Saturday, July 31

Intelligent movies

While Inception has exceeded box office expectations, it has not quite managed to live up to all the hype and hopes. That would be nigh impossible considering the excitement generated by the first trailer, and the critical reception has certainly not been poor. Aggregate scores of 87% and 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are more than respectable for a summer blockbuster. Though they may not be running over one another to provide the strongest superlatives, the professional reviewers have been well unified in their description of Inception as an intelligent movie, a thinking man's movie that cleverly draws in a larger audience with the promise of action. Alternatively, some have bemoaned this thinking movie that panders and loses itself in its action sequences.

For myself, I enjoyed Inception. It was not the greatest thing in this summer of otherwise disappointing films, but it was fun. The visuals, most notably the fight in the hotel halls, were spectacular. A matatu got messed up. Moreover, it was three hours in a dark, air-conditioned theater out of the Las Vegas heat. I thought the motive, breaking up a global monopoly, behind the titular inception was a little silly when it could be as easily carried out through proper legal channels, but Inception was not derivative of an existing property or part of an established franchise. For that, as much as anything else, it deserves respect and to be supported. With the reviewers, however, I vehemently disagree that it was a particularly intelligent movie.

Before this discussion can take place properly, the question of what makes a movie intelligent is begged. There are three answers to this. First, a film may be called intelligent in that it presents the erudition of its writers and directors. Such a film may accurately portray events of a historical and political weight, thus informing on a contemporary situation, or present new facts in these situations. Films like Milk, and most all biopics really, and Good Night and Good Luck. They try to present the truth, cutting away the myths and legends that have accrued in the intervening years. They seek to teach. These are the types of movies that high school teachers and college professors like to present when they can't be bothered to prepare their own lessons.

The second intelligent film is that which poses questions with ramifications outside the film and within our lives. To a lesser extent, these are in line with the questions of The Matrix. How would we know the difference between reality and its digital doppelgänger if we were born within it? Is Descartes' malevolent spirit real? Are we just a brain in a box? To a greater extent, a film may also pose questions and answers to current political issues, like the war in Iraq or the state of race in America. Prime examples of these include The Hurt Locker and Crash. These films ask us, and often propose, answers.

For me, these are the lowest forms of intelligent films. While it is all fine and good for a director to present a new perspective or pose questions of political and philosophical heft, film is a medium ill suited for it. Lest the film become a didactic lesson, these questions must be subservient to plot and character which lessons the ability to capture them in their complexity and entirety. Cypher can wax long on ignorance being bliss, but the totality of his thought can be fairly accurately captured on a freeway billboard. A book, a magazine article even, can present a more complete argument in a shorter amount of time and a much smaller budget.

The third type is not appropriately called “intelligent.” Complex would be more precise. While the above two types of intelligent films posed facts and questions and answers that have a bearing on contemporary personal and social realities, this third type demands attention to the logic of the narrative and its characters. This form of intelligence is described at length in Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, a book I responded to years ago.

This is the true type of intelligence demonstrated by Inception. All the intelligence present in the film is in keeping track of the characters, their motives and where they exist, not in its fairly ridiculous explications of dream reality and questioning of how certain we can be that we are not in a dream at this moment.

Wednesday, July 28

Evel Knievel Days

Amongst the seasons my preference is for winter. To be precise, I mean a proper Minnesotan winter where it is entirely possible that the temperature never rises above zero weeks at a time, where the lakes and rivers are frozen solid, where a thick snow falls across the land beginning at the end of October, and where the sun rises after 8 in the morning and sets shortly after 4 in the afternoon.

Though the first days of spring when it is warm enough to wear shorts again are very good, spring and fall are generally too wet and sloppy of seasons to be favorites of mine. Summer is nice, but I prefer shivering to sweating, the dark to the light and stillness to the vibrancy of life in motion. The warmest of the seasons does, though, enjoy one spectacular advantage over winter, and that is festivals. Community celebrations that bring the people into the streets as they wander between attractions and performances and kiosks are not ideal in a season where the ice makes it difficult to keep one's balance.

