Saturday, April 10, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: The Lives of Others

How long has it been now? Almost three years? Yes, going on three years since someone recommended The Lives of Others to me. It's taken me this long to see it. I finished watching it a few minutes ago. I feel drained.

Das Leben den Anderen [The Lives of Others] (German, 2006, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, starring Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, and others) is not a perfect film, but it is a multi-layered tour de force nevertheless. It subtly conveys the brutish oppressiveness of the East German security system (although I suspect the reality was blacker than it's painted here) and it's emotionally gripping from start to carefully orchestrated finish, taking us through layer after layer of surveillance and betrayal. 

The end of the film seems hopeful, but is it really? Stasi (Ministry for State Security) Hauptmann Wiesler selflessly defies the system to cover up for the "crimes" and personal betrayals of the people he's supposed to be watching; his is an act of love almost. But the final release of the captives that people the frames of The Lives of Others (an entire nation of people) is ultimately effected by Gorbachev and glasnost in the Soviet Union, by what feels like an external accident--the consequence of a personnel change in a land far away. The fall of the Berlin Wall seems as arbitrary as the system that created it, which is a reminder of how frighteningly and pointlessly cruel human beings can be to one another. After some 45 years of oppression, with what did state security provide anyone? Little more than perks for the elite, the kind of perks that no system of government seems able to do away with.

Director Donnersmarck quickly creates a dark mood. In the opening scene, a prisoner brought in for interrogation is made to sit in a stiff chair and told to sit with his hands under his thighs, palms down--tyranny is always petty--and throughout the film, the control exerted by the state is underscored more effectively by these little details than by speeches in the mouths of the main characters. The opening interrogation, we learn, has been taped. In the following scene, Wiesler uses it in the training of new recruits being taught interrogation techniques. The state is patient. It doesn't care about the lives it destroys. It works in shifts. It has all the time in the world. It strikes at love, at loyalty, at everything human in us. Wiesler reminds his students at the Stasi school never to forget to get a scent sample from each interrogation (using a piece of cloth hidden under the seat of the chair the subject sits in). "For the dogs," Wiesler says. Even our own bodies are made to betray us.

Ulrich Mühe is superb throughout. Taut, calculating, ever-observant as Wiesler the faithful Stasi man; fragile, alone, and desperate to feel something--and, ultimately, to do something good--as Wiesler the rebel. The difference in his demeanor is subtle but powerfully evident even in scenes that show him doing almost nothing--just sitting, listening. Or just sitting, interrogating. Even with virtually no expression on his face, we know which Wiesler we're looking at.

I was immediately reminded of Ray Bradbury's Farhrenheit 451. Fireman Guy Montag (played by Oskar Werner in Truffaut's 1966 movie version of the story) finds himself in much the same position as Wiesler. He is the unquestioning enforcer working in the interest of state security, but slowly he finds himself drawn to the people and the ideas he is charged with monitoring and suppressing. The pacing and the crescendo of pursuit at the end of The Lives of Others are reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal (1973, Directed by Fred Zinneman). Emotionally wrenching. Ultimately ambiguous, but hard to forget. Recommended.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wines I'm Making: First Leaves on the Cabernet Vines (2010)

The first leaves are beginning to appear on the Cabernet vines in the back yard. The buds actually broke a few days ago, but leaves are now pushing out. As usual, they are about two weeks behind the Sangiovese vines.

There are nine Sangiovese vines and 23 Cabernet vines in the yard, of which four are Cabernet Franc--the rest being Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Franc vines are always slightly ahead of the Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the only time of the year I can tell them apart. To the eye, they are virtually identical. Leafed out, there is little to distinguish them visually, and the fruit is identical as well--to the eye. Well, at least to my eye.

Four of the original vines we planted failed to survive the first year. The nursery that supplied them, Nova Vine (right across the street from the main entrance to Oakmont, on Highway 12, in Santa Rosa), replaced them for me but accidentally gave me Cabernet Franc instead of Cabernet Sauvignon. I decided to keep them, so the Cabernet wine each year is a blend of these two grapes--17% Cabernet Franc, 83% Cabernet Sauvignon (on the assumption that all vines yield equally.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Cistus "Sunset," Rose "Nearly Wild," Rose "Livin' Easy," Echium Vulgare

At this time of year, keeping up with the garden begins to get difficult. Every day brings new flowers. Today the first blooms of 2010 came on the rock rose (Cistus) called "Sunset," on two roses--"Nearly Wild" and "Easy Livin," on Echium vulgare, and on one plant that I can't identify any more. "Sunset" is pictured above, Echium vulgare below.

