Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Watching The Terror: "A horrific, humanist masterpiece"

I recently completed watching the 10-episode run of AMC's The Terror.  It was a well-acted, well-written, surprising take on the horror genre - more of an historically accurate survival adventure than another run-of-the-mill blood and gore fright flick.  In some respects, it felt like something H.P. Lovecraft would have written.  Though slow moving at times (not a bad thing in my book), The Terror was a fascinating, bleak, and psychologically terrifying TV show.  Its metaphorical implications were rich and it was a masterful example of how to build tension without the big reveal.

What caught my eye initially about the program was the involvement of Ridley Scott (as executive producer) and the initial visuals that I saw.  Set the Arctic in 1846, The Terror was largely videoed in CGI.  The actors performed in a digital environment that was visually stunning at times.  The still images I saw on the internet captivated me before the premiere.  The excellent production values, historical accuracy, successful interweaving of literally dozens of characters, and the ever increasing tension and outright fright factor kept me watching through the whole series.

To judge by the viewership, the series was a big flop.  Whereas about 3.3 million viewers tuned in for the opening episode, only about 790,000 watched the finale.  Not very impressive.  And yet those of us who stuck with the relentlessly slow-building anxiety and measured but powerfully unexpected shock effect were richly rewarded.  The critics seemed to agree.  As of this post The Terror received a favorable 92% rating from critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and an 87% rating from viewers.  It seemed the few people who watched did so rather enthusiastically.

The series is a take on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in the 1840's.  We know before we see anything that this expedition was an utter failure, with two specially designed British exploration ships lost along with all of the crew.  The two ships were only found in recent years and virtually nothing is known about the fate of the crew except there were apparently no survivors.  

The Terror is based upon the 2007 novel by the same name which examines the mission, the ships, and the crew with much detail to historical accuracy, hypothesizing about what fate might have befallen the exhibition.  The 10 episodes feature well over 100 speaking parts, crisply written, believable characters with a lot of historical detail.  The show feels real, which is part of what makes it so effective.

There are some spoilers from here on, though knowing what happens and actually seeing it are two completely different experiences.  We already know the fate of the mission before we see anything, but the show is nevertheless captivating for me.  The two ships, the Erebus and the Terror have full crews and a compliment of marines.  Their intent is to find the fabled Northwest Passage.  They have the latest technology from the 1840's available to them including, importantly, food stored in tin cans for longer preservation.  Altogether, the mission carries enough supplies for three years at sea, five years if the food stocks are rationed.

The two ships become stuck in the winter ice before they can push on through the Arctic.  The entire mission is trapped for not one, but two years in the ice as there is no thaw the following spring.  In the meantime the crew must make the most of their time together, fighting boredom, close quarters, and generally getting along (or not).

As if this wasn't trouble enough, a scouting party happens across an Inuit woman and old man, inadvertently shooting and killing the man, who was a shaman.  The woman is apparently his apprentice.  The significance of this event lies in the fact that the shaman controlled a type of spirit or creature that roams around the ships, picking off a crew member or two at a time.  Most effectively, however, we as viewers only see the effects of the creature on mangled bodies to begin with.  We do not see the creature itself.  Over the course of the next several episodes the creature comes and goes, sometimes a terrifying menace, sometimes just an existential threat.  Only later in the series do we catch glimpses of the thing, never getting a good look at it until the very end.

That is a classic Lovecraftian technique.  It is better to address a given threat's effects and the resulting tension and anxiety about the mystery than it is to reveal the nature of the mystery.  This effectively produces a strong sense of atmospheric dread.  The viewer (or reader in Lovecraft's case) can project their own fears onto the narrative with the dual effect of thereby becoming more invested in the story and conjuring up their own interpretation of what the threat might be as opposed to being told.  A projection of one's own fears onto the narrative is more effective than the author dictating the specifics of whatever fear the narrative demands.

The Terror works this angle to perfection.  But it is only an underlying concern throughout most of the show.  The creature is out there, it might reappear at any moment, but in the meantime there is a complex narrative involving multiple well-conceived characters that drives the series.  After two years of being stuck in the ice, the crew is starting to shows natural physical and psychological cracks.

