Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#32 The CaryTown "X"-mas Tree II

No, not that particular use of the letter "X"--continuing from last post--because we'd be right back to the sectarian exclusivity of the Jesus-god. In fact, one of the shibboleths indicating that somebody is making so-called "War on Christmas" is the supposedly disrespectful use of "X" in the place of "Christ-" in the compound word. Amazing. Even most of the half-educated would know that this "X" has something to do with the Greek letter Chi, the first phoneme in (transliterated) Kristos, and has been a legitimate abbreviation for centuries. No, I'll plump for the mathematical "X"--and explain in a minute.

The original Tree in festive question was meant to be inclusive. "Cary is a diverse community," understated Mayor Harold Weinbrecht on the local TV news channel this week. Nonetheless, Councilman Don Frantz wants to un-diversify the "Community Tree" or "Holiday Tree"--this is what made it all the way to Faux News--at the next council meeting:

Don added that his "request seeks to call Cary's trees what they really are--'Christmas trees.' Calling a Chistmas tree a Holiday tree is like calling the Jewish Menorah a candelabra. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree [except when it was called a Hanukkah bush by my Jewish friends of old]. In our efforts to not offend anyone we have succeeded at offending nearly everyone." (Cary Citizen 12/22)
By "nearly," Councilman Frantz must mean every single non-Christian in Cary whose tax-moneys nevertheless go to the city hall and that Tree in the lobby. But I'm sure he didn't ask them. Okay, I forgot, he's just lying. We'll, "what they really are," are NOT exclusively Christmas trees, historically or pre-historically--if you've been following my last several bloggings and floggings in that area. Not to rehash, but the evergreen-tree symbolism is inclusively for EVERYONE UNDER THE SUN, so to speak. It's for anyone on the planet who can point with renewed joy to the mid-winter sky at Solstice. At least one (obviously tax-paying) citizen of Cary understands this instinctively:

... others argue the switch would leave some people out. "It's a community Christmas tree," Cary resident Melanie Williams said. Williams, owner of Chocolate Smiles Candy Factory, said the holidays should be about involving everyone, not just those who celebrate Christmas. "We don't want to lose the essence of all the different holidays celebrated," Williams said. (WRAL News 12/24)
And that "essence" at this time of year is the Winter Solstice, the free and democratic largesse of Mother Nature, not to be held hostage by one sect or another, though the Christianists never seem to give up. So let's for fun keep the "X" in Xmas tree, but thinking of it in the mathematical sense of "variable" or "indeterminate," encompassing the "parameters" of celebration possible within the context of the triumph of the Unconquerable Sun. How about Light, Love, Joy, and, yes, "Community"?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#31 Case in Point: the CaryTown "X"-mas Tree

Along with embellishments of holly and magical mistletoe--the only plant that blooms in winter--the stand-up evergreen tree of fir or spruce is THE icon of the Winter Solstice in temperate climes. Here's what the sun can do, and will do again, once it frees itself from these last three months of captivity in the bonds of night. "Look ... gather 'round and see for yourself the power of the invincible sun residing in this tree that never dies in winter," you might hear the ancient Iberian priest preaching to his celebrants on the chilly Salisbury Plain. "Light the bonfires!"

The conifer of whatever variety pictured above lit some unwanted fires of controversy when it came to light, ignited by some critical-mass or other, that its official name was to be changed to "Community Tree" from its original "Christmas Tree," or from the Grand Compromise, "Holiday Tree." Made national news. By that I mean Faux News, as part of its perennial efforts to inflame the rabble about the self-dubbed "War On Christmas." Sitting only a couple of miles down the road from my digs in SW Raleigh, Cary NC is a big-small town that makes national news in one way only: it's annually in the top five of the most livable small cities in the U.S., according to Forbes, Business Week, and such like.

The town fathers went too far this time, though, claim the protectors of Christendom. Well, the tree has been up annually since 2006 and always referred to as the Community Tree. The network reporters got that wrong. But its true that there ain't no Christmas about it, nor anything holiday-specific holy. If you could get close to those "decorations" hanging from its branches you would see that they be not angels or elves, menorim or nativities; they are dangley notices of up-coming city events, baubley messages from civic and charitable organizations, and tinsley corporate logos. When the Council voted to put up that tree in the middle of the tax-payer-funded, city-hall lobby, they made sure its purpose was to be completely secular. No sectarian ornaments allowed.

The reason is obvious--though never admitted by those interviewed about the "controversy"--and makes good business sense. An inordinate proportion of Cary citizenry is non-Christian. And they pay taxes like everybody else. Because of its proximity to the esteemed Research Triangle Park--chock-a-block full of high-tech industry, bio-medical corporations, etc.--Cary, besides having its own home-town version of same, attracts bunches of smart-ass Yankees and other foreign types. Who want the suburban life style and short commute that this "most livable" of small cities provides. And some of them are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and worse: not religious at all. In fact, for example. the Hindu community of Cary just this year completed one of the largest and most opulent temples to their faith in the whole of the United States.

So, in spite of the fact that the Town Council has agreed to consider re-"Christening" the tree, literally, at their meeting on Jan. 14, they really had it right the first time around. They succeeded in putting the "X" back in Christmas. (more)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

#30 Dark Days and SAD III--Xmas

Here's the third "celestial calendar" I visited some four decades ago, when, as I mentioned earlier (MM #5), a bumptious American tourist could still wander the sacred precincts freely, and give the stones a hug or a kick, as the spirit moved. (Much as one could in those days lean over the velvet ropes at the Louvre, and stare unhindered at Mona Lisa's lovely eyeballs (MM #26). Located also on the Salisbury Plain, this one, called Woodhenge, was a stone circle without stones, nor even a henge--i.e. a "hanging" lentil affair upon two standards, as at Stonehenge, at least from what survives. Ironically, those stubby stone pillars in the picture are just sad markers of the post-holes where the original wooden ones, long decayed away, would have been. Otherwise, its a pretty-close, poor-man's rendition of the doubtless royal and aristocratic Stonehenge, just as is the perhaps more "middle-class" stone version at Avebury, in last post. I'm sure, however, that the Winter Solstice festivities were enjoyed in equal measure regardless of location, or status of the revelers.

Dating from the Iron Age, these and other prehistoric stone and wooden circles in the British Isles and across northern Europe attest to the extreme sun-dependency of these planter and pastoral cultures. And the festivals associated with them show clearly just how important it was to boost everybody's spirits--especially the not-insignificant proportion of the Seasonal Affective Disordered (not to mention the "sub-syndromal") amongst them--when the terrestrial/celestial clock-circles marked the happy circumstance of the Winter Solstice. Light the bonfires! The long, dark days were over: the sun had proved itself capable of once again lighting the earth for the important agricultural seasons to come. At least for one more year. Sol Invictus! The Unconquered Sun.

After all, midwinter festivals are historically THE most widespread and persistent annual publicly-oriented event--in whatever guise--celebrated around the planet, in those latitudes where the change of seasons and the disposition of the SUN is of such (literally) vital importance. At base, it's a secular (strictly:"of-the-times") exultation of NATURE, of its solar equilibrium in this case, much like paying homage to the important equinoctial turning-point of Easter--still retaining its pagan-Germanic namesake, Eostre, goddess of the Spring, by the way--no matter the RELIGIOUS overlay. No matter who is doing the appropriating.

So, just as Christians are stuck with the the fertility icons of egg and bunny at the annual celebration of Jesus' death, they've got to put up with yule logs and evergreens, gift-giving and wassailing, at the anniversary of his "birth." And it's their own fault. Or at least that of the early Roman Catholic church. The irritating mantric complaint about "putting Christ back in Christmas" is an historical oxymoron. He wasn't there in the first place, and his non-existent Biblical birthday was NOT celebrated (Easter was more important, and had an historically confirmable date), UNTIL it was clear to the the Church Fathers that the Roman variations expanding on the late-December event--Sol Invictus day, the 12 days of Saturnalia with Juvenalia thrown in, etc. (the latter is how KIDS got into the whole thing)-- were all celebrated throughout the Empire by then, and simply not going away. Even though the Empire had been recently and officially Christianized.

