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Greetings from Vienna, #22

May 18th, 2004

 

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Greetings from Vienna,
Part the Twenty-Second: A Short Break

I am currently off from German class. I plan on going back for the June session, retaking the B1 course, but in the meantime, I can put in more hours on the remodeling. Now that the ditches are finally done (see below), the spring rains will not keep us from working on the inside of the house. We still have to order our windows and doors, but have made the decision over the weekend, we can at least get the order started, and make plans for cutting more holes in the walls. So without further ado...

Ditch #5
The last ditch has now been dug, piped, wired, and filled. It was almost as complicated as the first ditch, since it had to be sunk to the same depth as #1 (110 cm) to reach the opposite side of the plenum, and it was dug parallel to an existing pipe at the same depth, which I had to avoid damaging. So once again, I got to dig in a space that is just wider than my hips. This time, I get to use the percussion drill-hammer, which is even hard to use in a tight space than a shovel. That, plus the occasional rain showers made this last ditch a pretty tough row to hoe[4eng]. However, we got through it, and now the yard is starting to get back to its former appearance, minus patches of grass and quite a bit of asphalt paths.

Did I mention the wire? We ran flexible two plastic conduit from one corner of the new living room, through ditch #4, half of ditch #1, and ditch #5. We than had to snake wires through these. Easier said than done, it turned out. Either due to pre-burial kinking or post-burial crushing, we couldn't just run a standard wire snake through the conduit. There was blockage about three-fourths of the way through: about two meters from the far end. After repeatedly reinserting the wire snake and not getting much further, my father-in-law went a got a second, thinner wire snake. We inserted this into the "long" end of the conduit, then inserted the other snake into the short end, twisting it as it hit "bottom". This twisting action apparently put enough pressure against the inside of the conduit to give the other wire snake more room to advance. The one of us would slowly pull out the twisted wire snake while the other continued to advance the other one. After several attemps, success; and then we pulled the real wires through. Repeating the whole process for the second conduit, the yard was now wired. The rest of the new place will also need wires run through, as you can see from all the conduits drooping from the walls in this picture:
living_room_wiring_pano

Aside from the ditch, we started some more demolition work for the new windows. This time, we're going about it with a bit more finesse than just drilling holes and popping bricks with the drill-hammer. Since the windows will be framed, it's better to have even sides for the framing, so we've taken up a circular saw with a carbide blade. We still use the drill-hammer to punch the initial holes through. However, these would be in the space above the windows, where new headers will be installed to distribute the weight around the window. After we've cleared that space, we than use the circular saw to make vertical cuts along the sides. Then we can easily pop out the bricks, course by course. Here, you can see my father-in-law cutting in the bathroom window:
IMG_4627_rudolfR_circular_saw IMG_4628_rudolfR_circular_saw
Another advantage of this process is a reduction in the amount of rubble that we have to haul out. And we have uses for these saved bricks: we have one doorway and one old window to cover over:
IMG_4632_rudolfR_stables_door

Another Week, Another Concert
This past week, Karin performed two pieces from Handel's Concerti grossi, op. 3 and Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" with members of the Conservatory at the Koncerthaus. The performances were wonderful, and I got to sit and chat with our friend Gudrun, a Viennese native and participant of Hannelore's dance weeks. Andrea Straßberger, Hannelore's teaching assistant for the dance weeks was also in the orchestra, as well as a number of Hannelore's other students whom I've met through her regular dance classes. There were also other fellow dance students who attended the concert, so it felt very much like attending concerts of my friends in the Bay Area. And of course, as with all music I hear, I kept thinking about appropriate dance steps. While my classes with Hannelore have been mostly on Baroque steps, the Purcell reminded me of the Renaissance dances that I use to do. Sigh. As Patri and Barbara Pugliese are so fond of saying: "So many Centuries, so little Time."

