Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Going to the Movies Part III

No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are two very different movies that turn out to have some remarkable similarities.

We saw There Will Be Blood, and then a week later No Country For Old Men. Each movie opens wordlessly with a sweeping panorama of bleak country side. After panning the horizon, each movie keys in on a central character becoming drawn to an object of what will eventually become their lust. In No Country, Llewellyn (Josh Brolin) who is out hunting pronghorn in the west Texas desert stumbles upon a drug deal gone horribly wrong. As he goes from vehicle to vehicle, he finds only dead bodies, both of men and dogs. Finally, he comes upon a man barely alive, who says only one word—“Agua”.

Ignoring the dying man, and looking around the scene a bit more, Llewellyn discovers the pay-off, a suitcase filled with two million dollars. He does some quick thinking, and decides with nearly everyone dead, who is to know if he takes the money. He goes back home, to a run-down trailer and a long-suffering wife, hides the cash under the trailer, and settles in for the night. In the middle of the night, he awakens, conscious stricken—not about having taken the cash, but of having left a dying man without a drink. He fills a plastic gallon jug with water and heads back out to the dessert. Big mistake.

By now, the original “owners” of the money and drugs have discovered the deal gone sour, and in the dead of night come looking for themselves where the money might be. What they find is Llewellyn. And the chase is on.

What Llewellyn doesn’t know is that two parties are after him—a marvelously malevolent hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and faceless Mexicans. What Llewellyn also does not know is that the case with the cash has a transponder, so his every move is tracked by Chigurh.

The third component of this story is the sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who brackets the entire story. In the opening scenes of the movie, you hear the sheriff’s voice-over in sorrowful reprise of the current general state of affairs. He arrives later on the scene of the drug deal, complete with bodies, and proceeds to investigate. As he pieces together what must be happening, and figurers out that Llewellyn has probably taken the money, he tries to signal to Llewellyn that he cannot win the game he has begun.

Several things are riveting in the movie. For example, the entire role that Javier Bardem plays is stunning. His hair, carefully arranged in a quasi-choir boy coif, seems out of place. But as you get to know his character Chigurh, you realize he is a sociopathic automaton who strangely lives by a code. One particular scene illustrates this: he stops to get gas and begins to banter with the station owner. Chigurh takes a coin, flips it, and instructs—no, orders—the station owner to call it. At first reluctant, the station owner finally calls “tails.” Lifting his hand slightly, Chigurh remarks how this is the station owner’s lucky day. What you realize is that the man’s life hung in the balance depending on how the coin toss landed.

There is a proliferation of people trying to retrieve the cash, the driving quest of the entire movie. Bodies pile up as people are viciously dispatched. The view of humanity leaves one head shaking and wondering. This is the state of the sheriff at the end of the movie. He sounds the only moral voice among all those who treat life as easy, or who are driven by greed. But his moral integrity is not enough to save him from the ravages of evil.

I should note that No Country is a Coen brothers’ movie. In many ways, it deals with some of the same subject matter as Fargo, but without the grim humor and irony. The title of the movie, derived from William Butler Yeats’ poem
Sailing to Byzantium, aptly captures the world weariness that one experiences as age gives way to youth. In the sheriff’s case, he is also giving way to a world that has immeasurably changed.

The opening scene of There Will be Blood gives way to the solitary figure of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) laboring away in his silver mine. The singular scene is amazing in that for some 15 minutes, you see only Plainview engaged in the most strenuous of work, entirely without dialogue, though not without sound. The solitariness of the scene sets the mood for the character’s entire life—he works alone, he needs no one. Early on, the rigging in his mine collapses, injuring his leg. Dragging himself out of the mine by sheer force of human will, Daniel manages to get to the assaying office to see how much his silver is worth. You see him lying on the assay office floor, leg bandaged, waiting for the results.

It is this quest for silver that brings Plainview into contact with his life's lust—oil. This is a movie about a man who is driven to find oil in California in the early days of the oil rush of the 1900s. Throughout his early quest, he is accompanied only by his son. Eventually, Plainview comes into contact with a young man named Paul who tells him of oil seeping out of the ground on his family’s farm, in New Boston, California.

Plainview travels there, and begins buying up land. His first purchase is the family ranch where Paul had lived, with his father, sisters, and twin brother Eli. Paul clearly worked a deal to his advantage that the father agreed to. Eventually you realize that Plainview paid far less than the place was worth.

