Friday, August 31, 2012

Worth Watching: Still Walking (2008)

Title: Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Language: Japanese
Rating: Not rated

Still Walking (film) POSTER.png
From Wikipedia, Fair use

An elderly wife and husband host their children and grandchildren for the day; the reason behind the family gathering isn't obvious at first, and at least one of the children, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), wishes he didn't have to come at all, to be reminded that his parents consider him a big disappointment because of his career choice and because he married a widowed mother, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa).

But the movie isn't a stormy drama. The members of the Yokoyama family are polite, for the most part; they try not to be confrontational. They mill around the house, cooking together, talking about this and that, teasing each other into laughter and wounding each other with oblique remarks. There are beautiful close-ups of food simmering in pans, of the hands of young children reaching for pink blossoms in sunlit air. But the movie is never self-conscious about its beauty, just as it isn't self-conscious about the quiet moments of pettiness and cruelty that maintain the tension in the film, even if there's nothing earth-shaking going on on the surface.

The director likes to arrive at things sidelong. One of my favorite techniques that he uses is to have a character stand alone listening to other characters talk in a different room. There's a strange feeling of both connection and isolation, of listening in on people who are closer to you than anyone else but in some ways are still strangers.

An eerie moment in the film is when you hear the talk and laughter of the family posing for a photo off-screen, while on screen the camera lingers on a room where the photo of a deceased family member, Junpei, is displayed. Junpei has been dead for a dozen years, but now it feels like he's alive and listening. Memories of the dead are evoked to hold people together or to drive a wedge between them.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Good Short Fiction: 5 Tales from 44 Irish Short Stories

Collection: 44 Irish Short Stories
Editor: Devin A. Garrity

It was difficult to get into 44 Irish Short Stories, and I put it aside for a while, but eventually I came across the following five stories, which I thought were all good. I love their wry humor - it doesn't matter how dark the subject matter is, you can see the authors writing about it with a hint of a smile. Reminds me of Jewish humor - can't escape life's misfortunes so you might as well laugh.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Week in Seven Words #133

I love summer nights, after it's rained earlier and the air is soft and balmy. I could walk for miles on nights like these.

Blotchy red roses and delicate purple flowers on display along Amsterdam Avenue.

A spell of cathartic writing, where I pour out all the simmering anger and shape it into something useful.

Lunch hour: Shakshouka with haloumi cheese, a corner table, and a good book.

Struck by the number of strangers around me - people I'll never know, who brush up against my life as I brush against theirs when we dodge past each other on a crowded sidewalk.

An unspoken "let's pretend it never happened" instead of a spoken "I'm sorry."

I haven't played chess since childhood but all it takes is a few games and I start to see the connections again between the pieces. Instead of sending them out in disjointed short-sighted moves, I start to get how one can protect another, how they can operate in tandem to pose a threat to and capture opponent pieces. I have fun rediscovering all of this.

Monday, August 20, 2012

10 great places for reading outdoors in downtown Philly


When I lived in Philly my apartment wasn't in Center City (downtown) but I did walk around a lot there and I can vouch for each of these places as excellent reading spots along with being good outdoor hang-outs; some of them are crowded and lively, while others are quiet and out of the way.

People often raise safety concerns about Philly, but I never felt unsafe in any of the places listed below (mostly because I visited them in the daytime, usually on Sunday afternoons); in any case, use your common sense and listen to your instincts if you feel uncomfortable anywhere.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Undine Spragg: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country was one of my selections for the Classics Club Challenge. It's a masterpiece of social commentary and psychological insight, and at times I wanted to throw it across the room (or rather, throw its heroine and her associates across the room).

The heroine of the novel is Undine Spragg, a superficially beautiful woman who glitters and consumes and believes herself to be entitled to everything she takes from others (because it's not really taking, in her view, it's more like receiving what she deserves for simply existing).

