Saturday, February 23, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer and I are watching a lot of movies lately.  Some I have not blogged about.  Today, for Our Valentine's Day, we saw Silver Linings Playbook after a nice lunch at Chili's.  This marks our 25th Valentine's Day together.  We had one before we married.  At any rate it is a very good romantic comedy and I'd rank it a 7 maybe an 8.  I think the screenplay is excellent, and is Oscar-winning calibre, the acting is totally up to par (it is the first film in over 30 years and only the 14th movie in history to be nominated for all four major acting awards in tomorrow night's Oscars), and it is comparable with Lincoln (to the degree a romantic comedy can be compared directly with an historical drama), which joins it with other films for the Best Picture nomination in this year's Academy Awards

I have not seen Argo, nor any of the other Best Picture nominees save for Zero Dark Thirty.  If I rank the three contenders I have seen as of today, I give Zero Dark Thirty a slight edge as the best of the three.  I understand Argo is the favorite to win overall.  I hope to catch that on a future DVD release. 

Speaking of DVD's, The Master comes out next week.  I am looking forward to the acting in that.  Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favorite several living actors.   I plan to catch all of the Best Picture nominees in a "delayed satisfaction mode" when I can rent them from Redbox.  This is a mental practice toward life I have tried to adopt recently.  It makes the best economic sense and it helps me deal with the danger of "immediate gratification" that I think burdens my life and makes our society weaker.  But, that is for a future post.  Barring big theater experiences (like Avatar in IMAX), films are just as good or just as bad on my HDTV as in any other format.

My daughter pointed out to us that we didn't do anything special as a couple for "actual" Valentine's Day several days ago.  But I explained to her that we delayed the enjoyment of it until today.  I mentioned that as long as her mother and I agree it is Valentine's Day between us as a couple, then it did not matter what the rest of the world alleged about when Valentine's Day cometh.  That is the essence of Nietzsche's Free Spirit. (I did not tell my daughter that last part.)

The movie today was a perfect celebration; lite without being overly sentimental, complicated and, in part, rediculous but funny and written so you are rooting for the couple.  A plausible happy ending.  I don't know if it will win any Oscars tomorrow but it deserves Best Screenplay compared with the other films I've seen.  We came home and drank upscale beer and scotch and listened to the Cool Jazz music feed.  It was very nice.  We love each other.

In the evening we settled in and (rather spontaneously) we watched It Happened One Night, a rare film that compares with Silence of the Lambs and One Flew Over a Cookoo's Nest as being the only films in motion picture history to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.  I really enjoy Clarke Gable in this classic romantic comedy.  He is at his height as an actor and I rate the film as a 9, possibly a 10.  It is an noticeably superior film for the 1930's.

Silver Linings Playbook is not as good a film as It Happened One Night.  But it still made a fun gift to each other on Our Valentine's Day afternoon outing.

Late Note: Argo did win Best Picture.  Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor, his third well-deserved Oscar.  Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress. Quentine Tarantion won Best Original Screenplay.  Ang Lee won Best Director.  I look forward to seeing the latter two movies when they come out on DVD. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Some Like It Hot

Tony Curtis (as Joe or Josephine) and Jack Lemmon (as Jerry or Geraldine, erm, oops as Daphne)  
Curtis (as the wealthy yachtsman) argues with Lemmon as he (she) can't stop dancing the rumba.
Last weekend Jennifer and I enjoyed the great film Some Like It Hot (1959) directed by Billy Wilder. The comedy features wonderful performances Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. It is interesting that this movie scores high (98%) on Rotten Tomatoes and is ranked 88 (as of this post) on the Top 250 list at the Internet Movie Database and yet almost no one I know has ever seen or remembers the film. Of course, with a few exceptions, the older the film is the less likely it is for anyone to see it in our times.

Still, Some Like It Hot is a 9 in my book and possibly a 10. We are talking about one of the greatest movies ever made and it is absolutely hilarious as well. It is funny on the screen with several gags and humorous situations, even a little slapstick. But, it is also funny in a very intellectual way. This is no lightweight comedy. It does not force the viewer to think but it does reward a thoughtful viewer with a greater depth of humor.

In a nutshell, Lemmon (playing the character of Jerry in the film) and Curtis (Joe) are two musicians down on their luck in 1929 Chicago. They witness a rather horrible execution committed by the mob and barely escape with their lives. Now, they have a stream of creditors wanting them and the mob is after them as well. In desperation they decide to pose as two women in an all-girl's band that is headed to Florida. It is the only job they can find.  This will ensure them some badly needed cash as well as offer them cover for their escape.