Jared Harris, who does an outstanding job portraying Captain Francis Crozier, is an alcoholic, for example.  As the mission enters its third year, his excessive drinking becomes a huge personal struggle when the supply of scotch runs out.  Meantime, everyone is eating the assortment of food supplies including a large number of tin can goods.  These tins are a new process of storing food stocks, but an imperfect one.  As it turns out they are inadvertently filled with lead.  Symptoms of lead poisoning began to manifest throughout the crew, in most physically, but in others psychologically.

The crew is trapped in more ways than one; in the ice, threatened by a largely unseen monster, and forced to rely on lead-poisoned food stocks or starve.  Finally, after a few more deaths from the creature and from lead poisoning, the decision is made to abandon the ships at the start of the third spring and to attempt to walk in the abundant light of the Arctic summer 800 miles to the nearest known British outpost.

Suffice it to say that things go from bad to worse and the series becomes increasingly bleak, though fascinating in the nature of the crew's predicament, the fantastic CGI landscape they are hiking through, and the various subplots that merge as fewer and fewer men survive.  And, of course, there is the creature - which ends up being sort of a cross between a polar bear and a dinosaur, for lack of a better description.

How it all plays out is, as I said in the beginning, mostly already known, though, this being television, there are some liberties taken with how things finally end upThe Terror struck me all along as the framework for a metaphorical tale of some sort.  It was only after the series was over that I learned the show's producers had toxic masculinity as a theme in mind.  However you wish to interpret it, The Terror received a lot of excellent press during and after its run.

The Atlantic rightly claims that The Terror is "a fascinating step forward in the survival-horror genre on TV."  Newsweek, which covered each episode, hit all the bases when it recently stated: "Whether in the show’s aesthetics, the writing process or the powerful hallucinations punctuating the concluding episode, [the showrunners] tailored The Terror to pull us in, as close as possible, to the lives and thoughts of men at the absolute extremity of human experience.... The result is a horrific, humanist masterpiece, heightening the magnitude of events by placing us in empathic touch with the doomed explorers. And the closer we feel to the characters, the more The Terror can stretch itself into surreal and unexpected new places."

Vox opined that the series "takes TV horror in a new direction - all mood, atmosphere, and waiting for death."  Again, Lovecraft would be proud.  But The Terror surpasses Lovecraft in my judgment to the extent that it gives greater weight to character development and a myriad of believable subplot interactions that both ratchet up the tension, broaden the scope of the overall angst, and, ultimately, make the series more about our humanity than about the mystery, all while remaining rigidly established in the history of the period.

My guess is that this show will attain a cultish hue going forward and that more people will end up seeing it on streaming services and DVD than watched it during its original run.  The Terror will grow on audiences and its critical acclaim might even result in some important award nominations.  It is gripping television with a lot of human depth and breadth.  Its slow pace will turn off many of this ADHD generation but those who stick with it will be affected more deeply than they could possibly imagine. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Rain, Beauty, and Art in St. Louis

We arrived in St. Louis during a torrential downpour.  It rained off and on throughout our stay.
It has been awhile since I vacationed somewhere other than the beach or the mountains.  This year, St. Louis called to me, primarily due to paintings by Gerhard Richter displayed in its art museum.  But there are many great attractions in that town.  Jennifer and I set out to explore some of them recently during a long weekend.  

We wanted to do it as a road trip.  See the countryside.  I had never seen the Ohio River, for example.  Nor had either of us driven through beautiful rural southern Illinois.  So it was time to load up the car and discover a new part of our country. 

Departing on Friday, we drove up through Chattanooga and Nashville before stopping in Clarksville, Tennessee for lunch at the Black Horse Pub.  I enjoyed a Cletus, a fancy hamburger topped with a fried green tomato, tomato jam and spectacular onion rings.  Tasted great! 

According to Google Maps the trip was supposed to take 7 and a half hours.  But, due to stops and traffic conditions, it was more like 8 and a half, which is about as far as I care to drive anywhere in one day.  Western Kentucky around Paducah and southern Illinois were beautiful with several interesting features such as the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and the Shawnee National Forest.  I especially enjoyed seeing the Ohio River and the many miles of lush green farmland.   

