Like Garlic Mustard? YOU Eat It

There’s an allelopath on the loose in my town, committing crimes in broad daylight, and I’ve been spending a good part of this quarantine handing out vigilante justice.

It’s edible, as many people have reminded me. They say steam it. They say chop it fine and use it to replace lemon and parsley. They say flatten it on cookie sheets and toast it then sauté it. They all say make a pesto out of it. We’re talking about people with a steady supply of it right outside their windows, and I don’t see any of them walking around with a colander picking its leaves.

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Alliaria petiolata.

I’m talking about garlic mustard. Jack-by-the-hedge. Poor man’s mustard. Alliaria petiolata. “Alliaria” means it resembles an allium, but’s in the brassica family. As in “brass balls.” Its olfactory bait and switch is just one of many duplicitous things about this plant.

They say it was imported in the 1800s from Europe, where it’s been used for centuries, for food and as a diuretic – and where it has 69 kinds of herbivorous insects that eat it, that we don’t have here. Without these controls, it takes over. It’s considered one of the worst invasive plants in temperate forests across North America, and my little corner of New York state has it bad.

In the warm days of April, garlic mustard shoots and leaves are among the first to peep out through the forest floor. You see it and coo, “Spring!” like when the puffballs come in Amarcord. When the trees blossom, garlic mustard’s already shin-high. Some of the bigger ones are waist-high when it flowers in mid-May. It seems to prefer the shade but thrives in the wide open sun too – though I have noticed that in the sun it seems less monopolistic, more able to share the soil.

“Able to share”? It’s also allelopathic, meaning “suffering mutually.” More specifically, it produces chemicals that harm other plants, which is easy to imagine when you’re picking it. Its stem, when mature, is purplish on the bottom, the color of the rutabaga. When you pull it out by its main root, which I’ve done hundreds of times lately, you smell something like synthetic horseradish extract.

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Biennials, the first year they look like this.

Is this the exact chemical that inhibits other plants? I don’t know. I do know that the New York State webpage devoted to garlic mustard says, “Herbivores such as deer and woodchucks only remove up to 2% of the leaf area in a stand of garlic mustard. This level of herbivory is ineffective in controlling reproduction or survival of garlic mustard.”

Aside from loving the word “herbivory” – Scrabble opponents, take note! – it’s worth remembering that deer and woodchucks eat everything. Plant nurseries around here offer deer resistant selections, and they munch them down like snow peas at a salad bar. If they don’t eat garlic mustard, that’s telling you something.

When I’ve spent all afternoon yanking horseradish extract pods out of the ground, the last thing I want to do is pull the heart-shaped leaves off the stem so I can say I have locally foraged chimichurri in my fridge – that I never actually eat. Because here’s the dirty secret of the locavore movement: some of this stuff tastes like weeds! And I would put garlic mustard in that category.

A few weeks ago, one unseasonably cool evening, I was bored and walked up the road. I was admiring a neighbor’s garden. I’d never met him, but he came outside with two cans of beer, which is not out of character for how people are behaving here lately. He and his wife are herbalists – I knew this already, because it’s a small town – and conversation came around to plants. I pointed to the garlic mustard next to his shed. “Do you eat that stuff?”

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A roadside ditch in High Falls, NY, overrun.

He leaned forward, like the ramps might hear him. “Such a pain in the ass.”

I discovered this myself last  last spring – my first one here since leaving the city – and had some friends coming over, so I spent an afternoon picking and washing garlic mustard. I used it to make a saag, a versatile dish I’ve made many times, that works with any green: chard, mustard, kale, etc. I went heavy on the butter and put toasted cashews on top, and it tasted…edible.

“Artisinal isn’t always good,” as a food writer once told me. I would add, “Foraged isn’t always tasty.” And any time you’re told more than once that something is “good in pesto,” that’s like a root veg that’s “good in soup,” or something like a wine region “known for its rosé.” It’s something that’s edible when its flavor is covered, or it’s known for more misses than hits in its hit-and-miss vintages.

The First Agricultural revolution happened 10,000 years ago. If I promise not to make an extra trip to buy it, and to compost the stems afterward, will you forgive me for just eating spinach?

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If the deer don’t eat it….

Mysteries of Mithras: Klimov, Macfarlane, and You Know Who

In the first scene of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, two boys are digging in a sandbank pulling out Nazi helmets and belt buckles. It’s not clear if they’re in an old campsite or a mass grave. The only places I’ve ever seen like it, topographically, are the banks of Midwestern rivers like The Platte and The Wisconsin.

It’s Belarus in 1943, and the younger boy is throwing voices, taunting Flyora for not having a gun. A truck full of live Nazis drives past, and the boys know exactly what to do: they dive out of sight. The truck is gone and Flyora, who looks 14 or maybe 40, now has his hands deep in the sand, rocking to pry something loose underneath. He humps the earth for a minute then stands up proudly with a German-made rifle he just pulled from the ground.

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Mithras

Weirdly resonant, this scene made perfect sense to me, since I’d just read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. (Everybody else was reading The Overstory, and I was reading Underland, go figure.) It’s one of those books that gets called “narrative non-fiction,” but I don’t think it would be an insult to just call it a long-ass magazine article. A very well-read nature writer gives himself an ambitiously broad mandate for underground places to visit and tells us what he sees.

So there are chapters about cave exploration, giant mines under the North Sea, a days-long punk tour under Paris, nuclear storage facilities, and rivers under glaciers. Here’s a typical anecdote delivered matter-of-factly:

“Another day, near the highest point of the Mendip plateau, Sean and I walk what is known as ‘gruffy ground.’ ‘Gruffy’ means ‘rough,’ ‘rugged,’ and gruffy ground is the relic landscape of lead-mining activities dating back more than 2,000 years. Small-scale Roman mining left behind hundreds of small heaps of tailings; in the eighteenth century these were heated to melt out any residual lead ore. This double working of the landscape has left the ground humped with small hills of toxic slag…shunned by grazing animals which sense its contamination.”

