Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Of the two Italian filmmakers who came to prominence in the '60s -- Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni -- the former seems to be today's popular and critical favorite. Antonioni has mostly been relegated to the status of "important" (a kiss of death) or the product of his time.

Criterion, the company that does superb restorations of older films, has worked their magic on Antonioni's L'Avventura (1961). The movie is now on Blu-ray disc in a dazzling transfer. The image is crisper than you would have experienced it in most theaters when it was initially released, and the sound has probably been upgraded as well. 

If you've only seen L'Avventura in ill-focused, scratchy prints but found it worthwhile, you owe it to yourself to watch the Criterion Blu-ray version. The musical score doesn't strike me as particularly important in this work, but the black-and-white photography is a celebration of tones. And you get a good impression of Sicily more than half a century ago.

The knock on L'Avventura is that it's too long and under-dramatized. Long it is, about two-and-a-half hours, but except for a scene or two I found it captivating. The editing is more leisurely than is the norm nowadays, but the film is dramatic in its own idiosyncratic way. (And at least you can follow the story, which is more than can be said for many contemporary movies.)

The external action isn't particularly complicated, although what is going on beneath the surface is sometimes hard to fathom. A group of rich Romans go on a yacht trip in the sea off Sicily. Among them are Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti); his maybe-fiancée Anna (Lea Massari); and Anna's close friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). They explore a volcanic island. When it's time to leave, Anna has gone missing. After calling in the coast guard to no avail, all except Sandro and Claudia return to Sicily, and they soon follow.

The rest of the picture focuses almost exclusively on Sandro and Claudia. He seems unconcerned about Anna, but strongly attracted to Claudia. At first Claudia resists Sandro's attentions, then discovers a passion for her missing friend's suitor.

The movie is somewhat disjointed, like a puzzle where certain pieces don't fit. For instance, the transition between Claudia's rejection and acceptance of Sandro is abrupt. Maybe she has fancied him all along, but I didn't notice any signs of it. Whatever isn't entirely clear, though, this is a movie about grown-ups with grown-up emotions, not the adolescents of all ages that predominate in American films today.

Antonioni at this point in his cinematic career had his own style, far from that of the visionary Fellini. Antonioni was more subtle, but most of his film is beautifully composed without calling undue attention its its director. L'Avventura is replete with knowingly framed shots and backgrounds that offer value added.

(I suspect this artist envied the greater attention given to Fellini, and later let himself be "influenced," partly successfully in Blow-Up, disastrously in Zabriskie Point. His last major film, The Passenger, was a recovery that played to his strengths.)

The central characters are strongly acted. And Monica Vitti -- oh, my. An almond-eyed Byzantine Madonna with wild locks of golden hair.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Constant non-comment

My counter doesn't indicate any notable drop-off in readership.

How come hardly any comments anymore? Have I become too uncontroversial? I'm not trying to stir up argument, but it would be nice to get a few reactions.

Regular programming will resume shortly.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Zephyr

Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I will not go to church. But this past week, I went to a church.

The azure sky and warm breeze (known to the ancients as Zephyr) hinted at springtime, still shy in these parts, but with signs developing day by day. On impulse, I stopped at the Salem Church, near my home, scene of one of the many battles in this part of Spotsylvania County during Lincoln's War.

On May 3, 1863 -- a few months after the more famous Battle of Fredericksburg -- it was a center of carnage.

I was the sole visitor. The church can only be viewed from outside, the interior through a lower-story window. It is a simple building. The mid-19th century congregation consisted mostly of people from widely scattered farms, who no doubt couldn't afford a highly qualified architect or artistic decor.

As all the guidebooks note, small craters in the outside walls and broken brickwork are still visible. They are a little shocking, as they must have come strictly from rifle rounds; this was an ad hoc engagement by two armies moving fast, and there would have been no artillery.

If rifle fire could shatter brick walls like this, imagine what it could do to your skull, your throat, your intestines. Many a soldier on both sides didn't have to imagine it; they found out by experience.

Following the battle (which stopped the Union army advance) the church became a field hospital. According to an eyewitness:
Hundreds upon hundreds of wounded were gathered up and brought for surgical attention. . . . After the house was filled the spacious churchyard was literally covered with wounded and dying.

