There are movies that you admire especially upon rewatching but still leave you emotionally detached. The overall tone is artistic and elegant, the camera clever, editing seamless, fantasy sequences enhance the tension, and needless to say, superb acting delivered by the cast. You admire and appreciate the director’s execution, yet you’re not emotionally engaged. Tár is one such movies for me.
Writer director Todd Field’s masterpiece is a film packed with ideas and layered with symbolism conveyed through technical brilliance. It explores power and ambition, identity politics, the separation of the art from the artist, and cancel culture in our contemporary society. Using a phrase ubiquitous in this awards season, it is everything, everywhere, all at once.
At the beginning of the film, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) introduces conductor and composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by reading out a list of her accolades for his live audience and us, movie viewers who would see, in the next two and a half hours, how a radiant star fall from grace. As the film opens, Tár is at the summit of the classical music world, helming the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. A Harvard PhD, she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein in the emergence of her career, and is currently one of only 15 EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony); her upcoming book Tár on Tár will no doubt be a bestseller.
Field’s feature is nominated for six Oscars in this awards season. It is a forceful narrative and an astute study of power set within an artistic and cultured realm. Blanchett’s Tár embodied success driven by ambition and sustained by ruthless arrogance. She may appear courteous and mild mannered, and that’s where the danger lies. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.
From the beginning of the movie, the sequence of the custom tailoring of her suit––a symbol of power––sets the premise. The film is not about gender politics, for Tár’s position is a given; she is already at the podium leading a world renown orchestra and is hailed as one of the best living composers.
There are, of course, higher mountains to scale. The self-propelled driving force soon turns Tár into a delusional egotist, her self-will overriding all that comes in her way, destroying not just her career but her relationship with her spouse Sharon (Nina Hoss), concert-master in the orchestra. Field wrote the screenplay with Blanchett in mind. He had mentioned in an interview that if she declined the role, he would not go ahead with the movie. Blanchett delivers with convincing mastery.
While being a fictional character, Tár embodies some real-life issues with much relevance in contemporary society. Her being in a lesbian marriage exemplifies the fact that power can corrupt regardless of gender and sexual orientation. She has the power to endow opportunities and thereby raising the career of young musicians to new heights, or, destroy them. Her obsession with success soon becomes unmanageable, distorting her view of reality, pulling her into the abyss of delusion and even madness.
Among the various issues the film touches on, the Juilliard teaching scene is particularly telling. Tár is teaching a conducting class in a lecture theatre. The camera expertly captures the ten-minute scene with one long take (no cutting). The blocking of the two main characters––Tár and the student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist)––speaks volumes.
Max chooses a contemporary piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir to conduct. Stopping him midway, Tár brings up the importance of Bach’s work, sitting down beside him as equal to discuss and ask if he would consider conducting a Bach piece. Here’s Max’s response:
“Honestly, as a BIPOC, pangender person, I’d say Bach’s misogenystic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.” He’s referring to the composer having had fathered 21 offsprings.
Boycotting Bach for his brood of children?
Here’s Tár’s restrained response: “I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skill on the marital bed has to do with [his Mass in] B minor.” Pointing out the issue of separating the art from the artist.
Drawing out the thought in Max, she says: “Can classical music written by a bunch of straight Austro-German church going white guys exalt us?” To answer that, she invites Max to sit by her side at the piano, going through with him some Bach pieces. To her credit, in both instances, her persuasion is gentle and egalitarian as the camera captures teacher and student sitting at the same level.
Max’s viewpoint is a biting issue today: can a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), pangender person acknowledge the contribution of straight, ancient white guys? Tár’s response is obvious. The artists’ works override their nationality, colour and gender. Likewise, she challenges Max to look at the composer of his own choice, Icelandic, female composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. What is the resemblance that Max has to identify with her?
Brilliant question. To which Max responds by picking up his stuff and walks out, with a verbal swipe of expletive for his teacher. Tár replies: “And you’re a robot. The architect of your soul appears to be social media.”
