Archives for the month of: September, 2010

Randall Jarrell was hit by a car. Possibly what I remember most from my MFA classes is keeping track of how poets died: head in oven, car exhaust in the garage, getting drunk and walking off a pier, getting drunk and falling down the  stairs, being run over by a beach vehicle on Fire Island, typhoid, Aids, TB at age 25.  Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

During my MFA, a professor suggested in a workshop something to the effect that not enough poets commit suicide these days and maybe we are all too medicated to write well. That professor loved Randall Jarrell, who was hit by a car in 1965.  Also Randall Jarrell may have walked into the car on purpose.  It’s a mystery!

Randall Jarrell also served in the air force during WWII, which led to some stirring poems about the war experience, including the Randall Jarrell poem you are most likely to encounter in an English textbook: “Death of the Bell Turret Gunner”:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

As a former English TA, this is a poem I love to see in an English textbook.  First, it is related to World War 2, so a discussion can start just by asking what a Bell Turret Gunner is, and then a teacher can burn off 10 minutes by drawing a bomber on the chalk board and explaining where a bell turret gunner would be in the plane and what that person would.  FACTS impress students.  Also, if the students are 18-19 years old, it’s helpful to point that 70 years ago they could have been stuffed into a glass womb to shoot  at things while 30,000 feet in the air.

This poem is also dense and short so it can be read out loud in class and the whole class can work together on scanning it line-by-line for meaning first and then later for interesting details and devices.  The ending is a rhyme and a surprising rhyme so students can talk about why they were surprised by the rhyme.  Does it seem appropriate to the content of the final line, I’d ask. Then we can talk about rhyme being used for irony and other purposes.  It’s great.  Also, Jarrell’s use of animal and other non-human language is a theme students can track and use to think about what such language says about the gunner.  And then broaden it out to what the language says about the war.

Finally, it’s not an easy poem.  One can read it over and over again and not really know exactly what Jarrell is getting at, but one could come up with a few different plausible interpretations.

Although “The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner” (DOTBTG) is a great war poem, it really isn’t representative of Jarrell’s work. For that, I give you a favorite of my professor who loved Jarrell:

90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Jarrell poems tend to be longer first-person narrative structures and not nearly as tight as DOTBTG.   Although “90 North”  has more space than DOTBTG, the lines still feels so controlled and perfectly broken. The language more colloquial, but words finely chosen for sound and clarity.  The ending still surprises by ending on a short sentence after several longer sentences.  I don’t want to analyze this one to death because much of the joy (and misery) of it comes from Jarrell’s incredibly personal voice,  but if anything else, this is just a beautiful human expression to commiserate with the next time you find yourself roaming the Arctic passages of your mind.

Advertisements

On my way home from Cheese Days (which I wrote about sort-of recently) I stopped by one of favorite bars: Le Tigre.  Due to its location, my lack of a car and Madison’s lack of late-night public transportation, I rarely get there.  But we had a car for Cheese Day! So we got there.  If you live in Madison, or are ever in Madison, please take the opportunity to visit Le Tigre.  It’s located in a strip mall, which, admittedly, doesn’t normally signal a great night out:

But on the inside, Le Tigre is the most glorious themed bar/lounge you will ever encounter.  Everything is decked in tiger memorabilia: Tiger rugs, tiger statues, stuffed tigers, tiger photos, tiger beer.  The bar seats are orange.

In addition to the whole tigers-wearing-WWII-veterans-caps and tigers-wearing-earmuffs thing, the bar only takes cash, always has the same one bartender (who we believe is the owner’s son), only plays music from the 50s and 60s from a jukebox and we believe certain curse words are grounds for immediate expulsion.

The drinks are good, the prices reasonable, the clientèle is generally young-ish and glad to be there (as they should be, lucky ducks!).

The strange thing about Le Tigre is that I first heard it identified as a dive bar.  Yes, it’s certainly is a unique bar, maybe a strange bar, but not a dive.  Aren’t dives there just to make one feel miserable?  What is a dive?

And with that, gentle reader, began a soul-searching journey that may also end with this post, because lord knows, I don’t have a good track record of sticking to a topics.  What are the intangible qualities about a place that make us shudder at the thought of picking someone up there?  My friends, allow me to try to make the intangible, you know, tangible.

