Travel

The 46th Annual Telluride Film Festival, August 30-September 2, 2019

Our personal 24th Festival began early on Friday as we walked from our condominium to the gondola for our first film at the Chuck Jones cinema up in Mountain Village. Crossing the San Miguel River, we are once again struck by Telluride’s beauty.

In the past few years the Festival has begun late on Friday morning with a showing of an especially long documentary film that fills the day until the evening’s Colorado Avenue “feed” and the first major film screenings. Last year it was WATERGATE. This year featured WOMEN MAKE FILM, a 273-minute documentary directed by Mark Cousins that visits the work of more than 180 women filmmakers from the era of the Lumières to today. Among those included are Chantal Akerman, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Kira Muratova, Malvina Ursianu, Moufida Tlatli and Maria Plyta. As an organizing principle, Cousins chose an introduction to film techniques such as framing, tracking, editing, close-ups and many more. Although the informative clips and wonderful voice over by Tilda Swinton fascinated me, I soon felt a bit overwhelmed. More troubling, the introduction to film techniques eclipsed any reference as to whether or why the films we were seeing were in any way women’s films. Perhaps these questions are answered in the second half, but exhausted from travel and information overload, we left halfway through at intermission. I hope we can some day view the rest online.

RON’S GRADE: WITHHELD, PENDING.

The highlight of the day was an evening tribute to Renée Zellweger starting with clips of her films from BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY to JERRY MAGUIRE and CHICAGO, and moving on to an interview for which, as you can see, we had front row seats:

A premier screening of Zellweger’s latest film, JUDY, followed the interview. Directed by Robert Goold, JUDY is a moving portrait of the great screen actress Judy Garland, in the last years of her short life (she died at age 47). The Dorothy of Oz has become an inebriated and aging chanteuse seeking to carve out a living as a performer in London where she is still fondly remembered. But if the storyline of this biopic is familiar, Zellweger’s stunning performance is anything but. Movements of her eyes and lips not only convey the inner torment resulting from Garland’s harsh studio upbringing as a teen, but also the generosity of spirit that she learned from it. It’s no coincidence that late in her life Garland became a favorite of gay culture. Was this because gay men—represented in the film by two adoring gay partners and fans—identified with Garland’s suffering and her struggle to overcome it through her music? Look for an Oscar nomination for Zellweger.

RON’S GRADE: A-

SATURDAY, AUGUST 31

FORD v FERRARI

It’s the mid-1960 and the Ford Motor Company is hemorrhaging market share. Henry Ford II (well played by Tracy Letts) demands new ideas. Marketeer Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests turning the company’s staid image toward performance by mounting a racing team that can capture Ferrari’s years long ownership of first place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as respectively car designer and driver whose challenges include not just Enzo Ferrari’s skilled racers and a grueling endurance circuit, but also Ford’s corporate executives. Unused to the fast, innovative pace of Formula One racing, the Ford “suits” obstruct the new, independent Ford team right down to the finish line. James Mangold’s direction is crisp. The racing scenes are outstanding, exceeded only by Lett’s, Damon’s, and Bale’s performances. Look for a trunk load of Oscar nominations here.

RON’S GRADE: A

PAIN AND GLORY

Salvador Mallo (wonderfully played by Antonio Banderas) is an aging film director whose bodily pains and worries have forced him into retirement. A brief reunion with the star of Mallo’s landmark first film introduces the director to heroin, and we prepare for a slow if cinematically familiar descent into degradation. But 69-year-old director Pedro Almodóvar has deeper explorations in mind, as we watch Mallo rediscover a youthful gay relationship and also recall his first experience of sexual desire. At one point in the film, a character (is it Mallo’s mother played beautifully by Penelope Cruz?) says, “I hate auto-fiction.” But PAIN AND GLORY is autobiographical in the best sense, knowledgeably depicting the struggles and emotions of advancing age. Don’t miss the camera boom near the end.

RON’S GRADE: A

A HIDDEN LIFE

“Time moves slowly when you live it under stress,” says Franz Jäggerstätte the Austrian farmer whose real life encounter with Nazi persecution is portrayed in Terrence Malick’s magnificent new film. Malick himself seems to take this approach to time seriously, slowly following Jäggärstätte’s story over almost three hours. But the time is well spent, offering intimate glimpses into the familial and common life of a small community deep in the Austrian Alps during the period from the Anschluss to the middle of World War II. It’s a hard life. The film begins with scenes of the farmers and their wives arduously scything grain. Jäggerstätte’s wife (Valerie Pachner) scrapes potatoes from the earth with her fingernails. But the beauty of this bucolic setting renders it a paradise of sorts until Jäggerstätte is called up for service in Hitler’s army for which he must swear an oath of allegiance to the Führer, a leader whom the devoutly Catholic Jäggerstätte rightly believes incarnates evil. Thus begins Jäggerstätte’s predictable journey to the guillotine. His quiet stoicism and religious commitment are superbly conveyed by August Diehl. The family, including, his three young daughters, are reviled as traitors to their nation and race. In police or judicial hearings, Jäggerstätte is repeatedly told that his gesture is futile, that it will accomplish nothing, and that it will only bring harm to his loved ones. As we watch his wife and sister struggle to survive in his absence, we see how true this is.

A kiss from a fellow prisoner near the film’s end tells us that this is more than a story about one courageous resistant. It is the Gospel narrative in which Jäggerstätte and his family live out the biblical scenes painted on the walls and ceiling of the town’s simple chapel—scenes often viewed but misunderstood by their neighbors.

RON’S GRADE: A

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

We rose early today to get seats in the sure-to-be-crowded special tribute to Adam Driver. At the base of the gondola I ran into the morning’s star.

When I texted this picture to my family, my daughter-in-law, Melissa, quickly texted back: “Your grandson, Harrison, would be so jealous. His granddad got to meet Kylo Ren.”

The tribute included clips from several of Driver’s best performances—including STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (where Driver appears as Kylo Ren), PATERSON, and BLACKkKLANSMAN.

A screening of Driver’s latest film, THE REPORT, followed. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA embarked on a program of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques amounting to the outright application of torture to terrorist captives. Director Scott Z. Burns’s riveting drama follows Senate investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he tries to wrest information from the secretive and self-protective agency. His sole supporter is Senator Diane Feinstein (beautifully played more like DiFi than DiFi herself by Annette Bening), and even she wavers as political pressures mount to bury the whole ugly mess. Driver’s lucid descriptions of his horrific findings (recreated in vivid flashbacks) guide us through the investigation’s complexities. His eyes and facial gestures convey the depth of his commitment to uncovering the truth about one of the worst episodes in US history. THE REPORT offers ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN up to a new generation of viewers. Its depiction of leadership-directed lies and cover-ups makes it relevant to today’s political environment.

RON’S GRADE: A

LYREBIRD

World War II has just ended and the streets of Amsterdam, littered with debris, are swarming with mobs bent on executing collaborators. A crate is found in a freight car in a railway tunnel. It contains a priceless Vermeer destined for its buyer, Hermann Göring. Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Dutch Jew and resistance fighter now working for the Allied occupation authority sets out to find which collaborators have assisted the Nazis in looting the nation’s treasures. He soon arrests Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), a witty, debonair aesthete and failed painter. We follow the twists and turns as van Meegeren amply demonstrates and then evades his guilt. Director Dan Friedkin’s beautifully filmed recreation of a true story sometimes loses us in its many plot turns. Not until the end do we understand who or what van Meegeren was and in what ways he represents Holland’s own moral doubts about its response to occupation.

RON’S GRADE: B+

BEANPOLE

Over a million citizens of Leningrad froze or starved to death during the Nazi siege of the city. Director Kantemir Balagov’s second feature (after TESNOTA) takes us to the city in the fall of 1945, just months after the end of the war. Nurse Iya (Ksenia Kuteova), the tall blond beanpole of the title, and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), an orderly, are both injured veterans whose work with badly wounded soldiers provides further evidence of the terrible toll the war has taken. Together, the two explore sex, love, and procreation in failed efforts to raise life from death. The sets are wonderful, but at times it seems we have detoured from a fascinating historical recreation into a soap opera. I wish that the young, 28-year old director had paid more attention to the real stories of those who lived through this unique historical tragedy.

