Saturday, June 25, 2011

Week in Seven Words #73

One of the best ways to be woken up early is by a phone call from someone who missed hearing your voice.

An inflatable bouncing castle has been set up outside of a bar, where the happy hour crowd is deep in mixed drinks and beer. People jump around inside the castle while on the sidewalk two entertainers dressed up as Nemo the clownfish and Elmo throw down some dance moves to hip-hop.

My mind feels like a firefly in a jar this afternoon, glowing, tapping against the glass.

In a bricked-off courtyard with bare metal chairs and tables, a fountain gurgles, staving off the silence.

When the trolley groans to a halt it makes a noise like a desert horn unearthed from sand and sounded for the first time in centuries.

The squirrel sits up on the deserted porch, a peanut sticking out of its mouth as it monitors the sidewalk.

A timely phone call and conversation, where he reminds me not to keep things bottled up. A couple of days later he emails me a reminder that I can tape up to the wall above my desk.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Worth Watching: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

Title: The Secret of Roan Inish
Director: John Sayles
Language: English (and a bit of Irish Gaelic)
Rating: PG

Fiona Conneely (Jeni Courtney) goes to live with her grandparents near Roan Inish (Island of the Seals), which used to be her family's home. Several years ago during an evacuation of the island her baby brother, Jamie, was washed out to sea in his cradle and never seen since. As Fiona settles in with her grandparents she learns about a family story involving a selkie, a seal that can slough off its skin and become human. When she visits Roan Inish she spots signs of human life and finally comes across a young boy who runs from her approach. It's her younger brother, she's sure, but how will she convince her family that he's alive? And what will get him to stop running from her when she calls his name?

Fiona is a stalwart girl; she listens and observes, and she's not easily afraid. What drives the film is her curiosity about Roan Inish, and then her determination to bring her missing brother back and help heal her family.

Her grandparents, played warmly by Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan, give Fiona a healthy loving home, and she finds a friend in her older cousin, Eamon (Richard Sheridan), a straightforward and hard-working kid. She also encounters another relative in back of a shop, gutting and scaling fish; people say that he's not quite right in the head, but he's also the one who tells Fiona about a key part of her family's past: the story of the selkie.

The film's treatment of the selkie (Susan Lynch) is matter-of-fact. The film doesn't marvel over her appearance or add any special effects to her transformation. The focus is on the emotion of the story; the selkie is torn between her family on land and her compulsion to return to the ocean.

A young, dark-haired woman stands against a gold background with a door and the film's title in the foreground
From Wikipedia

The ocean is a character too, murmuring on the surface, silent below, slapping the sand and rocks. The seals lounge on the rocks watching the passing boats with their dark uncanny eyes.

The ocean's rhythm of give and take shapes the history of Fiona's family in complex ways. As Fiona seeks out her brother she finds herself contending with the ocean and with her family's past.

Her cousin, Eamon, comes to believe her claims that she's seen her missing brother. Eamon becomes an older brother figure to Fiona, and her confidant; at one point he helps her with the difficult task of preparing the abandoned cottages on Roan Inish for habitation.

At the heart of it the story is about understanding one's past and bringing family back together, in a struggle to deal with traumatic changes and a world that's quickly modernizing. Fiona's grandparents have a warm secure home but their way of life is in danger, and they may have to move inland. The cities offer jobs but also fracture families, and there's a struggle to stay rooted in one's heritage and not lose it all to modern forces. Fiona is drawn to Roan Inish in part because her family was whole when they lived there.

Memorable sights and sounds
Stars and water framed by a bedroom window, as Fiona peers through the darkness at Roan Inish. The film in some ways has the quality of a dream, though it treats magical creatures as a concrete reality - improbable but not impossible.

The visuals are beautiful throughout - fog and cloud, a grassy knoll overrun with wild flowers, the watchful eyes of the seals who stealthily change the course of boats. The selkie herself with her pensive face and wild dark hair is also a sight, stirring a stew at the hearth or letting her child's cradle float in the shallows by the beach.

