Sunday Salon: Kilts in the Sunshine, Reading in the Rain

We are back, alas, from our month in London, carrying great piles of books and programmes and painstaking notes for blog entries on my (somewhat backlogged) London journal:

Approaching this from another angle, though, we are back (thank the volcano gods) at home in Halifax, reveling in a mix of stunningly sunny and gloomily maritime weather:

  To be honest, I love the gloomy weather as much as the sunny (which make me a good candidate for Nova Scotia residency, eh?).  It fits the gothic landscape of the Maritimes like a glove.  But when we headed off to visit the Halifax citadel yesterday, its star-shaped fortress replete with bagpipers (as you can see) and Scottish guardsmen, I was glad of the toasty sunshine.

Today I am glad of the wintry damp that has settled over us: after a delicious brunch with friends at Jane's on the Common (Nova Scotian Salmon Benedict on Sweet Potato Biscuits), it gives us an excuse to loll about indoors all day, reading and blogging and (in D's case) playing the Wii.  In fact, I find myself scowling a bit at the rays of sunshine that are peeking through the window right now - it will be a lot harder to justify the lolling if the day becomes as beautiful as yesterday.

So what am I reading?

I am in the final, all-consuming throes of Patrick Ness's YA thriller The Knife of Never Letting Go. It takes place in a world suffused with Noise - a virus has made men's thoughts audible, an alteration which changes everything we know about deception and privacy.  For each of the last two nights, just as I was drifting off to sleep with the book in my hand, two separate, profoundly awful things occurred in the plot, leaving me feeling so grotesquely bad that I had to keep reading in order to avoid being haunted by these events in my sleep.  So I feel a bit ... captive to the book.  It is an intriguing world (and one which it would be far too difficult to spoil, hence my cagey vagueness in describing it), a world in which compelling characters are put in difficult and thought-provoking situations, but it can also be a deeply unpleasant one, as perhaps all books about war and violence should be.  I am just coming to the point, at the end of this first installment in the Chaos Walking trilogy, where some of the great mysteries of the book are being explained.  Sadly, as with LOST (the last few episodes of which we gulped down as soon as we arrived back on these shores), the explanations have a diminishing effect on the narrative: they are considerably less interesting than the mysteries.  Don't get me wrong, though: I have already ordered the next two installments in the series.  It has me firmly in its clutches.

Next up is Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which I started in London, where I was charmed by the alternative-world depiction of an Oxford college.  It is, interestingly enough, on my "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" list.  As compared with The Hitchhiker's Guide series, I knew nothing about this one.

Two more that I would like to get into today, if I can: a play by the Roman comedian Plautus (famous as the inspiration for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and as the namesake for the turtle in Stoppard's Arcadia - Plautus the Tau-toise), and George Eliot Clarke's Blue (another book started in London but perhaps best finished in Halifax).

Clarke is one of the great poets of Nova Scotia, and a fervent "witness" (to use his description of the poetic act) of the black Nova Scotian experience.  I am giddily, searingly in love with his words, which are themselves brutally and playfully enraptured with language.  His is a poetry that makes the most of the possibilities and impossibility of wordplay and punning - words that aim at difference in sameness, that multiply in meanings, and that blaze through these meanings, destroying as they illuminate.  Look at what he does, for instance, by playing - playing - with an unspeakable word in the opening poem, "Negation":
Le nègre negated, meagre, c'est moi:
Denigrated, negative [...]
                                        Her Majesty's
Nasty, Nofaskoshan Negro, I mean
To go out shining instead of tarnished,
To take apart Poetry like a heart.
    So my black face must preface your finish,
Deface your religion - unerringly,
Niggardly, like some film noir blackguard's.
I count six discrete plays here on the unspeakable word nègre alone (notice how he defers the utterance of the English word by giving us the French first, and how this use of italics - both for a foreign phrase and for an allusion [the negated speaker is also the state, the royal centre] - prefigures the play with italics later in the poem).  And this doesn't even encompass the brilliant punning of the final phrase - "film noir blackguard" - two uses of blackness that (putatively) have nothing to do with race.  What is a blackguard, in this context?  A ne'er-do-well, or a guardian?  A guardian who is black, or one who defends blackness?