Plainview seems unstoppable until Eli encounters him. Eli (Paul Dano) is a budding charismatic preacher. He wants to dominate the town as much as Plainview does. It is inevitable that the two of them will clash. It is also inevitable that there will be a final battle between the two, and that, as the movie title suggests, there will be blood.

The riveting element of this movie is how oddly formal many scenes are. I finally decided that it functions rather like a Greek tragedy. The hero (Plainview) is larger than life, and while he is heroic, he is also fatally flawed. He will struggle but eventually he will be destroyed for his humanity. What we watch is the path to that destruction and the characters damaged along the way.

Daniel Day Lewis’ acting is an absolute tour de force. It is one of the greatest acting roles I have ever seen. That does not make the movie an easy one to watch, however. There are times where the scenes unfolding are so incredibly painful—you want to avert your eyes yet you can’t help but watch.

Both of these movies have given my brain much to reflect upon. Neither movie is for the faint-hearted. If you want to avert your eyes at blood, perhaps skipping these movies is the best course. If you don't like tense terse drama, bypass these movies. However, if you want to see some of the best acting of this current “crop” of movies, if you want to ponder some deep moral questions—e.g. the nature of good and evil—both of these movies should be at the top of your “must see” list.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Going to the Movies Part II

A.S. (that is Ante Script—you know, not P.S. Post Script but Ante. . .oh, never mind)
As I am about to write the second round of movie reviews, I must note that my husband and I did it again yesterday—went to two MORE movies, so after I get through with Atonement, and then No Country for Old Men, I will move on to There Will be Blood, and finally Michael Clayton.

I have always enjoyed reading movie reviews, and among my favorite reviewers are Richard Schickel and the late Pauline Kael.

Many years ago, when I was in my first college teaching job, I organized the first ever film festival that college had. At the time, Richard Schickel was writing for Life magazine, and he wrote such wonderful, erudite movie reviews that I thought it would be grand to get him to come and be a keynote speaker. Imagine my delight and amazement when I discovered that I could indeed engage him for the occasion. I picked him up at our local airport, and took him out to lunch along with my husband and several fellow faculty. Lunch wasn’t as exciting as I had anticipated, as Mr. Schickel barely talked. We then continued to the campus, and he gave his speech. What was painfully clear, at least in that speech, was that as well as he might write, he could not speak engagingly. I was crushed. That failure obviously didn’t hurt his career, as he is still writing
movie reviews.

I think the reason I liked Pauline Kael so much, who wrote her
reviews for the New Yorker magazine, was that she was so biting in her analyses. It was rare for her to recommend a movie unqualifiedly. There was always something that could have been improved. So if she did recommend a movie, I knew it would be a work of art.

I am no Richard Schickel or Pauline Kael, but here goes on another movie.

Of the now five movies we saw in our movie binge week plus, Atonement is the most self-consciously cinematic movie. By that I mean, you are constantly aware of the loveliness of some shots, of the deeply infused symbolic meaning of other. There are some terrific scenes showing London during World War II, complete with sandbags stuffed full doorways. No comment is made on any of these scenes—they simply add to your sense of the time and place. Further, there are some incomprehensible unexplained scenes—for example, why does it matter that a flower vase is broken?

Atonement is adapted from Ian McEwen’s book of the same name. Told in three parts, the movie explores how lives are changed when a young girl, in an upper class family in pre-World War II England, witnesses a scene between her sister and the son of hired help, wherein the flower vase gets broken. The girl, Briony Tallis, has a very active imagination and spends much of her time writing stories and plays. Her sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) has just returned home having been studying at Cambridge. We soon learn that the young man, Robbie (James McAvoy), has also attended Cambridge through the largesse of Cecelia’s and Briony’s father.

We see the initial scene through a dual telling, once as Briony perceived it, and then as it happened between Cecelia and Robbie. This initial scene helps us to anticipate Briony’s tendency to misinterpret and exaggerate what she witnesses. This character flaw is critical. When Robbie writes a note to Cecelia, to apologize for his behavior during the scene, he writes several versions. One of them is frankly risqué. Finally, he handwrites the message he intends to give to Cecelia but in his haste inadvertently puts the risqué note in the envelope. As fortune would have it, he gives the envelope to Briony to deliver to her sister.

Predictably, Briony reads the note. Her 13-year old mind concludes that he is “a sex maniac” and she is now primed to misinterpret other events. A key scene occurs in the family estate library when Cecelia, who realizes she is attracted to Robbie, encounters him and they begin to kiss passionately. Enter Briony, who once again misinterprets what she sees.