The last straw was Mithras entering the picture. Popular especially among the Roman legions (I saw a bas relief of the god on a visit to the Housesteads outpost at Hadrian's Wall, in the north of England), this hot Persian deity was rooted in ancient Zoroastrianism, and his cult was growing. A warrior god-son who was miraculously and motherlessly born of Ahura Mazda, Divinity of LIGHT, and whose rituals included blood sacrifice--this guy had a lot going for him, Christ-wise, and more. He was also a SUN-GOD. And one easily associated with the established Roman god, Apollo. The annual holiday of his birth? Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice!

Too much competition, to ignore for very long. Taking over ALL of the Roman Empire's midwinter festivities in the name of Christ--principally targeting Dec 25, Saturnalia, that orgy of potlatch and potation--was, no question, a stroke of genius on the part of the Church Fathers, now acting for the official State Religion. Changed the Western World. But they couldn't change the quintessence of this "solar-powered" holiday exulting in the wonders of the Natural World. The New England puritans, for example, weren't fooled. For them, this un-Biblical Christmas-thing had to be pagan. Everybody was having entirely TOO MUCH OF A GOOD TIME. Consequently, it was a CRIME in them parts to celebrate it, for a couple of centuries. That's because they knew the "true meaning of Xmas"... didn't they.

So, to all the SAD and not so sad, Happy Winter Holidays!--the way they were forever meant to be celebrated. Above all, Lux Esto!--"let there be light"--and plenty of it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

#29 Dark Days and SAD II--Solstice

So the statistical consensus (from various Psych-Assoc. sources) is that we've got about one in five people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder--a critical mass--anywhere and everywhere across the temperate zones of the planet, who would come down with more than the ordinary blues. Plus a lot of other "normal" folk not feeling too happy about the cold, diminishing days and endless nights, either. And it's all been around a long time, too, probably since around the beginning of agriculture, some 10-15,000 years ago.

To speculate--we don't seem to be genetically protected from diurnal fluctuations, and the concomitant winter light-deprivation that plays havoc with the moods of some of us--sapping energy, dulling concentration, disrupting sleep--more often than others. Not surprising, since our genetic origins are equatorial. But it didn't seem to hurt our adaptation to the higher latitudes as we spread out of Africa, at least when we were hunter-gatherers. As we settled in as planters and harvesters, however, the movements of the heavens--especially the sun--became much more a life and-death matter ... and depressing to think about at certain times of the year. "But let's DO keep watch scientifically, with big rocks," you might imagine a proto-tribal-elder saying, "and when the sun STARTS to regain its dominion over the night ... we'll have a big party."

Humanum genus ludi. We're party animals. Now isn't that the real reason why there are so many prehistoric stone circles (and the vestiges of wooden ones , too) scattered about the European countryside? I like to think so. For, like them, the Big-Daddy of them all, Stonehenge, was above all a place for the identification and celebration of the great Solstices (lit. "sun-stand" from L. sol + sistere/stitium), especially the one around Dec. 21st. The "heel-stone" outside the main circle of the Stonehenge triliths is specifically and perfectly aligned, from the proper vantage point, to showcase the midsummer sunrise (MM #5) and the midwinter sunset to their best advantage, so that that there could be no mistake about when the festivities should begin. Now, the astonishingly (sorry) sophisticated arrangement of concentric stones of various sizes and at various distances allowed the "Iberian" builders of 5000 years ago to make other astronomical calculations, too, "observatory"-wise, like the ones to be made vis a vis the nocturnal sky. But the daytime "star" of the show twice a year would be "Sol Invictus," as he would be known by the Romans in his midwinter incarnation.

And the mid-winter party at Stonehenge and other megaliths (like Avebury above) in obvious solar alignment, on and about the sacred Salisbury Plain and beyond ... was the big one--truly a salutary bit of luck for the chronically SAD among the attendees. Some clever archaeological detective work confirms this. Excavations of ancient encampments nearby these sites show that the holiday occupants "pigged-out" in DECEMBER. Literally. That's when the growth-pattern of the teeth and bones of these slaughtered animals puts their time of death. Love it.

Along with the porcine victualizing and liquid wassailing (no doubt), we know there was the ancient equivalent of light-box therapy--BONFIRES--alight everywhere around the hilltops and countryside. Still done today by the "new-agers" who gather Druid-fashion at Stonehenge for the Winter Solstice. The symbolism is obvious, besides a good way to keep warm. The weakened Light-of-the-Sky is about to regain its health and vigor--the days will be getting longer now--and a little homeopathy in the form of the Sun's earth-bound avatar of fire couldn't hurt.

No doubt, too, these primordial Europeans--surviving almost surely and solely as the uncategorizable Basque people of today--were practicing some sort of religion in association with their midwinter festival. They were annihilated by the invading Celts, and their Priests imposed Druidic rites upon the sacred days and places of their predecessors. Stonehenge was very handy, and became the ecclesiastical center of British Druidism. (For centuries it was thought that they built it.) And then came the pagan Romans. Same thing. Though not much into primitive megaliths, they had their own Winter Solstice festivals of Saturnalia and Juvenalia that easily merged with and superseded the Druidical. But by the time the Romans left occupied Britain in 410 A.D., there had already been another morphing of the astronomical holiday. The Romanized Celts had become Christian. (more)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

#28 Dark Days and Cosmic SAD-ness

As in Seasonal Affective Disorder ... ness, that is. It's a condition inherent upon certain sun-dependent, sentient beings living on any rotationally-tilted terrestrial planet, located in the "Goldilocks" zone between its star and the cold, deep-space darkness. In any solar-system you might name. Certainly true for Earth. Peoples around its temperate latitudes have resorted to various home-grown nostrums for the winter doldrums over the millennia--Christmas, for one-- to dose the annual ailment ... with varying degrees of success.

Guess what?--for the most part THEY WORK, at least for the suicide rate. Let's get the you-know-what, somehow-ineradicable "urban legend" out of the way first. In the face of hard statistical evidence, on the books for decades, most everybody believes that more people kill themselves during the Christmas holidays than at any other time. The exact opposite is true. For one thing, studies show that suicide ratios take a dip over any and all of our public holidays. For another, they decline most in the month of December. But so pervasive is the myth that a number of years ago, as I remember it, NYC radio stations agreed collectively (for real) to ban Tom Waits' neat-but-down-beat "A Hobo's Christmas" from the airways, for fear of increased self-murder among the homeless. Moreover, completely counter-intuitive is this depressing fact: highest suicide rates are in the spring months. (For a hilarious Onion take on the whole bogus notion, click here.)

So why don't depressed people--especially those with congenital SAD--kill themselves more often during those dark and ever-shorter days between the often angst-ridden Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nobody knows for sure, but here's my theory. Whether happily or reluctantly, families and friends tend to gather together for these holidays, and thus provide a kind of ready-made support for the chronically/clinically depressed among them. But more than that: Who, no matter how down, would want to be mortally to blame for spoiling the festivities? "Mom, Uncle Harry just shot himself under the Christmas tree. Got blood all over the presents." Just doesn't happen. And I guess the statistics show it.

All of this does NOT mean, however, that there aren't about 20% of us Americans--millions of folk--walking the streets during that post-Daylight-Savings-Time period with the worst down-in-the-dumps feelings of the year. And medically/scientifically it has to do with the light-deprivation attendant upon the shorter and shorter days leading up to the Winter Solstice, coming around again, happily, this Monday. (There it is, above, incarnate in the sunset over Stonehenge. Compare the Summer Solstice sunrise scene in MM #5. They seem to be about the same. I wonder why, he mused.)

