Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two Expansive Movies

One great film I saw recently was Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008), a lyrical documentary about French high wire walker Phillipe Petit, who stunned the world at age 24 with his death-defying walk between the World Trade Center Towers on August 7, 1974. A death-defying film as well, this absorbing movie is unforgettable. Between the back story of the complex plan that went into the stunt, the counter story of Petit's relationship with his girlfriend, Annie, and, most of all, the vertiginous and miraculous images of the walk, this film has instantly become one of my all time favorites. He crossed the wire eight times and even lay down on it. The story is inspiring; it proves that even the craziest dreams are attainable and may indeed result in works of great genius. Though it would seem self-destructive, Petit insists his walks are not reckless ventures and are planned in great detail, a result of years of training. Rather than being depressing (due to extensive footage of The Towers) the film remains light and buoyant, and by not mentioning the Towers destruction or Petit's reaction to that event, becomes a graceful and appropriate memorial.

Petit, who is almost sixty years old now, has survived his many walks on the high wire (including 500 arrests, mostly for street juggling). He lives outside Woodstock, New York, where he has been working on a hand-built performance barn for roughly 15 years, using 18th century tools. He is also the author of the autobiography, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Petit is a friend of Werner Herzog's, which brings me to great film number two: Encounters At The End of the World (2008) by the master himself. The tag line "Off the Map, Things Get Strange," is not suprising to those of us familiar with Herzog's films, which tend to veer off into strange territories (both literally and figuratively). This one is set at the Arctic's McMurdo Research Station, where Herzong interviews everyone from volcanists to plumbers (finding a fair number of offbeat personalities along the way). Herzog's usual pessimism about the world doesn't for a second ruin the supernatural, otherworldly footage of this outpost, which is tempered by his considerate, accented narration and sense of humor. A feast for the eyes and for the brain, this latest foray into unusual territory, Herzog-style, is a mind-expanding journey to the center of nowhere and everywhere.

I am a huge Herzog fan. Born in Munich, shortly before World War II, he shared a house with his friend and nemesis Klaus Kinski (their love-hate relationship is documented in the great movie, My Best Fiend) when he was only 13 and even then was confident he would become a film director. Herzog has worked in a Mexican rodeo and welded steel to finance his movies. His quality of tenacious obsessiveness is evident throughout his best movies, especially Fitzcarraldo, a film that created its own story during the making of that story and featured a lunatic playing a lunatic. (During Fitzcarraldo, he moved a 320-ton steamship over a mountain without using special effects -- see Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the film). Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is another scenic journey into madness, with Klaus Kinski revelling in an outrageous role he may or may not have been acting. My least favorite film (and there are plenty I haven't even seen) was the satiric comedy Incident at Loch Ness, which I found just plain silly, but rather than veering off into art house obscurity, his vision has flowered, resulting in the picturesque The White Diamond, the quirky Grizzly Man (probably his most "mainstream" entree) and now a plumed trip to the innermost workings of the cosmos itself -- expect a royal Mayan ancestor and neutrinos, among other wonders.

In August 2008, Esquire Magazine interviewed Petit and Herzog together ("Werner Herzog Walks the Rope"), which is good for a laugh.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Common Ground Fair 2008

Common Ground Fair, held by The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardiner Association in mid-September, is an annual extravaganza of animals, food, crafts, demos, music and more. Heralded as a celebration of rural living, it features hundreds of vendors and events that range from sheepdog demos to lectures on composting, with everything in between, including "Burma -- A Time for Change," "Raising Goats 101," "International Folk Dance & Baltic Women's Choir," "Cigar Box Guitars" and "Monolithic Heated Slab Foundations." It's huge, it's three days and it's all stunning.

This year, gorgeous weather graced the fair. The only huge drawback was the traffic, which gets worse every year. We got a late start on Saturday and, after a stop for breakfast and to drop our dog off with my sister, arrived at the 3.5-mile road that leads to the fair around 1 p.m. It was a slow crawl along that road -- an hour journey from the intersection to the fair parking lot, which was so crowded we wound up squeezing into a space at the bottom of the south lot, virtually in the campground area. A pleasant stroll through a demo forest led to the fair. The vendors shut down around 6 p.m. so our plan was to leave by 5:30 p.m. to beat the crowd. Of course we dawdled on the way out and reached our car at 6:00 p.m. From there we sat for a solid hour, engine off, waiting for the cars to inch up the hill and out onto the road, about a quarter mile away. At last we began to make creeping progress. In all we wound up spending about an hour and forty-five minutes in the parking lot, because cars in the rapidly emptying parking lots kept cutting into our lane from the rows, which prevented the cars trapped in the bottom parking lot from moving at all. Eventually passengers walked up to cars in the cross rows and stood in front of them to keep them from cutting in, in order to let the trapped cars move out. Some of the drivers were none too friendly or pleased, which didn't exactly make for common ground. The drivers that got stuck included volunteers and a woman with a young baby.