Echiums are generally very tall plants with spikes of tiny flowers sometimes as much as 20 feet high. They are native to places like the island of Madeira. You've probably seen them on the coast if you live in California or visit here--at places like Bodega Bay and Mendocino. They have common names like "Tower of Jewels."

Vulgare is the smallest and least showy of the Echiums I know, but it's pretty nevertheless. The flowers bloom in loose spikes (the photo here shows only a single small blossom). They start out clear blue and fade to a washed-out violet pink. The plant is only about 18 inches tall. It's strong (tolerating neglect), but it tends to look a bit ratty late in the season. Still, it's a nice addition to the spring color parade.

Like many of the Echiums, it will reseed itself if you let the flowers go. There are about 8 Echium boissieri plants around the garden this year--none of which I planted. The original, single plant was put in about four years ago. It's long gone, but its descendants continue to thrive. The Echium vulgare is a volunteer, too, from a single plant I put in several years ago. Two or three Echium wildpretii are set to bloom this year as well. A few of the Echiums are perennials. Most are biennials (producing a rosette of low leaves the first year, a tall flower spike the second year and then dying). Echium vulgare is an annual.

Wines I'm drinking: 1998 Cuvée des Sommeliers Châteauneuf du Pape

I enjoyed this wine at a family birthday celebration we did recently at the Fig Café, in Glen Ellen--sister restaurant to The Girl and the Fig, in Sonoma. I like the Fig Café because it's one of the very few restaurants in the area that doesn't charge a high corkage fee. In fact, the Fig Café will happily uncork and serve wines you bring in yourself for nothing. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that right in the middle of one of the world's great wine-growing regions, you'd find a restaurant that was friendly to wine lovers, but it's true. (I don't know if The Girl and the Fig has the same policy; I've been there only for lunch.)

I moved to Santa Rosa in the autumn of 2000, exhausted from years of living in Tokyo and from the pressures of twelve years in the financial industry there, including six years as a securities analyst during Japan's economic bubble period (which admittedly had its perks, but I was exhausted nevertheless). Everything was new here in California. I think I was in a state of shock for a while after coming "home"--although nowhere really feels like home to me, the consequence of never having lived any one place for very long. If anywhere is home, I suppose Tokyo is, but, at that time, I was dazed and continually surprised by all the space, by all the sunshine, and by the bounty in the supermarkets in the US. What is now Whole Foods was a store called Food for Thought. It had an interesting wine section and an interesting wine buyer that I became friendly with. This is a wine I bought shortly after landing back here in the US. The bottle still has the price sticker on it. I paid $21.99 for it.

It was in beautiful condition when we drank it at the gathering, probably at its peak. It had spent its final ten years in my cellar. More than anything, I enjoyed it for its heady bouquet of violets. I'm a sucker for the scent and taste of violets in a wine. I suppose that's why so many of my favorite French reds come from the southern Rhône. This one was full of violets. Delicious. Another very good yet inexpensive 1998 wine from the southern Rhône.

For a long time, references to "violets" in wine perplexed me. The violets I knew never had much scent (they were an aggressive spreader in the Dayton, Ohio garden I took care of for my mother as a teenager. Pretty, but not especially fragrant. I spent a lot of time ripping them out of places they didn't belong.) It wasn't until I encountered Viola odorata, the violet the French like to entomb in sugar crystals, that I understood. Find this plant at a nursery and plant it in your garden (steal and eat one of the flowers at least). Everything will make sense.

Familiar, as I say. The first time I smelled and tasted one of these flowers I found myself suddenly standing in the New York City of my childhood. Brooklyn, to be exact. St. John's Place. On the sidewalk in front of our apartment building, unrolling a roll of candies. No violets grew at St. John's Place. Very little grew there. I mostly remember asphalt and concrete and yellow bricks. But there was a candy store at the corner of our street--the store that my brother and I were sent to on Sunday mornings to bring back the New York Times from, the candy store where occasionally I was allowed to use my allowance to buy some candy (I think I was given 10¢ a week). [Looking at Google Maps, I see that this candy store must have been at the corner of St. John's Place and Underhill Ave. Our address on St. John's Place was 283.]