Our arrival in St. Louis coincided with heavy rainfall which made for slow going and some disorientation since I didn't know my way around.  Siri navigated me through it.  By the time we reached our quaint AirBnB rental the rain had stopped, however.  That was more or less a theme for the whole trip.  It rained a lot but we never got physically wet due to some good fortune, the timing of the storms coming and going, and being vigilant about the radar app.   I never had to use an umbrella.

Our B&B was a remodeled garage with a full kitchen, simple dining area, a couch and TV (which we never turned on), a nice, firm queen-sized bed and a bath.  The space was completely open but for the bath.  It was cozy and certainly had everything we needed to rest after our drive and during our visit.  It was located in the wonderful Shaw neighborhood of the city.

Friday evening was spent tracking down beer for the refrigerator (package stores seem scarce in this part of town) and finding some food.  We enjoyed a couple of Thai wraps from Lona's Lil Eats, a nearby dive serving a rather eclectic clientele.  They were yummy.  After a shower, I crashed pretty early and slept more soundly than I have in a long time.

Saturday morning started with coffee and a wonderful omelette at the Benton Park Cafe.  Then it was a short drive over to Forest Park, the largest of St. Louis' many city parks.  Forest Park is far larger than NYC's Central Park and it contains many attractions including the St. Louis Zoo, Science Center, History Museum, a gold course, and our immediate destination, the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). 

We arrived about 15 minutes before the museum opened.  At that point in the day most of the park traffic was jammed up around the zoo, but parking at the museum was plentiful and easy.  We hung around the entrance and enjoyed the view of the Grand Basin, the most picturesque water feature inside Forest Park.

The next four hours were the highlight of the trip for me.  Longtime readers know how much I appreciate art.  SLAM is on par with, say, the High in Atlanta.  It contains some great art by famous painters, but few of the paintings are famous.  Still, it was wonderful to experience this space and view dozens of artworks by artists I knew (and a few I didn't) and yet I had never seen virtually any of the works themselves either in person or in any of my art book collection.  

The magnificent Emerson Grand Basin in Forest Park just outside the entrance to SLAM.

The entrance to the St. Louis Art Museum.

Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from 11 century China.  Part of SLAM's excellent ancient art collection.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait, 1950.  The museum featured a large collection of Beckmann's works.

Vincent van Gogh, Stairway at Auvers, 1890.

Pierre-Auguste Renior, The Dreamer, 1879.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, c. 1880.
Jennifer observing one of Claude Monet's many Water Lily paintings.

Detail of Monet's Water Lilies.  So powerful, yet delicate.

Paul Dalvaux, The Fire, 1945.

Franz Kline, Bethlehem, 1959-60. 
A distinctive work by Mark Rothko, Red, Orange, Orange on Red, 1962.

A splendidly sensual sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Despair, 1890.

Lovis Corinth, Nana, Female Nude, 1911.

An example of some poor lighting at SLAM.  Of course, I wasn't allowed to use a flash for my photos, but you can easily see the glare created by how this painting is lit. In some instances a painting's frame would cast a shadow onto the canvas itself.  I found this irritating. I couldn't get a decent photo of the museum's only Rembrandt because it was so washed out with harsh light.  Joachim Anthonicz WtewaelCephalus and Procris (The Death of Procris), c. 1595-1600.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life, 1643.

One of my favorite American artists, Thomas Hart Benton, Politics, Farming, and Law in Missouri, 1935.

Thomas Hart Benton, Cradling Wheat, 1938.

Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, 1845.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tavern, 1909.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Charlotte Cram, 1900. A recent addition to the collection. 

Winslow Homer, The Country School, 1871.
I wanted to tour the museum in order, going from room to room based on the numbering system provided in the museum map.  This ensured that I saw everything, starting with the ancient art and textiles, which were more robust than I anticipated and featured many interesting works.
After that I systematically went from room to room, weaving through American and European artworks.  Some rooms were filled with a particular artist, but most were devoted to periods or styles of art featuring various artists.  Of course, the impressionism room and the spaces for contemporary abstract art drew me in more and my pace slowed there to appreciate what the museum had to offer.

