Monday, December 31, 2012

5, 4, 3, 2...


Just finished reading...

...WAR AND PEACE by Tolstoy.

It’s been a while since I have written about any recently read books, and there is a good reason for that. I always try to include a classic among the many books I read each year, and this year I decided it was time for me to read WAR AND PEACE. Which took a little while. But my goal was to finish it before the end of the year, and I read the last chapter last night.

First I want to say that, at least here in the United States, this legendary book has taken on a meaning of its own, beyond what the book is, or is about. It is a stand-in for something that is insufferably long, something that one must slog through. Often that idea has a comedic meaning as well, a punch-line of sorts: “I could have read WAR AND PEACE waiting in that check-out line!” Its reputation is that it is a dreary, dreadful affair, the kind of bone-dry, academic book that no one really wants to read, the kind of book high school students are forced against their wills to read. But since ANNA KARENINA is one of my favorite pieces of literature, I had faith in Tolstoy’s story-telling powers, so I plunged in. After all, the book of a thousand pages begins with Page One. And honestly…it’s just a book…paper with some ink printed on it…nothing that threatening.

I will admit that WAR AND PEACE is long, but it is in no way dry or dreary. Like ANNA KARENINA, the breathtaking scope of the narrative is epic and sweeping, incorporating many different characters over the course of many years, from 1805 to 1820. The WAR of the title is of course the Napoleonic wars in Eastern Europe and Russia. But the PEACE is just as important, to serve as a counterpoint, and a way to illustrate the approach of the upper classes and Tsar Alexander I toward Napoleon and the invasion.

The story traces five families throughout this period, and how their lives are changed and shaped by the waves of war that ebb and flow during this period of history. And just like in ANNA KARENINA, Tolstoy has a masterful way of drilling deep into the mind and soul of a certain character, capturing the texture and thought process of a particular person, only to do the same with the next character. But it is shocking to see how thorough he is in his portrayals. Just when I accept as normal certain concerns, certain outlooks, certain beliefs as the tone of the story, he hops into the mind of another and the tone is turned on its head as we explore the concerns, outlooks, and beliefs of this next person. He is dedicated to making these characters come alive, whether they are good and noble or selfish and petty. All are worthy of exploration since they all exemplify the human condition.

The concerns of the women left at home range from situation to situation, but as one might imagine during that period, generally the women are left to care for children, elderly parents, or homes, or, if they are younger, wonder about attending dances and whom they will eventually marry. We bounce between these domestic and social scenes in Moscow and Petersburg and battlefields scattered across Eastern Europe and Russia.

And it is these war scenes and battlefield accounts that really took me by surprise. I am not now, nor have I ever been fascinated by war. I know history and I know about the major wars, but I do not study battles the way Civil War groupies do in this country, I do not pore over the History Channel documentaries about Hitler and WWII, and I do not gravitate toward war films. But because I know such people and their peculiar (to me) predilections exist, I suppose I am used to a kind of American view of war. And that view turns war into a hobby, something to be studied for fun or as a pastime, something to be re-enacted, and by extension, something to be held up with positivity, something to be glorified. I do not share this view, but it was still shocking to come across vivid descriptions of the reality of war. Tolstoy shows us that war is not what it seems, even to those in Moscow or Petersburg. War—especially hand to hand combat—is something slow and messy and personal and confusing. It takes a lot of fortitude to run up to someone and bayonet them or swipe at them with a saber. Nicholas, one of our young men we follow in the story, takes down a French officer in a battle, but once the enemy is down, Nicholas is alarmed to see that the officer is actually a young man, much like himself or his school chums, a young man with a dimpled chin and light-blue eyes filled with terror, apprehension, and uncertainty about what will happen to him, to his life force. It is a shocking moment, not only for the readers, but also for Nicholas who is profoundly shaken by the encounter and actually becomes quite depressed, confused about the meaning of “heroism” in war (afterward, Nicholas says to himself of the encounter, “So others are even more afraid than I am!”), wondering what the point of war is, and why men follow leaders who make war. And there are many such scenes which look unflinchingly at how any battle seems nonsensical and surreal to those actually in it. I liken it to a car accident. We see such scenes on television and in films: the angle is perfect, the lighting is good, and the soundtrack captures a true “cinematic” moment. But until you are riding in a car and are struck by another vehicle so entirely unceremoniously, and you hear not a soundtrack or a special sound effect, but simply the dull thud of fiberglass against your door, and a ripping sound followed by the sound of shattering glass, and you feel the absolute nonsensical, surreal, confusing feeling of the trauma to your body, you can’t possibly understand how immediate it all is, how quickly it can be over despite feeling as if it is happening slowly, and how truly destructive it can be.