The family is having a formal dinner together that evening, to which Robbie has been invited. During the meal, young twin cousins who are visiting the Tallis family go missing. Everyone goes out to search for them. During the search in the dark, the twins’ sister is attacked by someone you cannot see. However, Briony sees who it is.

When the police arrive, Briony becomes the star witness. “It was him” she says—pointing to Robbie. When challenged to ascertain if she is sure, Briony affirms that she saw what she saw.

The second part of the movie occurs several years later, with Britain now in the first days of World War II. We see each of the three principles going about their lives, altered by the war. Cecelia is a nurse working in a hospital, Robbie is in France, and Briony is in nurse training, which her sister opines might be Briony’s way of trying to atone for what she did. The consequences of Briony’s accusation are still being played out.

Finally, in the third part of the story, we encounter Briony as an aging and dying woman. She is a highly successful author, and she is being interviewed on the publication of her last work. She remarks that she has written this last book as a way to finally tell the truth, to make atonement. She acknowledges her actions as a young girl set three lives on their courses. Finally, we the viewers learn the truth of the intertwined lives of these people.

Several elements of this movie are stand-out smashing. First, there is the acting of the young star who plays the child Briony—Saoirse Ronan. She has marvelous concentration of expression and startlingly clear blue eyes. With each iteration of Briony, with Romola Garai (who we saw in King Lear in the role of Cordelia), and finally Vanessa Redgrave as the aging Briony, the blue eyes remain the same.

Throughout the movie, music (somewhat annoyingly) underscores the frantic tension building, with its repetitive striking of a type-writer keyboard sound running under the pizzicato of violins. The scenery is riveting at times. In the middle segment, we see Robbie among the haunted soldiers trying to evacuate at Dunkirk. He and two companions wander around a beachside carnival. There is a forlorn Ferris wheel in the distance, a garish merry-go-round, and a gazebo where a group of soldiers strike up an impromptu hymn sing. It is as surreal a scene as you can imagine—like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell.

While I had read the novel in advance of seeing the movie, there was no disconnect for me at all. No moment of “oh, I liked the book better” or “the movie was better than the book.” Atonement, while a somewhat challenging a movie to see (I think having read the novel helped me), is definitely deserving of a Best Movie nod—whether as an Academy Award nominee, or as your pick for the next movie to see. I would add that knowing the story line was immeasurably helpful to me in following the plot, so you may want to read a
plot summary, avoiding of course any plot spoiler so read only parts 1 and 2. (It is so helpful when Wikipedia puts a big **Spoiler Alert** caution in its movie summaries; this one does not have that, though, since this summarizes the novel).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Going to the Movies

Every year this happens—my husband and I get behind on going to the movies. We like movies, and we especially enjoy watching the Oscars (will there be a broadcast of the awards this year?). So in advance of that occasion, we try to see the leading contenders in best picture, and best actor and actress category. But every year, we get behind.

Why, you might ask. Well, we are also fans of watching football, and until the games are over, including the play-offs, we tend to suspend other extra-curricular activities. We stay at home on Saturdays (if we aren’t going to Penn State games) and on Sundays, and watch football. So, no movies. True—we could go sometime during the week, but one of us works too long hours to be able to do that. Hint—it isn’t me.

So, this past weekend, we went to see three (count them 1. . .2. . .3) movies. First, we saw Charlie Wilson’s War, then Atonement, and the following day No Country for Old Men. Mind—this foray into movie land all took place BEFORE the announcement for this year’s Oscar nominations. As soon as There Will Be Blood comes to town—we’re there, too. (Oh, it just got in).

And now for some observations on our movie feast. I liked them all. Charlie Wilson’s War was my least favorite, although it is probably the most enjoyable. Remember, I am one of those loopy English major types—always searching for hidden meaning, for symbolism, for character development. So, even though I would rank it third, it was fun to see.

Charlie Wilson’s War is a straight-forwardly told tale of a real life congressman from Texas who gets a fire in his belly over the horrific excesses of the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, is a hard-partying, divorced, boozing womanizing Democratic congressman. He does, however, have a wealthy benefactor (and sometime love interest) played by Julia Roberts. Primarily for Christian principles, it seems, she is determined to help arm rebel factions in Afghanistan to fight off the Soviets. The deus ex machine who comes to their aid is a quirky troublesome CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos, played wonderfully by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has all the right connections to help arm the rebels.

