Looking down the barrel of 2016, it is looking increasingly possible that we may be forced to choose between two dynastic names. If this seems like an anomaly in American history, well, maybe not so much.

In America, anyone can grow up to become president. At least, that’s what we were taught in school.

The reality is a little more complicated. It turns out that if you want the office, it really, really helps to be related to someone who has already held the office.

Even Barack Obama is 11th cousin to the Georges Bush, according to noted genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts, who has studied such things and written the book Ancestors of American Presidents.

Certainly, 11th cousin is a little too distant to be meaningful — at that distance, an amazing number of people are related to everyone. It turns out that if you carry it all back far enough, every American president except Rutherford B. Hayes is ultimately descended from Alfred the Great. But then, you might be, too. I don’t know why Hayes misses out.

But we don’t have to go that deep into genealogical minusculae to realize that having a relative in the Oval Office helps: Four presidents are father-son (Bushes and Adamses), two more are grandfather-grandson (William Henry and Benjamin Harrison). Just at that level of connectedness, that means that just under 14 percent of our chief executives are related to other chief executives. That is already statistically significant.

If you add the Roosevelts, that number jumps up to just under 20 percent. Nearly one in five of our presidents is closely related to another president.

But it doesn’t end there. James Madison was second cousin to Zachary Taylor. At the third-cousin level, Martin Van Buren claims the Roosevelts, John Adams adds Calvin Coolidge.

That raises the percentage up to just a hair under 30 percent.

Beyond that, at the fourth-cousin level, you have to include John Tyler and the Harrisons, Ulysses Grant and the Roosevelts (and Van Buren), Zachary Taylor and the Roosevelts, James Garfield and the Bushes, Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore and the Adamses, Calvin Coolidge and the Adamses, William Howard Taft and the Adamses. Everyone seems to be related to the Adamses. The presidency is in some respect an Adams Family thing.

If we count all the fourth cousins, that means that 43 percent of American presidents are related to other presidents.

Beyond fourth cousin, the connections become admittedly more tenuous, But there are other notable relationships that might be mentioned: Hoover and Richard Nixon, both nominally Quakers and distantly related, Nixon and Jimmy Carter, Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Ford is an instructive case: The simplest and folksiest of recent presidents is in some ways the best connected. He is distantly related to Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Millard Fillmore, Garfield, Hayes, Taft and Coolidge. He is also related to George W. Bush.

George W. Bush, in turn, is related to Pierce, Garfield, Hoover, Fillmore, Taft, Grant and Nixon — and, of course, George Herbert Walker Bush — not exactly the most illustrious line of presidents, and several who have been considered at the bottom of the barrel.

Admittedly, many of these more distant relationships are slender, at best. But if you count everyone down to 10th cousin among this presidential inbreeding, you come up with the astonishing figure that 61 percent of our presidents are related to other presidents.

And that doesn’t count such things as: George Washington’s half aunt married James Madison’s half first-cousin, once removed, or that Woodrow Wilson’s second wife was the great-great-great-niece of Thomas Jefferson.

So, it’s not just who you know, but who you’re related to.

stokie bach 2
He stand up on stage, his back to the audience, raises his arms, flicks a thin shaft of wood and the orchestra sounds. As he beats time, the musicians keep up. He slows his arms, they slow the music; he speeds up, they race forward.

What is the magic of a symphony conductor?

The single most-often asked question I got as a classical music critic by a non-musician is: Just what does a conductor do? Is he necessary? Could I do it?

And this is a difficult question to answer, because orchestras differ, conductors differ and the music they play varies. No single answer is quite right. conductor 3 Lenny

For instance, when a Leonard Bernstein stands up in front of the venerable Vienna Philharmonic and gives a tiny wiggle of his wrist, the music stirs, just as if the baton were a swizzle stick; if a journeyman conductor stands in front of, say, an orchestra in Muncie, Indiana, and waves his arms like a madman, the players likely puzzle what the dickens he is trying to accomplish, or worse, are forced to ignore him.

(Or her — there are finally a growing number of women maestros, or maestras).