Who wins this debate? Field leaves it to his viewers to decide. As with the other issues laid out in the film as well as the ending, there are more questions than answers. Yes, Blanchett’s performance is top-notch, but I come out having a higher appreciation of Field’s writing.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Today is a balmy 5C (41F) winter day. Sunny with no wind, and the Pond is teeming with life and beauty. For the first time in two months, I take my camera out and soak up the scenery.
The chickadees which flutter even in -20’s temperatures are out in full force. Glad to see woodpeckers too, basking in the sunlight:
Yes, those are buds on the branches!
Glad to see a family of deer out enjoying the afternoon sun. This one comes right up to me, maybe hoping for a snack:
While I’m glad to see the woods teeming with activities, what capture my attention are the ice patches, melting and dripping in the warmth of this mid-winter afternoon:
Buds on tree branches and melting ice in January? Just a mid-winter interlude of hope… like a mirage in the desert. No matter, I’m enjoying every bit of this new year blessing.
Even before we see anything with the screen black, we hear the subject melody, the quiet and ponderous single line of piano music. What piece is this? One might ask. Eight minutes into the movie, in a convivial house party, we get the answer.
Fashion icon Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is intrigued by the tune as well when she tries to open a mystery box sent to her by the tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Before she can Shazam it, the answer is given by none other than the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma himself. That’s Bach’s ‘Little Fugue’ in G minor, he explains to Peg (Jessica Henwick) while munching on some sort of finger food in her house party.
“A fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turn into a beautiful new structure,” the virtuoso casually points out. An apt description of what’s to come.
And, of course, Birdie Jay can’t get her answer, for she’s talking to a lamp to Shazam the tune thinking it’s Alexa.
Writer/director Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out (2019) is a totally different offering in sight and sound. A comedic murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel with the Knives Out detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, never mind his accent), a dapper Columbo, a sunny locale, striking set design, a well-written screenplay and seamless editing, and not least, an animated ensemble cast, we get an entertaining feature.
The connections are multiple, watching it viewers become sleuths themselves to decipher the associations and allusions, visually, musically, and cinematically. Spotting all those cameos is fun too: Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Serena Williams. Or check out what’s Ethan Hawke and Hugh Grant are doing there.
Miles is a friendly egotist, seen as a genius by some, extreme danger by others, probably knowing his personal philosophy is “fake it till you make it.” The tech titan has invited his insider group of ‘Disruptors’ to an annual reunion weekend. This time the event takes place on his private Greek island in the form of a murder mystery party; his guests are to solve his own murder. The Disruptors are fashionista Birdie Jay, social media influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), politician Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), and scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.)
The key person to show up shocking them all is Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) who used to be Miles’s business partner. So, some background story needs to be peeled off. Miles’s home on the island is the Glass Onion, a spectacle of an architecture that looks exactly as its name denotes, a metaphor for the core truth actually is hidden in plain sight through visible layers.
The sounding of the hourly dong that echoes through the island (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of those moments in the movie that evokes a chuckle, especially when we hear Miles say he got Phil Glass to compose that. Yes, that’s Philip Glass, the minimalist composer creating that one note sound of the gong for Miles. No, not a joke on Glass but more on the self-importance of the tech mogul himself.
Same with the Mona Lisa encased in a sensitive glass protective display case. More chuckles from that too. The world famous painting is on loan to Miles from the Louvre via the French government during the pandemic when all arts venues are closed and revenues lost. Miles is pleased that the art world, even government, bows to his whims, “I wanna be responsible for something that gets mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Forever.” And now he has it in his palm, no, not the Mona Lisa, but a little solid hydrogen fuel crystal which will be a gamechanger in global energy source. His plan is to invite national leaders to the Glass Onion to unveil it.
As the story begins to peel off layer by layer, we know each of these Disruptors have their reasons to be loyal to Miles as their personal interest depends on his patronage. Ironically, they also harbour resentment towards him.
Half way into the movie an important layer peels off, revealing the backstory. I have no issue with such a twist, for now I anticipate new conflicts on a different level, heightening the tension. From here on, viewers are shown the point of view of Andi’s character. Reminiscence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we can now see more clearly what actually happened in the previous sequence of events, this time, from the perspective of Andi’s; now we understand her as our reluctant heroine.