Of course, Lemmon and Curtis in drag are superb and richly comical to watch. Their feminine gestures and voices are just believable enough to make it legitimate and just silly enough to make it funny.  They meet Monroe (known aptly enough as Sugar) who is the band's lead singer and ukulele player. She is not having much better luck with her life than the two guys dressed as girls. She is a drinker, depressed, and cannot seem to have a meaningful relationship with a special guy. Of course, the three of them bond with all sorts of interesting things happening to the guys who are pretending to be just part of a trainload of girls in a band headed for a gig in Florida.

Ultimately, the situation becomes even more complicated. Curtis falls in love with Monroe and decides to adopt yet another persona. He will play a wealthy yacht owner vacationing in Florida and lure Monroe onto "his" boat for a night together. How is this possible?  Well, the real yacht owner (played by Joe E. Brown) has the hots for Lemmon and the two of them spend the evening dancing the tango and the rumba together while Curtis is able to put the moves on Monroe.

There's a lot more to all of this. Curtis becomes three characters in the film; Joe, his female persona, and the wealthy yachtsman who Curtis embellishes with an obvious Cary Grant impersonation. At one point Lemmon, enraged by the continued risk-taking of their hare-brained schemes, criticizes Curtis for his Grant impersonation. "Nobody sounds like that," he hilariously proclaims. This is just one of many instances where the film becomes a kind of pun on itself.

There are all sorts of little things that make the situation evermore absurd. At the beginning of the charade, Curtis (Joe) and Lemmon (Jerry) decide to call themselves Josephine and Geraldine respectively but, rather spontaneously, Lemmon introduces himself to Monroe as "Daphne" instead. This surprises both Curtis and the audience. It is a frequent occurrence that these characters do things spontaneously to embellish their personas in a way that makes the audience laugh and the other characters befuddled.  Curtis, later with Monroe as passenger, does not know how to make the little motor boat that transports them to the yacht go forward. He is undaunted, however, and nonchalantly (in Cary Grant style) stirs the thing in reverse.

Lemmon confronts Curtis as the latter (in parts of three different characters) emerges from a bath tub.
In one scene toward the end of the film, Curtis gets to portray all three of his personas, switching from one to the other as the situation arises. He has just returned from the beach where he has wooed Monroe as the yachtsman.  He is soaking in the thickly soapy tub with his wig on as Josephine as Monroe comes in to tell Lemmon (as Daphne) and Curtis about this wonderful new guy she’s just met.  When Monroe is called away, Curtis emerges from the bath in his drenched yachtsman captain’s attire and gets into an argument as Jerry with Lemmon while wearing Geraldine’s hair and the wealthy guy’s costume. It is quite funny to watch but even more comical when you consider the complexity of the thing.  This is just one example of several comical scenes where Curtis and Lemmon get the opportunity to play multiple characters in the same scene.

Monroe sort of spilling out into the frame.  Her sexuality is front and center in this film. 
It has been many years since I last saw Some Like It Hot and I had forgotten what a well-crafted film it truly is. Curtis does a really terrific job in this film and displays a range of acting that perhaps matches anything else in his career. Lemmon is one of the great actors in motion picture history. Here we get to see him early in his career. Of course, for sheer sex and sizzle you have Monroe, one of the great icons of American sensuality. She is featured here relatively late in her career, but she gets to show off a decent singing voice, adequate acting, and – oh yeah - all those curves.

I can’t classify the film as “timeless.”  It is a bit dated in some of its situations and sources of humor.  But, if you can get into the classic 1950’s movie mindset you are in for a wonderful experience.  As I said, the film can be enjoyed purely on the surface.  There’s plenty to make you laugh.  But, there is definitely a deeper level to the film, one that presages great contemporary comedies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou or Brazil.  To that extent Some Like It Hot is an influential movie and one you should not miss.  If nothing else you can watch it for free on youtube.
A terrific, funny scene featuring the three main actors at a ritzy beach resort on the 1929 Florida coast.  Curtis is pretending to be something he isn't in order to win Monroe's heart.  Lemmon taunts Curtis, taking clever verbal stabs at him.  Monroe doesn't understand why Daphne is behaving like that. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Most Amazing Thing To See

This collected footage from the recent Russian Meteor Event seems like a Hollywood movie.  More than 1000 people were injured, mostly from glass breaking due to the largest meteor blast since 1908. Otherwise, it seems surreal to me and reminds me of Jean Baudrillard's idea of Simulacra.  Life imitating film imitating life.  The meteor was so perfectly framed in the automobile windshields that it all looks rehearsed.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, however.  It turns out odds were good that some Russian would capture the event due to the fact that dashboard video cameras are commonly deployed and used by Russian drivers. A worthy topic for this blog's first embedded video.  The House Space, Science, and Technology Committee plans a hearing on the matter.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Great Unnumbered Symphonies

Note: This is the twelfth and final part of my personal tour of the greatest symphonies in classical music.  In this portion, I examine symphonies that are designated by name or title rather than by number, as is the case with all the previous symphonies considered.  Click on the keyword “Classical Music” at the end of this post to see all parts of this tour and other posts on this significant genre of art.

