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city symphonies


The Harvard Film Archive has wonderfully inventive programming. We used to go more often, before inertia took hold and we couldn’t resist the lure of the Comfy Chair. But Monday night’s program sounded intriguing so John and I went to the cinema. Culture! On a school night!

The program, part of a summer-long series Eight Weeks of Film History, consisted of three silent films, each with a European city as muse and star. From the HFA calendar:

During the 1920s many filmmakers explored the idea of the city as the central force in modern life. Referred to as “city symphonies,” these works explored the compelling intersection between nonfiction and avant-grade modes of expression, using real locations to construct poetic visions.

The first was Regen [Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens, Netherlands, 1929, 12 min]. The title translates as Rain (Dutch study finally pays off!) and depicts one rainy day in Amsterdam. Rain is the perfect motif for a city defined by its relationship to water. As the day begins, we see various sorts of water transport — ships and barges. Laundry hanging in the streets billows in the strong wind. A gentle rain starts to fall and the camera cuts, as it will frequently do, to a shot of raindrops patterning the surface of a canal.

As the intensity of the rainfall increases, the roads become as shiny as the canals, and the camera focuses on reflections of bicycles, automobiles and people. Puddles grow in the streets. Trams plow through them like ships carving wakes in the sea. Looking out from a car, our vision is almost obscured by the rain-speckled windows.

More and more people have been filling the streets as the rain falls. (A little rain certainly doesn’t stop the Dutch.) By afternoon there is a sea of umbrellas that looks from above like a milling swarm of round, black water beetles.

At the end of the day, the rain clears and we return to images of barges. This beautiful tone poem ends with a shot of still water in a canal empty of traffic.

The second film, Rien Que Les Heures [Alberto Cavalcanti, France, 1925, 45 min], I found less effective. The earliest of the three, it chronicles a day in Paris, but the photography did not convincingly evoke the time changes. Morning, noon and night had much the same saturation of light. I couldn’t decide what this film was trying to be: comedy or drama, narrative or poem. I should see it again but these rarities are, er, rare.

This film, unlike Regen, includes individual characters. They are introduced by title cards — “La femme”, “Le homme”, “Le matelot”, “La vendeuse”. Their lives intersect briefly on this day. There is also an old woman who staggers through the city for no apparent purpose. Maybe she is meant to show us the heartless nature of city life.

There are individual scenes that were effective in one way or another. Food plays a large role. One long sequence alternates shots of fruits and vegetables at a market with overflowing garbage pails. (Maybe the Seven Deadly Sins are embedded in here somehow.) Another surreal segment focuses on a man eating a steak, but when we look down at his plate, we see superimposed on the meat grisly scenes of an abattoir, the source of the meal he is enjoying.

The final scene incorporates shots of “la femme” (who is more “fille de joie”) and “le matelot” intercut with a spinning globe that had large labels proclaiming “Paris” and “Peking”. I don’t know why. Life is same all over? (I also may have mis-remembered parts of this scene. Some of the French on the title cards went over my head.)

The last and longest film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City [Walther Ruttman, Germany, 1927, 65 min] was truly deserving of the “symphony” moniker.Through a day and night in Berlin, it takes its rhythm and tempo from the vibrant life of the city.

We begin again with transportation, this time trains, apparently rushing toward the city. In the city, dawn comes, literally, on little cat feet. Gradually people appear, moving like musical notes across staff paper. First, mailmen leaving the central post office for their rounds and children walking to school (boys and girls separately). Later, office workers pick up the pace, doors and windows fly open, factory machinery spins, twirls and pistons.

At noon comes the slow movement, as everyone stops for lunch, including the animals in the zoo, and then a short siesta. But work starts again and quickly reaches fever pitch in a vivace sequence with the new-fangled communication tools, typewriters and telephones, frantically spinning around the screen.

This city is also much more crowded and competitive than the previous two. People shove one another on the street, dogs on leashes brawl. But late in the afternoon the shops start to close and leisure activities take over. Outdoor sports — swimming, boating. Dinner. Dancing. (This is getting long, I’ll adopt Ruthmann’s staccato impressionism.)

Nightlife, rather more vaudeville than cabaret. Showgirls, kick lines, a juggler in a tux, a comedy trapeze act, bicycle choreography. Nothing, though, as louche as one might find in Isherwood’s “I Am A Camera”. Then, oddly, we turn to indoor sports. Ice skating, skiing (yes, indoors!), hockey, boxing. Then various bars. A celebration that looks suspiciously like New Year’s Eve. Fireworks for the big finish.