RON’S GRADE: B

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

PARASITE

Writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s clever but heartless Cannes Palme d’Or winner, imaginatively portrays the consequences of drastic income inequality both in South Korea and the world today. The slum dwelling and apparently work-shy Kim family survive by snatching Wi-Fi signals from neighbors until a tutoring opportunity with a rich family opens up for their college-reject son. The Park’s drip wealth and live in a stunning, architect-designed home that constitutes the film’s main set. Soon the Kim’s daughter signs on as an “art therapist” for the Parks’ doted-upon young son. When she cleverly ousts the chauffeur, the Kim family patriarch (well played by Song Kang-ho) gets the job. Mom is last to enlist—as a replacement housekeeper. The Parks remain oblivious as this whole grifter family is installed beneath them like the stinkbugs in the Kims’ slum. However, this humorous and somewhat preposterous beginning soon reveals a darker side, one that replaces our anxieties about the family’s inevitable discovery with horror. Overall, the emotions and relationships in the film seem contrived to move forward a clever narrative and a sharp criticism of the class divide.

RON’S GRADE: B+

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

It’s the late 1700s and a young artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on the tormented coast of Brittany to secretly paint a portrait of Héloïse so that a prospective husband back in Milan can decide whether he wants to marry her. Héloïse is clearly not keen on the union, but her mother, the owner of their faded chateau, imposes it on her in the realization that there are no economic alternatives. Marianne, in contrast, lives by her fees and knows that the portrait must be good. What starts as a painter’s professional regard soon turns to mutual passion. Like Eurydice’s husband Orpheus, Marianne finally realizes that a glance backward to her beloved in the form of the completed painting also seals the death of their relationship. In an era of Marvel movies, writer-director Céline Sciamma’s wonderful period drama reminds us that the French can still make great films about human beings, gay or straight.

RON’S GRADE: A

TWO POPES

It is 2012 and Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina (Jonathan Pryce) visits Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) at the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gondolfo. Bergoglio, distressed by the conservatism of the Church, carries a letter of resignation, but the elderly pontiff, fearful that the letter will be taken as a protest against his scandal-ridden papacy, won’t accept it. However, what begins as a tense encounter between utterly opposing personalities becomes a deep personal relationship as the two men continue a series of conversation over the next few years until Benedict retires and Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis. Although Benedict can’t accept Bergoglio’s liberal vision of the Church, he comes to perceive in the Cardinal the integrity his successor must have. We watch as the two men are brought together by their mutual love for the Church and their acknowledgment of their own and others frailty and flaws. Director Fernando Meirelles (CITY OF GOD), writer Anthony McCarten (DARKEST HOUR) and Pryce and Hopkins have given us a masterful film with an important lesson for today: that individuals of sharply different ideologies can come together when there is communication, affection, and humility.

P.S. Watch the candle smoke at the very end.

RON’S GRADE: A+

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:

The 46th Telluride Festival was one of the best we’ve experienced in our 24 years of attendance. My award of so many A’s reflects not grade inflation but the overwhelming quality of the US and foreign films we viewed. One down note was the crowding. In the past we allowed an hour’s wait before any film, but this year two hours were needed to assure a seat in even the largest venues. Why was this so? Was it because more passes were issued than ever? The answer remains a mystery. Despite this problem, the films made it all worthwhile. We’ll be back next year—toting fold-up seats and our iPhones and Kindles.

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PARIS REVISITÉ—REVISITING PARIS, MAY 10-20, 2019

Mary Jean, I, and my sister Roberta pause during a stroll on the Champs-Élysées.

Paris is an addiction. Once in your system, it’s hard to get it out.

Over many research trips and Dartmouth overseas language programs led by my wife, Mary Jean, we have collectively spent more than a year of our lives living in Paris. But it’s five years since our last visit, and the yearning to revisit was becoming irresistible.

We also wished to show Europe to my sister Roberta. Bunny, as everyone calls her, lost her husband Matthew Lawrence almost two years ago. Matt served as a combat engineer in World War II, was captured in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, and spent the last months of the war as a POW in a German Stalag. Matt’s experiences of near starvation led him to vow never to return to Europe, so during their long marriage, Bunny never traveled there. To remedy this, we committed to taking her on an annual trip. Last year it was Madrid and Spain. This year, Paris beckoned.

If many elements of this post are familiar, that is because our goal was to revisit and share with Bunny some of our favorite sites.

GETTING SETTLED; FIRST WALKS

An overnight flight called for a quiet first day familiarizing us with the neighborhood. Our Airbnb apartment was on the broad but largely residential Rue Gay-Lussac. Here’s a view toward our apartment.

Our street is appropriately named. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778-1850) was a physicist-chemist mostly known for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Rue Gay-Lussac forms the western border of a major scientific and intellectual district that includes the École Nationale Supérieure de Chimie, the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, and the home once occupied by Marie Curie, now a museum honoring the three-time Nobelist. During our stroll, we encountered this sketch of Madam Curie on a building wall:

I was especially pleased to find just behind our apartment the École Normale Supérieure.

Nominally a teacher’s college, the École has served over the years as the training ground for many of France’s leading intellectuals. Both Jean Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir attended, with Sartre receiving first place in his teaching degree agrégation exam and de Beauvoir receiving second place. Curie, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. The neighborhood resonates to their presence.

At its northern end, Gay-Lussac points to the entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris’s diminutive but beautifully manicured Central Park. During our many stays in Paris, I always looked forward to visits to the Jardin’s basin, where you can rent and launch small sailboats. Though the cool weather made me less inclined to join the fun, I enjoyed watching children scamper from edge to edge as their boats traversed the pond.

Touristically-oriented activities continued on the next full day. After a morning at the Musée Maillol (see below) we boarded a bateau-mouche near the Eiffel Tower and cruised the Seine up to Notre Dame and back. Here are Mary Jean and Bunny enjoying this quintessence of Parisian tourism.

Here’s a glimpse from the boat of the famous Tower, whose blocklong lines and heights we chose to forego:

The most poignant moment on the cruise was our passage around Notre Dame. Several days later on, when we tried to walk past the cathedral, we found our way blocked by police cordons, so this river view was about as close as one can get to the fire-ravaged structure. The front looks relatively undamaged, though the fire may have either melted the front rose window or caused its panes to be removed protectively:

Here’s a side view. You can discern a pale blue tarpaulin that has been spread over the burned out roof. The scaffold for previous repair work, where the fire may have started, is still in place.

This fire was a great tragedy. Hopefully, the five-year recovery announced by President Macron will result in a stronger cathedral.

Several days later we bypassed the Îsle de la Cité, on which Notre Dame stands, and crossed the river further up at the Îsle Saint-Louis. Our destination was the Marais district, where we had spent three months many years ago when Mary Jean was doing research in the old Bibliothèque Nationale. Our daughter Julie attended a local primary school, and I helped out by taking responsibility for our two-year-old son, Matthew. Each afternoon, weather permitting, I would take Matt across the river to a small playground that has now become an elegant riverside park, the Quai Saint Bernard. Matthew tells me that walking on the top of a low wall of logs in the playground is one of his first memories. Here’s a glimpse across the bridge to the Quai:

The Marais was once a major Jewish quarter of the city.  Most Jews were deported during the war, and it later became a location for gay life. When we lived there, it was still pretty dilapidated, but all that has changed as gentrification has seized the quarter. Our residence was a small fifth floor walkup on the Quai de Célestins in a building facing the river. I’ll never forget reading a passage from a Tale of Two Cities to our daughter Julie. As I was describing the dim stairway leading up to Dr. Manette’s small eighteenth century garret, Julie remarked, “That sounds just like our apartment.”

How things change. Here’s our old building now. You can see the handsome renovation:

A thin Jewish presence persists in the Marais, and the Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust museum) is located here. En route to the museum, we passed a Jewish bakery:

The museum itself was unimpressive. On the wall of the names of the 76,000 French Jews who were deported and murdered by the Nazis, we hoped to see the family name of a surviving French friend, but that part of the museum was closed for repairs. A room containing files of cards (fichiers) used by the French police to identify and round up Jews was chilling:

Named on the cards are the several camps to which Jews were shipped before their final deportation to Auschwitz.

ART IN PARIS

Not all our museum visits were so lugubrious. Quite the contrary, since this visit was a return to our Paris favorites and an introduction to my sister to some of the city’s treasures, we had several art collections on our must-see list. Below, I offer some of my photos. I took these because crowds and lighting often deprived us of the opportunity to study the paintings. Thanks to the current museum permissions for picture taking (without flash), you can see your favorites later, and share them with others.