Stand-out scenes
One of the best sequences is when Fiona and Eamon are rebuilding the old cottages together. They're young, determined and competent. I love when movies show children as skilled and able to work wonders without superpowers or magic (and without the movie having a patronizing attitude towards them). The soundtrack is especially lively and beautiful too in this part of the film.

Further thoughts
In a lesser film, the reunion with Jamie would have taken place with melodrama and fanfare, close-ups of teary faces. There's never a sense that the film is talking down to the audience or holding itself cheaply. The same is true for the story-tellers in the film, who weave folklore into family history and trust that the substance of their tales will compel your attention.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Extracts: Purpose and passion (or lack thereof) in life

From Middlemarch:
We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement. - from Chapter 79, Sunset and Sunrise

But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope. - from Chapter 51, The Dead Hand

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. - from Chapter 29, Waiting for Death

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What are your sources of inspiration?


Week in Seven Words #72

After it's rained, the clean smell of trees, earth, and evergreen shrubs.

Two smudgy handprints on the door at knee level. A child has pressed up against the glass to look out and to try to push the door open; the handle is still out of reach.

Over an hour's worth of conversations with an insurance rep, a bank rep, and a customer service rep for a huge labyrinthine company. Not the best way to start the morning, but to my joy each person I speak to seems lucid and willing to help, and it could have dragged on longer.

Laughter is a kind of escape, a beautiful cloud of noise to sink into several seconds here and there while forgetting dignity, worries, and mostly everything else.

No epiphanies; instead a painstaking process of discovery that could very well lead to failure. At least I'm learning; nothing's wasted, not time or brain cells, if I've learned something.

A bumblebee dying just inside the doors of a grocery store, only several feet away from the flowers in cellophane and the crates of fruit.

In the library the shelves are long, the aisles between them are narrow, and the books come in so many different colors and sizes, that I have trouble focusing my eyes. If I don't look mostly at the floor I get dizzy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Worth Watching: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Title: Bringing Up Baby
Director: Howard Hawks
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a stodgy professor who's assembling a brontosaurus skeleton and hoping to secure a million dollar donation for his museum. Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is a happy-go-lucky heiress who is convinced from the day they meet that she and David are meant to be. Through a series of plots and tricks that spiral out of her control, she contrives to keep him at her side for a while, away from his cold fiancée and his dinosaur bones.

David is anxious, earnest, stuffy and adorable. Buried deep inside him is a store of latent joy and fun that only Susan will be able to bring out, if she doesn't drive him insane first. David never sheds his stodginess over the course of the movie, but just the fact that he accepts Susan into his life (as if he has a choice) means that there will be a lot more love and playfulness (and chaos) in it. I love the way Cary Grant delivers his lines and throws his whole body into the comedy of David's frustrations.

David Huxley netted

Susan is the kind of woman who spends her time at a swanky hotel chatting with the bartender and having him teach her how to flip olives from the back of her hand to her mouth. She can hunt for leopards in the dark Connecticut wilds using only a rope and a butterfly net. Her screams are shrill, her laughter silly. She doesn't understand dignity very well; it's much more fun to giggle. She has a woman's longing for a man, and a child's love of mischief and play. Hepburn plays her with a kind of devilish sweetness and innocence, an underlying intelligence to her flightiness. She's a high-society imp.

Susan and Baby

The best supporting characters are Susan's aunt, Elizabeth Random (May Robson), a formidable, outspoken lady who for most of the movie believes that David is a big-game hunter who has lost his marbles; she advises Susan not to marry him: "I don't want another lunatic in the family, I've got lunatics enough already." There's also her dinner guest, Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles), an actual big game hunter who confuses the roar of a leopard with the cry of a loon.

Speaking of animals, the movie introduces you to Baby, a tame leopard, along with George, a yappy little terrier. They both bring a lot of grief to David.

