Now Playing: Deerhunter--"VHS Dream"
The garden is planted, "garden" maybe a rather pompous term for a planter box with one sorrel plant and four peppers (two Anaheim, two habanero). Nevertheless, garden it is. The planter box I'm using is called an "Earthbox" and works on the water table system; a plastic box gets filled with potting mix, but with a screen at the bottom to create a water reservoir, fed through a pipe in the corner. The top gets covered with a plastic cover that operates as mulch, with holes cut for the plants. I started almost a week ago, and it seems to be doing pretty well. I had a brief scare towards the end of the first day, when the sorrel had deflated like a popped balloon, but it seems that it was only getting used to the new conditions, for the next day it perked back up admirably. The mulch is getting a little frayed and torn; I'm not sure if that's due to the natural effect of the elements (it rained a lot early last weekend) or the nocturnal visits of raccoons. The plants show a bit of insect damage and blight on a couple of leaves, but overall appear to be right on course. The box is on casters, so I can roll it back and forth, and I'd planned to move it all around the house as the most consistent sunlight is in the northeast (the driveway) and the southwest (where it's broken up by pretty thick tree cover). Fortunately, I found a sweet spot just east of the driveway where there's pretty decent light for most of the day; I expect any movement will just be for the sake of the grass underneath.
I finally caved and bought a camera, too, which still feels a little weird, as I haven't owned one since I was about fifteen. Once people stopped making film for the Kodak Instamatic, there didn't seem much point. Even during the past decade or so, when everyone's public personae depended more and more on the constant snapping of photos, there didn't seem much urgency (I didn't have a car, the internet or--by and large--TV either, so one more nonconformity, however partially voluntary, didn't make much difference, I thought). I did get a really cheap one at an office supply store which turned out to be a damp squib; I took a few crappy pictures with it and then the sheer uselessness of the thing hit me. It correspondingly took a while for me to get used to the notion again. The idea for this one occurred when I realized I was going to be spending a lot more purposeful time outside this spring and summer--riding the bike outside the city, gardening at home or at work, and other possible projects I'm considering. It'd be nice to have a pictorial record of that and be able to share it with others, especially friends of mine elsewhere in the States or abroad, as, infuriating as Ann Arbor can frequently become, it's a pretty good-looking town (downtown, anyway) and the natural areas can be quite breathtaking. I ended up getting a Canon PowerShot SX120, and it's worked magnificently so far. My standard ride down Bandemer and Argo Parks before work has now been exhaustively documented, and I was able to break it out, too, for my friend Sara's birthday, where we again congregated at a local area to pull invasive weeds, mainly dame's rocket and garlic mustard.* It takes really good shots, and I'm starting to be able to handle the "manual" setting--where you can specifically control things like exposure and focus and such--rather well. The pictures have so far been too big to comfortably fit on the blog (too many pixels and such), but I may be able to fix that soon. In the meantime, no event or occurrence, however small, will go unphotographed (said the man who spent a good five minutes trying to line up a shot of turtles mating at Gallup Park**).
The Rules of the Game (1939): Jean Renoir was probably the most famous and prestigious French film director of the early sound era, and for me he came highly recommended through the classic Grand Illusion (1937), the renowned World War I prisoner-of-war drama, and his superb La Marseillaise (1938), a rousing Popular Front-era celebration of the ideals and events of the French Revolution (and a snarky corrective to more negative portrayals of the period by Hollywood films of the decade such as 1935's The Scarlet Pimpernel). The Rules of the Game (or Le Regle de Jeu) is somewhat in the same vein, and is one of those movies that critics often praise as one of the greatest of all time. I quite enjoyed it myself. It's essentially an extended bedroom farce set in contemporary France with a light examination of the class differences between workers, the bourgeoisie, and the still surviving aristocracy (intriguingly depicted in this specific instance as being Jewish--a telling nod to the relative diversity of French society even in that era and in hindsight a grim foreshadowing of the next six years). Transatlantic aviator Jurieu (Roland Toutain) flies into Paris to find his lover Christine (Nora Gregor) absent, and bitches her out on national radio. Christine's husband, the aristocratic La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), encourages her to invite the pilot out to their country house for the weekend. A riotous series of events quickly ensues, as the pilot and lover make up and fall out and La Chesnaye's own lover starts to undergo what looks like a nervous breakdown. As if that weren't enough, the local poacher (Julien Carette) has been hired on La Chesnaye's whim, much to the chagrin of his arch-enemy, La Chesnaye's gamekeeper (Gaston Modot, whose wife, played by Paulette Dubost, the poacher instantly tries to seduce). Indulgently enjoying the whole mess is Octave, friend to all, whose portrayal by Renoir himself places the director squarely in the center of things and probably gave the architects of the auteur theory plenty of meat twenty years later. It all ends in a somewhat understated tragedy, as life carries on as it did before (the last shot is of the haute monde going back inside the house), but with the prospect of future trouble ominously present (the servants make catty remarks about La Chesnaye's Jewish ancestry, and his wife is herself a refugee from Nazi Austria). I can see why it's such a cinematic icon--Renoir somehow manages to ably satirize all classes and people without losing sight of a common vision of humanity and cooperation. The film was banned in France for being "defeatist," and wasn't released again until the late 1950s, by which time Renoir had become widely respected as one of the great titans of French cinema. The Criterion DVD comes with a feisty intro from Renoir himself done about the time of the film's rerelease--well worth watching.