Staying on an eastern time schedule in the central time zone meant that we were usually early for whatever meal time it was.  For lunch, we opted for the Panorama restaurant inside SLAM.  This was a fancy dining room but my casual attire was perfectly acceptable.  Reservations were preferred but, since we were early, they had no problem fitting us in.

There I enjoyed a three-course brunch.  For starters, a wonderful crab was served on a bed of arugula.  This was followed by ham, eggs, and potatoes with a decadent croissant with fresh blueberry preserves.  This was followed by cheesecake garnished with chocolate, which I shared with Jennifer.  The exquisite yet casual atmosphere and the food made this a relaxed and refreshing experience.  Perfect for clearing the mind for more art.
Piet Mondrian, Composition of Red and White, 1938-42.

Norman Lewis, Twilight Sound, 1947.

Marc Chagall, Temptation, 1912.

Frank Bowling, Fishes, Wishes, and Star Apple Blue, 1992.

An installation by Donald Judd, Untitled, 1969.

A photo of me with Betty by Gerhard Richter, 1988. One of the most famous portraits of the twentieth century.  

More Gerhard Richter.  Gray Mirror, 1991.

My self-portrait in Gray Mirror.  You can see the large space behind me where three giant Richter abstracts are displayed.
Afterwards, I revisited the Gerhard Richter room, my main purpose for visiting SLAM, spending a long time with the large abstracts January, December, and November dating from 1989.  I also enjoyed Richter's Gray Mirror from 1991 - part of his long-time fascination with gray as a color.  Of course, the most famous painting in the entire SLAM collection was there as well.  Betty is a 1988 photo-realistic portrait that offers an interesting contrast with the abstract works and showing Richter's impressive range as an artist.  He can definitely accomplish more than just sloshing paint around.  I will blog more about the large abstracts in a future post, as they are my favorite abstracts by him and I don't want to interrupt this travelogue with a detailed artistic analysis.
A contemporary sculptural installation in a courtyard type space at SLAM.  Stone Sea by Andy Goldsworthy. 2013.  This view is looking down from a walkway above the space just outside the museum.

Stone Sea as seen from a viewing point inside the museum.
It was mid-afternoon when we exited the museum and spent a bit more time in Forest Park before visiting the Science Center.  This was a disappointment.  Saturday afternoons apparently is a great time for families to take their kids to this museum, which is structured more toward a "this is so cool" and "isn't science fun?" type approach which seemed rather lightweight to me.  Besides the crowd and noise, the exhibits were not especially compelling.  For the most part, all science museums are unfortunately more or less the same.  I didn't last long there, but, like SLAM, at least the science center was free but for a $10 parking fee.

Hours of walking and standing demanded a reprieve.  So we returned to our B&B to relax and enjoy some beer while another thunderstorm passed.  Then we drove over to the famous St. Louis Gateway Arch, the most "touristy" thing we did the whole trip.  I had seen the Arch before back in the early 90's when I was in St. Louis on business.  But it  was still a marvel to behold.  I enjoyed watching riverboats on the Mississippi River as well.

The Science Museum was not that impressive to me.  It seems most science museums feature the same type exhibits.  The most interesting thing for me was this landing tire from the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-93.  Obviously a one-time use item.  Landing a space shuttle was brutal on tires. 

We worked in an obligatory tourist visit to the Gateway Arch.
That evening we walked to dinner at a local place about a block from the B&B.  Thurman's in Shaw features an assortment of beers, mexican food, and a lot of really good jazz music.  It was a great way to relax after a long day and walking through the Shaw neighborhood felt comfortable and unrushed.

Sunday began with coffee and a delicious smoked salmon crepe at Rooster.  This was followed by a wonderful visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden. This old garden was established in 1859 and it showed in the variety, size and number of large trees located all through the gardens.  Of especial attraction to me were the Chinese and Japanese gardens, although everything was first rate.  I would consider these gardens to be among the best I have ever visited anywhere.  Highly recommended for gardeners and anyone who simply enjoys being with nature.
A fountain area near the entrance of the Missouri Botanical Garden.  You can see the Climatron in the distance.