Repeating the scenes isn’t necessarily redundant, Bach would have said. That’s exactly what he did with the fugue, the same tune appearing in a different context in the contrapuntal composition. While he would probably have found the movie ending shocking, he’d likely be curious to hear songs by singing groups called The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Bee Gees… among others, or listen to the harpsichord and orchestral theme by a 21st century composer called Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin).
From Bond to Blanc, Craig’s collaboration with the Johnsons has made the Knives Out movies a promising and entertaining franchise.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Reading the Season is an annual post on Ripple Effects in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas festivities. An interlude to find rest and to ponder on the reason for the season. Lately, I reread the popular fiction All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; my mind is haunted by the horrors of a world war raged by a madman. And then I came across this book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections of Advent and Christmas. What a timely discovery!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in WWII Germany. A brilliant intellectual who received his doctorate from the University of Berlin at age 21, Bonhoeffer bravely stood against Hitler, involved in the Resistance, captured, imprisoned, and paid the ultimate price. He was hanged at the Flossenbürg prison on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched in, and three weeks before Hitler took his own life.
Here are a few excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s God is in the Manger:
The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty… Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world… It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.
Replace the word mystery with miracle…
Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous… God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep in their souls from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.
And you think he’s intense and serious, well, yes he is, brilliant in insights and brave to speak truth to power. But from his other writings, there’s also humour, equally enlightening. Here’s a quote taken from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. (Click on the link to my read-along post)
If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.
Have a restful and joyous Christmas Season!
Reading the Season in Previous Years:
Like to read the book first before watching the movie adaptation in the theatre or streaming? Here’s a new list.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is being developed into a Netflix mini-series. To seek authentic representation, the filmmakers embarked on a global search for a blind actor to play Marie-Laure, one of the two main characters in the historical novel set in WWII. Penn State doctoral student Aria Mia Loberti won the casting call. An outstanding academic achiever, this will be Loberti’s acting debut.
A Man Called Otto (Ove) by Fredrik Backman
The English version of the heartwarming Swedish novel-turned-movie A Man Called Ove, about a grumpy old man’s suicide attempt being disrupted by his boisterous new neighbours. The title character’s name is changed to a relatively more common name and will be played by an even more familiar name, Tom, Tom Hanks.
A Haunting in Venice (Hallowe’en Party) by Agatha Christie
The adaptation of Hercule Poirot’s 32nd mystery will be directed by once again, Kenneth Branagh, his third Poirot role, after Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Set in post WWII Venice where the renowned detective finds himself again as an accidental sleuth in a murder mystery. An eclectic cast with Kelly Reilly (abrasive Yellowstone schemer), James Dornan (no shade), Tina Fey (no kidding), and Michelle Yeoh (for kicks?)
A Time for Mercy by John Grisham
A sequel to Grisham’s debut novel A Time to Kill (1989). Matthew McConaughey will reprise his role as lawyer Jake Brigance, from the 1996 movie adaptation. A Time for Mercy (2020) is Grisham’s third Brigance novel after Sycamore Row (2013). It will be adapted into an HBO series.
The Ambassadors by Henry James
In pre-production and to be directed by Mike Newell whose filmography include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Great Expectations, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, among 78 titles, which means, he can do rom coms and literary adaptations. The heavy and serious Henry James just might get a makeover under the helm of Newell. I have this book on my shelf, now’s a good time to dust it off.