All of this reminds me of another Canadian poet, Christian Bok, whose Eunoia (an experiment in using only a single vowel in each of five sections) I recommend to you in the strongest possible terms:

But Clarke's linguistic experiments feel more overtly political, more aggressive, than what I have read of Bök so far.  The book opens with this instruction to the reader: "Break the spine of this book, paralyze/Its malingering, belligerent words,/Even Love...."  Is that last word a verb, an instruction to us, an assertion that readerly love for a text is a relationship frought with violence (Break the spine of this book, even love [it]?)?  Or is it arguing that "love" is the last malingerer, most belligerent of all, like the pernicious hope left at the bottom of Pandora's box? 

He calls this a "poetics of arson": "These poems," he says, "are black, profane, surly, American. Their bitterness came honestly. US-torched, I wept these lyrics twixt 1994 and 1999.  The Great Republic's fiery liberty set me blazing.  An incendiary deréglement charred my brain black. [...] Cooling happens, glacially. I am the child of napalm."

Many of the poems have this Janus quality: they feel (as I, an American reading this from Nova Scotia did) as if you have just received an compliment that turned out to be at least equally an insult, or a criticism that hid within itself an unexpected token of respect.

OK: off to read before the growing sunshine guilts me into some sort of dratted outdoor activity.  But first, a question for you: does the place you are reading, your reading environment, make a different to what you read, or how?  Do you try to read books in situ - in the place they are set - when you are traveling?  Do certain environments lend themselves to certain types of reading, certain types of books?

The Doors of Dublin

We are safely back from Dublin, clouds of ash notwithstanding.  We nipped over on the unspeakably grasping discount airline Ryanair.  After hearing about their plan to charge passengers a pound for visiting the restroom, we began to trade absurd Ryanairisms - "On Ryanair, you can plug your computer in at your seat... but it drains your battery to power the plane;" "Do you have our passports?" "Oh no, I gave them to Ryanair in exchange for seatbeats;" or, just now, "Hey - I am blogging about our trip.  Do you spell Ryanair with one 'n' or two?" "One. [Reproving scowl.] They can't afford two 'n's."

We were only there for a few days, lured to the Emerald Isle by a production of Krapp's Last Tape starring Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon.  More on that soon, I hope, but for now, the famous doors of Dublin, as we saw them:

The most well known of the Dublin doors are the ones on its Georgian squares...

... with their translucent fanlights (of crucial importance in what can be a rather gloomy climate)...

... but I couldn't resist more gothic doorways ...

...with their anxious kings and exhausted bishops.

Some doors look staid at first..

... but hide their inner flamboyance...

... in the weather vane.

There are highly guarded doors,

... gracefully pragmatic doors,...

... and doors for midnight meetings with amorous troubadours.

There are also some doors whose carved companions seem considerably more ...


In the end, of course, my favorite doors were a touch metaphorical - 
the doors to higher education, to adulthood, to the ivory tower itself, at Trinity College.

Irish Interlude

We are off to Dublin for a few days without (!!!) our computers.  I had thought that this would be harder on D, who is umbilically attached to his computer most of the time, but (as it turns out) I am the one experiencing the most computer-separation anxiety.  Think of all the movies I won't be watching/research I won't be doing/blog I won't be updating!  I think this is a sign that it is a healthful time for a brief computer hiatus.  So there will be a bit of blog silence for a chunk of this week.  Back soon with more London (and Dublin) adventures....

Volcano willing, that is.

The Brontës: Why is Anne so growly?

Is it because she is the forgotten sister?  Or is she just tired of her siblings' weakness for crazed macho posturing?

First, I give you the Brontë action figures (with new Feminist vision!), as they battle the evil nineteenth century editors, sometimes as a Brontësaurus:

Look at all the great weaponry that a good hoop skirt can hide!

And then, as a second course, take in Get me off this freaking moor, a.k.a. "Dude-watching with the Brontës," a webcomic by fellow new-Haligonian Beatonna.

Pay close attention to how disgruntled Anne looks (nay, is) in both of these sterling works of literary biography.