Aside from the music, there was also a literary tie-in to this concert for me. I am currently reading the Iliad, the back story to Virgil's Aeneid, from which Purcell got his story. And I am reading the Iliad because of a science fiction book I'm re-reading: "Ilium" by Dan Simmons, which uses the Trojan War as a foundation to his own epic. And as if I needed more Homer in my life, two other science fiction books I'd been reading--Orson Scot Card's "Shadow of the Hegemon" and "Shadow Puppets"--have, as their main antagonist, a character named Achilles. So of course, I had to go see...

Movie Nights
I saw two very different movies this past week: "Troy" & "Van Helsing". In their own fashions, they were both trying to tell old stories in new ways. However, while Troy succeeded admirably, "Van Helsing" was, like Frankenstein's monster, cobbled from bits of other films, and ended up as something less than (or more than, some might argue) a whole movie, better left in the cold wastes of the Antarctic instead of on movie screens across the world.

Perhaps I'm being a bit hard on Van Helsing (hereafter shortened to VH); the comparison to "Troy" is not really a fair one. So I'll use another film I've recently seen as a benchmark: "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (hereafter shortened to "Pirates"). Now, "Pirates" began life as an amusement park ride, itself based on historic pirates of the Spanish Main, literary pirates from Treasure Island to Peter Pan, and pirate movies of the 30's & 40's. VH has an equally mixed pedigree, starting with European folk tales, winding it's way through Mary Shelly's original Frankenstein ("A New Prometheus" was the rest of its title, now little remembered and even less understood) and Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (certainly not high culture, but it has stood the test of time), to the original film version of "Frankenstein", "Nosferatu" (an amazingly creepy film, even viewed today) and of course the 1950's "Wolfman".

What VH and "Pirates" have in common is that they rely on a certain amount of audience knowledge in order for them to be fully appreciated. Just as audiences far away from a Disney theme park (physically or culturally) failed to catch Pirate's numerous references to the ride,[5] audiences who did not see the original Frankenstein or it's many derivatives--good and bad--over the years could not appreciate the opening sequence of VH, where we fade into black and white, including a new "old" Universal Studios logo, and begin this new film at the climax of the original Frankenstein: Tesla coils, Van De Graff generators, big knife switches, Igor in his hunchbacked glory, and Doctor Frankenstein shouting out that almost cliche line: "It's alive!". But this "new" incarnation now includes a pale-faced, well-dressed man who speaks with a vaguely Eastern European accent and behaves more monomaniacally than even the good Doctor. So now, an audience who might not have been exposed to nearly a hundred years of "Frankenstein" in the media would have to also have completely missed out on the other monster of the 20th century--Dracula--to not suspect that this new deviation from the Science Goes Bad genre is very likely to soon sprout some impressive canines, bat wings, and possibly even a cape.

In the hands of someone who loves the genre, this could have worked. One of the best parodies of the Frankenstein mythology is "Young Frankenstein" by Mel Brooks. But it is also the best tribute to the genre, taking the Frankenstein story to the next level, and explores the possible motivations of all of the characters, the Doctor, his fiancée, the Monster, Igor, a nubile lab assistant, not to mention the angry villagers, and all in highly comedic ways. "Pirates", in it's own way, gave moments from the ride to the fans, but the core of the movie--the entire "curse" motif--comes from but a single line of audio from the ride, from which the writers and director were able to grow the myth, letting people know the ride is but a small fraction of the total "Pirates" universe.

VH attempts to do the something very similar. At its core is the idea that Van Helsing is not just a medical doctor with knowledge and experience with the occult: the original Stoker character. Instead, he is the business end of a secret organization, based in the Vatican, who is dispatched to "handle" the occult, and it is this Van Helsing, who seems to leave rather more death and destruction behind than his bosses like, who will have to deal with the newly scientific minded Dracula. All in all, not a bad idea for a movie, but then VH turns into an exercise in plagiarism, and poorly executed plagiarism at that. Instead of revealing any more of the plot, I will give a list of movies/series from which VH has borrowed, if not lifted entire scenes, in the order that I saw them: Frankenstein (the original sound film), Nosferatu, Batman, League of Extraordinary Gentleman (the Mr. Hyde bits), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, James Bond, The Wolfman, Coppela's version of Dracula (with Gary Oldman in the leading role), The Wizard of Oz/The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Seven Samurai, Lethal Weapon 3, Alien/Aliens, Pitch Black, Moulin Rouge (the musical version), Hang 'Em High/Pale Rider.