A magical walking path approaching the Asian garden area at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Another beautiful walking path through the European garden section.  The beautiful white blooming shrubs are Dappled willow.

The Chinese Garden.

The spacious Japanese Garden.

The Blanke Boxwood Garden space.

The Iris Garden.  Very popular.

The Ottoman Garden.

A splendid example of some of the original, older trees at are features throughout the botanical garden.  Since the garden was establish in 1859, there has been plenty of time for the planted trees to grow into full maturity.  This is a magnificent maple.
Our stay was slightly hurried at the very end of our tour due to a thunderstorm passing through the area.  I was back in the car by the time it hit.  We drove out of the storm to the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood for a 2PM tour of a small home designed by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  We stopped beforehand at the Kirkwood Station Brewing Company for lunch where we enjoyed really nice sandwiches and wraps.  

The tour of the house (website devoted to it here) itself was interesting.  There was only a small group of us allowed - less than 20 people total.  Our guide was gracious and highly knowledgeable.  The house designed was based upon a parallelogram in terms of how the lines and angles of the rooms were all laid out.  It seemed much smaller than 1800 square feet, our little group all fit into the various rooms snugly.  

The "master bedroom" was small and featured a parallelogram bed mattress.  The furniture was simple and modular to be re-arranged to accommodate more or less people.  No photos were allowed inside the house but I took a few outside and wandered about the grounds before the tour began.  The house is nested in a small grove of very old persimmon trees.  I learned of the herculean effort it took to save and renovate the house.  Architecture is not really one of my areas of interest but I enjoyed the concepts and the history I learned during this tour.  
Exterior view of the front of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed house.  It is nestled in the the side of a hill with very old persimmon trees. 

The retaining wall in the back of the house.

The front doorway.  The owner of the house, Russell Kraus, was an artist specializing in paintings and stained glass, which Wright incorporated into the design.  No photos were allowed inside but you can see some interior views here.
Like many major US cities, St. Louis has a diverse cultural heritage.  But one major influence comes from its Germanic legacy (think Anheuser-Busch, for example).  So it seemed the trip would be incomplete without enjoy German cuisine, which is what we did our final night there.  I enjoyed an excellent Wiener Schnitzel from The Feasting Fox, originally built in 1913.  They had an extensive beer menu and, quite by accident, I ordered a glass of draft (imported, of course) from the oldest brewery in the world, dating from 1040.  Kind of mind-blowing to have a beer that ultimately came from a 1,000 year-old brewery.  It seemed like a fitting way to end a splendid stay in the city considered the gateway to the American west.  

Afterwards, we walked through another of the city's wonderful parks, this time Tower Grove Park.  I was impressed by the size of the park and the relative absence of people.  There were loners with their dogs and small gatherings here and there but the size of the park made it seem very natural and tranquil, without much human interference except for the beautiful shrubs, flower beds, fountains and sculptures accentuating the grassy, wooded space.

The return trip was long and uneventful, the sense of adventure somewhat diminished by now.  We stayed close to the various interstate routes breakfasting at a Burger King in Illinois and having lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Tennessee.  I was rather satiated with dining by this point and simple convenience trumped any desire for a culinary experience.

St. Louis might not top the list of places to visit for most tourists but I enjoyed my time there.  Anytime I get to explore new art, especially art by my favorite living artist, it is a deeply satisfying and inspiring experience.  But the unexpected added delight of the botanical gardens and most of the dining experiences enhanced my satisfaction with this trip.  Art and nature lovers will appreciate what the city has to offer more than they would perhaps expect.  I know I did.
Me enjoying my salad course and an imported draft beer from the oldest brewery in the world.  A nice way to end the visit to St. Louis.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Atlanta Campaign: Into the Hell Hole

The morning of May 25, 1864.  Johnston has swung his army around and is now gathering at New Hope Church to meet the wide Federal advance.