Election Day for Monster Raving Loonies

It's Election Day here in Britain. And quite the fascinating election it has proved to be.  The nation's first televised debates.  The Lib Dems mount a spirited (and serious!) third-party challenge to Labour and the Tories for the first time in decades.  Their leader, Nick Clegg, says that his favorite author is Samuel Beckett, winning from me affection and a vague sense of unease.  (How could you not respect the intellectual complexity of that choice?  How could you not be troubled by the idea of a leader who is inspired by these lines from Worstward Ho!: "Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter. Try again. Fail again.  Fail better"?  Or maybe that statement is the essence of realistic liberalism. I say this as a progressive, you understand.)

Watching the election coverage the other night, D and I are struck by a candidate running under the aegis of the "Official Monster Raving Loony Party."  It had to be investigated.  And indeed, investigation only deepens the party's allure.

Then, yesterday, overheard in the Reform Club:

"Might go into the wee hours tomorrow."
"I'm voting Monster Raving Loony, you know."
"Ha ha! Well, that's quite a surprise!"
"Well, its just another way of saying 'none of the above.'  Besides, our candidate is rather sensible.  He was a prison governor; now he coaches the British Rifle team."
"Ah well, that's all right then."

On Avant-garde Circus (London Journal, Day 2)

London has been taken over by the circus.

Not the parading-elephants and lions-leaping-through-flaming-hoops kind of circus that increasingly raise twinges in the ethical parts of our brains.  No, these are acrobats-and-clowns type circuses, and more than that, they are performance-art circuses, pushing the boundaries of the genre until it bleeds into dance, installation art, and abstract theatre.

The Roundhouse Theatre is at the centre of the current flurry of activity with their CircusFest, which brings avant-garde circus companies from all over the world to London.  The British Film Institute has even gotten in on the game with a film festival of circus films (La Strada, Dumbo, Wings of Desire) in its South Bank cinema. So, after an afternoon at the Reform Club on our first day in London, we loped off to the Roundhouse to see French acrobatic company Compagnie XY and their current show, Le Grand C.

My line of reasoning went like this: how better to keep ourselves awake through this first, brutal evening of jet-lag than to toddle off to something as rollicking as the circus.  Time-ravaged, we lay down for a brief nap and almost managed to sleep through the performance.  I jolted awake a mere 45 minutes before it began (after forming the best-laid plans to leave at least half an hour earlier).  D cast a sideways glare at me as we loped listlessly off to Chalk Garden for the evening.  Hey, I thought, it's not like the time I dragged him off to a day in New York that consisted entirely of a Beckett matinee and an Ionesco evening.

I hadn't considered the possibility of a minimalist circus.

You see, Le Grand C starts extremely simply and slowly.  A few human bodies, plainly clothed and varied in form, a few basic actions.  Everyone stands, in crepuscular light.*  Eventually, they bring on a log, and place it on its end.   Each member of the ensemble takes a slow, deliberate turn standing on the log.  The last to try is the stockiest cast-member - the strongman - who struggles mightily and sweatily with the small surface he must balance upon.

We wonder why we are here.

But the point, I think, is to get us to look at these movements in detail, to understand the basic vocabulary of acrobatics and respect the effort and control that goes into even the simplest of actions.  The company was undoing the conditioning that allows us to operate the incredibly complex mechanism of the body without being paralyzed by a perpetual sense of wonder.  Consider how it feels to receive a minor injury that interferes with something as everyday as the functioning of your hand, the motions of chewing, or the ease of your gait.   Suddenly the coordination of all those muscles and joints and nerve impressions seems impossibly cacophonic.  As every yoga devotee knows, merely balancing on one leg for any period of time requires astonishing control.  We forget the complexity of the body, just like we disregard the workings of the airplanes we fly in or the computers that connect us.  We just know that they work, and the miracle fades.

This miracle is what Compagnie XY reasserts for us in the glacial opening minutes of Le Grand C.  Unlike many acrobats, they try not to make their actions look effortless, but to make them seem hard.  Grueling, in fact.

This is not to say that these movements lack grace.  In fact, by simplifying the movements and allowing us to see the mechanics of each gesture, Compagnie XY hits on a performance genre that is cross between the lines and lifts of contemporary dance, the feats of gymnastics and acrobatics, and (in one very odd section) the battling scrum of a rugby match.  (I had to wonder how this sort of a form would be received in a country with a widespread cheerleading culture.  I kept hearing Sue Sylvester in my head, screaming, "Terrible, babies, terrible!  You think this is hard?  I'm passing a gallstone as we speak! That's hard!".)

