Monday, December 28, 2009

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)

Talk about having a good nose for films to rent, Mid-August Lunch is one of the most inspiring short films I've seen in recent years, and it was in the stack that Frau Bloggerboy brought home.  It was released in Germany in April.  Gianni Di Gregorio wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and played the male lead.  He used his mother's or aunt's apartment as the setting of the film.  Mid-August Lunch is a testimony to the fact that really good films can be made by unknown artists on shoestring budgets.  The film is a jewel.  Rather than get too far into the plot and film details, I'd recommend getting hold of the DVD and experiencing it first hand.  The basic story is that an ageing Italian bachelor who lives with his mother in Rome ends up taking care of three other elderly women in his apartment during August.  I kept waiting for this film to fall into the trap that any self-respecting Hollywood director would have fallen into willingly to get laughs.  Slapstick, heated outbursts, you name it.  Instead, I was blessed with a sunny, gentle, unpredictable, quintessentially Italian film that left me with a big grin on my face.  The DVD extras also were wonderful, showing interviews of the elderly ladies in their apartments in Rome.  One of the scenes in Mid-August Lunch is a clear tribute to Nanni Moretti's film Dear Diary, with the camera following the main character as he rides on a Vespa through a half-deserted Rome in summer.

Edit:  The film was di Gregorio's directing debut at roughly 60.  He wrote the screenplay for Gomorra (2008).  The film got me started on a plan to view numerous Italian neo-realist films, and I immediately recalled that they also were famous for the use of non-professional actors.  The film has some rich ideas just below the surface about women, especially elder women, and it portrays an interesting aspect of modern European society in which many people just barely scrape by, often living with and depending upon their families to survive.

Shattered Glass

I've been a regular online reader of The New Republic for several years and am a big fan of the publication, not just for its political articles, but also for its cultural coverage.  Right before Christmas, Frau Bloggerboy brought home a stack of DVDs from Video City, one of the better, independent rental places in Frankfurt.  I don't know how she picks them, given the limited information on the DVD covers, but I try to watch the ones she brings home.  Shattered Glass (2003), directed by Billy Ray, is the story of Stephen Glass, a notorious young journalist and law student who rose quickly at TNR to become an associate editor and who then went down in flames as it came out that 27 of the 40-odd articles he had written during his tenure at TNR were either partially or totally fiction.  Hayden Christensen does a great job of portraying Glass as an apparently brilliant, well-liked Wunderkind on his way to the top.  Not being familiar with the Glass scandal and not knowing what the film was about, I was totally sucked into the sympathetic view of Glass that Ray gives us at the beginning.  Running through most of the film is a flashback or imagined scene by Glass at his old high school in Highland Park (Chicago?).  Glass is introduced in glowing terms to a class of eager students by his former teacher and holds forth on the virtues and realities of journalism.  Ray does a brilliant job of folding the high school subplot into the main plot at the film's climax using applause, both from the admiring high school students and from an office full of Glass's former colleagues who are applauding the courageous editor who finally called Glass on his lies and fired him. Glass is then shown sitting alone in his old high school classroom, implying that he either imagined the scene or knew that his entire presentation was BS. This film gets high marks from me. Some of the other supporting roles were played quite well by Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Savigny, and Hank Azaria. Aside from Savigny, I was not familiar with the other actors.

Almost as interesting as the film were the extras:  an interview with Glass, who was promoting his first novel, and interviews with some of the real figures at the TNR.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Solstice -- Or, Why I Like Depressing Christmas Carols

I was taking a short nap this afternoon when, shortly after 3 p.m.,  the sun went down behind the building across the street -- what seemed like 45 degrees from where it goes down on a midsummer night, when the horizon still retains a bit of brightness until almost eleven p.m.  In my dreamy daziness, I tried to imagine the tilt in the earth's axis that resulted in this dramatic shift and how much the angle of my bed had shifted these past months.  Too many variables.  Back to sleep.

These past weeks during the Advent season I have been keenly aware of the gradual shortening of the days, the impending darkness.  Suddenly, the street lights were going on before four p.m.  I try to imagine the fear of people many centuries ago, when the period between January and April was the period of famine.  There may have been food and beer or wine on the table at Midwinter, but only a few could be confident that there would be enough to make it through the winter.  In prehistoric times, I bet there was even a fear that the world was coming to an end.  When I'm thinking like this, I'm much closer to the folks in the late 16th century who came up with this Christmas carol than I am with the ones who came up with Jingle Bells.  Here is another version of the same song.  Following is one version of the first and third stanzas of the lyrics in German and English:

Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen,
aus einer Wurzel zart.
Wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse war die Art.
Und hat ein Blüm'lein
mitten im kalten Winter,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.

