Favorite Films: Pickpocket (1959)

A Still from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket

A Still from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Martin LaSalle

One film I will never tire of watching is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). At a time when the French New Wave was in full flower, it was a resolutely old-fashioned film that was—in my opinion—better than any of the New Wave films. It starred two unknowns, the Uruguayan Martin LaSalle and Marika Green, and shows how a young man (who looks startlingly like a young Henry Fonda) falls in with a pickpocketing gang, and with a young woman who loves him.

Bresson only made a handful of films, but fully half of them are among the greatest films ever made. As I say this, I have to interject that you may or may not think as highly of him as I do: His films may seem preternaturally slow, but there is an unmistakeable development of character that seems missing altogether in the films of today. Pickpocket’s Michel and Jeanne are deeply, even tragically, in love with each other, in a world where crime seems to be the only way to get ahead.

If you are interested in seeing some of Bresson’s films, I highly recommend the following titles:

  • Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
  • A Man Escaped (1956)
  • The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), based on the original trial records
  • Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
  • Mouchette (1967)
  • Lancelot of the Lake (1974)

Bresson died in 1999, but his films will never die.

Iceland 2001: The Huldufólk

Those Strange Basalt Formations Could Be a Troll ... or the Home of an Elf

Those Strange Basalt Formations Could Be a Troll … or the Home of an Elf

Many Icelanders, particularly those who grew up before the island became cool, believe in the hidden folk. As a matter of fact, despite all that ice, it was once a very hot place—so hot that the residents bake rye bread by burying it in a hole only a couple of feet deep. Many places, like the original Geysir (yes, that’s how it is spelled) are so hot that a single misstep could plunge you into boiling mud.

There are numerous stories about the island’s hidden folk, or huldufólk, namely trolls, ogres, elves, mermen, and others. If you think I’m being tongue-in-cheek while writing this, allow me to refer you to a story that recently hit the news in Reykjavík.

An interest group called Hraunavinir (‘Lava Friends’) is planning to sue over the making of a new road to Álftanes from Engidalur in Garðabær, across the lava field Gálgahraun, and to a roundabout opposite Bessastaðir, the presidential residence.

Seer and piano instructor Erla Stefánsdóttir maintains that the elf boulder Ófeigskirkja will be destroyed in the process and fears that wrath of dwarves in the hidden world will cause accidents on the road, Fréttablaðið reports.

Now this is not the type of story one would encounter in the New York Times. What I found particularly interesting was that there were some serious follow-up stories, including one just a few days ago in which one resident suggested the whole problem could be eliminated by a couple of strategically-placed roundabouts.

In Reykjavík, there is even an Elfschool, which has been open for over twenty years. It is run by Magnus Skarpheðinsson, who is an expert on Iceland’s huldufólk.

When I look at that basaltic plug in the photo above, at Dimmuborgir on the shores of Lake Mývatn in Northeast Iceland, I think that it may well be a petrified troll who hung around after sunset, or the residence of elves, who venture forth from their stony fastness to confound the ways of men.

Southern California in Bloom

Star Jasmine on a Chain Link Fence

Star Jasmine on a Chain Link Fence

The nicest thing about Southern California in the springtime is the proliferation of blossoms. Most prevalent is the Star Jasmine as shown above, scientific name Trachelospermum jasminoides. When I walked into Santa Monica yesterday morning, I saw jasmine bushes everywhere. The flowers emit a delightful scent that hits one in waves as one walks past a plant.

Even more spectacular is the flowering jacaranda tree, Family Bignoniaceae. Beginning in May and lasting through most of the summer, the trees, which seem to be everywhere, are full of purple blossoms. While they have no particular scent, the dropped blossoms do play havoc with the paint jobs of parked cars.

Both plants are “invaders” (albeit welcome ones) from other parts of the globe. (Of course, most of the human inhabitants are invaders, too, in their own right.) The star jasmine hails from Malaya, and the jacaranda from South America. Shown below are jacarandas in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires:


Jacarandas in Buenos Aires

Other than the fact that it marks the end of tax season, these two plants make Southern California a beauty spot every May and June. Now if only the marine layer would go away!

Bulgarian for a Day

Bagpipe (Gaida) Player and Singer/Keyboard Player

Bagpipe (Gaida) Player and Singer/Keyboard Player

When my neighbor told me about a Bulgarian Festival in Culver City today, I thought it would be fun to attend with Martine and be Bulgarians for a Day.

Well, not quite. Neither of us could speak the language, but we liked the music and dancing. The latter is similar to Greek dancing, but much faster and more energetic. And the Gaida, or Balkan bagpipe, produced an exotic sound that was infectious.

There was a limited menu of Bulgarian foods, including kebapche and doner kebabs with a cold bean salad, cole slaw, and two types of cakes, including a baklava and a kind of cheese cake made with feta.