These past weeks in Butte have provided a fascinating contrast in the range of possible festivals. On the weekend of our wedding, the city hosted the National Folk Festival for the third year in a row. This past weekend it celebrated its most famous son with Evel Knievel Days. It may go without saying, but the audiences in attendance for each were rather different. The crowds at the folk festival preferred flip-flops for shoes and tie-dyed shirts. The de facto uniform of the Evel Knievel crowd was black leather chaps and matching jackets. The folk people carried their drinks in the thin metal bottles that have replaced Nalgene as obnoxious, sustainable ways to carry water, and the Evel people carried their twelve ounce beer cans in stacks. The greatest crowds at Evel Knievel Days watched a man throw himself off one of the tallest buildings in town. The greatest crowds at the National Folk Festival were for people singing in foreign languages accompanied by instruments they couldn't name. At the beginning of July the street stands sold island fried noodles, Chinese fried rice and Greek gyros. Two weeks later they sold island fried noodles, Chinese fried rice and Greek gyros. Okay, the the tastes of the two crowds were the same, but one could not buy Jello shots of Everclear for two dollars at the folk festival.

Given an either/or choice between the two, my inclination would be toward the folk festival. It had a tango quartet. There are not an awful lot of things that I will choose over a tango quartet. There was also a tap dancer accompanied by piano and a salsa band, though my ability to enjoy either was limited by tent-filling crowds and missed chances to see later performances.

That is not to say, however, that the performers of Evel Knievel Days were without their particular charms. I am not such a fan of revving engines and the accompanying noise, but it would take a cold heart indeed to not appreciate the talent and courage necessary for a man to launch himself and his motorbike from platform to platform and back down again. If nothing else, it was a lot more fun to take pictures of these than a group sitting on stage strumming on guitars or pulling a bow across a fiddle.

It was rather odd to me that the headlining event of Evel Days, the ride of Spanky Spangler was the most boring. When I saw five cars balanced on their ends in a line, I was hoping to see a man and his car fly over them. Nope. After two false starts, he succeeded in launching himself into the first with enough power to start a domino effect that would take out the rest. On later thought it occurred to me that was for the best. There would not have been nearly enough room to brake to a stop after a successful jump and thus avoid knocking over the protective fence, taking out a good forty onlookers in the process.

It brought up what I would considerable an uncomfortable truth about the attractions of Evel Days. To some extent, threat of bodily harm was a real possibility in all of them whether it was men trusting to centrifugal force to keep them stable while driving circles against a vertical wall or jumping off a trampoline to complete flips before dunking a basketball. That's part of the excitement, the awareness that a missed trick could send someone to the hospital. What's the worst that happens when a folk musician misses a note? A few boos from the most attentive? Tricks like those at Evel Days demand nothing less than the best from their actors. Stage fright means a concussion and a loss of concentration means a broken arm. With these earlier performances, too, there was clear practice and talent behind the performance. Spangler just had loads of guts and still managed to attract the most people to his stunt that was over in seconds, unless you count the jet fly-by and I don't.

What made so many flock to watch a man who had failed his stunt last year and lit himself on fire in the process? Really, I don't know. I didn't think it was particularly great. Help me with this one. Is it the simple spectacle and promise of destruction and explosions? Why not put up a viewing balcony in a demolition yard then? Is it the idea of someone willing to sacrifice his bodily health for our amusement? Is it the smug satisfaction that we aren't nearly as stupid as him and eager to see ourselves proven right? Or is it the thought that we could do the same with minimal time and training?

In a few weeks Butte will end its festival season with An Ri Ra and its celebration of all things Irish. My belief would be that those who enjoyed the folk festival would come to dominate, but green-tinted beer and other aspects of the more proletarian Irish culture may very well bring out in force the rest and bring the two audiences together in a display of unity and similarly wonderful things.