You had me at “gruffy”!

Reviews of Underland tend to focus on its scientific pessimism about the anthropocene epoch, but the anthropology in it turned me on the most. That early humans buried their dead long before they had permanent homes for the living seems to me something we need to contemplate if we’re going to kick the plastic and petroleum habits.

No part of Underland hit me as personally as the short section on Mithraism, about the god Mithras. A Mediterranean interpretation of a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian god, you could call it a perversion of the Persian, but the cult of Mithras does not even get a mention in the pocket bible on mythology I grew up with, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Mithras had a following all over the Roman empire, but especially, they say, in Western Europe.

The Mysteries of Mithras was a rival spiritual insurgency in the centuries before Constantine made another fringe cult the official religion of the empire. Mithras was typically shown killing a bull, and membership in his mysteries was limited to men. (The Christians converted women, and were sometimes accused of subverting the patriarchal family.) His followers included many soldiers, who would stop at a mithraeum – which was always underground, or at least decorated to look like a cave – on their way to or from battle. That men fearing for their lives, or preparing to do violent things to others, would stop to worship a bull-killer underground resonates somewhere deep in the male psyche.

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Macfarlane looks fearlessly at questions like “What radioactive isotopes will outlast the human species?” but Mithras seems to give him the heebie-jeebies, and he quickly pivots to a more hopeful future: “Thinking of the diver-explorers of the Timavo as modern Mithraists…I am reminded of the historically gendered nature of the underland.” He touches on Orpheus and Eurydice, et cetera, then anecdotes about “women rewriting these ancient archetypes with courage and expertise”: female cavers in Uzbekistan and a microbiologist at Wind Cave in South Dakota.

That’s great, but it seems like a cave left unexplored. Why men? What do they see underground? Is it birth envy re-expressing itself long into the era of the hunter-agricultural division of labor? The women grow things every day, and the men might kill a large mammal only once in a while, so they have to get their earthy creation groove on?

Three years ago, I weakly tried expressing the profoundness of Black Sabbath’s last show at Madison Square Garden by saying it felt like a chthonic rite. What I was hinting at was more Mithraic: men going underground.

This week we learned that, partly for obvious reasons, we’ve passed a milestone: renewable energy has surpassed coal in the U.S., and that’s good news. What’s more, what little hope there was for a reprieve for the coal-burning power plants scheduled to be shut down in the next few years is also gone, and that’s great news.

Realistically though, the bond between man and pickaxe, and the psychic satisfaction of the journey underground, have not gone away. By itself, “solar panel installation” will never hit the bass notes, or monosyllables, of “coal mine.” When Trump said in 2016 that he was going to bring coal jobs back, a few gullible people might have believed him, but many more stood up and cheered because it was a profession of faith. That the men should be in the mines carries the weight of “God is in His heaven.”

The Soviet Cinema Power Couple

If you’re feeling like four and a half hours of emotional horror, watch a Soviet double feature about the worst days of World War Two. I did just that, to “celebrate” the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Only after I’d gotten through the first half, The Ascent by Larissa Shepitko, did I learn that the two films I’d chosen were made by respective halves of a power couple of Soviet cinema: Shepitko and her husband Elem Klimov. You would think, from the black and white look of The Ascent, that you’re dealing with a historic film from the 1950s or early 60s, but it was made in 1977.

You could say that American filmmakers were already attempting the great Vietnam film, and those poor Russians were still stuck in World War Two, but then you’d have to acknowledge that The Ascent and Come and See (1985) were just plain better all-around films than any American war film.

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THE ASCENT is full of details reminding you that these are familiar people doing and enduring horrific things.

War, in my childish imagination, meant lining up tens of thousands of soldiers along a line of scrimmage between territories, and trying to move that line. The first army to move it to the other’s capital won. Add a dose of moral certainty and you’ve got Lincoln and Grant surrounding Richmond, or Eisenhower crossing France. You can use a color pencil set to trace the slow triumph of good over bad.

The Ascent, written by Shepitko and Yuri Klepikov, based on Vasiliy Bykov’s novel, is set in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where partisan guerrillas are hiding in the woods trying not to starve in winter. You shiver with them and watch in real time as handfuls of crunchy wheat bulgur get passed around, until two volunteers, Rybek and Sotnikov, head off to find some food for the group, and it doesn’t go well.

There is Rybek’s girlfriend’s parents’ farm, where he thinks he can find food – and it’s leveled. There’s the “head man,” a collaborator whose life they spare after stealing one of his sheep – and who turns out much more complex and sympathetic than they expected. And there’s Demchikha, the presumed widow trying to raise three kids, whose tiny house the guys happen to be hiding in, without asking, when the Nazis arrive.

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Shepitko died in a car accident location-scouting the film after THE ASCENT. She had he coolest haircut ever.

All along the way there is the one partisan Sotnikov, an ideologue of pure socialist ideals, whose conscience steers them right at key moments – and whose chest cold, and then bullet wound to the leg, make him a literal drag on the mission. Rybek is the more experienced partisan fighter, and kind of a charming scoundrel, but with an impatient, angry edge to him.

Sotnikov is my kind of guy. I’m somebody you’d want around to keep the workers at the munitions plant in a productive mood when news comes that our rations are going to be cut, but I’m not the first person you’d choose to be with in a foxhole. You need both of us to win a world war, but I’ve lived long enough to know that the Rybeks of the world, with their get-shit-done survival ethic, find people like me frustratingly dreamy-headed.

Well, this Rybek in The Ascent, after all he’s done to keep Sotnikov alive, can’t persuade him even a bit that some moral prestidigitation with their interrogators is called for, to save them from being hung. It’s a genius dramatic conceit, and a setup for a gruesomely poetic finale.