Now if you've really got SAD bad--about 6% of the U.S. population--you'll need anti-depressants at the very least, and bright-light therapy, in the very worst event. There was a TV news segment some years ago where a severely seasonally-disordered fellow had to sit in front of a light-box one or two hours every day during the winter months to ameliorate his condition. It did. (And I couldn't help be reminded of the Prologue to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which I often taught in rotation with others of the Freshman English novel du jour. There, the basement-bound narrator-protagonist floods himself regularly with thousands of 100-watt bulbs, with power stolen from Con-Ed, in a attempt to cure himself of his own kind of dark depression--a metaphor for a black man attempting to become visible in a white-dominated society.)

Then there are the other 14%-- the ones, like me, who have the milder Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (no kidding)--or, to acronymize: SSSAD ... like air escaping from a tire going flat. (more)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

#27 Obama and THE Shaggy Dog Story

This is Bo, First Dog, Obama-family-wise. Not as shaggy as his master's AfPac speech last week, but 'twill do for illustration. I'll get back to more substantive analysis back over at the war-torn Daily Mosteller shortly, but gimme a break. His speech reminded me so much of a Shaggy Dog Story that I thought I'd "muse" myself over here and give you the classic original--which happened to show up serendipitously last week in the 22nd annual installment (haven't missed one) of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader! Here's his version:

A wealthy man lost his beloved, valuable pet dog, an incredibly shaggy dog, maybe the shaggiest dog in the world. The man took out a newspaper advertisement that read, "Lost: World's Shaggiest Dog. Large Cash Reward." A young boy saw the ad and wanted the reward, so he decided he'd find the world's shaggiest dog and return it. The boy combed his town, and the next town over, and the one after that, looking for shaggy dogs. He found some in pet stores and dog pounds, and they were shaggy ... but not shaggy enough. [At this point, BlogManFans, you can take the boy around the world, piling on the detail and repetition.]
Finally, after the 30th dog pound he visited, the boy found an incredibly shaggy dog. The dog was so shaggy that he tripped over his own fur, because it covered both his paws and his eyes. when he barked, you couldn't even hear the sound because it got lost in the dog's layers of fur. [A good storyteller could add example after example on this theme.] It was the shaggiest dog the boy had ever seen in his life, and there was no way a dog could be any shaggier.
So, the boy bought the dog and carried him all the way to the home of the wealthy man who had placed the ad for the lost shaggy dog. He had to carry him because the dog was so shaggy he couldn't see to walk properly. Finally, the boy got to the rich man's home and rang the doorbell. the man answered the door, glanced at the dog, and then said to the boy, "Not that shaggy."
Embellishment is all. Always pushing, Andy-Kaufman-like, the patience of your audience, begging them to stick it out for the grand finale, and then pulling the rug with an anti-punchline. (Hollywood recently made a whole movie, "The Aristocrats," with guest comics doing their versions of the same dirty joke, following the shaggy-dog template. Some of my favorite funny-men, but unwatchable.) The important thing it that it all end in complete bathos--low-down, disappointing anti-climax. Not humor for all tastes. My favorite is the first ever told to me: what I'll call the High-Lama of Ultimate Wisdom story. Severely elided version:

Unhappy man seeks meaning of life ... travels world ... many wise-men ... loses wife, family, job ... travels more world ... many more wise-men ... loses youth, money, health ... finally last chance ... shreds and tatters ... climbs to Tibetan Monastery high in Himalayas... wisest man in the world ... hundreds of years old ... "Father, what is the meaning of Life?" ... "My son, Life is a fountain." ... "What?! Why you *&#%$#@&! I've come all this way etc. etc. etc. and that's all you've got to tell me? ... shaken, the High-Lama replies, "It's not?"
Obama's shaggy-dog speech? Lots of narrative detail, embellishment--but bathetic in the end. No punchline. What starts out as an argument for "the strategy that MY administration will pursue ... " turns out to be not his strategy after all. It's no more than a Bush/Cheney "surge"--pure and simple. And it's not funny.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

#26 Mona Lisa's Pupillae

I was able to view Da Vinci's (see last posts) most famous painting "up close and personal" at the Louvre in 1973 while we were on our "Paris break" from one of those British-Isles-oriented, college-courses that I led overseas. This was before the museum began installing an ever tighter series of security barriers, including now a kind of plexiglass bubble-box that I must assume would keep the spectator at some distance--and optically interrupted--from the live surface of the world's most notorious near-anonymous face. Pity. Because ... if I had to view the original work in that constricted way for the first time, as others must do today, I never would have figured out what was so special about it.

For in those more trusting times--when you could actually hug a stone at Stonehenge--if you were a devotee of the divine La Giaconda, you had simply to LEAN (albeit awkwardly) over the conventional velvet-rope-and-brass-standard "barrier" lining the the gallery at a distance of about three or four feet from the wall. That is, if you manage to wriggle through to the front of the crowd. Not a problem for an aggressive Ugly American.

When once you're close enough, then comes the surprise. It's not the smile. It's all in the EYES. Okay, it's the eyes in conjunction with the smile. But here's the enormous difference between viewing the painting in an art book or on the TV screen and viewing it in person: you get to see the dots of her eyes, so to speak. The PUPILS.

For one thing, the actual portrait is larger than you might imagine: somewhat over 2 ft. x 3 ft.--big enough to see all of Da Vinci's detail, if viewed from a reasonable, fairly close-up distance. Now in the small photo of the painting above--and however/wherever else you are most likely to see it--her eyes come off as sort of unfocused brown and white. (A blue-eyed Italian lady might have been a different story.) Our little black lens-apertures are missing from view. They're simply below your threshold of perception, under these second-hand circumstances.

Even so, there's no doubt she's looking at you; Leonardo positions the irises just right, binocular-wise. He didn't study Anatomy for nothing. But in person, it's the pupillae that will effectively bring about the irresistible BOND between her eyes and yours. They take the woman's gaze, locked with yours, to another level of intimacy altogether. That's the secret to her fame, I believe. For those who have seen the real-life "Mona Lisa" under the formerly ideal conditions, her "look" becomes more than a casual glance: rather, it's a penetrating, philosophical, kind of Sartrean le regard. As if she knows something about THE YOU standing there--the painter, the viewer, whoever catches her eternal eye--that might be better left unknown. And knowing that ... she smiles.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

#25 Da Vinci Vindicated

Thought I'd better bring out the original, after shamelessly exploiting his "Vitruvian Man" for rhetorical purposes over in the Daily Mosteller. And it gives me a chance to recount an encounter with Leonardo, some 35 years ago.

First of all, it's an evocative piece of work. No wonder the drawing has been redacted/exploited for all manner of logos by myriad health/fitness/science entities like Blue Cross and Sky Lab II--though usually stylized and decidedly non-gender-specific, unlike the original here. Setting aside the artist's always interesting homoerotic subtext in almost everything he did--q.v. especially the Da Vinci Code conundrum about the ambiguous male/female figure at "The Last Supper"--this piece is a fascinating blend of art and science, or at least pseudo-science. It's the thought that counts.

And no man ever thought so much about so many things as Leonardo, as we all know. In fact, it got in the way of his work, more often than not. No greater "Renaissance-Man"; no greater procrastinator. My hero. All told, his greatness rests on a very small number of actual accomplishments. This one, though, is particularly interesting because it's an overt attempt to resolve, through his art, that persistent conundrum of his age: New Science vs. New Humanism. He was trying to humanize science here, and vice-versa. We know from the drawing's footnotes that he was faithfully following "scientific" guidelines for perfect human proportions, laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius. (The artist had already been forced to study the "New Anatomy"--people were finally carving up people in the name of medical science--by his first teacher, and we can see it in those macabre "muscle-and-bone" sketches of his, which were nonetheless well ahead of their time for accuracy.)

