the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Category: Movies

THE BEAUTY OF MATHEMATICS?

Bangkok, 15 May 2016

My wife and I have just seen the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity”. For those of my readers who are not up on the latest offerings from Hollywood, this is a film about two real-life mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant, self-taught, Indian mathematician from Tamil Nadu, and G.H. Hardy, a great English mathematician, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. I will not bore readers with a summary of the plot or my analysis of the story. My point is, it’s a story about mathematicians who love mathematics. The film is full of allusions to the beauty of mathematics, and indeed Hardy is known to the general public (if known at all) for a book he wrote on the beauty of mathematics, A Mathematician’ Apology.

The beauty of mathematics …

Neither my wife nor I are good at maths. In fact, we stink. And as can be readily imagined, we both have bad memories of maths at school. My wife still talks with dread about her last maths teacher, Mrs. Poggi. She was, according to my wife’s recounting, old, single, small, and very, very mean. She had an uncanny ability to know when my wife didn’t understand what was going on, and with a loud voice would command her to stand up and explain.
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For my part, the name of my maths nemesis is now mercifully expunged from my memory. All I remember is having been moved up two classes in primary school, and finding myself going from arithmetic to geometry. There I was, staring helplessly at a triangle while my nemesis was flaying me verbally in front of the whole class, saying it was obvious that a squared plus b squared equaled c squared.
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(There was also, later, the ex-colonel, who used to fling pieces of chalk at those who, like me, failed to comprehend the mathematical complexities on the board quickly enough. His name I remember: Colonel Yule)

My wife never recovered from her run-ins with maths. Even now, she begins to get nervous whenever even simple arithmetic operations are required – although she has a much better grasp of numbers in the real world than I do; she instinctively knows what the price of anything should be, whereas I have no idea: 1 euro, 10 euros for a bag of tomatoes? don’t know. For my part, I was partially salvaged in secondary school by the kindly Fr. George (my secondary school was a religious school). Fr. George took the class of the maths duds, the maths brain-dead. His job was to get us to pass Maths O-level – minimum pass was all that was required. His method was simple: to do exercises again and again, until the fear of the mathematical operation in question had passed. (he also gave very sensible advice like write your name on the answer sheet before starting, to calm your nerves, remember to turn over the exam paper to see all the questions before you start, and don’t do the questions in order – start with the questions you know you can answer). His recipe worked for me; I passed with minimum grade. (I thought I was done with maths at that point; alas not! I wanted to do science, and maths comes with science. So I struggled on with maths all the way to first year in University).

With this baggage, it’s not surprising that neither my wife nor I see any beauty in mathematics. I suppose towards the last years of my interactions with maths I faintly saw the possibilities of beauty, when the complexities which started at the top of the blackboard would resolve themselves neatly, and indeed beautifully, by the bottom of the board, but that was as near as I ever got.

I suppose, like Moses before the Promised Land, we are told that there lies before us a land flowing with milk and honey but we know we will never enter it. That will be left to the likes of Ramanujan and Hardy to enjoy.
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Well, you can’t have everything in life.

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Mean Italian maths teacher: http://www.studenti.it/superiori/diritti/come-fare-se-il-prof-e-pazzo.php
Teacher shouting at pupil: http://www.illustrationsource.com/stock/image/640/an-irate-teacher-shouting-at-a-boy-in-a-classroom/?&results_per_page=1&detail=TRUE&page=3
Moses before the Promised Land: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12/

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WILL AND I

Bangkok, 30 April 2016

One of the problems of living abroad is that issues of great moment back home have little if any echo here in Bangkok. So it was with the 400th anniversary of Will Shakespeare’s death, which fell on 23rd April last week. It was only when I was catching up with news from home (to Brexit or not to Brexit?) that I saw the huge amount of chatter on line and realized this.

