Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mont Saint Michel For Earth Day: Where Nature and Man's Most Ingenious Architecture Meet & Spirits Live

In the television adaptation of this blog, there would be a lovely fade from the illustration in this book page to the real thing, just like the opening of Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare."

The drawing is from an essay by Christopher Morely called  "A Sea Shell in Normandy" in the collection of his essays, The Romany Stain, which I have had since high school because my father picked it up in a used book store for me.

The photo is from my iPhone last month.

Although Morely's essay on Mont Saint Michel from 1926 has quietly been a part of my literary life for decades—looking up at me every time I dipped into the collection because it is the first page of the first essay—I had no particular desire to go see it.  Being there in person was a series of random events: I met singers in Assisi last summer, who have been meeting up in Brittany for years for a privately organized workshop that they invited me to join. I said yes without looking into many details, including where the small villages of La Fontenelle (the birthplace of composer Jean Langlais) and Antrain actually are.  Turns out Antrain is a 1/2 hour drive from Mont Saint Michel, which is technically in Normandy, et voila. It was a lovely small emotional connection back to my father, who died a few years after he gave me the book, made more poignant because it was unexpected.

Happy Earth Day: No Man Is an Island, But Mont Saint Michel Is

I visited the Mount driving from Portorson, which brings you to the large car park and from there walked the two miles on the new causeway to the entrance. The tide was extremely low, so I did not experience the "island"-ness, but the relentless, driving rain for two miles gave me the sense of achieving some kind of pilgrimage, and it kept the crowds way down, which astonished the friends I traveled with who had visited when there were wall-to-wall tourists.

Earth Day is a lovely time to consider other pilgrims, new and old, who approach from the small village of Genet, walking across an enormous expanse of mud flats that disappear under high tide.  To do that walk you need to go with a certified guide.  Pilgrims of yore were killed when the high tide came in quickly and swept them away, or they wondered into a quicksand patch, which Morely notes in his essay. This photo beautifully captures the expanse of those plains, and the small humans trekking across to the abbey, seen in shadow.

There is a lot of discussion going on in France now about how/if the tides should be controlled/damned or not. One faction fears that if the they aren't controlled, the amount of silt build-up will actually connect the island to the mainland by 2040, and the Mount will lose its distinctive character. (Photos from this Smithsonian article.)

An American on the Mount

"With the genuine thrill and and tingle of the pilgrim you climb, cricking your neck at the noble sheer of those walls and struts that lean upward and inward to carry to the needle of the spire. You can almost feel the whole roundness of earth poise and spin, socketed upon this stoney boss of peace.

You think of the Woolworth Building. "  Christopher Morely

The Mount's origins are in AD 708 when the Bishop of nearby Avranches saw the Archangel Michael in a dream who told him to built a sanctuary on an existing Mont Tombe, and it was renamed "Mount Saint Michael at the peril of the sea." The Archangel Michael is the head of the heavenly militia. (John Travolta made an interesting Michael in Nora Ephron's 1996 film, although it was odd for the great warrior to be playing Cupid.)

The Benedictines moved into the Mount in the 10th century and it became a great pilgrimage site as the the village grew outside its walls. The abbey continued with various eras of construction over hundreds of years under several patrons.

And it is the construction of the enormous abbey that astounds. From the Mount's info pamphlet:
"Constrained by the pyramidal shape of the Mount, the medieval  builders wrapped the buildings around the granite rock."

From an excellent Smithsonian article:
"But only about half of the church sits solidly on rock; the other half, called the choir, is perched somewhat perilously on top of the two levels of buildings below."

As the builders built up, they had to continue to build down,  creating huge crypts that would offset the upward weight.

Morely: "You saw, I hope, those great columns in the crypt, where the veins of stone rise to their task as smoothly, as alive with living strength, as the cords of a horse's haunch."

I did indeed.  This picture does not do justice to the enormity of these columns.

The cloister is stunning, the Knight's Hall is an amazing expanse, the view from the town below, looking straight up, gives a good sense of the perch, the rock the abbey is sitting on . . .

And Then There Are the Spirits

The Mount has been a very holy place, and then a very unholy place. It was an impregnable stronghold during the Hundred Years War, its ramparts and fortifications able to resist all of England's assaults, which they say lead to the abbey being a symbol of national identity.

During the French Revolution—with the dissolution of the religious communities—and through to 1863, the abbey was used as a prison.

Between the lives of the monks, the killing of English, and the torture of the prisoners, a lot of souls have passed through those towering walls.

Now, the north-south stairs run below the west terrace, which is the main circulation axis of the Romanesque monastery. The stairs are very steep, and for some reason as I was walking up them I stopped to take a picture, and was amazed at what I saw through the iphone:

An optical illusion, surely. If I took one step more, it went away. If I went back a step, it disappeared. It only materialized from one, specific, space.