Ludwig van Beethoven was clearly a revolutionary composer but the true break between traditional classical composition and genuinely romantic music came with Hector Berlioz.  With Berlioz structure was subservient to fancy; convention was secondary to enrapturing the audience with stirring effect. The Symphonie  Fantastique (1830) was Berlioz’s first major work for orchestra.  It remains one of the greatest symphonies ever conceived.  It is a symphony accompanied by a specific program.  Berlioz submitted a detailed description to his audience on what each movement of the work was supposed to represent.  Berlioz apparently offered the symphony as a sign of his love for Harriet Smithson, who is symbolized by a recurrent theme (among several themes) throughout the work.

This Great work among unnumbered symphonies consists of five movements, the first of which is a beautiful 15-minute reverie for orchestra.  Great passionate swells of music are isolated by melodic strings which establish and then revisit the primary theme.  There are periodic switches from the surging force of the violas, cellos, and basses and the tenderness contained in the flutes and clarinets and bassoons.  The violins close the movement with a statement of reverence.

The second movement is a stately waltz featuring a wonderful intermission by flute and oboe before returning to the dance orchestration.    The third movement is the highlight of the symphony for me.  It is pastoral and tranquil for the most part, with lovely melodies building to a loud climax of full orchestration.  This is followed by a new theme stated by solo clarinet, picked up by the strings and winds and transformed thereby before we finish with an English horn restating the original theme, supported by percussion. 

The fourth movement is an extraordinary march and presents multiple themes that are all brought together in full thundering orchestration at the end.  The finale opens with foreboding, dramatic undertones before changing into a sort of grotesque macabre circus-like ramble.  The middle section of this movement is perhaps the most famous part of the work.  Berlioz finishes in a frenzy that had no musical precedent in the classical repertoire up to his time. A truly revolutionary symphony in music history.

While not as innovative as Berlioz’s Great unnumbered symphony, Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (1888) is a masterwork in its own right.  Its greatness is perhaps all the more remarkable because it was the only symphony Franck composed.  The 17-minute first movement opens rather majestically.  Three themes are introduced and examined, one mysterious, another full of longing and the third one hopeful.  They are mixed and mingled throughout the course of the movement to contrasting effect.

The second movement opens with plucked strings supporting various solo instruments.  Again we are offered a richness of varying melodies and much romantic serenity which is representative of Frank’s other splendid compositions including his brilliant Violin Sonata, which is the best ever written in my opinion.  The 10-minute third movement offers a famous phrasing that can best be described as joyful and optimistic.  A very satisfying musical experience.

Peter Tchaikovsky composed a Great symphony entitled Manfred (1885).  Like the Berlioz work, this music was conceived as a specific program.   Tchaikovsky wrote the description “a symphony in four pictures” directly on the score.   The symphony is intended as a musical representation of the epic poem by Lord BryonThe 16-minute opening establishes the fundamental melodies that recur throughout the symphony.  The woodwinds are featured, significantly supported by often poignant strings.   The second movement lasts 9-minutes and is a series of lively attempts to capture natural sounds and scenes of the majestic Alps.  The third movement is beautiful and classically pastoral; so serene and accessible with sweet strings and gentle melodies featuring a wonderful piece for oboe at one point through the slowly wandering 12-minute course.  An impressive 19-minute finale is loud and often raucous composition with the entire orchestra fully engaged including a great section for pipe organ until the symphony ends rather quietly, depicting the death of Manfred and the end to his suffering. 

Franz Liszt was probably Europe’s premier virtuoso pianist during the 19th century, with the exception of Frederic Chopin, of course.  His many works for piano are extraordinary.  His two piano concertos are also noteworthy, particularly the first.  Liszt’s A Faust Symphony (1857) is gigantic, lasting some 74 minutes with equal time and attention given to each of its three mighty movements.  Once again we are presented with a symphonic program, this time Johann von Goethe’s famous tragic play.  But rather than focus on the story, each movement focuses on the primary characters of the play: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The first movement is rich with passion and frustration and desire.  The middle movement is more tender and reflective, really my favorite one in the symphony, often beautiful, at times sensual, often powerful, at times silent.  The finale starts out as a thrill ride until it takes themes from the first two movements and merges them into an orchestrated fury until a tenor and male chorus singing words from Goethe about women and love brings the program to a truly triumphant climax.  The orchestration of Faust shows a sophistication that is comparable to Gustav Mahler and is, therefore, superlative.

