Travel

Havana, Cuba—January 18-21, 2017

With the Trump inauguration looming, Mary Jean and I chose to take advantage of the eased travel opportunities to Cuba created by Obama’s opening to that country to make a quick trip to Havana. We fear that our new president might limit or even terminate the convenient flights recently made available by several airlines. It also seemed a good idea to be out of the country on inauguration day. With an Airbnb reservation in hand, we drove over to Fort Lauderdale from Sanibel, boarded a Southwest flight, and in fifty minutes were at Jose Marti airport in Havana.

This proved to be a city of stark contradictions. On the one hand, it seems to be in a state of terminal deterioration. Although some restoration is going on in the city center, most homes and buildings have not been repaired or even painted in decades (a consequence, perhaps, of prohibitions on private ownership that were only eased a few years ago). Many people live in squalid environments. Two photographs document this. First, in the heart of the city the remains of a once-beautiful fountain:

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And here, the rear of a deteriorating pre-revolution hotel, with its empty swimming pool:

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But if Havana’s physical environment is deteriorating, its human one seems to be vibrant. Although our Airbnb was located in one of the poorest and most racially mixed districts of the city—many would call it a slum—we quickly learned that we were safe walking the streets night and day. Everyone we met—and I mean everyone, from neighbors sitting on their stoops to pedicab drivers or local merchants—were friendly, welcoming, and helpful. People of different races mix and interact as friends. When I asked our Airbnb host why there was no menace or violence in this otherwise very poor neighborhood, he replied that from elementary school on children are taught to respect one another. Bullying, he added, is never permitted. So while the revolution, the blockade and their consequences have diminished Havana’s material wealth, they seem to have enriched its human environment. Here are some photographs of our neighborhood:

Interrupted in their mid-road soccer game, three friends:

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During our two days on the ground, we tried to see as much of the city as we could: walking the streets of Old Havana, visiting the leading museums, grabbing a daiquiri at Hemingway’s watering hole, the Floridita, and even taking an extensive open-top bus tour of the city’s outer districts. Here is a succinctly annotated collage of some of the sites we visited.

[NOTE: To those of you planning to visit Cuba, a word of advice. This is a cash economy. We didn’t stay in an upscale hotel, and, despite guidebook claims, we nowhere encountered a willingness to accept credit cards. ATMs do not help (and one swallowed one of my cards). The relatively scarce change agencies (“cadecas”) discount the dollar heavily. My recommendation for now is to change all the money you’ll need for your stay into Euros, and change these as soon as you arrive at the airport cadeca. Be prudent but not worried about having cash. Havana is safe.]

THURSDAY, JANUARY 21

Thursday began with a walk downtown via the Malecon, Havana’s miles-long seafront esplanade and gathering place. Here, a bit out of chronological order, is a snapshot of this thoroughfare taken the following day from our open-air bus:

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Downtown some building restorations are underway on the Paseo del Prado, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare:

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Here the Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada. This has recently been beautifully restored with assistance from Spain:

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Following a walk around the Old Havana neighborhood and lunch, the afternoon was devoted to a search for the family that welcomed Mary Jean to Havana nearly a decade a go when she visited with her wonderful (but now deceased) Canadian colleague Ben Scheck. Mary Jean had no idea of where the family lived or what their family name was, but she did recall that one of the daughters, Alina, taught mathematics at the University of Havana. A cab ride took us to this impressive pre-revolutionary campus:

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We were fortunate to locate Alina, who came out of a class session to meet us and tell us where her mother and the family home were located. This quest took us to a gracious neighborhood in the Vedado district, not far from the sea, where we met her sister Alita, and chatted for an hour with both women’s mother, Ada. This energetic 84-year old still teaches English to a roster of classes. She regretted that limited mobility prevents her from traveling to visit family members and grandchildren who now live abroad. This theme of close family members who have left Cuba is one we repeatedly heard, whether from middle-class teachers like Ada or taxi and pedicab drivers. Cubans are proud of family members who have managed to succeed abroad. However, Cuba’s financial and political isolation separates them from loved ones.

Our day ended with an undistinguished meal at a restaurant near our Airbnb hostal. The reminded us of our dinner of the evening before. I mention it here, because it was so much a highlight of stay that we returned to it on the eve of our departure. Café Laurent is a “paladar” or privately owned restaurant. Expanding the food scene well beyond the previous state-run restaurants, paladares have been allowed in just the past few years and are among the best dining places in Cuba. Café Laurent is located on the top (penthouse) floor of what seems to be a private apartment. It afforded sweeping views of the western part of the city and of the sea. My meal, a black rice seafood risotto, was memorable. Here seated just after the restaurant opened, is Mary Jean viewing the setting sun:

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FRIDAY, JANUARY 20

Morning encompassed visits to the leading downtown museums. The first of these, the Museum of Bellas Artes stands in two buildings, one celebrating modern and another traditional art. We visited the modern art museum, with its striking building and extraordinary collection of paintings from the nineteen thirties on.

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I couldn’t begin to present the many wonderful works displayed, including an entire gallery devoted to the work of Wilfredo Lam, Cuba’s important Picasso-influenced artist (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam_ ). But here is one (semi-political?) 2003 canvas by Sandra Ramos that caught my eye. Depicting Cuba as a woman, its inscription reads: “The damned circumstance of water everywhere”:

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Just beside the Museo de Bellas Artes modern art building is the Museum of the Revolution with its impressive memorial to the Granma, the 60-foot yacht that in November 1956 sailed from Mexico to Cuba’s Oriente province carrying Fidel Castro and 81 other insurgents belonging to the 26th of July movement. (The movement takes its name from the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953 that led to Fidel‘s imprisonment, his departure from Cuba, and his return in 1956 on the Granma.) The exhibit thus celebrates the start of the Cuban revolution. Here’s the Granma:

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And just beyond a jeep used by Fidel is a delivery truck used by the rebels that was caught in a firefight during the early days of the insurgency:

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The actual museum, housed in the nearby presidential palace, is, like its counterpart in Hanoi, an uninspired and dusty collection of revolutionary artifacts that exudes a sense of weariness with the revolution. I suppose that acolytes might thrill to this collection of Che Guevara memorabilia (including his medical tools, pipe and shirt with a 26 of July armband):

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I was amused by this wall installation, “The Corner of Cretins,” featuring presidents Reagan and Bush, father and son (but notably not President Obama):

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The rest of the morning took us to the newly opened Casa de Africa, with an impressive collection of statuary celebrating various Santería deities and a special exhibition of contemporary Gelede, Yoruba religious and artistic masks. Here’s a powerful statue of Eleggua, the most important of the Santeria orishas (deities):

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And here, two modern takes on traditional Yoruba masks by the artist Wabi Dossou. Above is “La Clase,” and below, “Women’s Liberty”:

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Our morning concluded with a stop at El Floridita, one of the many bars made famous by Hemingway’s patronage. Nowadays, it’s besieged by bus-tour visitors willing to pay $6 for a daiquiri. Surprisingly, though, the daiquiri was good enough to merit the visit.

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Before leaving Old Havana and the Prado area, we took note of the beautifully restored 1950s American cars, many serving as taxis, for which Havana is well known:

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Although this living, driving auto museum is one of the most colorful and famous aspects of Havana, we learned from one our taxi drivers that it derives from an unfortunate policy that forbids the sale of new cars in Havana to all but government agencies. This means that existing cars must be maintained and recycled. Our taxi back to the airport, a green restored and repainted 1950 Chevy was powered by a Toyota diesel tractor engine, and sounded every bit like the farm implement it was under the hood.

Following lunch we took an open-topped bus tour of the city and its near suburbs. This took us through some still relatively beautiful neighborhoods and past the elegant Miramar beach resorts and hotels that continue to attract an affluent clientele. Here’s one:

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One of the more striking features of Havana today is the continuing emphasis on the cult of leadership with its pantheon of Fidel and Che Guevara. Here, at the Plaza de Revolución a building façade is dedicated to Che. The inscription reads: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre—Always on to Victory.”

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Further on, a small government building celebrates Fidel (to the far left) and Hugo Chávez, described in the faint accompanying inscription as “El Mejor Amigo de Cuba—Cuba’s Best Friend.”

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These images tell us that Cuba is at a fateful moment. The icons of the past, Fidel, Che, and even Chavez, are gone. We saw not one image of Raul Castro, Fidel’s bother and the charismatically-challenged current president. Will Cuba open itself to change? Will the US continue its willingness to engage? And if change comes will it efface what is so unique and inviting about this land: its open and gentle people?

Hoping that President Trump does not terminate the newly opened relations, we plan to return to Cuba next year in search of answers to these questions.

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Travel

Mediterranean Cruise—and Provence, September 28 to October 10, 2016

At the onset of fall, Mary Jean and I had the good fortune of participating in a Dartmouth Alumni Travel program cruise to the “Islands and Rivieras” of the Mediterranean. Cruise participants included about 15 travelers affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution travel program and 11 Dartmouth alumni and their wives. I served as one of two “study leaders,” the other being Aneta Georgievska-Shine of the University of Maryland. I offered three lectures on “The Mediterranean,” “Christian Sacred Spaces,” and “Sex, Faith and Fratricide in the South of France” (an account of the Albigensian Crusade). Aneta spoke about the art and artists of Provence. The travelers were all intellectually curious and appear to have enjoyed the intellectual content.

On October 6, we arrived early in the morning in Barcelona. While most of the travelers departed for home that day (or for a one day post-cruise tour of the city), Mary Jean and I found our rental car and headed north to Provence. This is the one region of France in which we have never resided, so our plan was to locate a one-month house rental for next year, finding the best village and home. Our three days on the ground in Provence were a special treat.

What follows is a brief narrative of our travels, punctuated by a pictorial record.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29

Flights arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport where we were met by agents for Gohagan Travels, the firm that manages our trip for Dartmouth. We were then transported to Rome’s port, Civitavecchia, where our ship, the Variety Voyager, waited. (Here are pictures of the ship snapped later on in Marseilles port):

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This is a small vessel, with only 36 cabins, affording the possibility of entering ports closed to larger vessels. It also offers the feeling of sailing on a private yacht. I love being on ships (having worked on them all through college summers), and I confess that our luncheons out on the rear deck with the white wake churning the blue Mediterranean behind us was a seafaring highlight for me.

With the Dartmouth group seated together at several tables, dinner was our chance to meet our fellow travelers. The eleven Dartmouth couples included Dartmouth men from the era when Dartmouth was still an all male school (classes represented ranged from 1953 to 1972) ). A special treat: at least one of the travelers, Peter Rufleth ‘72 had been a student of mine during my first years at Dartmouth. Here’s a photo from a few days on with all of us:

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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30

Sailing at 7 pm, we awoke next morning in Porto Cervo on the northeast tip of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). One of the attractions of this trip was the opportunity to get to both Sardinia and Corsica, which we had never visited. Guided by the knowledgeable British expat, Robert, we bussed across the rocky and maquis-covered landscape. Maquis is a dense growth of waxy, water-retaining evergreen shrubs and small trees. The next day I would lecture on the historic agricultural poverty of much of the Mediterranean, where scorching summer weather and mountainous terrain have limited farming over the centuries, a reality quite in contrast to the wealthy contemporary beach resorts and pleasure ports that we today associate with the region.

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Our destination was one of the many Nuarghic fortresses that dot the Sardinian countryside. These were created by a bronze-age people that populated the island before yielding to the Romans and others. Here’s a view of the site:

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We lunched on the ship as it traversed the fifteen miles of the straits of Corsica to Bonifacio on the southern end of that island. Here’s a shot of the massive limestone cliffs that line the shore:

 

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In Bonifacio, we  were met by another fine guide, a British expat named Suzanne, who took us on a walking tour of the medieval city. Here are some photos of this fascinating site, to which I would gladly return in the future for a longer stay:

 

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That’s Suzanne in the floppy hat. Note, too, the French signage. We are now in a Department of France. The odd bridging structures below are cisterns that collect scarce rainwater and channel it to storage tanks. High on a cliff top, Bonifacio is a city that has withstood numerous sieges thanks to such clever devices.

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SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1

Overnight took us to back to the mainland and the port of Livorno, from where the travelers divided into two groups, one bound for Florence, and a second to Pisa and Lucca. This was a hard choice for me since I had been to Florence and Pisa but not Lucca. Nevertheless, Florence, with all its treasures, won out. Here are some snapshots of this delightful return visit.

Florence from across the Arno:

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Of course, the beautiful Duomo.

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And its dome

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Two days later on, I would lecture on Christian Sacred Spaces, discussing the cosmology and theology underlying the many Christian churches and cathedrals we would visit. Time constraints prevented me from mentioning my favorite anecdote about this dome, so let me do so here. The dome’s designer and builder, Brunelleschi, won the commission with a secret plan to build this vast dome without the wood supports (centering) ordinarily used during construction. Challenged by the other contenders as to how he was going to do this, Brunelleschi placed an egg on the table and asked if any of them they could make it stand on end without support. When no one said they could, Brunelleschi smashed the egg’s end on the table, thus standing it up. “That’s not fair,” said one of the contestants. “If we knew that was permissible we could have done it.” To this Brunelleschi replied, “And if you knew how I would build the dome without supports you could have won the job.”

Here’s the baptisty with its bronze “Gates of Paradise” doors, recounting episodes from the Bible.

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Even though our guide had pre-purchased tickets, we stood on line for nearly an hour to enter the Accademia museum. But, as always, it was more than worth the wait. Here is an uncompleted Michelangelo Pieta:

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And here, the David:

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One mark of Michelangelo’s genius is his recognition that to be realistic when seen from below, David’s proportions would have to be skewed from the normal. To lend depth to the pupils of his eyes, they are heart shaped:

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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2016

The following day we awoke in the port of La Spezia. The original plan was to board smaller boats (tenders) to visit several of the five towns of the Cinque Terre that are hard to reach by land. But rough seas ruled that out, so two visits by van (a full day trip that included Portofino and a more limited one to Porto Venere and the Cinque Terre town of Monterosso) were on offer. With a lecture to prepare and limited tolerance for a day in a van, we chose the former.

Our visit began with Porto Venere. Named after Venus, this is an exquisite village with a small but impressive gothic church. Like all the Cinque Terre towns, this is a riot of colors and tall buildings necessitated by the scarcity of square footage. Some photos.

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Here a focacceria (pasta) shop displaying its wares as an impressive curtain.

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A lovely street-side Madonna:

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Saint Peters church:

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One of the mercantile specialties of the region is local black marble, striated with beige. The baptismal font of St. Peters is a masterwork of this stone:

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Following Porto Venere, we drove to Monterosso, the entry town to the Cinque Terre. This is divided into the Old Town and a modern seaside resort.