Baby and George become inseparable.

Then there's David and Susan's relationship, which is a joy and a catastrophe, as David puts it: "In moments of quiet I'm strangely drawn towards you... but, well, there haven't been any quiet moments."

But what choice does he have? He's the leading man, he has to wind up with someone by the end of the film, and from the very beginning we know that if he stays with his fiancée, Alice (Virginia Walker), he'll end up a desiccated husk of a man, imprisoned in a cold and dusty life.

Memorable sights and sounds
I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby is sung several times in the movie - in the middle of the woods, in front of a psychiatrist's house, etc. There's a logical reason for this.

There's also a logical reason for why David needs to stalk George. David tracks the dog on all fours sometimes, or keeps an eye on him at the dinner table, getting up with a spoon still in his hand and following George out of the room whenever necessary.

The look on David's face and the high terrified pitch to his voice are nearly identical when he first spots the leopard in Susan's bathroom and when, much later in the film, Susan professes her love for him.

Susan has some moments when she's frightened or upset too, but by and large she can handle difficult situations well and find the humor in them. Katharine Hepburn, unsurprisingly, was the only actor on the set who touched the leopard, if only in a couple of scenes; it's amazing to see it rub up against her legs as she's blithely chatting into the phone. ("Oh, David, don't be irrelevant... the point is I've got a leopard, the question is what am I going to do with it?")

Stand-out scenes
For me the film really takes off during the scene at the Ritz, with the olive tricks, a mix-up of purses, and David and Susan tearing each other's clothes off, in a manner of speaking. Their exit from the hotel is a gem of physical comedy. And in this scene their banter and David's sniping first reach a level of comic greatness. Throughout the film in general the actors' timing and rhythm is impeccable, with the rapid back-and-forth speech, interruptions and overlapping lines, wit and double entendres.

The culmination of the film takes place in the jail. Hepburn impersonating a gangster's moll and sweet-talking her way out of her cell is a highlight, as is the way in which she returns after her escape, endangering everyone.

Further thoughts
There's a lot of funniness and clever screwball silliness in this film, with one deranged scenario building on another and then another, and by the end I was both glad I watched it and tired out from watching it; I imagine that this is how David must feel about Susan.

David in negligee

*All images link back to their source (UCLA cinema; Flixster community).

In the mood for an 80s music video

Though I rarely listen to Cyndi Lauper's music, I've always liked this video - it's sweet, wistful, and very 80s; the first time I heard this song, it made my heart ache.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Week in Seven Words #71

I get the feeling that we both don't want to be there. He's tuned out, so am I, and mostly we're going through the motions. I try to care but only feel tired.

Silhouetted against a glass door, he offers up a four-armed embrace. Or maybe he's just sweeping his arms open wide as if to say, "Look around! Walk the crazy corridors of my mind." He's asymmetrical; on one side of his body he has one arm, on the other side three. He's also completely nude.

Wide-eyed in Isaiah Zagar's Magic Gardens: a small dense maze of mosaic faces, walls of bottles, bicycles, and random statuary, lettered tiles, colored tiles, flowers and lively figurines, stairs that spill down into lemon, pink and emerald grottos. My reflection is a starburst on mirror shards.

It's been recommended to me to take a walking tour of the Philadelphia murals, but so far I've resisted. I like coming across them by chance. Turning a corner I face a small parking lot bound by chain link fencing, and above it blooms a beautiful mural of dancers, magicians, and enchanted flute players.

Long and languid afternoons spent reading.

Night, lamplight, a text open on my lap.

For dreams half-tended and hopes half-fed.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Nuns at Luncheon (Aldous Huxley)

Title: Nuns at Luncheon
Author: Aldous Huxley

Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (edited by A.S. Byatt)

A fiction writer and a journalist meet for lunch. The journalist, Miss Penny, has just returned from a trip to Germany where she had to have her appendix removed; she spent her time recuperating in a hospital staffed with nuns. Over lunch she shares the story of a condemned nun who had run off with a patient.