The Critic (Curtain Call) by Anthony Quinn
A crime thriller in a theatre setting. According to IMDb, it’s a story of ambition, blackmail and desire… a whodunnit wrapped in a Faustian pact. And the cast just makes it hard to resist: Leslie Manville, Gemma Arterton, Romola Garai, Mark Strong, Ian McKellen, Ben Barnes. Directed by Anand Tucker (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
The Maid by Nita Prose
The popular novel would make one entertaining movie. Molly Gray, a maid in a luxury hotel, is caught in a web of a murder mystery, her innocence and pure heart is no defence from the accusations and schemes of the real world. Many readers and reviewers place her in an autistic spectrum but I just see her as the female version of Sheldon Cooper (of The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon). Florence Pugh (Oscar nom for her role as Amy in Little Women, 2019) is on board to play Molly, a good choice.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou
Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s own production company, Extracurricular, is in talks to adapt Chou’s debut novel for an Apple TV+ series. That’s a most interesting combination of talents. Book is a satire, yes, LOL humour at times, about a Taiwanese American doctoral student playing literary sleuth and trying to stay afloat in the turbulent academic sea. Reminds me of Sandra Oh in The Chair.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Kristin Hannah’s worldwide bestseller about two estranged sisters during the German occupation of France in WWII will be played by real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, each a star in their own right. Its release had been delayed, but might not need to wait till 2023. The latest info is late December, 2022.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carr´é
One Day by David Nicholls
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.
This could be taken as dialogues from Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or, Everything Everywhere All At Once, both 2022 movies flying high on the trending theme of multiple universes. But of course, the excerpt is Proust’s, and the universes he refers to are internal ones.
The above quote is taken from In Search of Lost Time Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive (343), as the narrator Marcel acknowledges the infinite views that can arise from personal experiences of different individuals filtered through their own subjective lens. There are as many viewpoints as there are people, therefore, every object or event can evoke a variety of perspectives and responses. Subjectivity is Proust’s master stroke. Take this other excerpt from the same volume. As Marcel awakens in the morning:
… from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning. (V:250)
Today, November 18th, is the centenary of Proust’s death at the age of 51 (1871-1922). A look at his contemporaries could help us place him in a historical context and probably source the influence of his introspective sensitivity and his ultra-reflexive writing. Again, the disclaimer here is that, I’m no Proust scholar… mere ripples out of my own tiny universe. I can think of the following iconic figures as I consider the historical context of Proust’s writing.
It was the era of psychoanalysis. I’m sure Freud (1856-1939) would have been eager to apply his own theory to explain the case of Marcel’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss as he lies in bed waiting for her to come up to his room every night. And then there was Carl Jung, (1875 – 1961), whose theory on personality and the unconscious could have sparked some light into Marcel’s epiphany of the involuntary memories: ephemeral flashbacks that fuel his imaginative mind with creative thoughts. It’s such kind of subliminal emergence of Time past that fills him with joy and meaning.
And of course, there are the other writers whom Marcel has mentioned in the book, Henry James (1843-1916) whose brother is also a prominent psychologist of the time, William James (1842-1910), across the Atlantic. Another notable, Marcel’s enthusiasm is heightened when talking about Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the master of characterizing the human psyche.
And what’s with all the space travel idea, flying from star to star, while the Wright brothers had just successfully flown the very first aeroplane only in 1903? Huge imagination and insight for one to think of multiverses at that time. I’m not sure what the original French word is. Those who read In Search of Lost Time in French, is the word the same as its English translation, ‘universe’? (V: 250, 343)
Reading this sparked a personal flashback as I remember my experience of visiting “The Infinity Mirrored Room” created by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto a few years ago. Infinite reflections from these tiny silver balls:
Having said all the above about Proust’s sensitivity to subjective universes, here’s the rub. It is utterly ironic that these insights are taken from Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive. Why, here in this volume, Marcel has taken Albertine captive in his parents’ home where he stays while in Paris. He first met Albertine in Balbec; she has now become his lover/mistress. No, she isn’t in chains, but the restraints Marcel puts on her is psychological rather than physical. He tracks her every move, “whenever the door opened I gave a start.” (494) In reality, there just might be two captives in that house, Albertine and Marcel himself, both caught in a psychological tug of war, maintaining a fragile relationship based on lies and evasiveness.
As much as he knows about his own thoughts and feelings, or even that of his housekeeper Francoise’s, Marcel’s empathy does not extend to Albertine’s universe. He might think his keeping her in his house is for her own good, “to save her from her orgiastic life which Albertine had led before she met me.” (474). Yet his ‘love’ for her is built upon his own possessiveness and jealousy; his displeasure with her intensifies when he learns it’s with other women that she seeks intimacy. Eventually, fleeing a stifling life, gasping for the air of freedom, Albertine leaves the house abruptly one morning. The captive now becomes the fugitive.