From this minimalist foundation, XY builds a structure of human bodies - leaping, balancing, flying, falling bodies.  The tricks that follow are almost entirely accomplished with the actors' own forms, aided by only the simplest of props: the log, a basic see-saw, a long belt of fabric.  Human pyramids and towers go up, and then acrobats leap and flip from the top of one to the apex of another.  Cannons are made out of groups of dancers who fling their colleagues' bodies headlong across the stage and into waiting arms.  Dancers dive and fall and curl around each other's shoulders, stomach, legs - clinging and catching and courting disaster. 

As the movements build in complexity, this much becomes clear: acrobatic circuses, at their core, are about the mechanics of bodiliness (as shown by the opening) and the workings of trust.  Thus they are works (for performers and audience) about affection, community, connection.  They reassure us about the bonds that hold human bodies together in labyrinthine structures of support.  It fills you with a warm feeling; you wish you belonged to a community like this one. There is a lot of eye contact here, before every move, and many smiles after each achievement.

And this is not to say that there are no failures, because there are a few.  These slight unbalances, collapses, imprecisions, and drops are followed by even more affection - touches, glances, smiles to reassure everyone that all is well, both bodily and socially.

Is the "C" in Le Grand C "cirque," "communauté," or "coeur"? As the piece goes on, it reveals itself as a bit of a meditation on love.  The bulk of it takes place in silence, broken from time to time by instrumental interludes.  Every so often, you hear a grunted call of "Un!", to ensure (I am guessing) that the whole group's count is synchronized.

About three quarters of the way through the piece, the ensemble begins a round, a rather elaborate piece of musical wordplay on the twin subjects of love and being taken along (aimer, amant, amener, emmener).  Individual voices weave in and out of the whole, much as the acrobatic tricks are layered so that to look at one you are always looking away from another, and brilliant, defiant things are always happening just at the periphery of your vision.

The round dwindles to a single voice, a single man - the most charismatic of the group, another strong-man who looks rather like a bearded, burly Celtic hero and who grins like the sun.  He sings sustainedly, alone, as person after person climbs up his body and onto his shoulders.  His voice only begins to falter when the human tower he supports is four people high.

After eighty minutes of wordlessness, in the last minutes of the play we finally get speech.  Two men direct their colleagues in a trick (urging the audience to silence, nudging the acrobats verbally - a bit forward... one arm... now a knee...).  At first I thought this was because these were particularly perilous tricks, but they looked to be roughly the same as feats performed earlier in total silence.  I could only conclude that this breaking into or layering on of language was important at this late stage in the play.  Verbal communication as the last binding of community.  Of love. 

*I always find myself hyper-aware of lighting effects when I go to the theatre with D, who was a lighting designer when we met as students.  He spends most performances staring up at the lighting grid, picking apart how the stage pictures are made.  The first thing he noticed about the Roundhouse was the functional beauty of its theatrical space.  It was originally intended for the rail service - a roundhouse is a circular building at the end of a line where trains are rotated so that they can make the return trip.  It has all the height (I might have said "grandeur") to make theatre-in-the-round work.  Shorter buildings create awkward angles for a lighting designer: light the stage, and you end up blinding the audience opposite.

Midsummer Night's Small Talk

D (as we walk to the theatre one exhausted evening):     
Did it ever occur to you that all this theatre could be bad for you?

Sycorax Pine:  
What are you, an early church father?


D and SP (as one):

From now on I am going to call you Tertullian.* 


         I think we need to get a pet tortoise, so that we can name him Tertullian.  Or Lightning, for short.

* The second century theologian Tertullian makes frequent but brief appearances in theatre history lectures on antitheatricalism.  Here's Jonas Barish on D's new namesake: "All pleasure, suggests Tertullian (perhaps in echo of Plato), is disquieting, even when experienced in moderation and calm, but the theatre, with its excitements and its maddened crowds, deliberately aims to provoke frenzy.  It is the frenzy itself, in fact, that draws spectators, for how else [to] explain the audience's mindless absorption in the imaginary fortunes of nonexistent characters? [...] To portray a murder is as wicked as to commit one, even if in the first case the murdered man gets up, walks off, and drinks a pint of ale with his assassin.  And as wicked as either the real murderer or his scenical counterfeit is the spuriously innocent spectator, whose soul is delightedly following the motions of the enacted crime."