As I begin this (perhaps one-post-long) journey, here are my thoughts as to what makes some bars dive bars and others places you take your mom after Mother’s Day brunch:

1. Atmosphere: This is a key ingredient.  Does the atmosphere seem unstylishly old-fashioned?  For instance, wood paneling? This is not necessarily a bad thing, some of our favorites (like Le Tigre) are whimsically old-fashioned, or have a certain classic classiness.  Are the walls covered mainly in signs and advertising for a certain types of beer (say Milwaukee’s Best or Keystone Light or Michelob Ultra)?

The question truly with atmosphere is–how is it all coming together?  Is the bar too spacious with lots of flooring between objects? Does that alienate you?  Does is sort of remind you of a sad dog chained up to a dilapidated house?  Are there sober people in the bar? Do they look like they’re enjoying themselves?

Another way to rule out a dive: does the bar feel homey?  Are  the owners an old couple who smile at each other, or better yet, are they a young couple and the wife is pregnant and wiping out beer glasses?  If so, that’s not a dive.  That’s an episode of EastEnders.

2. Clientèle: How old are the patrons?  This is a key question that  separates many campus bars from true dive bars.  I would argue that any bar that caters to  patrons who are mostly under thirty is not a dive.  Young people, in whatever capacity (drunk, hopeless, belligerent, unfailingly stupid) bring a certain sparkle to any misery.  For them, the future CAN change.  The next job, relationship, educational choice, or move could turn their lives around.  Even people in their thirties can, to some extent, give off this aura–but when the bar starts to fill with the grey hair and crows feet, the immediate optimism of youth evaporates and a bar can become a true dive.

Another question with clientèle: are there people on dates?  Are they sober and actually talking to one another?

3. Drinks: Here’s another big clue to whether you’re in a dive–what are you holding in your hand?  Is it a can of Keystone Light?  If so, well, I think you know where you are.  Does the bar only serve cans of terrible beers that exists only to get you drunk as cheaply as possible?  Or are there tap beers?  Are there local taps, or even microbrews on tap? Can you get mixed drinks?  Can you get cocktails?  Once you start answering yes to these questions–then you may not actually be in a dive.  Maybe you are just in a small town and in a tavern.   Those are dives.  Those are cultural. Dives are where culture ends and sadness begins.

4. Food: Is there food?  Food does not immediately rule out a dive bar experience.  But certain foods can.  For instance tapas can not be served at dive bars.  Special quality hamburgers with secret sauce (that is actually good) can not be served at dive bars.  Popcorn? Maybe.  Cheese curds?  Yes.  Gourmet cheese curds? No.  Basically the question is, would people come here for lunch to eat the food and not necessarily drink?  If yes, this is not a dive bar.

5. Loneliness/Misery: Here is the unsayable sayable.  Do you feel bad for being there?  Are there single people at the bar looking miserable? Do desperate men make terrible passes at you in a way that makes you sad for humanity.  When they smile at you, do they have all of their teeth?  Are there groups of people sitting around and not talking?  Do they look like they’re having fun, but really there’s  a deep pain behind their eyes?  Do you fear you will die in a place like this? Do you think your mother would feel sad for you if she saw you in this bar nursing a Keystone Light?  Do you stare at your can of Keystone Light and question the fundamental purpose of your existence?  Is the bright light of  your youth smothered by the garishness of neon?

If yes, Dive City.  There is a vacancy just for you.

Join me as I maybe never compend the bars I happen to stumble into.  I am lazy and I fear bars.  I like good beer.  Cheers!

After years of calendar conflicts and forgetfulness and sheer ignorance, last weekend fulfilled a long-standing dream of mine.  I am from Wisconsin.  In Wisconsin cheese is something like a religion.  I hate to make my (sometimes surprisingly) cosmopolitan, high-tech, open-minded state sound like a ho-dunk stereotype, but yeah, our cheese is better than your cheese and that makes us awesome and we celebrate it.  We incorporate it into meals in strange ways.  We think of creative ways to make it and support the traditional methods of making cheese passed down through the centuries.

We are cheese and we are territorial.   California produces more milk than us (our cow herds are smaller because we have fewer factory farms), but we take comfort in knowing that we still make more…you guessed it…cheese. If you love cheese you should come here and meet your tribe.