Well! I cannot let this anniversary go by, even though I am already a week late in celebrating it. I mean, Will and I go back a long way! Before I start my breathless recollections, though, let me throw in a picture of one of the few portraits of Shakespeare which are thought to probably be a good likeness, from his funerary monument in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon.
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(my alert readers will have noticed much circumspection in that last phrase; so little is known about the real-life Will)

I saw my first piece of Shakespeare – a mere snippet – when I was a seven-year old. My parents had taken me along to visit my elder brother at his school’s Sports Day. As the name suggests, the day was primarily about sports, but to show some high-browsedness among all this low-browsedness the Headmaster also put on a few scenes from Shakespeare, played by the boys. One of these boys was my brother, who played a scene from Henry VIII. Although I don’t know which scene it was exactly, I do remember sitting next to him afterwards and – pesky child that I was – pulling off strands of his stuck-on beard.

A year later, I was packed off to the same school, and at one of the next Sports Days I got my first role, a walk-on part as a page of Macbeth’s. My moment in the spotlight was short. I preceded Macbeth onto the stage, who then ordered me off to do something. I bowed with dignity and exited left. After which Macbeth launched into that great soliloquy:

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

It goes on for several more fevered lines, but we’ll leave it at that.

In later years, I was a regular at these theatrical events on Sports Days, but I never got to do any more Shakespeare. The best I managed was the lead role, as a waiter, in some farce to do with a coconut being mistaken for a bomb. No matter! I was hooked on the acting life.

My school might have been buried in the wilds of Somerset, but that did not stop the Headmaster from trying to expose us to Culture. One way he did this was by taking us to theatrical events. Thus it was that one beautiful summer’s day (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) we were bussed off to a local Stately Home and watched the Winter’s Tale in its manicured gardens. I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the play, certainly none of the text has remained with me. I appreciated more the strawberries and cream served at the interval. I was probably too young to appreciate the play (I must have been all of eleven at the time). But I did very much appreciate the al fresco setting, and so a number of years later, when I was at high school, I was an enthusiastic member of a small audience watching Waiting for Godot, sitting on the grass of a lonely dirt road on the edges of which Vladimir and Estragon acted out their empty lives.

At that same high school, I acted in my first full-length Shakespeare play, Richard II, as the Duke of York. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, so will not elaborate. What has stayed with me all these years, though, apart from dying John of Gaunt’s paeon to England (“This other Eden, demi-paradise … this precious stone set in the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) is Henry Bolingbroke’s icy remark to the captive Richard II, who is wallowing in self-pity: “The shadow of your sorrows hath destroyed the shadow of your face”.

If I’m to be honest, our Richard II was no great shakes. It was a good attempt by amateurs, no more. To prep us, our Director had hired a van and taken us down to Stratford, to see the Royal Shakespeare Company put on Richard II. It was certainly better than what we did, but it was no more than workmanlike, I would say. I had to wait some ten years to see a truly splendid production of Richard II, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine in a large space in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. Ah, what a wonderful production that was! Mnouchkine used a style that mixed Japanese theatrical traditions with mime, on a large set uncluttered by any of the traditional theatrical props. It was truly magic, one of those theatrical experiences that stays with you forever.
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Back to my own theatrical career at high school! It reached its zenith when I acted in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I played Rosencrantz (or maybe Guildenstern, I forget; the characters themselves were always getting confused about who they were). This hilarious play is a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which R&G play minor and totally inglorious roles. To my great regret, I never acted in Hamlet itself. The closest I got was playing a few scenes on the portico of the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, during the University’s charity week. I played Polonius as a completely senile old twerp, unashamedly hamming it up for the audience: a disgraceful exhibition – but fun!

In truth, my days treading the theatre boards were even then numbered. I quickly realized at University that I was a mediocre actor and it was time for me to get serious. But before my final curtain call, I did manage get a modest part in Measure for Measure, playing Claudio, a young man sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. It’s a strange play, aptly titled a “problem play”, categorized as a comedy but being no such thing. None of the characters are that nice either, so it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for anyone. My character Claudio gets some wonderful lines as he sits in gaol, bathed in a total funk at the idea of dying:

“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling – ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.”

And as I grow older, the lines of Duke Vincentio, spoken in his disguise as a monk to Claudio in prison, resonate ever more strongly with me: “when thou art old and rich, thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty to make thy riches pleasant”. So true, alas!

