San Francisco on Foot

During the time of the plague–the virus mainly, more than the orange man in that white house–I have been taking long hikes in the city, first in Golden Gate Park, discovering nooks and crannies off the beaten path and now, along the bay side and the shore, south of the new Warrior stadium. Under siege now by the developer caste, and their paint-by-number, utterly hideous box buildings, mostly 2 or 3 story apartment complexes that could be anywhere, are always somewhere in the gray spectrum, and have absolutely nothing to do with the style or tone that distinguished this once unique city, it remains, so far, a largely neglected, semi-industrial zone. The photos catch parts of it, beginning, though with the UCSF medical complex which is a massive hospital/research array of buildings that have almost zero street level identity and  hence feel barren even though some of the buildings are above average in their architectural distinction. South of there the waterfront is still mostly industrial and those two areas are where the photos come from so, if each is worth a 1000 words, it’s time to move to pictures.

balls

4 balls, highly reflective, outside the Chase Center

Pier 70 STeel w fence

See all the unbroken windows

Cemex 2

Not cement

Heron Head ruin

The jetty and the pier

More to come

Road Runner, TV series, and The Odyssey

A character in Money Heist reminded me of Wile. E. Coyote who comes up with ingenious plans to capture the Road Runner, only to see them fail every time. He never learns and the characters never change. They just go through different challenges with the same results, akin to one definition of crazy. But, in this case, funny.
So: Aren’t many TV series, even some of the best like that? The basic qualities of the key characters are established early on and then they face challenge after challenge only to find a way to overcome them. Character development or change is rare since the appeal of the challenges is seeing how their fixed personality gets them through the problem: Saul Goodman’s resourceful efforts in Better Call Saul to work the legal system to benefit less than law-abiding citizens, Marty and Wendy Byrde’s incredible ability in Ozark to use their wits to outsmart gangsters and cartels, scheming locals and crooked politicians no matter how dire the circumstances? Money Heist explores a single robbery attempt over two seasons as challenge after challenge confronts the impressively resourceful robbers, who also have a political axe to grind with late capitalism!
And in others like The Bridge or Shetland or A Place to Call Home, the challenges may impede a murder investigation or test the mettle of an entire family, but the characters alter little while the challenges proliferate like a field of wildflowers.
But doesn’t this idea of fixed characters confronting severe challenges that they typically overcome with skill and wit not go back at least to The Odyssey? Do TV series owe an enormous debt not only to Chuck Jones and his amazing cartoons but also to Homer and his classic tale of an almost interminable quest to achieve a long-desired goal despite nearly insurmountable obstacles? Except in some TV series the hero’s journey doesn’t bring them home so much as the kind of predicament that invites another season. Stay tuned.

TV series: Herrens veje

Among my favorite long form TV series (Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad, Legacy, A Place to Call Home, Last Tango in Halifax, etc) is Borgen, a Danish show about a female Prime Minister and her struggles over several years and against multiple adversaries.

Now I’d add Herrens Veje, as Netflix bills it, though it also goes by Ride Upon the Storm.
This is also by Adam Price, the creator of Borgen.

It is about a family with Lutheran priests in it for the last 250 years. The current patriarch and his two troubled sons form the crux of the show, with vital peripheral characters thrown in.
When I’ve been asked over the years to name films that deal with religious themes intelligently I find the list petering out after several Bergman titles and some of Scorsese. Now there is this series. Some will find anything that tackles faith, doubt, sin, betrayal, redemption, guilt, spiritual visions, and family drama over the top no matter what. Better to deal with bad guys and fallible cops. But Price tackles these themes with an honesty and detachment that does not invite us to believe in anything beyond our own power to be engaged by complex, soul-wrenching situations. There are no apologies and those who speak for the church, the Danish National Church in this case, are just as flawed as those whose doubts run deep.
It’s all in the particulars and this show has them in spades.

The use of close ups is particularly compelling. These are all faces that seem to suppress as much emotion as they express. The characters are tightly wound with desires, fears, guilts and longings and only a fraction of it gets openly expressed. It gives the scenes an enormous sense of tension and the whole series a great deal of suspense, even though there is no ticking time bomb or a serial killer on the loose or any of the other usual suspects.

I’m finding it a more thought provoking show than just about anything I’ve seen in the last few years. I hope you do too, or, if not, I hope you’ll let me know why not.

Document or Art?

A friend is making an art project by shooting each flight of stairs in a five story building. There is a quiet, haunting quality to the work that struck me as quite impressive. It made me wonder if this casual, random shot I took of a new stairway railing to document its existence might qualify as art?

Does intention matter? Might something done for one reason fulfill another? Did Mr. Campbell think his soup cans would wind up in museums?

Heady questions and perhaps unanswerable, but there’s something worth pondering in all this.  Anyway, here’s the photo I took; what do you think?

stair railing

Theranos and the Big Lie

On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor

From NYT obit, 3/29/2019

“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

–Agnes Varda

For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.

All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.

Agnes Varda

Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.

Anniversaries

Everyone has a birthday every year but we save anniversaries for yet more special occasions, from long-term survival in marriages and jobs, to the continued existence of vital institutions, documents and countries.
And even Film Departments.
In this case, the Film Department, now, of course, the Film and Media Department, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Founded in the late ’60s by the noted Canadian scholar Peter Harcourt, it was quickly off and running, hosting distinguished faculty, turning out grads who went on to considerable success, and becoming a fixture in the staid landscape of a venerable but quite traditional university.
Now fifty years later, it’s time for an anniversary and I have a chance to attend and make a small contribution. I haven’t been back but once since spending the first thirteen years of my career there and I am looking forward to offering a report on what the intervening time has wrought.
It seems, at the very least, that the Department has managed to age gracefully and to mature into a major player on the national stage.