The events that follow are like a test of Marcel’s love for Albertine, showing if it is genuine or merely self-indulgence, egotism, or even just lust. Spoiler Alert from here on.
Marcel has never gone out to look for the fugitive. Until one day, he gets the news that Albertine has died in a horse-riding accident. Surely there is grief and pain in the immediate aftermath, but what does he miss most? “I needed her presence, her kisses.” (642) While he goes on to reminisce the good and the bad sides of Albertine, not long after that he has given her up for another:
The memory of Albertine had become so fragmentary that it no longer caused me any sadness and was no more now than a transition to fresh desires, like a chord which announces a change of key. And indeed, any idea of a passing sensual whim being ruled out, in so far as I was still faithful to Albertine’s memory, I was happier at having Andrée in my company than I would have been at having an Albertine miraculously restored… my tenderness for her, both physically and emotionally, had already vanished. (809-810)
“like a chord which announces a change of key…” O the fickleness of desire! The deceits of hidden motives and the capricious emotion one calls love. Marcel might be insightful in acknowledging multiple universes within individuals, pure love remains elusive. Dr. Strange crushes his enemies from the multiverse spectacularly, but the beast that lurks within oneself might be more formidable a foe to conquer.
“Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” – Anatole France, French writer and poet
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Nobel laureate Anatole France died in 1924, three years short of seeing the publication of the complete seven volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time.
My reading journey began in 2013 when I read the first two volumes, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove, as a Read Along on Ripple Effects. For reasons I can’t recall, it took me a few years to get through the third volume The Guermantes Way, finishing at the beginning of 2018. After that, I thought, that would be all for me.
I’m glad I came across Emma’s Book Around the Corner in January of this year to learn that 2022 is the Centenary of Proust’s death (July 10, 1871 – Nov. 18, 1922). That prodded me to finish up the remaining three volumes. Also, since I own the Modern Library six-volume box set, I hate to see it as just a decorative item, however smart it does look.
So glad I finally finish the last three volumes this year in nine months, just in time for the centenary of Proust’s death in November: Vol. IV Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. V The Captive and The Fugitive (originally in two volumes), and Vol. VI Time Regained. For me, a hobby Proust reader, not until I come to the last volume Time Regained do I realize the significance of the first three volumes and why Proust writes in such minute details about the narrator’s childhood and youthful experiences.
There are many websites and scholastic discussions on this 4,300 page autobiographical novel. Instead of summarizing––an impossible task for me––I’ll pick out those passages or ideas that have stirred up some ripples within me filtered through the lens of a movie reviewer, hopefully offering something that’s different and easy to chew.
At the end of Volume VI there are over 200 pages listing characters, places, and themes. Some of the subjects in the 44 pages of Index to Themes include beauty, brothels, dreams, literature, language, music, painting, politics, the Dreyfus Affair, anti-semitism, war, love, sexuality, old age, death… just to name a few. Imagine you’re standing by a smorgasbord of a huge array of culinary offerings, yes including those that are hard to digest or don’t agree with your system, and you can only eat so much, of course you would pick and choose your favourite foods. So, here’s what’s on my plate at this buffet.
In the last part of Vol. VI: Time Regained, the narrator discovers the crucial dimension of Time. Surely, Time over the years has rendered many people he has had crossed path with in his life frail and infirmed, or lost their good looks due to ageing, and some have died, like Swann. But the subliminal power of memories allows him to relive his childhood experiences once again and see these people reappear in his mind as he had known them in his youth. His memories have preserved them like they have not grown old.
So the end of this long book brings readers back to the beginning. It’s not so much about going back, but rather, bringing the past to the present as the two form a continuation of life. Yes, a virtual back to the future.