Some reasons to read it
  • The story-within-a-story structure works well. There's the dramatic tale of the nun and her fate. And then there's Miss Penny and the fiction writer eating lunch. Not much happens between them other than their discussion of the nun and her story, but that's fitting; such stories are their life and livelihood.

  • The writers try to figure out the nun's motives; what would make her abandon her vows and risk deepest condemnation? But they seem to have little feeling for her as a person, even when they discuss her gruesome punishment; their main concern is how to write about her, fashion her in words and get into her head. The fiction writer regards Miss Penny with the same attitude, not only using her for her anecdotes but also searching for the most striking way to describe her. She's someone to be pitied and secretly mocked; though she may be entertaining, she doesn't inspire passion or love in others.
    Miss Penny threw back her head and laughed. Her long earrings swung and rattled - corpses hanging in chains: an agreeably literary simile. And her laughter was like brass, but that had been said before.

    The story raises interesting questions about how writers relate to the people they write about; though it's not always the case that a story is lifted straight from real life, writers generally draw on the people around them and on various life circumstances for inspiration. When does a writer's attitude become too manipulative or unfeeling? Does such an attitude take away from the merit of a story and make it less beautiful or illuminating? At one point Miss Penny considers this aspect of writing:
    "... two professionals gloating, with an absolute lack of sympathy, over a seduced nun, and speculating on the best method of turning her misfortunes into cash. It's all very curious, isn't it? - when one begins to think about it dispassionately."

    And earlier she asks:
    "Do you really - honestly, I mean - do you seriously believe in literature?"

    The fiction writer dismisses the question, which isn't even very clear, and doesn't seem interested in discussing her passing doubts. He just wants to get back to the nun.

  • The writers try to understand the nun and craft her story in such a way as to stir emotion in others, without feeling much themselves except for the great satisfaction of a story well told. And it is a story well told - you feel the suspense of it, the passion and tragedy.
    "Why, it's ready-made literature, this scene. In the morning... two woodcutters on their way to work noticed that the door of the hut was ajar. They approached the hut cautiously, their axes raised and ready for a blow if there should be need of it. Peeping in, they saw a woman in a black dress lying face downwards in the straw. Dead? No; she moved, she moaned..."

    These lines are from Miss Penny, who is enthusiastic about stories and possesses admirable skill in the craft of story-telling; she also has a pensive moment of her own, when she stops to consider whether anyone would ever attempt to seduce her. Some of her personal feelings are touched, if only briefly. With a sense of humor that's sharp and not at all warm, the fiction writer studies her from across the table:
    No, decidedly, Miss Penny was not beautiful; you could not even honestly say that she had charm or was attractive. That high Scotch colouring, those hare's eyes, the voice, the terrifying laugh, and the size of her, the general formidableness of the woman. No, no, no.

    Of everyone in the story the fiction writer is most elusive. We get the sense of someone remote, urbane, and not especially kind or charitable; otherwise in appearance and character the fiction writer is formless, inhabiting the shadows of the story while the nun and Miss Penny get trotted out for scrutiny.

  • There are significant parts of the nun's story, and her life, that are unknown to the writers. They attempt to reconstruct these private moments, and they don't always succeed; their words and explanations are inadequate. When the writers fail to give a satisfactory account of her character, it feels almost as if the nun is retaining some of her dignity and privacy. Still, as a reader you want all the details. Everyone is complicit in using the nun - not only the man who seduced her, but also the readers who crave the story and the writers who wish to tell it for the sake of their craft and for the profit they'll make off of it.

Other recommended stories from this collection include these three and At Hiruharama (by Penelope Fitzgerald).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Week in Seven Words #70

The wind skims water off the fountain. The droplets prickle on our skin. I'm happy to be with family on this fine sunny day.