It was a wonderful interplay of Nature with the genius of human engineering. Or was it . . .

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"He had every gift but length of years" The Irish Know of What They Speak

"He had every gift but length of years" is from Ted Kennedy's eulogy for his nephew, John Kennedy.  I've always thought the same about my dad, who died thirty years ago today, April 16, 1985.

Not as young and tragically as John Kennedy, or his father JFK, but much too young, just as his  children were young adults, long before there were grandchildren to know, or the chance to retire with my mom, or any of those things.

This April has quite a few milestone anniversaries, two of which are an epic overlap: Lincoln shot on April 14, dies on April 15;  and the Titanic is hit by an iceberg April 14 and sinks April 15 103 years ago. Then dad on April 16.  Which happened to be the Tuesday right after Easter, 1985, and the idea of a little miracle of him getting better was floating around my head.

This photo was taken in Eisenhower Park on Long Island, where we had an annual picnic with family and friends.  My mother sang the song "Bicycle Built for Two" to me from my birth; so it was exciting to actually ride on one; and that meant I could be smug about the whole 2001: A Space Odyssey reference of "Daisy, Daisy" when I got to it in college --because I knew the song and had ridden one for years as a kid; and now the next generation is getting their own "Daisy Bell" with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Cal/Skye, which made me think of this photo in the first place. Another instance of why I love pop culture.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 14, 1865: Another Shot Heard 'Round the World

 April 14, 2015: 150 years since that Good Friday when Lincoln is shot in the head by an assassin. He will die in the early hours of April 15.  Some thoughts about Spielberg's film from 2012.

My Thanksgiving is always tied to three other events, two personal, one national: the birthdays of my brother and a dear friend; and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Because it's a fixed day not date, all 3 of these other events are sometimes on Thanksgiving itself, and always within the holidayness: JFK was murdered on November 22. The birthdays are the 24 & 25.

In 1963, Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday in the month, November 28, so it was not tangled into the national mourning, although John John's own third birthday, November 25, was the date of the State Funeral. But when the holiday was moved to the third Thursday, the assassination became a constant faint echo of great loss amid great Thanksgiving for those who listen.

I went to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln the day after Thanksgiving, and so it was caught up in the echo of the Kennedy assassination. It might be at any time, but the fate of the calendar underscored the experience. It reminded me of "the list" that first appeared in 1964 of noted coincidences between the two men, such as "Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy had a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas."

Some of the facts on the list have been debunked, but the there is still a psychic bond between these two gaping head wounds in our country's history.  It's much more of a connection than with the other two presidents who were assassinated—James Garfield, 1881, and William McKinley, 1901—whose murders go unheralded, certainly unfilmed.

Forced Modernism & Missing People
I was glad to see Lincoln, but I was not emotionally connected to it. Its strivings for the elegiac left me cold, and I'm generally a weeper where Lincoln is concerned. (Which was the case when I visited the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield a few years ago.)

Tony Kushner is being lauded for the script, based on Doris Kearns Goodwins's book Team of Rivals. But I found it filled with forced exposition with an unnatural self-consciousness that pulled me out of the moments it was trying to build.

For instance:

Mary Lincoln says something like, "they'll only remember me for being crazy." Was Mary Lincoln that self-aware? At the end she says something like, "what would they say, a man taking his lady out for a carriage ride on Good Friday." Yes, it's good to remind people that Lincoln was shot on Good Friday (can the man be any more mystical?) but it sounds clunky to me.

I thought the soldiers quoting the Gettysburg address at the beginning was cheesy, extra cheesy that the black solider finishes the line.

The scene with the couple from Ohio? [I can't remember the state] asking about the toll road was overdone in hammering the point that Lincoln really wants to know the woman's opinion on the 13th Amendment "what do YOU think?" But as I said, I'm in the minority about the script.

On the other hand, there is lots of discussion about what historic figures were left out. For me, Frederick Douglas and no mention of Sherman are the top of the list (although I think the one huge conflagration we see for a few frames is the burning of Atlanta). But then, the "story" is so very complex, it couldn't be told if the focus wasn't narrowed, and that means missing people.

Meeting Lincoln. What Would Abe Do?
The thrill of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis. He is the Brady photos come to life, with the better angels of Lincoln's writings for flesh and blood.

Where I find the script is very strong is in telling the complex story of history so clearly. I'm sure there are differing opinions on every specific point, but that notwithstanding, it depicts what a master politician/manipulator the supreme legal eagle was. As others have noted, what seem to bother him most about the South seceding was that it was illegal, plain and simple. A nice recap of this point is from Adam Gopnik.

The part about "history" that fascinates me is that you don't get to tell any of the tidy versions of "history" until you are removed from elements by time.