Although each film spans a single day, they weren’t made by someone walking around for twenty-four hours with a handicam. Assembling footage for Berlin took 18 months, and for Regen, two years.

Arguably the best thing about a HFA silent movie screening is the live piano accompaniment. Yakov Gubanov played for two hours, vividly capturing the wide variety of moods and events, including, in the Berlin film, a brief quotation of the Wedding March as a couple entered a church and some syncopated boogie-woogie early in the nightlife sequence.

I’m sorry we missed the first 7 and a half weeks of film history, but this fall the HFA hosts a Janet Gaynor retrospective! She’s not, btw, Gloria’s mother. In 1928 Gaynor won the first Oscar given for Best Actress, and is probably best known for starring in the original version of “A Star is Born”. The program includes 15 newly restored films, from the silent melodrama “The Johnstown Flood” (1926) to a screwball comedy, “The Young in Heart” (1938).

Culture! Bring it on!

The news this morning about the potential terrorist attacks in Britain was very sobering. John flew out of Heathrow airport last Saturday on his way home to Boston. I’m glad to have him here in one piece.

And here’s what he brought back.

Four Harry Potter books in Dutch (this might just kill that whole I-think-I’ll-learn-Dutch thing), a tin of the official cookies of Basel, “Basler Leckerly”, and a packet of stroopwaffels (two-thirds gone now).

A stroopwaffel is a Dutch cookie made up of two thin waffles (think pizzelle) sandwiched together with something gooey, usually caramel syrup. I discovered that you can buy stroopwaffels in bulk! Or you can make them yourself.

identity theft?


This is what happens when those pesky internet tubes get full and everything gets munged up.

The other day at lunchtime I was accidentally googling myself (oh right, like that’s never happened to you) and I came across this.

The website is

It’s in Farsi, so I have no idea what it’s about. It seems to be some sort of portal for financial scams or maybe a guide to counterfeiting. I suppose I should find out because apparently I hold the copyright!

I don’t suppose I can sue myself for copyright infringement. The site is based in Tehran (where I have never been, by the way), so I don’t expect much cooperation from the local authorities. Maybe I have my own nuclear power plant there, which would come in handy if heating fuel prices go up next winter.

a view


Apparently August 3rd was blogger beefcake day. First Franklin (scroll down), then Ray. (Ray must have had a change of heart about that much exposure. Thank god for browser cache.) I didn’t get that particular memo, so I’ll be leaving my shirt on.

In compensation, here’s the view from my office. Well, not so much office as cube, but at least it’s a Cube With A View of Cambridge and Boston. (Click for the whole panorama.)

My clever plan to learn Dutch (or as the Dutch would say — Nederlands) involves reading translations of Harry Potter. I’m on book three, but I seem to have hit a plateau. I find myself filling in the meaning of the many two-letter words by gut instinct rather than actually learning what they mean so that I could use them myself.

It is interesting to compare colloquialisms. One phrase in Dutch “o jee, nu kan ik maar beter de pijp uitgaan!” can be translated as “oh gee, I might as well put out my pipe”. But the original phrase is “right, well, I’d better pop my clogs then”, which I thought would be quite apropos in Nederlands, but I guess they take their wooden footwear very seriously.

The strangest thing to get used to are the translated character names. Harry Potter is still, of course, Harry Potter and Ron is Ron, but Hermione is Hermelien. Snape becomes Sneep but it’s pronounced the same. Sirius Black is Sirius Zwarts — a literal translation that retains the symbolism of the name.

Straying farther from the original, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is known as Albus Parcival Wolfram Bertus Perkamentus. Dudley Dursley is Dirk Duffeling. “Dirk” is rather more butch than “Dudley”, but “Dursley” vs. “Duffeling” is a wash.

It starts to sound like a witness protection program. Lavender Brown, an old-fashioned sort of name with an additional contrast between an exotic color and a prosaic one, becomes Belinda Broom, which is only prosaic and, at least for English speakers, a little too witch-kitsch. Neville Longbottom is, for no apparent reason, Marcel Lubbermans. Perhaps a literal translation would not be, er, family-friendly.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is called Zweinsteins Hogeschool voor Hekserij en Hocus-Pocus. Again this is part literal translation — hog = zwein. But hocus-pocus in English would usually be used for cheap, sham trickery. One hopes it signifies magic of a higher order in Nederlands.

Anyway, my plan may need re-thinking. How many times will I find myself needing to say “Hé, jij daar. Is dit jouw pad?”