He tries to detach my arm from my body; as I play along, falling over in the booth, he laughs. Later on as he sits on his father's shoulders, he leans over for a kiss on the cheek and tells me he loves me.

We make a water wheel turn, manipulate mirrors, watch a black hole emerge from a supernova. Dinosaurs lean towards us for a closer look as we peer at them through 3D specs. We clamber inside a giant heart, climb to the top of a lighthouse, and escape from a bottomless gift shop.

In the early morning the trees on my block toss their leaf-shadow onto the brick walls.

At the miniature golf course in Franklin Square the kids are innovating with the sport. They swing their putters at the ball (golf), kick the ball around (soccer), and dunk the ball into the hole (basketball). When basketsoccergolf fails to divert, there's enough water around to plonk the balls into (scuba diving). The golf course also gives them a mini-tour of Philadelphia; major landmarks appear in small scale. At one hole you have to hit the ball through the crack in the Liberty Bell. At another you have to whack it up a steep hill and into one of three possible tunnels in the Art Museum. The kids like dropping the balls into tunnels and seeing where they'll next emerge.

The soothing redolence of sunscreen - I think of sunshine, water, long walks, powder blue skies.

He knows I don't like to talk about my problems. That's why, after my initial denials, he keeps asking questions - not intrusively, but just enough to let me understand that he cares and wants to know enough to offer advice. I start to sketch things out for him - a little bit in the cab ride, a lot more on the walk home along the streets baking and the bridge flashing in the sun. Nothing's solved yet, but I do feel a little better by the end of our conversation.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Good Short Fiction: At Hiruharama (Penelope Fitzgerald)

Title: At Hiruharama
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (edited by A.S. Byatt)

In explaining how there came to be a lawyer in the Tanner family - a successful lawyer who helped the family emigrate out of New Zealand - the story shifts to a previous generation. A young man comes from England to New Zealand with the expectation of getting a useful apprenticeship, but winds up working as a servant; a young woman comes to New Zealand expecting to be a governess, but also winds up working as a servant. They meet, he courts her, they marry and settle in a remote spot in the countryside, Hiruharama, where the nearest neighbor is an eccentric man who comes over for dinner semiannually. When the young woman becomes pregnant, her husband tries to figure out how to deal with the fact that they will be miles away from any medical help when she goes into labor.

Some reasons to read it

  • The story's matter-of-fact tone. I didn't really know where the story was going, and what it would lead to aside from the major event of childbirth. I kept paying attention to the details, delighting in the amount of thought put into the characters' home, their lives, the husband's plans for the childbirth... and at one point I was so startled by what had happened that I skipped back a few paragraphs and did some re-reading.

  • There are surprises, little and big, along the way. They sneak up on you. And the words "Throw Nothing Away" take on significant meaning. A person can prepare for eventualities, but there are developments that can't be anticipated and details that in the stress of the moment may be overlooked, with potentially disastrous consequences.

  • Some of the smaller surprises include the use of racing-pigeons to notify a doctor in the nearest town that the labor is underway. I loved that detail. There's also the eccentric neighbor, Brinkman:
    Like most people who live on their own Brinkman continued with the course of his thoughts, which were more real to him than the outside world's commotion. Walking straight into the front room he stopped in front of the piece of mirror-glass tacked over the sink and looked fixedly into it. 'I'll tell you something, Tanner, I thought I caught sight of my first gray hairs this morning.'

    The timing of Brinkman's appearance is hilarious, as is his general obliviousness and the calm polite way in which he's received.

  • I like the way Fitzgerald portrays the relationship between the husband and wife. There aren't any grand declarations of emotion, but the quiet details convey much about caring and love.

  • The story is thoughtful, playful, and sneaky. It stuck with me after I read it, and from time to time I still turn it over in my mind.


Other recommended stories from this collection include these three and Nuns at Luncheon (by Aldous Huxley).