I went to see the movie in Seaford, Long Island. It was a town badly hit by Sandy, and I wanted to contribute to its economy. On the ticket taker window was a postcard of the Twin Towers, with Never Forget. Five graduates of Seaford High School died in the towers, 3 in the NYFD, 2 in Cantor Fitzgerald. It took me back. I hadn't thought about 9/11 in a while, but it is our always present, living history.

How different would our recent history would have been if we had had a Republican leader the caliber of Lincoln in 2001. The mind reels.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday 2015: And Mad Men's Era Begins Its Descent into TV History

This is not today's table, but a picture of the lovely dining room of the bed & breakfast I stayed in in Antrain, France, for my polyphony workshop. It captures a chic Easter-ness for me, in that effortlessly French kind of way. Happy Easter to all who celebrate (and to the Jews, "nice try"--funny line on Saturday Night Live Weekend Update last night!)

The Madness Starts to End

Today is a unique Easter Sunday in the annals of this Christian celebration because it is also the premiere of the second half of the last season of Mad Men.  Don & company certainly look dressed for Easter, circa late '60s/early '70s. 

As a fan of Burn Notice, I found an interesting comparison between the series when I was researching Michael and Fiona, not Don and Betty/Megan/Suzanne/Midge/Faye, etc.
Burn Notice  made its debut during the first summer of Mad Men (AMC), with .006 percent of its buzz but an audience many times its size. 
Gina Bellafante, Jan. 2009, The New York Times

And that audience size has remained relatively small: 

        'Mad Men' brings prestige, if not powerful ratings, to AMC

        Frank Pallotta for ABC, April, 2015.

What the audience lacks in size it makes up for in passion.  Personally I found the first two seasons excruciatingly slow.  All style, with a very compelling & tantalizing lead in Don Draper and the early, interesting 'who is he?' but overall the storytelling lacked momentum. I enjoyed the later seasons more, but have never loved the series. 

What I love is the community around the series, starting with the live blogging that my good friend Tom Watson and I did at the beginning, way back in 2007 before Twitter took over. I have written 25 posts on Mad Men, covering a lot of pop culture from many angles. And I still eagerly wait for recaps from Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, and for the comments on both sites.

As for Don? Of all the Sundays that Matt Weiner could have brought back MM, it turns out to be Easter Sunday, the very definition of redemption. The series has not explored much of Don's spiritual side, maybe this coinciding signals redeeming of some sort will be a theme for the end of the story.

And of course, we're all very interested in what that final episode will be, how Weiner will end his story, though I am a firm believer in the Wimsatt's Intentional Fallacy: the author is not the oracle. What he intends, is not necessarily what happens, or what a reasonable audience reads. For me,  there is no question that Tony Soprano is dead.  I also believe that Walter White died in that car in New Hampshire, and the eerie, oddly lit last scenes where he visited key people in his life and tried to make amends is in his head as he is freezing to death.

All to say that I don't care as much about the character of Don Draper as I do the ending of one of the most distinct series on the TV landscape.

And because it still is Easter Sunday, I share a picture of my dad, back in his own #MadMen time before the crazy plaids descended. (I seem to be under siege by a very big bow.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday, 2015: Pilgrims & Grief of All the Ages

A country road in the small town of Antrain, Brittany, France, a remnant of the path pilgrims used to take to the nearby Mont Saint Michel (much more about that later). The modern-day pilgrims/sightseers take a different route now. But we are all pilgrims of many kinds throughout our life, with many journeys having nothing to do with religion, as by pure happenstance is beautifully signaled by the telephone poles that visually mirror the crucifix but are only of the mortal world.

I had the privilege of spending the 5th week of Lent with Catholics in Suffolk, England, in Aldeburgh; then Palm Sunday with the Bretons in Antrain; and back with the home team for the Triduum. Worship on the parish level is incredibly nourishing. The nationalities are important, but the Catholic bond is deeper and the shared knowledge of the Mass and what it means is a moment of human connection like no other.

I also happened to be away when the Germanwings plane was deliberately crashed by the copilot. The European coverage was extensive and beyond heartbreaking, from the 16 German teenagers from the same school returning from their cultural exchange in Barcelona, to the mother and daughter from Virginia, Yvonne and Emily Selke.

Then the third American killed was identified, Robert Oliver Calvo.  And that lead me to learn this: he worked for the Barcelona-based design company Desigual.  I have a lovely Desigual coat that I bought in Century One last year. I get many compliments on it, because it is very striking. Now, when I thank the women who stop me in the street to say how much they like it,  I will remember Robert Oliver Calvo, married with 2 children, and his colleague Laura Altimara, who recently married, in my heart. May they rest in peace and their families find consolation—maybe in the great love of the top picture, or wherever they can.