We say the conductor “leads” the orchestra, but what that means can vary quite a bit.

conductor 11 eduardo marturetIn current times, many conductors find themselves primarily in the position of traffic cops, keeping the music running on time, slowing the aggressiveness of the brass, or encouraging the timid violas to speak up.

In past times, the podium-master was a magician, drawing from the orchestra a singular and personal reinterpretation of the score.

But, you say, aren’t the musicians professionals? Don’t they know how to play the music? And, of course, in a good orchestra, they are. If it is an “old hand” group, with a long history of playing together, the orchestra may decide they know better than the tyro conductor how that Mozart symphony should go, and then, no matter what the minimaestro signals from the stand, they ignore him and go their own way. This often improves the performance; old hands often DO know what they’re doing.james de preist

It also depends on whether the conductor is attempting a “standard model” performance, matching the so-called Platonic ideal performance that almost every classical music fan has in his head — in such cases, the orchestra can run on auto pilot quite well — or whether he is an idiosyncratic baton waver, who will be asking the musicians to rethink the warhorse, in which case, if they are a conscientious orchestra, they will attempt to follow the baton.

Some famous conductors were notorious for changing their interpretations during performance. Wilhelm Furtwangler, most notoriously, could ask them to do the opposite of what they had rehearsed. He often defended this by saying he doesn’t know what will happen in the hall, where acoustics can change with the audience, how full it is, or how much wool overcoat the crowd — and the reverberant sound — may be buried under. He also depended on momentary inspiration for his performances: This gave the Berlin Phil under his stick a presence and vitality rare in the industry: Every moment was alive with possibility, and never a routine run through.

Or Sir Thomas Beecham, who famously hated to rehearse, and would spend the time running quickly through each piece and then announce, “That sounds about right,” and then, during performance, ask them all kinds of somersaults and bounce from the podium.conductor 2

Needless to say, not everyone can get an orchestra to turn on a dime, follow the baton like a setter on a leash, and roll over the interpretive cliff with the arch of an eyebrow. The major maestros can and could do this. The itinerant guest conductor is not often in that league (make that “almost never” and then cross out the “almost”).

There are those who decry an overly demonstrative baton-waver (Bernstein used to alarm an army of critics, who found him frantic on the podium, only later to change their initial opinions of him when they discovered he could draw life-altering performances from his charges). And there are those who praise the Laconian reserve of others, believing that there is some virtue in not hamming it up.

The truth is, either approach can create great music.abbado conducting

A symphony conductor has several jobs, not all apparent to the audience.

Let’s take them one at a time.

First, the major part of his work is done in rehearsal, not in performance. While working with the musicians, the conductor lays down the outlines of what he wants in the performance, things such as how fast they should play, how loud, and when the oboe should play louder to be heard over the horns, and when the horns should tone it down, so the oboe can be heard.

They work over phrasings, over such arcane things as the bowings to be used by the string players, the amount of vibrato, or when to alter the scorings (there are times when the parts must be gently rewritten for better effect — each conductor has his own conscience on such matters, but even the score-fanatic Arturo Toscanini regularly touched up his Beethoven).

conductor 4 kentThey also decide when to take marked repeats and when to ignore them. (Failure to make such things clear can create disaster, as when Beethoven screwed up a repeat during the premiere of his Choral Fantasy and had to stop the music altogether and restart the band.)

In rehearsal, the conductor’s personality and approach can make a difference. In the past, some conductors were absolute dictators, brooking no backtalk from the galley slaves. Others were more collegial, asking in conversation with the musicians what might work best. (Sometimes the orchestra, for instance, knowing the hall better than the visiting conductor, can help him understand the idiosyncrasies of the performance space).

Nowadays, dictators are rare. Musicians unions and simple common-sense have toned town the tyrants. A conductor cannot easily get away treating his subordinates like dogs. This is better for the poor musicians, but not always better for the music.conductor 7

Second, during the actual performance, the conductor tries to keep the music running on the schedule he has set during rehearsals, and tries to keep the musicians from straying too far from the plan. He beats time with his baton and uses his free hand to give hints, such as “more vibrato, please,” or “you, up there with the trombones, a little humility, please, we’re trying to listen to the cellos.”

But there is a third job the conductor has, and it is sometimes overlooked, indeed, oftentimes derided. That is the conductor’s duty to the audience. And I mean his visual duty, not merely his sonic one.