Monday, July 26

Considering "Toy Story 3"

I missed a lot of movies last year. There was a theater in Nairobi, but at best, we only made it there once a month and it only played blockbusters with recognized stars. I never even found the theater in Bali. This did not bother me nearly so much as I thought it would because, really, what did I miss? The radical underlying themes of Surrogates? The torture-porn-lite of Precious? The pretty, pretty pictures of Avatar?

The only movies I was disappointed I didn't get to see in theaters were Inglorious Basterds and Moon. Until this summer at least. I came back mid-June and missed the first official month of the summer blockbuster season. I'm still annoyed that I haven't seen Iron Man 2, and I only managed to see Toy Story 3 this past Saturday.

That wait was very much worth it.

I am not one to applaud and cheer film lest the director, cast and crew be present, but I had to actively hold myself back at the end of Day and Night, the opening short. The mistrust and jealousy that grew into mutual joy between the characters from their differing perspectives and the sounds drawn from their scenes left me smiling like an idiot. The message may have been a bit heavy when they discovered the radio tower, but there could be no better representation of it than this short and the image of the setting and rising suns.

And that was only the prelude to the feature.

In a way, I have grown up with Toy Story. The first was released when I was eight. When my parents bought the video, my sister and I watched it everyday immediately after coming home from school for at least two months. I saw the sequel four years later. Now I have seen the final installment, and it has only become more resonant. Andy aged slower than me, but like him, I am still growing up and moving on. If I have learned anything about maturing, it means leaving many people and things behind but never forgetting that they were good. To see it reflected like this, in the process, is something special.

The Toy Story series is unique among Pixar and animated films and, dare I say, even the greater canon. While using anthropomorphized animals, elves, robots, orcs, aliens, whatever is a common enough technique for engaging contemporary themes at a certain slant, they have always been essentially and recognizably human, just with different ears or processors instead of brains. WALL-E was curious and fell in love. The Na'vi were essentially stereotyped American Indians with their face paint, minimal clothing and naturalistic religion. The characters of Toy Story, however, while experiencing courage, loyalty and friendship are really not human. They are entirely defined by their relationship with their owner. Woody, in his insistence that they be there for Andy, even if it means spending years in the attic until he brings them down again for his own children, represents this most clearly, but the others, who are ready to move on aren't doing it for themselves either. Yes, they want to be played with again, but it is a subservient relationship they are looking for, one they have no agency in. They aren't looking for personal fulfillment or to find themselves, only to be actors in the stories their boys and girls create.

I don't know how much more alien they could get and still I have not cared that much about any characters since that Ewok that wouldn't get back up. When they took each other's hands, stopped fighting and waited for the inevitable after going through so much else, the weight of that scene can never be overstated, but it takes nothing from seeing Woody glance away at the mention of Bo Peep or Andy's mom seeing his emptied room. Wow.

Like every other Pixar film for the past decade or so, Toy Story 3 will take Best Animated Film no problem, and that's too bad. It deserves a shot at the Best Picture award, and were the Oscars held today, would have no trouble winning it. The only real competition I see is David Fincher's The Social Network.  Oh please, let that be excellent.

On a side note, the Washoe Theatre in Anaconda now joins Spokane's Magic Lantern Theatre as a place where the venue holds as much an attraction as the presentation itself. It was a joy just to be somewhere where someone had cared enough to make it beautiful. With reasonably priced popcorn, snacks and drinks and an intermission to enjoy them during, the Washoe Theater is a place that could even make watching Grown-Ups a tolerable evening.

Saturday, July 24

"The humanitarian's dilemma"

I cannot begin to anticipate my response had I found this series by Emily Meehan before I left for Nakuru.  In reading her relief to be done with her ten months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not because of her work as a press officer where she connected foreign journalists with survivors of gang rape and former child soldiers but because she wasn't sure whether she could trust a teenage boy she had formed a relationship with, I might have thought then something along the lines of, "Well, they can't all be winners.  I should be ready for some disappointment."  Now, all I can think is, "That's all?  One possibly untrustworthy kid broke your heart?  How about knowing you can't trust police, teachers, lawyers, chiefs, the power company or the Children's Department unless you have fifty dollars spare in your back pocket?  Wimp."