Speaking of Mahler, it is fitting to end this tour of all full-orchestrated symphonies with another mention to Mahler, the greatest of all symphonists, whose Great First began this tour.  His song-cycle The Song of the Earth (1909), is widely-considered a direct extension of Mahler as a symphonist.  It was composed between his 8th and 9th symphonies.  He purposefully subtitled the work "A Symphony," so he saw it as such himself.  It features a series of symphonic songs with vocal accompaniment, lyrics taken from Chinese poems by Li-Tai-Po which were just becoming known at that time in Europe.

Mahler opens with sweeping, passionate strings raging as few but Mahler can make them do.  Soon, “The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth” is being sung by strong tenor.  It has several complex symphonic elements and is richly written for all aspects orchestra.  The second of the symphony’s six movements or songs begins with heart-rending slowly-paced beauty featuring an outstanding solo oboe opening with the soprano part coming later and introducing the tenor.  The third (lasting only 2:45 minutes) and the fourth songs are refreshingly light, airy and free.  The fifth is comical, sweet, and just plain fun, though it only lasts 4 and a half minutes.
But it is with the final large-scale 35-minute song “The Fairwell” after Mong-Kao-Yen & Wang-Wei that Mahler reaches and sustains the level of excellence in his other symphonies and makes it comparable to them.  The dramatic opening, featuring strummed deep basses and solo parts for various winds and horns.  The interplay between the vocal parts and the orchestra parts is a wonder to behold.  Mahler leaves you so peacefully and serenely on a gentle loving flow of music that fades calmly away in the end rather than building to a climax.  Mahler seems to say relax, be at peace fellow travelers.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kaufman Does Kundera

Sabina, Tomas, the mirror, and the bowler hat.  One erotic moment among many in the film.
Shortly after I married Jennifer, we watched Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  I remember watching it alone at first and then encouraging Jennifer to see it with me on a repeat viewing.  I thought it was an excellent film, a sleeper of a 9, which means that it was a truly great movie but one that almost no one is likely to automatically recall 10-15 years afterwards.  This is not because it is not a memorable film, it has to do with getting lost in the passage of time with so many other good and great movies coming along.  The lack of friends who have probably seen it means it doesn't come up in conversations as the years pass, so it can easily slip from memory.  Kundera actually wrote another excellent novel that approaches this mechanic of memory, in part.

But, like the (more famous and discussed) novel upon which it is based, I have never completely forgotten the film.  It ranks among the best, say, Top 50 films made during my lifetime.  It was my introduction to Daniel Day-Lewis, leading to a long appreciation of his elite class work, most recently praised in a viewing of Lincoln.  While Lincoln is a good film, it is not in the league with Kaufman's movie adaptation (as both writer and director) of Kundera.  Unlike Lincoln, this film does not try to accomplish too much with matters no less profound, it more effectively manages its focus and dramatic tension while still exploring the philosophical and erotic aspects of the novel.

It is, in fact, one of the best adaptations I have ever seen.  While being true to the novel, Kaufman does not attempt to follow the novel (which is non-linear in narrative style) but rather he includes a mix of direct quotations from the novel with some invented scenes and some trimming of the characters in order to achieve the exact effect of the novel.  The film is every bit as good as Kundera's work even though it is hardly remembered today.  Kundera himself, it must be admitted, did not approve of Kaufman's scripting and went so far as to make his other novels legally unadaptable.  His powerful reaction indicates the strength of Kaufman's variations on the novel.

Superb performances by Juliette Binoche as Teresa and Lina Olin as Sabina compliment Day-Lewis' brilliant portrayal of Tomas.  Like the novel, the story is fast-paced, it never drags nor even pauses for long, rather it seems to fly by as it keeps you fully invested in the characters, the complexity of the relationships, the sexuality, the politics, the ideas about Being which pop up throughout the course of its easy watching 171 minutes.  The film's length seems nowhere near its running time.  It is noteworthy that it is, in fact, a long film but a short novel coming in at a comparatively brief 314 pages.

Of course, the novel is a bit deeper in terms of what it does and a bit more sophisticated in terms of the characters.  But Kaufman makes up for this by fully representing the essentials of what Kundera tries to do with his story and by making an even more erotic film than the novel.  Kundera, being (while often lyrical) economic and precise with his prose, does not delve too deeply into description of specific sexual acts.  The film, being inherently visual, does much more here.  There are a number of well-directed sex and sexuality scenes which do not cross into the realm of crudeness or exploitation but are, rather, more like choreographed scenes from a play, with actors blocked to partially hide one another while fully assuming provocative poses and powerfully genuine moments of intercourse.  If the novel is more detailed in its philosophical aspects, the film is more detailed in the sexual aspects of the story.  This is a very sexy movie.