And that was the end of my days on the proscenium. From then on, my engagement with Shakespeare was through films and other people’s theatrical productions. The most vivid of my recollections centre around Laurence Olivier. There was a poky little cinema on the Left Bank of Paris which one year when we lived there held a festival of Olivier’s Shakespeare films. My wife and I first watched Olivier’s film version of Hamlet, the first proper Hamlet I had ever seen. Olivier started with his voiced-over summary of Hamlet: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”.

Hamlet 1948 rŽal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier Collection Christophel

It was masterly, no doubt about it. Of course, there were all the hoary Hamlet quotes: “Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him”, “get thee to a nunnery”, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, and of course probably the hoariest of all hoary Shakespeare quotes, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Actually, behind all that hoariness lies one of Shakespeare’s most profound, and profoundly beautiful, soliloquies, of which I cite here only some lines, those which have always resonated with me the most:

“………..To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause …”

In that same poky little cinema on the Left Bank, we got to see Olivier’s wonderful Richard III, which I have commented on in an earlier post, but also his sublime Henry V, a wonderful propaganda piece made in 1944 as a morale booster and dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”. So it is that we have great, reverberating lines like these:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!'”

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

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To my great regret, we missed the showing of Olivier’s film of Othello. But we did later see, in an equally poky cinema somewhere else, Orson Welle’s Othello, filmed in some exotic castle in Morocco. Ah, the terrible torments of jealousy! “beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on”.
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“I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

And then there was Orson Welles as Macbeth! Rather over the top – a cross, as Welles himself put it, between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein
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but home of some of the most sublime of Shakespeare’s lines, uttered by Macbeth as the power he has sold his soul for crumbles away around him.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Orson Welles did another great Shakespeare film, The Chimes at Midnight, a medley from Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II, and even The Merry Wives of Windsor, and focusing on Sir John Falstaff, to my mind the only Shakespearean character who is really comic in the modern sense.

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It’s a truly funny film. It’s also the film which brought home to me how Medieval battles were just brutal slugfests, with men bludgeoning each other to death with heavy, and sharp, pieces of metal.
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But it’s ultimately a film about betrayal. Prince Hal, a Crown Prince who cannot bear to take his responsibilities seriously, strings Falstaff along, making him believe that they are fast friends. But when Prince Hal becomes Henry V and Falstaff thinks he is now in the clover (“My King! My Jove! I speak to thee my heart”), the newly crowned King rejects him, literally turning his back on him (“I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers! How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”).

Over the years, my wife and I have seen a number of other Shakespeare plays in film or theatre. Most, alas, have left little or no mark. Two, though, have stayed with me. One is a stage production of The Tempest directed by Giorgio Strehler, which was visually absolutely stunning. The other is Franco Zefirelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember it so much for the love story – to my modern, cynical, ear, it all sounds very twee – as for the way Zeffirelli beautifully captured the edgy, ultimately tragic, banter between Mercutio and the Capulets.

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I may be a cynical old fart, but it’s undeniable that the drama of love across forbidden barriers resonates. There’s Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to New York’s gangs
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and just recently I was watching an Al Jazeera show following the production of a Romeo and Juliet adaptation in Mali, a country where it is still the norm for parents to decide whom you marry; the, mostly female, audience were captivated. 400 years on, Shakespeare is still relevant.

I’ve focused on Shakespeare the dramatist. There is also Shakespeare the writer of the sonnets. One sonnet in particular is close to my heart at this time of my life:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Like I said, Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years on. I just hope to have a few more goose-bump moments with Will before the sixth and seventh ages of man which he clinically describes kick in:

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

___________________________
Shakespeare’s funerary monument: http://www.hollowaypages.com/Shakespearemonument.htm
Théatre du Soleil, Richard II: https://jeffberryman.com/2009/07/20/finishing-the-story-le-theatre-du-soleil/
Olivier Hamlet: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/laurence-olivier/images/5111432/title/hamlet-photo
Olivier Henry V: http://hayhistorygroup.co.uk/new-events/2015/9/11/hay-history-weekend-henry-v-at-booths-cinema-olivier-version
Welles Othello: http://filmforum.org/film/othello-welles-film
Welles Macbeth: http://filmforum.org/film/macbeth-scottish-version-welles-film
Welles Chimes at Midnight: http://www.midnightonly.com/2015/04/12/chimes-at-midnight-1965/
Battle Chimes at Midnight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bWraOy6Kw4
Romeo and Juliet: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/186125397070342206/
West Side Story love: https://www.filmlinc.org/events/west-side-story/
West Side Story fight: http://cityartsonline.com/blog/2010/06/siff-review-seeing-west-side-story-first-time

A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER

Bangkok, 21 December, 2014

Her name was Vivian Maier. She died not long ago, in 2009, at the age of 83, a spinster and childless, and penniless. She had spent some forty years, from the mid-1950s on, being a nanny for various well-off families in the Chicago area.