A reader bearing with him from the beginning and now reaching this eureka moment can feel the narrator’s joy in discovering this secret chamber deep in his psyche where he, unknowingly, has stored up treasured moments of his past. The length of the book could well be a virtual reality as we see his life unfold at a slow pace, then vicariously feel the joy of the discovery of this hidden, mental treasure trove years later. Sharing such ecstasy with readers has now become the purpose of his writing:
The happiness which I was feeling was a product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualizing itself , giving me –– but alas! only momentarily––something whose value was eternal. This I should have liked to bequeath to those who might have been enriched by my treasure. (VI: 513)
The above quote found towards the end of the long book brings readers back to the beginning. Many movies are just like this, a bookend finish: The last scenes bring viewers back to the beginning scenes, revealing their significance and then move on to wrap up the whole work. That’s the feeling I got when reading the last volume, Time Regained. Proust brings us back to the pleasure of enjoying the madeleine soaked in tea, the ringing of the bell on the garden gate when he was a child waiting impatiently for his mother to see Swann off so she could come up to kiss him goodnight, Combray memories, the Swann and the Guermantes way––precious scenes to go one full circle back to the beginning–––to regain Time, to cherish a life in continuity. Call it the Circle of Life if you will, but to the narrator, the present has never been separated from the past.
Another ripple from my mental pond is how mindful the narrator is in his everyday living. BTW, he is also called Marcel, so I take it as Proust’s own view of things. His exceptional sensitivity and the minute details in his observation and introspection form the signature of his book.
As I read how he’d stop and see things and people with incisive perception, a movie quote comes to mind. Nope, not from any old sage but spoken time and again by a high school wise guy who wants to play hooky for a day. In a very Proustian posture, Ferris Beuller (Matthew Broderick) lies in bed one morning as he considers a good reason for skipping school that day:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you can miss it.” –– from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, directed by John Hughes.
Ferris Bueller might not have read Proust, but just shows how relevant Proust can be in contemporary life.
Past Proust posts on Ripple Effects:
“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” –– George Eliot, in her letter of Oct., 1841
Successive autumns, and never will winter come. What a marvellous thought! Just yesterday, we had our first snow, icy reminder for what’s to come. But the forecast is that we’ll get back to some warmer, seasonal autumn air in the coming week.
I like to dwell on those sunny days of fall. We don’t have many red leaves here, but the rusty and golden hue all around the pond is enticing and fresh.
Many birds have migrated south. So, I was surprised and delighted to see this one still lingering …
A Great Blue Heron in this part of the Pond by late October is rare. Like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, serendipitous sightings like this can last through many winters as fond memories conjure up during the shut-in, wintry days.
And with this little Proustian teaser, I’m dropping a hint of what’s to come on Ripple Effects in November. Stay tuned.
It was in a nature reserve adjacent to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, that I saw my first Cardinal. A bird that might be common for many of you, but for me, it was my first time. And what a delight!
Early morning in September, a perfect day for birding. Soft sun rays illuminating the boardwalk, mesmerizing:
Saw my first Northern Cardinal in some low bushes. Here’s my first photo. The curiosity is mutual:
And after that, I was looking for reds all the way and had taken many more pictures of the bird with its habitat mainly in the southeastern part of North America. There were other birds and fields of goldenrods but it was red that I sought. I wasn’t disappointed. Had the chance of meeting a few other Cardinals, including the female and the juvenile:
Common, ordinary? Purely relative.
The sun emerged brighter, this time, shedding light to illuminate the mind’s eye, storing fond memories, an indelible reminder for me to return in the future.
My few weeks of hiatus from the Pond led me to the bustling city of Toronto. Just the second weekend of September there were over 80 events planned across the city: festivals, concerts, food fares, cultural celebrations… In the downtown core, road closures, frenzy and chaos. The main attraction with international focus of course is the Toronto International Film Festival. Since this is the first in person TIFF after two years of Covid measures, I chose to avoid the huge gatherings and stay closer to nature, far from the madding crowd… I’ll have to wait to watch the selections hopefully later in the year.
Then came the sad news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years on the throne, the longest reigning British monarch and the longest female sovereign in history. Politics aside, being born and raised during my formative years in the former British colony of Hong Kong, I much appreciate the freedom to grow up in an environment where East meets West, unlike what Kipling had surmised.