All this went along with the optimistic Renaissance notion of the perfectibility of man. "Drawing" upon a countryman from the classical period, Da Vinci used the architect's questionable geometrics to construct a human figure of ideal proportions. He was serious:

For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height ... from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the the underside of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the underside of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. ["Mona Lisa?"] The length of the foot is one sixth the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that that the the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.
Leonardo even tried to crack that ancient chestnut, "squaring the circle," in his drawing above, and supplemented in the following:

Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses [think of the bygone, I assume, grammar-school chalkboard-compass--a giant one!] centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square.
Perfect nonsense, of course. But it seemed to make good art. How about the perfect face ... the perfect "enigmatic" smile? (more)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

#24 Celebrating Bjarni ... IV--The Place

This is Leif's settlement site on "The Cove of the Jellyfish" at the very northern tip of Newfoundland. It was named first by French fishermen as L'Anse aux Meduse (Medusa-like jellyfish presumably there abound), a toponym that the later colonizing Englishmen appropriated, but folk-etymologized to L'Anse Aux Meadows. This incredible archaeological discovery sits re-covered today, preserving (as usual in these cases) what already has been done, while awaiting further developments in archaeo-technology before going at it again. But go at it they did in the 60s and 7os after the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist/wife Anne (talk about Hollywood!) found the place. It was the capital city of Vinland.

Extensive excavation and precise carbon-dating proved it to be a little Norse village occupied for at least several years and dating from the year 1000. Everything fits. There can be little doubt that this was the New World home and commercial staging-area for Leif Eiriksson and his siblings, and other of his successors there. Eight buildings were uncovered, including the long-house and workshops for iron-working and carpentry, along with a few discarded tools and implements. There was an area for boat repair. Vinland, Inc. was evidently a going enterprise while it lasted. It was a real homestead, too--a broken spindle and an intact sewing-needle indicate definitively the presence of women. No surprises here. All of this is just what the sagas had been telling us all along.

And the Ingstads listened. Just like Sigurd Stefansson, Helga and Anne took the saga-writers at their word, and Sigurd's map, too. Really, it was all too easy. What's truly incredible is that it took 500 years to discover the site. All the clues were there. After Leif's first stop at rock-bound Baffin Island, he proceeded to Labrador, which may have been what Bjarni saw--"low-lying hills covered with forests"--ready for plunder but maybe too densely-covered for easy settlement. It was only spitting distance farther south to the tip of Newfoundland--unlike Bjarni, who turned back in mid-misadventure, Leif and his smallish armada were in full explorer-mode--and what did they find? An idyllic little cove filled with peaceful jellyfish, surrounded by semi-pastoral headlands abundant in grapevines. Where better to set up shop? The place would be convenient to the woodland treasures of "Markland"/Labrador just to the north, which in turn would be on the way back and still a very short distance to the "market-central" back in Greenland.

Even so, diminishing returns seemed to have set in. According to the sagas, in-fighting among the settlers, and especially out-fighting with the natives, doomed the the colony eventually to failure. In contrast to later colonization of, and migration to, the Americas, there just weren't enough white-folk. The displaced Greenlanders were, of course, vastly out-numbered--without much prospect of more on the way--by the indigenous Skraelingar. For long periods their relations were peaceful, however, even involving trade and barter between the parties. But in times of un-peace the battles were fierce. For example--and what follows from The Saga of Eirik the Red will have to be our lone excerpt from these remarkable works of historical fiction--here is Leif's pregnant sister, Freydis Eiriksdottir, on the sidelines of a pitched battle with the "skin-people," where they currently have the upper hand and her fellow Vinlanders are retreating--

Freydis came out and saw how they were retreating. She called out, "Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that you are, when, as seems likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon. I think I could fight better than any of you." They gave no heed to what she said. Freydis endeavored to accompany them, still she soon lagged behind, because she was with child; she went after them into the wood, and the Skraelingar directed their pursuit after her. She came upon a dead man, Thorbrand, Snorri's son, with a flat stone fixed in his head; his sword lay beside him, so she took it up and prepared to defend herself therewith.

Then came the Skraelingar upon her. She let down her sark and struck her breast with the naked sword. At this they were frightened, rushed off to their boats, and fled away. Karlsefni and the others came up to her and praised her zeal. (c. 1300)
What a woman. I'd run too. She may have given birth right then and there. I would have. But we DO know that out of all this struggle and strife came a wife who was able to deliver the very first European baby in the Western Hemisphere. Move over Virginia Dare. From the Groenlendinga Saga we learn that it was a boy, Snorri, born to that same Karlsefni above, and his wife Gudrid.

But after about ten years from Leif's momentous (except to the rest of the world) landfall at lovely Jellyfish Cove around the turn of the first millennium--everybody quit the joint ... never to return. And it only took another thousand years for all of this interesting footnote to history to fully come to light. Happy Columbus Day! (end)

Monday, November 2, 2009

#23 Celebrating Bjarni ... III--The Maps

Here's another map, limned by a young Icelandic teacher and hobbyist cartographer named Sigurd Stefansson around 1570 at the bishopric of Skalholt near modern-day Reykjavik (note ancient residue in last syllable). Sigurd's map gave a much more accurate picture of the northern latitudes of the New World, believe it or not, than the earlier Waldeseemuller world map, by now the standard, and the one that had forever immortalized Amerigo Vespucci at the expense of his fellow countryman, Columbus. For the scholarly Sigurd had done his homework well. He relied on the sagas.

His map had zero impact at the time, of course, but that little capital "A" down in the left hand corner would have enormous influence on the archaeological rediscovery of the true "discovery" of America ... some five hundred years later. Sigurd followed the sagas faithfully in piecing together the land-and-sea-scape provided in mainly two of somewhat lesser literary worth, but abounding in historical value: the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Groenlendinga Saga (not taught in my class, but pointedly and often alluded to).

Sigurd the Mapmaker read an incredible story ... one eminently suitable for Hollywood adaptation. But also true. Harrowing sea-voyages. Frontier Indian fighting. Near starvation. Birth of first child on North American soil. Sound familiar? Nope, its not Massachusetts or Virginia. All this happened more than a half-millennium earlier, on and around that magical year 1000, and on and around the places depicted on Sigurd's map.

Here's what the sagas told him: there was the Icelandic merchant Bjarni's first sighting--those "low-lying hills covered with forests"--when blown off-course on his way to the Norwegian outlaw Eirik the Red's Greenland colony. Eirik's opportunistic son, Leif, picked up the challenge 15 years later ("forests" meant timber, of which tree-depleted Greenland, despite its P.R. moniker, was in dire need) by setting sail in in the very same long-ship that Bjarni used, along with several others. (Note: I have seen these big, clinker-built, dragon-prowed, more-than-seaworthy knarrs "up close and personal." It was during my "quest for the Beowulf poem's Heorot" in 1973, when I visited Roskilde, Denmark, site of the Viking Ship Museum. See DM # 139.)

He took a safer route than that of Bjarni's wind-blown ride across open waters, however, and this was important for Sigurd's map. Leif took a "coastal" course, staying as close as he could to land masses that HAD to be there, if Bjarni was telling the truth. They were. In fact, it would have been a miracle if these itchy Viking sea-hounds had NOT discovered the northeast coastlines of North America. Just look at the map. Or check a modern one. These guys already had the nautical-tech to sail Columbus-like across vast ocean-distances if necessary, but they didn't have to. "Vinland" is right in Greenland's backyard ... literally: as mentioned earlier, they share the same continental plate.