And she was a gifted photographer of the streets, mainly those of Chicago and New York.

She spent every possible minute that she could taking photos: in all her free time, but also when she was taking her charges for walks or to the playgrounds, as well as on her one big trip around the world, which she made in the early sixties. She took hundreds of thousands of photos. But hardly any of these made it past the stage of negatives, and many didn’t even get that far; they just stayed as rolls of unprocessed film.

She was a compulsive hoarder. She kept all the negatives and all the film rolls, and the 8 mm films she made, and the audio tapes she recorded, and just about everything else she had ever owned or collected, in cardboard boxes, old suitcases, and other containers. As she moved from one nannying job to another, she offloaded her accumulating stuff into a commercial storage space. In 2007, after she failed to keep up with her payments, the storage company auctioned her stuff off.

It looked like her work was about to disappear. But a number of photo collectors bought at the auction. They recognized a spark of genius in her photos and started trying to publicize them. A first attempt by Ron Slattery in 2008, who posted some of her photos on the internet, failed to generate much interest. Then in October 2009, six months after she died, another of the collectors, John Maloof, put some of his trove of her photos on Flickr, linked them to his blog, and the results went viral (this is a very modern story). Things snowballed from there, and her work is now beginning to garner a fair amount of critical and popular praise.

Would Vivian Maier have wanted this recognition? That is one of the questions touched upon in a fascinating documentary which John Maloof put together entitled “Finding Vivian Maier”. He tells the story of how after his initial purchase of her stuff he went on a voyage of discovery of who she was and what she did – quite a detective story – and he interviews a number of the children she nannied and their parents to try to understand what kind of person she was. It was seeing this film that moved me to write this post. I highly recommend my readers to see it if they have not done so already. And, by the way, according to the people who had known her, the answer to the question with which I started this paragraph is, probably yes for her work, but she would have intensely disliked to have the light of publicity shone on her; she was a very private person.

For those readers who want to get a taste of her work, I suggest you visit the site http://www.vivianmaier.com. I add here, from that same site, some of her photos which most struck me, to whet your appetite.
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I prefer her black-and-white photos, but I add a few of her colour photos
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That last one, with her shadow, leads naturally to a few of her self-portraits. She took a lot of photos of herself.
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In a sad postscriptum, I have just read that Vivian Maier’s estate has got entangled in a challenge about who owns the copyright to her photos. The result is that it will be probably harder to see her works for the next several years. If my readers get a chance to see an exhibition, on no account miss it. It might be a long time before you get another chance.

 

LET’S DANCE!

Beijing, 24 March 2014

Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter of the same name, was a good film director. In fact, he is considered by some to be among the greatest film directors of all time. He made such classics as La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). So it was with some anticipation that some years ago my wife and I went to see The River, a film he had made in 1951, on location in India, in English, his first in colour, and which won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The River

Bad, bad mistake! The theme of the film – loss, love lost, love found – had all to hold one. The problem was the actors. They were all, to a man and woman, dogs – it’s the only word to adequately describe the appallingly amateur acting that we were subjected to. To this day, I ask myself what on earth happened in the making of this film. How did Jean Renoir lose control of his creation? Was it lack of money? Loss of talent? – was he getting too old for the job? Was it working far from home and in a foreign language? Mystery …

The worst actor by far was an Indian woman, Radha Burnier by name. She later gained a certain fame by becoming president of the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society (fame defined here as having an entry in Wikipedia). But that was still in the future when she acted in this film. I literally gritted my teeth every time she appeared on-screen and droned out her lines tonelessly. And then, at some point in all this hideousness, she acted out a dream sequence. For some reason which I cannot now recall, this dream required her to dance a classical Indian dance. What a transformation!  This ugly duckling of an actress morphed into a beautiful dancer. We were treated to a powerfully expressive, supremely graceful performance of Indian classical dancing.

