Friday, January 30, 2015

Summer dreaming - Stratford and Shaw

This post will actually cover a few other companies that have announced their summer seasons (for 2015) or even their 2015/16 seasons (I believe Canadian Stage is one of the few to be quite so far ahead of the curve*).  In many ways, this is simply a continuation of this post where I started tracking things of interest.  I'm about halfway through that list, and indeed went to roughly 3/4 of the events through Dec. 2014.  So this is a bit of a continuation in a slightly different format, focusing on theatre events happening 5 to 6 months out (when it should be a lot nicer).  As it turns out tomorrow is supposedly the last day for general discounts on tickets to Stratford though they extended discount pricing at Shaw by another week (through Feb 8).

I won't list everything that one could see, just the things I actually went ahead and got tickets to (now that I can no longer be scooped...).

Shaw
Caryl Churchill Top Girls
Tony Kushner The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide...

Stratford
Hamlet
Taming of the Shrew
Love's Labour's Lost
Oliver Goldsmith She Stoops to Conquer
Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Physicists
John Mighton Possible Worlds

I am really tempted to come back and see Jonson's The Alchemist, though I've seen it a couple of times already** and I dropped enough ducats at Stratford for one season.  The Alchemist will probably turn up at a UT Hart House production before too long, and that should be sufficient.

Soulpepper (I'm going to break my own rules and list a couple of plays that are worth seeing, but I saw recently so am passing on.  I guess eventually it will become clear which I did and didn't go to.  Also, a few of these will be shown over the late spring into the summer, so check it out sooner than later if interested.)
Alan Ayckbourn Bedroom Farce
A.R. Gurney The Dining Room (this got rave reviews in Chicago, so I hope this production comes close to matching that)
Sarah Ruhl Eurydice
Michel Tremblay Yours Forever, Marie-Lou

Canadian Stage
Robert LePage Needles and Opium
Shakespeare in High Park - Julius Caesar
Shakespeare in High Park - The Comedy of Errors

So a lot to see and to squeeze into my calendar.  There's quite a bit to be excited about, including the changing of the seasons, but I will say that, like Chicagoans, Torontonians do go out and support the arts, even in the dead of winter.

But I must be off now.  Go ahead and leave a comment if you end up going to one of these shows.  Or if there is some upcoming summer theatre (particularly in the GTA) that excites you.

* Edit: I just recalled that East Side Players have also announced their 2015/16 season here.  It turns out that one of them (Wonder of the World by David Lindsay-Abaire) is one of the plays I listed on my want-to-see list, so I should go, even though I borrowed the script and browsed it a bit.  I wouldn't say I am in love with the script, but it has its moments, and the company puts on plays fairly close to my home, so I should probably go support them.

In other way-ahead listings, I see that Alumnae Theatre Company plan on doing Lett's August: Osage County in April 2016!  There was a very short run of the Broadway touring production that came through Toronto back in Nov. 2009, but this will be the first locally organized production, as far as I know.  I will probably encourage others to go.  However, I won't go myself.  I saw the Steppenwolf production with the original cast, and I just don't think anything else will live up to that.  I don't want the different versions getting muddled in my mind.

Now in terms of other want-to-see plays I listed, I thought I would make the trip to the UT-Erindale campus, but it turns out they are only performing Inge's Picnic for a single weekend, and it happens to be this weekend(!), when I am booked solid.  The other Picnic is in Scarborough in early March, which may not work out either.  It's about a half hour drive, though I'd have to rent a car, and it looks like I could make it in about an hour via transit, assuming most of my connections are ok.  That's not so terrible, but I'll just have to see how booked I am in early March.  It's quite droll that I am more likely to go to Montreal to see Travesties than to see Picnic just slightly outside of town...

** And one of those times was at Stratford, though back in 1999!  (Incidentally we also saw School for Scandal on that visit, which is one I would like to see again.)  It is really tempting to go again, and perhaps even see if my son would enjoy it, but I think it will be another couple of years before he could really follow it (he was able to follow most of Wilde's  The Importance of Being Ernest).  So I really need to hang tough and wait for a local performance.  However, if somebody gave me tickets I would go for sure. But if Mirvish tries to bring it to town in the fall or in 2016, like they did for Arcadia, I would definitely go.



TSO Season 2015/16

So the upcoming TSO season has just been announced.  You can start here and eventually click through the season.  I'm going to be honest and say it looks ok, but kind of scaled back and not particularly adventurous.  In fact, it is basically a very boring season.

I am glad they will be doing Beethoven's 5, and as a Sunday matinee, so I will most likely take the kids to that.  They are doing two Shostakovich Symphonies and the Montreal Symphony is coming in with a third.  I'll plan on making all those.  I did miss out on Second City's Guide to the Symphony, which was apparently terrific, so I'll try to go this year.  I did not manage to make it to Dvorak's 9th Symphony (it was when we were on a quick trip to Chicago).  They are doing a one-night stand of Dvorak's 8th, but I will probably pass, having seen that done in the previous two years with various symphonies.

I'm a bit torn on the Beethoven Symphony #3 paired with Piano Concerto #3 with Yefim Bronfman.  The issue is I've already seen him do the whole Piano Concerto cycle, so it just feels unnecessary, even though I am sure it will be a fine concert.  They are also bringing in James Ehnes to do the Elgar Violin Concerto (paired with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring), but I saw Ehnes doing this piece with VSO in 2014 (in a concert line-up that I liked better).  I'm sure this will be a great concert, but I feel I've already done it.

I'll be able to put together a subscription package, but there is very little that excites me, aside perhaps for the Shostakovich and Angea Hewitt coming in to play Bach.  I guess there is Prokofiev's 5th Symphony, which I do like, but I've seen several times already.  I'll go again anyway, since it is paired with Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, which is not played very frequently.

I guess I don't really know what I want.  I do like seeing familiar works every couple of years, but there is so little on offer here that is a bit off the beaten path.  But when they do have something just a bit unusual, like Strauss's An Alpine Symphony, I find it isn't quite to my taste and I don't go.  I'm just a bit fickle and fairly demanding.  That's what happens when you live in a place like Chicago and get totally spoiled for choice.  I don't even dare look at Chicago's 2015/16 season, as I probably would just get depressed.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Small steps (to get back in shape?)

I am far better about exercising my mind than my body, but I have gone and gotten a 3 month membership to the exercise rooms at the Park District building.  It is literally across the street, so I hardly have an excuse, other than their exercise facilities are not great.

I really signed up for the pool, however.  The lane swimming times are not great either, but they do work for me a lot better than they did the previous season.  They are currently 8-9 PM Monday and Wednesday.  And that's pretty much it for the entire week, which I find incredibly lame, but I should be able to make it to one and often both evenings.  I did like the fact that they have a medium speed swimming lane, though it didn't appear that it was appreciably slower than the fast lane.  Nonetheless, that's probably where I will end up most days.

It's been several months since I was biking regularly, and until the deep freeze lifts, that is how it will remain.  I don't think I've swum laps since last May or perhaps the first week or so of June.  I think I did reasonably well, given that I am out of practice.  I'm still a little sore from Monday, and I'll probably be even more sore on Thurs.  But I'm the only one to blame for getting so out of shape.  Next week I'll look into using the exercise room a bit more and see if they have weight machines or only free weights.