There are some fun scene that draw on history, including one where Charlie Wilson goes to Pakistan and meets with the then
President Zia Ul-Haq (this is the man who was primarily responsible for having Benazir Bhutto’s father judged and hanged). Wilson asks for a tall drink of scotch or bourbon; there is a pained silence until it dawns on him—and he is outright told—that no alcohol is kept in the Presidential palace in a Muslim country.

Of course, we know the ending—the rebels did in fact defeat the Soviets. Charlie Wilson won his war. But he also lost it. One of the closing scenes of the movie is Charlie Wilson trying to persuade a congressional committee to allocate $1 million to rebuild schools in Afghanistan. Predictably, he is ignored. The cautionary (and very obvious) message is that Congress happily funds in the millions various war efforts but does not fund building infrastructure. And, today, we know the consequences—the rebels included (though never named or identified in the movie) Osama Bin Laden, and future Taliban leaders. And now we are fighting a protracted war in Afghanistan just as the Soviets did.

Next time, Atonement and then No Country for Old Men.

See you at the movies.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Words

As someone who was an English lit major in college, I confess to loving words. In fact, I collect them. It's true--right now I have a list in the back of my white notebook (where I jot down blogging ideas) where I write down great words that I come upon. Top of that list right now--quotidian.

Words that appeal to me are those that have a great sound and are packed with meaning. I have gathered this pile of words partly to use them in poems someday, and partly just because. There's no other rhyme or reason for them.

Here are two more favorite words--facetious and abstemious. Why? Because these two words use all the vowels in the English language and use them in alphabetical order. I have been looking for another word that does that, but no luck so far.

There are also words I avoid--catchphrases that are cliched, over-used. Or jargon. Every now and then I catch myself saying something like--"the bottom line" (shudder) or "a new paradigm" (shudder shudder).

There are words that I despise--many of which are bandied about on television. Since when did "impact" become a verb?

I try to pay attention to the words I use. Sometimes I use a phrase in response to everyday situations. I catch myself falling into regular use of these phrases. In fact, I go through cycles of these phrases.

Here's a sampling.

"This too shall pass"--I said this frequently when I first began teaching 40 years ago. Maybe I was overwhelmed--but I noticed one day that I kept saying "this too shall pass."

Then I went through a phase of announcing "it's not my problem." I worked in an organization at the time where work would build up--so the announcement of "it's not my problem" was not me shirking work, but a delineation of boundaries.

Recently, I have caught myself saying "it's not the end of the world." Maybe that phrase comes to mind as I contemplate some of the unsettling news stories--stock markets going haywire; protracted fighting in Iraq; global climate change. Maybe my repeating "it's not the end of the world" is a little like whistling past the graveyard.

Classes have begun again at our local community college, and I am trying once more to get students interested in and excited about words. I challenge them to make sure they understand all the words in any essay they read, and to look words up if they don't know them. I even try to shock them a little.

One of my favorite word exercises is to get students thinking about the emotional content that some words have. Words have denotative or connotative meaning. Denotative is essentially the dictionary definition, where connotative is the emotional load a word carries. To help students grasp the difference between denotative and connotative, I will look at one of the female students, and ask if she would be insulted if I called her a "hussy." Of course, she is always shocked and begins to take umbrage. I quickly point out that at one time "hussy" meant nothing more than "housewife"--and in fact that is its word origin. "Hussy" is a shortened version of "housewife." So, there's no need to be insulted.

Words, words, words. My words. We load them up, we throw them around, we let them slip out when we shouldn't, we can't take them back. And, yet. . . And, yet. . .Where would we be without words?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Nantucket Briar

As I prepared for my morning shower, I opened a box of Nantucket Briar soap—one of my Christmas gifts from my daughter who is a master of observation of personal likes. She knows I love this soap—with its spicy floral smell (that makes me smell like a grandmother. . .not yet. . .well, maybe an old lady!).

And as I thought about the name of the soap, I suddenly recalled a trip made about 30 years ago. At the time, my husband was serving on our church’s board of deacons; in fact, he headed up that board. One of the deacons was a lovely woman whose family owned a cottage on
Nantucket Island. I don’t know how the conversation came up, but since my husband was a public school teacher at the time—and not earning all that much money—and since I was working part time, staying home the other “part” with our pre-school son, we had little money and had not gone on a family vacation for awhile. This wonderful woman offered us the use of her Nantucket cottage, at no cost, if we would go there in October. It was rented out through the summer months, but come autumn, no one was renting it.