This began for me with the Musée Maillol, a jewel box of museum at which I have previously seen several outstanding exhibitions. This visit didn’t disappoint. As you can see from the online website, the current exhibition features the private collection of Emil Bührle on loan from the Zürich Kunsthaus:

Bührlewas a wealthy German-born Swiss industrialist. From 1936-1956 he gathered an impressive array of 600 pre-impressionist, impressionist, and post-impressionist works. Fifty of these are in the exhibit.

Here are just a few of the highlights of the exhibition.

Alfred Sisley, “Chalands à Saint-Mammès” (“Barges at Saint-Mammès”) (1885):

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Portrait de Mademoiselle Irène Cahen d’Anvers” (“La Petite Irène”):

Raoul Dufy, “La Fête Foraine” (“The Fun Fair.” 1906):

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Messaline” (1900-01). Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by the underworld of Paris, its nightspots and brothels. This canvas depicts the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius and suggests the intensity of her lust and debauchery:

Van Gogh, “Le Semeur, Soleil Couchant” (“The Sower, Setting Sun”), 1888. This is the signature painting for the entire exhibition.

Our next museum to visit was the Louvre. I’m convinced that a large portion of hell models this museum with its thronging masses of selfie-taking visitors. So why would we put it on our list? Bunny, of course, had to see the Mona Lisa (“La Joconde”). How can you fail to do so on a visit to Paris? And for Mary Jean and me, it’s probably been forty years. Time for a revisit.

But it was even worse than we imagined. Milling crowds and poor signage made seeing anything on our short list difficult. Nevertheless, we persisted. Here I am taking my own selfie before the Mona Lisa. What this photo does not show are the hundreds of iPhone bearing tourists in front of me pressing forward against security guards and trying to do what I finally managed to do.

Here’s a hard won image of La Joconde herself:

[Parenthetically, as I wrote this, Mary Jean brought to my attention this article in today’s local paper. So my impression of the intolerable conditions in the Louvre, and especially around the Mona Lisa, was even more accurate than I thought.]

Other renowned Louvre paintings were somewhat less besieged. Here is Géricault’s stirring “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19), an icon of French Romanticism that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse:

And here is Delacroix’s “La Liberté Guiding the People” (1831).

Finally, Delacroix’s erotic orientalist fantasy, “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1834):

The last museum on our list was the far less crowded and beautifully arranged Musée d’Orsay. The architectural genius of this museum, housed in the shell of the old Orsay railway station, is itself a reason to visit.  Here’s the lovely main gallery:

Here’s the impressive station clock:

The museum’s collection of impressionist paintings far exceeds the Maillol exhibition’s. I had especially hoped to see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but learned that it was away, on loan to New York. Nevertheless, much remained.

Here is Renoir’s beautiful “Dance at the Moulin de la Galette” (1876). It epitomizes Renoir’s celebration of the joys of life in fin de siècle Paris:

From almost the same date, Edward Degas’ “Répétition d’un Ballet sur la Scene” (1874):

And a stunning Van Gogh self-portrait (1889):

At the end of a tiring morning of museum going, while my sister had her hair done, Mary Jean and I stopped for a drink in a local café:

CHENONCEAU

To balance this busy schedule of urban sites, our plans included one day out of Paris to revisit the Loire Valley where we had spent altogether perhaps another year of our lives on foreign study programs based in the small city of Blois. Our principal destination was a site that I confess to be my favorite place in the whole world: the Château of Chenonceau. Once the possession of Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), the mistress of King Henri II, and subsequently of Henri’s wife, Catherine de Medici (1510-1589), Chenonceau was acquired in 1913 by the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, who own it to this day. And thankfully so, for unlike so many government owned monuments, Chenonceau is exquisitely furnished and maintained.

Even the entrance charms. This poster says, “Attention, Dogs. I am a guard cat.” How can you not love that?

Walking the long, tree lined entryway is always a delight:

Here is the chateau in all its splendor spanning the River Cher:

Inside is the gallery over the river that was added by Catherine to an arched bridge commissioned by Diane. During the First World War this gallery, once the site of elegant balls, was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers.

The same gallery seen from a side window:

The interiors have been lovingly restored. Here, a beautiful fireplace with the salamander insignia of King Francis I.

An Aubuchon tapestry, whose vibrant greens have aged into blue:

In the kitchen located below in the spaces between bridge arches, a striking display of copper cookware:

Across from the chateau, the manicured gardens designed by Diane de Poitier:

And always, the gentle River Cher:

Following our visit to the chateau, we had lunch at the Auberge du Bon Laboureur in Chenonceau village. More on this in our next section, DINING. After driving back in the direction of Paris through the beautiful spring countryside of the Loire, we made a brief stop at another magnificent site, the royal chateau of Chambord. Fatigued from much driving, walking, and good food, we then returned to Paris but not before asking another tourist to snap our picture:

DINING:

I am of the opinion that French cuisine, when it is good, is the best in the world. Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other national cuisines can be excellent, and I have enjoyed each of them in their respective nations, but no other cuisine approximates the French at their best. Indeed, one of Mary Jean’s and my ambitions for future travel is to buy the latest Guide Michelin and then spend a week or two using it to select our driving destinations from one Michelin one-star restaurant or hotel to the next.

Chenonceau offered an example. The Auberge du Bon Laboureur exemplified the attentive preparations and presentation of restaurants awarded one star. (With two or three stars, service and presentation ascend, but I’m not convinced that the food is proportionately better.) Here are a few shots of our €33 menu luncheon:

A lamb dish:

A sorbet desert:

The remains of an already nibbled chocolate tart:

Paris, of course, has endless culinary attractions. One of our favorite places is L’Escargot Montorgueil, an almost two hundred year old restaurant whose specialty is escargot (snails) in all sorts of sauces. A national holiday on the Rue Montorgueil is the subject of a famous 1878 impressionist painting by Claude Monet. You can find it here: https://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com/2012/08/claude-monet-1840-1926-french-painter.html

Here’s this restaurant today:

And here an appetizer of their namesake food:

We took advantage of our visit to meet up with old friends. On our first night, we dined with Lynn Higgins, Mary Jean’s French Department colleague who was leading the spring Paris program. A few days later, we dined at the Les Papilles Bistro. I think “papilles” are taste buds, and if so, the name is well chosen. The restaurant has no menu. Everyone is served the same appetizer and main dish based on the freshest market fare. Our carrot velouté starter and lamb stew main dish were both memorable.

We invited my old friend Franck Daniel to join us for lunch. I got to know Franck many years ago when he responded to an ad I had placed on the bulletin board at Reed Hall, Dartmouth’s program center, seeking a conversation partner. Franck and I then spent many late afternoons alternating between French and English and discussing politics in both nations. We’ve seen each other several times over the years, but it was a pleasure catching up with him again in this setting over a fine French meal and gathering an informed citizen’s view of current French politics. Here we are à table.

PARIS FAREWELL

Ten days permitted us to revisit some of our favorite Paris and Loire Valley sites. For the moment, our French yearning was calmed, though we know with certainty that it will return in just a short while, perhaps when that Michelin Guide idea resurfaces.

I want to conclude with a relatively ordinary image of people using their smartphones while waiting at a bus stop near our apartment.

This image captures many of my impressions of Paris on this visit.  Above all, it is a city made for people. Restaurants and cafés abound and are populated. Public transport is excellent, including the endless stream of comfortable buses that visit this stop. Above all, I was struck by the quality of the city’s diverse population. From our many Tunisian- or Mauritanian-born Uber drivers to shopkeepers and museum staffers, people were alert, friendly, and helpful. The myth of hostile Parisians is just that, a myth—at least if you speak French. I personally believe that the French social system, especially guaranteed healthcare and retirement, contributes to the quality and self-assurance of the population.

I’m not overlooking the evident problems. The yellow vests (gilets jaunes) still close down the Champs-Elysées every Saturday. On a weekday, their chaotic demonstrations impeded our access to Boulevard Montparnasse. Integrating the inhabitants of the banlieues (suburbs) remains a major challenge. On our day of departure, taxi drivers staged a major slowdown on the main highway to Charles de Gaulle airport in an effort to block legislation that would give Uber drivers access to privileged taxi and bus driving lanes. The French have a keen sense of social justice that sometimes causes turmoil, and in one historic case that has never been ignored by political leaders, led to public beheadings.

But the exercise of that sense of justice helps makes France livable for the great majority of its citizens. If Paris works it is because its citizens are alert and care.  We can learn from them.

