Anne Nelson repairs damaged library materials and is working on a rubber band ball of some departmental distinction. She is also a cinephile.
The Library’s free Tuesday night Film Festival has not yet started for the fall season, and the free movies screened by Art in the Public Eye (every Friday night in City Park) are just wrapping up now. So what can you do if you really, really like coming downtown to watch movies on a big screen? First, be patient: our Film Festival is starting again soon and it’s going to be a good one (because it always is). But for the meantime, you might check out The Wood Theater’s calendar. Their movies are not free (it’s $5 for a ticket), but they’ve chosen some fun titles, including the quintessential 1980s time-travel picture: “Back to the Future”. Coincidentally, if you went to all the free A.P.E. movies then you already saw the loony, loopy “Time Bandits”, which is a terrific (albeit less-famous) 1980s time-travel picture. So what do you do if after “Time Bandits” and “Back to the Future” you want more 80’s-era time-travel movies? How about borrowing some titles from the Library and hosting your own 1980s time-travel picture night? I would suggest: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” for the kids, “Terminator” for the bigger kids, and perhaps “Donnie Darko” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” for the grownups. And “Star Trek IV” of course. All are available here at Crandall and all are worth revisiting. Well, maybe not “Hot Tub Time Machine,” but it’s certainly worth watching once if you’ve never seen it. And all the rest are worth revisiting, even “Star Trek IV.”
I’m a big, big fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries, but Horatio’s Drive is easily my favorite. It never gets the attention that the sweeping histories like Jazz or The Civil War do, but it is a gem: a quirky transcontinental picaresque about a real-life Mr. Toad and a put-upon mechanic and a dog that wears goggles. In 1903, exactly 100 years after Lewis and Clark set out on their own trip across the continent; a rambunctious doctor from Vermont named Horatio Nelson Jackson did it by car to settle a $50 wager. Although others had attempted to drive across the country (at a time when America had no paved roads and no gas stations), Horatio Nelson Jackson was the first person to actually manage it. His story is a terrific screwball comedy: loony characters, impossible odds, and it seems that everything that can go wrong does, but he’s too upbeat to notice. There is a companion book that includes most of the photographs used in the film, but I have to recommend the movie. Tom Hanks features as the voice of Jackson. And Burns’ cameraman strapped himself to the hood of a car to film some scenic shots with the proper degree of old-timey bounciness. It’s a thrill!
Earlier this month I went to the Palace Theater in Albany with some of my coworkers to see a screening of “The Princess Bride.” On the way to the show, we talked about the movie (we’d all seen it before) and how well it stands up to repeated viewings. While the central story is very simple, the film also introduces us to a tremendous number of interesting bit characters and story lines and they all intersect and ultimately wrap up very neatly. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were both masters of this technique, and that’s (in part, anyway) why their novels are still such satisfying reads today. As for “The Princess Bride,” the story ties up so well at the end that even the cover art for its most recent DVD release reflects the movie’s clever composition.
The image of the two lovers looks at first like it is a simple reflection across the cover’s horizontal axis, but actually it is two similar pictures juxtaposed to give a little nod to the arc of the story. What’s much more interesting than the image, however, is the text of the title. This is a rotational ambigram. Thanks to some inventive calligraphy, the text of the words “The Princess Bride” can be rotated 180 degrees and it will still be legible. This is a pretty neat trick and I’ve noticed a few other items here at The Library that have employed it:
Paul McCartney released an album a few years ago with an ambigram of his own name on the cover.
And in “Angels and Demons,” the follow-up to his best-selling thriller “The DaVinci Code,” author Dan Brown uses ambigrams as a plot device. Of course, the book’s cover is itself a rotational ambigram. Because they are so difficult for artists to devise and draft, it’s quite unusual to see an ambigram on a book jacket or album cover. Their relative rarity, however, makes them fun to watch out for.
Dorodango (literally “mud-dumpling” or “mud-ball”) are small lumps of mud that have been dried and then poished to a high shine and perfectly spherical shape. They tend to be between the size of a golf ball and a billiard ball, and they can very quite widely in color (it depends on the source of the soil), but it is the depth of the dorodango’s finish that makes it so intriguing. Dorodango are lovingly buffed until they are as smooth as marbles. The finish, however, has an interesting depth and luminosity that is often compared to the glaze on pottery or the patina on highly polished leather or wood. Dorodango are well known in Japan, where children have long crafted them at recess or after school. However, the art has become reinvigorated in recent years and many adults now practice the pastime as well: the hobby is meditative, cheap, and the time invested is rewarded with a lovely, one-of-a-kind conversation piece. Photographs of very sophisticated artisinal dorodango are easy to find on the internet, as are instructional videos like the one below.