The same situation as presented in the just released (since my first two posts in this series) VASSAL Module for Atlanta is Ours!  The module orients the game map left to right whereas I oriented it up and down on my gaming table.  From here on I will use screen shots from this module to depict the military situations in the Atlanta Campaign.
After avoiding a Confederate ambush at Cassville, Sherman boldly decided to attempt a larger, wider flanking maneuver against Johnston's smaller army.  Upon crossing the Etowah River, the Union commanding general opted to abandon the railroad line of march that had heretofore made his  concentration rather predictable.  He hoped to catch Johnston being overly conservative and get around the Army of Tennessee's left flank.

The maneuver involved all three Federal armies pulling away from the rail line (leaving sufficient garrisons to protect against possible Confederate cavalry raids) and using the massive array of wagon trains to supply Sherman's forces from the new Union depot established in Kingston.  Sherman aimed to concentrate his forces near Dallas, Georgia.

But Confederate cavalry detected the numerous Union crossings along the Etowah to the west of Johnston's army.  Johnston reacted with haste (though he may have missed an opportunity to do real damage to Sherman, according to some), sending Hood's Corps to New Hope Church, just north of Dallas.  Hood's divisions arrived and constructed hasty entrenchments literally minutes before the vanguard of the Federals formed up and attacked.  The resulting Battle of New Hope Church was small but intense.  It ended as almost every attack by either side had so far in the campaign - with a repulse, this time at a cost of around 1,600 Union killed and wounded against less than 500 Confederates.

Both sides formed an extended line and dug-in.  It was about this time that rain began to impact the campaign.  With the two sides arrayed in trench warfare, the rains turned the roads into quagmires as Sherman's wagons wore them out traveling back and forth for supplies.  Sherman only waited a couple of days to attempt to turn the Confederate right flank.  But Johnston adeptly anticipated this move and sent his lone reserve unit to cover his flank.  

That reserve was probably the best division in the Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Patrick Cleburne.  In the ensuing Battle at Pickett's Mill, Cleburne's troops repulsed a strong Union attack under General Oliver O. Howard.  It was another short, sharp engagement amounting to about 2,000 total causalities, about two-thirds of which were northern troops.  Though small, this battle, combined with the previous clash at New Hope Church served to raise southern morale. 

Since his flanking ambitions had once again been thwarted, and since the rain continued to interfere with the movement of troops, Sherman opted from gradual pressure and a cautious advance against the Rebels.  The main encounter during this time was the Battle of Dallas which happened in slow motion over the course of several days.  But this time it was the Confederates who got the worst of the fight which inflicted about 3,000 on the southerners against about 2,400 northern losses.

With the loss of Dallas, the left anchor of the Confederate line was turned and Johnston implemented a short retreat, once again entrenching along the Brushy Mountain Line.  The rain continued to fall, slowing the Yankee pursuit.   This defensive line was held for several weeks as Sherman reestablished his position eastward toward the railroad again, and set up a new depot at Acworth.  There was only sporadic skirmishing during these several weeks of rain during the campaign.  

A significant action during this time was the freakish death of General Polk on June 14.  While observing Federal positions from the top of Pine Mountain, Polk came under fire from Union artillery.  The fire was directed by Sherman himself, who was annoyed at Polk's nonchalant attitude of just standing above the position, looking down upon Sherman's men.  As shells exploded around his entourage, Polk remained calm and steadfast while the rest of his staff sought shelter.  Soon, one shell hit Polk in the side, killing him instantly.  General Loring took over the command of Polk's Corps.

To date fighting in the campaign had amounted to about 18,000 casualties, split roughly 11,000 to 7,000 in favor of the southern army.  But the Federals were better able to replace their losses due to their superior field hospitals and medical facilities.  So the net result was that Johnston's forces were weakening just as much as Sherman's.  The Union could afford this sort of attrition whereas the Confederates were losing ground but not gaining anything in terms of combat strength compared with the northern forces.  To save Atlanta, Johnston needed a much bigger victory than he had heretofore scored against Sherman.

Through torrential downpours, the Yankees continued to pressure the Rebel line around Brushy Mountain, eventually forcing another southern retreat.  For almost a month, the campaign slowed to a crawl, with the weather and the sharp battles and skirmishing making the situation a "hell hole" for all concerned.  Past the middle of June, Sherman again forced Johnston to retreat in order to cover his flanks.  The next southern line of defense was anchored on Kennesaw Mountain.