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The 45th Annual Telluride Film Festival

The 45th annual Telluride Film Festival (our personal 23rd) began for us under cloudy skies and on a less-than-ideal note. A few days into March have been our accustomed time for buying our Festival passes. But on visiting the website I learned to my dismay that all these passes had sold out on the first day of sales (March 1). Thus began a five months-long residence on a wait list, which we were only able leave on receiving the offer of three CINEPHILE passes. These half-price ($390) passes largely confine one’s entry to a list of world cinema and retrospective offerings and limit access to many of the Oscar-bound films that have recently come to define the Festival. Since we love classic, world cinema, and documentaries, and we can wait until the Oscar contenders arrive at the Cineplex later in the year, this seemed a satisfactory solution to our problem.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 31

Unfortunately, our Festival’s start was marred by our limited passes. We were shut out from the Festival’s customary opening tribute event, this year to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. In its place, we chose GREAT EXPECTATIONS, a triad of shorter films by promising student filmmakers. The first, CE MAGNIFIQUE GÂTEAU!, is an imaginative if sometimes perplexing animated film offering different takes on Belgium’s terrible history of African colonization. The second was a very brief (six minute) short, DARK CAMERA that begins as a camera obscura view of a roadside scene but turns into something even darker. The third film, BRAGUINO, follows dwellers in a small community in remote Siberia who find themselves in bitter conflict with a neighboring group. Although the ethnographic interest of the film as a glimpse into our own more primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle was high, the film was repetitive. One scene—a close up struggle involving the baiting, shooting, and butchering of a colossal bear—is the stuff of continuing nightmares. Tired from the drive up, we left before this final film ran its 50 minutes length. RON’S GRADES FOR THE THREE: B+, B+, B-

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

Unfortunately, our bad start continued into the next morning with the premier screening of Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Welles began the film 48 years ago but died in 1985 leaving its completion to Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe McBride, and others. Bogdanovich also stars in the film, which centers on the seventieth birthday party of an idolized but fading director, probably representing Welles himself, as played by John Huston. The ethos seems to be late 60s, with women in the film (and the film within the film) presented through Hugh Hefner-like lenses. The jumpy, handheld cinematography, poor lighting, and utterly confusing narrative make it hard to discern the film’s point, beyond its aging star’s own alcohol-fueled despair. In this viewer’s opinion, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND was best left unfinished. RON’S GRADE: C

Mary Jean, my sister Roberta, who was accompanying us, and I were in near despair ourselves, when our luck (and the day’s rainy weather) changed. In keeping with our passes’ focus, our next film was a riveting documentary, MEETING GORBACHEV, directed by Werner Herzog and André Singers, with Herzog serving as an informed and penetrating interviewer of the Russian premier, now 87 and battling illness. Archival footage takes us back to the terrible days of the cold war when Russia was led by a succession of geriatric ideologues and nuclear warheads were poised to obliterate the human race. Into this world, steps Gorbachev as a deeply human being, whose arms reduction efforts make the world at least momentarily much safer and whose failed reformist domestic policies provide a glimpse of what Putin’s kleptocratic Russia might have been. Gorbachev is shown during a visit to his childhood home, where he warmly embraces an aged aunt and, while walking in the garden, turns to reach out to a wandering cat. MEETING GORBACHEV is the story of our lives and also the surprising portrait of a decent man. RON’S GRADE: A

One excellent documentary was followed by another. REVERSING ROE, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, takes us from the pre-Roe v. Wade days of coat hanger abortions to the imminent reversal of Roe as a result of Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. What is most remarkable about this film is its ability to maintain balance while also signaling the importance of women’s reproductive autonomy. Pro-life protesters and politicians are respectfully allowed to voice their concerns about abortion but we also follow a courageous Midwestern abortion provider, a women physician, who must travel greater distances as more and more clinics are shut down by imposed restrictions having nothing to do with women’s health. The camera is also present as Texas state senator Wendy Davis undertakes a physically grueling, hours-long filibuster to halt passage of a harshly repressive bill that would close most Texas abortion clinics. The halt Davis achieved was only temporary, and the law that ultimately passed is a harbinger of what may lie ahead for over thirty states if the new Supreme Court upholds other enactments like it. The film was followed by a moderated discussion with Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, producer Eva Longoria, and Senator Davis.

Although there is much to worry about at the present moment, the response of the hundreds of young people in the audience, a majority of them women, to the panel’s remarks offers hope that the national commitment to women’s reproductive autonomy that Roe established will not be lost. REVERSING ROE will be available in mid-September on NETFLIX. Not to be missed. RON’S GRADE: A

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

Our good luck and documentary focus continued with this morning’s showing of BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ. Although Edison, the Lumières, and Méliès are often credited as the creators of cinema, their efforts were largely pictorial. It was Alice Guy-Blaché, who began her career as a secretary at Gaumont (then a camera distributor), that introduced narrative and story-telling to the movies, producing and directing hundreds of films, first at Gaumont and later at her own New Jersey-based Solax company. Many of these works, filmed on perishable nitrate, are lost, and Alice’s career has been almost entirely erased from male-authored film histories, with her own most creative works often wrongly attributed to male filmmakers or male subordinates. Documentary, filmmaker Pamela B. Green spent almost two-decades tracking down Guy-Blaché’s life and movies. BE NATURAL not only traces Guy-Blaché’s accomplisments, but also presents Green’s research in the form of a detective story, putting clues together that recover this almost lost pioneer of cinema. RON’S GRADE: A

Midday offered our first fictional movie, although one consistent with the world-cinema theme of our pass. Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (Oscar winner for IDA), COLD WAR traces the intimate side of the years whose outer passage MEETING GORBACHEV presents. It is 1949 and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a talented musician, is tasked with forming a dance company to celebrate Polish rural culture. In the course of recruiting he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a lovely young singer and dancer. For both, it is love at first sight. When the troupe, with its growing success is asked to add homages to Stalin to its repertoire, Wiktor has had enough and during their performances in Berlin he arranges his and Zula’s rendezvous to defect. But Zula is a no-show, and Wiktor leaves without her, embarking on a modestly successful career as a jazz musician in Paris. In a much later meeting when the troupe comes to Paris, Zula explains why she missed their rendezvous: “I was not good enough.” Zula realized that she could only star as one member of a company, a socialist talent, while Wiktor could survive artistically in the individualism of the West. Despite the real and legal walls that separate them and the existence of other relationships, Wiktor and Zula’s continue to harbor a burning love for one another, and this leads them to tragic decisions. As in IDA, Pawlikowsksi uses brilliant black and white cinematography to etch a post-war world as chilling as its politics. I predict that COLD WAR will receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. RON’s GRADE: A

Over the years, I have come to believe that the French love three things: Intellectual debate, good food, and marital infidelity. NON FICTION, the latest work by Olivier Assayas (CARLOS, IRMA VEP), our final film of the day, both celebrates and subverts all three of these French favorites. Publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet), is in a funk: his industry is being assaulted by competition from digitized works, including such horrors as books that are nothing more than a collection of tweets. His marriage is not in much better shape. Both he and wife Selena (wonderfully played by Juliette Binoche) are engaged in complicated affairs, and Serena, too, suffers career blues, playing a cop in a second-rate TV policier, although she insists, “I am not a cop. I’m a crisis manager.” Enter Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a moderately successful novelist that Alain has published over the years, but whose latest novel, a thinly disguised work of “auto-fiction,” Alain has painfully decided to turn down. Léonard’s characters’ real identities are apparently obvious to everyone, except perhaps Alain. The only character not involved in an extra-marital affair is Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), Leonard’s wife, but her job as chief-of-staff for a socialist politician is as insecure as her boss’s future in a rapidly changing political environment. Amidst all this change and threatened loss, the characters debate and debate. Do E-books make sense? Is texting “literature”? Does the Socialist Party any longer appeal to millennials? And on and on and on. If this sounds dull, it’s definitely not. NON FICTION depicts a group of intelligent people living and thinking their way through—and even surmounting—some of the changes that affect us all. The food, too, has changed, as the standard elegant dinners that epitomize so many French films are replaced by self-served takeout that’s more convenient for the working women. NON FICTION is a delightful visit with France’s intellectual middle-class at its best. RON’S GRADE A

Following the showing, Olivier Assayas (right) took questions.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

The last day of this year’s festival began with our fourth and final documentary, ELDORADO by Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof. Beginning in the trackless wastes of the Mediterranean, with the bodies of refugees bobbing in the water, ELDORADO follows the efforts of thousands of these people to reach the “golden land” of Northern Europe. We’re awed by the humanitarian performance of the Italian navy, rescuing desperate people from the sea or from small boats, and treating them with respect. But this respect does not continue: because of stringent European regulations most end up being imprisoned in camps for months on end before being deported back to their country of origin, or, worse, before falling into the hands of Mafia capos that exploit their labor. Throughout, ELDORADO interleaves this modern tragedy with the story of a young Italian girl, Giovanna, who was taken in by director Imhoff’s family during the Second World War after her Italian city was bombed. The Swiss response to war refugees like Giovanna contrasts brutally with the treatment of their modern counterparts. True, most of these are economic immigrants who fail to qualify as refugees from persecution. But the film points out that many Swiss also had to leave their country for the United States during the nineteenth century to escape rural poverty and famine. ELDORADO is thus a moving call to rethink our immigration policies globally. RON’S GRADE A

The next film on our list was SHOPLIFTERS, director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s well-received-in-Japan depiction of a family of petty thieves who exploit their children by using them to steal. When we received Q’s (line positions) numbering 115-117 for the 230 seat Sheridan Opera House, our long wait in the rain seemed worthwhile. But at the last moment over 150 Patrons (bearing $4,900 passes) and other privileged Festival donors showed up, and we and many other Q-holder were sent packing. This was a Festival low-point which, with the bad weather, stirred thoughts of whether this might be our last Festival.