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Sotnikov.

That the story is something we experience from Rybek’s perspective, and without a full conversion to Sotnikov’s martyrdom, makes it very politically mature. “What do I do now that I have compromised myself?” is not something you’d expect from a major World War Two film of a country known for censorship and so invested in its own heroism.

Come and See, written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, is set in Belarus around the same time. It was getting some attention before the quarantine, since it just got a 35-year anniversary restoration and was screening around the country.

Compared to The Ascent, Klimov uses a much more innocent protagonist to take you on a more hair-raising journey. It’s also about partisans – and includes another long sequence about a livestock appropriation gone horribly wrong – but this time the hero is a 15-year-old boy named Flyora. One of the endearing things about Shepitko’s Rybek is how he recounts his one sexual liaison with his girlfriend before the war, delivered in a way that makes him seem young and sweet, not just a combatant in a dirty war.

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Flyora in custody.

Well, Flyora still has one foot in boyhood when he enlists, and his mother responds by slapping the crap out of him. He gets passed over for his unit’s first attack – forced to trade his relatively new boots with an older fighter. He’s dejected till he teams up with Glasha, a beautiful girl of about 16 who endures guerrillas staring at her, but opens up to Flyora.

When they’re not dodging bullets from passing Nazi paratroopers, they’re unchaperoned in the forest and understandably getting frisky. It’s like Moonrise Kingdom, but with live ammunition. It feels like cheapening the dead of the Eastern front, to say that Come and See is a story about teenage rites of passage, but it’s about something universal besides the war.

Short descriptions of Come and See often praise its surrealism, but those seem like accents to me on an otherwise focused and purposeful narrative. It has scenes that evoke Amarcord and Romeo and Juliet, and it rewards repeated viewing – I’ve now seen it twice since Saturday!

Only on second viewing did it sink in how much time was spent staging the group photo of the partisan brigade, and how that sets up a momentous photo near the end. When the scene of Glasha dancing in a wet dress in a sun shower for Flyora’s pleasure lingers on and on, it’s inviting the male viewer to enjoy looking at her – a setup to make you feel horrifically dirty at the end when you see her after the Nazis have had their way with her.

Come and See is more spectacular than The Ascent, and in color, and since it takes place near “the front” and not miles behind enemy lines, the world of us-versus-them is more about soldiers of The Reich and less about the shades of collaboration. It is also about an immature protagonist – about sex and politics. A 15-year-old who just wants to stay alive gets a free pass on the bigger questions, so you can watch things unfold as he experiences them, without ever really dwelling on the horrifying choices people around him are making…

…until the second-to-last scene, that is, when the band of partisans surrounds a dozen or so captured Nazis and gives them an impromptu hearing. I’m sure the denouement with its historical footage of Hitler has been written about many times – and I can’t wait till its safe to browse in physical bookstores again – but let’s just say this was not an out-of-place choice of two films to watch on Mother’s Day weekend either.

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Happy Mothers Day, by the way.

If you’re wondering where I’m seeing all these, the Criterion Channel is one thing getting me through this coronavirus spring – the best eleven bucks I spend every month. You not only get to see an important (and often enough entertaining) film every day, Criterion’s extra features, its mini-lectures by critics and historians, are consistently on point and just the right length.

American Brands: In Praise of Average

This cup of Maxwell House in front of me is a perfectly balanced pre-breakfast drink all by itself. Funny, because yesterday I noticed its pecan notes pair well an afternoon piece of leftover chocolate birthday cake. Good to the last drop!

I predicted that  it would be alright to have around when I bought my first can of it in many years, back on March 12th. I even gave it that highest of consumer ratings, “It won’t go to waste,” but didn’t yet realize I’d be buying more and more of it – even after the unemployment benefits finally started.

It’s easy to remember Thursday, March 12th, 2020, because I manage a restaurant – a very good one – and Thursday falls on my weekend. I could already see the great shutdown coming, but we had plans: a mom, a dad, and a ten-year-old daughter, whom they pulled from school to come see us, so we weren’t going to cancel on them

I had an idea for a fun picture to take, to re-stage a family photo of my own mother from her childhood, with a round smile, surrounded by food. We always figured it was something her grandparents intended to send back to post-war Poland: Look how much plenty we enjoy.

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Good to the last drop.

The shelves at my local supermarket that morning were more picked over than usual, and I felt the tension in the air starting to course through me. I reached for a box of Ronzoni spaghetti and grabbed three of them just in case.

I typically stroll through the coffee aisle without stopping: to my bourgeois but left-of-center taste, coffee is something you bought from a local roaster, or possibly from a food co-op with uplifting images of unionized-looking coffee bean pickers. But this photo needed some kind of coffee, and a plain brown bag wouldn’t do.

After some texting my mother told me my memory was off. There was no table full of food. That photo was merely one of her with a large loaf of bread in her hands. That’s the nature of memory – we might be remembering the point of the memory, then reimagining the truth to suit it – but I digress, and I’d already bought the Maxwell House.

Unpacking the groceries, I remembered what Andy Warhol, another Polish immigrant, said about Coca Cola: “What’s great about this country is that … the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too …. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

“Is that what’s great about this country?” and “Are Cokes really good?” are just two reasonable questions, but I get his point in the abstract. Any vision of the American cornucopia without classic brands would not be accurate, and one of their pleasures is in breaking bread with the rest of the country.

Convenience and cost are two more good things about national brands, and another pleasure is of course nostalgia: Nabsico Shredded Wheat tastes like childhood to me. I remember seeing, in a European History 101 textbook, a woodcut print of medieval peasants harvesting leeks, and hardly knowing what a leek was. You probably couldn’t find leeks in my suburban New Jersey town in the 1980s, but I’ve since learned a few things to do with them, and one is to chop and sauté them and dump soup stock over them – and if I add some dried egg noodles, then it’s suddenly like I’ve been eating leeks since at least the 1400s.