That is, the conductor, who knows the music well, can help the unsuspecting public understand what is going on in the music. Regular concertgoers don’t need much help with Beethoven’s Fifth, but especially in less familiar music, the body language of the conductor can point the listener in the right direction. The motions of the conductor can be theatrical for the audience, not merely technical for the players.

Certainly, there is a level of puritanism rampant in the classical music world that frowns on conductorial theatrics with the same disapproving hauteur that it reserves for those neophytes who applaud between movements, or leave the hall before the encores in what is sometimes called a “standing evacuation.” But a certain amount of theater can be a great help for the audience, who are often in the process of falling into a “confused slumber” while the music is droning on, and they can wake up for those moments when the conductor is hovering mid-air like an apache helicopter.bugs bunny conducting

The magic a great conductor can create is one of those things, like charisma, that we have all experienced but can never explain. Some got it, some don’t. The pretenders are embarrassing.

There are fashions in classical music, just as there are with everything else. Currently, there is a widespread prejudice that a good conductor shouldn’t “interpret” the music, but should let the music speak for itself. This sounds nice, but it is rather like telling an actor playing Hamlet, just speak the words clearly, don’t “interpret” them. There is a reverence for the score that would do a hardshell Baptist proud speaking about holy writ.

Yet, some of the greatest recordings to come down to us demonstrate that the personal vision of the conductor can make the music, not only come alive, but provide for the audience such a profound and moving experience that they are willing to shell out the price, often dear, of a ticket for the next concert, in hopes of something equally thrilling, even life-changing.

And anyone who actually looks at a score will know, there are hundreds of details that need interpreting. A score is by necessity a rather vague document. It tells us the notes, but not the music.opening two pages

Click to enlarge

Let us take a well-known example: the first page and a half of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We can point out a few of the puzzles a conductor must deal with. Sure, he can rely on his memory of a thousand other performances, but a conductor should always start with the score, and this one has lots and lots of questions for him.

Right from the get-go, there are those four opening notes: “Dah-dah-dah-Dum.” Then repeated a step lower. opening motif

They are usually played as a triplet and a downbeat: “ONE-2-3-ONE.” But notice that the score actually begins with a rest. This is in 2/4 time and there are four eighth-note beats before the bar line. It is “(rest) 1-2-3-ONE.” Which throws the rhythm slightly off and turns it from a triplet to a pair of iambs. The first and third beats of a bar are accented; the second and fourth are recessive. The first note is on the second beat, so, the first bars go like: “I CAME to PLAY; I’m HERE to STAY.”

OK, but that creates a problem. As the symphony progresses, we hear that four note motif hundreds of times, and often so fast, piled one on the other that keeping the fine point of the rhythm is very difficult, especially for lesser orchestras. And when we hear it so often as a pattern, we tend to hear it as a triplet and downbeat.

Further, if we look deeper into the symphony, we find that the four note motif is repeated in all four movements, and in the third, it comes in a triple meter: It actually becomes ONE-2-3-ONE.scherzo

So, perhaps Beethoven always intended it to sound like three-and-one. Here is a decision that has to be made in rehearsal: The orchestra has to all agree, or at least the conductor has to decide which way he’s going to play it.

You can hear different recordings of the symphony and in some, you can hear the triplet-and-downbeat and in others you hear the pair of iambs.

The next decision you have to make concerns those two prominent fermatas (the “eyebrows”) over the second bar and the fifth bar.opening bar with fermata pointed

They indicate Beethoven want you to lengthen those notes and hold them longer than their measured length. But how long should you hold them? This will depend on how you see the rest of the symphony, or at least the rest of the movement.

Look at the first page and a half and notice how often there are rests and fermatas. This is a very odd symphony. It begins with a lot of ambiguities. Not only the issue of triplet or iamb, but what key is the damn thing in? The first four pitches are G to E-flat and F to D. There is no bass note to tell us whether we are in the key of E-flat major or in C-minor. It could be either. And with all those pauses and fermatas, we can’t initially tell whether the movement will be fast or slow.