But a break with several glasses of wine and our eventual admission to the last film of the day at the Nugget Theater dramatically shifted our mood. THE WHITE CROW, directed by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays a supporting role as a Kirov Ballet mentor speaking wonderfully expressive Russian) moves back and forth in time as it recounts the life of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev from his birth on a train in 1938, through his years of training that lead to his role as a principal dancer in the Kirov company, and, finally, to his 1961 defection from the Soviet Union during the company’s visit to Paris. Oleg Ivenko plays the adult Nureyev in all his sexual ambiguity and artistic genius. Brief but stunning dance scenes make clear why Nureyev is proudly confident that he can successfully escape the deadening confines of privileged Soviet society and flourish in the West. From childhood to defection Nureyev is the “white crow,” the exception who stands out from the mass. In the film’s final scenes Nureyev’s defection is treated in thriller fashion, and one feels affirmed in the belief that France has often been at the center of what we think of as the free world. RON’s GRADE: A

On balance, this was for us an excellent Telluride Festival. True, there were dark moments, some caused by our Cinephile pass, such as our exclusion from the customary opening night tribute. But that same pass steered us into some of the best documentaries and foreign films we’ve ever seen. Telluride remains as vibrant as ever. True, too, there has been a turn to Oscar-destined, Hollywood films’ premiers, which can easily beguile Festival attendees. Among them are Melissa McCarthy in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, Hugh Jackman in THE FRONT RUNNER and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE. I regret not being able to report on many of these films. To amplify our choices next year, we’ll probably seek Festival passes. But our experience with our modest Cinephile passes this year taught us not to lose sight of why we first came to Telluride twenty-three years ago—the opportunity to see movies that show cinema at its best and that rarely come to commercial theaters.

Farewell Telluride:

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Travel, Travel Posts

MADRID, SPAIN, May 15-23, 2018

Fifty-four years ago, just graduated from college, I flew over the golden fields of Castilla into Madrid’s Barajas airport to begin my Fulbright year in Spain. Franco was in power, as he would be for another decade, stern Guardia Civil, with their twisted medieval leather caps, surveilled every highway intersection, and an air of repression pervaded the country.

Barajas itself epitomizes the changes that have swept across Spain. Once an aging outpost at the edge the city, it is now, with its breathtaking T4 terminal, one of the world’s most modern and easily negotiated airports.

I was accompanied on this trip by my wife Mary Jean and my sister Roberta (usually known as Bunny). Bunny was widowed last year, and this trip was an effort to help her recover some of her accustomed enthusiasm. Since Bunny had limited familiarity with Europe (traveling only once before, to Venice), Madrid proved a perfect destination.

From Barajas, it was a quick twenty-minute taxi ride on excellent roads into the city. We swept down the Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid’s major artery. This avenue was lovely during my Fulbright year, with its beautiful roundabout statues of Neptune and Cibeles. (Returning from a party at the university, where I had imbibed too much vino tinto, I remember tipsily circling my Lambretta motor scooter round and round Cibeles!). But its large center strip has been tastefully planted with trees and flowers, and the facades of its elegant classic buildings have been cleaned (while interiors have been gutted and renovated). Madrid, I thought, has become a green city, an impression reinforced as we later walked the network of pedestrian streets and plazas that mark the center. In my day, Madrid was a tired old lady. She has become a young seductress.

Our destination was the neighborhood of Chueca where we had rented an AIR BNB apartment for our stay. Chueca, like many of the neighborhoods off the Gran Vía was once a collection of seedy tapas bars and streets populated by streetwalkers. The whores are gone, replaced by trendy clothing stores, diverse restaurants, and gay-friendly cafes and bars.

Our apartment was as nice as advertised. Only ten minutes walk (down the  Fuencarral pedestrian street) from the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, it provided an excellent base to explore the city center. Here are Mary Jean and Bunny in one corner of our two bedroom, two-bath apartment.

Chueca itself is the place to be. A step outside our apartment is the lengthy Fuencarrel pedestrian shopping street that continues across the Gran Vía into the city center. In the other direction was the Mercado San Antón. Like several such commercial centers around the city (including the top floor of the Corte Ingles department store) it boasts “the gourmet experience,” combining a diverse collection of eateries with colorful and enticing stalls selling Spanish and imported food specialties. We spent much time in its ground floor Supermercado, enjoying shopping for breakfast staples and afternoon wine, cheese, and sausage snacks.

Two views of the neighborhood. First, Calle de Fuencarral:

Second, the little plaza in front of our apartment at sunset:

Our first two days were spent in intensive museum-ing. Always a must is the Museo Reina Sofia with its galleries dedicated to Picasso’s “Guernica.” When I was in Spain the painting was across the ocean in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where Picasso had prohibited it from going to Spain until the nation was again a republic. Despite MoMA’s resistance (Spain, they argued, was technically a monarchy), the painting returned in 1981, and is now well displayed at the center of a series of galleries offering films and other artworks that depict its creation and inspiration in the terrible events of Spain’s Civil War. What I found most moving on this trip was the large number of elementary school children seated before the painting as their teachers lectured about it and its context. In my day, the full story of the Civil War was un-tellable. Now Guernica’s is helping shape a more democratic Spain.

A thumbnail of this marvelous tableau:

Our next day was spent at El Prado. Given its collection and manageable size, this is one of the world’s finest museums, and is always worth the visit. When I was a student, the museum always seemed dimly lit and dusty. No longer. Ongoing renovations have turned it into a beautiful showcase. Here is a glance at its main entrance, where, arriving promptly at ten in the morning, we avoided the long line and entered quickly.

The Prado has many spectacular paintings. Among them are Goya’s “Maja Vestida” and “Maja Desnuda” (“Dressed Beauty”; “Nude Beauty”) and the still politically vibrant, “The Second of May 1808.” But the one painting whose sight alone justifies an overseas visit to El Prado is Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656).  Standing before this painting with sparse crowds (given the early morning and weekday hour), I concluded that this is my favorite painting of all. The sweet infanta in her outrageously overdone dress at the center of the room, the solicitous ladies in waiting (las meninas), the reserved but wise jester/dwarf, the painter himself angling his glance to take the measure of his royal subjects (who are standing where we are and are glimpsed only in the mirror), and above all the dog, the dog, a calm symbol of the loyalty that is the painting’s theme—alongside that of the creation of art itself.

The following day was marked by a return to the vicinity of the Prado, and behind it to the beautiful El Retiro garden. Once a royal enclave, El Retiro was turned centuries ago into a public park, at whose center is the estanque (pond) where visitors glide about in small rowboats.

During the first few months after I arrived in Spain, I rented a room with half board in an apartment on Calle Narvaez, on the far side of El Retiro from the Prado, so I often crossed the Retiro each day to get to the Biblioteca Nacional on the Castellana where I worked. (When I bought my Lambretta, this half hour walk became a delightful quick scoot past Cibeles fountain). My landlady was an older woman named Susannah who it seems had been a moderately famous chanteuse in Madrid’s nightclubs decades before. Her walls were covered with photographs of her appearing onstage, wearing glamorous gowns that were as silver-toned as the photos themselves.  On this visit I struggled unsuccessfully to remember Susannah’s last name (no Google search has yet turned it up), and I wondered to myself what she had done and on what side she had been during the Civil War, questions that in my innocence at the time I never asked her. In any event, by Christmas, Susannah and I had parted ways. The problem: my terrible belly cramps caused, as I learned from my fellow Fulbrighters, by “el aceite,” the cheap fifth-press olive oil routinely used in most humble Spanish kitchens of the day. Susannah’s food was excellent, but she was apparently more adjusted to el aceite than I was, and eventually I had to find lodgings where I could determine my own meals.