The Old Town:

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As we were strolling, we came upon a demonstration by a right wing, anti-immigrant Italian party. The poster, “Enough Clandestine (Immigrants)” is a sad illustration of the nativist reaction gripping the world today:

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Here the modern town with its beautiful plage:

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MONDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2016

This morning we awoke in Nice, France. This of course, is the site of the July 14 Jihadist terrorist truck attack that resulted in the death of 86 people and injured 434. That our cruise numbers are down by a half, from 72 to 36 reflects travelers’ wariness about returning to Nice.

I am proud of those in our group that chose to surmount fear. And Nice is always worth the visit. Having paved over a meager river, Nice now vaunts a lovely park that stretches inland from the sea. Here’s one view:

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Our guide took us on a walking tour of Vieux Nice.

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One stop was the beautiful Chapelle de Sainte Rita. Zoom in and note the wound on Rita’s forehead, one consequence of her martyrdom.

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A food-favorite of Nice are Mediterranean sandwiches known as Pan Bagnat. Here’s a selection:

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Nice’s historic wealth is reflected in this early merchant’s home, with a bas-relief of Adam and Eve:

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Our tour ends at Nice plage:

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Standing on the Quai des États-Unis, we looked westward to the Promenade des Anglais, where the July massacre took place. Our guide remarked that the Promenade was so disturbing for her to visit that she still couldn’t go there.

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(I wonder to this day why French authorities did not install heavy barricades to auto or truck entry to the Promenade, knowing that this was a possible site of terrorist attack and that vehicles had already been used in Israel for mass murder. I also wonder why there were no police present at the Bataclan concert hall last November when it was clear that Isis had announced its intention of targeting such “corrupt” Western dance and concert halls.)

Following a luncheon on the Voyager and transfer of location, the ship docked in Monaco. We had visited this tiny kingdom previously, but I was taken back when one of our fellow travelers expressed his disgust at the sheer plutocracy of this 500-acre nation.

Here’s a hilltop view of almost the entirety of the nation, which backs up against mountains that belong to France.

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Here, the neo-Byzantine cathedral of Mary Majeure

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that houses the tomb of Princess Grace:

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(NOTE: I recently had a chance to re-view “High Noon,” the 1952 film starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, directed by Fred Zinnemann, with music by Dmitri Tiomkin. I regard this film, with its deep but non-obvious political import, as one of the very finest, if not the finest film ever made. Grace Kelly as Gary Cooper’s bride (and savior) is magnificent. She earned her renown for this film alone.)

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4, MARSEILLE AND AIX-EN-PROVENCE

We last saw Marseille in 2010 when, stranded in Tunisia by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano that grounded air travel, we hopped a Tunisian ferry to this Mediterranean port. We have always thought as this as a grubby city, but clearly that’s changing. The port glistens with new skyscrapers and cultural centers (including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.). Our afternoon tour made us eager to return.

Morning began with a short bus trip to Aix. This must be one of the most beautiful cities in France. Here’s a modern shopping area:

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And here is a lovely rotonde:

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Markets line the streets near the center of the city. A collection of chanterelle mushrooms on offer:

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And here, cepes:

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In my lecture on Christian sacred spaces, I mentioned the dazzling combination of Romanesque and Gothic forms in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral:

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At the close of our walking tour, we stopped for coffee in the Café des Deux Garçons. Only later, reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, did I learn of the fame of this Aix institution.

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Afternoon took us back to Marseilles for a bus tour of the city that culminated in a ride along the seashore, where we stopped briefly in the old port that has recently been graced by this remarkable pavilion, a shelter by Foster and Partners architects (note how it reflects the scene around it):

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As we motored along the port, we stopped briefly at this monument to all those from Asia (“The Army of the East”) and North Africa who sacrificed for France, and to those, as well, who fell in Indochina (Vietnam). Marseilles mirrors all of France’s terrible and sometimes ill-considered twentieth century wars, to which this sad and seemingly forgotten monument bears witness.

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Our tour ended with a visit to the impressive neo-Romanesque Notre Dame de La Garde basilica that stands on a pinnacle high above the sea.

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Here the sweeping view of Marseilles harbor from the basilica:

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And inside:

 

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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 5

During several of Mary Jean’s foreign study programs in Toulouse, we visited Carcassone with students, so this morning’s tour was a bit of déjà vu. Nevertheless, this remains one of the most beautiful historic sites in France, and it has been further improved in terms of museum facilities, restaurants. Carcassone always “vaut le visite.” Some images:

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Particularly noteworthy was lunch (along with several fellow travelers) at the Auberge de Dame Carcas which offered one of the best cassoulet casseroles I’ve ever had.

Strolling out of the city, we passed a candy store with some enchanting confections. Here’s a selection:

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Some really “sweet” peas:

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And here some “giant” strawberries:

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After lunch, as we bussed to the Abbey of Fontfroide, I delivered my third lecture. It dealt with the Cathar heresy and the Albigensian crusade. The crusade itself was initiated by the killing of a papal legate from Fontfroide, and Carcassone was one of the first cities besieged by the crusaders. It was thus a privilege to be able to recount the causes and events of a crusade whose landmarks were all around us.

Fontfroide, which to the best of our recollection we have never visited before, is a tranquil reminder of the beauty of medieval monastic architecture. Now in private hands and no longer a religious center, it is remarkably well preserved.

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Here’s a stunning window in the abbey church

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And here a pieta in carved wood:

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The day ended back at the ship with the captain’s dinner. In speaking with our captain, Andreas Siniotis, I mentioned that as a college student I had worked summers on steamships and that my first ship (in 1961) was the S.S. America, which sailed from New York to Southampton, England, Le Havre, France, and back. “That’s fascinating,” said the captain. “The first ship I worked on in 1968 as a junior officer right out of the maritime academy was the S.S. Australis.” He informed me that this was purchased in 1964 by Chandris Lines, a Greek shipping firm, to transport Greek emigrants to Australia. The Australis had been the S.S. America. So the captain and I each took our first cruise on the same vessel. Small world indeed!

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 6

Morning brought arrival at Barcelona where all the travelers went their separate ways. For us it was to a rental car and a drive 500 kilometers up the autoroute to the small village of Saignon in France. Over many years and many of Mary Jean’s foreign study programs, we have resided in most parts of France: Paris, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Lyon, and Toulouse. But we never lived in Provence. Now retired, we hope to spent a month next year renting a home in this region made so famous by Peter Mayle in his hilarious A Year in Provence and other books. Thus, we decided to take advantage of our presence in Europe to survey house rental possibilities before committing ourselves to one town or one residence. Saignon:

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Saignon was not our first choice for lodging. Mary Jean has knee problems and this mountaintop village has no level streets. But our first choice, Lourmarin, was hosting a conference on its most famous resident, Albert Camus, and all the hotels were “complets,” so Saignon it had to be.

In fact, as these images show, it was a happy choice, since Saignon is a beautiful mirror of Provence.

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During our three-day stay, we reconnoitered surrounding villages, retuning each evening to Saignon. Since it was unwise to drive the winding and steep mountain roads at night after a wine-accompanied meal, we dined each night at the one open restaurant in Saignon, the Comptoir (Counter) of Balthazar. Questioned about the meaning of the restaurant’s name, its owner Michel, a fellow about my age, told us that he bought the restaurant with that name but never understood its meaning. Nevertheless, he and his chef wife clearly understood Provençal cuisine. Our three meals here were one of the highlights of our trip.

And we found our rental: in Lourmarin. With the help of the Office de Tourisme, we found a villa large enough to house us with both children and their families next spring. It is near the center of this charming village, where Albert Camus spent the years just before his tragic auto-accident death at age 47. Here are several views of Lourmarin:

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In the course of our visit, we were able to briefly attend a conference devoted to Camus, and we were able to hear a fascinating paper on Camus’ politics

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As we drove out of Lourmarin on our way to Saignon, we stopped at a small cemetery where we were able to find Camus’ grave:

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Many years ago, Mary Jean and I co-taught a course on “Ethics and Existentialism.” We were reminded that Camus has always been one of our intellectual heroes. You can imagine, therefore, how pleased we were to be able to conclude our trip in a village he so loved. We look forward to our return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Travel, Uncategorized

The 43rd TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL

This was the 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival, and (about) our twentieth. Telluride was as beautiful as ever, and, except for an occasional brief sprinkle, the weather was perfect. Film stars abounded, including Tom Hanks who was here to introduce his latest film SULLY, the viewing of which we chose to defer until its screeening in our local cinema.

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(Telluride at Dusk)

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

Since Kate, one of our traveling companions, had to leave the Festival early, we decided to skip The Feed, a standup food event on Telluride’s Main Street, and dine at the elegant New Sheridan restaurant. This left time for only one film, a late (10 PM) showing of WAKEFIELD. Directed by Robin Swicord, who wrote the screenplay for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and starring Bryan Cranston as Wakefield and Jennifer Garner as his wife Diane, the film traces Wakefield’s sudden, surprising and troubling decision to “drop out” of his own life. When his Metro North commuter train from Manhattan is delayed in a power outage, Wakefield chooses not to pick up Diane’s worried calls. Returning home, he secretes himself in a dusty attic above their garage, where for the next nine months he spies on his wife and two daughters as they slowly adjust to his inexplicable disappearance. Based on a New Yorker story by E. L. Doctorow, WAKEFIELD explores the perhaps universal desire to witness our own life as a means of self-understanding and recovery. Garner’s performance as the often-silent object of regard is excellent, but WAKEFIELD frequently drags while presenting its intimate portrait of one man’s emotional and physical descent. In the end this viewer remains puzzled about the nature of Wakefield’s anguish and his cruelly chosen means of renewal. RON’S GRADE: B

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

We rose early on Saturday to secure places online for a bound-to-be rushed tribute to actor Casey Affleck followed by a viewing of Affleck’s latest film, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. In retrospect, if it were necessary to rise at 1 AM to see this extraordinary film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, it would have been worthwhile. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is composed of a multiplicity of crystalline present tense and flashback scenes, which together compose a narrative of overwhelming emotional power. Lee Chandler (Affleck) works in a dead-end job as janitor in a Boston apartment complex. Taciturn and withdrawn, he reveals his deep-lying anger in a series of barroom brawls. When Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, leaving behind a will that makes Lee the sole guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (wonderfully played by Lucas Hedges), we begin to see the horrendous tragedy that underlies Lee’s anger and guilt. A meeting on the street between Lee and his ex-wife Randy (also beautifully played by Michelle Williams) exposes griefs so deep that even love cannot assuage. Can parenting Patrick revive Lee’s haunted spirit, or will his despairing utterance, “I can’t beat this,” prove true? In images and story MANCHESTER BY THE SEA gives us an extraordinary portrait of life in twenty-first century New England—and America. But the emotion of this film rests on Affleck’s Academy Award deserving performance. RON’S grade: A+

02-affleck

(Right: Casey Affleck)

Next up was Irish director Aisling Walsh’s MAUDIE. The film traces over thirty years in the life of Maud Lewis (1903-1970), one of Canada’s greatest primitivist painters. Sally Hawkins plays Maud, whom we first meet as a young woman suffering from severe early-onset arthritis. Despite her handicap, Maud nevertheless chooses to leave the care of her nasty guardian-aunt to work for room and board as housekeeper for Everett Lewis (played masterfully by Ethan Hawke), a very poor Nova Scotian fish peddler. Beautiful austere northern coastal landscapes alternate with emotional scenes shot (at director Walsh’s insistence) inside a reconstruction of the twelve foot by twelve foot “house” in which Maud and Everett spent their lives. Everett has a brusque and overbearing nature (early on he tells Maud that in the household hierarchy she stands below the dogs and chickens) but he softens as he comes to appreciate the practical and emotional value of Maud’s presence. This erasing of hierarchy accelerates as Maud exhibits a gift for painting that eases their poverty and that eventually makes her world famous. Sally Hawkins delivers an outstanding performance as an outwardly unattractive disabled woman whose inner charm, beauty, and intelligence show through and grow even as she ages. Hawke never loses his rough demeanor but his mature love and respect for “Maudie” (whom he marries at her insistence as the price for sex) become evident. The scenes of him transporting Maud to town by pushing her in a handcart over the heath and his grief over her death show that a relationship of convenience has become a loving collaboration in the creation of beauty. RON’S GRADE: A

Later this evening we dined at Allred’s Restaurant on the Telluride gondola stop and had the opportunity to thank Ms. Walsh for this wonderful film. Here’s a photo of her.

03s-aisling-walsh

My day ended on my own with a 9:15 showing of NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s previous film FOOTNOTE remains one of my all-time Telluride favorites, so my expectations for this, his latest film, were high. Norman, as played by Richard Gere, is an operator with a business card but no office who pretends to know everybody. In this role, he accidentally does a real favor for Michal (very well played by Lior Ashkenazi), an in-and-out of favor Israeli politician who soon and surprisingly rises to the post of prime minister. Norman thus faces new opportunities, but the challenges and commitments that come with them overwhelm him and threaten to once again thrust him to the margin. With Gere as its lead character, this film may well make it to the Cineplexes. It could be that I was tired with the late start, but, despite its informative depiction of how things get done in the world of politics, I found NORMAN’s presentation of its character’s ways to be repetitive and sleep inducing. RON’S GRADE B-

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

Sunday began with a tribute to Amy Adams followed by a screening of her latest film, ARRIVAL. The clips of Adams’ career to date revealed her transition from a youthful and innocent beauty (JUNEBUG, 2005) to a tougher mature woman (FIGHTER, 2010). Adams spoke of the changes being a mother have wrought in her life and the role of various directors in helping her avoid becoming identified with a single character-type.