I immediately forgave her all her poor acting.

I was forcefully reminded of this episode a few weeks ago when, during a long flight back from the US, I decided to watch An American in Paris, a film also made in 1951, directed by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly in the lead role.

An_American_in_Paris_poster

It was an exceedingly silly film, with the lightest of plots (love lost, love gained, the whole with a papier mâché Paris in the background), but at least the actors could act. It also had a good musical score by George Gershwin. So I smiled indulgently and let myself be carried along on the silly frothiness of it all. At some point, though, Gene Kelly went into a tap dancing routine. My attention suddenly snapped into focus. What a dance! Light-hearted though it was, it was a superb rendition, a wonderful example of what a highly accomplished classical dancer can do with the hypnotic rhythms of clicking shoes.

In a way, I think these two threads of dancing come together in Spanish flamenco dancing – the syncopation of tap dancing fusing with the sinuous, sulphurous eroticism of Indian classical dancing, which also carries its own brand of stressed rhythm with the use of feet bangles. Staying in the film medium, I give here a wonderful example of Spanish flamenco from Carmen, a 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura.

Carmen_by_Saura

It’s a remake in the flamenco style of Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Here we have love exploding between Carmen and Don José

but alas! it all ends badly

Ah, the madness of jealous love!

I cannot end without bringing in tango, that most sultry of all dances. Which is just as well because that allows me to introduce a final clip from the 2005 film Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé

je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime

in which two lonely people, Jean-Claude and Françoise, find a common love, and love, in tango

Ah, l’amour, l’amour! After a few taps of my toes and a pirouette, I turn in for the night.

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The River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/77/La_Fleuve_1951_film_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(1951_film)%5D

An American in Paris film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_American_in_Paris_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_%28film%29%5D

Carmen film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carmen_by_Saura.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_%281983_film%29%5D

Je ne suis pa la pour etre aime poster: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/imager/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/b/original/2222223/686d/f8df3e30_je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime.jpg [in http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/Event?oid=2222222%5D

A HORSE! A HORSE! MY KINDGOM FOR A HORSE!

5 February 2013

I was all atwitter this morning when I saw the news. The skeleton found under the car park in Leicester, England, is indeed that of Richard III, last of England’s Plantagenet kings! OK, there are some sour-puss academics raising doubts, but that’s probably because the skeleton wasn’t found under their car park.

I spent the early morning skittering around the house with one shoulder up and shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” instead of getting ready for work. My wife looked on and rolled her eyes. But what Englishman has not at least heard of Shakespeare’s play Richard III? What person, who – like me – has thespian pretensions, has not dreamed of prancing about a stage as a mediaeval version of Quasimodo, murdering all and sundry with devilish glee and getting the beautiful women into the bargain? If it wasn’t for Shakespeare, who would remember King Richard III?

I did most of my acting at school. To my great regret, we never put on Richard III. But I’ve seen it a number of times, both in film as well as on the stage. I first saw it years ago with my wife, in some poky cinema on Paris’s rive gauche. That was the 1955 film version,with Laurence Olivier doing a marvelously over-the-top evil characterization of Richard.

laurence olivier

This film stayed in some sort of medieval setting. The next version I saw, with Ian McKellen playing Richard III, was made 40 years after Olivier’s movie. It tried to be clever and set the story in some sort of 1930s fascist version of Britain where the king’s deformity was moral rather than physical.

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We saw this film in Milan. As you can imagine, given Italy’s history

mussolini

the fascist overtones of the film had a certain resonance there.

And then, about a year ago, through sheer serendipity – we just happened to be visiting Hong Kong when the play was running – we saw Kevin Spacey play Richard III with a manic savageness.

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One of the amazing things about Shakespeare is the sheer number of quotes he has generated. Half the quotes people use, or so it seems, come from one Shakespeare play or another. Richard III has its fair share. There’s the quote which I’ve used as my title, which must be one of the most famous quotes in the English language. Then there is this quote:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

which seems to be one of those quotes that everyone knows. Then there is this quote:

“Off with his head!”

which my father was very fond of using  whenever I was naughty.

