Holiday diversions

This four-day break I tried to find a couple hours each day to sit down with a great book or film and unwind from the sometimes bloodless world of marketing, powerpoints, conference calls and key performance indicators. This vacation has been a particular relief from a season of grueling bad news and I took advantage of the time to put my gardens to bed for the winter, exercise, cook, and spend as much time outdoors as possible with my family.

FILMS: Two films worth noting. The first, Andrei Rublev, was highly touted by my son Eliot, a senior in the cinema studies program at NYU’s Tisch School. He specializes in the obscure, but has guided me to some amazing movies in the past, including my all-time favorite, Ordet. Eliot is a good guide to difficult films, providing a smart narrative during the film to keep things in context. Andrei Rublev is by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, and is based on the life of a medieval Russian icon painter, a monk who actually is less at the heart of the narrative than the era itself. The tale unwinds in a series of chapters, all presented in a strange impressionistic fashion where plot and exposition of the story are discarded in favor of long lingering tracking shots of roots and mud, flaming cows, holy fools, and rapacious Tartar hordes. As Eliot himself admitted, on first viewing he thought the film was unwatchable, indeed he fell asleep, but on subsequent viewings he has rethought the film to the top of his ever mutating list of great films.

I would not recommend it unless you are seriously into new experiences. Let me say that a patient viewer will be well rewarded by the last vignette, in which Rublev, existentially blocked from his art by doubt, is reinspired by the raw passion of an orphaned teenaged boy who is called upon to cast a massive bronze bell for the medieval capital. Tarkovsky depiction of the process, of the insanity that besets the young bell maker as he tries to recall the secrets of the craft that were barely passed on to him by his late father, the forging of the bell, the drama of its first ringing. Serious stuff. A very important scene I would watch several times.

Movie two has been long awaited since I read the masterful novel it is based upon, The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. I blogged about the book last summer, reading it just before I departed for Beijing and the Olympics. This is the tale of a Sicilian prince in the late 19th century, and the film adaptation, by the Italian director Luchino Visconti is pretty amazing, but I would caution incomprehensible or wasted on someone who has not read the novel. Burt Lancaster plays the Prince and nails the role, despite Visconti’s apparent preference for an Italian actor in the role and dislike for Lancaster who was forced upon him by the producers (Lancaster went on to be cast in the masterpiece, 1900, by Bernando Bertolucci, and ultimately reconciled with Visconti who was his friend for the rest of his career). The role of Tancredi is played by Alain Delon, and the leading lady is Claudia Cardinale, for whom I’ve always had a serious crush since seeing her in Once Upon a Time in the West.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is a gorgeous film that rises to a crescendo with the final ball in Palermo. Visconti’s treatment of the costumes, the interiors, the amazing scene of a room filled with chamberpots brimming with urine from the ball’s dancers …. Read the book, then rent the film.

APPLETV: I watched The Leopard on the new AppleTV video on demand device which downloads the content from the iTunes store. Pretty good stuff, but there’s a long way to go before AppleTV or video-on-demand is going to win my heart over. DSL based WIFI connectivity and interminable download times is not a real game changer in this day and age of instant gratification expectation, and the library is not amazingly comprehensive enough to be interesting to a film student like Eliot (let’s just say it will be a long time before iTunes offers Andrei Rublev). We also downloaded The Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s awesome western, in HD. That was good as always.

BOOKS: I’m juggling a few books as is my habit. I have started Constantine von Hoffman’s copy of Lives of the Popes (which I borrowed from him three years ago and have yet to return, earning the epithet, “David Churbuck, Book Thief of Lenovo” on his blog). This is good stuff as I am a big fan of Byzantine history and need to expand my studies into Catholicism and early Christianity having been lopsided towards the Greeks due to Gibbons and Norwich’s excellent Byzantium trilogy.

The high point of the recent reading season has been Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, his fourth novel about the controversial Florida murderer, settler, and pioneer, Edgar Watson. I was a devout fan of Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone, regarding the set to be among the most important works of American fiction in the 20th century. I will go way out on a superlative limb and say that Shadow Country is a masterpiece, the first work of fiction I would put on a syllabus of American literature were I teach such a course (along with Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, etc.). Matthiessen is often viewed as an “environmental” writer, a zen craftsman, but in his Watson series he proves himself a master of much more, exposing, through a tale told by many narrators, the literal end of the road of America, a place so hostile and brutal that it remains to this day. I have made a pilgrimage to the scene of Watson’s murder by neighbors, the beach in Chokoloskee, and I have journeyed into the abyss of the wilderness below that Indian mound into the island and channels verging into the Everglades. Nothing I have seen is more wild or closer to America’s own heart of darkness.

Shadow Country is, by Matthiessen’s admission, a reworking of the first three novels into the book he set out to write. I would nominate him for the Nobel prize in literature for the result and have long maintained it is a subject Hollywood should make into a film. The book just won the National Book award this month.

FOOD: I did a lot of cooking this past week. Of particular note.

  1. A classic quahog chowder made according to Capt. Chatfield’s recipe.
  2. A daube de bouef derived from Julia Childs: I would default to her beef bourguignon next time, but it was quite good.
  3. Brussel sprouts with pancetta in a balsamic reduction with shallots. This came from a New York Times article a few years back featuring a dozen side dishes by top chefs. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I am an inveterate hater of brussel sprouts.
  4. Leftover turkey converted into a turkey marsala with mushrooms over farfalle with pesto.
  5. My new addiction/affliction: armagnac. I dunno, I’m a big fan of anything French. This is basically French moonshine made from grapes. Less refined than cognac but a lot more interesting.

WALKS: A few standard beach walks under gorgeous pink salmon Cape light, a great trek through the Crocker Neck conservation lands, a roadtrip to Nyes Neck on Buzzards Bay in West Falmouth to seek the Churbuckian manse, Windsway, as noted by Facebook pal, Frederick Churbuck. I think we found it, not sure. I will upload photos anon. The Churbucks of Falmouth are best known for Leander Churbuck, a painter of some repute and note.


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