04-amy-adams

(Amy Adams)

ARRIVAL is the latest film by Denis Villeneuve, whom I regard as one of the finest directors working today. Since making INCENDIES (2010), which is very near the top of my list of favorite films, Villeneuve has transitioned to Hollywood with a series of outstanding genre films (PRISONERS 2013; SICARIO 2015). ARRIVAL is his exploration of the science fiction genre. Based on a story by Ted Chiang, ARRIVAL chronicles the appearance of twelve mammoth alien pods at locations all around the earth. Why are they here? Are they friend or foe? Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (very well played by Adams) is called on to establish communication with the visitors. Scenes of her daughter’s life and death are interwoven with those of her team’s visits inside the pod to the seven-legged alien heptapods. ARRIVAL becomes a fascinating narrative about language and its relation to time. It ends as we begin to unravel the puzzles it presents. We see that flashbacks are not necessarily flashbacks, and that what began as a sci-fi flick is really about the intensity of parenting and motherhood. RON’S GRADE: A

ARRIVAL was followed by GRADUATION, the latest film by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS is a Telluride great. It follows the difficult effort by a dedicated and ethical physician, Romeo (very well played by Adrian Titieni), to ensure that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) pass her baccalaureate examinations with grades good enough to get her out of the country and into a promised scholarship in England. Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) are on the edge of divorce and in despair over their decision, decades before, to return to Romania in the wake of dictator Ceausescu’s ouster. None of their dreams for the renewal of the nation have materialized, rendering their hopes for Eliza’s future both deeply personal as well as parental. But pursuing this new dream leads Romeo into the web of corruption that pervades Romanian society. This threatens to undo everything positive the doctor has accomplished in life. GRADUATION lacks the dramatic tension of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS’ chilling exploration of the implications of illegal abortion, but it offers a compelling portrayal of the difficulties of middle-class life in contemporary Romania. RON’S GRADE: A-

Next up for us was THINGS TO COME, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. It explores a seemingly more fortunate example of middle class life, this time in Paris, where we follow Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) a lycée professor of philosophy as she moves between her classroom, her comfortable Paris apartment, and a seaside Brittany summer home. But Nathalie’s life is not without its upsets. Her publisher wants her to agree to “more marketable” editions of her textbooks (or wants to replace them entirely with more trendy texts), her lycée-teacher husband informs her that he is leaving her for a younger women, and students are blocking entrance to her school on the grounds that reforms aimed at raising the retirement age (which disadvantage her generation) will further impede their access to jobs. When her husband departs, Nathalie decides to spend some time in the mountainous Vercors region where a student protégé has joined an intellectual commune whose members debate German philosophy and teach (part time) at the University of Grenoble. But communal life is not for her, “she has been there.” THINGS TO COME reflects the economic and demographic turmoil in contemporary French society as well as the turmoil inside an aging woman who watches her comfortable world unravel. Is there a positive message? Perhaps. Philosophy remains a strong support in her life, as does the arrival of a first grandchild. In many ways, this film mimics the many charming cinematic depictions of middle-class life in France during the “thirty glorious” years of the late twentieth century. But it also perhaps unintentionally undermines those classic depictions, by showing a society whose middle-class confidences have rested on uncertain foundations and now face challenges from all sides. I remain somewhat disturbed that this film repeats the conventions of the past and never quite gets past them. RON’S GRADE: B

My Sunday ended with a late showing of the 1970 made-for-Russian-television movie IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY by director Marlen Khutsiev (to see what dedicated Communists his parents were, decrypt his first name). This was one of two selections of films by Festival guest director Volker Schlondörff celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II (the other was the East German I WAS NINETEEN).

IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY begins with several minutes of ear-shattering newsreel footage of the battle of Berlin which then gives way to total silence. It resumes with a high shot of a troop of Russian soldiers in a hayloft awakening from sleep. Peace and victory. We follow the soldiers as they enjoy their bivouac on a German farm, whose pleasant “Bauer” and his buxom, pretty wife are eager to please. On one of their forays into the countryside, however, the troop comes across a vacated concentration camp with all its facilities of torment intact. They return to the farm to find that the Bauer and his wife have fled. The film concludes with graphic concentration camp footage. Marlen’s parents may have been good Marxist-Leninists, but in a coded way IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY subverts Soviet propaganda by graphically showing that the camps’ inmates were not just “Russians” or “Poles” but Jews. Though this film sometimes drags and is naïve in its evident propaganda, it offers a unique Russian glimpse into the meaning and aftermath of the war. RON’S GRADE: B+ (I wish I had had the time to see the supposedly better made I WAS NINETEEN, a product of the German Babelsberg film city taken over by occupying Russian forces.)

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5

Our final day began with a tribute to Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Selections from his deeply social-political films (NO, TONY MANERO, THE CLUB) and an interview were followed by clips from the forthcoming JACKIE, his first American-made film that stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy.

The tribute was followed by Larraín’s latest film, NERUDA, a semi-fictionalized biopic about Chile’s acclaimed poet, deposed senator, and communist activist. Charged with treason in the wake of the American-inspired anti-communist fever of 1948, the poet goes into hiding. Larraín presents these events through the eyes of a resentful cop (well played by Gael García Bernal) who obsessively pursues the poet. Luis Gnecco had to put on thirty pounds to play the sybaritic writer whom we see at once as both narcissistic and charmingly generous. The Javert-like pursuer, who is presented as possibly being Neruda’s biological brother, is a literary invention embodying the hatred of Neruda felt by his political opponents. NERUDA thus suggests that all our political types and antitypes may be the creation of our literary imagination. Frequent quotes from Neruda’s poems remind us that poetry is sometimes able to move historic events. Fans of Neruda’s poetry may very well appreciate this film, but I found its well-played lead character hard to like. RON’S GRADE: B+

05-larrain-et-al

(Left to right, Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, interviewer, and Pablo Larraín)

Our afternoon was spent with UNA starring Rooney Mara, a troubling first-time film by Australian theater director Benedict Andrews that may well make it to the Cineplex. If it does, I predict that it will be controversial. Some knowledgeable viewers will see its cinematic adaptation as a degradation of the play on which it is based (even though the screenplay was written by the playwright, David Harrower). Some will see it as either too harsh or too forgiving of the sexual abuse of minors. I see it as a love story gone awry: two (in this case inappropriate) lovers whose lives are shattered by mistiming and misfortune. Mara’s performance is excellent as are those by Ruby Stokes as the thirteen-year old Una and Ben Mendelsohn as her abuser/lover. UNA shows why we have laws against sex with youngsters even as it tells us that such laws cannot always cope with the complexity of human emotions. RON’S GRADE: A

Our day—and festival—concluded with German director Ade Maren’s TONI ERDMANN. The film was a Cannes award winner and critics’ favorite there—with good reason. It is a constantly funny tour of a father-daughter relationship with many jewel-like scenes that you keep turning over in your mind once the film is over. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is an ambitious and wound up corporate consultant working in Bucharest where her father Winfried (wonderfully played by Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired German septuagenarian piano teacher, makes an unannounced visit. Dad is an amateur clown, equipped with protruding false teeth, a crazy wig, and a fart cushion. Perceiving Ines to be on a self- and socially destructive trajectory, he assumes the role of Toni Erdmann, an unkempt, snaggletoothed, and totally unqualified executive coach. Intrusive incident by intrusive incident, he goes about deranging Ines’s life. Each incident is hilarious, and little by little Ines begins to recover her youthful mirth and humanism. One high point is a team building party hosted by Ines. After wrestling to don her costly dress, she throws it on the bed, and goes naked to the door, announcing to her shocked visitors that it is a nude event. TONI ERDMANN is a feminist-inspired exploration of modern corporate life and a touching celebration of father-daughter love. RON’S GRADE: A

****

Each year, we worry that the Festival under the leadership of Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger will not match up to the many years that it was under the direction of Dartmouth’s Bill Pence, and it is true that there have been changes, including a slight turn from world cinema to likely Oscar nominees. But this year, like those before, did not disappoint. Outstanding world cinema was present from MAUDIE to TONI ERDMANN, and the Hollywood offerings we saw, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and ARRIVAL offered a privileged first glimpse at films that will occupy public attention during the months ahead. We look forward to next year.

 

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Travel

TWO WEEKS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

From February 29 to March 15, 2016 we made a long anticipated trip to Southeast Asia. This included stays in Hanoi, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Tokyo. This narrative recounts some of the highlights of our trip and offers reflections on things we learned.

To begin, this is a good moment for many parts of Asia. Yes, there are storm clouds. North Korea, the air pollution that comes with rapid development, China’s mercurial stock market. But this part of the globe is at least relatively far from the madness of the Middle East, and its economies are thriving. Here’s a snapshot of a group of Japanese students with whom we shared a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat). Their evident joyfulness captures the upbeat spirit in this part of the world.

001 Japanese Kids

Hanoi beckoned because a friend and colleague of Mary Jean’s, Jack Yeager of LSU, is teaching there this term on a Fulbright grant. During the Vietnam War years, Jack learned Vietnamese and is now a renowned specialist in Vietnamese literature. His knowledge of Vietnam eased our adjustment to the city. Here’s a snapshot of Jack who hosted us during our visit.

Jack

 

HANOI. What can one say of this bustling old Imperial capital? First, one notes—one must note—the traffic. This snapshot shows the endless stream of cars, busses and motorbikes—above all motorbikes.

 

Scooters

Crossings at traffic lights are scarce and the rules governing them arcane (“right turn on tourist” seems to be one). Crosswalks exist to lure naive pedestrians to their death. Here’s how we were instructed to get across a street: “First make sure there are no busses or cars. They will not stop. Then close your eyes and walk slowly across. The motorbike drivers will dodge around you. But don’t run or they won’t be able to miss you.

Motorbikes are the all purpose means of transport, having replaced the trams of the colonial era. They carry everything from trees:

001 Tree Scooter

to families

Whole Families

to dogs

Dog

Because of air pollution, many of the scooterists wear facemasks. As I write, today’s English-language Vietnamese newspaper reports that Hanoi’s air is seven times more hazardous than WHO’s maximum allowable level. In our nine day visit a foggy haze constantly blanketed the city.

Our hotel is located next to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, which serves like Central Park in Manhattan to offer a refreshing break from the city’s pace and congestion. Here’s a view of the lake looking northward toward a small island with a temple reached by a colorful red bridge:

Lake

At the other end of the lake is a small pagoda

 

182 Turtle Pagoda

Legend has it that a semi-divine turtle lived here and furnished an ancient emperor with a sword to liberate the city. A stuffed replica of this turtle is found in the temple reached by the red bridge:

Turtle

A descendant of that turtle who actually dwelled in the lake died recently of old age and there is talk of restocking the lake with a Chinese relative.

Hanoi is the capitol of one of the world’s surviving Communist states, but it’s a free market, small capitalist, entrepreneurial festival. Its streets are lined with small shops, tiny open-air restaurants, including countless “Pho” (pronounced Pha) shops serving hot rice-noodle soup or fried snacks, and individual vendors touting all kinds of wares.

Store Fronts

 

Food

 

Vendors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women, young and old, traverse the streets carrying baskets of goods suspended from their shoulders.

 

Woman Carrying Goods

A parenthetical word here about gender. Of course a foreigner cannot easily know the intimate power relationships within families, and there is evidence that as in America women assume a disproportionate share of household and child rearing work. But outwardly, Vietnamese society seems remarkably gender-equal. Women participate in every aspect of society, whether as shop owners or functionaries. Fathers are seen tending children. Women’s dress outfit, the attractive Ao Dai features light skirt-like back and front panels that conceal sensible pants. Here’s a specimen:

Ao Dai

There are no veils or mandatory head coverings here as in Riad or Jerusalem. (And while I’m at it let me celebrate the easy availability of beer, wine and pork. This is not a land of taboos.)

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2

And there is much good food. On the evening of our arrival, we met Jack Yeager and some of his friends for dinner at the Com Viet, a beautifully preserved old townhouse become restaurant. (This place is so esteemed that, as you can see by the photo on the wall, Hillary dined here during one of her state visits.)

006a Dinner at Com Viet with HillaryJPG

Dinner was our introduction to North Vietnamese cuisine, a food tradition that combines the abundance of Southeast Asian agriculture with Chinese and French culinary finesse. Here’s our table, spread with nems (fresh and fried rolls) and diverse stir-fried plates.

005Dinner Table at Com VietJPG

THURSDAY MARCH 3

HO CHI MINH MAUSOLEUM

Our first full day on the ground began with a must-do visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. If anyone is the father of this nation, it’s Ho Chi Minh. For thirty years he led his nation’s independence struggle against the French, the Japanese, the French again, and then the Americans. I personally regret that I became aware of Ho’s committed lifelong leadership only at the onset of the “American War” in 1965. In a small act of contrition for our own country’s tragic and foolish involvement in Vietnam, we visited Ho’s mausoleum.

The authorities handle the daily influx of thousands of visitors with great aplomb. We joined a line that snaked for nearly half a mile through the compound but took less than an hour to traverse.

 

006 Mausoleum_4060

Much of the line was populated with school groups. The kids were all similarly outfitted in bright (“Scooterists beware!”) jackets bearing individual school crests on their shoulders.

09 Schoolchilldren

The mausoleum itself has all the marks of Soviet-era design.

08 Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Inside, Ho’s body glows gently under subdued lighting and the line passes quickly by. (Photos are not allowed, but you can find a rather poor picture here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ho-chi-minh-mausoleum). I’ve now seen Lenin’s mummified body in Red Square, Chairman Mao’s in Tienanmen Square, and Ho’s here in Hanoi. Catholicism’s love of saints’ relics pales in comparison to these atheistic pilgrimage sites. (In fairness, Ho wanted to be cremated but after his death, the party thought otherwise.)

Just beyond the mausoleum is the compound where Ho lived and worked before his death in 1969 and during (what we call) the Vietnam War. Here’s his office.

024 Ho Chi Minh's Workplace

Mysteriously, the U.S. never bombed the compound during our merciless pounding of Hanoi. Was our intelligence as lame as the war itself?

THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE

A short walk from Ho’s compound is the ancestor of all ancestor sites: Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. Dating from the 11th century, this was long a center of Confucian learning for the nation’s elite Mandarin leaders. The complex stretches over several acres, with shrines, pagodas and assembly rooms.

040 Temple of Literature

Housed in their own building, these stelae record the names and honors of several centuries worth of outstanding scholars.

054 Doctors' Stellae

In a bid to tradition, newly married couples visit the site for a photo shoot.

037 Married Couple

(Note each member of the couple’s lovely Ao Dai). And here, near the center of the complex is a shrine to Confucius himself.

072 Confucius

I suspect that to understand Vietnam, even its Communist incarnation today, one has to appreciate this long tradition of Mandarin leadership.

FRIDAY MARCH 4

Museums are closed on Fridays, so our main event for the day was a morning cooking class on North Vietnamese cuisine at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Our instructor, “Eee” (I can’t imagine how he spells this), greeted us at the door to this school-library-restaurant and immediately took us a short walk away to the outdoor market that nourishes the Centre. Here is Eee holding a “Buddha’s Finger” fruit. These are inedible but are used for offerings at Buddhist shrines. As you can see more clearly in the fruit on the table, it does indeed look like a collection of fingers.

 

092 Our chef-teacher Eee

The market itself was a flurry of activity, with motorbikes coming and going at high speed down the narrow lanes between the food stalls.