The ubiquitous digital displays on alarm clocks, watches, cable boxes, calculators, and microwaves have been the same for decades: boxy, red letters on an LCD screen. Since the 1970s, LCD displays have been ever-cheaper and (not coincidentally) everywhere. Numbers are displayed by activating combinations of seven light-up segments. Taken in groups, these segments can suggest a number or symbol, but it is impossible to form a curved line and so the display is fairly limited. Before the LCD screen became widely available, the best way to make a digital display was with a Nixie tube. Nixie tubes are glass bulbs containing layers of pre-shaped numerals (or letters, signs, or symbols) that can be displayed one at a time. Although more tubes are required for applications in which several characters must be displayed at once (as in a clock), and the tubes themselves can be quite fragile, the display is more legible and aesthetically pleasing than that of an LCD screen. Thus the Nixie display has come to have a fairly devoted niche following among electronics enthusiasts. Although the sturdier, cheaper LCD display replaced the Nixie in technical and consumer products decades ago, hobbyists can still obtain unused Nixie tubes to use in their own DIY projects. Handmade Nixie clocks in particular have become beloved conversation pieces for many design-conscious electronics aficionados.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has already gathered a good deal of attention: it won awards at Sundance and at Cannes, the reviews have been deliriously positive and although it’s too early to say for sure, it will more than likely take some prizes at the Oscars this year. The performances by newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis (the film’s memorable lead and narrator, Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (who plays Wink, the ailing father of Hushpuppy) have been singled out as spectacular examples of non-actors carrying difficult material with natural conviction. The film is also the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin, who studied under Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer (who has directed uncanny and unforgettable adaptations of Faust, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and one peculiar Czech folktale). Svankmajer seems to have schooled Zeitlin in the ways of making a very lived-in and real-feeling world that is also fundamentally strange and unreal. The island village where Hushpuppy lives is a Neverland cobbled together from a lot of flotsam and one can see some of Svankmajer’s imaginative miniaturism in her rickety house. However, while hard realities of poverty, illness, disaster, and death all loom large in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tone is basically optimistic: Zeitlin does not allow it to take on the sinister air that typifies Svankmajer’s work. Zeitlin’s own cited influences include Svankmajer, of course, but also John Cassavetes (who is also known for working with unschooled actors), and Terrence Malick. Beasts has drawn a considerable number of comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick, whose recent The Tree of Life it most closely resembles. Malick’s small but important body of work is distinctive in its photographic style, his interest in filming the movement of sunlight, the cryptic narration by the lead characters (though Malick’s characters do not narrate for us so much as Malick allows us to eavesdrop on their thoughts). And although the characters may not realize it, the natural world is always intruding on their movies. Malick lets fields and forests and clouds have their own scenes and the impression one generally gets is that the lives of the human characters are all the more fragile, ephemeral, and ultimately unimportant. That’s the distinction between Malick’s first four movies (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) and his fifth, The Tree of Life: Tree of Life suggests that the lives of the human characters have some greater resonance in the universe than his earlier movies would ever allow. In those first four films, the natural world blooms from the edges of frame and promises that it will soon devour every trace of the characters: the lovers, the killers, everyone. Beasts of the Southern Wild looks and sounds a lot like Malick, but Hushpuppy is ultimately too indomitable for any early Malick picture. The extinct (then extant) aurochs seem, like the rain in Thin Red Line or the locusts in Days of Heaven, to be the natural world closing in and preparing to absorb and forget Hushpuppy. Until she meets them and looks them in the eye. Hushpuppy is the beginning and end of her own movie and displays a tremendous interest in being remembered. The scene in which she writes her life story for scientists of the future is loony enough for a Malick movie, but in a Malick movie, Hushpuppy would have paid for her arrogance in the end. In Zeitlin’s hands, she’s nervy, but she’s probably right about being eternal, and this is an angle that Malick has only started to explore in his latest work. Zeitlin isn’t the first filmmaker to riff on Malick in a debut film–David Gordon Green comes to mind–but his movie is very interesting in that for many critics, the character of wise-child Hushpuppy has already insinuated herself in among the ranks of Huckleberry Finn and Scout Finch. Whether this excitement for the character will wear off is hard to say, but at the moment, she is enjoying good company among the immortal ranks of our canon’s most beloved figures. If the buzz is right, and Hushpuppy proves to be a character for the ages, then Zeitlin has pulled off something very special indeed.
On a personal note, I became familiar with the work of all of these filmmakers through our collections here at Crandall Library, although some titles were available only on VHS and have since been withdrawn from our catalog. Beasts of the Southern Wild has been selected for screening at our Film Festival, which is where I first viewed Terrence Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life, and where I first saw David Gordon Green’s superb second film, Undertow. Additionally, the Library subscribes to several film journals that review both popular and obscure titles. These periodicals have, over many years, introduced me to movies that I now consider great favorites, but which I might never otherwise have known about. Were it not for our library’s extensive collection of films, all the titles mentioned in this post would have been unavailable to me.