I even went today (Wed.) and it is often going back the second or third time that is the hardest.  I'm sore in some places that I haven't been working on in a long time.  I guess that is a good thing.  Now I just have to try out the stationary bicycle and the weights on one of the non-swimming days, and we'll see if I can start making some serious progress.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Toronto arts updates

I guess it is a pretty clear indication of how rarely I see live jazz (compared to live classical music) that it isn't until just this weekend that I realized that the two main jazz clubs in Toronto closed down years ago (Top of the Senator and Montreal Bistro).  Sadly I didn't go to either while I lived here in the early 90s.  There really isn't a single venue in the city that offers multi-night residences to visiting musicians from New York or Chicago (pretty sad considering how close it is and that Montreal still has its jazz clubs).  The Rex is basically the only game left in town, and from what I can tell, it only offers one-night stands and generally odd times at that.  Atomic is coming in in February and the start time is 9:45 (compared to an hour earlier in Montreal the day before and in Hamilton the day after -- and at 3:30 in Hamilton during their Winterfest Kick-off if I decide to make a road trip).  Same thing with Dave Liebman later in the month.  It's not that I can't stay up until midnight, but it just seems wrong not to have an 8 o'clock set and a 10 o'clock set for major jazz musicians.  Anyway, Toronto is really no better than Vancouver any longer in terms of jazz and perhaps even worse when you look at the fairly lame line-up they have at the Toronto Jazz Fest in the summer.

It is better in terms of movies, particularly art movies, with TIFF being pretty amazing (except during the film festival itself, when it becomes overbearing and lame).  It might even slightly edge out the Siskel Film Center in Chicago, which is saying something. 

Anyway, I'm just back from seeing my first play at Canadian Stage -- The Other Place by Sharr White.  While there is one scene I think probably should have been cut (a bit too much spoon-feeding of the audience) it was good.  There are two things I'll probably see later in the season (though not enough to justify a subscription), but I don't really like the look of the 2015/16 season.  Also I have to say that after I learned more about their new artistic director, I was less impressed.  He basically is bored with conventional theatre and wants everything to be multi-media.  I don't mind so much if it is just a slightly enhanced backdrop, as in The Other Place or in Chinglish, but many of his offerings are theatre/dance or theatre/film, and I just don't find this particularly appealing.  He may be the right person to try to hook the Millennials on Canadian Stage, but I probably will only be a very occasional visitor.  I much, much prefer Soulpepper and Tarragon.

I managed to just miss some art installation in the main VIA area of Union Station (though the reviews weren't particularly encouraging).  I was sure it said through the weekend, but everything was coming down on Sat. morning.  My daughter and I continued on our way to Harbourfront where we did some ice skating (very badly) and then saw the video installations at The Power Plant, which I didn't particularly care for, and then some mixed media work at the Billy Bishop Artport which went over a lot better.  I may be able to post one or two pictures later.

I had known about the Kubrick exhibit over at TIFF, but I just either would forget or was working crazy hours, particularly over the past two weeks.  So I thought I would sneak in today, but it was the last day of the exhibit and basically everyone else had the same idea as me.  So I just couldn't get in.  It's probably for the best.  I very rarely have really thought these movie-themed exhibits are that thrilling.  About the only one that I really liked was the Croenenburg one at ROM years and years ago.

I've gone into some detail about various local art shows.  I'm curious about the Basquiat, which opens at the AGO in about two weeks.  My kids don't seem to be too interested, but my wife might go if we can bundle it with some other activity where we have hired a sitter.  And I'll soon see whether MOCCA gets the cool rooms from the Coupland exhibit.

Slightly further afield, I had seriously considered going up the National Gallery for the Jack Bush exhibit, but after checking out the slides, I decided his art was kind of bush league (ok, poor joke) and definitely not worth a winter trip.  There is a Chagall exhibit of considerable more interest in the summer, so perhaps that will be the time to go.  If we do make it to Montreal in April (a combined museum/theatre trip), then Montreal will edge out Ottawa by a couple of months.

I've mentioned elsewhere some of the interesting upcoming theatre shows, but perhaps I will circle back and actually list the ones where I've gotten the tickets as a kind of show of support.  There are a few more I should probably add to the list, especially now that the summer Shaw and Stratford seasons have been announced and are on sale, but I guess I should wait until all my tickets are booked, just in case I inadvertently spark a rush on some show.  You never can tell, as they say.

Curiously, you never can tell is the catchphrase of a waiter in Shaw's early comedy of the same name.  While I probably won't actually go down for this (as the times just don't pair up with the two plays I will be seeing), there is a small chance that I would take off on the Friday beforehand and see the evening performance.  I'll wait on the reviews before making a determination one way or the other.  However, it is time to try to start buying up the rest of my tickets, so that I can manage to fit everything in.  My calendar is getting pretty complicated...

Finally Rezzori

This is an unbelievably silly post.  I cannot find a usable book cover on-line to indicate that I am finally starting Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol, so I am pinning one up here.  Sorry about that.  If I have anything interesting to say about the book after this many month delay (while I was off reading Russians), I will update this post in a week or so.


Sharp-eyed viewers will note that the cover is an adaptation of the central painting in the Max Beckmann triptych, The Beginning.  This is perhaps the 2nd most famous of the triptychs, simply because it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and millions of people have seen it.  However, it does go into storage periodically or rather other paintings are rotated back on view.  It wasn't there on my last two trips.  I just checked and it is back on view now, so it should be there in mid March when I have a short trip to NYC planned.  That's a significant plus (not that I wouldn't have stopped by the Met anyway).

Ok, I am back, having finally read the novel, and I thought it was a fine novel indeed.

As I have hinted in a few posts, von Rezzori seems to be mourning the loss of a cosmopolitan city that was generally open to citizens of various nationalities (Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians among others) and religions (within limits).  Muslims did not seem to feature in this city, clearly based upon Czernowitz, an actual city that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Jews were largely accepted, though somewhat despised (including by the narrator's parents to his shame and regret).  And the anti-Jewish sentiments, so horrifyingly channeled by the Nazis, come to a head in a somewhat smaller-scale Kristallnacht in Czernopol.  After which point, the city loses its cosmopolitan character, and starts to become a backwater.

There are quite a number of much more thorough reviews of the book: here and here and here and here and here.  (Somewhat bizarrely the Guardian does not seem to have reviewed it when the new translation came out, when it would have seemed to have been very much up their alley.)

Mourning the loss of a once-great city puts von Rezzori in the same tradition as Joseph Roth (particularly his shorter non-fiction writings, but one could argue The Radetzky March sets up the Austro-Hungarian Empire as something to be mourned) and certainly Stefan Zweig (almost everything but in particular The World of Yesterday).  One connection not made by these other reviews (because it had not come out yet) is to the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.  (However, Wes Anderson freely admits to being heavily inspired by Zweig, so the linkage is quite legitimate.)  The same sense of urbaneness, even to the point of ridiculousness, is well represented in An Ermine in Czernopol.  Curiously, the main character Gustave H., is most of the time witty and urban like Herr Tarangolian, the prefect of Czernopol, but at the end of the movie, makes a noble gesture of self-sacrifice that is a bit more in line with Major Tildy (who is the "ermine" of the title).

Where this novel is a bit of a departure is that the narrator, and particularly his parents, are a fairly central part of society, and the parents' open antisemitism (mixed with only occasional noble efforts to save particular Jewish children from danger) helped fuel the climate where the general population turns on the Jews of Czernopol.  Curiously, von Rezzori was somewhat closer to the centre in that he was not Jewish and he was actually from an aristocratic lineage (which he later played up), but he was not particularly well-off (his father was a civil servant in Czernowitz) and he had Romanian citizenship, which kept him from being drafted by the Nazis in WWII.  So he is not as complicit as the Germans, particularly a German writer like Günter Grass (who ended up far more tied to the Nazis than he admitted after the war).  An Ermine in Czernopol actually has a number of similarities and a few outright parallels with Grass's The Tin Drum, though I liked An Ermine far more.

That really enough to say on the matter.  If one likes books from Mitteleuropa, then one must definitely explore von Rezzori's work.  It might be easier to ease into it, perhaps starting with The Snows Of Yesteryear.  After that, either Memoirs of an Anti-Semite or An Ermine in Czernopol.  I think one should leave what is often considered his magnum opus, The Death of My Brother Abel, for last.  And that's all I have to say on the subject (for now at any rate).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Writing for the desk drawer

This is a topic I raised quite a while ago when I was discussing authors and their last works.  No question there are a few books that are written and sort of forgotten or, perhaps more frequently, end up in someone else's hands. This can actually be a good thing as it might save a novel or novella from being destroyed (Malcolm Lowry's In Ballast to the White Sea, for example). Sometimes the publisher just holds onto it too long and it is forgotten. There are quite a few of these, but the most recent case I am aware of is José Saramago's Skylight, which I expect to get to one of these days.