Penguin cover of The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Undine regards everyone and everything as a means to her personal gratification. Other people can go about their lives and do whatever it is they want to do, as long as they're satisfying her wants. If they aren't, it means they're wrong and perverse and the whole planet has gone off course, and Undine will do everything in her power to right it. If people's lives get destroyed in the process, it's hardly her fault for asserting her rights. (She's very big on "rights" while having no empathy or sense of what's right.)

This character so disgusted me that I had to put the book down for a while. But ultimately I kept reading for two reasons: 1) Wharton is a masterful writer, who uses sharp, beautiful prose to peel back the layers of her characters and expose them to their very veins 2) I started to read it as a dark comedy - at times a very dark comedy, with lots of painful irony, and a heroine who gets away with everything because through her Wharton is exposing the wider culture where a monstrous human being like Undine Spragg can be be nurtured, indulged, and helped towards social triumph, even though the majority of women in her position would have faced more severe consequences.

At the start of the novel, which is set in the early 20th century, she's arrived in New York City with her parents in the hopes of marrying into high society. Her father made some money in the Midwest, which is why they can try to attach themselves to the well-monied New York crowd. In NYC they find two main kinds of wealthy families. There are the nouveau riche - people whose backgrounds might be quite similar to Undine's: the men made it big in business, they're ostentatious, caught up with what's trendy and showy, don't have a drop of aristocratic blood or much in the way of education and culture. Then there are the older families who've been the elites for a while; they aren't necessarily rolling in money (in fact they see business as something distasteful), but they do have fine homes and an appreciation for tradition, family, fine culture and education.

Wharton's sympathies seem to lie with those older families; at the same time she's merciless towards them, exposing their ineffectuality in the face of a more brazen, unprincipled and acquisitive culture. Undine's first husband, Ralph Marvell, is from one of the older families and is the most sympathetic major character of the book, but he's passive when he shouldn't be and makes blindly foolish decisions that class him with the rest of Undine's enablers. These constitute a diverse group including her parents and assorted society notables, who act towards Undine out of various motives or weaknesses of character, but have the unified effect of letting her get away with whatever she wants.

Undine isn't an independent woman, not by a long shot. Willful, yes, but she needs other people to admire her, amuse her, and supply her with money for everything she wants. She wilts when she's away from other people; she has few mental or emotional resources of her own and isn't expected to make money on her own. When she slips from one husband to another, she's exchanging one dependency for another, and is conscious of how she can lose everything if she makes one wrong move. Her power comes from learning how to read other people and draw the desired response from them. She relies on her beauty, and on an ability to adapt herself to situations and become to a limited extent what others want her to be. To intelligent, sensitive and poetic types (like Ralph) she may seem like a pool of water whose glittering surface conceals unexplored depths, until they dive in and injure themselves on the hard, shallow bottom.

(Ralph also had the conceit of becoming Undine's teacher - she was meant to be his fresh, innocent Midwestern muse that he would guide through a new world of art and literature - another variation of the woman dependent on the man while inspiring him as an object of beauty, though softened by Ralph's hope that they truly would become companions.)

Part of Undine's artful use of her beauty is how she suggests qualities she doesn't have (or understand) by knowing what they should look like on the surface; she's great at striking a meditative pose, or looking fresh and innocent or sweetly somber. Her ability is a wider comment on the culture she belongs to - an imitative American culture short on real feeling or a sustained attention span, where people mimic Old World, European-style mannerisms while having little appreciation for anything lasting and deep. The model of marriage among the wealthy business class in this culture (and promoted as the cultural ideal) is one where money is substituted for intimacy. The husband works at Wall Street to keep his wife as a creature of luxury and feed her bottomless demands for more stuff; it's not as if she's expected to occupy her mind with anything else. When they do spend time together, it's mostly in the company of other people, at grand dinners, opera, theater, and other outings. Everything is prized for its surface appearance.