Apart from these, the play has some deliciously cynical lines:

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe”

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

“Why, I can smile and murder while I smile,
And cry ‘content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face for all occasions”

Yes, we never did put on Richard III at school. But we put on Shakespeare’s Richard II; the events it recounts were the original cause of the War of the Roses, whose final act was the unhorsing of Richard III on Bosworth Field outside of Leicester and his killing with several savage blows to the head as shown by that skull beneath the car park.  I played the Duke of York (I should have played King Richard II, of course, but we’ll pass over that). As usual, the play has many memorable lines, but one set in particular remains with me, uttered by my elder brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as he lies dying in Act I:

This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress, built by nature for herself,
Against infection, and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

I don’t go back to the UK very often, but those lines echo with me when I stand in the countryside and see how so very lovely it can be.

english-countryside

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Laurence Olivier: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Z1o-IQnC1nE/UK8xybvIJ7I/AAAAAAAABCU/OJcjGS2QOzE/s1600/tumblr_m3xc1hNXLZ1rrfb56o1_1280.jpg

Ian McKellen: http://www.mckellen.com/images/r3/ban-15.jpg

Mussolini: http://757f8ed9aaa522dde29d-4c07cfa4f788be17c79661948c0f2477.r99.cf1.rackcdn.com/5728_1323465695_july-25th-benito-mussolini-deposed.jpg

Kevin Spacey: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01934/Richard_a_1934160b.jpg

English countryside: http://www.style-passport.com/style/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/english-countryside.jpg

RIVER POEMS

17 January 2013

There are only a few weeks to go to the Chinese New Year and the Chinese newspapers are full of articles on people’s plans for the festive period and on the country’s transportation infrastructure bracing itself for the onslaught of Chinese who will be travelling home or – more frequently now as they get richer and move into the middle classes – travelling abroad for package tour holidays. As I read, I was reminded of a wonderful piece in the New Yorker written by the magazine’s Man in Beijing, Evan Osnos. Two Chinese New Years ago, Osnos decided to join one of these package tours, the “Classic European,” a bus tour visiting five countries in ten days.  It’s a sympathetically amusing article and I would urge any of my readers with an interest in social trends in China to read it. It can be accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_osnos. Here is a photo from the article.

chinese tourists-8

Osnos’s piece reminded me rather of a 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a romantic comedy about a group of American tourists doing a bus tour of nine European countries in 18 days.

If_It's_Tuesday

Osnos mentions in passing a sub-trend in Chinese tourism, that of Chinese lovers of poetry who go on a pilgrimage to Cambridge (the Cambridge in the UK) to gaze reverently at a clump of willow trees growing on the banks of the River Cam. The reason for all this is a poem which is wildly popular in China: 再别康桥 “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. It was written by Xu Zhimo, a famous romantic poet of the early twentieth-century.

Xu Zhimo

Xu travelled in the West for a number of years. He spent a year in Cambridge in 1921 and on a second trip there in 1928 wrote the poem. He died a few years later in a plane crash in China.

I don’t read (or speak) Chinese, so I’m afraid the poem in its original form is closed to me. However, there is what seems to be a standard translation (every Chinese website that I looked at carried the same one) which is really quite pleasant on the ear. But before I quote it here, I am moved to first cite the poem in its pinyin form (without tonal marks, which I find confusing and quite unhelpful since I don’t hear the language’s tones), to give other Chinese-illiterate readers like myself a small taste of its rhythm and rhyme.

Qingqing de wo zou le, zhengru wo qingqing de lai;
wo qinqing de zhaoshou, zuobie xi tian de yuncai.

Na hepan de jin liu, shi xiyang zhong de xinniang;
boguang li de yan ying, zai wo de xintou dangyang.

Ruanni shang de qing xing, youyou de zai shuidi zhaoyao;
zai Kang he rou bo li, wo ganxin zuo yi tiao shuicao!

Na yu yin xia de yi tan, bus hi qingquan,
shi tianshang hong rousi zai fu zao jian, chendianzhe caihong shide meng.

Xunmeng? Cheng yi zhi chang gao, xiang qingcao gen qing chu man su,
manzai yi chuan xing hui, zai xing hui banlan li fangge.