This is a butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in our meadow, or more accurately, given current weather patterns, our swamp.

Butterfly weed

This picture is brought to you through the miracle of the internet tubes.

Sam Allis, an astute observer of the local scene, writes in his column in last Sunday’s Boston Globe about his experience trying to obtain DSL service from Verizon, a service his neighbor has but that he was told, initially, was unavailable at his house. (I’d link to it but the Globe has an annoying sign-up process fronting access to its content.)

His article reminded me of my own experience with Verizon just the week before, although my story started at least a month earlier when I received a letter stating that my one-year, reduced-rate DSL plan was about to expire and that I had to re-enroll by a certain date or I’d lose the special rate. I forgot about it, of course, until I got a second letter telling me that the deadline for reenlistment had been extended. Oh happy day! I immediately went online and renewed.

My next Verizon DSL bill was for $9, with an explanation that the amount reflected “a change in billing”. I assumed this was a retroactive application of the “special” rate.

The next bill, however, was for $95. For the two previous months. So, without considering what I was getting into, I called the Verizon “help” number. (I don’t even want to start about their automated telephony system asking for details about my account. Suffice it to say that I eventually connected with a real person — and had to give my account information all over again.)

me: I don’t see the reduced rate I signed up for on my bill.
verizon: But you’re not qualified for that rate; that’s only for the lower speed service.
me: Then why did I get all those letters telling me my special, low-rate plan had expired and that I had to renew?
verizon: [new topic] I notice that you don’t have Verizon long distance service. You can probably save money by switching to…

Aha, I see their cunning plan. They cause some minor confusion, I’m forced to call them, and they try to sell me something else. Brilliant! But I wasn’t born yesterday (or even the day before).

me: [new topic!] Can you tell me when optic DSL service will be available in my area?
verizon: No, I can’t tell you that, but you’ll know it’s coming when you see a lot of our trucks in your neighborhood because we have to upgrade the lines.
me: [ok, I have nothing]

Unfortunately, I have no other options for DSL, so I’ll be paying the $95. And watching for trucks. But I won’t be changing my long-distance supplier.

boston marriage


I’m not sure if this is the same all-female couple that graced the Public Garden pond last year, but I hope, what with the ongoing Massachusetts marriage debate, that they have been allowed to return. (That heap of sticks to the right is their nest — I guess they’re not into the whole gentrification thing.)

Swans in the Public Garden

The state Constitutional Convention adjourned Wednesday without voting on whether a constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage will appear on the ballot. The vote has been postponed until November, which may give supporters of same-gender marriage more time to line up votes or, worst-case scenario, will allow more time for opponents to distort the issue from one about basic civil rights to something about God’s divine plan, which, apparently, certain religious institutions have special access to.

More information at Mass Equality. And speaking of the tyranny of the ruling class (were we?), happy Bastille Day!

One more time


The last blog on this site expired of natural causes years ago but, encouraged by my niece’s foray into the blogosphere and my recent addiction to blogs about, of all things, knitting, I thought I’d switch blog software and try again. As anyone in the software industry knows, a change of product is the solution to any and all problems.

I don’t know what topics will prevail here — knitting, my (mis)adventures with software development under Eclipse, incredibly adorable pictures of cats (I have lots!), or miscellaneous ramblings but I’ll start with something that establishes my knitting cred. I don’t knit often. I enjoy the process but frankly don’t have much need for knitted objects. Until recently.

On the Fourth, John and I went down to Hingham to see our friends B and D The plan had been to hang around the pool but the New England anti-drought prevented that. Nevertheless, we had a tramp around their beautiful gardens and a great meal. D is starting law school soon, so this was his back-to-school gift — a Really Useful Knitted Object.

It’s almost exactly the color of one their poodles. And inside, not poodle guts, but upper-shelf rot gut! If I’d received back-to-school presents like this, junior high would have been much more tolerable.

Pattern: Simple Knits with a Twist, Erika Knight
Yarn: Rowan Handknit DK Cotton
Yardage: 3 50-gram balls and I was one pom-pom short of a poodle. Had to go back and buy another ball.
Yarn source: Woolcotts in Cambridge, MA (Eyes from Windsor Button Shop in Boston.)

This is Porter’s Cove from B and D’s deck. Unfortunately, Hingham celebrates the Fourth of July on June 30, so no fireworks when we were there.

Travel note: On the trip, the Prius averaged 48.4 miles per gallon — a little under what we have been getting on mid-distance driving.

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