So on a long weekend, we drove up to Massachusetts, then boarded the ferry to Nantucket. What a charming and captivatingly beautiful little spot of land (at least it was then). I loved the quaint villages, and the wind-swept beauty of the place. The cottage was in Siasconset, on the far eastern edge of the island, facing bravely the Atlantic. If you look at a map, and trace east from Nantucket, there’s nothing but wide wide ocean for hundreds of miles. Our friend who loaned us her cottage told us few people try to winter over in Nantucket as the winter winds and storms bring on all sorts of dysfunctional behavior. Alcoholism rates climb, divorces occur, murder rates go up—at least that’s what she told us.

So perhaps we should have been prepared for bitter cold, but we weren’t. She did tell us the cottage was unheated—well, yes. It was a clapboard construction little house, quite sweet, but with bare wooden walls, no insulation. It was just what you would imagine for a SUMMER cottage. But here it was in October. At night, the temperatures dipped down below freezing. We fired up the wood stove in the kitchen, and huddled together to stay warm as best we could, but barely managed.

Cottage photo from: http://www.centralnewyorker.com/Outside/Nantucket/journey.htm

When we left Nantucket, after our weekend, we drove back to central Pennsylvania. Somewhere in Connecticut, we stopped in a motel for the night. In the middle of the night, our son developed croup. And, I mean the deep hoarse hacking coughing struggling for breath kind of croup. He had earlier in his young life had one siege of croup, once before, and had recovered without too much time passing. But this time, he was fighting for breath. We did the only thing we could think of—we went in the bathroom, turned the shower on to full blast hot water, and closed the door. We were minutes away from seeking out the nearest emergency room when he fell asleep and began to breathe a bit more easily.

Whew! So, every time I think of Nantucket—where we have never returned—I do think of a charming place with lovely natural beauty—but I also think of a little boy fighting for breath.

I must say, though—I still love the soap: it is my favorite.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Where have all the birds gone. . .

For many years, we had bird feeders hanging from a green ash tree next to our sun porch. Mostly, we filled these feeders with sunflower seeds, and they were very popular. Over time, we attracted squirrels in addition to various birds. And, over time, a thick layer of sunflower shells built up on the lawn below the feeders, squelching out any growth underneath.

So, a couple of years ago, we gave up on the bird feeders. For some reason, though, this winter, we (maybe make that I) decided to have another go at bird feeders. The day we filled our first feeder, we were hit with an ice storm. So, there hung the new bird feeder, with icicles. But with a bit of time, birds began to return. Nothing fancy--some sparrows (no doubt, the ubiquitous house variety), a few purple finches, some black-capped chickadees, a titmouse or two, and some cardinals.

We have not been over-run with birds, and so far no squirrels have found the feeders--there are now two feeders.

Then suddenly, NO birds. I mean--NO BIRDS. That got me very curious.

So I went outside and looked around. And then I saw it--on a neighbor's tree. Just watching. Maybe, just looking over the menu.

Yup. The peregrine is back. I thought I saw it the other day--dive bombing the neighborhood. Actually, it is quite astonishing how this peregrine can come swooping through, like a fighter bomber on a mission. A blur of feathers flying through several feet off the ground, unerringly avoiding any obstacle, except for some hapless bird.

Well, I will just have to let nature take its course. The only thing I can promise--no bird crime scene sleuthing for me. If I find a pile of feathers, trust me--it will go unexamined, unphotographed. But I will have a pretty good idea of what happened.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Remains of the Trip

Way back in December, 2007, Delia at Beginning to Bird tagged me to reveal 7 random things about myself. Gee—haven’t I revealed enough?

Well, I promised to do so upon return from our trip to London. So, I decided as my final post on that trip to do the random things, AND relate them to the trip!

Here goes.

1) On this trip, my husband and I had our first-ever sit on the tarmac experience with a flight. Not that we mind having been missed in this pleasure, to now. When we were set to depart London, the pilot came on the public address system and said—we were set to take off, but there seems to be an equipment problem. (Oh, great! I just HATE equipment problem announcements). After a bit, he came back—seems the pressure in the oxygen tanks for the pilots’ cabin was dropping. . .not good. More time passed, then he came back on and said—we have two options: we can locate a new oxygen tank and install that OR we can locate a different plane and transfer all the passengers. GROAN. Well, the first option was picked; so, after a bit more delay, he came on and said—they replaced the tank, but there is still a leak. It seems to have been a valve somewhere in the system. Eventually, that was fixed, and we FINALLY took off. All told, we sat about 3 hours; then we had to endure the 8 hour flight home.