As someone who lacks depth of feeling and empathy, places a price tag on everything and everyone, and has no clue about how money is made, Undine is the model woman of her culture, the best reflection of its ideals: ignorant, ruthless, and demanding, a monstrously spoiled child. She has some male counterparts in the book - Peter Van Degen, for one, a beast of a man whose money is a means of satisfying every appetite... but even more than Peter there's Undine's real match: Elmer Moffatt, a somewhat mysterious figure who keeps popping up in the book like a jocular devil - stout, red-faced and full of grand schemes. Had she been a man, Undine might have been a lot like Moffatt; she has that business-like mind and eye for opportunity. But because she was raised to be a kept creature, she must use her business acumen to secure people she can depend on for a steady cash flow and social cachet.

There are many gems in the writing: artistic ("... night after night the skies were wine-blue and bubbling with stars"), humorous ("Mrs. Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular...") and insightful about human nature ("Everybody wanted him to write – everybody had decided that he ought to, that he would, that he must be persuaded to; and the incessant imperceptible pressure of encouragement... acted on his restive nerves as a stronger deterrent than disapproval"). It's a cutting, amusing, and absorbing novel, a great book.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Week in Seven Words #132

He's too young to read the Lord of the Rings, but he's been permitted to watch the Peter Jackson movies with an adult present and collect some of the Legos (including a Lego Shelob with a length of web-like rope coming out her rear end). To me it's an odd way of discovering that universe, when you first know the characters as movie stars and collectible toys.

I haven't been following the Olympics much, except for hearing about Michael Phelps, watching a few women's gymnastics videos, and occasionally checking in on weightlifter Sarah Robles. One thing I do watch is the match where Misty May and Kerri Walsh win their third Olympic gold in a row. It's awesome to see how close they are as friends in addition to being an unbeatable team on the court.

I introduce one of them to the world of blogs. The other is making her own world, a poster of an imaginary country with a list of stats: language, currency, major rivers, a capital with a strange name.

Between the trees I see a beautifully green and scummy pond.

Unproductive hours trickle by followed by a burst of activity and inspiration. I always worry about those hours when I don't seem to get as much done as I want, but maybe they're necessary for whatever it is the brain needs to do.

He greets me with a high heel in each hand.

After I leave a friend's apartment building in NYC, a man approaches me as I stand alongside a small family of tourists at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. He's bald and somewhere between the age of 35 and 50. "The way you stepped out of that building," he says in a heavy Russian accent, "it was as if you were stepping onto water. It was amazing." What he means by that, I can't say, so I say nothing. "Do you speak Russian?" he asks. "No," I say. "Maybe one day you'll learn," he says. "Maybe," I agree. "You know what I say when people ask me if I play the violin?" he asks, laughing a little. "I tell them, 'Maybe one day I'll learn.'" He laughs again. Then he asks, "Where are you from?" I'm tempted to say 'Earth' but instead say, "The U.S." He nods thoughtfully. "You don't look as if you belong here..." He looks at me expectantly, but when I make no reply, he shrugs and says, "Ah well, you have the right to be alone," and walks off quickly. The light changes, and I cross the street, looking back a couple of times to make sure he isn't following me. He isn't. Whatever his intentions were, something was definitely lost in translation.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Worth Watching: The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Title: The Triplets of Belleville
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Language: French and English (though there's hardly any speech)
Rating: PG-13

Fred Astaire gets eaten by his shoes. That's (in part) what happens in the fun and creepy musical number that opens The Triplets of Belleville. The movie drags at times, but I'm glad I stuck with it. It brought me into a world where an old woman can paddleboat across an ocean and team up with three other old women to take down the French mafia. An inventive world, where household objects can become musical instruments and dogs can serve as spare automobile parts without getting hurt.

The film post features several characters riding bikes with information about the film surrounding them
From Wikipedia, Fair use

The story unfolds as follows: a woman raises her orphaned grandson, who has a passion for bikes. She becomes his trainer when as a young man he competes in the Tour de France. From the Tour de France he's kidnapped by French gangsters and taken across the ocean to the city of Belleville, a place where people love to live large and consume things. His grandmother, and her dog, Bruno, who's just as loyal to his stomach as he is to his owners, follows them. In the city she meets the Belleville Triplets - three sisters who sang in music halls during the 1930s. They still eke out a living performing music (I won't tell you what kind, because I was laughing in surprise) and live in a seedy apartment building. Together they take on the mafia.