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“New Look: Same Great Taste.”

The connection, I’m seeing now, is deeper than nostalgia. It’s basic comfort – and I don’t just mean the warm feeling of a spoonful of Campbell’s. It’s the sense that the sky is up and the earth is down. I was not surprised to read last month that in Poland a no-nonsense style of restaurant from the Communist era is thriving right now: that would be my childhood, and my earth and sky too, if my mother’s grandparents didn’t have so much get-up-and-go.

It also seemed like lucky timing for Land o’ Lakes to finally move on from its Native American mascot this month, of all months – with panache, I might add. You can make demands when you’re in demand, and brands and the comfort they bring are indispensable right now.

Lots has been said about how much cooking and baking people are doing while they’re home on quarantine, and my family of two (plus cats) was no exception, till the quarantine wore us out. I’ve complained over the years about how foodie culture has ruined that oft-abused and misunderstood concept of hospitality, and I’ve been guilty of that myself, fussing over parsley when I could be listening, really listening, to friends I rarely see.

Now that we are all talking about what things will be like after quarantine – prematurely, in my case, since I don’t see restaurants being nearly the same for a while – I sense that a lot of us will have had the gourmand demon exorcised from us. We’ll be ready to get together with friends, and we won’t much care about the garnishes.

So when you finally get to entertain friends again, let’s not kill the fatted calf every time. And let’s not be too eager to show off our quenelle skills. Reach for cream of mushroom! Love them with luminescent Green Giant peas. And if you must show off with a homemade dessert, bless them with a shoofly pie made from the the holy trinity of Grandma’s molasses, Domino’s brown sugar, and Hecker’s all-purpose flour. And of course brew a fresh pot of Maxwell House.

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Janke Doodle Dandy

“The basketball court was full of Tyrones.”

“Look at the tight pants on Juanita.”

“All the milk Mustafa sells is past its expiration.”

“Can Shlomo fit any more kids in that minivans?!”

It’s an especially nasty kind of tribal slur some of us throw around, when we use a popular name, or a memorable and therefore a perceived common name, from another language, as placeholder for everybody in a community. I suppose it’s better than outright ethnic slurs, but it may cut deeper since it implies a familiarity: “I’ve got you people all sussed out.”

I was reading about U.S. colonial history (as one does on viral lockdown) when I came across this detail from the French and Indian War and the Revolution: British soldiers played “Yankee Doodle” as a taunt the colonials, and North Americans, once they put musket, fife, and drum together, played it back to them: “Who’s a yankee doodle dandy now, bitches?!”

It got me reading up on these odd words of a very catchy jingle:

‘…it began perhaps in the 1500’s, as part of a Dutch harvest song that began with words of no meaning: “Yanker dudel doodle down.” But a century later, English Cavaliers used the same tune to mock Oliver Cromwell, who ”stuck a feather in his cap/ And called it macaroni.” At the time, ”macaroni” was the term for young Englishmen who wore fashionable Italian clothes. Anyone who thought he could qualify as ”macaroni” because of a single feather had to be an unsophisticated nerd. By the 1750’s, Englishmen in America used the song to make similar fun of the disheveled, poorly trained Americans fighting in the French and Indian War. And it is said that in 1775, when British Col. Hugh Percy led a column of troops from Boston to Lexington and Concord, his men marched to the brisk cadence of ”Yankee Doodle.”’

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A feather in your hat doesn’t make you macaroni – THAT’S macaroni.

That’s a questionable use of the word “nerd,” but it was from 30 years ago, from a New Amsterdam Times – pardon me, New York Times article . See, the story of “Yankee” is closer to my point.

All around the Hudson valley, where I live, any time you see a stone farmhouse, there is a fair chance that the people who built it would not have spoken English. They spoke Dutch, which was common well into the early years of the U.S.A.  (Sojourner Truth, owned by Dutch-Americans, grew up speaking it; English was her second language.)

The leading theory about the origin of the word “Yankee” is that the second wave of Europeans – the English – had a derisive nickname for Dutch people based on their common first name Jan, pronounced “Yan,” with the diminutive -ke added. So “Janke” means “Johnny,” with all the hostile intentions of calling a Brooklyn Italian “Tony” before you know his name.

“The farmers in that valley are all jankes.” “Don’t buy a pony from that janke, he’ll rip you off.” “These jankes don’t even speak English.” “I have janke friends, but when a barn-raising is all jankes, I don’t know what they’re saying.” “My sister danced with a janke?!” Or, “A pregnant woman got on the subway and none of the jankes gave up their seats.”

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“Dutch, Quaker, Puritan, WHATEVER you are, Janke.”

Damn Yankees!

So when things got hot and the British started keeping troops here, they started calling all the colonials “Yankees” the way a modern American soldier might call a Turk or a Persian an “Arab” when they’re not actually Arabs: They’re all the same! And we North Americans became Y.W.A.

Add the ethnic origin of the word “Yankee” and the emasculating insult “doodle dandy,” implying, “You’re not a fop, you’re a fop wannabe!” The oldest song in our patriotic canon is … not nice, actually.

That was lost on me when I heard the song as a kid, of course. The tune is as fun to sing as it was when throwing turnips in the cart in the 1500s. And “stuck a feather in his hat and called it ‘macaroni'” was delightful nonsense. As usual with history, the closer you look, the weirder it gets.

Tears For Lombardy

I found myself awake late one night, reading a feature about the epicenter of Italian Coronavirus deaths, around Bergamo, and I was drawn back to The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero Degli Zoccoli) the 1978 film by Ermanno Olmi. Three hours long, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs mixes period drama with documentary recreation of late 19th Century country life.

