Tag Archives: film

Simple and Elegant Do Not Mean Easy

Gone are the two theories, gone their troubles and delicious reflections in one another, their furtive caresses, their inexplicable quarrels; alas, we have but one theory, whose majestic beauty can no longer excite us. Nothing is more fertile than these illicit liaisons…
André Weil quoted in Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math (103)

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Simple and elegant Swedish bread twists with almonds and cardamom: an essential component of higher math comprehension

Math is passion. And like passion, it has its dark side. I have written before about the identity crisis that maths seem to provoke ( here and  here), I admit I may have some slight obsession with the subject. In my own life I have, like others, found deep peace and contentment in the objective exactitude of math, but, also like others, when math seems to veer off the course of what we have understood as the applied rules, it is deeply unsettling.

In math, the problem is always well defined, and there is no ambiguity about what solving it means, you either solve it or you don’t (56).

After reading Edward Frenkel’s very fine book Love and Math, I feel I may have come to glimpse the nature of my fascination with math theory. I don’t believe it is our fault that our world-views are thrown by concepts such as imaginary numbers. The trick is, I think,  one must push through the black hole of comprehension that engulfs us, otherwise it is very easy to lose our psychological footing. I believe it all comes down to subjective versus objective truths.

Mathematics is separate from both the physical world and the mental world (234)

Let me first say that I do not in any way want to present myself as somebody who read Love and Math with anything close to full comprehension of the complex and creative math that Frenkel heroically tried to bring within my intellectual reach. But that is not the point. It’s not why I seemed unable to put the book down, nor is it, I think, why he wrote it.

Indeed, the square of any real number must be positive or 0, so it cannot be equal to -1. So unlike √2 and -√2, the numbers √-1 and -√-1 are not real numbers. But so what? (101).

BUT SO WHAT????!!! SO WHAT!? That is the very heart and soul of the identity crisis of myself and many others!? Not so what!? Math is objective. What is the meaning of truth? Where are we then? Who am I? What is real? Why do I matter, oh god, what is the meaning of life? But wait….hang on…a light, a sliver of understanding…while Frankel described how it was in fact true that 2+2=1, I had a Eureka! moment. Yes. I see it! It is true 2+2 does equal 1. The truth is not altered. The truth is objective, it is only the means by which I got there, the translation I used, that altered. The solution is “created” but that creation has nothing to do with the solution other than its ability to allow us to perceive what is already there: the truth. That’s objectivity on an entirely different order. Wow. What a moment. It’s true, it’s like falling in love.

The deeper I delved into math, the more my fascination grew, the more I wanted to know. This is what happens when you fall in love (28).

I believe that our subjectivity is absolute. Inescapable. The only measure by which to ground ourselves in our subjectivity, however, is the purely objective language of math. It’s pure objectivity profoundly orients us. It is the discrete objectivity of math that connects. What a marvelous completeness the totality of subjective and objective truths gives us.

In truth, the process of creating new mathematics is a passionate pursuit, a deeply personal experience, just like creating art and music. It requires love and dedication, a struggle with the unknown and with oneself, which elicits strong emotions (233).

Frenkel’s book is wonderful on multiple fronts, his personal history growing up towards the end of Communist Russia, describing his struggles to overcome the systemic anti-semitism that pervaded the culture, is riveting. His charming delight connecting math to all aspects of life culminating in his 2010 film, Rites of Love and Math, is inspiring and beautiful. He draws on every aspect of life to help bring understanding to the complex math he is explaining, for example he refers to his mother’s borscht recipe to explain particle content of quantum field theory. This , however, brings me to a very serious breakdown in my comprehension, to which I must bring Frenkel to task:

For example, let’s look at this recipe of the Russian soup borscht, a perennial favorite in my home country. My mom makes the best one (of course!). […] Obviously, I have to keep my mom’s recipe secret. But here’s a recipe I found online (196).

My dear Mr. Frenkel, I am afraid that that is not at all “obvious” to me. Please explain, or send recipe.

*title from pg 201

 

 

Primal Urges

‘I’m sure Sandy’s mind is not on motor cars, she is paying attention to my conversation like a well-mannered girl.’
And if people take their clothes off in front of each other, thought Sandy…
-Muriel Sparks, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (35)

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is perhaps a book that is not widely read anymore. But that is a shame, if it’s true, because it is wonderful. The humor is subtle and tart and the story is captivating in all of its English school girl oddity.