The quality of the animations is one reason I kept watching the movie. They're rich and varied and full of caricatures. The competitive bikers have bulging thigh muscles and noodle-like arms. The mafia henchmen are like giant menacing boxes that merge together. In one funny scene a maitre d' at a nightclub flops around obsequiously at the arrival of an important gangster. Typical cinematic events are also caricatured, namely a car chase where the villains repeatedly shoot at but keep missing the slow-moving heroes, who hit back successfully every time.

Some of the caricatures are disturbing, others show a wry cynical humor, while others are full of child-like joy. The Belleville triplets look like happy musical crones. They're lovable fringe-dwellers, materially poor but leading a bizarre and cheerful life in a society that revels in excess; although they're one of the musical spectacles in this movie, they love what they do beyond the attention it gets them. The scene under the bridge where they make music with the stranded grandmother is beautiful; it's the music of people who aren't noticed but don't care, because they're alive and happy and able to sing and dance, and what else matters?

Music really is used to great effect in this movie. For instance during the short scene where the grandma is paddleboating across the ocean, through a stunningly beautiful storm that's stirring up giant waves and making the clouds and water gleam with lightning, the Kyrie from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor comes on, and I got goosebumps.

The movie doesn't have dialogue. With a couple of exceptions the only spoken words are in songs or in radio or television (a similar device to what you see in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times). The music and the visuals are eloquent enough and make the world of the movie what it is: a place where the tragedies are absurd, the triumphs are joyful and silly, and beauty and perversity sometimes seem indistinguishable.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Week in Seven Words #131

As welcoming gifts they present me with a chocolate-frosted cupcake, a card with a blue cave troll on it, and a paper bracelet with a pink shiny heart.

At the moment there's only anger, a razor sharp focus that admits no sense or compassion.

"Never enough" are the words I use to bludgeon all my efforts.

The dog, when she isn't curled up on my lap, makes for a good armrest.

When I sense that I'm being pressured to conform I resist on instinct, even before I'm able to articulate why.

Music blooms out of the dusty speakers.

Four branches bearing different leaves (star shaped yellow, oval green) meet across a light blue sky.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Interview with Relyn Lawson

Among my friends online I'm lucky to count Relyn; we've been visiting each other's blogs for a while now, and on hers I've always found warmth, inspiration and beauty, and a love of life - seen in her photos, lists, her thoughts on what she's grateful for, poems she spotlights, and other delights; you can tell she sees the world with joy and wants to share that joy and wonder with everyone. Now she's here to share her creative insights and some of her wonderful photos (each photo in this post is hers).

Like every woman she knows, Relyn Lawson wears many hats. She is a wife, mother, teacher, dreamer, writer, photographer, chocoholic, laughaholic, all-around passionate woman. She excels at the art of silly, and knows that encouraging others is her sacred calling. Relyn believes that the secret of a happy life is to be consistently and purposefully grateful. To that end, she and her family list something for which they are grateful each and every night before going to bed. You can find that list here. For more of her photography, musings, ramblings, and other nonsense, you should visit her main blog, here.

Now for the interview...

HK: How did your passion for photography develop? Has the world come to seem different to you after looking at it through a camera lens?
RL: The Christmas I was nine, I received the camera I had been longing for. Since then, I have spent a good bit of time trying to capture the beauty and joy that I see around me. I guess that's what photography really is for me - trying to make my own soul visible. I remember longing to spend my life taking pictures long before I knew there was such a thing as a professional photographer. As I became a teenager, I knew that being a photographer was possible, but very impractical. There was no way I could spend the money it would take to become a proficient photographer. Think of the cost of film and developing and equipment...