Avanti! (1972): One of Billy Wilder's last great comedies is an entertaining yet tonally weird romp through southern Italy (murder is involved at one point) in the company of a free-spirited young British woman and a middle-aged American businessman who have come to bury their respective parents, the latter having perished, to the businessman's surprise, in a car crash and in each other's arms. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon), has only a few days before his father's funeral is scheduled to take place in Baltimore and is shocked not only at the thicket of red tape that suddenly obstruct his path but also at the fresh revelations concerning his father's life, particularly a decade-long liaison with "Kate." Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), Kate's daughter, finds it all rather less surprising, and positively blossoms under the cumulative effect of Italy (much unlike Wendell). The two soon lock horns regarding the ultimate destinations of their parents' remains and things get tricky when, not only do the bodies mysteriously vanish, but Wendell and Pamela start to fall in love. The wily hotel manger Sr. Carlucci (Clive Revill) is thankfully on hand to speed things up--or slow them down, as need be. Avanti! is a fun film, but it doesn't cruise along quite as nimbly as Wilder's inimitable classics. The script, from a stage play by Samuel A. Taylor (and helped along by the legendary Richard Rodgers), is often extremely funny but frequently laden with one too many "rimshot" moments and the many topical references, though cutting-edge and current for the time, help to date the film a little more obviously than many others of its ilk. There's a fair amount of nudity, which is, of course, rarely a bad thing (even Lemmon bares all, though no full-frontal), but seems, in the context of a classic Golden Age director like Wilder making a film in the more ostensibly permissive early 1970s, like college-age playwrights filling their script with variations on "fuck" because they aren't in high school anymore (the University of Michigan's Basement Arts is a prime example, or at least it was when I had the misfortune to see one of their shows a few years back; Arthur Miller went to Michigan, you know). It may be an unjust criticism on my part, but I couldn't help feeling that the man who gave us Double Indemnity could have been a little more artful.*** The film's attitude to relationships seems a little off; Wendell would obviously benefit tremendously from a relationship with Pamela, but it seems a little hard on his wife Emily, only experienced as an unheard voice on the telephone. The sexual politics on offer appear to be those of the Rotary Club weekend (I'd say something about Mad Men, but I've never seen it). Considering the people involved, it's almost as if C.C. Baxter married Fran Kubelik after the end of The Apartment, won big on the company ladder, and then decided to start cheating on her. It may just be my relative hindsight, but I think Wilder's a little too accommodating of our hero in the matter. Fortunately, the whole thing is brilliantly sold by the cast, especially the leads. Lemmon does his usual sterling job, falling ever so slightly under Pamela's and Italy's spell yet retaining his smartass sense of self. As for Mills, I don't remember her having any other major film lead roles (she'd just come off the cult American TV show Nanny and the Professor and would later win notoriety as witch Tabitha, in the gloriously batshit NBC soap of the aughties, Passions), and she's divine in Avanti! The script saddles her with a weird hangup on her being "fat" (she apparently put on twenty-five pounds to play the role), another unwelcome indication (as in other films like I Am Curious: Yellow) of the long pedigree of the current obsession with thinness. Mills not only manages to transcend the potential degradation of such a fixation but also deftly sidesteps sliding into the dreaded "manic pixie dream-girl" mode thirty years before Natalie Portman failed to do so (if she even tried) in Garden State. Revill (who would deliver a memorable turn the following year as a snarly parapsych debunker in the Brit horror classic The Legend of Hell House) is great as the film's comic enabler and a host of little-seen (by me, anyway) Italian actors round out the local cast. While a little off in places, Avanti! is well worth a look, as a generally fun film and an interesting juncture between the cinematic worlds of Golden Age Hollywood and some of the romantic comedies--better romantic comedies, anyway--of the next four decades. Nice, too, to see a film about people discovering themselves in Italy that doesn't involve Tuscany at all.