I'm sure there are other movie references, but the fact of the matter is, even just half of these references would've been too much for a single film to remain coherent. And I found the "borrowings" from "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman" particularly annoying, from reusing Mr. Hyde to having Richard Roxburgh play another wanna-be, world ruling villain. As it was, my reaction to VH started very positive, but quickly dropped with each new movie reference (or a poorly done re-reference). By the time our hero gets to Transylvania and kills his first vampire, it has become campy. And by the final climax, we are all groaning (I tell no tales,[6eng] most of the audience either laughed, groaned, or both during the scene after the climatic battle and the indescribably hokey and banal ending. I have to give credit to all the actors for trying their best to give some life to the dialog and situations their writer/director placed them in. I feel particularly sorry for David Wenham, who, as Friar Carl, seems to have fallen quite a bit from his role as Faramir in Lord of the Rings. (He does have some funny lines, but nothing particularly memorable.) So my conclusion is: "Van Helsing" is much less than the sum of it's parts, and should not have been made.

On the other hand, "Troy" was a very reasonable update of the Iliad. Purist are sure to be vexed by the liberties taken by the screenwriters: the Trojan war takes a matter of weeks and not years; no gods--except Achilles' mother, Thetis--and no overt divine intervention are shown on screen; Hector's family, Paris, and Helen survive the war and escape, Menelaus and Agamemnon both die in Troy. However, I found the changes to be appropriate (for the most part), as this version of the Iliad is less about gods interfering in the affairs of Man than it is about the the geopolitics of empire and the motivations which send men into battle. I particularly like the way the movie sets up Achilles' motivations and enmity against Agamemnon by starting the film during the final stage of Agamemnon's conquest (unification) of the kingdoms in Greece, where he uses Achilles like any other weapon. And as a repeating motif in the film (and in early parts of the poem), Achilles' choice to enter into battle is a choice for fame, glory, and perhaps personal honor.

And perhaps this is where we might see "divine intervention", not in the form of Zeus and the other gods wielding magic, but rather the hands of Fate. It is Fate that Paris should fall in love with a woman who is not loved by her husband. It is Fate that Helen's brother-in-law is the most grasping king in Greece and need little excuse to seek the submission or destruction of Troy. Fate brought Achilles to Troy, seeking eternal fame at the price of an early death. Fate (though not Homer) weakened Paris's resolve to face Menelaus in single combat and forced Hector to protect his brother. (Homer's Paris is a good fighter, but he still has Aphrodite carry Paris off the battlefield at first blood.) Fate brings Briseis to Achilles, who might have been able choose life and obscurity with her love (slight departure from Homer), but Fate also inflames the heart of young Patroclus to fight with the Greeks wearing Achilles' armor. (Homer approved except the cousin thing; in the Iliad, Patroclus and Achilles are best friends, not relations.) Fate then brings Hector on the scene, who knows that Achilles is the key to the Greek forces and so he challenges "Achilles" to single combat, and ends up killing Patroclus and insuring that Achilles will fight the Trojans and kill Hector himself. And on and on. Not all 100% Homer-made, but certainly in the manner of Homer, and we still get the giant wooden horse[7] and the burning of Troy. Of course Agamemnon has to get his comeuppance within the framework of the Trojan War. We can't wait for him to get home to be beheaded by his wife, Clytemnestra. So we accept his death at the hands of Achilles in the spirit of this re-telling, where War and Conquest are shown to be hollow victories in the end. (There is a tie-in to the wooden horse in the last metaphor, but I'll leave well enough alone.)