105 Market

Everything edible, and some things un-edible to us, can be found here. Sausage:

107 Market Sausage

All sorts of rice:

107a Rice

Fresh tofu:

114 Tofu

Eggs:

119 Egg Lady

And, yes, roasted dog:

108 Dog

Newly purchased ingredients in hand—not including the appetite-dimming canine offering—we returned to the Cooking Centre.

132 Classroom Kitchen

Our first assignment was to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls using transparent rice paper. Here, Eee shows how it’s done:


   148 Nem

  150 Nem

152 Nem

Another dish was banana flower salad, made by taking a banana flower (note the little bananas growing inside)

144 Bananna Flowers

and thinly slicing across the tubular flower to get this main ingredient of the salad:

146 Bananna Flower Salad

I confess that this somewhat chewy concoction was not my favorite dish of the day, so I don’t regret that the Wellfleet General Store—or for that matter anyplace on Cape Cod—doesn’t carry banana flowers.

Our final dish was a stir-fried and then clay-pot-roasted chicken dish, which miraculously turned one small chicken leg into a meal for two. A keynote of Asian cooking is the use of small portions of expensive but savory foods to flavor and supplement the hunger-allaying rice.

We celebrated our morning’s class with a graduation photo and a luncheon at the upstairs restaurant featuring our own creations. This is the third cooking class I’ve taken on Asian travels (I had previously done one in Thailand and in Cambodia), and I heartily recommend this as a way of better understanding local culture.

142 In Class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WOMEN’s MUSEUM. Early afternoon was spent visiting the fascinating Women’s Museum. You’re welcomed into it with this large sculpture said to symbolize the status of Vietnamese women.

158 Women's Museum

She carries the nation’s future in the form of a child on her shoulder, and with her right hand is making a gesture of confidence. The museum’s three floors document, respectively, the lives of women in traditional Vietnamese society, women’s role in the struggle for independence, and contemporary fashion. I skipped the latter but dwelled on the important part played by women in what is here called “the American War,” where 40% of the combatants were women.

One panel displays photos of “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam,” who earned that title by having lost a husband, more than two children, an only child, or their own lives in the struggle. In 2008, more than 50,000 women were awarded this title, some posthumously.

162 Heroic Mothers

Equally poignant was a display devoted to Dang Thuy Tram, popularly known as the Anne Frank of Vietnam.

161 Dang Thuy Tram

 

161a Dang Thuy Tram Book

She was a 27-year old doctor in 1970 when she died in a firefight while defending her hospital from US attack. Her diary was found on her body by an American intelligence officer, who realizing its value, preserved it for thirty-five years until its publication in 2005. (You can read more about Dang Thuy Tram and her diary here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/diary-of-a-vietcong-doctor-the-anne-frank-of-vietnam-317801.html. As in everything associated with this visit to Hanoi, I feel both contrition for our own country’s terrible role in this conflict, and admiration for the spirit of the Vietnamese people, not least of all its women. Their courage is symbolized in one other item among the exhibits: a facemask worn by female political cadres during meetings in which they sought to rally villagers to the independence cause. These masks were needed to keep their identity from enemy collaborators.

166 Protective Mask

SATURDAY, MARCH 5

Today was spent visiting sites around Hoan Kiem Lake: the still elegant French quarter with its Vuitton and Gucci shops, the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, the utterly congested shopping quarter above the lake, and a water puppet performance

The Museum of the Revolution had the expected grainy black and white photos of events during the Vietnam War. Two exhibits caught my attention. One is this 1953 photo of Richard Nixon visiting the country (still under French domination).

188 Nixon Visit 11-1953

Nixon, in his role as a cold warrior, prepared the way for so much that followed, which is not to exonerate Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, again, Nixon or Kissinger for this ill-considered involvement that continues to poison our national political life. (I regard Donald Trump as a late blooming karmic fruit of the divisiveness and class and partisan hatred spawned by this senseless war.)

The other exhibit is a bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh delivering Vietnam’s declaration of independence in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi (right next to the site now of Ho’s mausoleum) on September 2, 1945.

186 Ho Chi Minh 9-2-45

The declaration almost plagiarizes our own Declaration if Independence and France’s Rights of Man. How different might the history of the late twentieth century be if Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments had prevailed, and if we had had the good sense to support this nationalist leader from the end of the Japanese occupation?

A difficult photographic environment prevented me from getting worthwhile images of the water puppet show. In any event, in visiting Vietnam, whether here or as we had in Saigon twenty years ago, one must take in one of these shows, where large puppets weighing up to fifteen kilos are manipulated by puppeteers behind a silk screen using long bamboo poles and strings under water. This art form stems from the culture of North Vietnam’s Red River delta region, where rice farmers developed it as seasonal entertainment. (Later this week, we visited Hanoi’s wonderful Ethnology Museum where one can see a full reconstruction of such a puppet theater. Here’s a photo:

330 Puppet Theater

And here’s a shot of the interior with a boatload of puppets ready for deployment:

332 Interior Puppets

Following the performance, I did manage one decent shot of the puppeteers emerging to take their bows:

192 Puppeteers

 

SUNDAY, MARCH 6

Today’s destination was Halong Bay, the remarkable formation of small mountains that march across a coastal bays 170 kilometers east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin. The daylong visit began with a four-hour bus trip to the coast across an agricultural and village landscape. As this photo shows, rice culture predominates:

195 Countryside

Since agricultural land is so vital, homes in the small villages or towns we passed reach upwards from small footprints:

198 Countryside

Arriving in Halong Bay, we encountered a remarkably well-run operation. Visitors by the hundreds are met by appointed boats:

200 Departure Ha Long Bay  201 Boats on Bay

Lunch aboard was promptly served

 

202 Lunch Onboard

You’re taken to a floating platform, where bamboo-bottom boats or kayaks await to let you explore an inlet or two.

206 Small Boatas   208 Small Boatas

210 Small Boatas

Our oarswoman had all the spunk and charm of a Vietnamese lady:

216 Our Oarswoman

Next stop was a mammoth cave on one of the islands. Here’s one shot of its colorfully illuminated interior:

232 Cave Interior

As we prepared to return to the boat and the long evening drive back to Hanoi, we passed a sign imaging Halong Bay on one of its sunnier days (though I’m not sure whether air pollution any longer permits such a thing.) This gives you an aerial overview of why it is a world-class site:

238 Sunny Ha Long Bay Poster

MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY MARCH 7-9

After a day of travel, Tuesday marked the beginning of a two-day excursion from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the Angkor Wat temple complex. I had visited here in November 2013 (see my account https://ronaldmgreen.com/category/travel/page/2/)  and was so impressed that I promised Mary Jean that I would take her there one day. That day had arrived.

I won’t recount here my previous descriptions of these magnificent temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom  (the Bayon) or the prolifically overgrown Ta Prohm. But here are some up-to-date snapshots of these wonderful structures followed by a few pictures of a return visit to Tonlé Sap lake with its colorful floating fishermen’s villages.

Angkor Wat:

250 Angor Wat

The Bayon (at Angkor Thom):

 

266 Bayon

 

And Ta Prohm that was used as a setting for the film “Tomb Raider”:

 

 

284 Ta Prohm

A floating restaurant on Tonlé Sap lake:

310 Lake Restaurant

And some youngsters frolicking in their watery “front yard.”

296 Kids Tonle Sap

We returned to Hanoi on Wednesday night March 9. Sitting on the plane, reading the downloaded latest results of U.S. primary voting on my iPhone, I found myself reflecting on contemporary Siem Reap, the booming urban conglomeration that surrounds the temple complex. I was reminded of another unintended consequence of our intervention in Vietnam and our expanded bombings of Laos and Cambodia: the terrible rise of the Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge regime, during which a fifth of Cambodia’s eight and a half million inhabitants were murdered. One never encounters a guide in Siem Reap old enough to have survived those years without his or her own horror stories. I asked myself, how can one square this gentle Buddhist people who today so warmly welcome foreigners with the Khmer Rouge thugs who murdered and tortured millions? The only answer I can come up with is that the possibilities of good and evil are always resident in human beings and that bad political decisions can turn even gentle people into monsters. Today’s news reports the new electoral triumph of Donald Trump and his egging followers on to violence. Cambodia’s tragic history reminds us that ill-considered political choices can have fateful—and fatal—consequences.

THURSDAY & FRIDAY MARCH 10 AND 11

Our return to Hanoi afforded us two days to see the several museums we missed following our arrival. Front and center on Thursday morning was the outstanding Ethnology Museum. Although the museum has an interesting building with exhibits of the dress, implements and festivals of the many different ethnic groups that compose the Vietnamese nation, its special attraction is a large exterior garden with many reconstructed dwellings of the country’s various ethnicities. I could include here dozens of photos of these buildings’ interior and exteriors, but I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to plan your own visit to this wonderful site. To tempt you, I include shots of only one building, the magnificent Bahnar Communal House from north central Vietnam. As you can see, like many of these buildings, the house is elevated on stilts to protect it from flooding and rot:

334 Bahnar Communcal House

Here’s the interior, with its bamboo mat flooring:

336 Bahnar Interior

And here the vaulting rafters:

338 Rafters

 

As videos within each building show, the construction of these houses is a communal enterprise combining skilled artisanry with the strength of many workers. All the buildings at the museum were constructed on this site by workers from each ethnicity. In its entirety, the Ethnology Museum testifies to the ingenuity and dedication of the various peoples of Vietnam.

HOA LO PRISON

In the afternoon, I weaved my way on my own through Hanoi traffic to the vestiges of the large prison compound that served for decades under the French as a detention center for Vietnamese revolutionaries, and then briefly, from 1965-73 as the prisoner of war camp for U.S. aviators (including Senator John McCain) captured in the bombing of North Vietnam and then dubbed the “The Hanoi Hilton.”

Here’s a photo of the site in its heyday (only the lower left-hand portion remains):

346 Prison Entire

And here a sculptural rendition of how insurgent nationalists under the French were manacled and confined:

342 Prisoners

Here, a photo of the real people:

344 Prisoners

Those condemned to death were kept in darkness in tiny cells:

350 Condemned Man

Although laws dictated a months-long appeals process prior to an execution,  many insurgents apparently waited only days before meeting this executor of French “justice”:

348 Guillotine

A set of rooms in the compound housed the American prisoners of war. Although it is reported that some early prisoners were subject to abuse and even torture, after 1969 conditions improved. The accounts offered here by the Vietnamese contrast the destruction visited on the region by American aviators, particularly during the “Christmas bombing” of 1972,

352 Destruction

(Bombing of the Hanoi railroad station, December 21, 1972)

with what is described as the relatively privileged existence of the POWs, including opportunities to play chess and volley ball.

It is one of the great ironies of history that one resident of Hoa Lo, Captain Douglas Peterson, a pilot who crashed his Phantom fighter-bomber and was captured in April 1966 (below), returned to Vietnam as the first American ambassador in 1996 (further below).

354 Peterson

 

356 Ambassador Peterson

FRIDAY MARCH 11 

Today began with a surprising and pleasant encounter. On our way around the lake to the Museum of Vietnamese History we met a group of students. From left to right, here are Dugan, Lan, Han and Han:

 

360 Students

Jack Yeager informs us that these students are often escorted to tourist areas by their teachers in order to practice their English and exchange information about their country with visitors. These four seem to be attending a trade or commerce school, so the chance to sharpen their communication skills is relevant. After learning we were Americans, Dugan volunteered that he and his generation bear no ill will to us, since “we Vietnamese live in the present and future, not the past.” However, it was also added that none of them like the Chinese!

I will not recapitulate the subsequent visit to the Museum of Vietnamese History. Less interesting and less well presented than the Museum of Ethnology, this complex of buildings recounts Vietnam’s unrelieved history of invasions and oppression, from the Mongols and Chinese during the early second millennium up to the French and Americans in the modern period. Vietnam, with its warm climate, rich waterways, and fertile and well-watered lands, is clearly a prize possession. Although its current government is far from perfect, at least the foreigners are out.

TOKYO, MARCH 13 and 14

We ended our trip with a two-day stopover in Tokyo on the way back home. In May 2005, I traveled to Japan to research questions raised by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, visiting both cities as well as Kyoto. But I’ve never been to Tokyo, and this was a chance to do that.

Our stay began with a Sunday morning stroll from our central, Ginza hotel to the imperial palace. Despite the throngs of bus-transported Japanese visitors, it proved to be contain little more than a large flat and bare urban park

400 Palace Grounds

bordering a hilltop palace complex that (at least on this Sunday and most other times, it seems) was inaccessible to tourists:

402 Palace Grounds

But this unrewarding stroll was more than offset by our afternoon visit to the Edo-Tokyo museum.

Getting there was a challenge, requiring us to navigate the excellent, but complex, Tokyo metro and elevated train system: I hope to return in the future to Tokyo for a longer stay and I look forward to becoming conversant with this clean and efficient mass transport system.

403 Metro

 

404 Metro

The museum is a modern structure rising on gigantic stilts almost seven stories above an elevated platform.

406 Edo-Tokyo Museum

To enter you take an elevator to the top floor and descend to exhibits on the floors below.

We were extremely fortunate to be greeted by Michie Shigehara, a retired teacher who volunteers here as an English-speaking docent. Her explanation of the exhibits added greatly to our visit. Here she is with Mary Jean. I learned that Ms. Shigehara was born, as I was, in 1942. Thus an interest in history brought together two people born in nations that were then a world apart and at war with one another.

410 With Docent Michie Shigehara

To enter the exhibits, you traverse a partial reconstruction of the huge and beautifully crafted Nihonbashi Bridge.

412 Nihonbashi Bridge

 

During the Tokugawa era (1603-1867), Tokyo was known as Edo. Power was exercised by a long line of Shogun warlords, while the emperor was sidelined in Kyoto. This bridge served as entry into an extensive mercantile area which, along with the Shogun’s palace, was the heart of the nascent metropolis. One of the first exhibits is a detailed scale model of the bridge district as it looked in its heyday.

