Thursday, October 05, 2006

Strange Brew

Critics do not generally rank Max Von Sydow’s work in the film Strange Brew among his best, but perhaps now that 20 or so years have passed, it’s time for a critical reassessment.

Strange Brew is the tale of Brewmeister Smith , a great pyschiatriest as well as a brewmeister, whose megalomaniacal desire to rule the world leads him on a downward spiral of violence and murder. Max Von Sydow gives a complex and poignant performance of the brewmeister, rivaling his work with Ingmar Bergman in such films as Winter Light but falling short of his more recent effort in Hamsun.

Although it is an outwardly unserious film, if you look for deeper meaning you will be richly rewarded. Beneath the comedy, Strange Brew is a tragic fable of people leading desperate lives. Like Bergman’s films, it takes place in the great white north and is infused with the chill of the colder clime. Gloomy lighting and long meditative takes convey the burden of the Brewmeister’s worldview and his efforts to rule the world validate him as a misguided hero/martyr. The bathos is experienced on a visceral level when he gazes at the lights on the map of the world he hopes to rule, his personal inadequacy there for all to see. Von Sydow brings depth to this characterization as only he can.

Unfortunately, the movie does not focus entirely on the character of BrewMeister Smith. His tale is told largely through the actions of two of his employees, hapless brothers, a pair of sociopaths whose disrespect for societal norms is demonstrated by their alcoholism and inability to focus on their work. In one part, the brothers create a movie within the movie, but it is unfocused and the set designs and dialogue are unintentionally laughable. These buffoons, with the unlikely help of their dog, ultimately wreck the Brewmeister’s plans. One could have only wished for a more capable foil.

Were it not for Max Von Sydow’s presence I would not recommend Strange Brew, but Max is without question one of the greatest actors of our generation and none of his films should be missed. I’ve been a big fan ever since I saw Steppenwolf in downtown Philadelphia when I was fourteen years old.

A kid I knew, Allen, had moved to the Philadelphia suburbs the previous year and was having a hard time adjusting to his new life. His parents had invited a number of his friends to come visit, but none would let their child go off alone to the big city at the tender age of fourteen. Ultimately, I was invited because I was the only one who would be allowed to go.

We had never been that close. Actually, we had never even been friends, so I ditched him pretty much immediately after I got there. I met some other kids in his class and hung around with them most of the time. They were into hockey and when Allen came around, they’d say, take off, hoser. I didn’t play hockey, but we had a good time playing soccer, smoking a little weed, doing acts of petty vandalism, and torturing Allen.

But during the weekdays everyone was at school, I had nothing to do so I took the train into downtown Philadelphia and roamed the big city streets. In retrospect, it was totally irresponsible of his parents to let me do that, but by that point they were so disgusted with my behavior toward Allen that they didn’t care what happened to me.

I had never been to a big city before and I felt like I was in the land of Oz. I have vague memories of skyscrapers and the hectic city life of people in business suits walking briskly to and fro, but it was the seamy side of downtown that caught my attention and resonated in my life for many years. I walked streets littered with trash and broken glass past sex shops, boarded up buildings and graffiti covered walls. There were very tough looking black guys selling drugs, bums curled around bottles of Mad Dog 20/20, and hookers getting an early start on the night.

Being a Christian boy from the Midwest, I was fascinated by the sex shops and adult theaters. Iwalked back and forth in front of them for large parts of several days, but could never get up the nerve to go into one. Eventually, I settled for seeing R rated movies in regular movie theaters. First I saw Young Frankenstein, which had its titillating moments, but was pretty far from what I was hoping to see. Then I saw Steppenwolf and got my first introduction to Max Von Sydow. It had quite a bit of nudity and sex, but it was the theme of the movie that captivated me. I felt a strong kinship to Harry Haller as he stood in front of the mirror with a razor at his throat. I too was leading a life of quiet desperation, I too felt like an alien shackled by society and its crass commercialization. It was powerful stuff for a fourteen year old.

When the movie was over, I had forgotten about sex entirely. I took the train back out to Allen’s house and thought deeply about the meaning of life.

The next day, however, I was back downtown, walking the devastated city streets looking at the whores and trying to get up the nerve to go in one of the sex shops or adult theaters. Like a lonely wolf of the steppes, I sauntered down a side street I had never seen before and came across a sign that said “Magic Theatre.” It had images of women in bunny bikinis. I felt like heaven had opened up and Jesus reached out and whacked me on the head. This was a sign that God wanted me to see some porn. And maybe some sensual adventures would follow.

I know you. You’ve already figured it out. The sign was not what I thought. I paid my money down and sat in the nearly empty room waiting for my revelation, but it really was a magic show. The only revelation I got was that a guy could hammer a long nail up his nose without killing himself.