In the West, writing for the desk drawer is basically a personal choice. Most of the time it is employed when the author simply doesn't feel the work is up to snuff, although there are probably a few cases where the author doesn't want to confuse the buying public if he or she already has a strong brand writing in a different style or genre. Still, this is what pseudonyms are designed for, although the secret virtually always gets out.

In the Soviet Union and other places with limited freedom of expression, the expression takes on a much more problematic dimension where authors, even those who had published extensively before, knew that certain stories and novels would run afoul of the censors, and, particularly under Stalin, might lead to exile to Siberia.  So they were only left in the desk drawers, though in fact, for some of the bolder authors, their works were circulated clandestinely as samizdat or were even smuggled abroad.  I'm not terribly well versed in the details of the times and generally don't know how which authors treated which works.  I believe Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita did circulate to some extent, as well as did Anatoly Rybakov's Children of the Arbat (which I have not read -- but some day should).  I wonder whether I would have had the courage/conviction to be an underground writer in Soviet Russia.  Perhaps but most likely not.

As it happens, three of the authors from my Russian list wrote for the desk drawer, though in at least two cases they even did submit some of their work periodically to the censors. Tsypkin seems to have been the only one who didn't try to publish his major fiction (Summer In Baden Baden) but he wrote scientific articles.  It was the anti-Semitism of the U.S.S.R. that really did him in.

Andrey Platonov was by far the most published of the three, and quite a few of his stories straddle the line of Soviet realism and more naturalistic modes uneasily.  He did eventually fall out of favor (with Stalin!) and it became all but impossible for him to place his stories, particularly when the avant garde journal that published him as well as Mayakovsky went under and/or was suppressed.*  He actually did submit Happy Moscow to the censors, but it is hard to imagine they would accept it, given that it depicts among other things a disaster while the Moscow Underground is being built.  In that sense, he may have been his "own worst enemy" to some extent, sending in material that would just put him further in the dog house.  I'll have more to say on this subject in an upcoming post.

Finally, Krzhizhanovsky seems to have submitted quite a few of his pieces to different journals without success, and he basically made his living as a lecturer on literature but wasn't published.  More than a few of his stories have quite negative portrayals of editors.  It wasn't clear to me when he gave up, but I wonder if he even tried to publish the novella "Memories of the Future," or if that was truly written for the desk drawer.  One sort of hopes for his own sake that it was the latter.  This is a story about a young man who is driven to understand time and builds a time machine.  He is immediately swamped with requests to take people back before 1917, so that they can cash out their now confiscated estates and send the money abroad to relatives (or perhaps they themselves would leave Russia, though that would set up a terrible time paradox).  Even as a pure fantasy, I can imagine the authorities would look upon this work extremely suspiciously.

I'd have to do additional research to go on at any greater length, so I think I'll stop there.  I have myself been taking a few steps to get my work back out of the desk drawer (as I definitely do not have such an excuse!), so I'll just have to keep chipping away at it.  

* The afterword to The Foundation Pit goes into the most detail about this, indicating that Platonov -- and Vassily Grossman -- seemed to fall out of favor when they were among the only writers/intellectuals that realized and would say anything about Stalin crushing the peasants in the later half of the 1920s.  This is covered directly in Grossman's Everything Flows (also on the NYRB imprint) and somewhat obliquely in Platonov's Soul and The Foundation Pit.

Newsflash - Jane Munro in Hamilton

So this is just a quick note to anyone who follows Canadian poetry and lives in or near Hamilton.  Jane Munro (whose recent collections I'll be reviewing over the next week or so) is reading in Hamilton tonight.

Details:

Thursday JANUARY 22 2015
Hamilton Poetry Centre
Jane Munro reads from Blue Sonoma
When: 7:30 pm until 9:00 pm
Venue: Bryan Prince Bookseller
Location: 1060 King Street West • Hamilton • Map

It appears she was on a poetry tour through Toronto last spring, but isn't reading in Toronto this time around.  Had I still been in Vancouver, there were a few opportunities to see her read in the fall, not that I am sure I would have taken advantage of them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Art Gallery of Hamilton - pt 2

I was going to write something scathing about sports and their place in U.S. culture, but really why bother?  It's all been said before.  Anyway, there is nothing that makes visiting art museums (or reading "literary" novels) inherently better than following sports.  It all comes down to taste (as Bourdieu explores in Distinction). 

Since this is my blog, I will focus on something that did give me pleasure, the recent trip to the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH).  I discussed the very nice, though compact, Cézanne show, and now it is time to cover the upstairs galleries.  One tip is that the upstairs galleries are actually free to visit (for the time being), though I think one ought to make some donation if stopping by.

As this is the 100th anniversary of the AGH, they have pulled together 100 masterworks in the collection and put them on display through late April 2015.  (I am not sure what is normally on view upstairs and if they rotate through their permanent collection or not.)  What is perhaps a bit surprising is that, due to the recent Alex Colville show at the AGO, perhaps the single most famous painting in their collection was not on display, namely Colville's Horse and Train (they even named their cafe Horse and Train!).

Alex Colville, Horse and Train, 1954

As the Colville exhibition is traveling to the National Gallery (kind of silly, frankly, when it would make much more sense to send it out West), Hamilton won't get its Colville back for a while. When it does return, I am not sure if they will reinstall it upstairs (squeezing it in) or perhaps put it in the lobby near the cafe.  I would imagine that people would want to see it when visiting.  

While they had a few solid European paintings (Albert Marquet, Pissarro and Leger), I think the ones that caught my attention the most were all Canadian painters.

I thought the single greatest Canadian painting was Tom Thomson's The Birch Grove, Autumn.  This actually looks quite similar to a largish Thomson in the McMichael collection.
  
Tom Thomson, The Birch Grove, Autumn, 1915-16


They had two Lawren Harris paintings on display.

Lawren Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, 1913

Lawren Harris, Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior, 1923

As it happens, they have 8 more Harris's that are still stashed away in their vaults (along with roughly 10,000 other works of art)!  As they have posted fewer than 1000 images in their Virtual Vault (and some of these have been blocked out for copyright issues), very little of the collection is actually available for public inspection.  I quite liked In the Ward, Toronto (1919) and Icebergs and Mountains, Greenland (1930), which were representative of Harris's early and middle periods.  They even had a late abstract painting, though I didn't think as much of it.  Perhaps at some point they will rotate through more of them or put on another Group of Seven exhibition.

Lawren Harris, In the Ward, Toronto, 1919

Lawren Harris, Icebergs and Mountains, Greenland, 1930


It wouldn't be a Canadian exhibit without at least a little Emily Carr on view.

Emily Carr, Yan, Q.C.I., 1912

This painting seems to be positioned halfway between the New York Ashcan school and the urban noir that Edward Hopper occasionally dwelt in.

T.R. MacDonald, One A.M., 1956

Incidentally, T.R. MacDonald was a director of AGH and seems to have been the key figure that really expanded its collection.  Unfortunately, most of his paintings in other museums seem to have vanished into deep storage.

Depending on one's view of William Kurelek, one might consider This is the Nemesis as the third major painting in the AGH (after Colville and Thomson).  I wouldn't go so far, but I am not a fan of Kurelek's work, though I occasionally find it interesting.

William Kurelek, This is the Nemesis, 1965
 
It is certainly the product of a fevered imagination.  Whenever Kurelek was seemingly in one of his religious ecstasies, he would paint these incredibly detailed, generally apocalyptic scenes.  While I come at it from a completely different perspective, I can understand how one can hate the culture/society one lives in.  In Kurelek's case, it was hardly a secret longing for it all to come to a violent end.  Here are a couple of close-ups of the margins of the painting.