Visiting El Retiro we had a treat, taking seats in an open-air theater where a children’s puppet show was about to begin. The crowd was large and enthusiastic,

and the show was really creative. It was a simple story of a land-dwelling young man and a deep-sea mermaid who fall in love. Their union is doomed by physiological and parental (Neptunal) impediments, until they are aided by various friendly sorcerers. But what made the show so charming was the puppeteers’ use of prevalent household items, such as various sized water bottles, sponges, and plastic mops and sacks, to build the figures. I think the kids learned not only that love between different types of people can triumph (if between men and mermaids, why not between men and men or women and women?) but also that disposable items should be treasured and not carelessly jettisoned. Note the clever octopus in this photo:

We had selected the Friday of our visit to get out of Madrid, renting a car to visit El Escorial. I last saw this over half a century ago when the Fulbright group was taken on excursion there at the start of our program. I found unchanged the beautiful library and ornate marbled cathedral.

The Fulbright administrators were right: El Escorial embodies the austere and rigid spirit of post-Tridentine, Counter-Reformation Spain, a spirit that still endured in Franco’s era. If almost any Almodovar film reflects today’s Spain, El Escorial reflects the Catholic Spain whose waning days I was privileged to witness.

For lunch we headed to Segovia, where, bypassing the too-touristy Casa Candido, we went to the Mesón de José María. Suckling pig is a Segovia specialty and it’s nowhere better prepared than in this restaurant.

Here are Bunny and Mary Jean in front of the restaurant:

And here is a snapshot of the signature dish:

Our return to Madrid late that afternoon was complicated by a mammoth blockage of the Gran Vía as police accompanied crowds of supporters of the Madrid Atlético team celebrating a recent victory. At one point I found myself going repeatedly around the same array of streets, blocked by squads of police, and unable to break free. At least, I thought, the police are not wearing crinkly leather caps. But “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: whether it’s Fascism or democracy, football rules.

The next day was devoted to flamenco, for which we could only secure tickets for an 11 PM performance. This required an afternoon nap. If Mary Jean and I were on our own we might have skipped this touristy thing, but Bunny had never seen live flamenco so it was a must for our stay, and the performance by the small troupe, who enthusiastically clapped and shouted out for one another’s solos, was excellent:

Watching the show, I was reminded of an encounter with flamenco more than four decades earlier on an auto trip from France to Morocco, with an overnight in Sevilla. That evening, we took our five-year-old daughter Julie to a flamenco performance, which she watched intently. Afterward, I asked her how she liked it. “A lot,” she replied, “but where were the flamingoes?”

The next day, our adventure was Toledo, to which we traveled on one of the high speed Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains that now, along with the amazing array of new autoroutes and tunnels, bind together the country. When I was a student, a trip to Segovia took me two to three hours as I worked my way on my scooter up and down the switchback road that crossed the Sierra Guadarrama. On our trip to Segovia, we passed beneath the same mountains in ten minutes through a four lane pair of tunnels. Back in 1964, Toledo was an easier trajectory by scooter: perhaps an hour and a half to make the 90 kilometers on the Carretera Nacional (passing “norias,” donkey powered wells, that had watered the dry fields since Roman times). On today’s trip, it took just just 33 minutes on the AVE:

 

 

 

Despite its tourist fame, Toledo is not my favorite place in Spain (too much Toledoware!) But, next to “Las Meninas” it has one of my very favorite paintings. Tucked away in a side entry to the small Iglesia Santo Tomé is El Greco’s “El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz,” the “Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (1588). To me, this epitomizes Spanish Catholic faith at its fervid sixteenth Counter-Reformation century heights.

Here’s the count’s body, with its bloodless face, cradled by Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine. Though separated in time by four centuries, the two saints have descended from heaven to usher the pious count into eternity. A crowd of local notables looks on, painted from actual citizens of the city. El Greco includes himself (seventh from the left, just above and to the right of the open palm), as well, as his son, below, pointing to Saint Augustine. Above we can barely see a fetus-like form, the count’s soul, aided by an angel, ascending through a womb-shaped space to heaven where Mary, Jesus and Saint John wait to receive it. Behind Mary stands Saint Peter, who lest any wayward Protestant wander by, is shown holding the keys to the kingdom along with his papal successors. For years in Religion One I taught the concept of rites of passage as moments of death and rebirth. Here it all is, in one beautifully crafted painting.

 

Since we had to ready ourselves for the flight back, our final day was spent leisurely, marked only by another culinary high point. Paella is a Valenciano not Madridleño specialty, but Bunny had to try it, so we hiked down Fuencarral and through the Puerta del Sol to El Caldero, one of the city’s best paella restaurants. In fact, since the restaurant doesn’t want to misrepresent, it does not even call its excellent preparation “paella,” but merely labels it, “arroz Caldero,” “Caldero rice,” and serves it up from caldrons, two customers at a time. We arrived at 1:00 PM to dine and found ourselves alone in the dining room. However, by 3:00 PM, when we had finished, all the tables were filled, a testament to Spain’s late dining habits. Dinner would start for most of those having their lunch with us at nine PM.

CLOSING REFLECTIONS

Although everything in Spain was new to my sister, for me this trip constantly evoked the past. Behind the beautiful, prosperous, modern, and diverse Madrid of today, I recalled images from Franco’s era. At one point, driving up the Gran Vía, I asked our taxi driver when the name of José Antonio had been removed from the avenue. (José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903-1936) was a martyr of the Spanish fascist Falangist movement. Franco’s renaming of the avenue after José Antonio signaled José Antonio’s pride of place.) Googling, I learned that José Antonio’s name was removed in 1981, but our middle-aged driver had no idea of what I was asking. For him, the Gran Vía was always just the Gran Vía.

This is good. We may not ever forgive, but we can forget. Spain has been actively forgetting its bitter past for over a generation. Fortunately, too, however, some of us are old enough to remember when political tribalism violently tore a society apart, with scars and traumas that endured for decades. I applaud Spain’s recovery and the beautiful city that evidences it. I hope that we in America can avoid similar tribalism and learn from Spain’s history.

 

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Ethics

Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Genetically Enhance our Children?

The following remarks were delivered at a panel on Human Gene Editing at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco on October 26, 2017. The panel was organized by the Hastings Center. These remarks have also been published by the Hastings Center on its blog, Bioethics Forum at: http://www.thehastingscenter.org/moral-obligation-genetically-enhance-children/

The Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu, among others, has argued that prospective parents engaging in embryo selection using preimplantation genetic diagnosis not only may seek to have genetically enhanced children but are morally obligated do so. (See, for example, his essay “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,” Bioethics, 15, no.5/6, 2001.)
I argue that Savulescu is wrong.
Savulescu defends a moral principle he calls the principle of procreative beneficence. He states that, under this principle, prospective parents choosing among embryos “should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.” Among the possible enhancements he identifies are intelligence, memory, self-discipline, impulse control, foresight, patience, and a sense of humor.
Savulescu has not yet extended this principle beyond preimplantation genetic diagnosis to gene editing. He acknowledges that gene editing currently carries health risks not associated with embryo selection, and that these risks outweigh any obligation to try to bring about “the best life” for a child.
But given the speed with which CRISPR technology is advancing, it seems that  we are not far away from safe, effective gene enhancements for some traits. So according to Savulescu’s principle, when sufficient levels of safety are reached, all parents with the means to afford gene editing for enhancement will have a moral obligation to do so.
I will specify my criticisms of Savulescu’s principle, but first I want to say that I fully support the reproductive use of gene editing technology for the prevention and elimination of serious genetic diseases.
If we could use gene editing to remove the gene sequences in an embryo that cause sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis, I would say not only that we may do so, but in the case of such severe diseases, that we have a moral obligation to do so.
I think that parents and medical professionals should always try to give a child a healthy start in life. This principle underlies the very firm moral intuition that pregnant women should not take drugs or drink alcohol to excess during pregnancy. In an era of safe gene editing, I believe it would extend to the obligation to use this technology to avoid transmitting grave inherited disease conditions.
Unlike Savulescu, however, I don’t see parents’ obligation  extending to genetic interventions that go beyond preventing disease and making people “better than well.” These include cosmetic enhancements, muscle enhancements increasing athletic performance, or cognitive enhancements such as high IQ or improved learning ability.
There are three reasons I reject the principle of procreative beneficence.First, all genetic manipulations carry some risks, whether of immediate off-target gene insertions or more complex maladies, as when the pursuit of improved learning ability may bring with it a greater sensitivity to pain (an association found in some animal studies). While it is always reasonable in medicine to incur risks to treat or prevent diseases, it is by no means clear that it is wise to do so with medically unnecessary enhancements. This is especially true when children are involved. How would we feel about parents who put their daughter through risky plastic surgeries to improve her performance in beauty contests? In other words, no matter how low the risks of enhancements, they lack the clear justification of disease treatment or prevention. The fact that genetic manipulation of early embryos or gametes affects the germ line, potentially creating new heritable diseases, compounds the problem.Second, while I believe that parents have a stern obligation to try to prevent harm to their child, it is not clear to me that they have an obligation to provide that child “the best life.” Such an obligation is what moral theorists call “supererogatory.” It involves actions above and beyond the call of duty, but which, by their very nature are not morally obligatory. I suppose there are myriad ways that you or I could make our children’s lives better—for example, we could put all our money into paying for the very best private schools—but I don’t think we are morally obligated to pursue these, any more than we are obligated to intervene genetically to give our kids the best physical constitutions. As a moral philosopher, I might add that I think that Savulescu’s insistence on this obligation follows from his continuing reliance, despite denials, on a form of on utilitarianism with its maximization of happiness. So there is a deep theoretical problem at work here.