I remember my favorite candies. LifeSavers above all else. I remember the sense of outrage I felt when they went from 5¢ a roll to 7¢ a roll--seven seemed such an untidy number--not to mention that my allowance suddenly bought only one roll. My favorite flavor was "Tropical." Mangoes? Coconuts? Pineapples? I don't remember exactly, but they were wonderful. I used to dissolve them slowly in my mouth, trying to see how small and thin I could let the round candy become before it broke in two. Another favorite was a candy I've been unable to remember the name of. It came in small rolls--about half the size of a LifeSavers roll (both in length and diameter). Each candy was round and slightly cupped. One fit into the next like a nestled spoon. They came in pastel colors. One of the flavors in the multi-colored roll (I realized after I encountered Viola odorata)  was redolent of violets. Perhaps that childhood association is part of the reason I respond to the scent of violets so instinctively, so powerfully, so pleasurably.

Miscellaneous: When Product Safety Warnings Don't Make Sense

Recently, while out and about, I popped into a supermarket for something quick to drink. Seduced--as always--by the lovely lime, I chose a bottle of Stewart's Key Lime Soda. While idly reading the back label (as one does) I found a warning. I regret not saving the bottle because I can't quote it exactly, but it more or less said this: Soda bottles can explode, which is dangerous, so don't point a soda bottle at your face, particularly when opening one.

I got to thinking about that. "Particularly when opening one." It didn't say exclusively when opening one. The wording implies you should never point a soda bottle at your face--or at least not a bottle of Stewart's Key Lime Soda. I started trying to imagine drinking from a bottle of soda without pointing it at my face.... The mind boggles.

Having said that, the soda is good--old-fashioned soda fountain flavor. I also love the Boylan Black Cherry Soda they sell at Pearson & Co. here in Santa Rosa (and elsewhere, I'm sure). Real fruit flavor and sweetened with cane sugar--which really does taste better than high-fructose corn syrup.

Birds I'm Watching: Lake Ralphine and Spring Lake

In a lull between bouts of work today (April 8)--in need of a change of pace, and mindful of predictions of yet more rain in the coming days--I spent a couple of hours at Lake Ralphine and Spring Lake, just a few minutes from my house. I had to go late in the day--not the best time of day to see birds--and there was comparatively little activity. A fair number of birds were singing, but I saw very few of them--which is always frustrating. Having said that, I did see the following at Lake Ralphine: Common merganser, pied-billed grebe, crow, Canada goose, red-winged blackbird, bufflehead, double-crested cormorant, Brewer's blackbird, common goldeneye, turkey vulture, and the spotted sandpiper that's been hanging out on the east side of the lake for a couple of months now.

In walking around Spring Lake, I saw: Scrub jay, song sparrow, orange-crowned warbler (many singing in addition to the one I actually saw), several spotted towhees, bushtits, crow, red-winged blackbird, Anna's hummingbird, acorn woodpecker, yellow-rumped warbler, snowy egret, a bittern, double-crested cormorant, golden-crowned sparrow, six pied-billed grebes, five Canada geese, two green herons, and a partridge in a pear tree.... No, wait. Strike that last one.

The highlights were the spotted sandpiper, the green herons, the snowy egret (which let me approach very close), and a very large drift of Sisyrinchium in full bloom on the shaded side of one of the saddle dams at Spring Lake.

I was also able to record an unfamiliar bird song with my iPhone (amazing little contraption) that was clearly enough captured to later identify the bird as a Black-headed Grosbeak.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Birding Spots

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Found Art: Gasoline Tank Covers (April 8, 2010)

Having recently found some interesting covers on the gasoline tank inlets at a local gas station, I've started looking at these every time I put gas in the car. Each station appears to be different, but there is almost always a group of four or five covers together. They often make interesting compositions. More found art.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Found Art: Santa Rosa Morning Fence (April 7, 2010)

Walking around the neighborhood near my son's school this morning, I came across this half-painted fence in oblique morning sunlight. Found art. Beautiful.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wines I'm drinking: 2007 Château Ballan-Larquette Bordeaux

Last night I opened a bottle of the 2007 Château Ballan-Larquette, one of two wines I bought a few weeks ago at Beverages and More during one of their two-for-one sales (actually, during one of their buy-one-get-the-second-one-for-a-nickel sales, but that's much harder to type). I'm just getting around to trying these. Tasting notes follow.