I studied both classical Chinese as well as English literature in school, donning a uniform in cheongsam (do google it if you’re not sure what it is) but wore bell bottom pants when out; grew up watching numerous kung fu movies while following closely all James Bond flicks; savoured home cooked Chinese meals as well as those from international sources; yes, and love the fusion of Hong Kong style western cuisine, street foods and snacks. A prime example is Hong Kong style milk tea with condensed milk, best to pair with a pineapple bun with a piece of ice cold butter in the middle, oh, and egg tarts.
Looking back, it was a period when I was free to explore different world views and thinking. I still remember following a classmate to a secondhand bookstore in an obscure alley after school, looking up books on psychology and philosophy; or one time, catching another classmate secretly reading her own book held under her desk during class. When I asked her later out of curiosity what she was reading, no, it wasn’t a comic book or a teen magazine, but Somerset Maugham’s short stories. That was my intro to the wonderful writer.
My nanny loved Chinese operas. She was a versatile, middle age woman who lived in our home and acted almost as my substitute mother. She read Dream of the Red Chamber at night before she slept, daytime too busy for her. I grew up reading Chinese translations of world literature for children and some Enid Blyton, while also saved up enough pocket money to buy my Mad Magazine. I learned to play the piano and listened to The Beatles and The Monkees. The first LP album in our home was My Fair Lady.
What do all these memories have to do with the Queen? For me, it was a period of growing up experiencing both East and West in a British colony that didn’t require its citizens to sing “God Save the Queen,” or demand The Union Jack be hoisted in schools. I’d enjoyed the freedom to explore despite a rigid home environment. If I were to write a memoir some day, it would likely be in the theme of a growing up where East meets West, where the fusion of the two is exciting and appealing, and where opportunities are plentiful, and I was free to live life in an interesting, borderless fusion of cultures.
So, it was the end of an era when the Queen passed. Now the world seems to have grown polarized, tempers flare when people of opposite views confront, and where the ominous observation by Kipling is becoming all the more acute as autocracy begins to prevail.
As I was wandering the lakeshore in Toronto, I caught sight of some lively monarch butterflies. It was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting seeing them in such an urban environ. From one Monarch to another, may these monarchs be free and lively as they migrate thousands of miles south, following the instinct endowed by their Creator’s design.
From one Monarch to another:
This is the best use of the audiobook format. You listen to conversations held by Malcolm Gladwell and his colleague, journalist Bruce Headlam, with the legendary singer songwriter Paul Simon; you hear him talk about his creative process and share interesting tidbits along the way; you hear myths debunked from Gladwell’s trademark inquiries; you discover new personal insights. Above all, you can hear the music icon who had created many world famous tunes over his 65 year career, now at 80, pick up his guitar and sing his own songs or listen to the recordings that had made him and his singing duo Art Garfunkel a household name. And more, you can hear reflections from other influential musicians like Renee Fleming, Sting, Herbie Hancock… For me, this listening experience has opened the floodgate of reminiscence and memories.
A myth debunked. No, Simon didn’t write his breakout hit “The Sound of Silence” in the subway under hauntingly existential circumstances, but in the bathroom of his parents’ house. The walls were tiled and the water running, he played his guitar in the dark and could hear echoes. He was 22. That was all he remembers now. No matter, that tune and the lyrics had sent echoes to the heart and soul of millions around the world.
The inspiration of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” came from a line in the Black Gospel singer Rev. Claude Jeter’s (1914-2009) song “Mary Don’t You Weep”–– it says “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name,” a Biblical metaphor. While the title and lyrics were sparked by Jeter’s Gospel song, the melody was inspired by J. S. Bach. Another interesting tidbit is that sound engineer Roy Halee reminisces that it took him more than 100 hours to make the recording of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as they explored different mixes of sound effects. Simon notes that the song had rippled to many different stylings and sung by so many others that he doesn’t feel it’s his own anymore. And he’s fine with that. In particular, he pays tribute to Aretha Franklin’s soulful rendition.