   
As it happens, several years back AGH was one of the stops of the William Kurelek: the Messenger tour.  Clearly, this is a case where they did have some skin in the game, so it seems much more appropriate to be hosting an exhibit (compared to the Cézanne).  I'm starting to regret missing the exhibit by only a week or so when it was in Victoria, since it doesn't seem likely that I will have a chance to see Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years at the Manulife corporate HQ and certainly not another one based on Bruegel's The Tower of Babel.  

What does surprise me a bit is that the AGH didn't position the Nemesis painting closer to this mixed installation also heavily inspired by Bruegel and Bosch.  It is in fact simply called Bruegel-Bosch Bus and is by the Canadian artist Kim Adams.  It's a VW minivan completely covered with toys.  It's pretty impossible to convey this without seeing it in person.








It's definitely hard to process, but it was quite interesting and quirky.  

Anyway, the visit was a good one, despite it being so cold.  I'm now starting to plan ahead to the next museum trip and trying to decide if I'll make it to Ottawa or Montreal next.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Quick Jan. update post

Friday was a tough day.  My daughter decided to be Bartleby the Schoolgirl and just would not get ready for school.  Then she blamed it on being sooo tired because I was out so late at the Cracker show, and thus she couldn't sleep properly.  Even the threat of no computer, no TV, no talking on the phone with friends and no ice skating this weekend would not move her.  Anyway, the upshot is that I am not going to take her to Harbourfront this weekend.  (As it happens some of the art exhibits there open up next weekend, so I'll see if next Sat. works (if I am not at some real estate open house) and we'll go down.)

This weekend may thus be a little bit empty, and I'll probably drop in at the AGO and put in a few hours of work.  I see that this is the last week of the Winter Fringe.  While part of me thinks I really ought to go, I just wasn't that interested in their offerings.  The one that keeps popping up (following me around...) is "Big Shot," which is about a shooting on a TransLink train, but I didn't want to see that in Vancouver and I don't want to see it here.  The only one that vaguely appeals to me is a sketch comedy thing.  Unfortunately, it runs today at 9 and tomorrow at 6.  If the times were reversed, I probably would go today, but I don't really want to go back out for a second time tonight.

Now speaking of winter theatre festivals, Harbourfront is running a few shows in Feb-March and I may go to one or two.  I just have to see how it works into everything else I am hoping to do in these dark winter days.

I have made more progress on my own writing, and I should have my entry ready for Feb.'s Sing for Your Supper in just a few more days.  It's actually a short extract from my novel turned into a play or rather a scene, but I think it works.  It's a particularly "talky" chapter, so that helps.  Basically, the main character ends up talking with his "wife" and her girlfriend in the kitchen, and the wife is going on (and on) about the lesbian undercurrents in Elizabeth Bowen's work.  She's a grad. student and is working on a term paper.  Her girlfriend is not particularly impressed and says that when she does read fiction she prefers the lesbian context to be overt, as in Angela Carter.  I don't want this to go on for too long, as it is too inside baseball, but I'll probably return to the literary trope thing from time to time (in the novel).

As it happens, I did recently read To the North by Bowen, and while the lesbian traces are faint, they are there.  Supposedly, they are a bit stronger in The Hotel (Bowen's first novel), and I happen to have it checked out of the library, so I will read it, somewhat out of sequence.  And I just wrapped up Carter's Nights at the Circus.  This is a novel I've carted around for years, meaning to read it, and I finally did.

(Oops, almost forgot -- SPOILERS)

The first 2/3rds of the book are pretty good, and the middle section (where this reporter runs off to join the circus to find out the trust about their star attraction -- a winged woman) is quite Felliniesque* (though it is possible it is even more directly influenced by Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel).  The last third, set in Siberia, kind of drags for me where there is an entire chapter about a women's prison set up as a panopticon -- it's straight out of Foucault with a dash or two of Dostoevsky.  Then there is a prison break and the wardens (all female) run off with the prisoners to set up a utopia without men somewhere in the Russian wilderness.  All obviously catnip to graduate students (particularly in women's studies) but not as entertaining for those who liked the circus section.  The reporter, stunned out of his wits by a train crash, ends up in a village adopted by a shaman and starts wondering if his previous life was all in some dreamworld.  I didn't particularly care for this part either, and then found the actual chapter where the reporter reunited with the bird-woman to be pretty anti-climatic.  And I have mixed feelings about the budding Marxist personal assistant (and former whore) also being a witch.  I think Carter kind of got bogged down and made this too literally into a fable (something that she has certainly explored in the past).  It's a shame, as this was on track to be another of the top ten books of 2015, but I do feel let down by the last third of the novel.  Maybe I'll feel differently about it in another month or two.  Anyway, this means I have only two more books left on my Russian list (from back in August).  It's thrilling in a small way.

I guess those are the main updates.  I liked the first CD (Berkeley) from the new Cracker album a lot, so if nothing else, going to the show introduced me to some really great new music (but, boy, most of the folks at that show drank like fish...).  Now I am debating more strongly whether I should go see Tragically Hip in February.  I half-suspect it conflicts with one of the plays at Harbourfront.  Anyway, it is still freaking cold out there, and I am somewhat procrastinating before I get going.  So I guess it is time to wrap this up.

* Edit: Actually that reminds me that after I heard the news about the passing of Anita Ekberg, I feel motivated to finally watch all of La Dolce Vita (I'm ashamed to say I've never made it all the way through, but that's the case for a great many classics, even ones that I own).  I'll see if I can make it through this, then Iriku again and then back to some Bergman that I've meant to see.  If only there was enough time for everything...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Camper Van/Cracker Show in Toronto

I just happened to see in the paper that Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker was going to be playing a show in Toronto.  I debated for a bit and decided to go.  Incredibly, this now makes the 5th time I have seen Camper Van Beethoven (and the second time I've seen Cracker).

I'd never been to Lee's Palace before, which was where the show was held, though I'd see the elaborate painting covering the front of the venue.* 
 

I didn't really have that much disposal income when I was here in grad. school.  While I am not sure, I suspect that smoking was allowed, as it was in so many bars/pubs/coffee shops in Toronto in the early 90s.  At least I no longer have to worry about smelling like an ashtray. Anyway, doors opened at 8:30, and I guess I got inside around 8:45.


Inside it is a little shabby and a bit smaller than I expected.  There is an upstairs coat check but it doesn't seem possible to watch the bands on stage from the second floor, so it is something like half the size of Metro in Chicago.  It got fairly crowded about midway through the first set.  The crowd was very middle aged, and I would say the majority were a couple of years older than me ranging to 10 years older than me.  I did see a few younger patrons, i.e. in their 30s, but not really that many.  It was amusing that a few were claiming "their" space to the left or right of the stage, obviously having spent a big part of their young adulthood here.  While there was some seating in Lee's Palace, there was not very much.  I ended up standing near and half-leaning on a pillar the whole show.  I actually moved back as it was pretty loud, and periodically I could feel the sound waves pushing my clothing around!

What is somewhat surprising is that Camper Van Beethoven has reformed and recorded 2 new albums together, though they don't tour all that often.  La Costa Perdita is already up on eMusic, and I am waiting for the other one (El Camino Real) to turn up.  They played quite a few songs off the new albums.