Jennifer and I fully enjoyed seeing this old friend together again this weekend after about 24 years.  I have watched the old VHS tape by myself at least one other time during our marriage but it had been so long ago, longer than even my last reading of the novel prior to just finishing it again (see previous post), that I had forgotten the full extent of how warm, humorous, dramatic, gentle, powerful, intimate and erotic the film adaptation is.  It is interesting how our visual memory works through time and it is wonderful how we can be surprised by a great film we have already seen several times before.

Kaufman's film is highly recommended.  Though it does not play with lightness and weight in the same way as the novel, that dialectical theme is pervasive while the characters use the rich material and pristine, energetic performances to make Kundera's words a visual reality.  This one was worth hanging on to and even has me thinking of upgrading to DVD in the near future.  I wouldn't want to lose the ability to view this film with the passage of another decade and I really would like to see the bonus features.

The movie came and went in theaters back in 1988 without me even being aware that it was ever made.  It was much more difficult for me to get information and follow the happenings of Hollywood back then in my pre-Internet reality.  Today I am aware of such things as the most serious contenders at the Sundance Film Festival.  It is easier now.  But, whether I knew about the film back then or not, it introduced itself to me at a movie rental place in my home town.  I don't recall now but seeing it on the shelf that first time was probably a bit like unexpectedly discovering that Richter painting in the High awhile back.  It probably inspired great enthusiasm upon learning that the novel I had so recently read and re-read and found so meaningful, even though it presented more questions than alleged answers, was available in a visual format. 

I was probably a bit skeptical upon the first viewing, because we all know how often the book is better than the movie.  In this case, while the book is a bit different from the movie both presentations of the work are top-notch.  It was a inspiring find for me back in 1989 just as it was this weekend as Jennifer and I both immersed ourselves in these characters and situations and ideas created by Kundera but made flesh, ask it were, by Kaufman.

Sabina poses for Teresa.  The bowler hat interestingly framed in one shot, the intimacy between the two women explored in another shot of the same sexy sequence.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In early 1986, I was landing in Dubai on an Air India passenger flight.  The sun had come up an hour or so before and I remember looking out the window at a sea of white rolling sand.  I had spent the last couple of hours since take-off from Bombay (now known as Mumbai) reading a book I picked up at a small store there.  The novel was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  I was attracted to the title but knew nothing else about the book or the writer, who would go on to become my favorite living author today.

I read the book during my return trip from India, finishing up after our stop in Dubai on the way to London and then on to New York.  Kundera writes in short sentences and breaks his ideas into small chucks of wisdom.  This gives the illusion that he is simplistic or easier to read than is actually the case.  When you take his books apart they often seem rather basic.  But, when you step back and see the whole then you realize they are far deeper than a casual reading might suggest.  He reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut in this respect though, unlike Vonnegut, each Kundera novel is distinctive.  Vonnegut ended his career pretty much just repeating himself in his last works which turned me off.

Since then I have read most of Kundera’s novels.  Each is special and satisfying in its own way.  I really enjoy his direct phrasing and the way he examines ideas from multiple perspectives.  Quite often the characters misunderstand one another in fundamental ways that motivates various tensions between them.  This is Kundera’s style and I feel it is highly applicable to my own experience; how I am misunderstood and how I often read others incorrectly.

At any rate, I just finished rereading the novel again.  Even though it was underlined, highlighted, and marked up from previous readings (it is the same paperback I bought in Bombay 27 years ago) I still found new passages to mark for future reference.  For me, a great book is a space that reveals itself anew with each visit.  That is why I spend so much reappraising the fiction in my personal library.  So much money and time invested in these gems justifies the effort.  New insights ensure that each reading is rewarding.

In the case of this novel, it has been many years – perhaps a decade – since I read it last.  Some sections of the novel felt very familiar while others were forgotten and entertained me upon re-acquaintance with them.  It is a fairly straightforward story about two couples who never meet but who are joined by the fact that the men in both relationships share a mistress, though not at the same time.  Each relationship has its own challenges and passions and drama.  It is on this canvas, broadly speaking, that Kundera paints several philosophical meanderings.

The primary musing has to do with the juxtaposition of heaviness and lightness in human experience.  Hence the title.  This ties into feelings of freedom (in lightness) versus feelings of constraint (in heaviness).  Kundera uses Beethoven's final string quartet's rather famous "Es muss sein" theme as an artistic representation the burden of doing what has to be done, the antithesis of freedom and lightness.