2) One evening while in London, we decided to go to Trafalgar Square. We had seen on the Internet, that there would be groups caroling in the Square. Sounded like fun. Well, at 5 p.m. (remember it gets dark around 4 p.m. in the winter), we gathered on the Square along with a crowd. And waited. No group. And waited—then after a bit, a rag-tag group of children and young people with a sprinkling of adults trooped out. They were decked out in quasi-Christmas costumes: you know, as shepherds or angels, or wise-men. They began singing. Frankly, they were woeful. But, there is something about Christmas caroling—it was just right for the moment. I love to sing. In fact, we all sang along, and then meandered off.

3) Although I read many blogs by people who are dedicated birders, I am not one myself. However, I was fascinated with the view out of the flat we were staying in. Here it is. PIGEONS. Seemingly hundreds of pigeons. They would swoop in, land, jostle, coo, then take off. Apparently, the occupant of the flat where these pigeons roosted fed them. Big mistake. . . that only draws more pigeons. So, while in London, I bird-watched!

4) It is impossible to pick out what I liked best about our trip—other than seeing our daughter and her fiancé—but one of the serendipitous parts of the visit was that almost anywhere we walked, we could see charming sights. For example, here is a building with a courtyard that we walked through. Isn’t it charming? I like serendipitous sights.

5) One day, we walked past an outdoor bazaar/ market. Now, for his own reasons, my husband LOVES these displays. What struck me was that the market was in the courtyard of St. James Church, Picadilly. Turns out the church was one of those designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and built in 1684. I love finding things historical—a church that is over 400 years old, standing on a site that has undergone many transformations (including being bombed during the Blitz in 1940), and still draws people in simply by being in the world.

6) Two of my favorite things that I love that I try to buy when I visit London: I love marmalade and tea. We went to
Fortnum and Mason, where I found both of these items—and received a gentle caution to not buy too much; after all, we had not yet had Christmas. So, on Christmas Day, when I opened one of my gifts, I received a three jar set of marmalades. Yum.

7) My husband and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary on this trip—actually, the day we flew back. So, with London being 5 hours “ahead” of Eastern Standard time, we had our longest anniversary ever! (That was my husband’s idea).

There you have it, 7 random things about me, wrapped up in a final trip "report." And, as for tagging anyone else, I am so far behind in this endeavor, that I will eschew the tagging.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fair Cambridge

One of the hymns that I grew up singing was “Jerusalem” whose lyrics derive from a poem by William Blake.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

This typically British hymn is built on the premise that Christ visited England during his adolescence. And it was used in one of my favorite movies, “Chariots of Fire” which derived its title from the second stanza.

Well, the connection here is that one of the featured runners in “Chariots of Fire” is Harold Abrahams, a student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University.

While I certainly cannot claim to have seen all the places in England that I want to see, I have seen quite a few places. In addition to London, I have visited Bath, seen Stonehenge, seen Salisbury Cathedral. I have been to Blenheim Palace (where Winston Churchill was born, in what is really his ancestral home); I have visited Coventry and seen Coventry Cathedral. I have visited Stratford-on-Avon, twice. And I have visited Oxford University.

But I had never seen that other fabled English university, Cambridge. So, one of the places we visited during our recent trip was Cambridge. The day we traveled there was a cold and rainy day, and at first I thought that might ruin the visit. Not so. The various colleges at Cambridge were mostly deserted, so close to Christmas, and there certainly were very few tourists there. So, unlike Oxford which we had visited in the middle of summer while it was crawling with tourists, Cambridge was a lovely enchanting place.

Kings College Chapel, where the Christmas Eve service of Lessons and Carols takes place, had the BBC setting up for that service. My daughter and I went in quickly to peek around. One of the unique features of the chapel is the fan vaulting.

Other colleges had lovely quads, and interior lush lawns. St. Johns’ College has a replica of the Bridge of Sighs, in Venice.

One of the famous activities is punting—and even on the winter’s day we were there, there were tourists punting on the Cam.

Cambridge has many famous alums, including: Charles Darwin; John Milton; Jan Smuts; Sacha Baron-Cohen; Jane Goodall; John Cleese*; Graham Chapman*; David Frost; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Alan Turing; Emma Thompson; William Wordsworth; Isaac Newton; Germaine Greer*; Sylvia Plath; CS Lewis.

What a lovely day we had.

Note 1: all photos here are from our day in Cambridge.

Note 2 *: on the off chance you missed the significance of these particular alum, Cambridge is where MONTY PYTHON got its start! Yes, Germaine Greer was one of those involved in the earliest comedy of the gang that eventually became Monty Python.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Night at the Theatre

One of my Christmas gifts while we were in London was tickets to go to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear, with Ian McKellen* as Lear. As an English literature major in college, I have read and studied Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I had never seen it performed.