416 Nihonbashi Model

 

418 Nihonbashi Model

 

420 Nihonbashi Model

Nearby stands an almost full size replica of a kabuki theater:

414 Kabuki Theater

And here is a nearly life-sized bronze of one of the Shoguns:

424 Shogun

 

What is most impressive about Tokugawa-era Edo, is the high degree of civilization shown by life in the city. As one of the exhibits states, Edo was an “information city” in which printed books and pictures proliferated, theater flourished, and citizens congregated in public places to share news and gossip. The following are just a brief selection of images of Edo life:

Skilled craftsman, like this woodworker, practiced their trades:

428 Sashimono Wood Joinery

Theater flourished:

432 Theater Arts

Popular books with text and images were mass-produced:

433 Books

Schools educated the young:

434 School

And exquisite multi-tone woodblock prints were produced and bought:

436 Woodblock Prints

437 Woodblock Prints

The commercial side of Edo was equally alive. Here’s a model of a large drygoods emporium in which ladies and men sought out beautiful kimonos:

440 Drygoods Store

442 Drygoods Storre

On the streets, sushi, in its early form as large pieces of vinegar-preserved fish gained popularity:

448 Sushi Vendor Cart

And off the streets, Tokugawa Edo possessed a full infrastructure for water provision and waste removal. Here is an elegant Edo-era urinal:

449 Urinal

The museum continues its exploration of Tokyo’s history well beyond the Tokugawa period with exhibits proceeding through the period of Meiji imperial restoration and modernization in the late nineteenth century and through the tumultuous twentieth century, especially the Second World War era and booming post-war recovery, the period when Japan became a technological wonder. Images and artifacts from the war years evidence the city’s devastation by U.S. incendiary bombing raids in 1944 and 1945. With so much of the older city gone up in flames, there’s really very little history of Tokyo in the form of existing buildings and neighborhoods. Thus, Edo-Tokyo lives on here, in this wonderful museum.

SUNDAY, MARCH 14

This was our last day in Tokyo and the final day of our trip. High on the list was a morning visit to the Tzujiki fish market and sushi brunch at the Daiwa restauant. If sushi has a Mecca, this is it. Here’s a glimpse of corner of the busy market, where very early each morning tuna are auctioned off at astronomical prices to feed the nation’s ravenous hunger for “maguro.”

451 Tsukiji Market

And here’s the hour-long but well-managed line outside Daiwa:

452 Daiwa Line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the sushi bar inside:

453 Daiwa Sushi

And here’s a closeup of our skilled and kindly older sushi chef. When you’re seated, he asks simply: “Settu?” Since everything is in Japanese, we avoided à la carte ordering and accepted his offer of a “set meal.” Pieces of nigiri sushi are put on your plate as he finishes preparing them.454 Our Sushi Maker

And what a meal! The Platonic form of sushi. Here’s a shot of my platter mid-meal. That’s tuna on the right and uni, sea urchin, on the left.

456 Unijpg

Nearly twenty years ago, Mary Jean was hosting an end-of-term dinner for her French teaching colleagues at a Toulouse restaurant. Sushi was not widely known in France in those days, and for some reason I found myself, at one end of the table, explaining it to a curious tablemate. He asked, “And what is your favorite type of sushi?” I quickly replied, “Uni, Oursin de mer.” Sea urchin. “Pourquoi?” he continued. Why do you like sea urchin? “Parce que, lorsque on le mange, c’est comme si on mangeait la mer,” I replied. Because when one eats it,  it’s as though you’re eating the sea.” I paused and was astonished to find that all heads at the table were turned my way. At that moment, I better understood what animates the French: food and words.

But then I had not yet eaten uni at Daiwa. If you can imagining experiencing the essence of the briny sea, uni at Daiwa is it. I’m afraid I will never again be satisfied with uni elsewhere.

A CLOSING THOUGHT—ABOUT TOILETS

I’ll end this blog post with a reflection on a very mundane feature of our lives: toilets. On the way to Hanoi, during our stop on Haneda Airport, Tokyo, I witnessed the first of the amazing toilets that populate Japan’s public restrooms, and I sent this picture to an American friend who had alerted me to them.

462 Toilet

These wonderful devices do everything: seat lids raise and close automatically, they flush automatically and they have jets of water and air that clean you up at your request. But even more impressive than the toilets are these other devices that are mounted on the walls of each toilet stall:

464 Child Seat

Can you guess what this is? Answer: It’s a fold-up child seat. The Japanese have solved a problem that we Americans don’t even realize we have. What do you do with your infant while using the toilet? If you leave the baby outside, you risk his or her disappearance. Not a problem in Japan. You just set the child in this seat as you go about your business. I note, too, that these seats are in both men’s and (I’m told) women’s restrooms.

Why do I end on this note? Because I believe that one of the major purposes of travel is to get out of your parochial worldview and see how other people live. Travel not only broadens your horizons, it challenges your assumptions and forces you to understand the limits of your own culture.

This trip did this for me in two ways. First, the stay in Hanoi brought home once again the horrors our own ignorance about Vietnam, both of its history and its people. That ignorance plunged us into the Vietnam conflict. If Americans, and above all our leaders, had understood Vietnam’s long and legitimate struggle for national independence, millions of Vietnamese lives and tens of thousands of American lives could have been spared.

Japan—its toilets, trains and strikingly clean, efficient and courteous society—challenges the smug American assumption that we are an “exceptional” modern nation set off from a backward world. The reality is that there are places in Europe, Asia and elsewhere from which we have a great deal to learn in technical, economic, social, and moral terms. Perhaps if more Americans traveled abroad, we could temper the arrogance that has so damaged our relationships with one another and with the world.

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Travel

The Forty-Second Telluride Film Festival, September 4-7, 2015

Colorado Avenue 2015

PREFACE

Before attending this year’s Telluride Film Festival, I was able to catch two films in New York: PHOENIX, directed by Christian Petzold and starring Nina Hoss and GRANDMA directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. Both films are of Festival quality so I want to mention them here.

PHOENIX continues the examination of post-war German life that Petzold has previously explored in JERICHOW and BARBARA, a 2012 Telluride pick. Set immediately after the war, “Phoenix” traces the effort of camp survivor Nelly—whose face has been horribly disfigured and restored to only a partial likeness—to find her non-Jewish husband, Johnny, who remained behind when as a Jew she was deported to the camps. The film builds to an astonishing climax as both Nelly and Johnny learn more about their pasts than either wanted to know.

In GRANDMA, Lily Tomlin as Elle faces a challenging situation. A poet and part-time academic of waning hireability or publishability, she is grieving the loss of her lifetime female partner and about to break up a months long relationship with a younger woman. Elle is also nearly penniless, having cut up her credit cards in a gesture of independence, Now, her lovely teenage granddaughter arrives to ask Elle’s help in paying for an abortion costing hundreds more than either woman has. Thus begins an improbable road trip and journey of intergenerational bonding. GRANDMA is a celebration of the changing but still relevant face of feminism and a gentle but firm defense of the importance of women’s reproductive freedom.

A word about my grades for the following Festival films I saw. Since most of the films were excellent, my grades are high. My descriptions often don’t explain a minus or slightly lower grade, but I use the grading opportunity to register blemishes such as my sense that a film is slower than I would like, or in some way emotionally unconvincing or less than completely honest.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

The 42nd Telluride Festival (and by my count our 19th year of attendance) began early for me on a drizzly afternoon with a pre-program showing of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent masterpiece, DIE NIBELUNGEN. Based on the German saga, the film recounts Kriemhild’s joyous marriage to the hero Siegfried, who has been rendered immune to injury after bathing in the blood of a ferocious dragon he has slain. Unfortunately for Siegfried and Kriemhild, a linden leaf covered a small patch of Siegfried’s back, rendering him vulnerable to death at the hands of his foes.

This beautiful five hour long, gold-toned restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, with lush and nuanced orchestral accompaniment by Gottfried Huppertz, is divided into two halves of seven cantos each. Unfortunately, in order to keep my promised rendezvous for our next film with Mary Jean and our accompanying friend Kate Conley, I had to leave at the intermission. But not before watching the beautiful Kriemhild rise from beside her husband’s body, face the henchman/murderer Hagen von Tronje, and utter a vow of unrelenting vengeance. In a moment of silent filmmaking at its best the camera moves in on the up-to-now gentle Kriemhild’s face and reveals her eyes flaming with hatred and resolve.

I make a vow of my own to, in one way or another, see the second (and apparently apocalyptic) half of this film.

As difficult as it was to leave NIBELUNGEN, the decision to get on line early for our next film, TAXI, by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, was wise, since the line was already long when I arrived. Iranian authorities have forbidden this award-winning director from making further films, and he has reportedly been under house arrest. Despite—and because of—this, he made TAXI, by filming himself with small dash mounted cameras as the incognito driver of a taxi in the streets of Teheran. TAXI, thus gives us a moving stage of characters picked up in the course of a single day.

And a varied and colorful cast it is, beginning with two separate fares who share the cab. One is a beefy young man sporting a heavy gold chain who sits beside the driver. He vehemently defends the recent hangings of a series of petty thieves. But his views are contested by an older woman in the back who identifies herself as a teacher and who points to bitter economic conditions as a cause of the thieves’ behavior. As this sometimes hilarious argument proceeds, Mr. Gold Chain will have none of it (you suspect he was an Ahmadinejad supporter), and he finally exits the cab leaving us wondering whether he isn’t himself a thief.

As other fares come and go, the humor and controversy mounts. A key role is played by Panahi’s charming and precocious niece whom he picks up after school. She reads the notes she has taken for an assigned film project in which her teacher parrots the government’s current views on what makes a film “unscreenable.” We soon realize that this remarkable film fails the government’s test on all counts.

TAXI shows us what I learned during my visit to Iran in January: that Iran’s people are not a monolithic block but a lively collection of politically, religiously, and culturally diverse individuals.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my personal nomination for “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars)

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5

Today opened with a tribute to Rooney Mara. Although a neighbor on the line wondered why this honor was given to a young (30-year old) actress, the sequence of clips from films like “The Social Network,” “Side Effects,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (among others) indicated how rich and varied Mara’s talents are. The interview following the clips revealed interesting facets of her career. For example, asked whether she had read the novels and seen the prior Swedish version of the film before making the American one, she replied that she had done so, and that viewing the Swedish film led her to approach her character very differently.

A screening of Mara’s latest film, CAROL, followed the interview. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and directed by master filmmaker Todd Haynes, CAROL offers a deeply moving performance by Cate Blanchett as a mature woman who falls in love with an elfin, almost Audrey Hepburnesque, Rooney Mara. Set in the mid-ninety fifties and beautifully filmed with period costumes and autos, the film evokes the deep romanticism of that era (echoed in the popular music of the soundtrack) and applies it to a lesbian relationship—to which that same culture is both oblivious and persecutory. CAROL will be appearing in Cineplexes soon, but during our era of turmoil over gay relationships, it can change hearts and minds by showing in universally understandable ways how gay people share the human emotion of love.

RON’S GRADE: A (Don’t miss it at the Cineplex)

The string of excellent films continued in the afternoon with 45 YEARS directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff. An intelligent and progressive couple living in rural England, Kate and Geoff are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a large party (their 40th anniversary celebration was put off because Geoff needed surgery). But the childless couple’s tranquil existence is suddenly disturbed when Geoff receives a letter that reveals a largely hidden aspect of his life before the two met. 45 YEARS opens with Kate walking their well-loved dog and whistling “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” This was also the couple’s wedding day dance song. As the film ends, with the Platters’ version of the song repeated for the celebratory dance by the pair at their anniversary party, we realize that smoke can mislead people in love and also conceal deep fractures beneath the surface of what seems to be a happy marriage. Courtney and Rampling are terrific, with Rampling, one of the great beauties of modern cinema, courageously showing every line and wrinkle of her 69 years.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

Saturday concluded for me as I descended along with five anonymous Festivalgoers in a darkened gondola, all of us returning from the young Hungarian director Lázló Nemes’s unsettling Holocaust film SON OF SAUL With the town of Telluride glittering far below, we engaged for twenty minutes in an impassioned seminar on the film. “Son of Saul,” we agreed, is a different Holocaust film. As Nemes observed in the brief Q&A following the film, it seeks to avoid reassurance of any sort, such as that offered by films like “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful.”

Saul is a member of one of the briefly surviving Sonderkommando teams that conducted the gassing and burning of Jewish victims until that team, too, was gassed and burned in the Nazis’ effort to erase the crime. As the film begins, Saul, chillingly played by the Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, moves like a dead man, helping to lead the unwitting victims into the “showers,” standing by the steel doors hearing the screams as they’re gassed, and scrubbing away the blood and filth. We see a new terror of the Holocaust in the merciless forced pace of the crematorium death factory, as inmates move from difficult task to difficult task under the constant threat of joining the piles of “pieces” they process. Saul is shaken out of his indifference when he encounters the body of a young boy, who he claims to be his own son (though it’s never clear that this is so). Thus begins Saul’s obsessive effort to provide a traditional Jewish burial for the boy. This leads us through every chamber of the crematorium complex and through the turmoil of a failed Sonderkommando uprising. Shot with 35-millimeter film, shallow depth of focus, and a screen size deliberately reduced to the older 4:3 ratio, the camera always keeps the worst images—full views of the victims and the treatment of their bodies—at the edge of our vision. But the hand-held shots and the cacophony of languages—Hungarian, Yiddish, German—convey the chaos and terror of this hell within a hell.

As I and my fellow filmgoers descend in our gondola, we debate whether Saul’s behavior is an insane mental break—an additional assault on his humanity caused by the insane conditions—or a profound spiritual affirmation that takes him beyond the instinct for survival that drives the other men. Or is it both? SON OF SAUL provides no easy answers, but in the bleakest of ways, it forces us to deepen our comprehension of the Holocaust.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6

Sunday started for us on a bad note. After waiting for an hour and a half, we were denied admission to the Danny Boyle tribute and viewing of his latest film, STEVE JOBS. Our W2 line passes to the Mountain Village Chuck Jones cinema normally guarantee admission, but a surge of “filmmakers of tomorrow” shut us out five places short of admission. In compensation, we were given one-time priority passes that put us among the $3900 patron pass holders for any upcoming film. This was emotionally assuaging but not total recompense.

After a three-hour wait we were admitted to the Chuck Jones for the French director Xavier Giannoli’s MARGUERITE. It was worth the wait.

The year is 1920 and the context, brilliantly portrayed with period settings and costumes, is the catastrophe of the war and the emerging cultural turmoil and excesses of the twenties. Baroness Marguerite Dumont, still living in the protected bubble of the pre-war aristocracy, is passionately devoted to musical performance, and believes herself to be a diva of importance. She stages a private recital at her magnificent chateau “for the benefit of orphans of the war.” But when she starts to sing it is chalk on a blackboard. Her devoted audience of private music club attendees, family servants and war orphans applauds warmly, but they must also suppress their laughter (our film audience viewers did not).

What makes this film move beyond comedy into deep human insight and emotion is the performance of Catherine Frot as Marguerite. Her sweet face and gentle disposition stir us to affection for her just as they do her colorful retinue of followers. Like them, we fear the encounter with reality that could shatter her illusions. But we also feel admiration for Marguerite. Her passion suggests to us that life itself is nothing more than the illusion we weave for ourselves, and we admire her courage and tenacity in pursuit of her artistic dream.

