Sunday, July 31, 2011

Irrelevant Details


A couple of nights ago, Lynn and I watched “Marathon Man,” which neither of us had seen for years. Of course, I remembered and expected to enjoy all the classic set pieces, Olivier’s Nazi war criminal as dentist, the wonderfully horrific attack on Dustin Hoffman’s character , Babe, while he’s soaking in the tub. The film is a classic demonstration of the power of the horror that can be derived from everyday experience, particularly everyday pain, everyday vulnerability.

But something else stood out for me this time: the tone and brilliance of the direction and cinematography. John Schlesinger, the director, and Conrad L. Hall, the cinematographer, had the wit to find the surprising, sometimes even obtuse detail or point of view and used them to impart suspense, or heightened reality, sometimes as a result of finding a gritty note of absurdity that is always present in daily life. For example, the plot is set off by an automotive battle between an aged death camp survivor and an old Nazi on the streets of New York. The concept is almost farcical, and there are moments that are played for simple black humor. But often, the camera chooses to find and dwell on the faces of the onlookers, real New Yorkers of various ages who look on the developing incident as it hurtles by them, with amazement, and even horror as the incident moves to its inevitable, catastrophic conclusion.

These days, the final explosion as the two cars collide with a fuel oil truck would be filmed with much more attention to detail and much greater expense, all for a very slight return on investment. But it’s everything that comes before, such as the startled look from an old woman in a faded floral dress as she stares at them from a tenement window, that really counts, that makes the drama compelling.

In part, it was a 1970’s thing. In many current films, the creation of suspense, which sometimes requires giving attention to an apparently irrelevant detail, is often neglected or managed in a very ham-fisted way. Sometimes that lack of apparent subtlety is rationalized as necessary as we now all live in a social networking age of necessarily immediate gratification. We just don’t have time for the clever or the subtle. I don’t believe it, of course, and I think the movie industry’s declining revenues, properly understood and analyzed, support that. The success of the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which is molded from the clay of modern methods of communication, succeeded in part because of its ability to create suspense, often in very old-fashioned ways.

That use of the subtle detail, and teaching an audience to look for it, is socially healthy. Perspicacity and skepticism were never so useful as they are in a world as hyper-connected as ours is. As I’m writing this, the US House of Representatives and the US Senate are attempting to find a last minute compromise to raise the debt ceiling and avoid possibly catastrophic consequences in the global financial markets. I wonder what are the telling, possibly small, or apparently disconnected details that have brought our government to this pass. One might be that the Bush era tax cuts will expire at the end of the year unless the congress takes action and the Republicans lack the legislative strength to pass such legistlation. Are they not using perfunctory but critical legislation to blackmail the country into passing such ill advised legislation?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fencing Summer Nationals - July 2011


I feel the way I feel after a long hike somewhere new. The world is refreshed, bigger, more interestingly complex. “Got to love it,” to use D.Z.’s expression. We’re back from fencing in the USFA Summer Nationals.

Lynn and I drove to Reno, Nevada on Thursday, July 7th. I hadn’t driven that road in years and had forgotten how wild and even mysterious some of the basin and range geography was. Along the way Lynn texted Robert and Kim, who were driving behind us, and we listened to a fine audio book of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. After we checked in at our hotel, the four of us went for dinner at the Pneumatic Diner, a vegan grill. A word here about the food in downtown Reno: some of it is excellent. My tacos at the Pneumatic Grill were really good, simply and perfectly because the fresh vegetables were so flavorful, and the dinner the next night, at La Vecchia, was some of the best Italian food I’ve had outside of Italy.

Of the four of us, I was the first to compete; check-in at the Reno Convention Center for mens Div III epee was the next morning at 7. I slept fitfully and dreamt my epee failed to pass a strange voltage test. Of course, there is no such thing. Kenny and Jenni, my coach and his wife arrived shortly after we did and I found them chipper and willing to hand-hold me through the formal details of national competition, even though they’d already been at it for seven days. As a result, I achieved a signal personal goal: not to embarrass myself or the club during the competition.

Though there were seven of us in the club fencing during the following three days I always had one of Kenny or Jenni strip side when I was fencing which was no small achievement. The best thing, though, was the warm-ups with Kenny. Not only did they serve to optimize my frame of mind for the competition, they were also compact, perfectly focused lessons, which have also helped me build a sharper set of priorities for the coming year. The prospect of competing in a national event focuses the mind wonderfully, to rephrase Johnson. In fact, that may be one of things I love most about fencing. The discipline tunes and strengthens perception.

I was lucky in my pool draws both for Div III and Veterans: everyone was better than I was and most, probably all, had been fencing longer than I had, in the case of Veterans, sometimes by decades. Even so, I won one pool bout, came very close in two others and there was no one I didn’t get at least a point on. Since a large part of my game involves going for hand touches, it’s a point of technique I need to give particular focus, especially aiming for where the target will be, not where it is. Similarly, my parry-ripostes need a lot of work: too often I try to counter attack in opposition and fail when a parry-riposte would be successful. In general, I found that I was seeing the weaknesses of my opponents and could discover their “emergency responses” but, having done so, was unable to take effective advantage of that knowledge. In general, my points often came early in the bouts: clearly my opponents were figuring me out as well, which is yet one more thing to work on.

Lynn had a similar experience in that regard and her results were similar to my own. One of my favorite moments of the entire competition was watching her veterans event. Suddenly, she started bouncing, which is something she normally never does. It was as if she’d suddenly discovered an infinite pool of energy. And she didn’t stop. After, I told her she reminded me of the Energizer Bunny. Her veterans bouts were as difficult and hard fought as mine as most of the women were competing for a place on the national team.

My major regret is that I was unable to see any complete bouts of some of the highly placed fencers competing, either in Nationals or in the Pan Am games in the hall next to ours. I also saw very little of Robert and Kim fencing. Afterwards, Robert told me that he’d felt that he’d never fenced better and that he’d made a kind of perceptual leap as well: there were times, he said, when he felt like a predator, keenly observing his opponent’s weaknesses. He certainly fenced exceptionally well against me in our warm-up bouts and both Kenny and Jenni commented that he had done very well against an accomplished fencer he’d drawn in his pool.

With a little encouragement from the four of us, Jenni had decided to fence and I was able to see a little of her bouts, albeit mostly from a distance. She seemed quick and formidable, significantly more so than when I’d last fenced against her in Idaho late last year. Her results were better than the those of the four of us and I found her skill and focus quietly inspirational.

So, “I’m back.” And already consider myself in training for next year.

If you’ll forgive the echo, I choose to fence not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal serves to organize and measure the best of my energies and skills. It will be interesting to see how we do next year.