As Professor Peter Schickele says in his sportscast of the Fifth Symphony, “I can’t tell if it’s fast or slow, because it keeps stopping.”
benjamin zander conducting vertical

This brings up a major interpretive choice the conductor has to make. Should he try to smooth things out to make a continuous movement with a propulsive sense of drive, or should he emphasize the herky-jerky stop and go? After all, Beethoven intentionally put all those stop signs along the road.

You can get an immediate idea of what your conductor thinks with how he handles those two first fermatas.
If he wants to drive the thing forward, he will barely hold the E-flat and D under the eyebrows, and keep the rhythm as propulsive as possible. Otherwise, he may tend to  hold those notes a very, very long time, breaking up any sense of forward motion.

Listen to two extremes: First, conductor Benjamin Zander, with a student orchestra plays the first movement like a bat out of hell, running through the stop signs. It is exciting and propulsive. It’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement.

Listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gXdWELSgEQ

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01Then, listen to Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1947, in the first performance the conductor was allowed to lead, after being finally cleared of Nazi leanings. The emotions, not just the thrill, are deep and profound. The world has just survived the worst war in history and the man who loved music and Beethoven above all else is finally allowed back with his beloved musicians. What a deeply moving performance, but how utterly different from Zander’s.

Listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qMwGeb6SfY

Some will say that it is Furtwangler’s emotions we are hearing, not Beethoven’s, but perhaps they need to be reminded that what we’re really talking about is emotions we all share. The audience had just been through a great conflagration. Their nerves were shot, emotions were near the surface. The performance acknowledges that: It is music for the NOW of the moment, and not a recreation of some 19th century moment. Surely this is the true purpose of the concert. If Furtwangler makes the undercurrent all the more palpable, he is truly giving us the heart of the music.conductor 9 mahler

This may seem like a lot of fuss to be made over four lousy bars of music, but they are essential to understand the music.

Now, if you look at the succeeding bars, you will see that the four-note motif gets tossed around the string section, from second violin to viola to first violin, and then repeats, as if it is piling the motif up on itself.

Taking approach No. 1, you want the motif to build into a theme, and you want the pattern to play as if it were performed by a single instrument, in a single singing line. If you take approach No. 2, you want to phrase the thing so that there is just a little hitch between violin 2, viola, and violin 1, so they can be heard as separate voices.

That phrase repeats, and then the four-note motif goes through its first metamorphosis, and becomes not three repeated notes, but in the treble, two repeated notes, and descending eighth note and then the downbeat note. It is a slide downhill. It is answered by the bass notes doing two repeats and a rising eighth note before the downbeat. Going uphill. with sine wave overlappedApproach No. 1 is to play these patterns almost as a sine-wave down-up, down-up, again as if it were a single singing voice. Approach No. 2 plays treble against bass, as if they were arguing, “I’m going downhill!” “NO! I want to go UP!” Back and forth.

Again, you accomplish this by phrasing the notes with a little hitch between the parts. That hitch is too short to be notated, and in fact, doesn’t necessarily alter the beat at all, but rather you simply hesitate a microsecond before each entry, creating a minuscule gap between the phraselets. Disintegration, not the through-line, is the guiding metaphor for this version of a performance.

You might notice in the score that underlying this sine-wave/argument the cellos and bassoons are playing an alternating C and B, which are the home note and leading tone of the key of C-minor. The conductor has to decide how prominent to make this counter-melody. Is it merely background, or is it something paying auditory attention to?

You might also notice that until this point, the double bass has had nothing to play, outside underlining the opening motif notes. Since then, they have been silent. But now, the whole orchestra lights up in a tutti cadence, and we come to a natural “joint” in the structure of the symphony, a big gesture rounding off a section of the musical argument. (You don’t need to understand this, but the cadence uses a D-major chord, technically the dominant of the dominant, to end the cadence on a G-major chord, the dominant chord of C-minor — for the first time, Beethoven has used a chord outside the key of the symphony).

But wait, as Ron Popeil might say. That cadential G-major chord includes a whole note with fermata on the first violin section, which seems to have taken it upon itself to play “outside the box,” as it were, refusing to punch out that G-major with the same brusk hit that the rest of the orchestra uses, it holds on, as if it were a misbehaving child.

violin fermata 2

Again: How long should the violins hold that fermata? Approach No. 1 says, not long, we don’t want to slow things down. Approach No. 2 says “But we’re trying to interrupt the flow as often as we can.”