All told, we spent two hours at the festival. Then the rock music came on, and we left. Neither of us particularly care for ear-splitting music, especially since it made it difficult to talk with anyone.

Serendipity: A “Miraculous” History

Vikings: The Stereotype

Vikings: The Stereotype

Right under the dedication of his book Feud in the Icelandic Saga, Jesse L. Byock includes this incredible quote from an almost forgotten book written a century ago:

The whole of Icelandic history is miraculous. A number of barbarian gentlemen leave Norway because the government there is becoming civilized and interfering: they settle in Iceland because they want to keep what they can of the unreformed past, the old freedom. It looks like anarchy. But immediately they begin to frame a Social Contract and to make laws in the most intelligent manner: a colonial agent is sent back to the Mother Country to study law and present a report. They might have sunk into mere hard work and ignorance, contending with the difficulties of their new country; they might well have become boors without a history, without a ballad. In fact the Icelandic settlers took with them the intellect of Norway; they wrote the history of the kings and the adventures of the gods. The settlement of Iceland looks like a furious plunge of angry and intemperate chiefs, away from order into a grim and reckless lank of Cockayne. The truth is that those rebels and their commonwealth were more self-possessed, more clearly conscious of their own aims, more critical of their own achievements, than any polity on earth since the fall of Athens. Iceland, though the country is large, has always been like a city-state in many of its ways; the small population, though widely scattered, was not broken up, and the four quarters of Iceland took as much interest in one another’s gossip as the quarters of Florence. In the Sagas, where nothing is of much importance except individual men, and where all the chief men are known to one another, a journey from Borg to Eyjafirth is no more than going past a few houses. The distant corners of the island are near one another. There is no sense of those impersonal forces, those nameless multitudes, that make history a different thing from biography in other lands. All history in Iceland shaped itself as biography or as drama, and there was no large crowd at the back of the stage.

Whew! Years ago, I had read the book from which this long quote is excerpted: W. P. Ker’s The Dark Ages (1904). I have not been able to locate my copy, but was delighted to find that the book is available free of charge in a number of formats, including Kindle.

We should by no means denigrate books like Ker’s just because they were written decades ago. Sometimes those old historians and critics had a lot more on the ball than our contemporaries.


A Nice Surprise

I Kept It a Surprise Until the Last Minute

I Kept It a Surprise Until the Last Minute

Martine has had a rough time of it ever since the New Year. It seems more and more likely that she is suffering from fibromyalgia, which is not only painful but exhausting, inasmuch as it robs her of a full night’s sleep. This coming week, she has an appointment with a local rheumatologist to prescribe a course of treatment for her pain and sleeplessness.

Because she has not only felt bad, but felt guilty because she felt she “was a burden to me” in her present condition, I planned to surprise her. There is nothing that Martine likes more than chicken. So I discussed the options with my friends at work, and they recommended Mrs. Knotts Chicken Dinner Restaurant in Buena Park, which has been serving fried chicken dinners since 1934, and doing it the old-fashioned way with all the traditional trimmings.

It was not until we were a mile away from our destination that Martine remembered my recommending Mrs. Knotts to her a couple of months ago. Now that tax season is over, I had to time to drive 68 miles round trip for lunch.

I, myself, am not a chickenholic like my little girl, but I had a great spicy chicken salad in which the meat was clearly superior. So even with my diabetes regiment, I felt that I did well. Uh, I did, however, eat a couple of biscuits. (So kill me!)

The Knotts Berry Farm Amusement Park is adjacent to the restaurant, but neither of us felt like being shaken and jarred into insensibility. That was for the mobs of teenagers waiting in line to get in.

It was a long drive, but the surprise was worth it; and we both had a good time.


Trunt, Trunt, and the Trolls in the Fells



There were once two men who went up into the mountains to gather edible moss. One night they were sharing a tent, and one was asleep and the other awake. The one who was awake saw the one who was asleep go creeping out; he got up and followed him, but however hard he ran he could not catch up with him. The sleeping man was headed straight up the mountain towards the glaciers, and the other saw where a huge giantess was sitting up there on the spur of the glacier. What she was doing was this: she would stretch out her arms with her hands crossed and then draw them in again to her breast, and in this way she was magically drawing the man towards her. The man ran straight into her arms, and then she ran off with him.

A year later, some people from this man’s district were gathering moss at the same place; he came there to meet them, and he was so short-spoken and surely that one could hardly get a word out of him. They asked him who he believed in, and he said he believed in God. The following year he came to the moss-gatherers again, and by then he looked so like a troll that he struck terror into them. However, he was again asked who he believed in, but he made no reply. This time he stayed a shorter time with them than before. The third year, he came again; by then he had turned into an absolute troll, and a very ugly-looking one too. Yet someone plucked up courage to ask him who he believed in, but he said he believed in “Trunt, Trunt, and the trolls in the fells”—and then he disappeared. After this he was never seen again, but for some years afterwards men did not dare go looking for moss in that place.—Jacqueline Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends

Let’s Have a News Orgy!