This is the set list as best as I can reconstruct it:

It Was Like That When We Got There from El Camino Real
Too High for the Love-In from La Costa Perdita
Balalaika Gap from Telephone Free Landslide Victory
(Pictures of) Matchstick Men from Key Lime Pie
All Her Favorite Fruit from Key Lime Pie
Sweethearts from Key Lime Pie
We're a Bad Trip from II & III
Northern California Girls from La Costa Perdita
Darken Your Door from El Camino Real
I Live in L.A. from El Camino Real
Sad Lover's Waltz from II & III
Take the Skinheads Bowling from Telephone Free Landslide Victory
When I Win the Lottery from Key Lime Pie
Summer Days from La Costa Perdita
(No encore)

I like It Was Like That When We Got There, which seems in the same vein as many of their classic songs, and Darken Your Door is quite catchy.  I am not sold on Northern California Girls and I did think Too High for the Love-In went on a bit too long, given that they had so much to squeeze in.  Indeed, there were a few songs I sort of expected like Joe Stalin's Cadillac (or really anything off the second album) that were not played.  While I think what they played off Key Lime Pie was great, but I remember from past shows that they did great live versions of Eye of Fatima and She Divines Water (both off Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart).  Summer Days was a bit of odd choice to end the set on, as it just isn't particularly strong.  Even flipping it with When I Win the Lottery would have worked, though personally I would loved an extra song -- maybe Eye of Fatima flowing directly into She Divines Water.  Still I guess they are just determined to prove they are not an oldies band, and for the most part the audience was willing to go along with them. 

This may have been even more the case for Cracker where 8 or 9 of the songs (a bit over half the set list) were from a new double CD called Berkeley to Bakersfield.  Actually the biggest single surprise was that Victor Krummenacher came back to play bass for Cracker.  He's pretty bad-ass and had some incredible bass lines, so that was a plus for me.  I didn't write down the whole list for Cracker, but of the new material I liked March of the Billionnaires and El Cerrito a lot.  They did play Teen Angst, Low, Sweet Potato and of course Eurotrash Girl.  It may have been a bit unexpected that they played This is Cracker Soul.  I really did expect them to play Seven Days, perhaps as the encore, so I ended up stayed for the entire Cracker set, which I hadn't really expected to do. (I thought I would benefit by having Camper Van go on first, but it didn't matter in the end.)  However, it was a good show (even though it made me feel kind of old), though I'll probably pay for it tomorrow.  I suppose I really admire Lowery and the rest of the guys to write a second and third act and not just be a washed up band from the 80s (CvB) or the 90s (Cracker).

I don't really have anything more profound to say now, though I may write more after I absorb Berkeley to Bakersfield (I bought a copy at the merchandise station before the show).


* Apparently, this is a fairly recent reconstruction that is even bigger than the painting that was up in the 90s.  Well, obviously I didn't pay that much attention.  A bit of the story is told here.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Cezanne in Hamilton

I was able to catch the Hamilton Express bus from Union Station on Sat. and made it down to the special exhibit of Cézanne still lifes (The World is an Apple) at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH).  Both coming and going, I turned up with about 3 minutes to hustle onto the bus, so that was good timing.  While I had planned on driving down with the family last weekend, the weather was just really poor, and this weekend they were trying out (though not enjoying) karate lessons.  The Cézanne exhibit runs three more weekends, though Feb 8, and is a very reasonable $10.  Crowds were generally light, but will probably increase slightly in the final weeks.  One word of warning is that the AGH doesn't open until noon on weekends, and I was left out in the bitter cold and had to retreat to an indoor farmer's market to warm up and wait it out.  In addition to the Cézanne on display, the upper gallery has 100 key paintings and sculptures from their collection, and this is up through late April.  I will write about this in a separate post (and I might well take the kids to that at some point in late March or early April, depending on the weather).



Then the museum opened, and I moved from the real to the ideal.


There are a few intriguing things about this exhibit, starting with the fact that AGH has no Cézannes in its collection at all, and that the exhibit came about as part of a brainstorm between their new curator and someone workings at the Barnes Foundation.  Here is an interview with the AGH curator about the exhibit.  I don't mind AGH trying to punch about its weight a bit, but I generally prefer exhibits where the hosting institutions have some skin in the game, i.e. are putting up a couple of paintings for display and then loan.

This still life by Georges Braque and two other somewhat similar still lifes from the MacMaster Museum of Art (and, no I didn't have a chance to check that out on this trip) were in the same room with the Cézannes but technically not part of the exhibit as they didn't travel down to Philadelphia.

Georges Braque, Nature Morte, 1925-26

It was perhaps even more disappointing that the Barnes Foundation didn't have any skin in the game either.  Due to the covenant restrictions, their many Cézannes cannot be moved even temporarily into a different room for a special exhibition nor can they go on tour.*  So the painting below was not technically part of the exhibit, but it was in the catalog.  I certainly find it quite nice.  I'm kind of torn about the catalog itself, as it is well-done but a bit pricey at $45.  If it comes down to $30 or so down the road, I'd probably get a copy.  Interestingly, it is in the Toronto Public Library (and circulates), whereas the main AGH catalog can only be found in their reference section.

Paul Cézanne. Still Life with Fruit, Pitcher and Fruit-Vase. 1892-94

I was disappointed or even peeved to learn that two of the paintings on view in Philadelphia did not make it up north.  One was from the Guggenheim, and I've most likely seen it before.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life: Flask, Glass, and Jug, ca. 1877

This other Cézanne from the Guggenheim was never part of the exhibit at all, but it is nice (even if it is peaches and not apples on view).  I'm more certain that I have seen this one in person.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life: Plate of Peaches, 1879-80

The exhibit is set up so that the earlier, basically conventional still lifes are in the first room, and the more mature Cézannes are in the second room.  Those are the paintings that definitely require the most attention.  We see grey entering Cézanne's palate in a major way, but more importantly the spatial orientation is just a bit off (more noticeably in some paintings than others).  This is the aspect of Cézanne's work that caused Picasso and other cubists to agree that Cézanne was one of their primary influences.

As it happens, back in 2009 I managed to sneak away to see the block-buster Cézanne show in Philadelphia -- Cézanne and Beyond.  That was far more focused on landscapes and portraits, though there were some key later still life paintings that could be read as precursors to cubism.  Here are two that I liked quite a bit (note, these are not in Hamilton).

From the Philips Collection in DC:
Paul Cézanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, 1893
 
And from the Getty in L.A. (this was probably on view when I visited the Getty, but it is hard to recall):
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1893-94

It would have been quite the coup to get the Getty painting in the second room next to this gorgeous painting on loan from the Musée d'Orsay, but at least I have them paired (peared) here.

Paul Cézanne, The Kitchen Table, 1888-90

In my view, The Kitchen Table is the highlight of The World is an Apple, and is worth studying with as much care as one can devote to it.  The others in the second room are quite nice, but they are mostly in private collections and harder to find on-line, so you might need to purchase the catalog to ensure that you have access to them.

So only three weeks left to see 19 Cézannes in Hamilton.  Need I say more?

Of course I can.  A friend from a jazz blog pointed out this amazing still life also from the Musée d'Orsay.  As much as I like it, I think it might have proven to be too much of a contrast with the vases and spice pots of the other paintings, though the wine bottle would tie together with the Getty's still life.  (Even though I hate, hate, hate onions, I find this an incredibly soothing painting and have set it as my computer background at work.  Whatever works, right?)

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Onions, 1896-98

Now I've been to the Musée d'Orsay twice, and I remember a few key paintings, but it is not always clear that the paintings in the gallery guide are actually the same as those on display.  I probably saw both these Cézannes, but I couldn't swear to it.  One of the advantages of this exhibit, unlike some of the blockbusters, is that you really could focus on the paintings without the thousand other key masterworks clamouring for attention (and certainly dozens of fellow art lovers).  That said, now that I have become attuned to these particular still lifes, I will take careful note to see if I do see them on my next trip to Paris (sadly, not even on the radar, but some day...).  It's the same thing with Max Beckmann where I am determined to note if I actually have seen each triptych or not.

Ok, I simply cannot resist the temptation to share one more incredible still life from the Musée d'Orsay.

Paul Cézanne, Apples and Oranges, 1899

If this isn't an inducement to book a return visit, I don't know what would do it.  I certainly long to return but will have to wait another few years at least.