The first time I saw it, at a college film society in the ’90s, I left the theater a little shaken by the graphic butchering of animals (There are just two, in the first hour, but it spares no detail.) and feeling emptied out with sadness for the peasant family at the heart of it.

I found a clip without subtitles. What language would you think this is, if you didn’t know what country it were from?

 

Finnish? It’s too Romance-sounding. Romanian? Some regional version of French?

It was lost on me, until I was told about it years later, that the spoken language in the film is not Italian, but the Bergamo dialect. This “dialect” is apparently more of a distinct language than a version of Italian – a fact my Italian friends can verify: They say they sometimes can’t understand what people in Bergamo and elsewhere in Lombardy are saying.

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Olmi wrote it, directed it, shot it, and edited it – an amazing feat, especially considering the gorgeous mists and elements all over the photography. To think that he was doing that and directing an amateur cast, and he got these compositions and these performances!

The story starts with a crystal clear dramatic problem. A priest tells a family that their son Minek, who is around 8, is gifted and should be in school, no matter what it takes. The boy’s father Batisti objects that Minek is going to have to walk for miles every day, when he could be at home helping with the chores, since they’re barely getting by and have a baby on the way. The priest lays down the law: They have to do this. Everything that happens to this family after this acquiescence is colored by your own bittersweet understanding that Batisti didn’t want the kid to go to school in the first place.

Mike Leigh, not surprisingly, is a big fan of this film, and contributes a short interview you can watch on the Criterion Channel. Among other insights, he is struck by the fact that it’s both very Catholic and very Left Wing.

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Olmi’s love for his culture is obvious and unconditional. The people his great-grandparents’ age of his home region have superstition flowing through their daily thoughts and experience, so if you love these people, you love Mary too, it’s a package deal. The men may enjoy telling gruesome ghost stories at night, but eventually they’ll give the floor to the women leading the rosary. Mendicant beggars drop in unannounced, and the local priest has a habit of insinuating himself into family problems, often as a de facto social worker.

In one sequence a woman uses holy water and a prayer to cure a cow of an illness. You never for a moment think Olmi the 20th Century materialist believes in the miracle in quite the way the woman does, but his sympathy for her makes clear that if she understands it as a miracle, then that’s good enough for Olmi too.

If Batisti’s problem from the beginning is dramatically cut and dried, it’s also politically ambiguous. Is the priest enslaving Batisti by making his burden a little harder with no clear pay-off, or is he applying a little tough love when it’s needed? Is he actually subverting the local patriarchy by putting a limit on a peasant father’s ability to claim all his child’s labor as soon as he starts producing any?

You don’t know. You just accept the guideposts for what they are, and develop favorite characters among the four or so families sharing an open courtyard farmhouse. To watch The Tree of the Wooden Clogs is immersive, a fact reinforced by how seldom Batisti or any of the main characters manage to smile. It’s three solid hours of the peasantry dealing with the seasons, the elements, the livestock, the jobs, the pregnancies, the untreated illnesses, the mud, and the polenta – lots of polenta.

You learn on Day One of Marxism 101 that the feudal economy had lasted for centuries, till eventually it gave its surplus labor to the wage-earning workforce of capitalism, which grew so large it overwhelmed feudalism. On Day Two you start arguing, with your teacher or yourself, about where the hell this capitalism thing is going, with such urgency you never dwell much on feudalism and its workforce.

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The Tree of the Wooden Clogs corrects that. These are families literally split between the two economies, peasant life, in which you keep a little and hand the landlord the majority of what you produce, and wage labor. To us, even us supposed sympathizers, the peasantry was a miasma of suffering from which the world as we know it was conjured by some self-interested capitalists – or call them “innovators” if you prefer – but The Tree of the Wooden Clogs gives peasant life a texture and a palette of feelings.

The only comparable film I can think of is Andrei Rublev, but Tarkovsky carries a lot more thematic weight, about the nature of creativity and faith. By keeping the problems simple (which is not the same as simple to solve) Olmi gives you the time and space to breathe with these characters.

On “weighing day,” when the peasants bring their corn harvests to be weighed, the padrone is inside his manor house fussing over his new purchase, a Victrola with a giant orchid of a speaker. The first record he plays is an aria, and the peasants outside all stop in their tracks. It’s a beautiful moment, kind of the opposite of Fitzcarraldo blasting Wagner in the Amazon: In Olmi’s Lombardy you see the natives for a good hour, then see their faces the moment they hear recorded music for the first time.

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Likewise you see the peasants’ and wage workers’ first encounter with a socialist, in the form of what looks like a classic petit bourgeois-turned-revolutionary attempting a rousing speech at the tail end of the annual carnival. It’s an affectionate look at a people that’s genuinely exploited, and duly confused.

The one subplot that offers some ray of sunlight is the young woman who works at the mill receiving the attention of a very patient suitor. Dating in Lombardy in 1900 apparently consisted of sitting quietly for an hour every evening with the extended family of the woman who interests you, until they’re satisfied that you’ve displayed enough commitment and humility.

And when they finally get married, they take a trip for their wedding night, a riverboat excursion to visit her aunt in Milan, a nun in fact, and they spend their wedding night in the improvised guest room of a convent. And odd piece of visual poetry, their funereal black against the nuns’ whites, it makes lust seem chaste, and once again makes the church the intermediary between the old world and the new.

One way Olmi creates an even tempo is by not showing the actual milestones in his people’s lives. You don’t see a birth, you see a girl interrupting her father’s farmwork to announce that birth. You don’t see the suitor ask for permission to marry, you hear it referred to. Nor do you see the decisive action in the wooden clogs plot:

You are almost halfway through the film when some attention gets paid to the clogs on Minek’s feet, the ones he uses to walk miles to school every day. Every step of the way the individual scene you’re witnessing is connected to an element of nature or a challenge of farm life handled with resignation, and it’s up to you the viewer to note how the constellation of characters in the wider stories has moved, incrementally.