Outwardly she differed from the rest of the teaching staff in that she was still in a state f fluctuating development, whereas they had only too understandably not trusted themselves to change their minds, particular on ethical questions, after the age of twenty. (41)

The way in which Sparks intertwines the past with the present is marvelously crisp. There is a naturalness to the telling of the story with interrupted bits of future events spotting up the tale, further enhanced by the re-imaginings of whatever literature the girls are engaged with in which they cast themselves as the love interests of the heroes. All of which comes together to give a glimpse into the adolescent mind. It’s very well conceived and highly entertaining.

“Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.’ (9)

But what’s most wonderful about the story is the irony that while it is ostensibly about sex and the hypocritical efforts to hide or pervert sexual desires not to mention the witch hunts that those desires provoke, particularly for women, Sparks cleverly shows that the situation is worse than that. While everyone is fixated and warping what should be perfectly natural and healthy dispositions of human beings, the really horrible stuff gets free reign. In the end, the downfall of Miss Jean Brodie happens for the right reasons disguised as the wrong. A complex literary device which Sparks masterfully accomplishes.

‘She believes in the slogan “Safety First.” But safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.’ (8)

I watched the film version after, with Maggie Smith, who is, as always, wonderful. Especially aided, as she is, with fabulous costumes. But the film is completely inferior to what makes the book such fun. All of the structure is gone, while the heart of the story, which Sparks created with a real delicacy, is ratcheted up, and ridiculously exaggerated. I spent the entire film with a quizzical look on my face…at any rate it nearly takes as long to read it as watch it, so, might as well read it.

‘For those who like that sort of thing,’ said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, ‘that is the sort of thing they like.’ (29)

never maybe

homecoming

 

I saw Citizen Kane so long ago it was as if I was seeing it for the first time again. It is a really wonderful film.  It has an irrepressibly youthful quality that I found ever so slightly discordant with the content, but charming none the less. And yet, I wondered how different the film would have been had Welles been older when he made it.

There were certain scenes that reminded me of one of my favorite directors – Bélla Tarr. Towards the beginning of Kane, there was a shot outside the nightclub where Susie sings, in Tarr’s film Damnation, there is a similar scene except Tarr holds the shot (as is typical of his work) for minutes on end, the rainless warm interior beckons, while the relentless soaking and futility of a nightclub as a destination for a heartbroken individual, weighs ever more heavily. Tarr shoots in black and white with a subtle yet portentous hand.

In Citizen Kane it is also a rainy night, but it reads as purely aesthetic and atmospheric- which Welles excelled in- his smoky rooms and hazy atmospheres are stylistically sublime. Never the less, I point out the comparison and difference to suggest that, while Welles had all the artistry- he understood the style, which is copied in many films to this day, including Tarr’s, but there is a missed layer of substance. He doesn’t quite reach the depths that are there to be reached.  Tarr’s films go to the extreme, exploring emotions at their deepest levels. Tarr will penetrate your soul.

Of course, to make Citizen Kane certainly took a nerve that perhaps only the slightly tarnished youth possess, but how much more moving it might have been if Welles himself had already felt the despair of time.

Still, scene for scene this is an incredible film. The architecture of each shot, the depth and overlays, the attention to tone, perspective and content are extraordinary. There are so many awe inspiring scenes it is hard to pick one as an example, but, to point to a couple: the scene towards the end when Kane and Susie are “camping” with the band playing “It can’t be love” in the background was beautiful; the scene in the beginning with the father and mother signing him away, and he seen through the window- oblivious…it’s wonderful- but then Welles adds to that by turning our perception of the mother on a dime with the line, “ That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.” That was devastating. The mother’s hardness, her inhumane chill merely a protective device that, for all her trouble,  smashed her son’s heart anyway.

In the end, Welles’ portrayal of Kane, even with all the cheeky hints and clues dropped in to agitate William Randolph Hearst, was fundamentally a sympathetic portrayal. “Rosebud” was Kane’s very soul that was sold away from him in his youth- no amount of money could every buy it back for him.

Are we capable of fixing ourselves? Maybe, but the cure won’t be found in money or power, that is something Welles, even at his tender age, understood.