That's not to suggest I don't sympathize with Meehan.  Some positioning in a competition to be more miserable is present above, sure, but not a lack of understanding.  We both wanted to better understand a situation and region which has been subject to some real misery and limited journalistic attention.  We wanted to be there, learn for ourselves and play some part in making it a little less miserable.

What we learned was that the problems facing that part of the world are much more than merely sharing the necessary resources among those most in need and providing capital for entrepreneurs.  They are entire attitudes and cultures.  It is a hard lesson to learn, especially alongside the realization of one's powerlessness to impact these.  Meehan spent months with Aimé trying to expand his worldview along with paying for his high school fees and a bicycle, and his final meeting with her was still to request more money.  Granted, the duration of their relationship was only a few months, but if their personal contact couldn't make such a change in his behavior, what would?

I never advocate reading comments as the two seconds of thought behind them is always clear and the level of cruelty is only possible in an anonymous forum, but those here are worth skimming.  There is some terrible invective present, but Meehan has been active responding to questions and misinterpretations of her meaning.

Thursday, July 22

One year camera anniversary: Day three

It irritates me to no end when people shoot pictures in art museums.  Your pictures are crummy.  If you want to take the art back with you, buy a book from the gift shop.  If that's too expensive, buy a post card.  The pictures on those are invariably better than anything you can shoot with your pocket camera with its auto-focus and auto-flash.

I guess taking pictures of crafts like canang sari is not so different from that.  If I really wanted to preserve their unique beauty, I would take one back with me.  Maybe press it or something to preserve it for the trip and years.  Were someone to raise this point, however, I would respond that it's not merely the individual canang sari that intrigued me.  It was how they were used.  It was where they were placed.  It was where they were left behind.  It was finding them atop sculptures, within gates, along roads and on the remains of dry, crumbling canang sari.  I have written on this before.

Visiting the children IHF and its donors support in Bangli, I found myself in a courtyard that seemed to encompass the entirety of how casual placement of canang sari can be.  Waiting for the children to finish their letters, I tried to capture this.

I found these on the top of a rusting water heater.  I liked the fierce contrast between the fresh canang sari on the right and those on the left that must have been placed at least a week earlier, but the composition is weak.  There are no strong lines, just some woven grass boxes sitting atop each other.  A lower angle might have helped with this.  It would not have helped so much with the fact that it's still hard to tell what they are on, losing what I thought was a critical element of the pictures.  That would probably have required a wider angle but the weakness in that approach is revealed below.

Yes, the great stone egg and Ganesh statue are easily identifiable from this distance, but the canang sari, the intended focus of the picture, is minimized in importance.  Its distinct colors draw attention, but there is too little to see to keep that attention.  The flowers and other elements are nigh impossible to see.

So I move in closer.  This series of shots, culminating in the best of the bunch and shown at top, are all taken within a little enclosure built near the top of a small monument, but it's difficult to tell from so close up.  It's the cessation of one of my goals in shooting the canang sari in their varied habitat, but it ultimately makes for strong pictures.  The hope with this one was to draw the audience into the picture through the incense sticks wedged in near the bottom and center, but the subject is too far out and the sticks' lines aren't powerful enough.

So I move in closer still.  Essentially the same picture as that which began this post, shooting from the same distance and of the same subject, differing only in angle, it's weaker for lacking the strong lines of my favorite.  The incense sticks are stronger in both than the previous, but my favorite becomes such because of the lines created by the right corners of the stacked canang sari.  The highlights on them only makes the line better.  This picture lacks this additional line and remains flat, capturing only a single face of its subjects.