Third, I reject Savulescu’s procreative beneficence principle because I reject its assumption that we can identify nondisease-related traits that clearly make one’s life better. Among people with a normal IQ, good memory, numeracy, and literacy are useful for a successful life, but it is by no means clear that enhancing any one of these values to a supernormal level would result in a child having a better life. The interaction of gene traits with one another and with the environment is too complex to allow the kind of predictive confidence about any trait that would be needed to apply Savulescu’s principle.

Let me illustrate this complexity with a story. In college, I had two roommates. (For privacy’s sake I’m changing their names.) John  graduated cum laude, went on to a fine Ivy League law school, and reached the apogee of his career when he was elected mayor of his small hometown. I was the best student of the three, graduating summa cum laude and having a solid and satisfying career as an academic ethicist. Harry, was by far the poorest student among us: he barely applied himself, earned straight C’s, and couldn’t get into a top law school. As a result, Harry moved into an arcane field of law at a lesser New York firm, and eventually rose to the top of the new field of merger and acquisition law. Today, Harry  is an extremely wealthy financial industry attorney, and has served as trustee of Brown University, our alma mater.

I am not telling this story to argue that money is the measure of the man. Nor am I saying that any of the traits that led my roommates and me into our lives are genetically based. I offer this anecdote only to indicate how difficult—if not impossible—it is to predict that any character trait, genetic or otherwise, will lead to worldly success much less to happiness. This means that, above and beyond striving to help their offspring have normal health, parents are under no obligation to use genetic technologies to provide those children with nondisease-related genetic enhancements.

If parents are under no obligation to use gene editing for enhancement purposes, may they ethically do so? Should parents be allowed to pursue such genetic enhancements, at least when they’re shown to be sufficiently safe?

This is a complex question that I have written a book about (Babies by Design, 2007). There are many reasons people fear the use of genetics for nondisease-related enhancements. One  fear is that money and genes will work together to produce a “genobility,” a society marked by genetically increased social inequalities. This could happen on a national or international basis. Another is the fear that, in the quest to have athletically gifted children, parents will spark an “arms race,” seeking positional advantage for their children, that concludes by advantaging no one and maybe even harming them. An analogy here is to sports doping which, if widely pursued, benefits no one and risks damaging the individual athletes.

I have no easy answer to the question of whether these ethical concerns or others are so significant that we should try to prohibit parents from these choices.

But I do know that parents seeking such enhancements will likely be disappointed. As I said, parents are under no obligation to pursue genetic enhancements. Furthermore, it’s probably foolish to try to secure the best life possible for one’s child by genetic means. We cannot identify what makes for a best life in this connection. The healthy natural human genome has enough variety in it to let any child successfully navigate the world and fulfill his or her own vision of happiness.

 

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Travel

The 44th TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

Following our drive into Telluride through the literally and figuratively breathtaking mountains of the San Juan National Forest . . .

. . . . we faced our first difficult choice: whether or not to attend the Colorado Avenue opening “feed”? This event is hard to skip, but DARKEST HOUR was being screened in the large Palm Theater just one hour after the start of the food event. Realizing that the line for this film would be long, we headed straight to the Palm, and are still thanking ourselves ourselves for doing so.

Directed by Joe Wright, whose work includes the wonderful ATONEMENT, and with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, DARKEST HOUR depicts the 20 days in May 1940, when France fell and England’s government, led by the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had to decide whether or not to seek peace with Hitler. The Churchill so brilliantly played by Gary Oldman is unlike any you’ve ever seen. I’ve read much about this great man and even published a chapter of a book about leadership on him. Watching Oldman’s Churchill, I felt as though I was privileged to be taken back in time and led to witness the real Churchill in action. Jowly, grouchy, with flares of anger, but sometimes also astonishingly compassionate and reflective, Oldman has given us a Churchill for the ages. His delivery of Churchill’s great speeches gives them new life. Above all, what shines through is Churchill’s uncertainty and doubt about the proper course of action and his resolve and courage in championing his course of resistance in spite of that doubt. The supporting cast of Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Ronald Pickup as the continuingly weak Neville Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as the menacing Lord Halifax, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clementine, all give outstanding performances that serve to illuminate Churchill at the center.

Having made the decision to foreground this film in our Festival, we had the good fortune of an opening night Q&A after the film with the producer, director, and most of the lead actors, including Oldman. All were greeted with a standing ovation from the hundreds in the audience. The contrast between the younger, slender Oldman seated before us . . .

. . . and the Oldman we had just witnessed as Churchill was striking. Screenwriter McCarten also helped dispel a concern I had about whether several of the important scenes in the film, most notably one that takes place in the British Underground, have any historical basis. McCarten explained that these historically uncertain scenes were introduced to convey deeper truths about the events, in this case Churchill’s strong connection with the feelings of the English people themselves in contrast to the remoteness of the cowardly leaders of the previous government.

On the way out of the Palm, there was talk among our little knot of theatergoers about how striking it is that DUNKIRK and DARKEST HOUR are both appearing at this time. I offered the thought that both in England and the US, democracy itself is in peril. More than ever, we need reminders that we are here today because of the courage and integrity of previous leaders. I was greeted with “Amens.” Another observation: on the way back to our condo in Mountain Village we shared seats on the gondola with a young family from Arkansas. Their eight-year-old girl and ten-year-old boy both raved about the film. Isn’t it important that in the dark times in which we are now living cinema can give young people familiarity with leaders and followers worthy of respect?

DARKEST HOUR is one of the finest films we’ve seen in twenty-plus years of Telluride attendance. Don’t miss it at the multiplex. RON’S GRADE: A+

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

As Mary Jean went off to a film at the nearby Mountain Village Chuck Jones Theater (a Chilean film, A FANTASTIC WOMAN by writer-director Sebastián Lelio), I took the gondola down the mountain to the town’s library, converted for the Festival into a small theater, to see HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Director Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary traces the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 through the Third Reich’s cinema. Under the control of propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis used film as weapon to marshal followers’ allegiance and also as a dream factory to divert their attention from the regime’s brutal repression and the devastation caused by the war that Hitler started. My oral German is not very strong, so I found it challenging to watch these fascinating films while following Suchsland’s fast-paced narrative in subtitles. Furthermore the drift of that narrative and the ordering of films was not always clear, but the films themselves were fascinating, from an early (1933) black and white propaganda narrative of a working class boy who turns against his “corrupt” Communist family and friends to join the Hitler Youth, to the two extravagant Agfa color films made by director Veit Harlan during the last two years of the war. I had seen one of these (OPFERGANG, “The Great Sacrifice”) some years ago at Telluride. Using the romantic plot of a tragic love triangle, it subtly prepares Germans for the personal sacrifices looming in the wake of the growing losses on the battlefield. The second Harlan film, KOLBERG, is an epic war story employing 10,000 extras that was Goebbels’ call to suicidal resistance in the face of certain defeat. In different ways, these films expose the presence of the regime-long Nazi death cult. RON’S GRADE: A-

Postscript. Somewhat shocking is the appearance of Ingrid Bergman in DIE VIER GESELLEN (“The Four Companions,” 1938) where she plays a young career woman who in good Fascist style gives it all up for marriage: a glimpse into the darker past of our leading anti-Fascist heroine.