While we are on that half-note G that the violins hold, a decision has to be made whether the note should be played at a constant dynamic level, and a constant intensity, or whether it should include a bit of a climax: Should they slightly increase the volume as they hold the note, or slide the bow lower on the string to change the intensity and timbre of the tone as they hold it; should they do a slight decrescendo on that note, letting it die away; should they do a slight increase and then decrease in volume or intensity, making a kind of whoooOOOOooo out of the note; and should they just end the note, or let it die away, or should they punctuate the end with a kind of plosive end, as if they ended in a “T” or “P” sound? The choice will depend on what the conductor believes the symphony is trying to accomplish.

So, with that fermata, does the conductor hold up the next series of notes a bit, or does he dive ahead as strictly as he can? Of course, the next notes are the four-note motif again, and another fermata and another stutter and hold. conductor 5 bert hulselmans

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the basic tempo. Beethoven gives us a metronome marking for the movement, where a half-note beat registers 108 on the Maelzel metronome. This is very fast, indeed. There is a  problem — or at least a question — about Beethoven’s metronome markings. They are all rather fast, compared to the way the symphonies have been traditionally performed. The HIPP (“historically informed performance practice”) crowd believes the metronome markings should be taken seriously and biblically. The traditional crowd notes that Beethoven didn’t come up with these metronome markings until late in his career — they are retrofit to the scores — and that when he came up with them, he was stone deaf. They point out that the early metronome Beethoven had may have been malfunctioning. And that if you hear music only in your head, it is likely to be heard faster than you would experience it in a working ear.

When he actually tried to perform the allegro of his Ninth Symphony at the tempo marking he originally indicated, he realized it was off by a third, and reduced it from a metronome marking of 120 to 88. We should keep that in mind when we proscribe any variations from the printed metronome numbers.

Either way, Beethoven made clear that he wanted the tempo indicated to refer to the beginning tempo only, and that he expected his musicians to alter the tempo as the music progressed to further its expressivity.

The quote: “My tempo markings are valid only for the first bars, as feeling and expression must have their own tempi,” he wrote.

Beethoven was no fan of metronomic performance.

And, how can you have a meaningful metronome marking when the music keeps stopping and notes are asked to be held against the prevailing metronome beat?

A lot of decision have to be made even in this first page and a half. Many of them have to be hashed out in rehearsal, so the orchestra is on the same page with the conductor.

But others can change during performance. Orchestra overhead shot copy

The phrasing has to be agreed on before the performance, but things like how long to hold the fermatas may change during performance depending on many factors.

You know in theater, how the audience can affect the actors’ performance. A good audience brings out a better performance; a bad audience can turn the actors into automatons or can make them exaggerate their performances to try to force a reaction from a recalcitrant audience.

The same in music, and the conductor may alter his tempo, the length of holds and rests, in order to underline some interpretive detail that he believes the audience is not paying attention to, or conversely, is so in tune with the music, that he can risk some interpretive byways he would not attempt with a less attentive group.conductor 14 muslim

Or, it could be the occasion: Some national figure has just been assassinated, or some city has been bombed: the ritual significance of the music may make for a deliberately more emotional performance.

Furtwangler recorded the Fifth at least 12 times over the course of his career, from 1926 to 1954, and anyone who cares about the music deeply wants to have as many as possible, because they are each different. There’s one from before the war, during the war, the one just after the war when the conductor was first freed to perform again, and then recordings from the 1950s, in better sound, but as the conductor was aging. In 1943 in Berlin, the war was in everyones’ hearts and minds, and Furtwangler brings greater intensity to the music, with longer fermatas and more intense phrasing. Other recordings he made at different times are quite different. The particular way he plays the music was most likely spur of the moment, created during performance and not in rehearsal, as he asked the orchestra to “feel” along with him what he was attempting to do.

I hope I haven’t bored you with too much detail, or patronized you by saying things you already know quite well. I just want to help you enjoy classical music as much as I do. I cannot imagine life without it: As Nietzsche said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

shatley meal
If Mr. Yelverton had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone used the more formal address.