There are plenty of peasant work songs, duly recorded as an ethnographer would, but the soundtrack, interestingly, is mostly Bach organ pieces. Sacred music, for people who believe in the sacred, and also the only high art music familiar to church-going poor people of 1900. It has the effect of sanctifying the story without condescending to it. The air in the pipes of the organ feels completely at home in this world. Never for a minute do you lose the feeling of the texture of peasant life, or the granularity of time itself.

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The Winter of Max von Sydow Being Quiet

I was already thinking about Max von Sydow quite a bit when news came out that he’d passed away this month. He was a dream subject for an obituary writer: an artist with a long, full life rooted deep in the Nordic past (His father was an ethnologist.), uncompromising as a young artist, and promiscuous, you might say, for Hollywood paychecks as a character actor later on life.

He also happened to be at the center of a body of work that feels very relevant during this extended winter of the Coronavirus: the ten or so films of Ingmar Bergman’s “great period” from the late ’50s through the late ’60s.

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Playing chess against Death.

I first encountered these films years ago while living in Minneapolis. There was a dank video store with a backed-up septic system and shelves of VHS, and one winter I got in the habit of checking out a different classic film every night. I was a “transplant” in Minnesota, and that meant trying to make sense of what I was doing there at all, so it’s no surprise, given the Minnesotan-Scandinavian connection and the long shadow of winter, that by February I settled on the Swedish shelf.

Serious cinema was an ascetic discipline, or so I thought, so I stuck my nose deep  into these films, some of which in fact looked like illuminated manuscripts: The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Persona, Wild Strawberries, and the great “trilogy” of Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly.

“Trilogy,” incidentally, warrants quotes because by the following year I’d read Bergman on Bergman, in which he admits that these three films are considered a trilogy because of a schnapsidee (an idea that sounds brilliant while drunk) he had while drinking with a Bavarian film critic; they aren’t really a trilogy. “Great period” gets quotes because, even though these are his most Bergmanesque years, when he became a darling of international critics, the films that are aging best are his earlier ones, such as Summer With Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel, and the one I watch at least once a year, Smiles of a Summer Night – but I save that for another time.

Von Sydow was always present for the “great period,” often far beyond the number of words he actually uttered on screen. He was the fulcrum on which these (sometimes pretentious) masterpieces balanced.

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Von Sydow and Lindblom, with Ingrid Thulin in background.

In Winter Light, he plays Jonas, a depressed young father who goes to the wrong pastor for advice. Von Sydow being quiet is as expressive as Brando being loud. Jonas hardly talks, but squirms and looks away evasively, as his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindbolm) explains to Pastor Thomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) that they came to mass that morning because Jonas is suicidal. “It started when he read an article about the Chinese,” she says, describing a sensationalized Cold War account of the ascendant, nuclear-armed China.

Later, when Pastor Thomas questions Jonas one-to-one about why he’s depressed, he denies having money or marriage problems, elusive as ever. “So, it really is the Chinese?” Thomas says archly, and Jonas exhales the faintest guffaw. It’s so very Scandinavian, the kind of scene a Nordiphile laughs at (inside, of course), but that we can forgive most cinema fans for not caring about.

It also struck me, watching it last month for the fifth or sixth time, how contemporary the emotional terrain is. Many of my American peers were already walking around with either undiagnosed political anxiety or its opposite: Projecting onto world events their own internal gear-grinding. Friendships were being frayed by the Democratic primary elections. And this was before Coronavirus.

Although the viral hit (I can’t help it.) this month has been Contagion, The Seventh Seal was my obvious go-to, a more folkloric look at a contagious disease. That’s the first time Bergman and Von Sydow made a film together, in ’57. Von Sydow plays a knight, Antonious Block, returning to Sweden from The Crusades, during a bubonic plague outbreak.

The memorable scenes from it, the ones that make a 20-something trying desperately to fully comprehend it, are of deeply felt Christian angst or existential yearning – and if  they’re a little too earnest for some critics, I had no patience for the impatient back in my VHS days.

Watching The Seventh Seal last century, it felt like a handful of scenes full of dialogue about faith and existence, with a barebones and unfocused plot around it to give the dialogue some semblance of dramatic stakes. Watching it last week, it was more a series of visual tableaux – Antonius playing chess with Death, Christian believers flagellating themselves, Death leading his recent kills over the horizon – with comedy, lots of comedy, in between, and Antonius trying, not very successfully, to carry on an existential conversation.

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When Death knocks, you answer.

I never knew, till I saw it with a hundred or so people in a theater, how funny The Seventh Seal is! Gunnar Bjornstrand may be a cloudy day of a protagonist in Winter Light (’63) and many other films, but back in ’57 as the vassal to Antonius he seemed relieved to have so few shades of darkness to get across, and to revel in being a wiseass and leave the heavy lifting to Von Sydow. His casual asides drew loud laughter both times I saw it on the big screen.

The most crafted scene in The Seventh Seal is when Antonius happens on a church; he knows he’s going to die soon, and when he sees a hooded figure inside the confessional he jumps at the chance. He confesses his inability to believe in God, and adds that he started playing chess with Death that morning. Only after he reveals his strategy does the confessor turn around: He’s not a priest, he is Death, and Antonius just threw the chess game.

It’s so momentous, in my memory, this scene happened around minute 60 out of a 90 minute film. (One good thing about the Svensk Filmindustri catalog is they are on point about keeping films short, with crisp three acts coming right on time.) That’s how I remembered it because that’s where I would have put it, but in fact it comes around minute 30, barely into Act Two.

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The Magician

The storyteller has already played his best card, and Antonius is already tricked. What narrative forward motion you get in the rest of the film comes from his chance meeting with the traveling minstrel troupe, and his impulsive offer to escort them through a dangerous forest.