I related to the novel differently in this reading.  Due to the expanse of time I really don't remember my previous understandings beyond the fact that I found the novel brilliant and the writing concise, direct, yet profound.    One of the things Kundera is saying is that human beings choose heaviness as opposed to lightness because, as it turns out, the weight of life is easier to bear than the unfashionable freedom and boundless lack of definition within lightness.  Hence lightness, rather than weight, is the genuine burden of existence.  Human beings cannot tolerate the lightness of being, they require definition and structure and obligation.

I would express it this way, which is not necessarily the intent of the author - we humans love our freedom and individuality and our open exploration, but ultimately we find definable burdens more comfortable than an open expanse of anythingness. That might be overstating things.  But, the novel hit me this way this time.  In that sense reading Kundera is always refreshing and new to me.

It reminds me of my five or so years of Shambhala training.  I meditated along with my yoga for many years.  I started with Chakra mediation, and then moved to a Hindu practice taught by Sri Ramana Maharshi, before encountering the teachings of Chogyam Trunga.  I found them all of benefit, ultimately enriching my yoga and my encounter with experience.

One of Trungpa Rimpoche's basic teachings is learning to “let go.”  Not just let go of things you want to rid your life of or even need to get rid of.  Letting go is a state of Being where you do not allow any one thing to master you, you remain open to every possibility.  This is close to the anythingness, the lightness of being that Kundera presents vividly in his powerful prose, embedded in the characters themselves, to which they almost all choose weight, and thingness, and commitment to the cares of the physical world.

The majority of the characters in Kundera's book ultimately find lightness unbearable so they instead cling desperately, passionately and frustratingly to weight, to each other, to all the baggage of life and intimate togetherness.  Except for Sabina.  Sabina is the mistress and the painter and the traveler who ultimately lives in Prague then Geneva then Paris and New York.  She is erotic and kinky and enjoys Tomas and Franz, the novel’s two primary male characters, in their different ways.  Likewise, she knows the women of each man and relates to them in different ways.  More than anyone in the novel, Sabina exemplifies Kundera's lightness.

She finds pleasure with each character, even with the women.  Each liaison is separated by an unspecified number of years.  She enjoys Franz who is fit, academic, and attractive.  But, before him, she prefers Tomas, the master surgeon who commands her to "strip" for him while she wears the bowler hat of her grandfather.  They make wild love and then Tomas moves on, unpretentiously, to other mistresses.  Tomas has dozens of mistresses.  Brief affairs and one-night stands are the essence of what Kundera has Tomas term "erotic friendship."  But, for a time, Tomas always returns and enjoys Sabina.

Tomas plays into Sabina's lightness, they find freedom with each other.  Franz, by contrast, wants to marry her.  He seeks of possessively weigh Sabina down.  In the end she remains lightness itself, for she ends up apart from either men committed only to her art and herself.

I have discussed this book with a few friends and acquaintances through the years and most of them seem to dislike what Kundera does with Tomas because of his immense and flagrant infidelity.  What they perhaps forget, or choose not to agree with, is Tomas' insistence that love and love-making have virtually no relationship with each other.  Obviously, it is an open question for Kundera.  Is erotic sex a lightness, an unbound freedom, without commitment beyond the momentary mingling of two bodies?  Is love a weight, synonymous with Eros and yet incapable of being love without governing the erotic impulse?  My personal assessment is that love has weight, while love-making is weightless.  But, for me, the two seem more interrelated than Tomas would admit.

Kundera begins his novel with a brief examination of Nietzsche's concept of eternal return.  According to Kundera, if everything happens over and over again, if we are condemned to live the same lives the same way for infinity, only then do our actions take on true weight and significance.  But, if we do something only once, never to be repeated, then our actions are weightless and without any lasting meaning or importance at all.  This might seem to be twisted logic but I think there is some teaching in taking on this perspective, at least as far as the novel is concerned.

Sabina, the true anti-hero of the great amoral tale, also experiences the unbearable nature of her of lightness of living.  It is interesting that Kundera chooses the word "emptiness" to describe what Sabina might be experiencing.  This is a fundamental concept of Buddhism, so we are back to that again, although Kundera is in no way Buddhist nor does this novel have that flavor beyond the small comparisons I have already made.

Kundera contrasts the weight of Es muss sein with: "Einmal ist keinmal.  What happens once night as well not have happened at all.  The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe.  The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience.  History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow."

In another paragraph: "Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can only make one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare versions of decisions."

In part, the issue rests upon the fact that each choice we make in our lives is an only choice.  We do not get to rewind life and work through the various consequences of our decisions.  We do not get to choose three or four different ways and evaluate the best outcome.  No, we must choose rather spontaneously, in lightness, unknowing of how things will turn out due to our choices.  Kundera presents quite an interesting puzzle by pitching eternal return against our apparently intimate singularity of choosing our paths in life.  He draws no definitive conclusions.

