Monday, June 26, 2017

Beauty is Not Only Skin Deep

Grays Peak (Continental Divide, photo: Chris  Keller)
The beauty of nature is almost too much to bear. It can be like a reprimand, if it’s disconsonant with one’s inner condition. But beauty is also a challenge. What's one to do with or about it? No matter the state of mind, it dominates the conversation. You go to the Grand Canyon or the Alps, to the South Shore of Long Island or the Great Lakes and you’re dumbfounded and dwarfed by it. Wherever it appears, it tends to be the only show in town. There’s something about beauty that's almost like watching too much TV. It makes you passive, since you defer to it and realize there’s nothing you can do in the face of it. Also, it can be boring. How long is one going to go on about a star filled sky or about the Aurora Borealis? In some senses beauty lacks dimensionality since in its purest form it's lacking in conflict or that kind of  turbulence which might be equatable with human intention. When you’re caught in a storm, which can be beautiful, you, at least, are put in the position of a competitor who now has his or her work cut out for them. During hurricanes and typhoons nature shows its dark side and anthropomorphizing it, you find yourself in a battle where  you have to escape its supposed wrath. But nature in its most beauteous manifestations is benign and leaves one feeling like the beneficiary of unearned wealth. You have inherited something you’ve done nothing to earn, that, in turn, creates an inherent feeling of helplessness.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Il Boom

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) took place in an impoverished post-war Rome. The director’s Il Boom (1963), currently revived at Film Forum, is set in a far more afffuent era of a rising bourgeoisie who dance the Hully Gully and twist to Chubby Checker. There are shades of La Dolce Vita (1960) particularly in the film’s bouncy musical score, though the world of Il Boom is more aspirational and middle class than the Fellini classic inured as it is in the world of a decadent aristocracy. However the tone of the director’s later outing is curiously reminiscent of the loss and despair that hangs over Bicycle Thieves, one of the classics of Italian cinema. In fact it's almost worse. The character played so magnificently by the great comic actor Alberto Sordi mortgages his existence literally and metaphorically to keep up with his peers. Finally he ends up selling one of his eyes to pay off his debts and save his marriage. It's the biblical eye for an eye turned to bizarrely surrealistic effect; the sentimentality and dejection faced by the father and son in Bicycle Thieves becomes a genuine tristesse in Il Boom. Sordi’s comparatively superficial mercantile character (Alberti) has come a long way and so has more to lose. In the final scene he bolts and the team of doctors who are to perform the procedure trail him out of the clinic and into the traffic. It’s a masterpiece of humor that perfectly captures both the predicament and ultimate entrapment of De Sica's character.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Trouble in Paradise

Have you ever screamed at those you love? Have you lost all patience with them at the moment when you’ve landed in paradise and you were supposed to have taken a complete 360 from where you normally found yourself--emotionally that is. Paradise is, in fact, where you’re likely to find many fighting couples. Surely you have gone on the big getaway, the schooner which is taking an elite group to some untrammeled Caribbean island where the waters are too shallow for the big cruise ships to dock. And there on the pristine sands where topless mermaids insouciantly bath in crystal clear waters, you heard a couple from New York quarreling about private schools. Have you ever been in the position where you felt sorry for them and their cantankerous baying about their failed vacation? You might have felt bad, but you were smug and self-satisfied; after all, it was not happening to you. You laid back and scanned maybe one page from some impossibly difficult tome like Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities which you had promised yourself you would read as the price to pay for your hedonism--before the book fell out of your hands. Falling asleep all seemed right with the world until, awakening groggily several hours later, you found yourself in the middle of the same familiar and heated tiff you could have had anywhere. You didn't even remember how it started, but you felt you were right. Being in paradise was no reason to relent. You had caved in enough. If you had to ruin your whole vacation to make your point you would. Meanwhile the couple you had originally felt sorry for and superior to were sound asleep themselves, nestled in each other's arms.  Remember Sylvester's "Trouble in Paradise?"