The effects of war are shown as equally destructive with one of our major heroes being taken prisoner by the French, and losing a few other characters to enemy fire (I was quite saddened at the death of one character I had grown particularly fond of since his temperament and philosophy reminded me of my own). Later in the book, Tolstoy devotes chapters to trying to understand the reasons for war, the particular successes or failures of one side or the other, and what makes men make the decisions they do. Tolstoy examines such things from a very philosophical, even metaphysical, point of view. He claims that winning or losing, success or failure of a war cannot be traced to a single battle, cannot be traced to the will of one man, such as Napoleon or Alexander I. Such things are due to innumerable causes traced back hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. He says that historians try to examine all events in a vacuum, away from anything else, but there can be no beginning of an event since all events flow into one another and are connected. It is possible to strategize about where to move your left flank or to give commands or orders to advance a regiment, but it is impossible to see through time and space, through the will of every living human, and to plot a winning war. As Tolstoy says, “Only unconscious action bears fruit and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.”

I also received an unexpected world history lesson in this novel. I was vaguely aware of the Napoleonic Wars, 1812, The Battle of Borodino, etc., but I suspect that my high school World History class was woefully lacking. It was fascinating to check up on historical facts as I followed these men and women through the battles and the awful aftermath, like the burning of Moscow!

The only small critique I will dare to put forward is that toward the end of the book, these philosophizing chapters examining the cause and effect of war and historians' lack of ability to grasp the real meaning, the higher meaning behind it all, tends to overtake the story. In fact, the Second Epilogue is entirely a treatise about this very subject, the main story having ended in the First Epilogue. Perhaps this is where the novel gets its reputation as something dry and academic. But truly, it is a small part of the experience.

Recommend? Yes. Just jump right in. It might take a bit of commitment to keep with it, but it is worth it.

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

The sublime songbird Ella singing the ultimate version of this lovely song...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Hogmanay 2012!

Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year's celebration that takes place over the course of several days. While the festival and its customs date back to pagan celebrations of winter solstice, the word Hogmanay itself is harder to trace. Scholars have guessed that the word possibly comes from the French, Norse, or Goidelic languages.

This year's Hogmanay festival in Edinburgh, Scotland's gorgeous capital city, starts on December 27th with a street carnival featuring rides and entertainment. The festival will officially get under way on December 30th, known as the "night 'afore," with a spectacular torchlight procession. Over 25,000 celebrants will follow Shetland’s Up Helly Aa’ Vikings, who march in Viking costume, through the city, to Calton Hill for a fireworks finale.

December 31st is Auld Year's Eve. Street parties, outdoor concerts (homeboys Simple Minds headline the main stage festival this year), and indoor concerts (a Baroque evening by candlelight in St. Giles' Cathedral), and The Keilidh (a concert of traditional pipe and drum Scottish music) all culminate in an overwhelming firework display at the stroke of midnight.

There are many charming New Year's customs in Scotland. "First footing" is the idea that the first person to cross the threshold of your home is a harbinger of good luck. Starting immediately after midnight, people call on friends, going from house to house for much of the night and even into the morning and next day, with over half the population of Scotland observing the practice of "first-footing." It is good luck for the "first-footer" to be a tall, dark male. Traditionally, this male would bring gifts of a coin (symbolizing prosperity), bread/ black bun fruitcake (symbolizing food), salt (flavor), coal (warmth), or a drink (good cheer). These days, a "first-footer" usually just brings the whiskey!

January 1st is Ne'erday, a contraction of New Year's Day. The celebrating and "first-footing" continue, the annual Loony Dook takes place in the Firth of Forth (a cold plunge for charity), and many Scots still observe the day with a special dinner of steak pie.

Haud Hogmanay, everyone!