Tuesday, July 20

One year camera anniversary: Day two

This was a special Saturday.  I had brought my camera out early that morning when the kids went into the maize fields to clear out the weeds.  Afterward they set up their new soccer goals and picked teams to kick around the Jabulani balls donated and sent by a particularly generous sponsor from the States.  These were all intended for the monthly newsletter, but I enjoyed it all so much that I hung around a bit longer for a few personal shots.  That's when I saw the boys riding down the hill behind the laundry washing pad on sheets of cardboard.  It was something different that I had never seen them do before.  I wanted to catch it before they moved onto something else.  It wasn't entirely necessary as they didn't get immediately bored.  By the time I left Nakuru, they had worked a dirt trench into the hill from going down so often.

I tried experimenting with something new in these pictures.  I tried using a slower shutter speed and catching some of the movement.  I was at least partially inspired by the top picture in the series on this post to Confessions of a Travel Junkie.  It was exciting and had some real energy to it.  I wanted to try it myself.  I tried first by shooting from the side.

I think the idea was to catch a few of them in motion at the same time, but that never worked out.  The composition wasn't so great either in that they were all too small.  You could see the motion, but there wasn't an awful lot of it to see.  So I moved in closer and in front of them to fill the frame.  From then on it was a waiting game.  Their play has drama and action and excitement.  It's just a matter of taking enough shots that one of them is interesting.  As long as enough are taken, one will turn out.  There were a lot like these before the kids managed to arrange themselves right.

Of course, even before these pictures can be possible, the boys have to get over the fact that a camera is present.  This has been well documented on this blog before, but please enjoy more pictures of the boys posing and tackling the others to try and get my attention.

Monday, July 19

One year camera anniversary

Though I had begun practicing photography with my dad's Nikon FM some eighteen months earlier, the Nikon D60 was my first digital camera, bought in anticipation of my year in Kenya and year away from darkrooms.  A variety of blog posts appearing before and around this time suggest the import attached to this event.  The following is the very first picture I took with it:

I like to think that I have gotten a little bit better since then.  It has been a year after all.  To celebrate the anniversary I am treating you all to extended analyses of some of my favorite pictures replete with outtakes and less successful pictures of the same subject.  I begin with the most popular of my pictures as determined by unique views.  Seen by 335 different people since I posted it to Picasa and narrowly beating out one monkey scratching the back of another and Demetra watching a pack of zebras pass by, I give you the cliffs of Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya.

Anyone who visits Hell's Gate sees these cliffs.  Before coming to the crossroads that direct visitors between the obsidian caves and the geysers, one passes these.  They really are something else, rising out from what are otherwise the rolling hills just past the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley as though some toddler in his sandbox had decided that one of his greater hills needed only to be half so large and he made the separation through the center line.

The fundamental composition is one I am fond of and have used with some success in pictures of Pokot like the one below:

In a flat plane, there are two distinct parts, and one dominates the physical space.  In the picture of the cliffs this works to give them the proper sense of immensity as they fill out the picture, almost pushing against the boundaries imposed by the frame yet still maintain a ground and context through the narrow strip of grass at the bottom.  Texture, too, is emphasized between the edges of the rock and blades of the thick grass.

Reviewing my pictures from that day, something is immediately striking about this particular shot in comparison to the others.  It includes no sky.  Compare to the following shots, all taken within minutes of the featured.

They have an upper limit in the sky.  They have boundaries within the frame and are constrained.  Though they are more complete pictures and are no doubt more fascinating to those with some interest in the geology of the area as the layer of smaller fractures atop the long vertical lines are revealed, these cliffs lack the majesty of my and your favorite shot, especially without a strong sense of scale.

I will be continuing this series all week, and if you would like to make any nominations for others that deserve a deeper look or just want to see more of my oeuvre, you can visit my Picasa albums.