Watching Duke in China

Those of you who have been reading Sycorax Pine for some time, or who know me personally, or who have (ahem) taken any one of my classes during basketball season, must know by now how I feel about Duke. 

I am sure it is a very fine institution in many ways, but it is the arch-rival of my beloved alma mater, the University of North Carolina (go Tar Heels!).  Thus I can't help but characterize it as the embodiment of all that is wicked in this world.  And there is nothing that makes me happier than watching one of the two annual Carolina-Duke games with my Blue Devil friends. 

One of these friends, the estimable Prof. JG, sent me this tremendously entertaining article by a Duke alum about the experience of watching the NCAA Championship in a sports bar in Beijing, where the regulars are great devotees of the sport of basketball, but not yet fully literate in the political and social nuances of college basketball fandom:

With six minutes left in the first, Jon Scheyer hits a three-pointer to put Duke up by four. The Duke fans let out some Cameron-Indoor-style enthusiasm. The Butler fans redouble their efforts to win converts. “You have to hate Duke,” exclaims one. “Coach K looks like a rat.” This critique is difficult to understand since the word for “mouse” and “rat” are the same in Chinese. Additionally, it is the mouse/rat’s cunning that allowed it to become the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. “Yes,” one of Zhang’s companions agrees, “the Team USA coach is very clever and excellent.”
Fans of each side appeal to the widespread Chinese respect for academic achievement, with Duke coming out a bit ahead because of their higher rankings across a variety of fields.  As the game (sigh) winds down to a (grr) Duke victory, the author turns to the man sitting next to him:
     “What did you think of the game?” I ask Zhang, who has been silent and transfixed for the past 20 minutes.
     “It was very interesting. I think the Duke University shall be my favorite team alongside Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets.”
     “Wonderful,” I reply.
     “I know that Michael Jordan is also from the state of North Carolina. Was he a student-athlete at the Duke University?”
     “No, he went to UNC. The University of North Carolina.”
     “I see.”
     Zhang pauses. “Duke will be my second favorite team.”

London Journal, Day 2: In which I commit myself to the cause of Reform

I am joining my grandfather's club. 

Some clarification is probably needed here: my grandfather has been a member of one of the historic London clubs along Pall Mall for the last half-century.  It is one of those institutions designed to provide a bastion of dignified masculinity where nineteenth-century husbands could seek their solace during daylight hours from the pervasive femininity of the domestic sphere. It has a vast library, an excellent dining room (Thackeray, who was a member, talks about the quality of the chef - who was much in demand - in Vanity Fair), a stunning colonnaded atrium, and a vibrant intellectual life.   This etching shows the upper level of the atrium in the 1840s.  What are all those women doing there?  I really couldn't say.  Probably being saucy. 

The club was founded by the supporters of the 1832 Reform Act, who felt the need of a social space for the progressive political life of London.  When my grandfather joined in 1959, they asked him to swear his commitment to the cause of reform.  "That sounds like something I agree with," he said, "but can you tell me what exactly it means?" "It means," the chairman replied, "that you believe that the middle class should have the vote."

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the political Liberalism of the club made it a gathering place for the prominent writers of the day.  Arthur Conan Doyle was a member, as were H.G. Wells, Henry James and E. M. Forster.   Siegfried Sassoon, beloved to me not only for his own poetry, but for his central role in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, was a member for even longer than my grandfather.  The actor Henry Irving was (perplexingly) a member of the Reform Club, not the actor's club nearby, the Garrick, which still doesn't admit women.  (And let's not forget that Stuart, the hero of Sherry Thomas's Delicious, is a fictional member of the Reform Club.)  Gladstone belonged, as well both Churchill and Lloyd George, although the latter two resigned their memberships when a friend was blackballed.

You see, when you apply for membership, your nominators present you to the Secretary and the Chair of the club, who then enter your name in a vast book that stand in the atrium.  The other members may then sign their names in support of your application or place a black mark under your name, blackballing you.  When Andrew Carnegie applied, so the story I heard goes, the labor practices of the American industrialist were not deemed to be in keeping with the principles of reform.  He was blackballed.  But when the Chair was giving me a tour of the club, Carnegie's picture hung on the wall of a back hallway, with other notable members.  "I heard that he was blackballed," I remarked with some surprise and not a little gaucherie. "He might have been," the chair replied, "People keep trying, you know."