Here is the bar scene from Damnation, she doesn’t even start singing until about minute three, but damn it! it’s worth the wait. Best lounge song ever.

The Fahrenheit of Cool

“I think I must admit so fair a guest when it asks entrance to my heart. ”         Jane Eyre

A few weeks ago I watched Orson Welles in Jane Eyre. It is a favorite book of mine. I identify on many levels with not only Jane, but Mr. Rochester as well- oh dear, that may explain some of my dysfunction…but anyway, the movie was wonderful. About an hour in, I knew it was taking its own approach as Jane was still languishing in the orphanage (albeit with the lovely Liz Taylor to keep her company). Aldous Huxley, as one of the screen writers, left entire plot lines out, but his choices and cuts added to the quality of the film, while respecting the heart of the story. It is a feat that is so rare, I had to consciously unbrace my anticipation of disappointment about forty minutes into the film and sweetly submit.

Of course neither Jane nor Mr. Rochester are beautiful people, it’s an important element of the book. I don’t find Orson Welles particularly attractive, but I am aware that he was (at that time) very good looking, never the less in this film he brilliantly battled the outer asshole of Edward Rochester with the inner wounded but lovely man. I won’t even say a word about Joan Fontaine’s diaphanous beauty…it is Hollywood after all where awkwardness or timidity has always passed for “ugly,” and Fontaine is so tender that her Jane was quite sufficient.

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am souless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and fully as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.” – Charlotte Bronttë, Jane Eyre

I was feeling very warmly towards Welles and so was excited to have him featured this week in my Film History class. We watched a documentary about the battle between Hearst and Welles over Citizen Kane. The film reviewed Welles’ rise to fame and particularly his War of the Worlds radio infamy.

I remember hearing the broadcast a few years ago (perhaps it was an anniversary, I don’t know). While the radio show was brilliant conceptually, as well as in its execution, as I was watching the documentary I began to feel very uncomfortable by what I could only see as Welles’ inner asshole. It just seemed mean to me. It may be terribly uncool to genuinely feel something, but why should a person be made to feel a fool because they trusted? The brazen coldness with which he treated people was unkind.

The wires in my brain are all crossed, Welles’ sensitive portrayal of Mr. Rochester keeps colliding into the image of his dismissive attitude in the wake of the War of the Worlds episode that is now seared into my mind. I hate that.

But I know. I do. It is easier to be cold.

atavism vision

Flowers Through Swim Googles – photograph by Augie Accardi (age 10)

Synchronicity is an appealing idea. Very likely it is simply an egoist’s fantasy. In reality, everything is already there, just hanging and waiting patiently, until one day we simply look up. Naturally, we mistakenly feel in tune or specially designated. It’s all about ME! I knew it!

Case in point- while I was furiously studying the ins and outs of DNA transcribing and RNA transcription for summer session college, I happened to catch a radio interview with author Sam Kean whose book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb has recently been published. Much to my delight, I understood what he was talking about as he enthused about RNA, DNA, Apoptosis and the like. What are the odds? The very week I am invested in comprehending DNA I happen to hear this interview…oh it’s all too much. Me, universe, we are one.

But the truth is, hundreds of books on DNA have been written and just because I finally noticed one is really not that interesting in the scheme of things, that admission out of the way, I can say – the book is interesting.

The Violinist’s Thumb is  – but this is only a guess because, as I mentioned, I did very recently memorize the mechanisms of protein production and DNA transcription- I think I would have understood the book just as well without this primer, but I can’t know for sure now can I? Too late, I’m already…educated.

Never the less, I think this is the sort of book that is meant for us none to middling scientific comprehension types. It is very readable and fills your heart with a kind of joy to ponder the wonder, complexity, and mystery of the universe- of our personal universe, which is ever the microcosm of the universe. It’s so beautiful. See? It is all about me! I knew it!