BEAUTY: Installation--Simon Beck

Much like Sonja Hinrichsen (previously here), British artist Simon Beck uses his snow shoes to create stunningly complicated works of snow art. In the winter, he creates his installations--which can take a matter of hours or a matter of days--at Les Arcs ski resort in France.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

BEAUTY: Painting--Alex Roulette

I have to tell you that these paintings by Alex Roulette scare the sh*t out of me. It has to do with seeing these pristine landscapes, classic iconic sights of the continent before European settlers arrived, before the slaughter of Native Americans and animals; seeing these landscapes with the first little signs of a civilization that will destroy it all--clues of the dystopia on the way, freeways, water parks, roadside signage. As if one has found the first tiny telltale sign of a disease--a sore, a bruise, a spot of blood in a cough--that will eventually take one's life. And paradoxically, it also has to do with the kind of isolationism (presented as "independence") that one finds in many parts of the United States, an isolationism that spawns xenophobia, and a certain small-town mentality that is hostile to education, the arts, and a worldly perspective. I know, I know, I am projecting all this onto these enigmatic scenes. But isn't that what good art does? It provokes one's imagination, one's own associations, one's own thoughts and memories. What do you get out of the narrative of these slightly surreal images?

BEAUTY: Art--Sven Kroner

Much like Alex Roulette, Sven Kroner paints idyllic landscapes tainted by civilization but in Kroner's vision, we are looking back at the few little remnants of industrialized culture from the post-apocalyptic future. Highways are abandoned and now only used by wildlife, a lone office chair sits incongruously in a decimated snowy landscape or on a beach, and broken cars and washing machines sit in a swamp while the survivors of humanity live in tents on the shore. Another kind of dystopia...after the fall...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Just watched...

...this year's "Snow White and the Huntsman" with Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.

I look forward to this extended holiday time at the end of every year because it means that my partner and I can catch up on films we have wanted to see, the never-ending Netflix queue, and whatever we have been saving on our TiVo for a time such as this. In between holiday dinners, we eagerly devour film after film. And this is how I came to sit through "Snow White and the Huntsman."

It seems there has been a recent surge in films that re-imagine old fairy tales. So far, this recent penchant for re-imagining simply means that a film studio adds what they think "tween" audiences want, which pretty much ruins the story and any chance for a meaningful exploration of the universality of said fairy tale, which is why such tales have survived in the collective unconscious so long.

After viewing “Snow White and the Huntsman,” much like the recent Little Red Riding Hood film “Red Riding Hood” with Amanda Seyfried, the result feels unnecessary. It was good enough, but why bother to begin with? This version of "Snow White" feels forced and dreary (I have yet to see Tarsem Singh's comedic version "Mirror, Mirror"). Kristen Stewart as Snow White seems sufficient but does not possess either the beauty that would drive a wicked queen to insane jealousy or the spirit and fortitude to command followers, as she does in this modern re-imagining. The only reason for her presence in this film is to draw in the tween "Twilight" crowd. Charlize Theron as Ravenna, the wicked queen, does a fine job with what she is given, thankfully resisting the urge to chew scenery, to which lesser actresses would have surely succumbed. Chris Hemsworth is sort of wooden, but then again, he is playing The Huntsman. Not much depth there to plumb. The only engaging parts of the film come with the addition of the dwarves (played charmingly by a superb cast of venerable British character actors), the spectacular costume design, and the impressive special effects which are seamlessly blended into the live action.

Recommend? Meh. It’s worth a look for the art design, effects, and costumes. Other than that… not really.

Just watched...

...the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" in the on-going effort to stay on top of my "To See" list and the Netflix queue.

I remember when the new (at the time) NC-17 category came into use in the motion picture industry. It seemed to be a great way to distinguish which films to see, since anything interesting and independent has always been subject to censure. Before this category, any film that was thought to be stronger than an R-rated film was given an X-rating—which is ridiculous when one considers that in the waning days of the original Hays Code such great films as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Last Tango In Paris,” and “A Clockwork Orange” were all rated X. The first film to be rated NC-17 is the marvelous film “Henry and June.” But over the years, greed took center stage instead of story-telling, directing, or acting, and a film with an NC-17 rating now becomes pariah to any studio saddled with it. There is no money spent on advertising or promoting the film, most mainstream theater chains refuse to run NC-17 films, and such a film is pretty much doomed to utter commercial failure. It's all about what sells...and what sells is violence, guns, explosions, and a very limited, commercially sanctioned view of sex.