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Chesapeake Journal: Still Pond

map of Still Pond area: Alexrk2
Who are Mary J. Clark Howard, Anne Baker Maxwell and Lillie Derrigan Kelley? They were three women who voted in the Municipal elections of l908 in the sleepy town of Still Pond. These three voted 12 years before the passage of the nineteenth amendment guaranteeing women suffrage. In l908 the voters of Still Pond had passed an ordinance guaranteeing voting rights to all tax payers over 21. Imagine Cape Cod before it became a popular resort. You'd have the same wood houses with their weathered shingles lined along the main streets just like you see in towns like Still Pond. All that’s missing are the throngs. When you visit the farming country along the Eastern Shore of Maryland which runs right down to the shore, you can feel the way life once was when farming and fishing were the major industries in places like the Eastern End of Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and before tourism became the major industry. You expect demonstrations and marches in urban centers where change tends to foment, but what's so extraordinary is to find intimations of one of the most significant changes in the history of humans rights brewing in a town whose very name betokens a world where nothing seems to change at all; it's truly astonishing to find evidence of a revolutionary activity in such an otherwise placid environment. Well Betterton (population 345), the resort on the Sassafras River in the upper part of the Chesapeake Bay, is right down the road from Still Pond. Perhaps that says something?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Chesapeake Journal: Rock Hall of Fame

watercolor by Hallie Cohen
Rock Hall is a legendary fishing village down the road from Chestertown. Tullalah Bankhead the famous actress (she had a starring row in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat ) and enchantress (“If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes, only sooner,” is one her famous quotes) is buried in the local cemetery which sits beside St. Paul’s Church. But the town is less known for its celebrities than its Watermen, whose seafaring existence is memorialized at the local Waterman’s Museum. When you ride Bayshore Road to the four way intersection at the center of town, you will come upon a tiny white shack dedicated to Stanley B. Van Sant 1908-1990. In front of it stands one of the ubiquitous wooden statues of watermen that dot the town. If "Tintern Abbey" was Wordsworth’s definition of the sublime this small little portable home for watermen like Van Sant epitomizes the Chesapeakian version of sublimity. Next to is a sign commemorating  another local legend Captain Lambert Wickes, an officer in the continental navy whose sloop the Reprisal was responsible for many successful raids on the British. He was the first American naval officer in European waters at the time of the signing of the Declaration of  Independence and he died when his ship sunk off the coast of Newfoundland in l777. Fishing was and is not only an industry, but a way of life, with its own heroes and mythologies which infuse the landscape of Chesapeake Bay towns like Rock Hall.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Chesapeake Journal: Sumner Hall

photograph by Hallie Cohen
Every environment has its own narrative which explains the reason for its existence or thriving way of life that once was. The Eastern Maryland shore is composed of shallow waters and numerous ports  where steamships could easily dock. There are magical little nooks with names like Cliffs City where the last one-room school house in Kent County is now memorialized as a museum. During the l9th century Annapolis was the biggest show in town. The numerous villages along the Chesapeake Bay which, with all its myriad inlets and coves constitutes a remarkable ll,000 miles of coast line, were all accessible to Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore by train. Slavery itself was affected when the economy went from tobacco to wheat, the latter requiring short-term labor. It was actually less expensive to hire a worker for two weeks than to own and care for a slave.  Economics not enlightenment became one of the most persuasive arguments for abolition. When you travel to Chestertown, the home of Washington College (the only school that George Washington personally allowed to use his name), you witness the legacy of both geography and topography all integrated in a landscape where time has stood still; Chestertown has been described as "the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere." If you're ever down in Chestertown seek out Pat Nugent who teaches at Washington College and whose expertise lies in the African-American experience in the Eastern Maryland area. He's a wellspring of knowledge when it comes to the colorful  and sometimes checkered history of the area. With steamships and railways becoming supperannuated, the population has only grown from 10,000 to 20,000 in modern times. Campbell's Soup and Vita Herring once estimable presences are now gone. There has been only modest development since the days when Baltimore with its deepwater port and connection to the West took over as a central shipping center. The silver grey brick structure of the Custom House on Water Street, built by the slave owner and trader Thomas Ringgold, co-exists with Sumner Hall, built in l908 to commemorate the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union army veterans in which the members of the town's growing black middle class fought. Visiting Chestertown is like going on one of those archeological digs where the evolution of a civilization has withstood the elements and is pristinely preserved for posterity.