“It turns out that universal music does exist, only it’s much closer than we ever imagined, in our DNA”  – Sam Kean, The Violinist’s Thumb

Kean very astutely understands his average reader and early on connects the concept of literacy (musical as well as linguistic) with DNA. Or at least he knows my preference- sitting in class I would often get very excited by the literary-esque nomenclature of the whole process taking place within our bodies. My mind would rapturously start picturing a sort of tRNA His Girl Friday news room with the tick tick tick of the polypeptide news ticker tape – read by Cary Grant of course, “Yes, What? Blue eyes you say? Reddish brown hair, that’ll be just fine. Hurry up with that MHC*. Hold on, this just in, you are not infected with the Toxo virus as the smell of cat urine still repulses you. Right, got it. Here Darling, pass this on to Golgi, that’s a Dear.”

DNA is a news reel, a language. It can be read and understood in exactly the same way as a book or sheet music. To that end not only has DNA actually been turned into music by some clever person, but someone has also turned music into DNA code with nothing lost in…literacy. Perhaps we make sense of the world through stories because that is what we are:  books to be read or sung…kind of a lovely thought.

Kean easily explains all sorts of mysteries you may have not known you were dying to know. Why do we have DNA and RNA? Why will eating a polar bear’s liver kill you? Why do we fall in love with some people and not others (put the blame on MHC), Why doesn’t the female body attack and kill the virus (otherwise known as a baby) growing inside her? And how does said baby share its own cells with the mother? I’m kind of fascinated by that last one- my children’s cells in me, how wonderful!

My son Luke was onto something when he said recently, “Maybe we are the viruses of the universe”  Well- we do have more virus DNA than ape DNA in our code. That explains a lot. If actual viruses make up controlling portions of my DNA, the very story of who I am, then who am I?
There is no me. Damn it. I knew it.

But wait. What about epigenetic change, you ask? Altered DNA after the first draft so to speak? Yes, there is that, (according to Kean it explains why the personalities and physiology of identical twins become more distinct as the years accumulate, why our own personality changes…) but it seems to me that the changes are mostly stress induced, which is depressing – that’s our effect on our own DNA. Oh geez. I wish it weren’t all about me.

*MHC is a busy gene, but one of its functions is to make you smell like you, (the pheromones theory- that an auxiliary nose , the VNO, that in animals fully functions, but while we still may have one after age 16 weeks gestation, whether or not it functions is debated)  the part I find fascinating is that we are wildly attracted to people who have the opposite MHC (or, smell) as our own, which Kean says is one reason why incest is so unappealing. Maybe dating websites should just focus on DNA to accurately predict attraction….

The Readiness of Words

Lucrezia as Poetry by Salvator Rosa (oil painting) on view at the Hartford Atheneum

“It breaks my heart. I am far too prone to tears, too full of tears…”  Medea – Euripedes

In the play Medea, a lot of time is expended trying to reason with the epynomous character. The chorus pleads with her, her servants and friends beg and reason. What more can they do? She is not moved. She is, at least, human enough to have to brace herself against them, but her mind and heart are fixed:

“Away this flinching! Away this longing!” Medea

The other day towards the end of  my brief text exchange with a very mean person I suddenly thought of Flannery O’Conner’s story A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The chilling certainty of knowing that no matter what you say, your words won’t move the Misfits of the world. It’s a devastating realization that leaves one feeling utterly defenseless. When a heart is closed or calloused over no amount of “Wait! Wait! Don’t do that,” or heartfelt love and empathy will touch their soft core.

Even though we know that, in Medea, we are probably dealing with a woman of questionable mental health- I mean not every one would chop up her brother in an attempt to delay her pursuers, or find any necessity in killing their children, never the less, even if it is only for her own sake, you want her to understand the sickness and uselessness of spite.

Jason (Medea’s husband) is worthy of spite. Why didn’t he talk to her? To be looked over and ignored is worse than any cut. It was interesting to me that the word “love” kept coming up. I kept wondering what the original word was. Could it have been a slight mistranslation?  Is our modern ideal of love so different? Probably not- a lot of what passes for love is often of a dependent, controlling, or hollow type, so few people seem to ever experience true love, maybe that’s why we’re all so fascinated with the subject.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual word was more akin to “pride.” Oh the perfidy of pride and social standing! Jason comes late to the scene and his last ditch effort is in vain. Even if the words are ready, the man often is not.

And yet…and yet, I am unable to completely abandon my hope in the ability of words to pierce a soul or open a heart. I want too much for it to be true. And maybe because, for me, it is too true: I am susceptible to the pain or pleasure of mere words.