Thursday, July 15

Considering Max Brooks' "World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war"

In the shadow of their resurgent vampire and werewolf brethren, zombies have enjoyed a renaissance of their own (ha, irony) in the past decade or so.  For obvious reasons, they lack sex symbols as potent as those found in Twilight and True Blood, but be sure, this return is just as real.  I would go ahead and estimate the origin with the release of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004 and the accompanying innovation of zombies who don't just stumble along but run and cling to ceilings.  In the years since Robert Kirkman completed his The Walking Dead series; Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising were released for the Xbox 360; George A. Romero wrote and directed Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Survival of the Dead with their contemporary social and political allegories; and Seth Grahame-Smith regurgitated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with no allegories, original ideas, intelligent thought or fun.  Complete media saturation only awaits the inception of the zombiecore musical genre.

Like most all things that manage to attain some level of lasting popularity, the academy has begun to treat zombies with a degree of respect, that is by suggesting the monsters can be used to explain their pet political, social, cultural, literary, historical, economic, gender, philosophical models.  Max Brooks brings the same pretension to the masses with World War Z.  The narrative is global as the war is revealed through interviews with survivors.  They describe the first isolated cases, the spread, the failures, the response, the survival and the victory.  They describe it as scientists, soldiers, politicians, mercenaries, refugees, businessmen, heroes, cowards and every other conceivable position.  They describe it from China, Pakistan, Polynesia, Canada, Cuba, Australia, both coasts of the United States, space and all the other nations.

From these many perspectives, Brooks crafts something that is less story and more essay.  Like the sub-title says, it's an "oral history," not a novel.  Brooks is not so much concerned with narrative as with explications of historical and contemporary national trends in the face of an undead threat.  At the worst, his ideas are insipid.  Vacuous celebrities retreat to a fortified mansion to survive the zombie masses while their every minute is recorded by webcam.  The upper classes have no real skills and are reduced to learning to live and survive from their former housekeepers and repairmen.  At other times he does arouse some interest as he suggests that South Africa, by adapting a plan originally intended for the containment of black revolution, creates the common national response to the zombie threat and the French, tired of being the losers in every war, decide they are going to throw every able-bodied citizen into clearing Paris of the infestation and never retreat.  Unfortunately, these individual moments are lost in the greater mass and limited by the interview form where introduction, rising action, climax and denouement are compressed into a few pages, also messing up the pacing for the greater work.  Brooks gets lost, too, in the many voices in World War Z.  There are too many and too little time to develop them.  They end up being defined more by their fit to stereotypes and quirks of personality than real presence of character.

These are all fairly minor problems against the greater one of the straight-faced approach to zombies.  They're ridiculous creatures.  They shamble and moan and ask for brains.  Their bits fall off.  They can be defeated by walking away quickly.  They deserve academic pretension as much as Weird Al and Dane Cook.  A zombie outbreak means the world becomes a playground.  The ideal medium for the zombie genre is and always has been video games and their ability to fully immerse one in the freedom that only comes when there are no more police or security guards and violent fantasies have a perfect outlet in those who lack every semblance of humanity.  Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland were great to the extent they realized this.  Steal a Lamborghini.  Drive it until the fuel runs out and steal a Hummer next.  Bash in the decaying brains of zombies with golf clubs and chainsaws.  Hang out in Bill Murray's Hollywood mansion and make china plates your target practice.

Wednesday, July 7

Two days now

When I had told people that Demetra and I would be spending a year abroad in Kenya together, they often offered warning about what it could do to our relationship and how difficult it would be to deal with one another afterward should the worst happen.  I understood and accepted this as a possibility but a far distant possibility not worth serious consideration.  Like Germany not being awesome at the World Cup or Hitchens opting to display the slightest degree of humility.  A year together in a foreign land where we would only know each other, where we could only depend on each other, where we would be with each other constantly, where we would be dealing with children every hour of every day, where we would need to manage a strict budget, where we would be stressed unlike anything in life before meant something else to me.  It meant that if we could hack through it all and still care for one another and enjoy our time together, then there was precious little that could stop us from caring for one another or enjoying our time together.

Of these two possibilities, certainly not containing all eventualities but pretty clearly defining the polar points on which others could be compared, I was right.