* Not withstanding the extremely controversial grand tour of the Barnes Foundation masterworks, which I managed to see in D.C. and in Toronto.  I cannot recall if this was one of the ones in the traveling Barnes exhibit show from the mid 90s, so I am trying to track down an exhibit list.  And speaking of controversies, it is still fairly astonishing to me that they did manage to relocate the Barnes into downtown Philadelphia.  Personally, I am in favour of the move, though I understand why it rubs some people the wrong way.  I'll certainly make a trip to see it the next time I am passing through.

Edit: Now that I have seen the catalog of that exhibition, it is clear that this Cézanne still life (and a couple of other really nice ones in the Barnes Collection) were pried away from Pennsylvania and sent around the world, so I have seen it before, not that I wouldn't welcome the chance to see them again.  Indeed, odds are pretty good that I've actually seen all these paintings in person, though hardly all at the same time.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Happy Moscow -- the review

The New Year has hardly begun, and this blog has finally hit 25,000 views.  Thanks!  (Even if 35% or so of these views are just scrapers, I feel I am slowly building up to a critical mass.)  At any rate, even though it is so early in the year, I have just read a book that may well end up on my top 10 list for 2015 (even though I expect to be reading more books that are really to my taste in 2015): Andrey Platonov's Happy Moscow.

I really like pretty much everything about it, particularly the cover:


I am probably the most happy that this marks nearly the end of my six-month sojourn in Russian literature, though it certainly has considerable charms on its own.  I do appreciate the fact that they rounded out the NYRB volume with a few other related pieces (Happy Moscow comes in at 117 pages, so it is really more of a novella than a novel). I even find it a bit amusing that an (unfinished) play is included in this volume. While the price hasn't quite dropped enough for me to run out and buy a copy, I am keeping my eye on it, and will grab it if one ever turns up at any of the bookshops I occasionally frequent.

Now, first off, I should say this book is not for everyone.  It is kind of bleak.  The NY Times review was a bit dismissive, saying that the translators hadn't really made the case for Platonov to be considered in the top tier of writers (and indeed Chandler's claims are generally over the top).

I think there is no question that this novel starts out kind of upbeat and ends somewhat oddly and darkly (in fact, the title character, Moscow Chestnova, kind of disappears from the narrative at the end).  Soul, on the other hand, starts very bleakly but has an upbeat ending (sort of).  However, I really found Soul to drag, and I admired it more than I really liked it.

There really is not much plot to Happy Moscow.  However, I will be discussing some of the events (though more frequently showing how I link to other works), so I am warning you now there will be SPOILERS ahead...

(And maybe very minor SPOILERS to some of the works I link to Happy Moscow through association.)

Ok, so the basic plot is that Moscow Chestnova runs away from an unfortunate early marriage and runs into Viktor Bozhko, a mid-level Soviet bureaucrat, who then enrolls her in aeronautics school.  She becomes well versed in sky-diving and even does some wing-walking.  (This was a bit of a big deal back in the 1930s when there weren't so many other forms of entertainment.)  She becomes an instructor in this institute.  However, she is too cool for school and lights up a cigarette during a jump and sets her experimental parachute on fire.  She goes flaming through the Moscow sky, but actually has a backup parachute that she deploys at the last minute and manages to survive the fall.

This is a pretty stunning image, and I thought there would be more like it, but after this episode, Moscow is terminated from her job as an instructor and is grounded for the rest of the novel.  Indeed, she ends up going underground for a short stint working to build the Moscow Metro, though that doesn't go particularly well for her either (and she ultimately loses a leg in an accident).

Now given the brief description of her as a flying wonder, I decided I ought to read Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, which I have been meaning to read practically forever.  This is a book about a female circus performer who claims to have wings and be part swan.  Interestingly, part of the novel takes place in St. Petersburg and even Siberia (where some of Platonov's short stories take place) but not in Moscow as far as I can tell.



So even though the linkage is a bit weaker than I imagined, I am going forward with Nights at the Circus and find it interesting so far.  Incidentally, one of the reviewers linked Carter's novel back to Djuna Barnes' Nightwood for some reason.  Nightwood has been coming back to me in so many different contexts that I have decided to go ahead and reread it soon -- probably mid-Feb. at my current pace, which should be close enough in time to see how it might link up with Carter.

One of the first things to note about Happy Moscow is that it is technically an unfinished novel, which can certainly be off-putting to some readers.  However, the translator Robert Chandler argues that Platonov always intended this to be a very open-ended work, and that it is in fact fairly close to being considered a finished novel (unlike Dicken's Edwin Drood or Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon where had the author lived another month or two we would (probably) have had the complete work).  Still, this is definitely an unstable novel where the main character, Moscow, kind of drops out of sight and we follow two of her main companions, Bozhko and Semyon Sartorius, whom I discussed a bit in the so-called transitional post.  It's not quite as formal as Ophuls' La Ronde or Bresson's L'Argent, where one follows the action from one person to another in sequence, but is somewhat closer to Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon (by which L'Argent was indeed itself inspired) where the action somewhat randomly returns to some of the principle characters.

She already knew Bozhko, but meets Sartorius at a jazz-themed party for promising young Soviets.  I certainly see the parallels with Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, including the half-hidden scorn over the fact that the select few chosen by the State lived in luxury while most in Moscow were on a subsistence diet.  Unfortunately, there was some other parallel or reference that hit me when reading the book, but it has slipped my mind for now.

There are actually two other characters who fall in love with Moscow to some degree and appear to have intimate relations with her (the young doctor Sambikin and the reservist Komyagin).  She seems somewhat indifferent to these men chasing after her, but sometimes just gives in to their desire, since they want it so much.  This is something that was seen, though not quite to such an extreme in his Soul, but also in Robertson Davies' Fifth Business where the Reverend's wife ends up somewhat addled by being hit in the head with a stone and sleeps with a tramp.  The idea that Moscow is sort of a Helen-figure who doesn't really seem to know what she wants is pretty apparent.  She wishes she could love Sartorius deeply, but is honest enough to tell him that her feelings are pretty thin and somewhat changeable.  She certainly turns on Komyagin, who is certainly the most pathetic of all her lovers.

In a somewhat surprising series of twists, Sartorius tries to forget about Moscow after she leaves him, and he even marries Liza, a secretary where he works.  Liza is so jealous of other women, she hopes to subtly disfigure Sartorius, though this doesn't occur.  For quite some time Sartorius manages to forget about Moscow, or only think of her as a fading heartache, but then he decides he must track her down to the pathetic room where she lives with Komyagin.  Komyagin gives up the struggle and seemingly dies, so Sartorius enters their room and enjoys another night of passion with Moscow. 

It is unclear what sets him off the next day (perhaps her general indifference?) but he then decides he must become more like the city he loves, i.e. Moscow the city, and to stop being a work-shirker, as apparently he has stopped reporting to his job and for quite some time before that he stopped working to his full capacities.  In the meantime, Liza has married Bozhko (time is awfully elastic in many of Platonov's stories and novels, much as in folk tales).  Sartorius goes to an unregulated market where he buys a ratio card and someone else's passport, and he starts a new life.  This last detail reminded me a fair bit of the start of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum where forged papers lead the way to a new life.  Finally, Sartorius (now Grunyakhin) takes over for another man who has left his wife and tries to step into the role of husband & father with only partial success.

It's certainly possible that Platonov could have returned yet again to the doctor Sambikin or to see what was happening with Moscow after her abandonment or even to provide one last view of the old fiddler, who crossed nearly everyone's path (and indeed who turns up in the other stories in the NYRB edition).  But, as already noted, it is quite an open-ended novel, so this is as good as any other ending.

Certainly much of the interest and even power of Happy Moscow comes from the various ways that Platonov is criticizing Stalin fairly openly, so do make sure to read the copious footnotes!  Chandler says that one of the most curious aspects of the whole affair is that Platonov actually thought the novel was publishable under Stalin's regime.  (Given the fact that Stalin personally took a dislike to Platonov it is extremely odd that he survived at all, but he did, even though he largely was prevented from publishing his work.)  Fortunately for us it was preserved and Happy Moscow published in 1991, during the period of Gorbachev's glasnost.  There are a few other things I could go into, including the fact that Platonov was trained as an engineer (take that, C.P. Snow) and wrote more than a few stories that did fit into Soviet realist triumphalism.  But I think I have gone on long enough.  If any of this seems curious and perhaps appealing, then you should seek out Happy Moscow for yourself.