I tucked that dream away and kept taking pictures. But my focus was different, my pictures were an effort to trap memories, not to create art. I didn't really believe I had the means to become good at photography. I had already written off that dream as impractical and likely impossible.

And then I started blogging.

And the longer I blogged the more photographers I was exposed to. I saw normal people; working mothers, students, and hobbyists; all creating beauty - sharing their souls. By then, technology had caught up with my heart's desire. I knew that with digital photography, I could afford to chase after my old dream. I started saving and in less than a year, I was able to buy my Big Girl Camera. Oh, happy day.

I'd always seen the world as though through a lens. Now, I had the equipment to begin to learn how to show the world what was already in my head and my heart.

HK: What do you believe are your strengths as a photographer? And what do you hope to improve on or work towards in the future?
RL: I think my greatest strength as a photographer is really my most defining personal characteristic. I am exuberantly, passionately, completely in love with people and this beautiful life we've been given. I love life. I love this gorgeous world. I love people and their interesting, beautiful faces. I love it all! And, I love to use my camera to show you the beauty I see and to share my joy with you.

As far as what I need to improve on with regard to photography? Well, that is also a defining personal characteristic. I need to work on self-discipline. I need to focus on learning and improving and growing. There's so much to learn! I am happily married and we have a ten year old daughter. I am a second grade teacher and very involved at church. It's astounding how much time all of those relationships require. I always have a camera with me, but I rarely give photography the attention and effort, the focus, it really deserves.

HK: What's your preferred camera, and which photo editing/formatting software (if any) do you use? Why?
RL: I own a Cannon T2i, and I love it. I have several lenses, but I find myself shooting with my 50mm prime most often. My completely wonderful husband gave me Photoshop Elements over a year ago, but I still can't use it. It's that time thing again. It takes a lot of time and focused attention to learn Photoshop. I have only so much time to spend and I'd rather take pictures. For now I edit using PicMonkey and I am pretty happy with it. However, I know that I am going to have to spend some serious time learning PSE before I can move my photography on to the next level.

HK: What qualities do you believe make for an excellent photo? What tends to draw your eye most, both when taking photos and appreciating other people's photos?
RL: I love a photo, any photo, that hints at a story. The photographs I love all hold stories in their depths. I want my photographs to draw you in, to make your head begin to buzz with the story behind the image. I don't just want to take a picture of a pretty house. I want the house to make you day dream.

I don't want to take a picture of a pretty girl. I want you to wonder who it is she's thinking about, who she's missing...

HK: You work as a teacher and are also a mother and aunt. What are some of the most important lessons you've learned - about people, art, or anything else - from the children in your life?
RL: As a teacher, I've learned to ask, "Why?" before making any kind of judgement or decision. Children often do things that seem strange or inappropriate to adults. I find that if you ask "Why?" and really listen to the answer, you'll learn so much. You'll learn about the child, about the world around you, and especially about yourself.

I love the way that children laugh at every opportunity. They know how to turn any moment into fun. They make friends easily and find the world to be filled with wonder. The best thing about spending my life with children is that I have company in my silliness and joy.

HK: What do you think are the best ways to foster creativity in children, along with a passionate engagement with the world?
RL: Oh, I love this question. I think fostering creativity and passionate engagement in children requires two things from adults. First, you must also be creative and engaged. Children don't learn what they don't see you live. Further, children don't learn what they don't live. So, buy the paints, bake the invented cake, get dirty, make the mess. I repeat: Make the mess!

Also, remember to listen to their ideas. It's not so much that we have to teach children to be creative. I think most of us simply have to work at not stifling the creativity they are already bubbling over with. Here's something to try: Next time a child in your life has an idea they are enthusiastic about, no matter how inconvenient, help them make it happen.

HK: Do you have any specific advice for aspiring photographers or, more generally, advice for other people pursuing an artistic passion? For instance, what would you say to people who fear they'll lose enthusiasm for what they do and feel uninspired, or who fear rejection for their work?
RL: I think we all struggle from time to time with feeling uninspired and unmotivated. When we do, blogs are a great source of both inspiration and motivation. Then there's time with friends, a short trip, museums, gorgeous movies, time spent being silly, listening to children laugh... I could go on and on about what inspires me. But, mostly, I find that I just need to pick up my camera. Nike was right all along, Just Do It!