But what is not known to the general public is that the MPAA—the ultra-secretive, nearly-Fascistic motion picture industry organization—gives films these initials which, when investigated, ends up being completely arbitrary and meaning very little. The identities of the MPAA members are kept hidden and their draconian methods are never discussed with the outside world. It all sounds like some dreadful cult...except this cult not only influences and restricts its own members, it is actively working to restrict what the viewing public—you and me—can and can’t see, like some pinched-in, constipated, reproachful school marm.

In 2006, filmmaker Kirby Dick decided to infiltrate this bizarre cabal of supposedly “concerned parents of 5 to 17 year olds” in an attempt to discover who these people are, what hypocritical logic guides their decision making, and why they have the amount of power they do in the first place.

And what the film discovers is really at once shocking, expected (how film references of sensuality are excised almost always in favor of violence, which plays into the United States’ grotesque fascination with guns), and frustrating. In their entry, Wiki boils down all the salient points quite succinctly: the discovery that many ratings board members either have children 18 and over or have no children at all (typically, the MPAA has suggested it hires only parents with children between the ages of 5 and 17); that the board seems to treat homosexual material much more harshly than heterosexual material (this assertion is supported by an MPAA spokesperson’s statement in USA Today that "We don't create standards; we just follow them"); that the board's raters receive no training and are deliberately chosen because of their lack of expertise in media literacy or child development; that senior raters have direct contact in the form of required meetings with studio personnel after movie screenings; and that the MPAA's appeals board is just as secretive as the ratings board, its members being mostly movie theater chain and studio executives. Also included on the appeals board are two members of the clergy (one Catholic and one Protestant, who may or may not have voting power).

The hilarious twist to this film is that once Kirby Dick discovers their secrets, he incorporates it all into this very film which he then submits for a rating from the MPAA, the very people he just exposed!

Recommend? Yes, it is pretty entertaining but certainly has cultural and societal implications that touch nearly everyone.

Just watched...

..."Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring," a 2003 South Korean film from director Kim Ki-duk.

In the continuing effort to try to stay current with the ever-growing Netflix queue, we finally watched this film I had been meaning to see for quite a while. I came across some production stills from it a few years ago and it looked like a must-see piece of art. I am so glad it did not fall off my "To See" list.

This gorgeous, simple film about a very small Buddhist monastery—which floats on a pristine lake in the untouched beauty of a mountainous region—with a single Master/herbal healer and a small boy apprentice touches on ideas of inner and outer desires, dissatisfaction, atonement, love, and karma.

Divided into five sections, one for each of the seasons in the title, we trace not only the literal quarterly shifts of the year, but also the figurative seasons of the life journey (spring is childhood, summer is adulthood, fall is old age and winter is death) of both the Master and his apprentice.

When a mother brings her ill teenage daughter to the floating monastery to be healed, the now-teenaged apprentice falls in love. But as the Master tells his young charge, “Lust awakens the desire to possess. And that awakens the intent to murder.” The young apprentice runs away despite the warning, and the wheel of karma is set in motion. The cycle of seasons, the cycle of life...

Both the compelling story and the breathtaking visuals make this film a rich experience (see stills below). The recurring motif of doors plays an important part in the film--where they are, how they are used, and who uses them, sometimes even when there is no wall! Much of the action takes place without dialogue, which reinforces the quietude of the surroundings of the monastery; it also helps us concentrate on the deeper meaning of the story itself. It unfolds like a gorgeous ancient Korean painting on silk.

Recommend? Yes. Truly beautiful to see and to contemplate.

Currently listening to...

..."Ice Age" by How To Destroy Angels.

Just... wow.

BEAUTY: Photography--Margriet Smulders

Margriet Smulders' photographic work is both enchanting and ominous. For inspiration, this Dutch artist surely draws upon the saturated, chiaroscuro work of Dutch masters of the past but her abstract, contemporary still life compositions are rendered in lurid color. She shoots flowers, fruit, greenery, and branches on mirrors full of water, milk, and ink. The effect is a verdant, throbbing, dripping, bosky sense that seems about to tip into withering, rotting, decomposing territory. This tension makes her work immediate and vital.

Top to bottom: Leda; Which wounded Bossoms fits; Zoenoffer/Sacrifica; Itaparica; Tulips for Rembrandt I; Heaven it's a Place I

BEAUTY: Painting--Dan Voinea

Romanian artist Dan Voinea superimposes people on top of places where they should or sometimes shouldn't be. The result feels like a disturbing memory... a clash of time, intent, location, and emotion. Very effective...

Rule #5