Saturday, March 24, 2007

We saw "300" -- I give it a 275

Unlike most critics, I think the movie "300" has a lot going for it. I went because Lenny wanted to see it, and I knew nothing about it. My main impressions as I watched were: first, I thought the dialog was wooden and the music inappropriate; second, I really liked the visuals but they often seemed small for the big screen at the theater. Who finally gets to a movie theater and then wishes to be watching on a small screen?

When I realized afterwards that the film was based on a graphic novel, those impressions really made sense. The dark sketchy scenes, the outlined scenes, the exaggerated mountain vistas (probably really like in Greece), the ships swamped by waves: all graphic.

Generally, I liked the action very much in its slo-mo, jerky stylizations. The boy Leonidas fights a wolf in a series of shots of snarling teeth and fearful spear gestures. When Leonidas climbs the mountain to see the oracle, it's a series of silhouettes with a rock falling or a missed footing. The oracle herself dances in a terrific, stylized way with outlines and swirly lines around her -- graphic novel, yes.

I liked the costumes, especially the helmets which look like the ones they dig up all around the Mediterranean. I have seen Greek helmets and armor in museums and Greek vase painting, so I know they didn't actually engage in spear battles dressed only in tighty-whities (black ones, I admit...) and red capes. Needless to say, I know that the Persians didn't ride on Star-Wars type rhinos and that Xerxes the king of Persia probably didn't wear sci-fi jewelry and eye makeup into battle. And wasn't the same size as Hagrid. But I forgive all these details.

When we got home, Len googled and found that many of the details match real history as written by Herodotus. I won't go into detail. All in all, we liked it for itself alone -- and don't mind that if the rest of the members of the audience had brought their parents we would probably still have been the oldest ones present.

Monday, March 19, 2007

"Why should Caesar be a tyrant then?"

Early in Julius Caesar Shakespeare has each of the "honorable" conspirators against Caesar explain his own good reasons for accepting assassination as a solution to the political problems they face. They decide; they act; they don't get the results they hoped for. It's far from clear that they were anywhere near as idealistic about motive nor as realistic about Caesar as they told each other. Anthony's "honorable men" speech makes sure we know that.

The play presses forward to the conspirators' ruin, and the disorderly end of an orderly state. Elizabethan politics may have been behind Shakespeare's views, but as the situation emerges, I think the reader must be in awe of the universals of the motives, methods, and results. My own feeling is awe.

Cassius sees omens, but determines that "Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius." He continues to explain his commitment by blaming the gullible Romans who are begging Caesar to abandon the republic and accept a crown:

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor Man! I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a might fire
Begin it with weak straws: what trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar! (I, iii, 102-111)

Brutus, in contrast, fears Caesar himself, not for what he was in the past, but for what power will possibly do to him.

He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question:
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder'
And that craves wary walking. Crown him? -- that;--
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power... (II, i, 12-19)

And so they plot, they act, and they then do what they were afraid Caesar would do -- but without his greatness of imagination and love of the people (if we listen to Anthony).

Speaking to the crowd gathered to bury Caesar, just before he consents to have Anthony speak, Brutus makes the famous claim that his deed was "not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." He asks: "Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men. ... as he was ambitious, I slew him." (III, ii, 25-30)

Brutus may or may not be too jealous of Caesar's ability to sway the crowd; the other conspirators are clearly jealous of the characteristics that make him so popular. They may be both jealous and also right. The political questions of how to have a stable government, a legitimate government that answers to the people, leaders and rescuers with either noble or self-serving motives, and that deals with crowd mentality is very fascinating. Anthony and his allies are equally fascinating.

Aside -- isn't it ironic that the internal logic of this play makes us remember the Ides of March as if it were some kind of cursed day instead of an ordinary Roman timekeeping marker? A few days ago, they mentioned this date on the radio -- as if the 15th of all other months was not the "ides."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Shakespeare Lives!

Today's Washington Post reports on a "trial" of Hamlet. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy -- an originator of the idea of this event -- presided.