In The Magician (’58), Von Sydow plays a traveling doctor named Vogler, a cult-like charlatan who rarely speaks, but whose gravity at the center of the traveling troupe is a persuasive element in their scam. (This always struck me as an expression of Bergman’s artistic self-doubts.)

In The Virgin Spring (’60), Von Sydow plays Töre, a medieval father who doesn’t say much either, and who is called upon to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. This one holds up even better than the others. A study in narrative preparation, I could watch Töre prepare his ritual bath again and again. Ang Lee says that “Life changed” after he watched The Virgin Spring at age 18. “I’d never seen anything so quiet, so serene, and yet so violent.”

In Hour of the Wolf (’68), Von Sydow plays Johan, an artist isolated on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullman). Generally a man of few words, Johan descends from his usual orneriness to insanity, as narrated by Alma. I’m writing this post over a few consecutive nights’ hours of the wolf (the hour before dawn), and I think a lot of us can relate to that couple, maybe even to both partners in it, while we’re cooped up waiting for Coronavirus to pass.

I saw Von Sydow in person one time, appearing to promote a comedy he was in, that seemed like a labor of love or maybe a personal favor. At a Q & A afterward, a few members of the public were eager to hear more about The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was 30 or so years old at the time, in which he played Jesus. You could tell by how delicately he answered the questions that he was used to it. He also gracefully accepted a ribbing from the moderator about his role in Strange Brew.

Ironically, the minstrels in The Seventh Seal think they’re doomed when they get separated from Antonius and his escort due to a rainstorm, but that’s what saves them. Antonius brings the rest of the party “safely” to his house, where his wife starts making everyone breakfast. Then the door knocks. Spoiler alert: It’s Death, and there are no more reprieves.

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The Death of Napoleon.

Death, as I’ve seen it, is not the dramatic event idealized in pre-Civil War times, a fitting final chapter to a meaningful life. It’s the thief who comes while you’re making other plans. And who cheats at chess besides. In these past few weeks the Coronavirus situation has come over us the same way, as we incrementally bust through our own concentric rings of denial. One day you’re saying, “I wonder if Corona is affecting business.” The next day you conclude that it must be. The next day you’re locking the doors, and you haven’t even said good-bye.

Give Bergman and the Swedish film industry credit for leaving us this legacy of sometimes entertaining movies that unabashedly aim high. Taken as a whole, Bergman used Bjornstrand, Von Sydow, or sometimes Ullman to show us how he, the privileged son of a rather severe minister, was slowly adjusting to 20th Century reality. He was warm-hearted enough to acknowledge, again and again, that the extra stuff in life, the plot fillers, the small mercies we give to strangers, the favors we do out of personal devotion rather than divine duty, aren’t beside the point of our existential journey. They are the point. And the jugglers and clowns are possessed of a wisdom beyond us.

 

In Defense of The Irishman

Before we’re finished talking about the films of 2019, I have to weigh in on The Irishman.  If you read its reviews you’d think it was very well-received, but I’ve heard so many friends casually write it off as a sad rehash of films Martin Scorsese made thirty years ago, I feel like I must speak up.

I saw it more than twice, and I loved it because it is so sad – and I confess that I could have done without the framing device of Frank Sheeran’s nursing home memories. I often feel these devices are superfluous, but in this case the story itself is cutting back and forth from the 1950s, when the eponymous Irishman rises through the mafia, to the 1970s when he carries out his biggest hit. So to show him remembering remembering is just too much, and yet…

At its heart, The Irishman is a simple story. Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran) accepts an assignment from his mentor, mafia boss Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), to become the right hand man of labor leader Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa). On a road trip with Pesci in all his 1970s Italian-American glory, he gets his orders: he’s going to have to kill Pacino. So simple, and so sad, since he’s naturally developed some feelings for Pacino in all the years they shared hotel rooms and time with each other’s families.

I was an enthusiastic fan of Scorsese’s take on superhero movies published this year. It’s ironic that the movie he was releasing while he published it was one of his least cinematic. Slow and talky, and at times underwhelming in its creation of period atmosphere, it didn’t bother me at all that it lacked spectacle, and felt more like a TV series. I particularly liked hearing Pacino as Hoffa doing a superb Midwestern accent.

It also comes up with an ingenious way of putting a female character at the heart of a mafia story. While I’m sympathetic to the post-#metoo constant questioning of the onanistic male-centeredness of movie plots that get wide circulation, holding Scorsese to that standard is a little like holding Titus Andronicus to it. If your heart doesn’t melt watching Pesci break the news to De Niro that he’s going to have to kill his friend, over breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s, no less – of course they’re the first ones awake, and that breakfast table is a space no woman would ever be seated at  – then your political agenda has gotten in the way of your capacity to feel.

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Daughter of a Hitman: Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

In The Irishman, it’s Pacino who’s accessible to women, in particular to De Niro’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina when she’s young and Anna Paquin as an adult. It provides the major emotional arc of the movie. While the gangster Pesci’s ham-handed attempts to win his friend’s daughter’s affection go nowhere – in fact, terrify the girl – Pacino the family man makes it look easy.

So when De Niro finally gets the assignment to kill Pacino, it’s not just a crooked union boss he’s killing, it’s the guy his own daughter worships. Who made her a true believer in the labor movement. And who danced with her at family weddings without being gross about it. At the breakfast table at the Howard Johnson’s, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, but in the wider world we have some standards to uphold, some lines never to cross, and it’s a woman who delivers that message.

Beatrice Loayza  writes in The Guardian: “Within these boundaries, Peggy is disconcertingly diminished: Paquin speaks six words in a movie that clocks in at three-and-a-half hours. There may be a potency to such intentional restraint within the film’s elegiac trappings, yet circumscribing Peggy as Frank’s moral conscience remains doggedly frustrating. Is she more of a symbol than an actual person?”