Curiously though, Sigurd doesn't use Leif's "Vinland" to label his promontory in the lower left of his map (actually the island of Newfoundland--he also generously attached his own Greenland to "mainland" North America. Even in 1570, nobody had yet circumnavigated the forbidding extent of that massive, ice-bound island). His other designations are right from Leif's expedition: In late fall or early winter of 1000 A.D. they first make historic landfall--Leif would be the #1 European to do so, and he would hang on to that record for five centuries--on what he named Helleland (= "flat-rock-land," present day Baffin Island); next they arrive on the shores of heavily-forested Markland (= "wood-land," today's Labrador), farther south and much more promising for Leif, at least commercially, as reflected in the name he gave to it; and finally the voyagers land and set up camp on the inviting coast of Bjarni-country. On the "low-lying hills" he finds grape-vines. And upon them vinber = Old Norse for "wine-berries." (It was the Medieval Warming Period; the Little Ice Age was not to strike these latitudes for another 350 years) Here was the place to be. They all stayed the mild winter, and Leif named the place after the grapes.

But as you can see, Sigurd doesn't label this seeming New World Eden "Vinland"--as Leif would have it, according to the saga accounts. He names it after Leif's name for its aboriginals: the Skraelingar (O.N. "skin-people"-- for wearing/trading skins or being half-naked). My speculations are that perhaps the 16C Icelander was (unduly) skeptical about all that grape-business (the Little Ice Age had long since taken effect across the northern climes), or that he was trying to be cartographically accurate as to the true inhabitants of the place, since his Viking kinsmen had long ago abandoned it. For all he knew, the Skraelings might have had a thriving nation going in 1570; the English and French hadn't really gotten started yet.

Whatever the reason, Sigurd's map unwittingly verifies the root cause behind the FAILURE of the Norse colonization of America ... Americans. Native ones, that is. The Indians drove out the white-eyes for once. And only time. After ten years of struggle, Leif Eiriksson's original settlement--right near that little capital "A" on the map--was abandoned forever. Today it's the community of L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and they speak primarily English. A smattering of Eskimo, but nary a word of Icelandic. (more)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

#22 Celebrating Bjarni ... II--The Sagas

Now that my lazy "Columbus Day Fortnight" is over, and the days of November are already hard and dark upon us, alas ...

Until the 1960s we had only the word of the Norse sagas that any of this Viking exploration and colonization of America took place at all. Our school-kid fantasies of the swashbuckling Viking adventurers who got the jump on Columbus by 500 years had remained the stuff of myth and legend for as many more, for most everybody. Until: Mr. Leif Ericsson's summer home in the Canadian province of "Vinland" (okay: modern Newfoundland--more appropriately named, however, than its later namers could have known) was discovered. And archeologically verified.

More of that later. But lets talk about those Norse sagas for a minute, and about some interesting missed opportunities in the realms of history and literature. My background in Medieval Lit (and especially as Anglo-Saxonist and Beowulf scholar) put me in close touch with Old Norse/Icelandic works of poetry and prose. In fact, I taught an inter-term, special-topics course called "Northern Saga" (with a couple of Old Irish epics thrown in) at my college for several years. Fuggetabout your Quixote or Gulliver or Pamela as candidates for the first modern NOVEL in Western Literature--it was the Icelandic Brennu-Njalssaga, only one, the best, out of a half-dozen more that could be chosen. And written down some 300 years before! (Those ancient Scandians discovered more than just clinker-built long-ships and continents.) But they were entirely ignored and thus completely non-influential until relatively modern times.

First--and I promise not to "re-schedule" a college course here--the sagas were ignored as true belles lettres primarily because nobody read them. Outside of the shared-language audience of Iceland and Norway, that is. (And then by very few; after all, they were first in medieval manuscript, like the page fom Njalssaga above, before the age of print, which in itself helped spur the "modern" novel. The sagas were that much SO far ahead of their time.) Written down in the late-13th and early-14th centuries, they were simply NOT part of the Western Literary Tradition really until the Penguin people got to translating and distributing them in earnest some 50 years ago. Pity, for among the 30 or more sagas extant are three or four that could stand comparison with Hemingway.

The most gifted of the anonymous saga-writers didn't know they were writing novels, of course. They were writing history, preserving notable past events (theretofore passed on orally) by putting them into readable prose. Luckily for us, they took liberties--never with actual events, but with the character of the characters behind them. In short, they added psychology. The true measure of the true novel. There is for example no greater portrait of complex womanhood--the good and the bad--than Hallgerd in Njal, nor of flawed heroism than Gunnar in that same saga. Also, and I don't know quite how they managed it, the real historical events follow a coherent novelistic structure, right along with character exposition. The "story of the burning of Njal" is the epitome and triumph of these unsung novelists, but look for some great "modern romance" in the Laxdaela Saga, some rousing action-adventure in the full-length sagas of Egil and Grettir the Strong, and some tightly-knit short-stories (yes, they seem to have discovered the modern version of that, too) in such as the "Hraefnkels Saga" and several others. If you have the time.

Second--the sagas were ignored as true history until, again, virtually modern times. And again luckily for us, the events described are exactly right. For whatever fortuitous reason, the saga-writers chose events that occurred right around the end of the first millennium: from about 95o to 1050, a period involving political and religious turmoil in Norway, its subsequent colonization of Iceland and Greenland, and the first European settlement in America. Exciting times. What's interesting is that it took another 200 years or more for the Icelanders to write it all down. Even then, as history, not much attention was paid. Nobody in Britain or the Continent was reading Old Norse then, or even 200 more years later when Columbus et alia were contemplating a trip west across the Ocean Sea. The Great Northern Route to the New World never entered their minds. Of course the idea of a "New World" never entered the mind of Columbus even after he "discovered" it--even unto his death. Poor guy. That's why, ironically, the German cartographer Waldeseemuller gave first-name credit to travel-writer and quondam explorer Amerigo Vespucci on his influential 1507 Universalis Cosmographia. The map-maker's toponym stuck. As we all know.

The biggest irony, though, is that for five centuries before all of this, most everybody who could speak the North Germanic dialect of Indo-European already knew where the johnny-come-lately "Amerigoland" was, and who discovered it. (more)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

#21 Celebrating Bjarni Herjolfsson Day

Er ... Columbus Day. Or, rather, Native American Day (aka: Indigenous People's Day). Or Leif Ericsson Day. Or Vespucci Day. In fact, I was so inspired last Monday by all the various "discoverers" of America that I awarded them a whole week, and promptly took it off--a bit of a holiday from more pressing and lately depressing matters as Health Care Reform and Afghanistan. Not ready to go back there yet--as the President is still fiddling with the latter, and Congress is forever diddling with the former ... in the full carnal sense, it seems.

So ... what follows are some historical musings, of mainly the "What If?" counter-factual variety. Specifically--Why aren't we all Vikings? Us Americans, that is. It's a fluke of history we're not. Just as it's only slightly less a fluke that we're not all Hispanic, though rampant immigration/patriation seems to be making up for lost time and opportunities post-Columbus. The Spanish were perfectly poised to settle the whole of North America--in what could have been a grand pincer movement between Florida and California--from the early 1500's on, if they hadn't been so hungry for gold. Spain's was a conquest mentality in its approach to the New World, always. They weren't called Conquistadors for nothing. Their "take-the-money-and-run" strategy worked for them in MesoAmerica and to the South only because they got there first, and only because of the vast hemispheric distances that protected them from the settlement strategies of the English and French. To oversimplify a bit.

But what I've always found fascinating about all this--especially given my North-Germanic heritage--is what happened half-a-millennium earlier. When the Columbus Day break came around for us school-kids of the late 40s and 50s --Oct. 12th had to be a week-day or sometimes Sunday (then carried over to Monday), or you were out of luck back then--there was always a smart-ass like me who reminded everybody that the Spanish hireling from Genoa, Cristoforo Columbo, was a late-comer in the America-discovering business ... by 500 years. The first European to set foot on the Western Hemisphere was a Greenlander Viking appropriately named Leif (= "heir," cognate with our "leaving") by his father, the Icelander Eiric the Red--himself a notorious outlaw from Norway. Leif Ericsson actually discovered America, I would point out, and he gave it the much sexier name of "Vinland." Or so said revisionist historians and the Norse sagas I was reading. It often happened, of course, that an even smarter-assed kid would chime in with: "Well, it was really the Indians--they were here long before that." Argument over.