One option was left for me.  By late November I had decided to propose to Demetra.  The difficult part was finding the time and place to do it.  The neighborhood near the Nakuru center was not one to take a moonlit walk through, and I wanted to make it special.  A break at Hell's Gate National Park in early December seemed a good possibility in a new place and with a little privacy, but I lost my nerve.

This was troubling as January came closer.  At the beginning of the month Demetra would be flying back to the States to take interviews for medical school and would not return until February.  If I managed to propose before then, she would be able to tell her family and friends about it personally.  I also did not want to wait another month.

In a spectacular display of atrocious timing, my malaria recurred on Christmas day.  I spent three days in bed taking more medication than food.  On the evening of the third day, I was on my back in bed on top of the covers as I was in the midst of another hot spell.  Demetra was sitting next to me writing letters to friends on her laptop.  I had asked her to stay, so we could talk and I could be distracted by how I felt.  Demetra was leaving in less than a week.  Work stress was about to be kicked up a notch as we prepared for her absence.  I made a choice.

I believe my line was, "Would you like to get married?"

She kept typing.  She either thought that I intended it in the abstract or thought my illness was greater than expected.  I posed a slight variant of the same question.  She put her computer to the side and made me rephrase one more time.  I asked, "Will you marry me?"

Two more days now and she can't take back her answer.

Saturday, July 3

Six days now

During my five months of study at the Ludwig-Maximilian Universität in Munich in late 2007 I traveled enough to pick up Turkish, English and Irish stamps on my passport.  I spent a day at Oktoberfest proper and tasted Franziskaner and Löwenbräu.  I saw my first ballets and operas.  Except for the very occasional DVD, I saw no movies.

I don't necessarily regret this.  Visiting friends and new cities and seeing Carmen and Tanguera, not to mention Bloc Party and Rodrigo y Gabriela concerts, was pretty excellent.  Also, replete with such delights as the third Spider-Man, the second Fantastic Four, the third Shrek and the first Transformers films and bereft of anything of interest save Ratatouille and Stardust, the summer previous was not one to inspire hope for the fall and winter offerings.  And then There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, Shoot 'Em Up, Eastern Promises, Persepolis and all the rest were released in the last four months of 2007, more than enough to turn it into one of the greatest years for American film in my memory, and I missed them because I was Germany.

But the AMC  in Spokane picked up a lot of the films nominated for the major Academy Awards for a second round, and I had my chance.  Short of funds from being in Europe when the euro peaked around $1.54, I figured the only possible way to catch up with them all was by spending afternoons in the theater on a single ticket.  Needing the confidence of an accomplice in this, only Demetra volunteered, thus fulfilling one of two life goals for her.  The first weekend we followed No Country for Old Men with Juno.  The second weekend Demetra us in sneaking past the ticket taker to the escalators and Jumper after Atonement.  Those two weekends were the start of something.

Which makes it appropriate that late in April I called Demetra.  After a few minutes of small talk, she finally asked whether I had anything to ask.  There were a solid four seconds of silence before I managed to ask whether she would like to go to Die Fälscher the next night.  There was a "The Rules" party that same night which had otherwise engaged the rest of our friends, which was fine with me.  I had a shift that night and met Demetra the theater.  We enjoyed Karl Markovics' performance, we listened to the music of Hugo Díaz for the first time, we were reminded that the Holocaust was a very miserable thing.

We went back to her apartment and managed another two hours of small talk.  Standing with a hand on the handle and the door ajar and very nearly choking, Demetra asked again if I had anything to ask.  There were another solid four seconds of silence before I managed to ask if she would like to date me.

That was the start of something else.

Friday, July 2

Seven days now

In one week's time things are going to change.  A lot.  Changes of the fundamentally sort.  Life altering, you could say.  Before that happens, there are a few stories I would like to tell.  At least two.  Maybe more.  We will see.