This weekend I spent Saturday doing what I do just about every day; I celebrated cheese. But this time I was with others.

One would imagine that the festival that celebrates cheesemaking in the most cheese-making-dense part of this cheese-loving state would be a big deal, right?  On Saturday, I ventured to Monroe, Wisconsin for Green County Cheese Days to find out:

At the very least, it sure was a big wheel!

Green County Cheese Days is a festival held every two years in Monroe, a community surrounded by many well-known and internationally award-winning Wisconsin cheesemakers.  In fact, Monroe’s high school mascot is the Cheesemakers.  At one point in my life that was incredibly funny!

Based on the devotion to quality and tradition displayed throughout the festival, Monroe has a lot to be proud of.  One of the great (and surprising) thrills was a grilled cheese sandwich served at  a local boy scout troop stand.  I expected two slices of American grilled on some white bread (per usual), but instead had an amazing mayo-scallion-brick combination grilled on two high-quality slices of toasted rye bread.  I bought that sandwich because I was hungry and  the other lines were long and ended up eating what might have been the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had.

Another daring adventure was my first time trying Limburger cheese (Monroe is one of two places in N. America that makes Limburger).  In Monroe, you can buy a cheese sandwich (or some big pieces of sausage!)  from a tavern window and just eat on the street:

Yes, Limburger did have a very pungent smell…something with a sour corporal resonance…like sweaty feet kept in plastic bags for a few hot days.   But the actual flavor was pretty mild, like brick cheese with maybe just a hint of  sourness.  Although it’s a strong odor, it is probable something one could overcome for the rather pleasant flavor that accompanies it. I’m no chef, but I think the sourness could add some complexity to a meal that calls for a milder cheese, or just a cheese sandwich. I also had some tangy brown mustard on my sandwich and it seemed to compliment the milder Limburger base quite well.  I would be interested to see how Limburger works in a grilled cheese sandwich.  Perhaps the smell cooks away?  Be mindful of your cohabitants, however, as the smell was noticeably permeating from skin later that day.

The bacteria that lives in Limburger also lives in your armpits when you are stinky enough for people to give you that look

Another big draw was the Optimist Club’s cheese curd stand.  The entire day, the stand was swarmed  with people with no clear line.  Finally the bullet was bitten and I entered the cheese curd mass.

Somewhere in this photo is the start of four serving lines

The 30-45 minute wait was tempered by the women in front of us who assured me that these would be some of the best cheese curds I’ve ever had.  And they were.  Definitively the best served from a festival stand.  Their fried skin was light, crisp and buttery and meshed well with the cheddar cheese on the inside.  If I hadn’t already chowed down on so much cheese I would have been in cheese heaven, instead I was closer to cheese heave.

Monroe also provides a cheese tent where visitors can sample different cheese types from different local  producers.  Though, it should be noted, this tent was pretty packed and just getting a piece of cheese on a toothpick involved great skill and patience.

Although there were plenty of cheese tasting opportunities, I was surprised to see how much the festival also doubled as a celebration of the Swiss ancestry seen in many communities in Green County:

Yes, this dog is wearing a cowbell and yes, I wanted to steal it (dog and bell).

This sounded like a melancholy whale roaming the deep ocean

This old cheesemaker explained how, as a boy, he hammered nails into his grandpa's boots so his grandpa wouldn't slip while making cheese. Also, that hat!

The Swissness just added color to what otherwise might have been a paint-by-numbers local commerce festival (seriously, Corn Fest? That’s just another excuse for Drunk Fest).  I also appreciated being serenaded by yodelers throughout the day–it made the waits in line all the more whimsical.

And with that:

http://www.youtube.com/v/cxLG2wtE7TM?fs=1&hl=en_US

Yesterday Madison participated in the worldwide Park(ing) Day observance, which encourages communities to fill up city parking spots with park spaces. (Parking spaces = park spaces–get it?).  Madison had two entries one downtown (below) and one in a more residential area.