The sight inside the building, for horror, was perhaps, never equaled within so limited a space, every available foot of space was crowded with wounded and bleeding soldiers. The floors, the benches, even the chancel and pulpit were packed almost to suffocation with them.

The amputated limbs were piled up in every corner almost as high as a man could reach; blood flowed in streams along the aisles and the open doors.
The surroundings today are calm, except for the traffic downhill on Plank Road (Route 3), which follows the path via which Robert E. Lee brought a detachment of soldiers from Chancellorsville during the fight. There must be suffering spirits of dead combatants around, but I didn't feel anything creepy. The atmosphere just had that "seriousness" I mentioned earlier.

After the war the worshipers repaired the building, apparently with no architectural changes. (Interestingly, there were -- still to be seen -- separate entrances for men and women, and a third for slaves.) Regardless of how anyone feels about Christianity, preaching, praying and all that, there is something touching about how the worshipers restored their house of God to much the same condition as it had been before the savagery of war engulfed it. (Eventually, as the Fredericksburg suburbs overtook the area, the congregation built a new and larger church nearby and donated the old one to the National Park Service.)

I listened to the moaning of cars and trucks on Plank Road. I listened to the Zephyr's whistle. The past was quiet.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

When the Depression comes before the Crash

The, er, "suspect" poses in front of Suicide Bridge between
San Francisco and Marin County

There is little doubt that the crash of Germanwings 9525 was a case of suicide/murder on the part of the co-pilot (what we call first officer) Andreas Lubitz. It has been established that he in the past suffered from depression, although based on the articles I've read his mental state on his last flight is a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, depression seems a reasonable guess.

This, however, is not primarily about Flight 9525. (Does Germanwings have so many flights that they must label them with four-digit numbers?) It's about the inevitable storm over whether antidepressant medicines -- which it's not clear Lubitz was taking -- do more harm than good, or if they do any good.

Consider a posting from Natural News. The site's owner calls himself the Health Ranger and is described as a food science researcher. If you like, you can scroll past the subhead "It's not unusual for pilots to fly planes into terrain in flight simulators" (something I never heard of in more than a dozen years in the aviation safety field) to the next subhead, "FAA bans pilots from flying while on antidepressant drugs" (wrong). You will then read a distressing list of "other mass murderers who were taking antidepressant drugs."

Well, that settles it, what? 

No it doesn't.

The 510 comments on the article, which suggest that antidepressant effects are one hot topic, are mostly anti-antidepressant. A sizable bunch of dissenters, however, point out a principle known to anyone who has taken a class in experimental science, and possibly to most educated people: "Correlation is not causation."

That's why researchers, including those who have had apparent success in well-designed (randomized, double-blind, etc.) tests, are careful how they word their conclusions, e.g., "The results suggest that X is associated with favorable outcomes in the treatment of ... ."  

Depressed killers and suicides might have been given antidepressants in the first place because they were ill, in some cases already displaying suicidal and/or homicidal ideation. The medical establishment prescribes antidepressants too casually and does not monitor patients well enough, using observation and common sense. But I cannot think of any kind of experiment that would demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between antidepressants and dangerous behavior. 

Even if someone came up with an ingenious protocol to check the hypothesis, it would be unethical. Potential cures or alleviations are tried on patients suffering from a disorder. Any researcher who gave antidepressants to presumably non-ill patients to see if it would mess their minds up would be, quite rightly, kicked out of the profession and probably be looking at criminal charges.

This debate will go on and on because most of what we know about meds and the mind is hypothetical. If there were any way to demonstrate the effects by statistical analysis of large populations treated, it would have been done already. But it can't be, because there is no benchmark against which to evaluate results.

For what it's worth, my own view, based on both personal experience and a reasonable amount of study, is this: Some meds help some depressed people some of the time. That is obviously not a ringing endorsement. The inverse may also be true -- some meds hurt some depressed people some of the time.