Suppose Hamlet had lived, and was put on trial for the murders in the play. What would be the defense? Insanity. "It became, oddly enough, the prosecutors' job not to attack the defendant as much as to hold him up as a complex and eloquent figure." The jury tied 6 to 6. See:

Prince Hamlet's Poetic Justice
Top lawyers and psychiatrists stage mock murder trial of Western literature's most scrutinized hero.
Peter Marks

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Exit, pursued by a bear

How strange that Shakespeare could write so many plays full of memorable quotations, and then write The Winter's Tale in which only one stage direction makes a mark. I really can't find much to like in this play, which seems to split into two parts: the first a tragedy of a jealous, irrational man and his destructive behavior, the second a piece of buffonery where the reconciliation doesn't really feel satisfying. And in between, sixteen years go by, announced by a character named "Time" -- and the play's location also jumps between Sicily and Bohemia. While Shakespeare was no great lover of unities of time or place, I don't know what to make of this.

It's Spring Here -- For the Moment

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Midsummernight's Dream

And now, back to Shakespeare!
A play that everyone knows -- but it's fun to read or see one of the many films of it over and over. Here are just a few random thoughts from one more enjoyable reading.

Puck is one of my favorite characters. His descriptions of tricks, wiles, rapid travel around the world use the most wonderful language of any fairy I know.

Puck's master Oberon is angry and vengeful. So what does he do? He tells Puck to make Titania, who has refused his willful demand, fall in love. He instructs Puck how to do it -- to pick some inappropriate object, use the magic flower dust, and so on. And then, in a spirit of mischief, he has Puck also afflict a few mortals who have wandered into his way. Shakespeare knew the depths of revenge and meaningless evil-doing in human beings. His fairy people are such a light and pleasant contrast to real human emotions and actions. Their rivalry, mischief, and trivial tricks are such a relief.

Before the fairies' first scene, we have already met these fated mortals whose love life Puck is about to derail. Two men love one woman, Hermia. Her father insists that he will have her killed or made a nun if she doesn't marry his choice -- the one she dislikes. Her best friend Helena loves the rejected lover. For all of them, love is a big pain. Said Hermia, about to flee her father's wrath:
Before the time I did Lysander see
Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell
That he hath turned a heaven unto a hell! (I, i, 209-212)

What does Shakespeare say about love in this play? I think he says love is a trickster just like Puck.

Love's pains and the power of revenge are both so light in this forest near "Athens" -- which seems so totally Shakespearean and English. It's only a play, Shakespeare constantly reminds us. The bumbling "mechanicals" who put on the play within a play are so worried about acting too well that they constantly get out of their roles to remind their audience that they are only pretending. Of course this is the most humorous part of the play as no one would conceiveably be fooled by their artifice!

Puck's constant motion, lists of tricks, and ability to be everywhere at once are so splendid. No wonder we have a word for him: puckish -- meaning the impish sprit of pucks or pookas.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Few Photos from Chichen Itza

Some of the famous "thousand columns" --
Throughout the ruins, local people set out a variety of tourist goods for sale. Our bus-tour guide disapproved, and urged us not to buy from them. In fact their presence in a national park probably says a lot about the relationship of local people and government. They are persistent and sometimes annoying, while admittedly adding a lot of color to the site.

The motivs on the various carved friezes are fascinating, but hard to understand. Is this a jaguar?

A Jaguar statue:

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cancun Wrap-Up

Our trip to Cancun was about evenly divided between two sorts of days. We spent three relaxing days sitting in recliners by the pool on the beach, jogging on the trail adjacent to our hotel, walking on the beach and snorkeling, and eating leisurely meals in very nice restaurants.

We spent three interesting days on tour. One was the trip to Isla Mujeres via cab, ferry boat, and rented golf cart. We spent two full days on organized bus tours. One was to Coba and a nearby Mayan village, and one to Chichen Itza and a nearby cenote.

Both bus tours included stops for lunch and visits to curio shops. Our only purchase was two clay masks, which we bought near Coba. The Chichen Itza guide made it almost mandatory to buy a silver or gold necklace with "hieroglyphics" that represented a name or a date of one's choice -- priced by number of letters. He also tried to sell us a bottle of tequila with our photo pasted on it. We resisted the pressure, but noted that most of our fellow tourists bought what they were told to buy. Tour bus tours have pros and cons. We really didn't want to drive for many hours -- a bus that showed videos during the many hours of travel was an overwhelming pro!

To read more about our trip to Cancun you can check my food blog posts: Maya food and plants and Restaurants in and near Cancun and to see about the Mayan village near Coba, my story blog post: Maya Children.