While I was taking a gander at our newest (and shortest-lived downtown park), Madison’s Mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, was chatting with the folks who put the park together.  Mayor Dave is a great supporter of progressive community development and multi-model transportation systems.  (Mayor Dave, I loved the streetcar idea. I have always imagined streetcars going down University Avenue.)  I asked what it would take to get a park like this to be permanent.  The gist of his answer was “a lot”…apparently we have many permitting rules! Mayor Dave is the guy in the button-down shirt:

Mayor Dave, Sunny Day

Then I asked the landscape architects (the guys in the t-shirts) if they could just come by every day to do this during my lunch hour and they said that it was too expensive.  Still it was a neat display and did show an alternative way to use space. For Madison’s interest in smart growth and development it’s also comforting that community events such as these are on the radar of our local officials.

Also we’re getting  a new bike-friendly restaurant to prep for our future Amtrak station/public market/awesomeness.  Although summer died three weeks ago, I love this town.  Now it’s time for our four weeks of leaf Armageddon!

Imagine if for one weekend a year your town held a conference for rocket scientists.  But instead of sitting  in lecture rooms in some convention center, they built huge rockets. On the street. Right in your downtown. They would compete to see who could build the best rockets the fastest.  Then amateur rocket scientists would be invited to show their neat-o rockets they had put together in their garage.  All day the sky over your town would be lit up with streaks of fire and rocket fuel.

This is Ironman.  The most athletic of athletic competition (please, please let me know of anything that tops this).  Swim 2.4 miles.  Then bike 112 miles.  Then top that off with a marathon. A marathon.  That’s the race that gets its name from the guy who ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens and then died. From running a marathon.

The Ironman athletes started today a 7 a.m. and the winner finished around 3:30 p.m., but there are still people out there right now running and it is nearly 11 p.m.  They are running behind my apartment.  Needless to say watching these rocket-scientist athletes run around my neighborhood is quite a thrill.

You can also watch them come in on a jumbo-tron at the finish line.  Once they make it to the finish line they are carried off by two people.

You're an Ironman!

This is where their bikes slept.  They made their own bike city within the city:

This is like Amsterdam

This man called himself Captain Ironman.  Based on his outfit, I think he actually became Captain Ironman after completing the Ironman. Superhero indeed:

He's athletic and enjoys housework!

Until next year, my betters.

Sometimes I have this dream where 100 of my best friends  and I are invited to a mysterious palace full of strange puzzles and plush seating.  Some of my friends are ghost white. Some of my friends sleep with their head tucked into their bodies.  We line ourselves in rows.  Then there are fights or we find our place in the walls. Or our feet become liquid and we stand on glass.  When there’s music we burrow into chairs.  Then we become a commercial.

It’s nearly 4 p.m. on Monday and I’m slowly emerging from my food hangover.  Please see below the good/interesting thing consumed at the second day of the Taste of Madison. Blargh:

1. Chicago stuffed pizza – Pizza Extreme, Madison

I had the spinach version of this very good cheese stuffed pizza.  This is such an indulgence, but the cheese was a nice, moderate level so it didn’t make the whole pizza a gooey mess.  The other components tasted pretty fresh and flavorful.  For a festival pizza, it’s was a nice treat.

Although I had a few other entree-type items, the remaining highlights were in the dessert category.

2. Beignet- The Bayou, Madison

These were served pipping hot.  It’s like a doughnut only slightly better.  These were nice and soft on the inside.  I think the outside is suppose to be a little more delicate and crispier or something.  But whatever, this was delicious.

3. Bananas Foster Sundae – Queen Anne’s Catering, Madison

I don’t really know how a combination of bananas, pecans, and boozy-sweet syrup could go wrong.  Really bananas foster anything, please.  Bananas foster coffee…sounds perfect for winter! Bananas foster sandwich (well…I love bananas and peanut butter and bananas and brown sugar).  Bananas foster bananas foster! Seriously…let’s make it happen. You and I.

For my second movie of my Labor Day Weekend movie marathon  I selected the  1950 Bette Davis classic, All About Eve.  Here’s what it’s about:  Theater! Aging actress. Scheming ingenue. Jealous rages.  Delicious lines.