In the Q&A that followed the film, Annette Insdorf revealed that a film based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the American diva whose story inspired MARGUERITE, is now in production starring Meryl Streep. We’ll see how that film compares with “Marguerite,” and whether Streep can match Frot’s performance to make us pity, admire, and love this beautifully deluded person.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my second personal nomination along with “Taxi” for this year’s “Best Foreign Film”)

Very positive line buzz led us to privilege ROOM for our late afternoon viewing. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson with a screenplay adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, ROOM is a factionalized account of the experience of the Cleveland teenager who was abducted, imprisoned for years, and raped and impregnated by her psychopath abductor. Joy (Brie Nelson) protectively raises her five-year old son Jack (brilliantly played by Jacob Tremblay) to believe that their tiny room is the whole universe. Only when it becomes necessary to make him realize otherwise in order to make their escape, does five-year-old Jack begin to understand that there is a larger, real world beyond the TV screen.

I confess to being uncomfortable throughout this film. Using a thriller format to move events forward creates a constant feeling of menace even after Joy and Jack are freed. More than seems to be needed in order to explore the psychological challenges facing mother and son, we’re constantly led to worry that Jack or Ma will suffer some terrible new harm. To its credit, ROOM offers an uplifting vision of the intensity of maternal love. But some viewers may worry that Joy’s response to a forced pregnancy is depicted in too redemptive terms.

RON’S GRADE: B plus

ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR closed my day. (Mary Jean and Kate chose not to attend a film with a 10:30 start). Co-directed by Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag, this documentary chronicles Ware’s seven years as a Time correspondent in Iraq from before the invasion to the fighting to recover Fallujah and Ramadi from Iraqi insurgents. Videos shot by Ware’s reporting team with Ware’s taut Australian-accented voiceover and captured insurgent footage document the war from the brief, heady days when U.S. troops entering Baghdad were welcomed with flowers, through the emergence of the deadly Iraqi “resistance” to the U.S. occupation, to the retaking of Fallujah and Ramadi from insurgents led by the vicious Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Ware doesn’t say anything about the larger issues of the conflict (although one’s stomach turns at brief TV screen clips of George W. Bush stupidly boasting of the initial successes and then blaming the insurgents for the resulting mayhem). But the film powerfully documents the increasing cruelty on both sides, from the barbarous bombings and beheadings by Zarqawi’s followers to the increasing anger and callousness of the young American soldiers dropped into this hell (often without sufficient support). A dramatic closing video shows the GIs dragging a badly wounded insurgent off the street into a courtyard where they’ve sought shelter. The Iraqi’s brain oozes out of his head, but his chest continues to heave as the soldiers search his pockets, pulling out two ammunition clips and an identity photo bearing a fresh young face. In violation of military law, no one makes an effort—not even Ware—to secure medical help, and we watch for minutes until the chest stops heaving. The film closes as Ware regrets the toll the war has taken on his own humanity.

ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR has been sold to and will be shown on HBO. For a view we never quite got to see on TV of this terrible and misguided conflict, Don’t miss it.

RON’S GRADE: A

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7

Our final day at this year’s festival began at the limited seating Opera House where our consolation-prize priority passes earned us quick entry to what soon became a packed house for the Irish-Cuban film, VIVA. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and beautifully filmed in Havana, VIVA stars Hector Medina as Jesus, a young gay man who supports himself as a part-time hairdresser. Jesus’s work for the divas at a transvestite cabaret draws him into their performance world. But his life is abruptly changed by the return of his long-lost father, Angel, a failed prizefighter who has just been released from prison. Angel has no room for “maricons” (“fags”) and after slugging his son during Jesus’s first performance at the cabaret, forbids him to perform. We watch how in order to support them both Jesus begins to descend into prostitution, while longing to return to the intense world of song and performance to which he’s so drawn

In the Q&A following the film, Luis Alberto Garcia, who plays Mama, the cabaret owner (and in some ways Jesus’s foster-father), observed that this film is not only about gays or transvestites but also—and even more directly—about love and family. That’s exactly right.

I was bothered a bit by VIVA’S use of narrative clichés—for example, the bitchy friend whose boyfriend knocks her up and leaves her (and Jesus) to pick up the pieces. But even these clichés may convey aspects of Cuban life, such as the intra-familial and neighbor-bonding shaped by the needs of an impoverished community.

RON’S GRADE: A minus (but my third personal “Best Foreign Film” nomination)

I have often said that the Telluride Film Festival involves going to a small mountain village in Colorado and then, in three days, traveling the world. IXCANUL (Volcano), directed by the young Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamente, is an example of Telluride’s best world cinema. As the film opens, we see Maria (beautifully played by María Mercedes Coroy), a 17-year old Mayan girl, as she is being prepared to meet her future husband and his family. Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo) is foreman at the local coffee plantation whose spouse has died and left him with three young children. Unfortunately, Maria upsets these plans by becoming pregnant in a one-night stand with a local ne’er-do-well who soon takes off to the north, breaking what she believes was his promise to take her with him. As IXCANUL follows Maria and her family through the turmoil that her condition causes for them, we feel like privileged anthropologists who have been invited into the intimate life of an indigenous community. Events hint at the depth of rural poverty and exclusion: census takers who don’t speak Mayan and few locals who speak Spanish. Deprived of resources, people resort to ineffective folk remedies or to beliefs and rituals with a thin Catholic veneer and deeper Mayan roots. Over them looms the protective power and support of the volcano.

But what raises IXCANUL above even this fascinating series of cultural insights, is the relationship between Maria and her mother, Juana (María Telón). Juana’s non-judgmental, unsparing love for her beautiful daughter shows us that poverty and backwardness do not eclipse what is best in the human spirit.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my fourth personal Oscar nomination, though, sadly, an unlikely winner)

For my final film of the Festival I chose not to follow my companions’ choice of a first draft of Danny Boyle’s STEVE JOBS which has received the best line-buzz of the Festival. This is because I think it’s unwise to see films here that I can soon catch at a local movie theater (such as this year’s selections “Spotlight” and “Black Mass”) and in the process miss the full screen viewing of a film that will never appear again outside of Netflix (if there). My choice this evening was RAMS, written and directed by Iceland’s Grímur Hákonarson, RAMS follows two septuagenarian bachelor brothers, the shy Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjónsson) and the frequently drunk and truculent Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who herd sheep in a remote and treeless Icelandic mountain valley. Although they live only a few hundred yards apart in different houses on their inherited family land, the two brothers haven’t spoken with each other in forty years. The only thing they share is a passionate love for their sheep, evidenced in the gentle caresses and kisses Gummi bestows upon them. But this harsh status quo is broken when one of Kiddi’s sheep (and some on other farms) are found to be infected with Scrapie, a fatal and incurable disease. All sheep on farms throughout the valley must be destroyed. We watch as the crisis and a bitter winter intensify and transform the brothers’ relationship.

The fraternal drama of RAMS may appeal more to those in similarly intense and difficult sibling relationships than it did to me, but I enjoyed my brief visit to this austere and forbidding landscape and my glimpse into the life of a community of dedicated and modern farmers who base their livelihood on one of humankind’s most ancient relationships with animals.

RON’s GRADE: A minus (I needn’t nominate this for “Best Foreign Film” because I hear that RAMS will likely be the Icelandic entry in the Oscars).

CONCLUSION

Midway through this year’s Festival, I found myself thinking that since Bill Pence retired several years ago, there has been a subtle change in programming emphasis. Where world cinema once predominated, with smaller and fascinating films, more recent Festivals have moved in the direction of trying to identify upcoming Oscar contenders. To an extent this is true. Witness films this year like CAROL,  “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” “Suffragettes,” or “Steve Jobs” that will probably all be in this year’s award contention as well as in local theaters. But I formed that judgment before seeing VIVA, IXCANUL and RAMS, films that can stand besides the best world-cinema offerings of Telluride in the past. So I’m pleased to say that in its forty-second year, Telluride remains as vibrant and exciting as ever. On to forty-three!

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Travel

Iran Conference and Lectures (January 4-7, 2015)

In early November 2014 I received an email invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Third Annual Conference of the International Association for the Philosophy of Religion in January 2015 in Tehran, Iran. The Iranian Association for the Philosophy of Religion (IAPR) hosts the conference in cooperation with Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University. I was informed that my former Dartmouth colleague Steven Katz had delivered this address at the 2014 conference. Checking with Steve, I was assured that the invitation was serious and that I would be warmly welcomed and respectfully treated in Tehran.

There were good reasons for turning down the invitation. I had a speaking obligation right after the conference’s closing date, Mary Jean for several reasons could not accompany me, and after a rash of scary movies like “Argo” and “Rosewater,” Iran raised fears. But I accepted the invitation. Checking schedules, I saw that could make it back just in time for my American commitment, and this could be a first exploratory visit, with Mary Jean accompanying me if I returned there in the future.

A major factor in my thinking was the signs of change taking place in U.S.-Iranian relations. With serious talks underway on ending economic sanctions in return for a halting of Iran’s nuclear program, and with ISIS becoming a common threat to both the nations (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”), I thought that this might be a good moment to serve, however modestly, as an ambassador of good will. I also thought it was less likely right now that I would find myself in an international incident.

The conference was scheduled for January 6 and 7. I was slated to depart late on Friday, January 2, arriving in Tehran early on Sunday, January 4. My U.S. speaking commitment required me to return by January 10, so this would be a short trip: four days on the ground in Tehran, departing Tehran on January 8. Steve Katz had had an extended stay that allowed him to visit Isfahan and Persepolis, but unfortunately my schedule wouldn’t permit that. The conference organizers said that they would plan several additional talks for me in the vicinity of Tehran before the start of the conference to fill out my stay.

Travel to Iran requires a visa. Because we have no diplomatic relations with Iran, I had to go through the Iranian “interest section” in the Pakistani embassy in Washington. Apparently Steve had some trouble with this, receiving his visa at the last moment after much delay and after needed interventions by the conference hosts, but Steve is a noted Holocaust scholar, a matter that could cause the Iranian authorities to give him a close look. Though I have written on Jewish ethics, it was unlikely that I was a person of interest. In the event, my application was accepted and my passport returned within 48 hours with an attractive visa inserted. A sign of Iranian good will?

JANUARY 2-4:

My itinerary had me traveling on Lufthansa via Frankfurt. The transatlantic leg went smoothly. In the transit lounge at Frankfurt, I noticed something odd. Of the more than one hundred women present, young and old, only one wore a headscarf. I thought that maybe these were all foreigners traveling to Iran, but when we landed in Tehran and had to go through passport control, most of the group went through the Iranian lines. So they were Iranian women outside Iran and almost none chose to wear a headscarf. Shortly before the plane landed, the purser made an announcement saying that head coverings are required of all women by law in Iran, and as we readied to exit the plane, the scarves appeared. What to make of this? Was I traveling with a largely secularized expatriate group? Or do Iranian women themselves, at least those affluent enough to travel abroad, dislike the clothing regulations? (Two days later in Tehran I put this question to an Iranian woman at the conference. She replied that what I saw was understandable because “Ninety percent of Iranian women don’t like the veiling requirement.”)

Speaking of passport control, my arrival in Tehran was momentarily nerve-wracking. While the whole group of foreigners was quickly ushered through passport control, I was held back, my passport was taken, and I was shunted through several offices. I quickly learned that this was in order to take my fingerprints (as the U.S. now also does for most foreign visitors). The delay took only about fifteen minutes, but my apprehensions throughout it reminded me of how many fears and stereotypes we have about Iran, generated by films like “Argo.” The reality (obligatory fingerprinting) may sometimes be more innocent.

Despite my delay, my welcoming party, Javad Teheri, Executive Director of the Iranian Association for Philosophy of Religion, and his wife, Mahshid Alvandi, were waiting at the exit from baggage claim, bearing a sign with my name on it. Here are Javad and Mahshid in the next day’s sunlight:

Mahshid and Javad

 

We climbed into a cab and in short order began a small seminar on rational religious theory. Javad aspires to add a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion to his M.A. He is an intense and enthusiastic young man. Mahshid was a conference assistant, and in the days ahead, with good cheer she helped keep things on track. The long day ended at the upscale Parsian Engheleb (“Persian Revolution”) Hotel. I checked in against a backdrop of Beetles Muzak. The only Iranian presence was this drawer in my room, where the Gideon Bible was replaced by a Quran and prayer rug.

01 HOLY KORAN IN HOTEL

SUNDAY, JANUARY 4:

The bright morning view from my hotel window revealed the towering (12,000 foot high) mountains that border the northern side of the city.

Skyline

This was my first day on the ground and I was pretty much on my own. Having gone to bed around 4:00 AM Iran time, I slept until eight and rose to catch the hotel breakfast (mostly familiar breakfast foods but also some Iranian specialties, such as a yellow bean porridge). I then set out on the street in front of the hotel to change some money. Because of sanctions, our credit cards don’t work here. I had in mind the report of an academic colleague who attended a conference here last year and who, on missing his plane because of Tehran traffic had to spend an extra day in Tehran without money and without eating. In view of this, I thought it would be wise to have some cash in my wallet. This proved more challenging than I suspected. The hotel reception wouldn’t change money and directed me to a bank directly across the street, but that bank required a passport for exchange and the night before I had to surrender my passport to the hotel reception for the duration of my stay there (“Catch 22”). At the incomprehensible Farsi-accompanied pointing of a kindly woman bank employ, I set off doubtfully in the direction of a large building some distance away. This turned out to be a massive galleria shopping center, with many banks . . .

Galleria

. . . several of which turned me down until I was directed to a specialized “Exchange” operation. There, a friendly older man and a young woman for whom I was the only customer in evidence exchanged $40 for me at a rate of about 30,000 rials to the dollar (yes that’s thousands, and climbing fast daily as a result of the sanctions). Wandering through the galleria, I noticed that there were few shops open and the space seemed desolate and forlorn. This confirmed what Javad and Mahshid told me in the cab the night before, that U.S.-led sanctions have had a profound effect on the Iranian economy.

I continued walking further along the hotel avenue trying to get close to a huge mural on the side of a building. It seems to honor hero martyrs (of the Iran-Iraq war?)

Mural 1

On returning to the hotel, I noticed another large mural on the wall of an adjacent building.

Mural 2

What you see here are two empty army boots, and a seemingly mystical dis-apparition of the soldier whose boots they were. This was another memorial to a martyr of Iran’s eight-year long (1980-88) war with Iraq.