A very attractive red--the color of dark plum skins or Kiwi Brand Cordovan Boot Polish (Hey, I used to dress up to go to work, too). Very full color in the glass. Looks youthful and vibrant. Scents of earth and leather. Closed at first, but a fairly typical if somewhat distant Bordeaux nose. Still cold from the garage, so I decanted it to give it some air and to help it warm up. The wine is already throwing a light deposit. Good body on the palate. Quite tannic at first (perhaps accentuated by the low temperature). Suggestive of plum skins (tart and astringent but fruity at the same time). Good acid. Seems youthful but promising. Good length with lingering fine-grained tannins. Probably best in another 4-5 years. Overall, seemed balanced and tasty, but young and a bit lacking in fruit.

With a little time in the decanter and as the wine warmed up, it began to evolve. The nose became noticeably more complex. I began to get white pepper very distinctly, along with roses and cayenne pepper. The wine kept getting softer and smoother. It gradually knit itself into a harmonious whole. Not a great wine, but a solid food wine. The kind of wine that restauranteurs like--clean, well made, and balanced, with no rough edges; that is, tasty but not so distinctive as to distract from the food. I enjoyed this. I'd call it a good value at the sale price of $19.99 for two bottles. I'm not sure I'd stock up on it at full price. Having said that, I preferred it to the 2006 Château de la Meulière Côtes de Bordeaux I tried a couple of days ago, also on sale at Beverages and More.

[Update: I subsequently tasted a white wine and a rose from the same château.]

For many more wine reviews, use the "Wines I'm Drinking" tab on the right.

Movies I'm Watching: Hedwig and The Angry Inch

Today I watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, starring Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Michael Pitt, Andrea Martin, Maurice Dean Wint, Ben Mayer-Goodman, and others). I chose this film from three lists of  little-known gems of the cinema I'm going through at the moment. (For more on this topic, see my initial post on the subject, or use the "Movies I'm Watching" tab to the right.)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch might be called a philosophical rock opera--philosophical not in the sense of calm, thoughtful, and accepting in the face of adversity (although, come to think of it, there is indeed an element of the philosophical in that sense in the character of Hedwig), but philosophical in that the story draws on ideas from the history of philosophy in presenting its core theme of the duality of the human soul. According to the DVD box and what I've been able to find elsewhere, this was originally a theatrical production that evolved out of a long series of musical performances by director John Cameron Mitchell in the role of Hedwig, an East Berlin-born transexual glam rocker (Hedwig, not Mitchell) who has suffered a botched sex-change operation that leaves him without a penis or a working vagina--with an "angry inch" instead ("The Angry Inch" is also the name of his back-up band). He hilariously describes himself as having a "Barbie Doll crotch." Much of the story is propelled by the music of Mitchell's collaborator, composer Stephen Trask, and by animated sequences. These are interspersed with soliloquies spoken or half sung by Hedwig who is telling us his/her life story.

A version of the show eventually had a two-year Off-Broadway run. Having now seen the movie, I'm trying to imagine how the theater version might have been staged. The film has nothing of the feel of a filmed stage production. It's thoroughly cinematic.

There is some memorable imagery--notably the bemused spectators at the Bilgewater chain of restaurants that Hedwig's manager keeps booking the band into on the American portion of its "World Tour." The (very few) customers watching the androgynous Hedwig prance in flamboyant Farrah Fawcett-style blonde wigs don't know what to make of him. There is also quite a bit of good music in Hedwig. The score is interesting throughout, and Mitchell can sing. He can act as well. Mitchell's performance is witty and nuanced. Maurice Dean Wint has a small role, but he's wonderful as the salacious Sgt. Luther Robinson. Ben Mayer-Goodman, in the role of Hedwig as a young boy, is excellent as well--not to mention Miriam Shor, a woman, in the role of band member Yitzhak, a man. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems to want to make a statement. Hedwig starts life in Berlin, a divided city. Later, he reluctantly agrees to a sex-change operation so he can marry a GI who will take him to freedom in America (Hedwig wonders if his other half, his better half, is "on the other side"), but the operation goes awry and leaves him split like the city he lives in; he is neither man nor woman. Hedwig (having been abandoned by his GI husband in America) becomes obsessed with following the singing tour of  devoutly Christian "Tommy Gnossis," (originally one of Hedwig's own fans who becomes his protégé and lover; they write songs together) after Tommy has run away from their relationship, appalled to learn that Hedwig has a stub of a penis when finally their kisses and caresses progress to something more sexual. Tommy becomes a rock star, his fame based mostly on songs he stole from Hedwig--and his departure creates another pair of separated halves, for the implication is that Tommy and Hedwig are actually two faces of the same being. The entire film is permeated with a longing for achieving wholeness, a longing for the reconciliation of separated halves.