Because of long lines and scheduling we were able to get to only one more film today. DOWNSIZING, director Alexander Payne latest film, is a considerable departure from his famous romantic comedy, SIDEWAYS. But it, too, is a love story. In a very near future, a team of Scandinavian scientists announces a technique that allows them to shrink human beings down to three inches in size, a miraculous solution to the problems of overpopulation and environmental damage. Soon, tens of thousands of people, moved less by eco-concerns than the attraction of retirement to luxury after selling their larger assets, are joining “small” communities around the world. Among them are Paul and Audrey Safranek. (Matthew Damon and Kristen Wiig). Paul, a medical-school dropout working as an occupational therapist for Omaha Steaks, dreams of a better life, but his journey into the small world initially proves far less satisfying than he had hoped. Disappointment follows disappointment. Paul’s life is eventually turned around by another small person, Gong Jiang, a Vietnamese immigrant beautifully and often hilariously played by Hong Chau. DOWNSIZING has one clear message: science and technology won’t help us escape our personal and social problems. On the positive side, the film’s images of small people and their small worlds are terrific. On a critical note, I wish that the editors had taken a good pair of scissors to the work. An entire concluding section based in Norway could have gone to the cutting room floor. RON’S GRADE: B+

The film was followed by Q&A with Alexander Payne and Hong Chau present:

  

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

Our day began with a tribute to Christian Bale. An excellent retrospective prepared by our Dartmouth friend Chris Robinson revealed the extraordinary range of Bale’s acting. As he explained during the Q&A that followed the clips, Bale has avoided publicity throughout his career, fearful that a celebrity identity would replace the characters he plays. And what a range of characters they are, from Trevor Reznik in THE MACHINIST, a role for which Bale lost 60 pounds, to the pudgy, balding Irving Rosenfeld in AMERICAN HUSTLE. No wonder we don’t know Christian Bale: all we recognize are the extraordinarily diverse and unforgettable characters he has played.

The retrospective and Q&A were followed by the premier of Bale’s latest film, HOSTILES. Tautly directed by Scott Cooper, this wonderful film is an answer to the question, “How do you make a Western today that isn’t racist?” It tracks the long journey in 1892 from New Mexico to Montana of a small contingent of army soldiers led by Captain Joseph Cooper (Christian Bale) who have been ordered to deliver the long imprisoned and dying Chief Yellow Hawk (well played by Wes Studi) to his home territory in Montana. There’s a new spirit about Native Americans in Washington, and Cooper is tasked, against his will, with helping an enemy he has fought against his entire career. The troop soon encounters Rosalie Quaid (very well played by Rosamund Pike), the sole survivor of a ghastly and shocking episode of Indian violence with which the film begins. The contingent traverses breathtaking wildernesses, assaulted at almost every turn by surviving Indian bandits and wrathful white people who cannot comprehend the team’s mission. Both Mrs. Quaid and the chief and his family become deeply affected by Cooper’s stoic integrity as he strives to fulfill his orders. During the preceding Q&A with Leonard Maltin, Bale remarked that as an actor he finds his silences often the most important part of conveying the depth of his character. This was evident in HOSTILES, one of the finest films we’ve seen this Festival. RON’S GRADE: A

Our next film, in mid-afternoon down at the Sheridan Opera House was FOXTROT, directed by writer-director Samuel Maoz (LEBANON). Michael (played by Lior Ashkenazi, last seen as the Israeli premier in NORMAN), is a successful architect whose son, Jonathan, is standing guard at a remote military outpost. After a dramatic opening scene announces the family’s impending struggle with grief, we watch the devastating events unwind. FOXTROT moves about as slowly as the lone camel for which Jonathan’s unit must daily open their crossing gate. But it is this pace that renders FOXTROT an honest portrayal of the human toll taken by fifty years of war and occupation. A neck-wrenching conclusion punctuates the narrative of suffering and guilt experienced by this one family, by Israelis, and by their Arab neighbors. In its implied criticisms of the Israeli army, this film is a striking example of the political independence of Israeli film today. GRADE: A-

Our day concluded with THE INSULT by the American-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (THE ATTACK), co-written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma. In the course of an altercation over an out-of-code drainpipe, a Palestinian construction foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), calls Toni (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian garage mechanic, a prick. Despite the pleadings of his boss, Yasser refuses to apologize for this grave insult, and is soon provoked to a physical assault after an unappeased Toni hurls racist anti-Palestinian slogans at him. The dispute soon goes to court, where we see a drama unfold that evokes the terrible history of Lebanon’s 1970s civil war. Behind the two men’s curses, blows, and stubbornness lie decades of hatred on both sides spawned in a genocidal conflict and never really resolved. Soon, as partisans on each side pour into the courtroom and the streets, the trial threatens to unleash a new civil war. In the Q&A following the film, Doueiri explained its enigmatic and powerful conclusion. I observed that THE INSULT is a warning to America. Will we allow our emerging tribalisms to grow? Will sparks of verbal assault lead to more violence, as in Charlottesville, and will that violence somehow lead to a second civil war? THE INSULT is a remarkable film for our time. RON’S GRADE: A

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

The last day of the Festival began for us with a tribute to cinematographer Ed Lachman, whose credits include everything from DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985) to the beautiful recreation of the 1950s in CAROL (2015). In the Q&A Lachman said that the cinematographer is like “another actor” with whom the director must work. He also offered a contrast between the novel with its interiority and cinema with its largely external images. The challenge before the cinematographer, he said, is to evoke interiority through such images.

Director Todd Haynes’ WONDERSTRUCK, which followed, illustrated Lachman’s second point. A tale of two deaf youngsters separated by half a century in time, it’s up to Lachman to convey the inner life of both children by means of what they (and we) are seeing. Images also carry the narrative, with the 1920s Manhattan scenes all shot in black and white and the 1970s ones in brilliant disco colors. WONDERSTUCK’s greatest strength (like CAROL) is the evocation of the tone and values of an era. But a complex and at times wildly improbable plot (based on the novel by Brian Selznick) makes this a less than completely successful cinematic experiment. RON’S GRADE: B

Our afternoon began with THE SHAPE OF WATER, the latest film by director Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH). It stars Sally Hawkins who carries the film as a very plain Jane whose inner beauty emerges through her deeds (as was true of Hawkins in last year’s outstanding MAUDY, which is just now circulating in US art cinemas). Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady working in a threatening 1960s federal research laboratory where she’s called on to clean up the mess after the brutal treatment of a creature captured in the remote waters of South America. This mute creature has been tormented as a “Godless animal” by an obsessive federal agent (menacingly played by Michael Shannon), and his usefulness (and thus his life) is nearing its end. Del Toro brings a Latin American cynicism about American military and political institutions, as Elisa’s championing of the creature becomes a conflict of human compassion against pure, speciesist evil. The creature itself is a remarkable feat of costuming. He wins our hearts —and Elisa’s. THE SHAPE OF WATER is THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meeting ET, with an added, charming and sexualized romance. Both the film and Hawkins are deservedly heading toward Oscar nominations. RON’S GRADE: A.

Our day—and Festival—ended with FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. Directed by Matthew Greenhalgh, the film is based on Peter Turner’s memoir of his torrid youthful romance with the Oscar award-winning actress Gloria Grahame. Grahame is movingly played by an Annette Bening, whose beauty and sexual ardor shine through despite her aging skin and the pain from the cancer that will soon kill her. While touring in Liverpool, Grahame’s illness forces her to seek refuge with Turner (well played by Jamie Bell) and his supportive family who reside in a lower middle class Liverpool neighborhood. Flashbacks take us through the couple’s previous torrid romance and their breakup, sacrificially forced by Grahame without telling Turner when she learns of her illness. As the pair is reunited near the end of her life, we see that an intense love can endure despite dramatic differences in age and health. Presenting an unusual take on a May-December relationship, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL upsets our gender stereotypes in new ways. RON’S GRADE: A-

This year continued the mix of world-cinema and possible Oscar contenders that marks the recent Telluride Film Festival. Though there were many foreign films we had to miss (LOVELESS, TESNOTA and HOSTAGES from RUSSIA, and A MAN OF INTEGRITY from Iran), we saw nine films of undiminished quality. As we walked back to the gondola from the theater, we caught this final view of moonrise over Colorado Avenue.

 

— FIN—

 

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