Technically, it wasn't Leif either, depicted above in Christian Krogh's famous painting. He got wind of (sorry) "new lands" west of Greenland some 15 years before his literally ground-breaking voyage dated about the year 1000. He got the news from a fellow named Bjarni Herjolfsson ("Bear War-wolf's-son"--love it), an Icelandic merchant-man. Seems Bjarni was blown off course on a late-summer trip from Iceland to Greenland on his way to visit his parents, who had settled there with Leif's father Eiric (who should be recognized as the first colonizer of the Americas, I think, because "Graenland"--his marketing name for the frost-bound island--lies within our continental plate). Anyway, when the storm abated, Bjarni and his crew found themselves within sight of "low-lying hills covered with forests" that had never been seen before. This was Vinland, as Leif, as much of a P.R. guy as his father, was to call it later. But Bjarni was overdue for his appointment with Mom and Dad in Greenland. So, despite his ferocious moniker and the pleas of his more adventurous crewmen, he refused to make landfall. Subsequently, even though these "new-found-lands" were evidently only a short hop away, it took another i5 years for Leif to get up his first expedition. But he did it in style. He even bought Bjarni's original Viking knarr to set sail in!

So, why isn't our country named Vinland? Or Bjarnica? And why is it that most Americans can't chat-up the Icelandic pop-star Bjork in her native language? It was all because of the Skraelingar. (more)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#20 Luck, Woody, Tennis, Gump IV

One last peeve. Love Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994). Truly the Feel-Good-Movie-with-Grit for the ages. Whenever it comes around on its two- or three-year cycle on cable, I can count on being thoroughly entertained again. Sort of like my thing with The Thing--the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell 1982 version (NOT the albeit great 1951 James Arness original that I originally saw only fitfully through the seat backs and in between frightened runs to the lobby long ago at either the aforementioned Avalon or Stoney in Chicago)--but for different reasons.

Well, one of the movie's life-analogies--the more famous one--is to a box of chocolates, as pictured in last post and containing half of the home-spun words of wisdom. Adumbrated by his mother, and repeated way too often in the course of the motion picture, here it is from Forrest:

My momma always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Gnash! The sound you hear is teeth a-grinding. It's hard NOT to get bruxistic about this line of dialog, because #1 it's taken up so often by otherwise smart, well-meaning people, who, perhaps brain-washed by that popular and well-meaning film, are half-consciously convinced that these ARE words of wisdom about our life on this planet. Heck, I've heard it used quite seriously by one of my former colleagues as the basis for a commencement speech! And #2: Woody Allen's bogus "net-court" tennis-analogy rises to sheer genius when compared to this pile-size dump of pop philosophy. Illogic squared.

To be fair, though, to the film-maker and to the novelist from whose work the movie is adapted, the line may have been meant to be stupid, as a handy bit of character-exposition. Gump IS so very stupid vis a vis the ways of the world, while being so very SMART in other very important ways. (In the novel, by the way, he's portrayed as something of an idiot-savant, adept in Physics and Math, which keeps his grades up for football.)

However, "Momma" is portrayed as being much more worldly-wise than her son. If her philosophy of Life and Luck, other than being in good fun, is to be taken seriously--and Forrest has more than his share of tragedy in an otherwise well-spent life--then it fails in the following respects, in ascending order of importance:

  • There's most often a "actual-size" map/key printed on the inside cover of the box indicating the varied make-up of each chocolate confection in their separate compartments. If you can read, then you'll "know what you're gonna get." Nary a soupcon of Luck involved.
  • Even if you can't read, or can't even see, there's a SKILL to be developed by the inveterate boxed-chocolate-sampler sampler. (The element of skill is also what hurts Woody Allen's net-court analogy.) Set by industry tradition, the contents of each chocolate-covered piece is identifiable by its generic shape, in conjunction with a distinctive "swirl" on top. Nothing random about it.
  • Assuming illiteracy or blindness or lack of bon-bon acuity, no matter what you randomly pick, you're still gonna get a CHOCOLATE something-or-other, for crying out loud, not a camouflaged pebble. "Momma wants you to try one one of these, Forrest, but watch out for the pebble look-a-likes" ... "But how am I supposed to know which-is-which, Momma?" ... "Just go ahead, son, I'm teaching you a lesson about Life." Much better analogy.
  • Make a totally gut-wrenching pick? You can simply spit it out. Life works just like that, does it not?
So enough with the box of chocolates already, which took on so much of a life of its own outside the movie. A more palatable analogy about Life in a world of Chance and Circumstance, and the role that Luck plays in it, is the White Feather that floats willy-nilly upon the scene from time to time. Forrest himself "unwittingly" defines the symbolism at the end of his truly eloquent speech to his now grave-bound Jenny:

I don't know if Momma was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny [not really supported by her chocolate-box nostrum, however], or if we're all floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you Jenny.

Better ... but the white feather is so gratuitous. So inorganic to plot and character. At least the Wood Man makes the symbolism of the hovering net-court tennis ball tie in naturally with his mis en scene. Now, if Gump's feather had floated into his ear and given him a nasty infection ...

Monday, September 28, 2009

#28 Luck, Allen, Tennis, Gump III

So ... even before the story proper begins, Match Point has us in suspense already by literally suspending us in mid-air along with the tennis ball about two feet above the net, ready to fall on either side, and so determine who wins and who loses in the course of the film to follow. Spoiler: the image never returns; the ball never drops. But something else does, analogously, later on.

Woody Allen's title takes literal meaning, of course, from the sport of tennis--the last point of the match that decides winner and loser, as we've seen in real-life examples. The main character, Chris Wilton, is a fictional real-life tennis-pro, retiring still-young from the tournament circuit, but--and this is important--already "winning" a job as an instructor at an exclusive club in the very first scenes of the film after the prologue. The title thus immediately and easily suggests figurative associations. From the other side of the tracks--working-class Ireland--pretty-boy Chris is a player in every sense. His only "skill" seems to be his intelligent, effortless charm, but that's enough to score winning points against the influential people in Society and Business who somehow come his way, and to make the right kind of "matches" that will get him ahead of the game ... except for one. Take a guess.

But let's take it ad nauseum. Sorry, bored, non-tennis-buffs. Got to do it. We never see Chris in competitive play (Allen has him standing at the net punching a few balls back to to wealthy clients just after he gets the job in order to credentialize his on-screen persona)--but we can imagine him NOT as a primarily offensive player like Federer, and especially Nadal, who power the ball at every stroke (as does most every other top-ten player these days). We perhaps are invited to see tennis-pro Chris as most like Andy Murray--another upstart out-lander, by the way; this time a proud Scot, which always seemed to cause media-trouble for him at Wimbledon--who is primarily a defensive shot-maker, relying more on placement than power, and waiting for the opportunity presented by his opponent to give him a ball that he can clearly hit for a winner. Not enough to win at the U.S. Open this year, but enough to be 3rd-ranked in the world.

Chris is at the top of his game as the movie opens. A mere twenty-minutes later, his charming, "passive-aggressive" style of play has already taken him to the top of London's upper-class society. His tennis-instructor connections have quickly led to the Irishman's plight-trothing with the daughter of an outrageously rich Brit, who has in turn hired him into a plush executive position in the family business. The audience must always keep in mind, however, that opening freeze-frame. The ball has not yet dropped over the net, one way or the other. (Bad analogy for Luck v. Life, but a great image.) You might say Luck brought Chris a future brother-in-law with a love-starved sister, but he had known just where to position himself, and had the skills to take advantage of the opportunity. Unluckily though, it would seem, the well-meaning brother brings with him a spoiler: his fiancee' Nola, the Scarlet Woman. (How well is the actress Ms. Johansson named, considering her role in the film?!) Do they fall in lust? Is a tennis ball fuzzy in the woods?