The Reform Club was among the first (or the first?) of the Pall Mall clubs to admit women, which it has been doing quite heartily since the early 80s.  But it only occured to us last year that perhaps I might also join.  So on my first full day in London, I got dressed up and hied myself over to the club, to present myself to the Chair and obtain my official introduction to the Club. 

I have been visiting Pall Mall with my grandfather for several decades now.  When I was little, he used to take me to the clock in the atrium, which is set daily to the naval clock in Greenwich.   There is a book, he used to tell wee Sycorax, called Around the World in Eighty Days.  In this book, the hero makes a bet with some colleagues at the club, a bet that he can't make it all the way 'round the world and back to the club in eighty days or fewer.  The time will be marked by this very clock.  Let's set our watches to it, he would say, just like they would have.

My meeting with the chair was wonderful and surreal.  He introduced me to several different members, who expressed their exuberant willingness to sign by my name in the book.  The next thing I knew I was having lunch with the chair and an arms-dealer-turned-Anglican-canon.  When, I wondered, did my life become a John le Carré novel?

As I stood by the clock this time, I thought of my grandfather back in Washington, and of Jules Verne.  I went home and plucked our copy of Around the World in Eighty Days from the shelf.  I had never read it. 

The club insinuates itself into the opening lines of the novel:
In the year 1872, No. 7 Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1816, was occupied by Phileas Fogg, Esq.  Of the members of the Reform Club in London few, if any, were more peculiar or more specially noticed than Phileas Fodd, although he seemed to make a point of doing nothing that could draw attention.
And then it dominates the pages that immediately follow:
Phileas Fogg was a member of the Reform Club, he was nothing else.  That such a mysterious person should have been numbered among this honourable company might cause astonishment; let me say, then, that he was admitted on the recommendation of Messrs. Baring Brothers, on whom he was at liberty to draw to an extent unlimited. [...] He lunched and dined at the Club at absolutely regular hours, in the same room, at the same table; he never treated his fellow-members, never invited a stranger.  He never availed himself of those comfortable bedrooms that the Reform Club places at the disposal of its members [...] If he took walking exercise, he invariably did so with measured step on the inlaid floor of the front hall, or in the circular gallery under a dome of blue glass supported by twenty Ionic pillars of red porphyry.  Whether he dined or lunched, it was the Club's kitchens, the Club's larder, pantry, fish-stores, and dairy that supplied his table with their savoury provisions; it was the Club's waiters, solemn-faced men in dress-coats, with molleton under the soles of their shoes, who served his food on special china, upon admirable Saxony napery; it was out of the Club's matchless glasses that he drank his sherry, his port, or his claret flavoured with cinnamon and capillair; and it was the ice of the Club, imported at great expense from the American lakes, that kept his beverages in a satisfactory state of coolness.
That last luxurious detail always strikes me as particularly giggle-inducing.  They were dragging chunks of ice from Lake Michigan to London to cool the Reform Club's gin-and-tonics?

The wonderful thing about reading this edition is this: my grandfather had jotted little notes all through the margins, although this verb hardly described the cool precision of his minute characters. 

"Not quite accurate," his marginalia declare the description of the club above. "?," he writes, near a use of the word "gumption." "Right!" he exclaims when Phileas Fogg looks out over the lush gardens from his seat in the dining room.  And "Never!" when he washes down his pudding with a cup of specially mixed Reform Club tea....

Defying stereotypes of English Prudery, one student at a time

My favorite student comment to emerge from last semester's Contemporary British Drama course:

Something I didn't expect when I took this course is just how adult-oriented these plays are.  I was expecting dry, witty, and proper Englishness and instead I'm titillated with nudity, sex, violence, and swearing - and I'm not disappointed at all.

So now I'm inevitably wondering how I am going to make next year's classes live up to that hype.  My Irish and Modern European Drama syllabi are not nearly as, um, in-your-face as British Drama has blessedly been.  Gulp.

Volcano Permitting (London Journal, Day 1)

We are in London now.  We arrived a little over a week ago*, on the first day that planes were allowed through the Atlantic passage to northern Europe. When else, other than in the last month, could I have uttered the words "I will see you at XYZ, volcano permitting" not once, but multiple times?  Life offers some strange opportunities.