While I would be hard pressed to say which of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the greatest, there are many critics who feel that King Lear is the best. When I took a Shakespeare course in graduate school, I chose to concentrate on Anthony and Cleopatra, so I have always been partial to that play. But it is almost unstageable—so many scene changes. And, it doesn’t really seem to be so tragic a tragedy.

When I taught a survey of literature course recently, the text I used included Hamlet, so I had the students read that. Well, after a while, Hamlet himself gets a little tedious, and I feel like saying—oh, get on with it; do whatever you’re going to do and be done with it. But, Hamlet as a character has more lines of dialogue that almost any Shakespearean character (all those soliloquies!).

We saw King Lear in the New Theatre in London, which is arranged so that it is almost in the round. Our seats were quite close to the stage, so that throughout the play, we had a wonderful view of all the actions.

This production opens with a flourish of trumpets, and a wordless parade of the characters—King Lear resplendent in a red military uniform, followed by his daughters, their husbands, and other court dignitaries. An organ plays sonorous majestic music, and no words are spoken at all. The effect is of a kingly court, full of power and pomp.

When the first scene opens, King Lear is full into his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, asking of them only that they demonstrate their love for him in words. He knows he is growing older and that kingdoms are ripped apart in succession battles, so he wants to settle the question of succession before he dies. All he asks in return for handing over his kingdom is that he can stay with each daughter for portions of the year.

The eldest daughter Goneril, who is married to the Duke of Albany, loudly proclaims her love for her father. Then the second daughter, married to the Duke of Cornwall, outdoes her elder sister and proclaims even more floridly her love for her father. Finally, King Lear turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia—she is his favorite. He expectantly awaits her words, assuming she will outdo them all.

Cordelia, however, demurs. She refuses to play the word game, and for her virtual silence, her father disinherits and disowns her, giving her portion of land to Goneril and Regan. In great anger, Lear proclaims “Nothing will come of nothing.” When his faithful courtier, the Earl of Kent, protests, Lear turns on him and also banishes him from the kingdom.

The stage is set. You can almost guess where the story is going to go. However, Shakespeare throws in some additional characters and sub-plots to confuse the reader/viewer. He adds another courtier, the Earl of Gloucester, who has two sons—one legitimate named Edgar, and one illegitimate named Edmund. And you also have one of the most famous foils in all of Shakespeare in the character of Lear's fool, who frequently speaks more truth than any of the characters.

There you have it. The play then weaves a plot that explores many themes:

--who has the right to inherit from a parent—those who profess love, but do not show it, and those who love without having to profess;
--what does it mean to possess great power; what are the legitimate uses of power;
--what happens when a powerful man begins to lose his grip on power;
--what happens when a man begins to lose his grip on sanity;
--what does it mean to see and understand.

In fact, all through the play the imagery and language returns again and again to the theme of blindness (obviously standing for lack of perception); and the theme of madness. It is the madness theme that is most poignant. Early in the play, Lear has an inkling that he is losing his grip, and he says plaintively:

O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!
King Lear, 1. 5

Perhaps the most famous scene in the entire play is at the beginning of Act III. Lear has been living with his daughter Goneril, and she has thrown him out. He tries to go to Regan’s castle, but she refuses him. So he is wandering around on the bleak heath where a mad storm is brewing (the storm in nature signifying the storm in Lear’s mind). He speaks:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
King Lear, 3. 2. 1

Ian McKellen was riveting portraying the gradual decay of this once proud king. He stood chest drawn up in full kingly regalia at the outset of the play. And as each insult comes his way, his shoulders droop, and you see the glint of insanity in his eyes. By the time you see him on the heath in the storm, you know he has lost all reason.

One scene absolutely took my breath away, both in its unexpected suddenness and in its perfection in depicting Lear’s dissolution. McKellen’s costume in the storm scene is something that looks like a night-shirt. At one point, he lifts it over his head, and stands practically nude before the audience. Ian McKellen, standing not much more than 20 feet away from us, with his genitals on full display! But then, I thought, how true—a person who has lost his touch with sanity, has no sense of social propriety. Clothing becomes optional, and even irrelevant.

The play ends, after the many twists and turns of the two plots, as with so many Shakespearean tragedies, with most everyone having died, or dying in the final scene. Cordelia and Lear are briefly reunited, only for Cordelia to be put to death, and Lear to do of grief.