What about the raging greed of Big Pharma? Sending cute-dolly sales reps to visit male doctors and the equivalent for female doctors, giving out free samples to prime the prescription pump? Point taken. But that doesn't mean the Health Ranger runs his site strictly pro bono. He has to make a living, too. Check out the ads from what the Ranger, to his credit, calls sponsors. ("Pain in the Butt? Hemroid [sic] Harry.")
Perhaps the best treatment for depressed patients -- if they're clinically depressed, not just unhappy -- is a combination of drug therapy and individual or group "talking" therapy. Under today's conditions that's pretty hard to arrange and it's hard to imagine who's going to pay the bills.

Here's a suggestion for the anti-antidepressant crusaders, however.

While Martin Luther King never said such a thing, and possibly never heard of antidepressants, make up a quote from him: "Antidepressants are racist! Bull Connor gives them to his attack dogs!"

The mainstream media will gobble it up. Within days, it will be unchallengeable. You're done, Big Pharma.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Attention, members of the media (and perhaps anyone else). Hillary is keeping a dossier on you. You are in deep trouble if you use certain forbidden words in connection with her.
What do you call a polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, entitled, overconfident, secretive politician who will do anything to win and thinks she's inevitable even though she's out of touch and represents the past?

Not "Hillary Clinton," because, you know, that would be sexist.

The list of verboten words and phrases above came in the form of an email warning to a New York Times reporter from "Super Volunteers" for Hillary Clinton.
Hillary, my dear future Empress, I would not dream of describing you as polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, entitled, overconfident, and secretive. Far be it from me to commit, quote, coded sexism, unquote. Perish the thought!

But provided you approved the message from whatever brain-damaged Super Volunteers your enforcers rounded up -- and because you are brilliant and shrewd, I'm sure no such message would have been released into the aether without your sign-off -- I simply call you a fool.

Fools come in all sizes, shapes, and sexes. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Piero di Cosimo at the National Gallery

Piero di Cosimo's reputation as a Florentine Renaissance painter has suffered for the notion, going back as far as Vasari and as recently as a New Yorker article about the current exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Gallery, that he was a little touched in the head. Because of his eccentricity, he was not to be taken quite as seriously as the Great Names. But I left the exhibit feeling that there was much more to Piero than that.

Oh, his cup ran over with imagination at times, and the show leaves no doubt he had a sense of humor. The painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda has been widely reproduced in media articles and the museum's own promotion. He obviously had fun with the mythical animal who served as Andromeda's prison guard. The curatorial commentary itself next to the picture aptly suggests the beast is more likely to inspire sympathy for the wacky creature than to scare the viewer.

And then there's the Madonna and Child -- as conventional a subject as any at the time it was put on canvas -- with one delightful detail: a dove with a halo. The Holy Ghost is usually shown as part of the Trinity, up in the sky above the biblical figures, or descending straight down from Heaven as if lowered on an invisible wire. This halo-crowned bird is just off in a corner of the picture. You can almost see the twinkle in Piero's eye as he added that touch.

The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos. 
A larger version is shown in the New Yorker article,
 although the colors are curiously washed out 
compared with the original.

My favorite among the lighthearted paintings is a playful scene from mythology, in which the young Vulcan has just been tossed out of Mount Olympus by his parents, Jupiter and Juno. He has landed on the island of Lemnos, without a stitch of clothing, which seems pleasing to the flower-gathering nymphs who have found him. The nymphs show a nice bit of leg, and the one at the far right, dressed in the height of Renaissance finery, smiles charmingly with amusement and a touch of desire. There's a hole in the cloud where Vulcan tumbled through.

But the exhibit demonstrates that Piero was much more than a producer of jeux d'esprit. His able mind and hand were capable of richly colored, moving religious scenes.

Some of Piero's madonnas can be mentioned in the same breath as those of the great Giovanni Bellini. (For better or worse, Bellini's are mostly in Venice, which unfortunately I don't get to often.) The Venetian managed the impossible: showing Mary and Jesus, a look of unearthly beauty in Mary's face, and at the same time an infinite sadness. It is as if she knows the terrible death that will befall her son as well as, according to Christian doctrine, the end of death.

No, Pierro's works on the same theme (at least those shown at the Smithsonian) aren't as masterful as Bellini's, but in their own way are compellingly dramatic.

Piero seems to have understood what his miserableist contemporary, the monk Savonarola, did not: that joyous tones, a tickling wit, and sincere piety can coexist in love.