We were lucky to be able to travel when we did.  If they had waited a mere twenty-four hours more to open British airspace, we wouldn't have been able to rebook our tickets for weeks.  I tried to take an attitude of Zen flexibility to events which almost exemplify the term "act of God" (specifically Vulcan), but I admit to being quite nervous about the 24 or more nights of non-refundable theatre tickets I had already booked for this trip.

So I embarked on our fifteen hours of plane travel from Los Angeles** with an unprecedented degree of glee, and (despite having gotten only an anxious two hours of sleep the night before, thanks to a blasted grading deadline) settled in to watch as many movies as possible on the journey.

What did I see?

  • I started with the delightfully meta experience of watching Up in the Air from the window seat of an airplane.  Eventually D began to tire of my poking him every time George Clooney looked out over the clouds from his (considerably cushier) seat, and then pointing to the identical view from my window.  I was like a toddler who first discovers the likeness between art and life: Look- a cat on the page, and a cat sitting next to me! Mimesis! (This picture actually exists of me as a toddler, in my first ever moment as a reader.  I am pointing with one hand - like a chubby, Oshkosh-clad medieval Christ-child - to the cat on the cardboard page of my picture book, and with the other to my childhood pet Tyke.) I know that George Clooney is a divisive figure.  My students (particularly my male students) speak with disgruntlement of the way he turns in the same chiseled, dimpled performance in every film.  I, by contrast, find his choice of projects remarkably canny and his performances nuanced, if not chameleonic. Frankly, I think he is the Cary Grant of our day, and this film moved me profoundly in a way that I cannot describe in any detail without spoiling its central generic trick.
  • Next I watched Precious, which left me too abysmally traumatized to get any sleep on the remainder of the flight.  There were some highly effective performances here, but I didn't feel convinced by the coherence of the film as a whole.  The fantasy sequence struck me as a little creakily done - looking more like a television show that had been rushed through production than like a film of the caliber that I felt Precious could be.  And as excellent a character as Precious herself was, I didn't know what to do with the concatenation of extreme suffering that was her lot.  It began to seem a bit like narrative cruelty rather than meaningful representation of real social problems.  I don't know - I would like to hear other reviewers' thoughts on this question.  Does her suffering (and her responses to it) cohere into something both meaningful and unexpected?
  • Thinking that far too many hours remained in my flight, and that my soul was aching from my encounter with Precious, I turned to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for solace.  I am beginning to think (after this film and my non-retch-inducing encounter a few weeks earlier with New Moon) that a certain type of film is actually improved by being seen on the small screen of a seat-back television.  It makes it impossible to take the pretensions of the film too seriously, but also provides a circumstance in which you are exceedingly grateful for a film that entertains and passes the time quickly and engrossingly.    At any rate, this proved to be one of my favorites of the Potter films so far: the kids' acting has improved immensely over the years, and I found their nascent romantic conflicts well rendered.  But (as I am sure every critic has already noted) they bungled the most important plot-line (the question of Snape's adolescence and current loyalties) badly by barely treating it at all.  Why, film-makers, why?  Alan Rickman is an impeccable and magnetic Snape, and this was the aspect of the books that consumed endless discussion between the penultimate and ultimate installments.  Why squander our opportunity to settle into a good, long exploration of the Snape character, even while exploring the parallel moral quandary that Draco finds himself in?  Boo.
  • In the few minutes I had left, I watched a little medley of Oscar-nominated short films: the tremendously witty and profane Logorama, a quintessentially Gallic piece of quirk called French Roast, and a bleak reflection on alienation called Miracle Fish.  I am going to have to seek out the rest on Netflix when we get back to the States in a couple of months.
We made our way through the ash without incident, and dragged ourselves home from the bustle of Heathrow to our green and shady flat in Notting Hill.  Home.

And then we slept.  And slept and slept.

*I am running, I know, a bit behind on the "London journal" portion of my blogging, quite apart from the huge reviewing backlog.

** We had been in LA for D's last few days of filming and my friend JL's wedding in Malibu, which featured stunning views of the historic Adamson house in one direction and the long line of the beach in the other.  After a delicious dinner, we all Bollywood-danced the night away, instructed by some professionals who showed us the basic steps....