Das Blümelein, so kleine,
das duftet uns so süß;
mit seinem hellen Scheine
vertreibt's die Finsternis.
Wahr'r Mensch und
wahrer Gott!
Hilft uns aus allem Leide,
rettet von Sünd' und Tod.


Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When halfspent was the night.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.

I think even a Celt or a Mayan could relate to that carol.  Is the glass half empty or half full?  Winter Solstice is the beginning of a long, harsh period, but it also marks the turning point when the days start getting longer.  Christmas is hope in the face of darkness visible.  Pretty simple, I guess.  I prefer music and other art that gives a fair hearing to the fear and darkness that we all have to live with and that does not try to gloss over the human condition with a happy face.  The emotional power of the hope that rises out of such darkness has a much stronger impact on me.  Mind you, I also think that there is a time and place for joyful celebration, even bacchanalia, but that must wait for another post.

EDIT: "Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah." -- Garrison Keillor.  Spoken like a stern, Lutheran minister from the Midwest.  Well, I think Garrison set off a big storm with his article last week, but there is a kernel of truth in what he is saying.  To be honest, I'm "not in the club".  Nevertheless, we do celebrate a traditional Christmas in the Bloggerboy family, complete with a Christmas Eve Mass.  It is hard to tell at this stage how many members of the Bloggerboy family are "in the club".  From the outside, looking in, however, I think that it is important not to obscure the central role of Christ in these songs and rituals.  To the extent that my post appears to do this, I think that Keillor's critique is fair.  On the other hand, to deny the similarities between religions and the core emotions and experiences that lead to religious experience, to doubt the active role that the Catholic Church played in trying to co-opt pagan religions by encouraging celebrations that relied heavily on pagan traditions, well, that, too would be worthy of critique.  I don't know where Keillor stands on those issues, but I suspect he was mostly burned up by an attempt to water down the lyrics of his favorite Christmas Carol, Silent Night.  He has written about crying in church whenever that song is played.  I once had a similar experience when a talented tenor happened to be sitting behind me in church when we sang Silent Night.  How can you not be moved?  I was deeply shaken. 

I wonder what Keillor thinks of Papists and Anabaptists singing "his" carols?  Wait a minute.  Father Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, who wrote and composed Silent Night, were Catholic!  The former was a priest.  I wonder what they'd think about a Protestant being so possessive about that song.  Is Mr. Keillor blurring the distinction between catholicism and protestantism?  (...) Time to go back and read up on the Peace of Westphalia.  Peace be with you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


To ausatmen means to exhale (literally to "out breathe"), but it also means to relax. I'm not able to relax much right now, but I did ausatmen today on a short trip into town. As quickly as spring sneaked up on me earlier this year, the dark season ambushed me these past weeks. When you're working hard, it is difficult to keep your eye on events going on around you, but I took a few minutes this morning to enjoy the Advent period in Frankfurt. The Christmas market is up and running. Christmas shopping has not yet reached a frenzied pace, so I was able to move around easily on the main shopping street. I took a few minutes to eat a fresh Frikadelle (sort of a miniature hamburger-shaped meatloaf made of ground pork and beef that you eat with your fingers) from my favorite stand at the Kleinmarkthalle.

(Source:  Rezepte-Wiki Creative Commons)

After several false starts, I finally managed get my mind and body cranked up to the pace (say, 60 hours per week) needed to get my work done.  I hit full cruising speed this past week and need to keep going for the next ten days or so. Don't get me wrong: in this economy I'm grateful to have enough work to do AND to enjoy it as well.  Nevertheless, I am savoring the impending quiet of the darkest days of the year, when human warmth is at a premium, and the lights in different homes and shops beckon you inside. Years ago we used to scurry to the airport shortly before Christmas to fly to the US, scurrying back just in time for work or school to pick up again, never really being able to ausatmen between flights. I'm glad that phase of my life is past. I can feel an inner glow growing and look forward to a winter's nap.  Every once in awhile, the taunting smell of Christmas baking wafts upstairs where I sit and write, making me want to leave my desk.  I think I'll go have a cup of coffee and listen to some old-fashioned German Christmas Carols.

[To my 2.5 avid followers, I still have not had time to revise my final Berlin trip story, but the first draft is waiting for a quiet afternoon with no deadlines. Until then, just a few short seasonal posts between projects. After that, no more cold war, I promise.]