Since Frank is not only a Reference Librarian but also our Outreach Librarian, I thought it would be fun to share a little information about some library outreach programs in other parts of the world. The Bibliomulas and Biblioburros (“book-mules” and “book-burros”) are established programs in Venezuela and Colombia, and Ethiopia has a similar Donkey Mobile Library. The animals deliver books to readers–especially young readers–in remote communities. In South America, the mules and burros carry books on their backs and are valued for their ability to climb up even the most steep and narrow roads to reach places Frank’s car could never visit. In Ethiopia, the donkeys haul a small cart that also holds stools for readers and lunch for the donkey! While I was searching for stories about bibliomulas, I also learned about a floating library in Norway that has been bringing books to readers since the 1950s. I even found a short film from the 1940s about a library on a riverboat in England. This is an old idea that’s still really viable: in 2005 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underwrote a program in Bangladesh to convert existing boats into mobile libraries complete with computers and internet access. Like Crandall Library’s local outreach services, these programs all bring the library to the people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach it. Sadly, we have no immediate plans to acquire a burro.
Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is the campy title of a beautifully photographed, warm-hearted little movie that I borrowed from Saratoga Springs Public Library last week (Saratoga allows non-residents to borrow most foreign and documentary DVDs with their Crandall Library cards). The movie is about the loving relationship the Japanese have with flying insects: fireflies are revered as visiting ancestors, dragonflies are celebrated in poems, beetles and crickets are kept as pets by children and adults alike. Like bonsai gardens and haiku poetry, the little insects seem to appeal to a uniquely Japanese appreciation for beauty in miniature. It is the first film from director Jessica Oreck, who is an animal-keeper at The American Museum of Natural History in New York. Although she is not herself Japanese, she opts to use Japanese narration in her film and the limited dialogue is mostly in Japanese as well. The photography is outstanding and the human subjects convey a universal joy in their enthusiasm for their bugs, prompting us to question whether our own tendency to fear insects is innate or just a bit of unfortunate cultural conditioning.
Recent days have seen the rabble raging across much of the Middle-East in response to the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims. Given this, it’s all too easy to paint the Muslim world in broad strokes of intolerance. Of course, such an approach is overly simplistic, and therefore falls far short of the truth, which is that most Muslims are ordinary peace-loving people. Or, as popular wisdom teaches, don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bunch.
Thinking about all this, I realized that a number of the works explored by the Crandall Public Library Monday Evening Book Discussion Group might be seen as texts for tolerance. We are speaking of written works that illuminate the unfamiliar, and in so doing, have the power to chase the bogeyman of bigotry from the dark recesses of our minds. I believe that this is what a certain sightless visionary had in mind when she professed:
The highest result of education is tolerance.–Helen Keller
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is a fine example of prose’s potential to foster understanding and empathy. It does a picture-perfect job of painting a nuanced tale of the Iranian people during a particularly dark era. As I wrote in an earlier post:
Some words are worth a thousand pictures. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is filled with such words. Words like revolutionaries and war, dreams and prophets. But it’s a graphic novel, so we can’t forget the pictures. They’re black-and-white, bleak and spare. It’s a cautionary comicscape, seemingly meant to convey a sense of the darkness of oppression.
Satrapi’s work is powerful stuff for sure; Persepolis was a landmark book for many American readers because so few had ever been invited to understand and sympathize with any Iranian character. She’s since published several books that are all meant to bridge gaps. Most obviously she wants to illustrate the relationships and differences between men and women, and those between Iranians and her Western readers, but she also tries to bridge more personal gaps, reconciling family histories and her own youthful experiences with the present day.
Of course, good books usually demand some form of conflict, and Ms. Satrapi is not the only author the group has examined who has held a mirror up to a nation to produce edifying fare in the name of tolerance. Dave Eggers, who is perhaps best known for his novel A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, is also to be commended for his work in this vein.
I first became acquainted with Dave Eggers in a laundromat of all places. Always on the prowl for something to read, and with plenty of time to kill while the wash did its thing, I discovered a copy of Egger’s Might magazine, buried in a stack of cast-off reading material. Upon closer examination, I was especially taken with Donnell Alexander’s essay Cool Like Me: Are Black People Cooler than White People? The piece was later reprinted in the Utne Reader, and if you’d like, you can check it out here.
In any case, I offer it for your perusal, because much like Egger’s Zeitoun, it offers a journey into what may be strange and unfamiliar territory, with all the tolerance inducing benefits inherent to such a vicarious voyage. As Mark Twain once observed, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And for me, that’s always been at the heart of the magic of the written word. That is, its ability to allow an opportunity to metaphorically march many miles in another person’s shoes, travelling towards the light of greater understanding. I hope that you’ll find the journey as eye-opening as I have. It seems as if author Timothy Egan sees it the same way:
“Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina. . . . Eggers’ tone is pitch-perfect—suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America? . . . It’s the stuff of great narrative nonfiction. . . . Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”
In closing, many thanks to Anne “Always Awesome” Nelson who coauthored and edited this post. Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the works detailed here, and/or any recommendations that you might have in terms of other texts for tolerance…