Enjoy.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Transitional post

I was experimenting with something, but I have put it back now.

There are actually quite a few posts I'd like to make (the perennial backed-up blog problem), but I think I'll start with one that is a link from the physics of Particle Fever to the novel Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov. I expect the following post will be a review of various expects of this novel.

Let me lead off with a mid-length quote from the book where the famed engineer Semyon Sartorius has just met the former aviator Moscow Chestnova at a party:
… Semyon Sartorius could no longer eat or drink anything. The torment of love for Moscow Chestnova had now taken hold in all his body and heart, and he had to open his mouth and make an effort to breathe, as if he felt tight in the chest. Enigmatically and from far away, Moscow was smiling at him; her mysterious life was reaching Sartorius in the form of warmth and alarm, while her far-seeing eyes were looking at him inattentively, as at a commonplace fact. “Oh what a bitch physics is!” Sartorius said to himself, as he began to understand his own position. “What’s left for me now except stupidity and personal happiness?”

What's interesting about this (to me) is that it brought back quite clearly the moment when I really turned away from math and hard science as a career path.  I had read just one too many articles discussing how almost all significant mathematicians made their discoveries by 30 or 35 and that math was a "young man's game" and that one would definitely be washed up by 40.  The line wasn't quite as rigid with science, but the implication was clear that one needed to make an impact early.  And I sort of knew that I wasn't going to be able to make that big of a splash, so I basically bailed on physics (yes, what a b*tch it was).  While it is not put in quite those stark of terms, Sartorius has come to a point where physics no longer holds any interest for him now, and he has descended to join the rest of stupid humanity.  Indeed, he works on an engineering project for a while and then drops even that to become a bureaucrat.

In contrast, in the humanities, one's accumulated experience allows more material to be brought together, hopefully usefully, and that richer/deeper analyses are available to senior figures, particularly for people like me who are more or less sythnesizers of disparate ideas and concepts.  That's pretty much the case with social sciences as well, though I have to admit I have been feeling pretty ambivalent these days about the utility of social science.  (Again, ironically, it is the very squishiness of social science that some days appeals to me and other days really turns me off.)  Indeed, these past few months have been a return to the nihilism of my youth where pretty much all human endeavor feels pretty pointless.  I assume that's a passing phase.  At least I hope so...

Ok, back to my career path.  While I am absolutely not one of those people who says or thinks that everything happens for a reason (implying that things always work out for the best), I think it is possible to make the most of the opportunities that one does have.  It is pretty interesting that even some of the dead ends I faced in my academic career or in my job(s) have often been of some utility later on.  So for instance, I probably should not have taken as much (or really any) math courses in university.  There is at least some chance that I wouldn't have been so bogged down by them and I would have done better in physics and stayed along that path.  Instead, I withdrew from physics and repeated it a bit later, but the damage was done.  On the other hand, had I not taken those courses, I would never have been able to make the claim that I had a math minor and thus would not have been hired as a math teacher in Newark.  While this wasn't an ideal job, by any stretch of the imagination, things were very bad on job front in 1991 when I got out of college, and I was thankful to have a job.

Some of the odd temp jobs between that first teaching gig and then my internship at the Metropolitan Planning Council are starting to pay off (sort of) in the sense that they are working their way into some of the plays and short stories I am writing.  That's a bit intangible, I suppose, though it does bring me at least some pleasure, so I guess it's worth it.

However, it is true that if I knew everything about my career trajectory, I probably would have gone directly into engineering.  The fact that I don't have an undergraduate background in engineering locked me out of many faculty positions when in fact I would have been well-positioned to teach discrete choice modeling to civil engineers.  I suppose if I had known everything, I would have tried much harder to publish in sociology journals and not done nearly as much interdisciplinary work.  While this was valued more in the 1980s and 90s, many departments have gotten very choosy about whom they hire now -- and oddball candidates just don't have a chance.  So I guess I really should have either stuck to one field or been born 20 years earlier...

I guess that isn't the most elegant of transitions, but that's ok.  Watch this space for the review of Happy Moscow, coming later tonight or tomorrow morning.




Sunday, January 4, 2015

Particle Fever - the review

I finally had a chance to watch Particle Fever -- the film about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the search for the Higgs Boson particle. (Unfortunately it was not a free screening with pizza...)  I remember seeing it on the marquee in Berkeley (where I am sure it did quite well), but I didn't have time to go.  It came back around for a couple of nights at Bloor Hot Docs, so I just went.  I believe that is the first time I've been back at the Bloor Theatre in 15 or more years.  While I will probably never stop longing for it to be the second-run theatre I remember from my youth, it has a pretty decent second life as a movie theatre for documentaries.  It's just that I don't go see all that many documentaries.


The film itself is very accomplished -- very much in the style of the revamped Cosmos.  While this makes it much easier to sit back and soak in some of the scientific concepts (or at least delude yourself into thinking that that is occurring*), some of the flashy graphics come close to overwhelming the concepts that they are trying to get across in the documentary.  But the truth is that the actual concepts, to say nothing of the maths behind them, are so far beyond the average person as to make you feel inadequate.  Then you watch a few brilliant scientists (who still are sort of not in the very top league) say that if the Higgs weighs 140 leptons, they've wasted their whole career.  Kind of daunting.

I actually came relatively close to going into physics in college, but realized that I just didn't have the stuff to be in the top tier, i.e. one of the theorists, and decided to bail.  Maybe I could have been satisfied as an experimentalist, but there is no question my timing was poor.  I could easily have gotten stuck in the cancellation of the Texas Super Collider (briefly touched on in this film) and that would have felt even more like a whole lifetime wasted.

I don't know if it is really a SPOILER or not, but they are pretty sure that they did find the Higgs Boson and its weight is pretty close to 125 leptons, which has some peculiar properties (at least according to the physicists on the screen).  I'll get back to the implications, as they related them, shortly.

At the end of the screening, I actually overheard a guy say he was disappointed how it turned out (the actual weight of the Boson) and that he wondered if it meant they would be doing a sequel to this film.  And that's exactly why we need films like this (and the revamped Cosmos) to have flashy graphics, since so many people miss the point, even when it is spoon fed to them.  I guess you can't really win.  Some folks will assume that you can sit back and have a 90 minute documentary teach you the secrets of the universe, and are disappointed to find out otherwise.  But if you don't at least try to reach out to the general public, through films like this, then there is no support at all for investing in basic science.

I actually felt a little bit better to learn later on that one of the David Kaplan, one of the main "talking heads" throughout was a producer of the film, so that this wasn't entirely organized and shot by outsiders.  Still, they kept it fairly light, occasionally showing the theorists putting all kinds of higher-order math equations on blackboards, but never trying to walk through them, for instance.  Anytime the concepts were discussed, such as what the Higgs Boson meant or how it interlocked with other particles, this was represented through graphics.

The focus was definitely on the quest itself and trying to portray the huge scale of the experiment.  For instance, there was just a tiny glimpse into the naming of quarks and what their anti-matter counterparts were called, but then almost nothing on how quarks actually are thought to combine into protons and neutrons (but not electrons, which are actually leptons).

So this image represents what is known as the Standard Model. (All I can figure out is the e stands for electron in the green and that u is an up quark and d is a down quark -- I've forgotten all the rest.)


The Higgs Boson is in the very centre of it, but it hadn't been observed or weighed by the time Particle Fever started.

But even if the Higgs Boson was found, there are still some huge unanswered questions, many of them having to do with the relative weakness of gravity as a force, as well as the nature (and mass) of so-called dark matter.  And this is the extended version of the model called Supersymmetry which tries to place dark matter (the tilda y particle) in a larger structure.