The opening song and animation recount Aristophanes' story about the original human form told in Plato's Symposium: Man, Aristophanes tells us, originally had four arms and four legs and a head with two faces--one facing front, the other facing back--and two sets of genitals similarly positioned. Primeval humans were the children of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. The children of the Sun were doubled men, the children of the Earth were doubled women, the children of the Moon were androgynes. Humans could look and walk forwards or backwards as they pleased and roll sideways at furious speeds when in a hurry or on the offensive. When some of these hot-headed creatures one day decided to attack the gods on Mt. Olympus, it became clear that something would have to be done. Some of the gods advocated annihilation, but others balked at losing tribute from humankind--particularly Zeus. Zeus's solution was to cut people in half with flung thunderbolts, which doubled our numbers but halved our powers and put us in our place. This rending of us into two, we are told, has left each of us eternally seeking our lost half, our soulmate. Incidentally, Aristophanes neatly explains heterosexuality and homosexuality along the way: The human androgynes naturally seek the opposite sex in looking for their lost soul mates. The men look for other men, the women for other women. Hedwig seems to believe that Tommy is his soul mate, and at the end of the movie they appear to merge into a whole again.
While I enjoyed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I'm not sure what the  film ultimately says about what it seems to be thinking most seriously about--the nature of our souls; the ending of the film is ambiguous. But perhaps that doesn't matter. The music, the compelling performance of the lead actor, and dynamic visuals keep the film entertaining--although Hedwig and the Angry Inch certainly does makes you think. Recommended. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Miscellaneous: Santa Rosa Morning

Spring break is over. My son is back at school. The best part of my day used to be walking him to school in the morning. It was a good time to talk, a good time to look at the sort of things you miss when driving.

Unfortunately, his new school is too far away to walk to--so we drive. Most mornings I park and take a short run through the streets around the school.

I like to look at the morning sun on the houses and the gardens, especially at this time of year, when it's low and casting long shadows. I like to listen to the birds. I like to think about things. Running gets the blood going. It's a good way to start the day.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Pacific Iris, Monkey Flower, German Iris, Sonoma Sage

After another night of torrential rain (we got a full inch of precipitation), the sky is blue, the sun is out, and the garden is awash with new color. First blooms of 2010 today on some of the monkey flower plants (Mimulus sp.)--I've given up trying to remember which is which--on the small, violet Pacific iris (Iris douglasiana), and the first of the German or bearded iris (the variety called "Change of Pace" that always seems to bloom first). Salvia sonomensis (Sonoma sage) is also blooming today. Yesterday the red and yellow rose "Cocktail" had its first flowers of the year. The Cytisus scoparius called "Moonglow" is now in full bloom, along with the Australian native Isopogon Formosus, and the Rhododendron "Double Eagle," which is pictured here (top photo). In 2009, the first bearded iris bloomed on April 6. Thus, a year according to the irises in the yard was 364 days. "Cocktail" was early this year; in 2009 it first bloomed on April 20. "Change of Pace" bloomed on April 10 in 2009, for a year of 360 days. Scabiosa bloomed yesterday for the first time this year--very late compared with March 15 in 2009, for a year of 386 days.

I particularly like the Pacific iris. It blooms in large colonies on the hillsides in the area. Growers have bred fancier varieties with more frills and a wider range of colors, but this is the unaltered form, and it's quite good enough for me. I wonder if you've ever driven back to Sebastopol or Santa Rosa from the coast near Bodega Bay by way of Coleman Valley Road? There are large patches of this iris on the high bluffs there that look out over the Pacific Ocean. It's a winding, single-lane road for much of the way. It's often windy. In the late afternoon or just before or after a storm, the views can be spectacular. Heading east, it drops you into the town of Occidental. A road well worth exploring next time you're in the area. I wish I could show you.
Related Posts with Thumbnails