In the early afternoon, two of my hosts, Professor Mohsen Javadi of Qom University and his colleague Mohammad Saeedimehr of Tarbiat Modares University stopped by and we went over the week’s plans. One of my preconference talks was to have been at Qom, and I was eager to see the beautiful holy city, but to my disappointment this did not work out. In place of that visit, Prof. Javadi had scheduled two talks for me before leading medical ethics organizations in Tehran.

About 8:30 that evening, Prof. Saeedimehr returned to pick me up for a tour of the city. The evening was chosen because Tehran’s daytime traffic is awful (so bad that alternate day restrictions are imposed on car entry into the center city) but things ease up by nightfall. We headed westward to Freedom (Azadi) Square, a monument built under the Shah but now reframed as a tribute to Iraq’s liberation under the Islamic Revolution.

03 AZADI SQUARE

Here is a selfie of Mohammad and me in front of it:

04 Muhammad and Me Azadi Sq

This drive to Azadi Square was a bit of an emotional turning point for me. Like almost all Americans who can remember the events of the Islamic Revolution, including the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the seizure of its staff as hostages, I have a largely negative view of those days and of the regime that followed. As we drove the long thirteen-kilometer avenue from the hotel to the monument, Professor Saeedimehr told me that he had been among the tens of thousands of young people who marched down that avenue amidst the excitement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the overthrow of the hated Shah. He said that he and the others were filled with hope for Iran’s new beginning and the vision of a more just society. In the 1980s, he expressed his enthusiasm by volunteering for military service in the Iraq-Iran war, eventually losing many friends in the conflict. Saddam Hussein, he said, started the war predicting that the Arabic-speaking ethnic groups in the southwest of Iran would rise up on his side and that the conflict would only last three days. Neither prediction proved correct. The Arab-speaking Iranians remained loyal to their country, and the war dragged on for eight years, with at least 300,000 dead on the Iranian side. The U.S. backed Saddam in that war. “For Saddam and America,” my host said bitterly. “it was all about oil.” Suddenly, I was jolted into a very different view of all those events. Here was a colleague, the kind of intelligent and liberal professor I might find anywhere in the U.S. or Europe, defending the Islamic revolution in the name of social justice, and offering a picture of his country as the innocent victim of ill-considered U.S. interventions.

After the square, we headed north to the Darband district. On the way, we transited a Vali Asr Street, which is bordered by trees that are illuminated by lines of roadside lights changing colors every few seconds:

05 LIGHTED STREET 06 LIGHTED STREET 07 LIGHTED STREET

Darband Square. . .

08 Darband Squate

. . . forms the base of one of several narrow river valleys in the mountains that rise to the north of the city. A stone walkway climbs up the valley along the river (really just a small rivulet), and food stalls and restaurants line the route. You can ascend for kilometers, tempted by street food and glittering restaurants. The stalls and restaurants stay open until the early hours of the morning, and on hot summer nights (it was now cool, at about fifty degrees Fahrenheit) thousands of people come out each evening for a walk and dinner. Mohammad and I ascended for about two kilometers. Here are some views of our walk.

One of the food stalls offering sweets and candied fruits:

10 Food shop

This is a dish of steamed fava beans. We bought a bowl, slid a bean out of its covering with our fingers and popped it into our mouths.

11 Fava Beans

And here’s a display of everyone’s favorite snack food, cooked beets:

12 BEETS

Brightly lit restaurants line the walk up:

09 Restaurant

Here is a clever little business. Pay its owner, and one of the little birds picks a card that tells you your fortune:

 

12 Bird reader

A selection of skewers and raw meats prepared for roasting;

13 Meats

With a roaring fire ready to do the cooking nearby:

14 Fire

On the way back to the hotel, we passed two beautiful, brightly lit mosques. These are in true Persian style and much more ornate than the simpler ones I’m used to in Morocco:

15 Mosque

16 Mosque

Back at the hotel, I was lulled to sleep by the call to prayer. Because Shi’a Muslims (and Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a) condense two of the five daily prayers into its adjacent one, the call occurs only three times a day, and it is much quieter and more musical than those I’ve heard in Sunni countries.

MONDAY, JANUARY 5:

Tuesday began when I was picked up at 9:30 am by Dr. Ehsan Shamsi Gooshki, director of the Medical Ethics Department of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He would take me to the Medical Ethic and History of Research Center, another site of medical ethics studies in the city. This was located at some distance, and I confess a hair-raising drive across the city from my hotel. I’ve mentioned Tehran’s traffic. At full bore in the daytime it is a mixture of thousands of cars, pedestrians and motorcycles in an intricate choreography in which racing vehicles and darting people miss one another by centimeters. Lane markers might as well not exist or, better, sometimes serve only as guides which drivers use to point their vehicles. Long ago, I resolved never to drive in India. I’ve added Tehran to the list.

The Medical Ethics Center is located in one of Tehran’s larger hospitals. I walked with Dr. Shamsi down the busy corridors and was ushered into the endocrinology and metabolism research unit and the office of that unit and the Center’s director, Dr. Bagher Larijani. Over beverages, he offered a PowerPoint presentation of the Center’s many activities, ranging from its active Ph.D. program in bioethics to its development of ethics materials for the nation’s health care system, including a widely distributed “Patient’s Bill of Rights” that I am told is displayed in hospitals everywhere. I learned from Dr. Shamsi, that Dr. Larijani is one of five brothers who play significant roles in Iranian society. One is the chairman of the Parliament of Iran, another heads Iran’s judicial system, and the two others also have important governmental positions. Smiling, Dr. Shamsi added, “They’re the Kennedy’s of Iran.”

At 10:30 we went to a well-appointed seminar room for my presentation “Is ‘Dignity’ a Useful Concept in Bioethics?” About thirty people were present, including about 20 Ph.D. students, all of whom were also M.D.s. More than half the members of the audience were women. My presentation, with some of my organizational points and longer quotations projected in a PowerPoint, went very well. I spoke slowly, and the students seemed to understand what I was saying. Although their spoken English was not as strong as their comprehension, they were filled with questions based on their individual thesis projects. With a break for lunch, the Q&A continued, and the questions that followed were amazing. All were in areas of great interest to me: access to assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), abortion, human enhancement, physician-assisted suicide, the physician’s duty when confronted with abusive or negligent parents, and the commercialization of kidney transplantation. Iran is unique among almost all nations in having a government-regulated and partly government-financed system that permits transplant recipients to pay donors for a kidney. The system appears to be imperfect (under-the-table payments apparently persist despite government regulation), but on the positive side it has eliminated the long waiting lists for kidneys that predominate in the U.S. and elsewhere. I hope to learn much more about this in the future.

One thing I’m seeing and learning about in the course of this visit is the Shi’a community’s commitment to rationality at all levels, as distinct from the Sunni prioritizing of revelation. Centuries ago, this issue was joined in the conflict between the Ash’ari (revelation) and Mutazilite (rationalist) parties, and the Ash’ari position won out in most of the Sunni world. Not so among the Shi’a, whose opposition to the Sunni caliphate (for whom Ash’ari authoritarianism was convenient) led them to favor the Mutazilite position. This commitment to reason explains my presence here at the invitation of an almost unique Islamic program in the Philosophy of Religion. Scholars (and physicians) here are also proud of the perspective in which reason works hand in hand with revelation, and sacred teachings can be accommodated to changing realities. One small biomedical illustration of this that I learned about during the course of the Q&A is Iran’s permission for egg and sperm donation in ARTs. This is forbidden in the Sunni lands because of traditionalist concerns with strict lineage preservation. Shi’a jurists, in contrast, seem willing to go beyond traditional constraints when medical realities and rational policy recommend doing so.

Still jet-lagged, and after an intense day of speaking to and learning from my Iranian bioethics colleagues, I had dinner at the hotel, and went to bed early.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 6:

The conference began today. Up at 5:00 am after only 5 hours sleep and still way off my sleep cycle, it was going to be a challenge to give my keynote address in the morning and follow a busy roster of others’ talks throughout the day. Taxis waited for the transfer to Tarbiat Modares University. The hair-raising drive across Tehran did more to wake me up than the breakfast coffee. The conference began in a large assembly hall with what seemed to be equivalent to a pledge of allegiance ritual to projected images of Imam Khomeini, the revolution’s founding father, a brief taped recitation of a passage from the Noble Quran and short welcoming speeches from university officials. Here are several pictures of the conference poster, the large hall, and me, as requested, delivering my greetings as the conference keynoter and sole American participant:

Conference Poster

Me Welcoming

Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony Women

We then broke up into two sections, one English speaking, the other Farsi. In addition to a substantial complement of Iranian speakers and attendees, conference participants were quite international, with speakers coming from England, Italy, Germany, Northern Ireland, Tunisia, Kuwait and Mexico.

My keynote, “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion and the Challenges of Moral Commitment,” went very well, and the Q&A was lively. Here are some snapshots of the morning’s activity. Note the large number of women scholars present.

Session from front

Me and my paper

(That’s me)

At the coffee break, I was able to chat briefly with one of the women scholars attending (I learned her name is Zohreh), who raised a particularly good question during discussion. She’s here in the middle:

Zohreh

Just before lunch, we were given a walking tour of Tarbiat Modares University. The university was established after the revolution and is dedicated to graduate programs only, most in medicine and STEM fields but with a solid humanities division in which the philosophy of religion program is based. Here’s the library outside and in:

Library

Library Interior

And here’s a helpful librarian:

Librarian

A beautiful mosaic-covered campus mosque

University Mosque

And in front of it, a monument to three unknown martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

Monument to Martyrs

The plaques below specify their ages (all were in their twenties based on information gleaned perhaps from medical analysis), but their identities are unknown.

Gravestones

The day ended back at the hotel with a boisterous dinner for speakers and hosts that began after eight and went on for several hours.

A word here about Iranian food—in Iran. Persian restaurants in the states are among my favorites. (There is a terrific one in Naples, Florida, named “Bha! Bha!,” a Farsi expression used for good food or good odors meaning “Wow! Wow!”) All of the meals I had in Iran had the same format: a substantial array of starters in the form of fresh salad preparations, olives, pickles, salty feta-like cheeses and so on, followed by a main course featuring a pile of saffroned rice over or beside a grilled lamb kebab, or grilled chicken or fish. The whole dish would be enlivened with a grilled whole and sliced fresh tomato and lemon or orange wedges.

Drinks included sodas or a bottled yoghurt drink that was popular but that I found too sour. The food was always very good, but the same.

Food

I saw no sign of the many tagine-like dishes featured at “Bha! Bha!” In fairness, this was all university, medical center, or hotel food. On the way back to the airport on Wednesday night, Javad and Mahshid shared some of the take-away dinner they brought from a good local restaurant, a delicious layered confection of cornbread and spiced ground meat.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7, my final day in Iran.

This morning’s conference meeting had several very good papers. One, however, by a Polish Catholic scholar, Janusz Balicki, raised sharp questions.

Pole

The title of Balicki’s paper was “Immigrants from Muslim Countries in a Secular Europe: A Challenge or an Opportunity for Christianity?” It began by describing the “decline” in “family values” in Europe which he believed to be signaled by marital cohabitation, declining birth rates, and legally-recognized gay marriage. Balicki saw this as an opportunity for family-valuing and “pro-life” European Christians to build a new social and political coalition with equally traditionalist Muslim immigrants. During the Q&A, Lutz Alexander Keferstein of Mexico pointed out that it is often the most conservative Christians throughout Europe who are among the most vehement opponents of Muslim immigration.

After attending the conference this morning and lunch, I was driven by Dr. Shamsi, to the Headquarters of the Iranian Medical Council (the equivalent of our A.M.A.) and ushered into the office of Dr. Alireza Zali, a neurologist and President of the Council. Our chat was followed by an hour and a half session on medical professionalism with 20 of the staff in their Council’s Medical Ethics Department, which Dr. Shamsi heads. Of my three talks, this was the least prepared and most controversial, dealing near its end with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, but once again, the Q&A was stimulating. At one point, in response to my mention of physicians’ professional obligation to report instances of child abuse, the question was raised about whether there can be exceptions to this. In the intensely patriarchal environment of some rural Iranian families, my questioner observed, reporting abuse can sometimes endanger the child.

At the close, Dr. Shamsi (who arranged the Monday talk but was not present for it) mentioned the possibility of an invitation to me to return this summer for a one or two week course on biomedical ethics for their Ph.D. students. I will have to look at my schedule. This may be a chance to visit with Mary Jean and see more of the country. I’m also very interested in learning more about their regulated kidney-exchange program.

My visit ended at 10:30 that evening, when I was picked up again by Javad and Mahshid and transported to the airport for my 2:50 AM flight to Frankfurt. The lead-time was needed because the airport lines at each point (ticketing, security and boarding) were daunting and I got to my seat only minutes before the scheduled departure time. As the Lufthansa plane lifted off, I felt some of the relief depicted at the same moment in the film “Argo.” In my case, it was not so much relief from fear, but from a travel environment shaped by sanctions (no credit cards or phone service), strict documentary requirements, and unfamiliar mores. For example, early on I was advised never to shake a woman’s hand, and at the conference I had to repeatedly still my impulse to do so.

Some final impressions. I believe Iran is far different from the Iran of our media-shaped American imaginations. For one thing, it is a highly developed if temporarily economically handicapped nation. Tehran can rank besides any European city, and its “feel” and people are far closer to a European sensibility than anything I’ve experienced in Sunni Islamic nations (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt). There is also a sharpness and precision to people’s discourse and behaviors that makes one feel one is in a slightly down-at-the heels France rather than in a more southern Arab country. Is this a reflection of Shi’a rationalism (some of my hosts thought so), the cooler weather, or Persia’s great imperial legacy and culture?

Second, there is genuine pride about the Islamic revolution, and a strong feeling, even among some young people who identify with the recent progressive “green” protest movement, that the West in general, and America in particular, don’t understand Iran. During breaks in the conference or during transport, I had the chance to speak with several students and young people about political issues, and while some expressed unhappiness with the regime, there was a tendency to think that the indigenous problems have been worsened by Western interventions. The traditionalism of the Islamic revolution makes it easy to miss the fact that, like Cuba, this is a country whose revolution commands substantial support and pride from its people.

There is a dark side. While religious traditionalists—and they include some of the able university and medical professionals I met—view the revolution and government in very positive terms, more secularized individuals don’t like imposed and omnipresent religiosity and control. Women vary in terms of dress, with the more religious wearing the dark full body and head cover, and more secular women wearing only a scarf or headpiece. Several of the more secularized women that I spoke to told me that they deeply dislike gender-based restrictions that have been imposed. One said that she dreams of leaving Iran and feeling the wind blow through her hair. On the positive side, these restrictions have apparently facilitated a massive movement of women from more traditional sectors into education and other public functions. Women now make up sixty percent of medical graduates.