Coming back down to earth from the philosophical, I want to mention that I thought all the major roles were filled terrifically, and the casting reflected Hollywood epics of old, when "star studded" meant major stars in even minor roles. Brad Pitt was born to swagger, and he also brings that "edge of insanity" feeling from his roles in "Fight Club", "Twelve Monkeys", and perhaps even "A River Runs Through It". Every time Eric Bana was on screen, I couldn't help but think: "so this is what Cat Stevens would look like if he worked out", however, I was able to overcome this and enjoy his earnestness as Hector, torn between doing the "right thing" and showing his love for his family. As Helen, Diane Kruger reminded me of a young Ursula Andress, but could act. Peter O'Toole was a pleasure to watch as Priam, especially in the scene where he begs Achilles for the body of Hector. I've loved Brian Cox since his Hannibal Lector from "Manhunter", the first film version of Thomas Harris's "Red Dragon". Since then, I've only seen him in "Braveheart", so it was a treat to have him as the all-grasping Agamemnon, interpreting him as grand schemer as well as playground bully. Fellow "Braveheart" alumnus Brian Leeson plays his brother Menelaus, and yet another "Braveheart" alum, James Cosmo, is on the Trojan side, playing one of Priam's generals, Glaucus. And he is side-by-side with Nigel Terry, whom I first saw in "Excalibur", and then saw in "The Lion in Winter" (with Peter O'Toole). Orlando Bloom is quite fitting as pretty boy Paris, though playing a bit of a physical wimp for the first time (at least in the first half of the film). Fellow "Lord of the Rings" alum Sean Bean as crafty and world-weary Odysseus brings a bit of the Sharpe character to his interpretation (though I didn't catch him getting in the "sharp" line anywhere), and I liked the use of Odysseus to "book-end" the movie in narration. A wonderful surprise was Julie Christie's cameo as Thetis.

I suppose that in many ways, I enjoyed this film because it was understated. For a movie based on a pretty over-the-top poem like the Iliad, which itself is based on a semi-historical event of epic proportions, certain things had to be big: big sets, big special effects, masses of men (literally entire armies). But for all that, it was understated, and very well edited. Even with an intermission, I didn't feel like the movie ran long at 170+ minutes (unlike Van Helsing, which felt long by the second act, but I'll stop griping now). There was little over-the-top acting (possible notable exception, the man playing Big (Telemonian) Ajax, who looks like a cross between a misplaced henchman from "Conan the Barbarian" and Jesse "the Body" Ventura). Now to find the German version so I can take Karin.

 

Another week, another newsletter. 'Till next week.

Bis, Bald.
Tschüß
-Paul

 

 

[1] "Ditch, the Final Frontier": A play on the words from the opening of the original Star Trek TV series: "Space, the Final Frontier".

[2] "Harmonic Convergence": This was an "alignment" of a number of the planets back in the early Nineties (or late Eighties, I can't recall exactly). All sorts of things were predicted because of this "event": unusual tides, stock market crash, dogs and cats living together. As far as I could tell, the only significant effect it had was to increase the sales of astrology books for a while.

[3] "Spoilers": Internet-speak for information about a movie, book, etc., which could give away information, and otherwise ruin someone's experience of that movie, book, or whatever. It is considered common courtesy in many fora on the net to warn potential readers in the subject line that a particular article might contain "spoilers", especially of recently released movies and books. Some people will also include "spoiler space": sequences of blank or almost blank lines (perhaps containing only one character each) separating the "spoiler" from the rest of the text, giving readers a chance to avoid the information.

[4] "Tough row to hoe": English expression meaning: "a difficult task".

[5] "Catch [...] references to the ride": The London audience at the premier was apparently silent through the scene of the imprisoned pirates trying to use a bone on a string to entice the dog holding the keys in it's mouth.

[6] "I tell no tales": From the English expression: "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no tales," which has been modernized to end with "...I'll tell you no lies." I believe it's a literary reference, but I don't know what it's from.

[7] It's a good thing for the Greeks that they didn't run into the same problems as Spinal Tap did with their giant prop.