Eliana, Eliana (2002): "Now on DVD, the film that revolutionized the Indonesian film industry!" Says the back cover, at any rate. I wish I'd known there was one readily available when this rather compelling little flick came out, the same year I was teaching classes on the history and culture of Southeast Asia at the University of Akron. The best remotely indigenous title I could rustle up to show students was John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), a turgid piece of work involving Hong Kong Chinese caught up in the Vietnam War. We ended up watching The Killing Fields, which is a fantastic film (even if Julian Sands shows up for a bit), but I would have liked something that actually came from Southeast Asia.**** If only I had access to Eliana, Eliana then... Written (with Prima Rusdi) and directed by Riri Riza, Eliana, Eliana tells a rather universal story within the framework of the Jakarta slums, where Eliana (Rachel Maryam Sayidina) lives with her roommate Heni (Hemidar Amru), after having fled to Java from her Padang home when confronted with the possibility of an arranged marriage by her mother (referred to as "Bunda," which I understand is a common maternal term, and played by Jajang C. Noer). Eliana ekes out a life of crappy jobs and returns one day to find her roommate nowhere to be found on rent day and her mother basically waiting on her doorstep. Eliana spends the rest of the film in the supremely unenviable position of wandering around Jakarta--the biggest city in Southeast Asia--looking for Heni and some rent money while being nagged by Bunda all along. There's some respite in aid and moral support from friendly taxi driver Jamu (Arswendi Nasution), and it becomes clear as mother and daughter navigate the treacherous, sexual harassment-clogged streets of Jakarta that they may have more in common than they realize. Eliana, Eliana is maybe most striking, at least to me, for being filmed on live-action video, and it seems to make a difference as far as the somewhat overheated performances are concerned. Where if they were on film I might take them a little less seriously, the acting, and its air of slightly heightened reality, seems much more appropriate and powerful in this filming medium, and maintained my interest throughout (as did the relatively--visually, anyway--unfamiliar locations). It's almost like a soap opera with important things genuinely at stake. The highlight of the movie is probably Jajang Noer, whose west Sumatran matron, confronted with the uncertainties of the big city, responds with a pluck that might seem cloyingly and smotheringly manipulative of the audience were it not for her obvious and unjust dismissal of her daughter's abilities. The comments on IMDB are usually only slightly more useful than those on YouTube (that is to say, not at all), but the notes on Eliana, Eliana point towards an Indonesian film industry (heavily Javanese, I'd suspect) whose surface may have yet to be really scratched by American film distributors. This is an area I'll definitely have to revisit, if only to find more unlikely gems like Eliana, Eliana.
*Unfortunately, we hit the garlic mustard this year after it had gone to seed, and it tastes quite bitter as a result. I found out, though, that it works rather well if you pair it with a strong dressing or other accompaniment in a salad, in order to cancel or alleviate some of the bitterness. It also seems to do okay used in lieu of parsley in meatballs, which I made for the subsequent picnic.
**That's what I was told, anyway, by the couple next to me when I was trying to take the picture. They had been to the Galapagos and seen sea turtles getting jiggy in that fashion (I didn't know if they meant regular turtles or the specifically awe-inspiring variety for which the Islas Encantadas are world-renowned). There were so many, though, and the one definite shot I caught showed a flash of what looked like pink flesh, that it may simply have been a mass of overactive fish--which bodes well for one of the other projects I'm considering.
***Wilder fled to the States after the Nazis took over Austria in 1938; I'm not terribly familiar with his early career in Austria and Hungary, but he may well have been involved with more risque material than was acceptable in Golden Age Hollywood.
****There was a longstanding and mystifying attachment (on the literary as opposed to cinematic front) to the novel The Ugly American, by Lederer and Burdick, on the part of the World Civilizations Program's Southeast Asia subsection, which was basically a clunky fictional blueprint for the Kennedy Administration's policy towards Vietnam, as well as an endorsement for some of the more perniciously imperialistic tendencies of the Peace Corps. I thought of offering Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind, but went instead for his shorter but less accessible The Fugitive, about a returning anti-Japanese partisan after the Second World War. I sometimes wonder what they're doing now, or if the World Civilizations program is even still around.