Most of the Shakespeare tragedies have a single line that seems to capture the essence of the tragic protagonist. In King Lear, it is Lear’s proclamation that:

I am a man/
More sinned against than sinning.
King Lear, 3. 2

*Photographs are from the website

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Goose WAS Getting Fat. . .

Yesterday, we had our second Christmas dinner. Since we were in London for Christmas Day itself, we waited until Epiphany to celebrate a Christmas dinner with our son, his wife, and my father and stepmother. It was a wonderful occasion, and our meal was delicious. We had roast chicken, which was once considered a Sunday special dinner, along with the usual trimmings--mashed potatoes, broccoli, corn, crescent rolls and cranberry sauce.

Ah--the goose, you are wondering. What goose was getting fat? Well, that would be the goose we had for our first Christmas dinner. Before we traveled to London, our daughter asked if we would like goose for Christmas. Hmmmm--I could not recall ever having had goose, for Christmas or otherwise, so--sure, why not? After all, the song says "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. . ."

Getting the provisions for Christmas dinner is why we went to Borough Market (see previous post). In addition to the goose, which came from The Ginger Pig, the other foods included: brussel sprouts still on the stalk, and fresh carrots and parsnips looking as though they were just harvested.

My daughter and her fiance had done all the reading on preparing a goose. So, while one set about rendering the goose fat, the other salted and peppered the goose. Oh, and then filled the goose with mashed potatoes made with goose fat. All ready to pop in the oven.

It seems that there is practically a cult of goose fat in the UK. Read all about the benefits here. We didn't go to quite the lengths extolled on the Internet. No potatoes roasted in goose fat. But I was amazed at the lack of any odor from the goose fat.

With the Christmas dinner all prepared, and set out on the table, all that remained was for us to enjoy.

And we did!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

To Market, To Market

Our daughter had planned many treats for us during our recent visit. One of those treats was our actual Christmas dinner (more about that later). In preparation for that dinner, we went to a wondrous place to buy various foods:
Borough Market.

Think country market, think farmers’ market, think food, flowers, gee-gaws, think serendipity.

I suspect Borough Market is always festive, but shopping for Christmas foods made it wonderful. Of course, the Salvation Army band playing excellent all-brass arrangements of Christmas carols set the mood. The weather cooperated with a bit of a bite in the air. As we walked around there were several places selling warm mulled wine; other places selling fresh coffee (espresso or filter coffee)—instant ways to warm up. There were stands selling all manner of hot sandwiches, including venison burgers, and ostrich sandwiches.

And the cheeses! Oh, the cheeses. Wondrous wheels of cheese, so many kinds I had never heard of before. As we walked along the rows of cheese stands, it seemed every vendor had samples to offer. I would take a sample, say HMMMM, that’s good, then walk to the next stand and repeat the whole process.

There were bread stands with marvelous whole loaves, unwrapped, in all their crusty glory. There were stands with olives and olive oils, complete with neat little sampling dishes and small cubes of bread for dipping.

Of course, there were meat stands, including one place that had fresh game hanging for sale—I confess I gulped, looked quickly, then averted my eyes. While I am a confirmed omnivore, I couldn’t quite look at the brace of pheasants, and of mallard ducks. Nor could I really look at the rabbits, and a deer. (Truth is--I didn't have the heart to take of photo of the displayed game.)

Happily, there were other less guilt inducing stands—a charming fruit cake stand (yes, I do love fruit cake) complete with candles and a stand with mounds of cocoa dusted truffles. Well, maybe another kind of guilt pops up at these stands.

For me, the standout offering was a cheese stand selling hot cheese sandwiches made in a sandwich press. They also heated a wheel of cheese and then sliced away the melting cheese over baked potatoes (or jacket potatoes, as they say). Yum. Make that YUM!

I loved the names of the various places. Part of our Christmas meal was coming from a place named The Ginger Pig. I spotted various signs that included quotes from various English writers extolling the virtues of some of the foods we would partake on Christmas Day—what is Christmas without a feast?

One very enlightening part of the market was the ubiquitous labeling indicating origin of the food. BRITISH grown produce, or foods coming from pinpoint locations around the UK. Also, signs at cheese stands proudly proclaimed they were made with unpasteurized milk.

The most educational part of the market was the emphasis on goose fat. (More on that in a later blog.) I loved this straightforward sign advertising a place to purchase your goose fat for roasting potatoes at Christmas.

Such a great place; such a fun visit. To market, to market—oh, yeah!