this semester's documentary film class.  Two more in the past two weeks -- a contrast almost as stark as Eliot Spitze and Fred Rogers but very, very different. Yesterday's film was about Donald Trump's methods of building an enormous golf course/resort in Scotland. The Donald is not a favorite of anyone taking this class. The documentary firmly contrasted his arrogance with the Scottish farmers whose property abutted the beautiful dune/marsh area that was destroyed by the building of the ill-planned monstrosity. The extent of how Trump's money had bought the government officials and was used to make the local people miserable made the roomful of thoughtful, sensitive viewers revolted -- but certainly not beyond discussion (not this group!)

Last week's "hero" was Elon Musk, the Australian transplanted to Silacone Valley, who put his own fortune into building the Tesla electric car (he has other enterprises as well and is not in danger of going penniless). A man who believes in producing something truly useful, truly innovative, if anything more driven than Trump, and far, far less arrogant, probably far smarter.  It was the difference between greed driven ego and belief driven willingness to work  and put himself on the line for an idea. 

Yes, there will be plenty of golfer in the future but Trump's one completed course (of two planned) is getting thumbs down reviews in golf magazines, and the project has not resulted, as the government expected, in a local economic boom. On the other hand the Tesla electric car is getting highest marks from the car magazines and will probably be the electric car by which all others from all other manufacturers are measured.  'nuf said.