My first memory of Demetra is not of the time I met her.  That time we were all sitting around the table in the Hopkins House classroom.  The bookshelves hemmed in close enough that you couldn't walk past when someone was in a chair, and I was sitting to face the door.  We were all introducing ourselves.  Leslie was the miracle girl from Saipan.  Patrick wanted to go on to become director of the CIA, Supreme Court justice or pope.  Stephanie wanted to design roller coasters in France.  Andrea's father was formerly of a religious order.  Franciscans, perhaps.  But I don't remember what Demetra said, where she sat, what she looked like.

My first memory of Demetra is of the second time I saw her.  She pulled the nail from the hypnotist's nose during orientation.  She laughed.  I saw the nail again later that year when visiting her apartment.

That was near five years ago.  That was a long while ago.

Considering Meja Mwangi's "The Cockroach Dance"

David Campbell is done with pictures of African poverty.  Chimamanda Ngozi done with the stories.  Meja Mwangi isn't.  USA Today would be embarrassed by the depths of depravity in Mwangi's descriptions of Dacca House in The Cockroach Dance, and even Newsweek wouldn't be willing to repeat them as often as Mwangi does.  The cockroaches of Dacca House dance and dance often.  They dance on the ceiling and on the floors and on every other available surface.  They sleep in shoes and swarm the dirty dishes.  They have become so accustomed to their homes that they no longer flee the light.  When he wearies with these descriptions, Mwangi moves to the courtyard of Dacca House where no one remembers the last time the garbage was collected and where the single public toilet smells so foul that men and women void in the single public shower.  Beyond Dacca House there are the grease stains that are the open-air garages on River Road.

It makes an appropriate parallel for the spirits of the people.  The landlord of Dacca House forces the family that lives in the bathroom only just large enough to hold their bed to pay monthly rent.  The street mechanics have no compunction against selling car parts back to the men they stole them from the night before.  Street sellers offer only stolen clothes and rotten vegetables.  The rich never release the hounds because they were never restrained to begin.

As much as he rages against the many injustices of this world, largely in how it is perpetrated against himself, Dusman Gonzaga is content to merely exist in it.  Until the final third of the novel, when Dusman begins collecting signatures for a petition to force the landlord to perform basic upkeep and lower the rents, there is no plot, only Dusman's passing activities.  When the tires of his broken car are stolen and he fails to discover the thief, Dusman looks for someone who will buy the wreck.  He gets drunk.  He enjoys the services of a prostitute in an alley in the rain.  He visits an Indian doctor who specializes in the diseases that follow such services.  These characters are introduced, they play their roles and they never appear again.

It is a style that plays to Mwangi as he seems less interested in telling a story and developing full, characters than exploring their greater condition.  This works at times.  The history of Dacca House itself, beginning as the home for an Indian businessman, his family and extended relations and later sold to a Kenyan entrepreneur who builds cardboard dividers in the rooms to take more tenants, is fascinating.

It also makes Dance feel like a "Greatest Hits of Nairobi Poverty."  Dusman is less an original character than a type who does all the things one would expect of a poor man in Kenya with no family.  The characters he meets fit into tight roles and stand in for greater swaths of society complicit in the situation.  It forces Mwangi to fall back on stereotypes to move on with minimum fuss.  Dusman's conclusion that his white psychiatrist cannot understand and never offer useful analysis because the good doctor has never visited Dacca House is trite at best.  There is a good story to be told about Dusman's supervisor who is terrified of being replaced by a white expatriate, but Mwangi spares him only a few paragraphs.  Likewise in Dusman's refusal to reveal his tribe after arrest and a con job carried out with a white couple.  These fascinating themes and ideas are never referred to again and have no impact on the end of the story.  They are left to another writer to bring to their fullness.  Pity.

Then again, Dance was released in 1979.  Maybe stories of African and Kenyan urban poverty were still fresh and original then, and it was enough simply to recognize these topics as worth writing about.  Mwangi was doing something right.  His novels Kill Me Quick and Going Down the River Road won the Jomo Kenyatta Prizes for Literature in 1974 and 1977 respectively.