Here’s one great scene when Bette Davis’s Margot Channing (that’s the aging actress) discovers her boyfriend chatting with the deceitful Eve (that’s the scheming ingenue).  In the moments leading up to this scene, Davis’s character had a growing sense that Eve was taking over her life for the purposes of replacing her.  If only we could all fly off the handle with this much class and intelligence:

Later, Eve worms her way into being Margot Channing’s understudy and then reading Channing’s part in her absence.  Much to Margot’s anger, she’s brilliant, which leads to this altercation with the playwright and the director of the show (who is also Margot’s boyfriend). This clip has Spanish subtitles so you can learn to eloquently put people down in Spanish!:

What was striking about this film is how much dialog there is.  Really, this is over two hours of just talking and looking.  There is virtually no action.  But the dialog.  The quick exchange.  It’s such a descendant of the screwball comedies of the 1930s where the sentence is run-through and finished off with breezy hand gesture.  It was also incredibly refreshing to have a movie where difficult plot lines resolve themselves naturally and realistically and aren’t contrived for the sake of drama.  For instance [spoiler] Eve’s failed attempt to steal Margot’s boyfriend.  He rejects her because he find’s her forwardness a turn off, he love’s Margot, and that’s that.  Most movies would have gone for the cheap drama of an exchanged kiss or someone walking in on them at an inopportune time.  Instead, the scene plays out in a way that rounds out the Bill character by making him seem reliable and independent (he does not exist solely to forward the Eve plotline) and also shows how vulnerable and desperate Eve really is.

Another great moment [spoiler] is Eve’s attempt at extorting Margot’s friend, Karen.  Eve threatens Karen by claiming she will reveal a damaging secret unless Karen ensures her a role that Margot expects to play.  Karen is clearly distraught and unsure of what to do.  When Karen returns to the table Margot announces, without knowing anything about Karen’s situation, that she no longer wants to play the role Eve was gunning for.  Karen laughs with unqualified relief.  Here a plot device that easily resolves itself through the natural course of human action.  Such a rare thing in contemporary movies.

What I took from this movie: I would gladly be in Margot Channing’s entourage.  Sure there might be some nutjob moments, but at least I would always be surrounded by a flurry of words declared in a truly mesmerizing way.

One of great things about the end-of-the-summer sloth-gluttony circuit is when my city helps me facilitate these sins.  This weekend is the Taste of Madison–which is an outdoor food festival probably similar to ones held in other cities.  Here, 75 local food vendors surround the perimeter of the State Capitol and serve up small portions of their food for under $5.

It’s generally hot and crowded and full of drunk people listening to meager live music offerings.  Yesterday was great, however, because it was nice and cool, which makes everything: crowds, greasy food, drunks, bad music all so much better.

Below are some of the favorite foods I sampled yesterday.  Sadly, this is not all I ate.

1.  Pan Fried Corn Patty – Bandung Indonesian Restaurant, Madison

Similar to the State Fair, much of what’s served at the Taste of Madison is greasy or fried or both.  There is a nice mix of local, international places and places that serve mid-range American food.  This corn patty from Bandung was the first thing I tried.  The patty itself was made up of sweet corn kernels, egg and sweet onion.  On top was a savory garlic sauce which has a little bit of kick, but was still very mild.  The patty itself was amazing.  Generally, these things are like mush patties, probably because the restaurants rely on canned corned.  This was nice and firm.  When I pulled apart the patty I could see the firm corn kernels.  The sweetness of the corn and onion was delicious against the more savory garlic sauce.  It wasn’t that greasy and the crisp lettuce on the bottom seemed to help the dish from feeling soggy.

2.  Watermelon Popsicle – Chicago-area Mexican restaurant

I didn’t quite catch the name of the Mexican-food vendor that served me this watermelon popsicle (I will try to catch it today–Blogger Purgatory for me!), but I thank him for introducing me to the joy of Mexican Popsicles.  This tasted like someone had juiced a watermelon added just a little sugar and frozen it in a popsicle mold.  It did not taste artificial at all.  So, so yummy–probably even better on a hot summer day.

2. Beer Battered Deep Fried Cheese Curds – The Old Fashioned, Madison

Over the last 5 years of so, gourmet cheese curds have become something of a Madison-area delicacy–with just about every mid-to-high range “food pub” in Madison serving its own version for upwards of $10 a basket.  Much of this craze likely traces back to the opening of the Old Fashioned.  The Old Fashioned is a “Wisconsin-themed” mid-ranged restaurant right across the street from the State Capitol.  It features an extensive Wisconsin beer menu and better-tasting versions of the greasy specialties featured in the supper clubs spread across the state.  These cheese curds are a great example.  The breading is light and crisp and the beer gives it a nice, deep flavor that compliments the cheese.  The cheese inside is flavorful (my guess is some kind of colby) but not so strong that it’s overbearing on the taste buds after a certain point (as is the case with some of the sharp cheddar cheese curds that appear in other restaurants).  The sauce is a zingy mayo/mustard/light pepper combination and it really compliments the heaviness of the cheese curds.  This is one of those dishes that makes me so, so proud that I’m from Wisconsin.  I actually eat and think to myself: “my people”.