But things did get very weird. Allen’s father killed himself that night in the bathroom with a razor, though it was his wrists he cut, not his throat. I was put on the next plane home and didn’t see Allen again for 15 years. Strangely enough, he became a professional hockey player, though he never got beyond the minor leagues. Just by chance, I watched him skate for a Canadian team in Spokane one time, but I made no effort to meet him. I figured he’d probably just tell me to take off. He didn’t do anything to distinguish himself in the game and had a nervous breakdown soon after. I later heard from another friend that he was incarcerated in a mental health clinic near Toronto.

But anyway, when I saw that Max Von Sydow was in Strange Brew, I was transported back to that long ago day in Philadelphia and I confess that when I put the tape in the machine, I thought I might find some deeper meaning. Did I, well no, of course not. Brewmeister Smith is a mighty cinematic figure, but he is no Harry Haller. When the movie was over, the only thing I contemplated was a beer. Still, even though it’s not Steppenwolf, I heartily recommend Strange Brew. There are worse things to contemplate than beer, eh?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tornado Days

This is a house in Henderson, Kentucky taken last fall after the big tornado that tore through the area killing more than 20 people across the river in Indiana. It's just a typical American house. As a photographer, I question the value of pictures like this of things that are just mind-numbingly typical. On one hand, I think of posterity. Pictures of common things that no one bothers to photograph don't look so common with the passage of time. On the other hand, anyone can take this picture. It doesn't require any particular skill, either technically or compositionally. But on the third hand, I still see something that appeals to my aesthetic in this. Of course I've manipulated it somewhat in the darkroom to make its appearance consistent with my mind's eye.

With all the fantastic improvements in photographic technology, the ability to translate the mind's eye will more and more often be what separates the pro's from everyone else. I see tourists everyday with equipment equal to my own and it's just going to keep getting better and less expensive. Professional photographers will have to continually go to further extremes to seperate themselves. I saw a show recently at the Brooklyn Museum featuring the work of Edward Burtinsky. There was one fantastic shot of a field of oil wells in California. I wondered how he was able to get such a shot. The answer turned out to be that he rented a crane. That plus he had an 8 x 10 camera. Another example is an acquaintance who regularly rents helicopters to get the shots he wants. That's all well and good, but for us lower class folk, we have to struggle a bit harder to find compelling images.

Anyway, larger image here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The rosy scenario

I was looking for a quote from Kurt Vonnegut yesterday and came across scattered references in which he talked about how the U.S. has become a one party state and how he believes there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Those, essentially, are the conclusions I have reached.

Regarding the idea that the U.S. is a one party state, I didn’t get it from Vonnegut. I’m pretty sure that I first heard it from Noam Chomsky, but that doesn’t matter. I am not a follower of Chomsky or Vonnegut or anybody else for that matter. The question of whether an idea is valid or not has nothing whatsoever to do with who does or does not espouse it. That kind of thinking is known as the “appeal to authority” logical fallacy.

I did not have any kind of “Eureka” moment when I first read that the U.S. was a one party state. In fact, I thought the idea was ridiculous and I still find it easy to slip back into naive hope that democracy will prevail. But it won’t. Although it’s difficult to grasp that so much of what we’ve always believed is illusionary, the evidence for the one party state is overwhelming. Of course this is a mere blog entry, not a book with thousands of footnotes and an annotated bibliography, so I could not present all of that overwhelming evidence even if I did know it all. But for sake of argument, start by considering the ramifications of the facts that we had a coup d’etat in 2000 and that the House and Senate passed the Stalinization of America Act, or whatever they called it, a few days ago, which declared the president to be an all powerful dictator who can jail and torture anyone for any reason without any review by anybody. Then watch the twin pillars of your illusionary country dissolve before your eyes.

And there is nothing that you or I can do about it. Inexorable historical forces render the actions of individuals meaningless in the long term. I will even climb to the apex of apostasy and say that the coup of 2000 does not matter. If Al Gore would have been allowed to take office, things would eventually end up being more or less the same. The details would of course differ, but at some point in near future, we would find ourselves in precisely the same place. The anti-democratic historical forces have too much momentum.

I know this is not a popular analysis and I’m not at all saying that people shouldn’t fight it. I have the greatest respect for the people like Kos and Atrios who believe that there is a Democratic Party and that we can turn back the tide of history by electing them. In fact, my advice is to act as if we do live in a vibrant democracy and really do have the power to make positive changes. Maybe my thoroughly defeatist analysis is wrong? It’s certainly best to act that way, just in case. At least for now.

I say “at least for now” because, as non-Muslim American citizens, we can still say and do pretty much whatever we want without fear of losing our jobs. going to jail, being tortured, or killed by death squads. I do not believe that we will have these freedoms much longer. so if you are inclined to fight (non-violently) for them, now is the time.

But once it comes to the point where criticizing the government will destroy your life, my advice is to choose life. Odds are, you’ve only got one.