It’s a fair question! The Irishman was written by Steven Zaillian based on a book by Charles Brandt, and I suppose Zaillian could have written a larger plot about the family into that three-plus hours, and it would have been even better. (Like I say, I could have done without the nursing home entirely; without it, it’s essentially a procedural with flashbacks, both of them damn good.)

As it is, The Irishman is a return to one of Scorses’s favorite themes, about the dead end of masculinity. Like Raging Bull, he creates men who are effective in the wider world, which makes them too brutal for their own homes. Scorsese, at age 77, portrays Sheeran as a sad old man, literally sitting with the choices he made. He may have touched more of us a generation behind him if instead he’d fleshed out the ways Sheeran became repulsive to his family. I suppose we’ll appreciate this film more in 20 to 40 years.

2019: Screenwriting for the Ages

Pleased as I was to see Parasite win so many big ones at the Academy Awards this year, I would have been just as happy, or maybe more so, if either Noah Baumbach or Rian Johnson had won the Best Original Screenplay award.

Thinking about them – and I’ve been thinking about all three a lot lately – you could feel like we’re in a great period for feature film screenwriting.

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Knives Out. A detail that passes for comedy may come back in a very big way.

Three totally different genres, and all three with a very human feel for detail. Parasite, written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, has that super-satisfying walk through the looking glass around its midpoint, when the former housekeeper returns with shocking news.

Also, a few times in Parasite, a little extra attention gets paid to one detail about the rich family’s perception of the poor family it’s suddenly gotten intimate with: they don’t smell good, these unwashed people from the ghetto. It’s played for dark laughs, and in a typical drama, this might lead to a detail that makes the denouement a bit richer, but this is no ordinary drama. It leads to the decisive move in the final act: the father taking the insult to heart, shall we say.

Knives Out, written by Johnson, is a very self-conscious comedy, rich with winks at the audience. A detective story, the cross-cutting between time and scenes in the initial round of interrogations provides characterization about the major players at a breakneck speed. You never doubt for a moment that you’re in good hands with this story-teller.

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Marriage Story. Lulled into a sense that you can see where the story is going,.

Like Parasite, it has turns that upset your understanding of the whole story – again and again. And it also has lots of consequential details hidden as comedy that turn out to be plenty consequential.

I couldn’t get into Brick, Johnson’s breakthrough back in 2006, but have to concede that his dedication to this genre of detective fiction-obsessed detective stories has really paid off. It’s as funny as A Band Apart and as timely as The Third Man probably felt, and it gets all the playfulness of Wes Anderson across without his twee excesses.

Baumbach just keeps getting better too. Friends complained that Marriage Story lacked plot or was too depressing, but I found it very satisfying. I laughed a lot and couldn’t sleep afterward.

It too has a successfully-executed momentous turn in the plot – when it’s clear that the “nice guy” lawyer played by Alan Alda isn’t up to his opponent. (I love that Laura Dern is winning awards for her role, but what a part Baumbach wrote for her.) That Charlie (Adam Driver) is such an underhandedly distant kind of dad throughout the film, then for his attempt to prove his own playful side to go so disastrously at the end, ranks this writing with the best of Woody Allen at the height of his powers from Manhattan to Hannah and Her Sisters.

If I have one complaint about Marriage Story, it’s the score. I know Randy Newman is a songwriter’s songwriter, and, like Tom Waits, it’s heretical to say anything negative about him, but I found his score treacly. So much so, I wondered at times if it were being played for irony, giving a Douglas Sirk kind of middlebrow tone to a film about the clash between the New York theater world and the L.A. TV world. I honestly don’t get it.

Last year was the first time in about thirty years that I lived outside of a metropolitan area that has lots of cinemas, and it’s sinking in how important the Oscar nominations are to so many people, how they determine what you can actually see on a big screen. Sure, I’d have seen more of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees if I were still in the city, but up here the other people who care about cinema are much more likely to have seen the same 10 or so films you did in the past six months, and the awards and awards speculation go a long way toward defining that list, for better or worse.

In any case, a lot of great writing is still happening.

Fishers Don’t Fish

For the first time in decades I spent last night in a university lecture hall, listening to a riveting talk about fishers, a North American member of the weasel family known for their ability to hunt, by Scott LaPoint, a researcher at Black Rock Forest in the Hudson valley.

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The weasel family or mustelidae includes badgers, ferrets, minks, ermines or stoats, sables, wolverines, tayras, and otters. The fisher’s closest relative is the much smaller pine marten. European settlers confused it with the fitch (taxonomy does wonders for your Scrabble game) or European polecat, and that’s where the name fisher comes from.

Fishers don’t fish, though one local stood up during the lively Q&A to say she has seen one raiding her friend’s koi pond.

Fishers are known to hunt animals their own size, hence the first thing most of us learn about them is to watch your outdoor cats and small dogs in rural places where they’ve been seen. They climb trees and are one of the few animals that knows how to hunt porcupine – and this ability to control porcupine populations is a reason they’re often re-introduced.

We hear, but are yet to see, coyotes outside my house, and see a fox every once in a while. A fox runs like a dog, but fishers leap keeping their pairs of legs, front and back, together, like squirrels or rabbits. There is gruesome video on Youtube of a fisher killing a fox that I wish I’d never found.

I was shocked to see how many animals known for their fur still get trapped every year, consistently about 500 bobcats every year in New York state alone – and over 1,000 fishers, though that number swings up and down.

Fishers are thriving in the Northeast woods, but efforts to re-introduce them in northern California are struggling, possibly because California has large cats that hunt them, but largely, it is believed, because illegal pot farmers apparently use lots of rodenticide – a horrible way to die for the rodents and the bigger carnivores that hunt them.