Yes, and the plot complications begin. I'll save us some time here and refer the Myriad Readers to Theodor Dreiser's classic novel, An American Tragedy, redacted in the equally great film, A Place in the Sun (1951), where Montgomery Clift plays the social-climber and Shelly Winters the femme fatale who would sabotage it all. The plots are well-nigh EXACTLY the same--I think Woody acknowledged his homage someplace or other. And the director borrows heavily, too, from his earlier award-winning and box-office-popular Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). In Match, the quadrangle soon becomes a triangle after Chris marries the daughter, the brother dumps Nola, who now can become the legitimate mistress, if she will. There are many lucky and unlucky twists that inhabit the line of action here, but the entertaining though never-funny comedy of manners inevitably devolves into the film noir we knew it would become. Bad luck: girl gets possessive and pregnant; threatens everything; must be killed. Boy kills girl. Good luck: boy gets away with it. Or so it seems as the credits roll. But the ball hasn't yet dropped.

At the end of Place, Mongomery Clift is punished for his crime. At the end of Crimes, the Martin Landau character, who does the deed through his ne'er-do-well brother and a hit-man, is not, at least not by the justice system. Both characters suffer their guilt, and in the former that guilt is expiated and mooted deus ex machina by the death penalty. Not so easy in Crimes. In the final moments of that film Landau confesses to the Woody Allen character, in a "hypothetical" conversation, that the "murderer" went through long periods of gut-wrenching guilt and remorse (he did), but one morning, surrounded by his happy family and accumulated wealth, it seemed that those demons had vanished. The character played by Woody remains dubious: "I just don't see how anybody could survive the terrible guilt of such a thing." Nonetheless, Landau rejoins and hugs his wife, and they return to the evening's wedding festivities. The credits roll.

Now here's the trick Allen plays on us in Match Point. Two or three tricks, really. First, it looks that after all Chris will not get away with his "perfect" crime, and will be caught by the authorities. Several events pop-up that would impede it, but he "lucks-out" on every one, and the murder has apparently succeeded in wonderfully noir-ish fashion. But then, after cleaning up the crime-scene, he throws potentially incriminating evidence into the Thames. All of the items make it over the guard-rail and into the river but one: a ring. It bounces off the top of the railing, hovers in mid-air for a slo-mo moment, and lands back on the embankment, after Chris had already turned and run off. Of course it sounds familiar, and visually it couldn't be a more perfect counterpoint to the first scene of the movie. True genius here. Bad luck has finally caught up with Chris Wilton. But nooooo--the homicide cops do investigate him, yes, for unluckily Nola has left behind a diary that her murderer overlooked ... and they find the ring. However, they find it in possession of a vagrant-burglar-drug-addict who had picked it up along the Thames, and who happens to answer beautifully to the bogus scenario that Chris tried to stage! Investigation over.

The ultimate twist, though, is more subtle ... and by allusion. Our protagonist is seen early on reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The novel most probably influenced Allen's earlier movie of almost the same name--Woody was a great fan of the Russian classics (cf. his Love and Death and Tolstoy)--but there's no doubt he wants us to apply it directly to what's going on in Match Point. To follow up on the book's appearance, he has the future father-in-law recommend the mentality of his daughter's suitor to his wife in the following terms: "Oh, yes, he's quite the educated young man; we had a nice chat about Dostoevsky the other day." As we know, after his murderous crimes, the novel's protagonist, Raskolnikov, is so violently guilt-wracked, that he has no choice but to give himself up in the end. Landau in Crimes, the same, as he confesses to the Allen character, though he stops short at turning himself in, and seems to get over it. But Woody plays Dostoevsky in that movie--"nobody survives the guilt"--and Dostoevsky plays Dostoevsky in Match Point.

Will Landau's character or Chris Wilton ultimately survive the guilt? Or is Woody Allen's vision totally bleak and morally nihilistic? Well, we see Chris in shuddering paroxysms of guilt before the fact, and of remorse, after. Apparitions of the slain women (he must kill two to stage the crime properly--thus three people counting the unborn) come to visit his fevered consciousness, even before he's questioned about the crime. The answer to my question earlier is NO. While we can't expect a simplistic, "Tell-Tale Heart" sort of resolution to the moral problems presented, I think Woody Allen is telling us pretty clearly that the guilty parties in both movies are deluding themselves. The guilt will catch up with them sooner or later, if not the authorities. In other words, the writer-director has given us implicit permission to condemn these characters to eternal psychological torture, punished for the rest of their fictional lives by the worst kind of Raskolnikovian misery. (more)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

#27 Luck, Woody, Tennis, Gump II

Continuing from last post, the analogy of the "net-court" point with LUCK as a controlling factor in LIFE is a bad one, at least as formulated by Chris Wilton in the visual/voice-over prologue to Woody Allen's Match Point. His tennis-pro character should have known better, even if his creator did not. He's got the "luck" on the wrong side of the net.

But let's go back to Roger Federer for a minute to explain some of this from a real-life perspective. It so happens that he made a now-famous "lucky" shot--you may have seen a replay--penultimate to the for-real "match point" over Novak Djokovich in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. It was a backwards between-the-legs shot, one that has now become classic since show-boaters like Nastase and Noah made it a crowd-pleaser a few decades ago. It's a desperation shot, but really the defender's only chance when caught too close to the net and the opponent's return is a low-trajectory lob. The ball is out-of-reach for an overhead smash, but chase-down-able. When the player catches up to the ball, there isn't enough time or space left to run around it and hit a face-forward, normal return (as in Roger's photo last post). So, while sprinting frantically away from the net toward the baseline, he must time his stroke for just when the ball, having already sailed over his head, is about to take its losing second-bounce. Down goes the racket between the legs, and ... thwack. Most of the time it's a futile effort--the ball dribbles away, or founders into the net--but the crowd applauds the lost-cause dedication all the more. Sometimes--more often than one would think--the acrobatically tortuous return makes it back over the net ... only to be put away by a smiling opponent now in near-impregnable net-play position. Even more applause. Quite often, though, the opponent will "net" the easy one, out of sheer shock that the ball came back at all. Most applause ever.

Not any of the above for Roger Federer. He hit a CLEAN WINNER! Utilizing his incredible speed and impeccable footwork, the world's #1 ranked player chased the ball down, hit it from between his legs at just the right moment, and at just the right angle, to send it cross-court past the astonished stare of Djokovich waiting at the net. That made it advantage and break-point for Roger in what was to become the deciding game. His opponent, doubtless shell-shocked from the previous point, blew his serve ... point and match! After the match, Federer was asked semi-facetiously by the always-sharp Mary Carillo about his miraculous shot-making:

--Is that a shot you guys practice a lot?
--More so than you might think, or that we should, really.

Aye ... there's the point, really. The over-and-under-and-between-the-legs thing is not a matter of luck at all--at least not if the opponent hits his lob to a place on the court that a skillful player can get to. Just how MUCH skill will determine the outcome. And Roger Federer's got it in spades.

Now let's go back to the bogus "net-court" analogy at the beginning of Woody Allen's fictional Match Point. (A peeve, I'll admit, but bear with me; it's a fine movie notwithstanding.) Recall that the tennis ball is freeze-framed above the net, equipoised between going forward or falling back. Totally in the hands of fate, it would seem. In tournament play, if the ball makes it over and drops unreachable on the other side, it's considered good tennis manners to give your opponent a sheepish little salute acknowledging your "lucky" shot. You're a spoil-sport if you don't. But it's simply a ploy to mollify the groaning fans. Behind that humble gesture is the knowledge--for any and every player--that the point was deserved. The "luck" involved is on the other side of the net: bad luck. The winner of the point has hit the ball skillfully enough that what might have otherwise flown cleanly over the net has hit near enough to the top to allow the ball to go over. Simple physics. In other words, the ball would have to be pretty-well-aimed in the first place. Less skill = lower on the tape. Point lost.