Tomas feels trapped by his love for Teresa, who detests his infidelities, which Tomas does not see as having anything to do with his love for her; they are mere "erotic friendships.”  The tension slowly builds in their relationship, with Teresa attempting and failing miserably to join Tomas in his freedom by having liaisons of her own.  But this is simply not her nature and, being bound in love to her, this eventually affects Tomas' practice of perpetual infidelity.

The two move away from Prague, not in an attempt to resolve the sexual tension, but rather due to political circumstances arising out of the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the period in which most of the book is set.  In the countryside, they find a shared happiness within the weight of their relationship.  Again, Kundera seems to be saying that the immensity of lightness is simply too much for his characters, they require the weight of the world and of each other in order to cope with the significance existence.  Except, of course, for Sabina, who finds peace in the apparent emptiness of otherwise unbearable and insignificant lightness.

Kundera muses on many other things in his novel.  Other themes woven into the fabric of the narrative include betrayal, kitsch, the mechanical stupidity of communism, resistance to abusive authority, and possession versus the constant sampling of something new.  But even these ideas are measured in terms of lightness and weight.  Betrayal is light because it is free of commitment.  Kitsch is heavy because it represents the mediocrity and pop culture that the mass of humanity willfully gravitates toward and embraces along with all the associated media-driven and consumer shallowness.

Kundera seems of favor lightness though everyone but Sabina eventually chooses weight.  Upon this reading of the novel I directed this dialectic toward my own life.  (Isn't that one indication you are reading a great novel?)  How I am weighted to my daily routine, my so-called career, and my cultural and social responsibilities.  How I choose to become thusly entangled and by doing so how I become ever more weighted down.  And yet, there is the contemplative side of me.  My association with art, literature, philosophy, music, my intimate Eros, jogging, yoga, writing, walks in my woods, observing the happenings of nature, enjoying friendships.  These make my existence lighter.

I realize that, for me at least, there is a constant choosing between the weight of life and the lightness I seek to connect with.  I choose to live in the countryside and create my living space with Jennifer out of a propensity for light, to dwell in lightness.  Yet, I remain weighted to making money, dealing with the constant, increasingly regulated kitsch of daily life.  Can I escape the weight of kitsch?  Can I find the mingling point of lightness and weight?  Is it true that lightness is ultimately unbearable and I will inevitably fall back toward the weight?  Some would argue this is misguided thinking.  That there are techniques for permeating Being with lightness regardless of the situation.  Kundera is doubtful, however, and for that I use his work to temper the supposed insight of any solution to his puzzle of Being.

I do not know the answers, but Kundera has certainly created a brilliant literary framework with which to see the juxtaposition, to examine the possibilities through vivid and fascinatingly complex characters.  His modern, classic story is just as relevant today as it was upon my original reading on that return flight from India in 1986.  This novel is a (perhaps crude) map of the essence of things.  Like any map, it really doesn't tell you where you want to go.  It only shows the various routes of getting from one place to another.  Where you want to go is up to you, not the map.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Unseasonable Interruption

My grandmother's house last Wednesday.
This past Wednesday, a tornado ripped through a nearby town and much of our county, destroying dozens of houses, knocking out power and phone service to 2/3 of the county.  The estimated wind speed was 160 mph.  There were two fatalities.  Total property damage was at least $70 million.  More than 260 structures were affected throughout our county with over 30 homes completely wiped out.  One of those homes used to belong to my grandmother and is pictured above.

My mom's mother died a couple of years ago and the family sold the property to a locally known investor who remodeled the house and turned it into rental property.  Apparently, the structure took a direct hit and was blown off its foundation, along with two large oak trees planted by my grandfather in 1952, into the major highway that runs about 100 feet in front of the house.  The highway
was a dirt road when the house was built in the early 50's.  My mother wasn't born there but she lived most of her life there until she married my dad.  We used to go over there on Sunday's after church to visit, share a meal, play cards, go for walks to the pond in my granddad's pasture, tell funny stories, watch TV.

The highway was blocked by this and all sorts of trees and other debris from neighboring homes for about six hours following the storm.  It took awhile just for emergency responders to saw their way through the storm's wreckage and actually get to the really sad and major damage. I guess at some point during that clean up they scrapped what was left of the house out of the road and into the ditch were it still sits in a odd looking wad today.

There was a grandmother and her three-year-old grandson inside the house when the tornado struck.  Both lived but suffered various injuries.  The small boy, covered in a heavy blanket at the last minute by the grandmother, survived with a broken leg.  The grandmother fared worse, with a broken back and many lacerations.  She was taken to Chattanooga for treatment, but is stable today.  Rather miraculous.  But, the house where I spent so much of my youth is gone with the wind, sure enough.