Sadly, a drive that should have taken roughly three hours round-trip took six hours round-trip, with only four hours spent at the fair. Not sure what the solution is -- enforced carpooling? There was a satellite lot you could bike in from, but we had a small car with no bike rack. Just too many people wanting to partake in a great Maine event. Nonetheless, we got to eat some great food, watch sheepdogs in action, visit lots of beautiful animals, hear some amazing music and spend an afternoon in a halcyon gathering with colorful people.

More pictures can be viewed on Flickr.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Shimmering City

Here's some samples of the work I've been doing for my latest project, a book of Portland haiku with illustrations. I started it as part of an excellent class I took recently on illustrating picture books for children and adults.

under the
full August moon
slicing carrots

reflections dance
in the world
below this world

blossoming branch --
exotic monasteries
cling to fragile life

the city’s sparkling
white jewelry disappears
in spring rain

invisible crows
speak from within the
Fairy Tale Kingdom


Update! I called Sparks Arks, where the seagull went for rehabilitation and David Sparks told me he was fine and going to be released soon!

Photo Credit:US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Free Photo Accessed Through Gimp.Savvy

Last week I was involved in an intense seagull rescue. On my way back to work with a cup of coffee, walking downtown, I noticed people staring at something. That something turned out to be a juvenile (you can tell by the gray feathers) seagull that had something caught in its beak and was attempting to fly but going in half circles in the middle of traffic in a busy downtown area. I went into the street, stopped traffic (which resulted in much honking of horns and general road rage) and after several futile attempts (more honking of horns) managed to herd the creature towards the curb. Once there it cowered and I yelled, "Does anyone have a blanket?" A kind woman had a blanket in her car and brought it over. I wrapped the seagull in the blanket as a crowd gathered.

Officer Dan, a bicycle cop, arrived. He dialed up animal control only to find out the person didn't come on duty until noon. Meanwhile the person parked right by the seagull had to leave. I hoisted the seagull up onto the sidewalk. The bird was relatively calm and not struggling very much. A pair of pliers and some wire cutters were procured and I held the seagull and held its beak while a brave man attempted to pull a three-pronged fishing lure hook out of its mouth. It was quite a process and very difficult but he finally did it. After that I got him to bend back the hooks and then someone else used the wire cutters to cut the entire hook structure off, so the bird wouldn't get hooked again. Unfortunately the large fish-shaped lure had a lower hook that was stuck in his side. After some probing we agreed it was best to wait for animal control at that point. It wasn't stuck in deep nor was it bleeding, but it was really stuck. Although the seagull had thrashed a bit during the hook removal from its beak, overall it was amazingly subdued. One bystander thought it had been hit by a car, but when I was herding it I noticed both wings were out and looked functional and it didn't seem to have any major problems other than the hooks.

After we removed the hook, it's bill began to bleed a bit and another bystander said it would choke on its blood and die, but the bleeding didn't seem heavy. I asked if anyone could find a box and someone found a nice large box with flaps, so I lowered the seagull-in-a-blanket into the box and moved him near some storefronts away from the street. Eventually everyone wandered off except for an art student and I. We kept vigil while we waiting for Animal Control. The beak stopped bleeding and the seagull seemed alert and responsive and fairly calm. A couple of times he started to move around and then we talked to him and held the flaps in place. Most of the time, though, he just sat in the box without us having to hold him in there and after awhile he settled down into it like it was a nest. Beth, the student, and I sang songs to him and talked to him. We named him "Icarus." It was very hot and I figured he was thirsty and hungry but didn't dare give him anything to eat or drink in case it wasn't the right thing to do. Finally, after an hour, the Animal Control woman arrived and put him in her van. She was going to drive him to a wildlife rehabilitation center in the country, run by a couple who rehabilitate animals and provide educational workshops to local schools. She told me they had a whole pen full of one-winged seagulls. This one seemed like it had a better chance.

Usually I agree it is best to let nature take its course, particularly with regard to baby wild animals, which will usually die without constant expert care, or may be waiting for their mother to retrieve them. In this case, though, it seemed possible to save its life and spontaneous action led to its (hopeful) survival. Of course, many people will scoff at the idea of saving a seagull or a pigeon, but even these creatures have brains and nerves and living, beating hearts. These cases can often pose ethical dilemmas. If it had indeed been hit by a car the best thing to do probably would have been to just let it get run over by another car, putting a swift end to its misery. Even so, if it had died after we rescued it, at least it would have died more naturally, in a warm place without a fishing lure stuck in its beak.

In any case, hopefully Icarus will survive and be able to fly the ocean skies once again.

One thing I couldn't figure out was how it wound up downtown in the street with a fishing lure in its mouth. A friend of mine and I came up with the theory that it probably had the hook stuck in its beak and was flying away from the waterfront, when, near the downtown area, the second hook became stuck in its side, making it impossible for the bird to navigate or fly.

One lucky bird. One very long coffee break.

Photo Credit:US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Free Photo Accessed Through Gimp.Savvy