Okay ... so Woody chose an inept analogy--this doesn't mean there's not a lot of luck involved in the opportunities he presents his protagonist with in the course the movie. Cast willy-nilly amongst the high-tone, tennis-and-horsey-set of English society, our hero must nonetheless employ a panoply of natural and social skills to take advantage of these opportunities. One of them is played by Scarlet Johansson. No, that's not her in Vermeer's most famous painting, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," but it might as well have been. Little wonder that Peter Webber chose the actress for his eminently watchable movie with the same title (2004)--the resemblance is so remarkable. (more)

Friday, September 25, 2009

#26 Luck, Woody Allen, Tennis, and Gump's Sampler

Speaking of the Wood Man (last MM), I finally got around to Netflixing Allen's Match Point (2005), right after the U.S. Open just few weeks ago. Though the fellow at right lost his match-point to Agentinian Juan Del Potro in an incandesent five-set final, Roger Federer--still the greatest player of all time after winning his Career Grand Slam at the French and surpassing Pete Sampras in total wins (16) at Wimbledon--now holds the record for the "luckiest" shot in Grand Slam history. Or was it skill?

Woody Allen's Match Point made some history, too. It was the first film that earned money-over-cost for him in the U.S. since the estimable Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)--a cool twenty-one films previous. Ironically--since it's his first one shot entirely outside this country. This film is uncharacteristically but beautifully set in quaint upper-class London and the luxuriant English countryside. All of his previous three-dozen or so had barely made it out of mid-town Manhattan. So this unusual departure from a typical "Woody Allen" had modest "good luck" at the box-office (the eccentric auteur has never come close to a blockbuster). Could it also have been because of his canny "skill" in choosing the only American in the cast: the "luxuriant" Scarlett Johansson, cine-genic sex-goddess for our times? For many in the audience, she would be worth the price of admission, me included.Then again, it could be because Match is NOT a dead-giveaway as belonging to the Allen oeuvre--he's not in it, for one thing, and it's not in the least bit funny. Altogether a very strange and surprising film for him to make. And I've seen most every one.

More of that later, but first: LUCK. No subtlety at all about it, the movie harps on the theme from first line to last, from one scene to the next. Like Bunuel's in Phantom of Liberty--if you've been keeping up--the world of Match Point seems to be ruled by Chance and Circumstance, and for the characters in this film the only winning skill we can bring to the "game" is keen opportunism. (Difference: nobody ever really "wins," or has to, in Bunuel's surreal vision.) Allen broaches the theme in the very opening frames through a voice-over by the wily male-lead, "Chris Wilton"--I can't help but hear a little "Wimbledon" in his last name--a tennis-pro, as we are soon to find out. We're focused on a tennis-court net, like the one above, over which several balls pass back-and-forth during an obvious rally, until one return strikes the "tape," bounces straight up a couple of feet, and freezes in mid-air. Meanwhile, we have been listening to the following:

The man who said, "I'd rather be lucky than good," saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can go forward, or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose. [The ball remains frozen to fade-out, and the movie-proper begins.]

The very last lines of the film are a restatement of the opening, thus framing the whole story-arc: at a festive gathering of the principals, the brother-in-law "corrects" an earlier toast to Chris's new-born son by saying, "No, no--not to be great; I would just wish him to be LUCKY!" (more)

Friday, September 18, 2009

#25 Two Books by Steven Berlin Johnson

Saw this pop-science/pop-culture author last March on "The Colbert Report," promoting his latest book, The Invention of Air (2008), ambitiously subtitled, "A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America." It's really all about Joseph Priestley, who has been a hero of mine for a number of reasons, and for a goodly number of years. Long library waiting-list. Just got it a couple of weeks ago, and a review is to follow in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile, I got hold of his earlier book, Everything Bad Is Good For You (2005), subtitled, almost as ambitiously, "How Today's Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter." Johnson's study of what I'll over-simply call "techno-culture" and it's effect on our collective gray-matter IS good for you, and will make you smarter and--this is most important--less guilty about the time you and/or your kids spend on playing video-games or watching television.

Johnson's got some science to back that up, but first, he got me hooked early on when he explains his central thesis by coining a metaphor from a Woody Allen movie!--

... popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years. Where most commentators assume a race to the bottom and a dumbing down--"an increasingly infantilized society," in George Will's words-- I see a progressive story: mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year ... making our minds sharper, as we soak-in entertainment usually dismissed as so much lowbrow fluff. I call this upward trend the Sleeper Curve, after the classic sequence from Woody Allen's mock sci-fi film, where a team of scientists from 2173 are astounded that twentieth-century society failed to grasp the nutritional benefits of cream pies and hot fudge.

That's the author's only reference to the movie--he assumes probably correctly that most of his readership would've seen it, or at least heard about that "classic sequence." However, it's just too good not to share more fully with the Myriad Readers. Sleeper (1973) is perhaps my favorite from Allen's early, "mainly-funny-with-some-social-satire" period. Here one of Woody's trademark "schlemiel" characters, Miles Monroe, is brought back from an accidental cryonic state 2oo years into the future. His former diet was a regimen of all the hippie food-fads of the day; in fact, to hammer the point home unmercifully, Allen has him working at a health-food store! After thawing him out, two scientist-doctors discuss the morning after, all the while puffing on their cigarettes:

--For breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk."
--Oh yes [chuckling]. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
--You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or ... hot fudge?
--Those were thought to be unhealthy ... precisely the opposite of what we know to be true.

Or later when, after they advise him to be sure to inhale deeply on a proffered cigarette, Miles confronts them with his confusion:

--Where am I anyhow? I mean, What happened to everybody? Where are all my friends?
--You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly 200 years.
--But they all ate organic rice!

This is the author's Sleeper Curve. Video-games bad? Nope. Turns out they're good for you after all. They are only one aspect of an intellectually rich, high-tech landscape through which a modern 10-year-old navigates: "shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching." That last was written before likes of Twitter and FaceBook (etc.) came into prominence, which can only further his point. Compare all of this to the rather simple-minded recreational toys and games of the past, and again you get his point. New stuff make brain good.

Public classrooms may be overcrowded and teachers underpaid--traditional test scores continue to go down--but outside of school kids' brains are developing sophisticated problem-solving skills. And IQ scores continue to go up. That's right: over the past 50 years Americans have improved by about 15 points, half of that in the last couple of decades. Johnson believes the paradox is solved when we look at what IQ tests test: problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial logic--a sufficiency of all of which is to be found in modern media technology. Q.E.D.

Even prime-time television has become more intellectually rigorous over the last couple of decades, Johnson believes. And I like his take on it. Ever since Hill Street Blues, he says (to paraphrase), a story-arc with multiple plot-threads has been de rigueur for the most successful sitcoms--popularly and critically--from Simpsons to Seinfeld to my current favorite, Scrubs. (Though I might contend that it really got started with shows like All In the Family and Mary Tyler Moore.) No longer "present tense" from one episode to the next, where the bare-bones "situation" was enough for the viewer to "get" the joke--Three's Company, Home Improvement--the newer shows require external references, an accumulated context that the audience must draw upon in order to be in the know. (That's why they're so popular in reruns: the viewers already have their ready-made "insider's playbook") Johnson points out Sam's past drinking-problem in Cheers, for example, or George Costanza's made-up character/entity "Art Vandelay," who appears in several episodes of Seinfeld. And I'll add the notorious "Master of My Domain" episode which keeps coming back in the form of "self-denial" in-jokes throughout the rest of the series.

Finally, and incidentally, my kids came up and along a bit before the monster techno-media revolution--somewhat ahead of the Sleeper Curve--but the author cites various fantasy and role-playing games as possible precursors to that revolution. One of those he mentions is Dungeons and Dragons, to which my first three sons were devoted player-aficionados. As far as I know, they never gave it up. I guess that's why they're so very, very smart. Or not.