4. Cookie Dough Egg Roll – Bluephies, Madison

Chocolate-chip cookie dough wrapped in a light egg roll shell. Deep fried. The cookie dough becomes moist and gooey and stays hot inside the crisp egg roll shell. Do I really need to explain why this is delicious?

More food coming my way today!

My Labor Day Weekend movie marathon began yesterday with Rashomon, which I had never seen and had begun to feel like I was avoiding.  After all, I had been told over and over how good it is, how it’s not one of the great films of Akira Kurosawa (this was my first Kurosawa film) and a masterpiece of film perspectives and really one of the best films of all time.  And it had been sitting for months on Netflix Instant Queue (with a suggested 4 1/2 stars).   But I finally watched it.  No more boo-hooing me, intellectual elite. And it was a very, very good film.

[Spoilers follow–Ed.] For those of you who aren’t familiar with the film, or just need a refresher, it follows the perspective of four people who were witnessed or were part of one event–the rape of a woman and the subsequent reaction of her husband, the rapist and the woman herself, and ultimately, the husband’s death.  All three people (rapist, woman, husband) provide their own perspective on the event during the court hearing for the husband’s death.  (The husband’s perspective is provided by a medium.)  The fourth and final version of the events comes from a woodcutter (also the film’s central narrator), who we find out towards the film’s end, was also a witness to the rape and murder.  All four perspectives vary widely, with all providing glimpses into how each character would like to be perceived by its audience.

When the film became most interesting to me was the story from the perspective of the woodcutter (the final perspective):

Unlike the other narrations of the event, in this perspective, all the characters act and react in unflattering ways to the events that are taking place.  The men are shaking, exhausted and awkward during their fight.  There’s stumbling and heavy panting and obvious fear.  The woman actually stands up for herself and argues with the men when they both reject her after her rape, but then she cowers in fear during the fight that she directly causes and is ultimately revolted by its result.  When the bandit/rapist actually kills the husband it more out of luck and he appears to do it with self-disgust.  This scene offers moments of realism that take the movie to a different level–we have no clear winner or hero. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters, but in their faulty humanity they are at their most sympathetic because they most resemble ourselves.

Overall, it’s a short but dense film.  The imagery of rain, light, vegetation vs. sand all adds meaning to the themes of human selfishness, violence, Japanese culture, personal faith, trust, truth, perspective, gender issues.  I know it’s a well-studied film and with reason.  This is a film that has books worth of potential explication waiting for the eager cinephile.

Although, it was a very satisfying and interesting film, I didn’t find myself as moved as I have been with other films (although an emotional reaction is not always a sign that a movie is actually good), but I think that’s by design.  In general an emotional response comes from watching some personal development within a character with whom we have become emotionally connected.  With Rashomon we can’t really invest ourselves into the characters because they change from perspective to perspective.  We stick most closely to the narrator, and his arc of understanding most closely resembles ours.  But even his reliability and moral integrity is called into question when we find out [spoiler] that he steals from the site of the rape/murder.  It’s hard to want things to happen for the characters, but for a movie about whether people can be trusted, I guess that’s sort of the point.  Perhaps the narrator is ultimately redeemed when, in the end, he offers to take care of an abandoned child.  Perhaps that is our redemption, too.

I should add, that the film is also beautifully shot.  Perhaps the best moment was the  windy wildness of the medium as she tells the dead husband’s story.  It begins around the eight minute mark of this clip:

During this segment, it’s as if we’ve entered a whole new world of spiritual heroism–only to have that world taken apart when, minutes later, the woodcutter/narrator tells his perspective and reveals that everyone’s a bunch of lying, terrified buffoons.

For anyone interested in more yammerings on Akira Kurosawa, I plan more subsequent entries.  The local university is showing several of his films this semester and it’s a good excuse for me to learn more about such an admired director.  Stay tuned.