Some of my interlocutors also quietly expressed to me their discomfort with what they saw as a generally repressive intellectual environment. One said, “If you speak openly about what you believe, you can land in prison.”

Of course, I was only four days in Iran, and that is hardly enough to found or authenticate any of these views. But there is a conclusion about which I feel confident. For Western travelers, Iran is not the terror state depicted by Hollywood. Tehran is a safe city—much safer than Paris I was told, a remark too soon confirmed—and the people themselves are overwhelmingly friendly to Americans. On my first day’s walkabout, I was asked several times where I came from, and when I said “America,” I received warm smiles and greetings. Once you get your visa, you can travel to Iran, travel freely within the country, see its marvelous historic sites, speak easily with people many of whom manage in English, and you can leave whenever you are ready to do so. (Just bring cash and get to the airport early on your return!) Perhaps if more Americans visited, and, above all, if political leaders on both sides move toward more accommodation, we can renew our appreciation of this amazing people and culture.

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TELLURIDE 2014

dogs of Telluride 2

The Dogs of Telluride

The Telluride Film Festival’s nabobs may have gotten the word. After recent years of bad scheduling (wildly popular films in small venues) and general overcrowding, they have done better: improved (but still far from satisfactory) scheduling; a good iPhone app; morning email notifications of sneak previews and TBAs (repeats of crowd pleasers); and a redone opening feast, with better seating and multiple serving points.

This year’s opening feast on Colorado Avenue brought crystalline Telluride weather together with an outstanding Russian-Ukrainian themed meal: roast salmon and lamb, tiny cups of borscht, nutty tea cakes for dessert. Russia and Ukraine may be at one another’s throats but not on Telluride’s high street.

feed

If the feast was an auspicious beginning, our opening film at the beautiful new Werner Herzog Theater (650 seats) was overwhelming. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, and under the direction of the veteran Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, chronicles the life of Alan Turing, the semi-autistic, homosexual mathematician and computer pioneer who led the team of British geniuses at Bletchley Park that cracked the German Enigma codes and arguably saved millions of allied lives during WWII.

A constant refrain in the film, uttered by friends and colleagues at each moment in Turing’s life when he faced terrible obstacles is: “The people you can’t imagine anything of are the very people who create what you can’t imagine.”

Benjamin Cumberbatch, in what will certainly be an Oscar-nominated performance, shows us the many sides of Turing, who was drawn to code breaking because for him the simplest human communication—”Want a sandwich?”—was a code to be cracked.

What is astonishing about The Imitation Game and Turing’s story are its lessons for today. We see the toll taken on Turing’s life—and at times the British war effort—by homophobia, bullying, and sex discrimination. At one point the brilliant mathematician played by Keira Knightly is almost consigned to the secretarial pool.

Tyldum’s direction (and an excellent screenplay by Graham Moore) bring everything together: a moving personal narrative, a touching love story as Knightly’s character and Turing reach out to one another; and an exciting WWII period peace, with a top ensemble of British actors.

Above all The Imitation Game shows how important it is to nurture the abilities of every human being, including those of whom “you can’t imagine anything.”

I hope The Imitation Game makes it to the Cineplex and the Oscars. Don’t miss it.

RON’S GRADE: A

Saturday morning began for me (as my wife and sister went elsewhere) with The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa’s documentary account of the life of Heinrich Himmler. Introducing the film and Lapa, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the theater’s host remarked, “If you’re here to see this film you’re either a World War II cinephile or Jewish.” I guess I qualify on both counts, and for me this was the fascination of the film. Having recently read Peter Longerich’s Heinrich Himmler: A Life I was amazed by the collection of still photos and films that director Lapa was able to gather. Here is Himmler dandling his infant daughter Gudrun on his lap. Here he is bringing Gudrun and his wife, Marga, Christmas presents during the war; and here, just days before, he is walking through an inspection tour of Auschwitz at the height of the killings.

By juxtaposing readings of warm and intimate family correspondence with the photographic record of Nazi brutality, The Decent One reinvigorates Hannah Arendt’s point about “the banality of evil.” On a slightly critical note, while I understand that the film is an Israeli-Austrian-German co-production, and though I understood much of the German, I wish the filmmaker had chosen to prepare an English language version of all the readings and voice over material. The visual images are so new and so interesting that it was painful to have to take my eyes off them to read the English subtitles.

One troubling and sad note. Throughout the film we watch Gudrun’s growth from infancy to adolescence. Of course, one can understand how a child can love her father, even if in his professional life he’s a monster like Himmler. But it was disturbing to learn at the close that Gudrun is alive and a major figure in an organization that supports surviving Nazi war criminals and other neo-Nazi activities. How fortunate she is that the victorious allies did not believe in her father’s practice of Sippenhaft, the execution of the families of his opponents.

RON’S GRADE: B+

After being turned away from our chosen afternoon film, Rosewater (yes, scheduling problems persist), we changed course and headed to Madame Bovary. An early arrival gave us the opportunity of talking at length with a fascinating pair of physicians from the Bay area (she Canadian; he a Canadian immigrant from India) for whom this was their first Telluride. They were enchanted with the Festival, and we enjoyed learning about their medical-business doings in that effervescent part of the country. Line time at Telluride is never wasted!

Have you ever traveled somewhere and found, strangely, that your best memories are from that unexpected and not immediately important moment: the quick picnic lunch on a hillside; the crowded train compartment with engaging fellow travelers?

Madame Bovary is like that. Despite being a bit slow and not in every respect emotionally convincing, the film by the young French director Sophie Barthe sticks with you. You find your thoughts going back to the village of Yonville in mid-nineteenth Normandy, where Emma Bovary, beautifully played by Mia Wasikowska, is a newly married young woman at once intoxicated by her readings in romantic literature and suffocated by provincial life and her dull physician husband, Charles. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh brings you into the life of this gray/green village, where well watered fields and forests lie under a sun that almost never seems to break through. We watch Emma as she pushes the unwitting Charles into insurmountable debt and as she careens from one brief love affair to another in the effort to fill the void at the center of her heart. The exquisite dresses on which Emma spends Charles still unearned earnings vividly illustrate her dreams of beauty, wealth, and status. Emma’s tormented suicide, with which the film both begins and ends, is inevitable.

On a critical note Henry Lloyd-Hughes may be miscast as Charles Bovary. Whereas Charles in the novel is an unattractive boor, Lloyd-Hughes is both handsome and devoted, making it emotionally hard to understand Emma’s discontent. We wonder why she undertakes her destructive trajectory.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

Saturday began early for us, with a 7:00 AM gondola ride up the mountain for what we expected would be a wildly popular tribute to Hilary Swank and viewing of her latest film, The Homesman. Our prudence was well rewarded. Although hundreds turned out for this event, we secured seats near the stage. Despite her frequent playing of roles as an unattractive woman, Swank is vivacious and she offered fresh answers to the interviewer’s questions about her ascent from trailer park childhood to Oscar-winning stardom. Never professionally trained, she learned acting by obsessively watching other people (as a child her mother repeatedly told her, “Stop staring!”). Even today, she eschews the separate world of Hollywood superstars and rides the L.A. metro in order to watch and learn from her fellow passengers.

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Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Jones and Hilary Swank, the Homesman celebrates the classical Western genre, but in a new mode. Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is a thirty-one year old spinster efficiently managing her own small farm in the far Western territories. Three local woman, faced with the terrible stresses of frontier existence, including one’s loss by disease of all her children in a single day, have gone mad. At least one of them is violent and needs restraint. The women must be taken back east to civilization, but none of the handful of local men can leave their families, so Mary Bee volunteers. As her solitary journey riding a wagon with the women locked inside is about to begin, Mary Bee encounters George Briggs (Jones) in dire straits and persuades/coerces him to accompany her. What follows is a journey of spiritual redemption, but one not without its reverses and non-Hollywood turns. Never have the landscapes of the plains West been more beautifully filmed than they are here by Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto. Jones as Griggs and Swank as Mary Bee (“as plain as tin pail”) offer outstanding performances. The Homesman is somewhat marred in its plot and direction by a measure of Jones’ self-promotion. These blemishes may prevent The Homesman from being a Hollywood smash, but, nevertheless, it is a Western that at times reaches the heights of both versions of True Grit, and The Unforgiven.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

I’m beginning to think that this year’s Festival has a theme. It’s “redemption and perdition.” Clearly, Madame Bovary and the Himmler documentary fit into the second category. The Homesman is profoundly about the first, as was our afternoon film, Two Days, One Night, the latest gritty realist film about lower-middle class life in today’s Belgium from the amazing Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. The background is growing unemployment in a small Belgium city. Sandra, courageously played in this small film by Marion Cotillard after her triumphs in La Vie an Rose and Rust and Bone, has been laid off at a small solar panel manufacturing firm as a result of Asian competition. Management has agreed that she can keep her job if the majority of her sixteen fellow workers each forego their pending one thousand euro annual bonuses. Sandra and her husband Manu (sensitively played by Fabrizio Rongione) have a weekend to convince nine of her colleagues to vote for her. Each encounter is a lesson in either human selfishness or human compassion. Running beneath this effort is Sandra’s depression from which she is only recently recovered and which contributed to her being laid off. The threat that unemployment and social dependency represent to Sandra’s sense of self worth and the judgments of her peers reveal themselves as even more important than her loss of salary. The film gives new social meaning to the themes of perdition and redemption. Two Days, One Night will predictably not make it into a single Cineplex. But is the kind of film for which one comes to Telluride.

RON’S GRADE: A

Can a mother’s love save a developmentally scarred child? This is the question that rings through the final film of our day, Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s, Mommy. We first meet Diane (Anne Dorval) in a juvenile detention facility where she is picking up her teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Steve is responsible for a fire that badly injured another boy at the center, but Diane, a sexy, middle-aged working class woman who seems to be propositioned by every man she meets, is not yet ready to invoke a new Canadian law that will allow her to commit Steve to prolonged incarceration. What follows is a roller coaster ride as Steve careens between charming youthful exuberance and deadly violence against Diane, himself, and others. Neighbor Kyla, a high school teacher who is unable to keep her job because of a nervous speech impediment (whose cause is only cryptically suggested) enters their lives, bringing friendship and fun to Diane and Steve, as well as assistance with home schooling that may help fulfill the mother’s and son’s dream of high school graduation and a Juilliard admission for Steve.

I’ll say no more about Mommy’s plot, since anything further would be a spoiler. Mommy shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year with the renowned director Jean-Luc Godard. As a film, however, Mommy disappointed me. Steve is so wildly extreme in his behaviors and moods that we never quite learn to love or hate him, and we remain emotionally perplexed by Diane’s (and to an extent Kyla’s) devotion to him. Mommy is a glimpse into the tormented world of a parent with a disabled child, but it is one we are glad to leave.

RON’S GRADE: B

Labor day, the final day of the Festival, began for us with Dancing Arabs, a film adaptation directed by the Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree) of two largely autobiographical novels by Sayed Kashua, a popular Arab-Israeli Haaretz columnist and writer of an award-winning Israeli television comedy series. We meet Eyad (very well played in his teenage years by Tawfeek Barhom) as a child growing up in a close Arab-Israeli family and neighborhood. Intellectually gifted—Eyad alone is able to crack a TV puzzler—he dwells in a milieu boiling with Palestinian nationalist sentiments (later we see his family on their roof cheering Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Tel Aviv). But then Eyad is accepted as the sole Arab at a prestigious Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem. What follows is a coming-of-age saga. Eyad, excels at school, begins a sweet love affair with Naomi, a beautiful Israeli girl, and as part of the school’s community service outreach, befriends Jonathan, a wheelchair-bound and homeschooled classmate suffering from muscular dystrophy. We watch Eyad practicing his pronunciation in an effort to eliminate his Arab accent. As he gains confidence and a measure of recognition from classmates, Eyad offers his literature class a penetrating critique of the stereotypical and sexualized depiction of Arab males in many esteemed Israeli novels. But Eyad’s effort to dwell simultaneously in the opposing Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli worlds founders, and in the end, Eyad is forced to find his own difficult way out of the conflict.

Dancing Arabs is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. It holds out the hope that if these two peoples could get to know one another better, they might see themselves as the siblings that they are. The film’s premier in Israel on the eve of the recent Gaza conflict was postponed, but it was finally shown in a limited venue to strong audience approval. Dancing Arabs will almost certainly not be shown in any commercial movie theaters in the U.S., outside of a screen or two in New York, but it is one of the reasons we come to Telluride.

RON’S GRADE: A

Our Festival ended—and culminated—with Rosewater, the first feature film written and directed by Jon Stewart, comedian host of The Daily Show.

But I must note first that Rosewater was preceded by a vivid eight-minute French short subject, Aïssa (directed by Clément Tréhin-Lalanne). A pretty Congolese teen’s physical exam will determine her destiny. Is she older than eighteen, in which case she’ll be deported from France, or is she younger and able to stay and pursue her intended career as a cosmetologist? As Aïssa undergoes a rigorous and invasive physical exam, we hear her unseen medical examiner record his notes. Conclusion? The bone structure in Aïssa’s hands indicates an age of perhaps twenty, “although all our ossification graphs derive from Caucasians and we have none for Africans.” Probed and measured against possibly irrelevant standards, Aïssa will certainly be deported.

Rosewater is adapted from a memoire by Maziar Bahari that records his months of imprisonment at the hands of Iranian state authorities. During a journalistic visit to Teheran, Bahari, a young reporter for Newsweek (and well played by the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), happens to film the murderous repression of a street demonstration against Iran’s deeply flawed 2009 presidential election. He is soon arrested and subject to months of solitary confinement, only interrupted by intimidating interrogations and occasional violence at the hands of a “specialist.” During his incarceration, Bahari is sustained by frequent “conversations” in his cell with his deceased father, who, as a Communist had been imprisoned and tortured under the hated previous regime of Shah Palavi. In various ways, Bahari eventually learns to outwit his captors. The film ends on a happier note but not without revealing the generations of lawless authoritarianism and terror to which the citizens of Iran have been subject.

RON’s GRADE: A minus

This was not our quantitatively most intense Telluride. Over three days, we managed to see only eight films (as opposed to my all-time record of sixteen). But if low on quantity, this year’s festival was high on quality. We saw several films that will not likely be screened elsewhere, and even the worst of the films (Mommy?) stimulates continued thought. Strolling late in the day in the light of a Telluride sunset, we look forward to next year.

Telluride at Sunset

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