I am not alone of course, here is a beautiful song sung by Caetano Veloso from a scene of Pedro Amaldovar’s wonderful, funny and sweet film about the power of words – Talk To Her:


Medea
quotes from – Euripedes Ten Plays (translation by Paul Roche)

Fools

The Catskills (2011)

“Wine will make a wise man fall to singing”  Homer, The Odyssey

Well, that settles the debate.

I have multiple playlists on you tube. One of which I have titled Music To Think By. I mostly listen to it while doing my homework. My problem is that I cannot stop myself from singing, wine or no, which makes it hard to focus – not the wine, the singing. My Music To Think By is mostly lyric-less or at least not in English. But even this I have to be careful with as I will tend to sing along phonetically. Szamár*

I am presently enjoying; Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, the deaf percussionist Eveline Glennie (I first heard of her on a Ted Talk’s lecture called How To Listen), I love Mihály Vig (composer of all the soundtracks of Béla Tarr’s films), and have recently added Fotosputnik’s Sterominds and White Mountain Tunnel Romp from a recommendation by another great blog Anobium. The pianist Gonzales works well for long equations and deep philosophical thinking as well. For my personal favorite: classical guitar, Milos Karadaglic is very fine. Occasionally, while listening to music, the urge to weep overtakes me, but I have thrown in a little Anouk and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Mustt Mustt to help keep my heart from sliding over the falls into an abyss.

I am, as always, open to suggestions…

*That’s Hungarian for “silly”or “fool” which I now know from listen to Kész az egész , one of the best lounge songs ever sung on film (Damnation). I will probably have to remove it from my playlist as I…well – sing along. I may not know what she is saying, but – I’ve been there.

love harmóniák

I am not at all moved to write specifically on the subject, on the event, of Valentine’s Day. This is for at least two reasons:
a) I have never appreciated the commercial pseudo “holiday-ness” with all of its banal pink hearts and God forbid -teddy bears.
and,
b) I am irreparable.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

But I was thinking a little. And then I got to thinking about love scenes in movies. And then I began to think about a film that I saw that had, in my opinion, one of the best love scenes ever filmed in movie history. Love scenes are tricky things. Invariable they go one of two ways: they are either all about the passion or all about the love. And very often don’t realize either. The reason why this one is so amazing is because it is both. The film is The Werckmeister Harmonies by Hungarian director Béla Tarr.

It is an amazing experience, filmed in very long shots, some of them up to 10 or 15 minutes long. Some of the more famous scenes can be viewed on you tube, but I don’t recommend this. The “shower” scene is one of them, but to fully appreciate the impact of the moment you really need to have let yourself get absorbed in the entire lead up. It is worth it.

The love scene to which I allude, alas, is nowhere to be found on you tube. It may very well be that I am alone in finding this scene extraordinary. So be it. It takes place in a kitchen of a prepared-food shop where the young protagonist has gone to pick up a meal for an older gentleman. That alone is enough to recommend itself to me.

I really love to see food preparation and kitchens in films. This is a kind of austere eastern European kitchen, the young man brings a container to get the food. The container is perhaps ubiquitous in Budapest, I wouldn’t know, but it is a wondrous object to me. A series of interlocking white cylinders that attach together with long metal clasps on either side making a handle on top. I love the way it looked, and the way the woman spooned the food into it, so expertly and indifferently.

A little later on, almost vis-á-vis nothing (or at least I can’t really remember why exactly), the camera goes back to this kitchen; there is a man sitting behind the counter eating, a little greedily. A woman sits on his lap waiting for him to finish, a little impatiently. When he is done, they look at each other for a moment, and then kiss. With passion. And then they pull apart, and look into each other’s eyes. There in each other’s gaze is everything they feel, and it is so lovely: the emotion of it. Dead serious, playful, sweet, lustful…it is pitch perfect. And then they pull themselves to one another to kiss again: she pulls him by his scarf to her, or he grabs her, it goes back and forth in this way.

That is all. It’s fairly chaste, but all that could be revealed in film on the subject of romantic love is there. It’s very moving. The entire film is very moving. True, other than me, it’s probably not anyone’s idea of a “Valentine’s Day” film. It’s really a devastating exploration of  societal madness. It remains however a brilliant film with as tender and beautiful a love scene as ever there was. So, happy valentine’s day.