As I said, there is no question that it requires a huge leap to get to this point, and the film either assumes you have this knowledge or that you can cruise up at the higher level without worrying too much about the details.  Now I haven't really investigated these resources, but here is a bit of a primer on the Standard Model and here is some discussion of Supersymmetry.

I personally would have added a few more minutes on quarks and the hunt for the neutrino, including perhaps some of the first neutrino detectors, as I think that would have shown how the experimentalists have been really supporting the theorists throughout.  In other words, it wasn't just a 20 year wait for the LHC to come on-line.  (Indeed, I wonder what if any bonus material will come on the DVD of Particle Fever.  That might well sway me to purchase it if it has some more background material.)

Let me add a few things I found interesting about the film and then discuss some of the things (that, trust me, I do not pretend to actually understand) that were sort of glossed over or only hinted at in Particle Fever.

While there was quite a lot of happiness at the success of getting the first beam up and running, it was very quickly followed by a vacuum leak and liquid helium spill that shut down the LHC for several months as they had to fix the issue.  One of the theorists said that it was a mistake to have such a huge press release before they actually had anything to report.  They decided after the repairs to run the LHC at half-power to get some data, and then to shut the whole thing down to upgrade and get closer to full power.  That is actually where things stand, and according to this schedule, it should be back up and running by the spring.

Somewhat chastened by this experience, the physicists wanted to do a few test collisions (literally in the middle of the night) and then invite the media the next morning.  There was huge pushback, with the media relations people saying that there would be consequences to pay if the media were only invited to some early collisions and not the first ones.  This viewpoint prevailed, though a number of physicists were really worried that this would be an unbelievable PR disaster if things went wrong.  The tension, even on screen, was palpable.  It is quite incredible that they got it exactly right, and even more of a surprise that, even at half energy, the results came through faster than expected.

It was another incredible moment in the film when they announced at a press conference that they had indeed found the Higgs Boson particle.  Peter Higgs was actually there.  While he had expected the particle he theorized would be found some day, it was all a bit touch and go whether it would be in his lifetime.

Anyway, as Kaplan attempts to explain, the weight of the Higgs Boson matters, for reasons that are far too esoteric to go into, because if the Higgs Boson is relatively light (115 leptons) then it suggests Supersymmetry is largely correct and there are a number of other particles out there still to discover.  If it is heavy (around 140 leptons) then we might be in a pocket of the multiverse where the local conditions are such that we get a seemingly stable universe with all the particles in the Standard Theory, but there might not be anything more to discover (certainly not any new particles).  It basically asserts that the universe is completely random and it is just our luck to be in a pocket where matter could form.  It is a bit nihilistic and basically rejects the notion that there is any unifying theory, and so some physicists want to reject it, if for no other reason that it isn't particularly elegant.

Well, it turns out that the Higgs Boson weighs in at about 126, so it is almost precisely at a fork in the road that doesn't rule in or out either theory.  The hope is that at higher energies, LHC may actually uncover a few other particles (which would tend to confirm at least the general outline of Supersymmetry).  And that's basically where the film ends.

Ok, so here are my thoughts or interpretation of what the real issues are.  Given the fact that at the Big Bang, the universe was expanding at a truly incredible rate (perhaps even faster than light speed), it is not clear what slowed it down to the current rate of expansion.  It is pretty clear that, at those speeds, matter simply couldn't have congealed to form the galaxies that exist today.  So was gravity stronger at some point and then switched to its lower, relatively weak force observed today?  Is there a huge amount of invisible, dark matter lurking about in the universe?  Is it hidden in galactic cores?  Are neutrinos heavy enough to make up all or most of the missing dark matter?  Perhaps the most fundamental question, only touched on lightly in the film, is what happened to all the anti-matter that should exist?  There should be just as much anti-matter as matter, but this hasn't been observed, though (I believe) it is largely theorized that the anti-matter is somehow related to the dark matter.

Finally and perhaps the most upsetting consequence of the theories is that the Higgs Boson might be an unstable particle and could theoretically wink out of existence, causing matter to break apart at the most fundamental level.  Would this be limited to a small pocket of space, or could it set up a chain reaction where the universe literally vanishes in a puff of smoke.  Frankly, this seems so absurd as to hardly be worth mentioning.  Some theorists have been thinking too hard about Schrödinger's cat experiments, which are not really supposed to have any meaning beyond the subatomic level.  But this is probably the same group of people who seem to feel that once we pin down the Higgs Boson and truly measure it, then it will disappear, taking us with it (like Lewis Carroll's hunt for the Snark?).

I guess in a way this sets up the multiverse concept, where indeed there are some other pockets of the multiverse where Higgs weighs more or less, or its weight changes (with catastrophic consequences) or indeed, it has vanished.

What seems to be at the heart of the Supersymmetry/Multiverse debate** is different understandings of the the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, though I don't believe the film ever used the term.  Anyway, here is a concise review that goes into some of the key points raised in one of the books dedicated to the concept.  At its very strongest, the principle assumes that the universe only exists in order that it may be measured and thus the different particle weights and strengths of the various forces are set at just the precise levels that would allow matter to congeal and intelligence to arrive (not necessarily limited to life on Earth).  At its strongest, it is more theology than science (cosmology).

However, even at its middle level, there are some troubling consequences.  Physicists and scientists in general have always had to struggle to reconcile how unlikely it is for intelligent life to have evolved, and now with the finding that the universe is expanding millions of times slower than it ought to (by rights), then some take this as a personal affront.  One actually says that it is as if someone twiddled the knobs exactly so that the universe expanded not too fast and not too slow -- and that even a tiny bit in either direction and the universe couldn't have supported life.  He thinks this is so unlikely that he has become a supporter of the multiverse concept which basically says most of the universes in the multiverse are empty of life but that we are in a random side pocket where the values all just happen to align.  This supposedly takes the Intelligent Designer or God as a Divine Watchmaker out of the equation.  I tend to favour the Supersymmetry option of a single universe (born of pure randomness), but when you think of just how extremely unlikely it all would have to be for things to work out just as they did, well, perhaps a bit of humility is in order.  There is just so much that humans do not know and probably will never know, but it is exciting to see these physicists attempting to stretch the boundaries of knowledge.

Edit to add: I guess it was inevitable that there would be some YouTube videos with some decent science behind them.  Here is the starting video for Crash Course - Big History.  It looks like they wrap up the history of the universe in 10 short videos.  I really should sit down and watch them all, but that will have to be at a later date.  The tone is a bit off for my taste (compared to Particle Fever) but that seems to be what sells today -- two parts scientist, one part hipster.  I will also try to check out the YouTube series on astronomy by Phil Plait, but that is apparently going to have 40 entries, which is a pretty significant investment of time.  Still, there is no question you can't please everyone.  There are some people who are savagely attacking Particle Fever for making it all about the emotions and the thrill of the hunt (cue manipulative background music) and being very light on the science itself, which I did note.  I think these critics go too far, but I agree there probably ought to have been just a bit more core science at the start, particularly a better roadmap to the Standard Theory itself.


* Not really all that different from me reading a few books on relativity, including one written by Albert Einstein for a general audience, while in high school and thinking that I had any real understanding of what was going on.  That still didn't prevent me a couple of years ago from re-acquiring the same books and planning on passing them onto my children at some point...

** While the stakes (and certainly the maths) are much lower in transportation engineering, there is a little bit of a divide between the people more or less wedded to conventional models that have econometric theory at their heart and those who are pushing for agent-based simulations that seem to feel that running simulations in large numbers will get much closer to the true randomness of traffic on the roads today.  (I'm somewhat oversimplifying both positions.)  I can see the agent-based approach someday taking over the field, as it "looks" cooler and relies on Big Data and other trendy concepts, but I will regret it when that day comes.  Just like those older physicists, I'll feel that I largely wasted my time in a field that no longer values my contributions.  Ok, at this point, I have to get outside and stop dwelling on these trends that are a bit too upsetting for me right now.