Thank you, Relyn!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Week in Seven Words #130

In the absence of music, I hum more.

He's a lean, mean furniture-moving machine, hefting tables, chairs and a futon without pausing for breath. Sort of like the Terminator, but instead of hailing from a post-apocalyptic future he works for a group that accepts donated furniture. He has no visible emotional expression but cheers us up considerably.

The day is long and hot, and the moving van is filling up with bags, boxes and bins. The experience is worthy of a song parody, and he gets started on one during his nth elevator trip.

The accumulated clutter was symbolic of baggage I needed (and still need) to get rid of.

It's happened again. Their relationship has gone down in flames.

I feel like an industrious rodent, hunched over tearing paper apart with my busy paws.

The shirts are all on the shelves in rippling textures and rainbow colors.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Worth Watching: Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Title: Theodora Goes Wild
Director: Richard Boleslawski
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) lives with her two respectable aunts in the small New England town of Lynnfield where she plays the organ at church and teaches Sunday school. No one would suspect that she writes under the pseudonym of Caroline Adams, the author of a racy best-selling novel that causes an uproar in Lynnfield when the town newspaper prints installments of it.

Irene Dunne as Theodora Lynn hiding behind a book

Theodora feels conflicted about having to hide her literary career. During a visit to her publisher in New York City, she considers giving up on writing and sticking only to her quiet life in Lynnfield. But then she runs into Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), the illustrator of her book's cover. He finds out where she lives, follows her home, and tries to badger her into revealing herself and living a freer, more open life. As it turns out, Michael is a hypocrite about living openly and honestly, and in the second half of the movie Theodora turns the tables on him, making him live up to his own advice.

Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild

The romance didn't do much for me. Michael was mostly obnoxious, blackmailing Theodora and acting on wrong-headed assumptions; the shtick where he whistles and whistles and keeps Theodora and her aunts awake also went on for too long. I disliked him for much the same reason that I found Clark Gable's character unattractive in It Happened One Night - he bullies, he blusters, he's too puffed up. You don't know what his intentions are, especially when you find out what he's hiding. Does he follow Theodora home to have some fun at her expense? Does he want to set a kindred spirit free? (Yes to both?)

I don't understand why Theodora falls in love with him, except because the plot told her to. I do like that she doesn't let him get too full of himself. For instance at one point when they're picking blackberries he lies back in lordly fashion and tells her to drop some berries into his mouth, to which she replies, "Well who's going to chew them for you?"

This is really Irene Dunne's show, and she's the main reason I like Theodora Goes Wild. She's convincing both as a mousy small-town girl and as a society lady who seems to flout all the rules. Neither role reflects the full truth about Theodora; at heart she's a good-natured person with ordinary passions, but nobody wants to believe it. As long as it doesn't touch them people love a good scandal, the more outrageous the better.

Irene Dunne as Theodora Lynn with Melyn Douglas as Michael

With a mix of genuineness and dishonesty, and with lots of humor, Theodora navigates the separate social spheres of Lynnfield and New York City and thumbs her nose at the narrow-minded conventions found in both places. She doesn't let fame turn her head. She stays grounded and has fun, putting on expensive furs and some unusual hats that resemble modern art sculptures and that only Irene Dunne could get away with wearing without looking ridiculous.

There are some good supporting characters in this film: Theodora's stern aunts (played by Elisabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade), who may be more loving than they first appear; her sly adorable uncle (Robert Greig); and Lynnfield's moral arbiter and head gossip, Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington), who regards the very things she disapproves of with wide-eyed relish. But ultimately it's Dunne carrying the film, and she does well with the material and is a pleasure to watch.

*All images link back to their sources (DVDtalk and Wikimedia).