News Coverage Multiplies Like ... Well ... Kangaroos

News Coverage Multiplies Like … Well … Kangaroos

With so many news channels, whenever a big story breaks, you can be sure that it will be rubbed in your face twenty-four hours a day for weeks at a time. There are so many more types of news media that the effect is like being trapped in a hall of mirrors, like Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai.

Let me just name a few names so that you get the idea: O. J. Simpson (several times) … Caylee … Benghazi … Hurricane Sandy … Jodi Arias … Boston Marathon … Fiscal Cliff … IRS … Sequestration … Cleveland Sex Prisoners …  Trayvon Martin … Aurora Shooting … Sandy Hook … Elections … Yada Yada Yada.

It’s rather amusing that programming is always interrupted by “Breaking News Stories” that are nothing more but a repetition of the last 175 “Breaking News Stories,” adding little but possibly some new conjectures and misinformation to what has already been stated. What gets me is that some people stayed glued to their TV sets expecting to hear something new that explains the whole story. But they are never quite satisfied. The news is always breaking, but somehow it never quite breaks.

Probably the smart course is, when one hears the original story, to shut off the set and walk away for a few days, until some perspective emerges. At first, most news sources feel too cagey and inhibited to divulge any real news: You have to wait for a while, sometimes for weeks. In the meantime, there is a steady drumbeat of no news that masquerades as news.

I’m sorry to say that the same goes for newspapers. The story comes blaring at you through oversize headlines. Weeks later, buried on an inside page, is the real story—but by then everyone’s too jaded to care.


Iceland 2001: Returning to Heimaey

Heimaey Wrapped in an Embrace by the Volcano Eldfell

Heimaey Wrapped in an Embrace by the Volcano Eldfell

It was difficult getting to Heimaey back in 2001. I had two choices: Either I could take a gut-wrenching 3½-hour ferry ride across the stormy North Atlantic from Þorláshöfn (famous for seasickness) or I could fly there. Now there is a cheaper choice: I could take the ferry from Landeyjahöfn, which is only a 30-minute ferry ride. Back then, I took a ruinously expensive day trip by flying Flugfélag Íslands from Reykavík. Below is a picture of the prop plane I took on that occasion.

The Prop Plane to Heimaey

The Prop Plane to Heimaey

The main reason I’m going to Heimaey is the same reason I decided to go in August 2001, namely to see puffins. I was just a tad late, as I could see the white spots of puffins leaving the bird cliffs for their flight to the British Isles. Here is a picture of the puffins vacating their nests for the flight over the North Atlantic:


The Little White Spots Are Puffins

This time I did my research and timed my visit right. There should be something like two-three million of the little birds feeding their young when I get there.

I will be staying at the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar for two nights, so I should have plenty of time to see the bird life on the island, as well as the volcano show and little natural history museum. There also used to be a fish cannery museum, but I no longer see it mentioned in the lists of sights to visit. Nonetheless, I plan to have plenty of fish, as Heimaey is the busiest fishing port in Iceland. That’s why the Icelanders were so frantic about saving the harbor in 1973 when the volcano Eldfell erupted.

We Are the (Third) World

Why Are We Unable to See That Things Have Changed?

Why Are We Unable to See That Things Have Changed?

There is a wonderful sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem entitled The Futurological Congress. In it, the author imagines a world in which we think ourselves much better off than we actually are. The plot revolves around the discovery by one attendee at the Congress that everything is grim and broken down, only seeming to appear different because all of us have been drugged to see it that way. For instance, what appeared to be a gorgeous hotel room is actually a rat-trap of a tenement.

I keep thinking of the changes that have occurred over the last forty years. It all atrted in the 1980s, when we decided for some reason that crazy people no longer had to be institutionalized if they didn’t want it. (And really, who wants it?) The streets of Los Angeles started filling up with aggressively demented bums who slept on street corners on assailed everyone for “spare change.”

After that, it all started to plummet. Now America is divided between two political parties that are so far apart that they can only deal with each other across ramparts. Congress has become a joke; the Supreme Court, a haven for troglodytes; and the Executive Branch of government, a penalty for not “making it” in the outside world. Words like “patriotism” and “progressive” are bandied about by people who have lost all sense of irony.

Then there are the streets, such as the one illustrated above showing a pothole from my hometown of Cleveland. I am constantly changing my driving routes to avoid known agglomerations of potholes, steel plates, and construction zones replete with K-rails and orange cones. And alley ways … I don’t think Los Angeles has resurfaced any alleys since Eisenhower was President.

Whenever I visit a foreign country, I feel an acute sense of shame and inferiority. We still think of ourselves as the City on the Hill, a place for other countries to marvel at and emulate. But I guess we’ve all taken that drug that Stanislaw Lem writes about.

It really is a good book: You ought to read it.