Dan wo buneng fangge, qiaoqiao shi bieli de shengxiao;
xiachong ye wei wo chenmo, chenmo shi jinwan de Kangqiao.

Qiaqiao de wo zou le, zhengru wo qiaoqiao de lai;
wo hui yi hui yixiu, bu daizou yi pian yuncai.

And now for the translation:

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Quietly I wave good-bye
To the rosy clouds in the western sky

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun
Their reflections on the shimmering waves
Always linger in the depth of my heart

The floating heart growing in the sludge
Sways leisurely under the water
In the gentle waves of Cambridge
I would be a water plant!

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream

To seek a dream? Just to pole a boat upstream
To where the green grass is more verdant
Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight
And sing aloud in the splendour of starlight

But I cannot sing aloud
Quietness is my farewell music
Even summer insects keep silence for me
Silent is Cambridge tonight

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

I can’t resist adding a few pictures here of the river Cam. It is a river that flows quietly through Cambridge, as quietly as the poem itself flows across the page.

Cam with willows

Henry VIII chapel and Cam

Cam-1

I came across the text of the poem for the first time through an English Lit class I held with a Chinese student (class is a big word; it was more a pleasant discussion around English literature every Saturday morning, over a cup of hot sweet soya milk). After we had gone through a few English poems he brought me this translation of  “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. I was touched and wanted to give him in return an English poem with a river as its theme. But what?

I went on a search and came across the poem “The River” by Sara Teasdale.

sara-teasdale

Teasdale, an American poet, was more or less a contemporary of Xu. She died in 1933.

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

I had never heard of Teasdale, and a look at her other poems did not impress me, but this poem, at this time in my life, spoke to me. Who doesn’t reach my age and sometimes wish he could slough off the pessimism which comes with the passing years and be young again, fresh and optimistic?

____________________________

Chinese tourists: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/assets_c/2011/04/110418_osnoschinese01_p465-thumb-465×310-68686.jpg

Film poster: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9f/If_It%27s_Tuesday.jpeg

Xu Zhimo: http://cfile25.uf.tistory.com/image/1768563E4F8F1F6C23B5BE

Cam with willows: http://www.baihuisoft.com/Uploads/201179154340875.jpg

Henry VIII chapel and Cam: http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4921582377371804&pid=1.9

Cam and Clare college: http://anyluckypeny.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/clare-college-bridge-university-of-cambridge.jpg?w=870

Sara Teasdale: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/uploads/authors/sara-teasdale/448x/sara-teasdale.jpg

THE (STEEP) STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO

San Francisco, 6 October 2012

Readers of my generation will no doubt remember the 1968 film Bullit with the Great Immortal Steve McQueen.

I don’t suppose anyone remembers the story, it was a cops and robbers story of some kind. They only remember the car chase. What a sequence that was! It started on the steeper streets of San Francisco, with the cars suddenly racing up and down the hills and bouncing across the intersections as the baddies realized that Steve was on their tail (the sequence somehow ended on the highways but that is irrelevant to our story).

I was reminded of this car chase when on the first morning of our stay in the city my wife and I walked from our hotel to our son’s apartment. We had discovered that the two were on the same street – Taylor Street to be precise – and thought naively that it would be a nice walk. Bad mistake! There were sections of the street that were astonishingly – preposterously – steep.

At some points, I felt like we were scaling Everest or Annapurna.

And later, when we took a taxi along the same street, there was a moment, as we were going down a particularly steep section, when the taxi driver had to bend down to be able see out of the windscreen!

Town planning in San Francisco is a beautiful example of 19th and 20th Centuries human arrogance. Someone just draped a grid of straight lines over a very hilly landscape and traced the resulting streets, in complete disregard of gradient. The planners of the hill towns in Italy, Greece or Spain never did that; their streets respected the land’s morphology. They lived with their land, not against it.

Be warned. We ignore the physical limitations of our Earth at our peril.

___________

pix from:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullitt

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/antman67/7768689852/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveglass    /527678270/

http://www.travelandtournepal.com/climbing-mount-everest/

http://www.sangimignano.com/sghomei.htm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/18/trust-climate-models