Long-time readers know that a tornado hit the home of my parents just before Christmas 2011.  That storm demolished the old house of my grandparents on my father's side.  Last week's tornado got the house of my grandparents on my mother's side, about 3 miles south as the crow flies from my other grandparents' home place.  The tornado took basically the same track as the one in 2011, only the damaged was much more widespread and it fortunately missed my parents' house by about 1/4 mile this time around.  Still, it dumped 3 inches of rain on my parents' farm in a half hour.   It is curious to note that each house of my grandparent has now been destroyed in separate tornadoes 13 months apart.

I watched the wicked cell intensify on the NOAA web site radar from my PC at work.  When it became obvious that it was only becoming stronger and that its trajectory was in the general neighborhood of my house I called Jennifer to warn her.  Tornado sirens soon were going off near where I work.  After I saw that the cell had passed the area of my home and headed northward I tried calling Jennifer again but couldn't get through.  Several minutes later she managed to reach me with a weak cell signal to tell me she was fine but the house was without power.  Then she lost signal entirely.  Her parents called me about an hour later to express concern.  Like me, she had called them on a weak cell signal to say she was fine. By that time there were all kinds of rumors about the damage, mostly exaggeration, of course.  I decided to drive out and see for myself.  This was 90 minutes after the storm had passed.

I had no idea of the true extent of things.  Everything was normal where I worked.  Just some heavy rain.  At first I tried the main road to our house but soon became snarled in gridlocked traffic.  My grandmother's house, downed power poles, and a bunch of other things were blocking a couple of miles of that roadway at that time.  I couldn't get close enough to see any damage, however.  So, I tried a side road only to drive into a devastated rural landscape.  Hundreds of trees were snapped into pieces.  Several homes were destroyed.  It was my first view of what would become a much wider path of damage.  Once again I used the amazing turning radius of my old Subaru wagon to turn myself around and quickly get away from the blocked area.

Lines of cars were forming everywhere around me.  The next two roads I tried yielded the same results.  Everything was blocked with similar destruction.  I knew from following the cell on the radar that it had basically plowed right up the middle of the county.  Of course, the radar didn't tell me where it hit the ground and where is simply whirled in the dark rainy clouds.  Every road was blocked.  There was simply no way I could get to Jennifer.  I went back to work and awaited more information.  After a bit the intense rain let up and Jennifer finally got out in her car and drove on the other side of the tornado's path to where she could get better cell reception.  I was relieved to hear from her and she thought it was silly for me to even get out and try to drive in these conditions.

I had been on the phone with my parents as well.  I knew that the storm had proceeded in their direction after coming within 3 miles of my house.  They were fine though my brother, who was at work as well and blocked like me, had called my dad to inform him that a neighbor had phoned stating he had some damage to his house.  My brother, who lives less than a mile from my parents, wanted my dad to check it out.  My dad told me that he couldn't get out at the moment due to the intensity of the rain.

It turns out my brother's place had a hole in his roof which led to some water damage inside his hallway, his garage door was twisted and unworkable, he had lost some siding, and the violent winds flipped his heat pump over, ripping it from the house.  Structurally, however, he was OK and fared much better than many of his neighbors whose homes no longer exist or are so badly damaged they presently cannot be inhabited until they undergo major repairs.

Jennifer and I were unaffected but for a loss of power for about 9 hours and no phone or Internet service until today.  It was rather strange being without the Internet at home, which is our source of all information and much of our entertainment.  Moreover, Jennifer runs her business out of our home and had to work Thursday and Friday from her parents' house.  She cannot do business without Internet connectivity. My daughter went going stir crazy with school cancelled and without Facebook or cell reception or TV shows on the Internet.   She fled to a friend whose house was unaffected by the chaos.  I passed the time in the evenings reading Nietzsche and listening to music on my MP3 player.  But, I caught myself on more than one occasion launching Safari on my iPad before I realized that, for us, there was no one out there.  As aggravating as this was, all I had to do was drive to work each day, see the damage everywhere, to recalibrate my sensitivities.  My family's sufferings were trivial.

I don't know if tornadoes are more prevalent in this neck of the woods than they used to be.  Jennifer and I have had several close calls through the years living here dating back to 1994 but it sure seems there have been more than usual just since I started this blog.  I have mentioned tornadoes in the area several times along with massive rains and flooding.  It is easy to say this is a change indicative of global warming.  I mean neither myself nor my dad recall tornadoes here in December and January during our lifetimes.  Maybe that is a naive understanding on my part.  I have no hard data.  But, with this most recent storm and how it has affected my family directly or indirectly, Jennifer and I have discussed how we feel like sitting ducks awaiting the haphazard verdict of the next great wind.