A poignant moment. When the first “Saturday Night Live” came back on after the tragedy of 9-11, the producer called Simon and asked him to perform in his show. I think you have to do “The Boxer”, he said. An iconic New Yorker song, a fighter that carries the reminders of being struck down yet still remains with resilience and tenacity. In the audiobook, Simon recollects that he had tried to put words in the bridging stanza but none came and so he decided to just use “lie la lie…lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie la lie…” not knowing such wordless echoes would cross linguistic borders when live audience around the would join in spontaneously when he performed.
Where to locate Paul Simon? He refuses to be called a folk singer. His songs inspired by very different sources. His creative process often sparked by distant memories of tunes and rhythms. After the breakup with Garfunkel, he ventured into a musical fusion of cultures and stylings. Gladwell spends some time talking with Simon about how the song “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” came to be. There are at least five sources of creative contributions: the Black Gospel singer Claude Jeter, R & B musicians from Alabama, a New Orlean jazz brass band, Jamaica reggae, and plausibly, according to Gladwell’s instinct, a Yiddish riff. Such freedom to adapt different cultural roots in his compositions leads him later to his album “Graceland.”
Herein lies Gladwell’s sensibility, one I totally embrace and thanks to him, lays out in words the notion that has long lodged in my mind. Using Simon as an exemplar, a Jewish singer songwriter from Queens, NY, Gladwell says:
“As a New Yorker, your cultural identity is something you get to hold loosely. It influences you, but it doesn’t define you. You’re free to roam and window shop and come up with your own combination.”
The melting pot theory debunked––as attuned to Nathan Glazer’s social theory in Beyond the Melting Pot––well, at least in NYC during Simon’s early creative decades, this kind of freedom existed. But isn’t that a true requirement for one to be a global citizen, a member of our shared humanity, transcending ethnic borders and arbitrary barriers? Unfortunately, such a fluid cultural perspective has shifted in recent years to a narrow view demanding artists, writers, filmmakers… to stay in their cultural lane, to use Gladwell’s metaphor.
Another fascinating tidbit…wait till you get to where Gladwell links taste with memory when he talks about how Stephen Sondheim regrets that his lyrics in the “West Side Story” song “Maria” aren’t quite right, and then goes on to discuss with Simon about finding faults in his own compositions. BTW, “Homeward Bound” is Simon’s “Maria.”
Another issue Gladwell investigates is the mystery of longevity in the creative process, using David Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses to compare and analyze why some artists hit their peaks as young prodigies while others are late bloomers, sustaining a long creative journey. Where to locate Paul Simon in this spectrum? I’ll leave that interesting topic for you to experience when you listen to this exceptional audiobook.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam with Paul Simon, audiobook ©2021 Pushkin Industries and Paul Simon (P)2021 Pushkin Industries and Paul Simon
From afar I saw it. At first not paying much attention, for it looked like some kind of black bird but then I saw the long legs. Umm… maybe some sort of sandpiper? No, it’s not spotted or light brown but dark. And the most prominent feature was the long, down-curved bill.
Stepping closer quietly, I saw its deep maroon, multi-coloured plumage. Magnificent, maybe even magical. I haven’t seen this bird before.
Many of you might be able to ID it, but I had to do a lot of digging into Google search to discover what I’d just seen was a GLOSSY IBIS (Plegadis falcinellus). From Wikipedia, here’s the origin of the name: The scientific name derives from Ancient Greek plegados and Latin, falcis, both meaning “sickle” and referring to the distinctive shape of the bill.
And why am I so excited about seeing it? Look at this distribution map:
And where am I? In Alberta, Canada. From the map above, the second province from the west coast of Canada. Why is this glossy ibis here? A stray? Off course during migration? Or, just needs some cooler and crisper air up here?
I just couldn’t help but moved another step closer and that was it for my short discovery. It flew away but in a circle, coming right back at me, as if saying farewell, then disappeared into the distant sky:
I sure hope it will find its way back to where it belongs… But fine too, if it feels the Pond is a safe, new home, however temporal. You’re welcome to stay!