Birds and Fish

In Cancun, we saw gulls, terns, herons, and other wading birds near the beach and other bodies of water, such as the lake near Coba. Pelicans flew over the waves, dropping in to catch a fish, and taking off from a rising wave.

One night we saw frigate birds circling above the beach against the darkened sky. These birds have a white patch on their neck, and we took quite a while figuring out that the patch was reflecting the moonlight, making the birds very visible in a really spooky way. We saw frigate birds soaring all the time when we were on the hotel beach and along the shore on Isla Mujeres. In the photo they are soaring above me: you may need to click on the image and see a larger version to get a look at them.

The strong winds that blew all week reduced our opportunities for fish watching, though one morning we went in despite a red flag on the Club Med beach adjacent to our hotel beach. We snorkeled around several large coral formations, and saw a large sting ray swimming just under us, we approached a barracuda around 5-6 feet long (and then backed off), and we also saw very big angel fish and parrot fish. As we returned to shore, the life guard approached. He asked us about the visibility and conditions. We said everything was ok. He changed the flag from red to yellow, and soon afterwards several other groups of snorkelers were in the water.

Isla Mujeres

On the third day of our vacation in Mexico, we got up, took a cab to the ferry terminal, and by 10 AM we were approaching the dock on the small and charming island of Isla Mujeres. We had planned to go to La Garrafon Natural Park to snorkel, but the very stiff south wind that had been affecting the beaches near the hotel was blowing onshore here as well. When we arrived, the park was simply not allowing any snorkeling. So we got back in our little rented golf cart, and proceeded to the far east end of the island.

In a city park at the east end we found a modern sculpture garden, a spectacular cliff-side walk, and a pleasant outdoor bar and grill. Len ordered a cheesburger. I had a steak sandwich with guacamole -- a combination I found quite tasty.

The farthest point of the island is in the park, and a sign there informs you that you have come to the most eastern point in the country of Mexico. The ancient Mayans once greeted the dawn in a building that stands in ruins at the top of the cliff. We enjoyed the ocean views and the frigate birds soaring up above the island.

After lunch we continued around the island in our very noisy golf cart, parked to wade in the ocean at a beach near the town, and returned our cart. The small town is full of shops, which we browsed before lining up for the return ferryboat.

The island is not large, and this tour took only a few hours, including many stops to look at tidepools and churning waves and wind on completely deserted beaches. Along the shore we saw every kind of home you can imagine, from shanties made of tarpaper and wire to lavish stucco mansions. One stucco house was moulded into the shape of a conch shell -- quite showy. The only beach where we saw a lot of people is the one at the north end:

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Deaths-head are everywhere on the friezes of the ball court at Chichen Itza. The nearby platform of skulls has only this repeated motif.

The Sacred Well

When I was around 11 years old, I loved to read the Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton, which was written a few years before I was born. I especially remember his description of the "sacred well" and other monuments at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. I always hoped to go to some of the places that Richard Halliburton visited, and in fact, over the years, I have been to many of them -- even once before to Chichen Itza.

Here is the page of the book that I remember. The tiny figure is Halliburton jumping from the platform into the water far below:

With his early-20th-century romantic view, Halliburton emphasized the drama of the now-disproven idea that virgins were regularly sacrificed by being thrown from the platform. Recent explorations in this well suggest that many bodies and valuable goods went into the well -- but not only virgins, and perhaps not living humans.

Last week we were in Mexico, and we made a day trip to Chichen Itza, and we visited two of the "wells" -- called cenotes in Spanish. These are special geological features of the underground rivers that flow under the limestone surface of the Yucatan. The fragile limestone surface breaks through, and you see down to a large pool of water that seeps from the river into the limestone basin. Roots of plants droop from above down to the water perhaps 150 feet below. Here are two photos of the "sacred well" at Chichen Itza as we saw it.

We also visited another cenote. It's in a beautiful garden setting, and has been artificially set up with a tunnel-like descent and a two-level platform for swimming and diving. In the first photo you can see me in the water. In the second photo, you can get an idea of what it's like from above.

I've been reading a lot more about the Maya and their magnificent cities, and I enjoyed seeing the monuments and touring the area. But the visit to the two cenotes was really special for me.