George YelvertonHe ran a barbecue restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., and I knew him in the early 1970s. To call it a restaurant is an exaggeration: It was a hole-in-the-wall behind the main line of storefronts along the city’s main street. Butted up against the brick back walls of department stores and banks, Yelverton’s Barbecue faced only a parking lot.

Mr. Yelverton was thin, wiry, with high cheekbones and short silver hair and with the reserved demeanor of a gentleman. He made pork barbecue in the eastern North Carolina style.barbecue 2

Most people who know anything about barbecue know that the nation is subdivided by regional chauvinisms. There is Kansas City barbecue and Texas barbecue. Even North Carolina is split between Halifax style — eastern North Carolina style — and Lexington style.

It was a time of rapid change in the South, and change in Southern cooking as well. Many local barbecue establishments had changed their method of making hush puppies, using a new device that extruded corn batter into the hot grease like a carnival funnel cake. Mr. Yelverton didn’t approve.

“I never saw the advantage of doing things faster and easier,” I remember him saying one day. He showed me his technique.

“You mix up your cornmeal with water,” he said, making a stiff, granular dough rather than a batter. “Then you take a dollop of it up in a serving spoon.” He had a large, steel-handled spoon about 15 inches long. “Then you use the back of a tablespoon to whip off bits into the grease.”

Each serving spoon was subdivided into four or five hush puppies, each cut away from the gob with a flick of his wrist on the convexity of the tablespoon, leaving a perfect hush puppy, shaped like a lemon wedge, with ridges. They turned a beautiful, aromatic coppery color and were absolute heaven when you bit into them hot.

hushpuppies 3Recently, my wife and I were back in North Carolina and, though Yelverton has long gone, we stopped at a barbecue joint in Shelby. The hush puppies had changed: Not only were they plopped into the grease via the ubiquitous extruder, making little round cigar shapes (I’m being polite), but they were made with added onion and sugar.

“That’s not a real hush puppy,” my wife said. She can be very strict when it comes to the right way to do things, and hush puppies with sweetener counts for her not simply as a variant, but as a perversion.

“Hush puppies don’t have sugar in them,” she stated categorically.

My wife is typical of many Southerners: certain the way she grew up was the “right” way. It fuels many a heated discussion. You get obstinate opinions about whether to soak country ham, about whether Brunswick stew requires squirrel meat, about the best apple to fry.

“I like June apples,” my wife says. “My great-grandmother said they were the best.”

Her great-grandmother was a genuine Civil War widow and had the bona fides.

If there is one thing that defines Southern food, it must be the soil, the terroir, the sandy podzols of eastern North Carolina or the black loam of the Mississippi Delta. You can see it in the flesh of catfish made pink by the red-clay river bottoms.

Like patriotism, food preference grows from the land where you grew up and the people who raised you. It is what you know and what you are comfortable with.

Southern food is divided by region, by class, by race. The food of Louisiana is sui generis. The menus of South Carolina plantations were more upscale than on the small farm holdings in Piedmont North Carolina or Virginia. The hardscrabble diet of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something else again.

Yet, there is a certain overlap. Soul food and Southern cooking emphasize different aspects of the cuisine but share more than they don’t. Cooked greens, side meat, cornbread — these are the common denominators.

The original of both was humble — pronounced “umble” without the “h.” It was food grown on family farms, from hogs slaughtered on a frosty morn and made into sausage and head cheese.

greenfields mealThere is nothing fancy about it. I remember once a friend visited from New York, where he was an investment lawyer. We took him to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, N.C., where they serve family-style meals with piles of fried chicken, country ham, boiled greens, scraped corn, hot biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy so thick a knife can stand upright in it, served with little dishes of corn relish and pickled beets and washed down with sweet tea.

“I loved it,” he said later. “Especially the chicken sauce.” Chicken sauce! We all laughed good over that one.sally lunn bread

There is an upscale Southern cooking. It comes from plantations and includes such things as peanut soup and Sally Lunn bread and Lane cake.

But for me, the best is the down-and-dirty recipes that came through grandmothers and aunts. Foods so primal there aren’t even recipes for them, like the dog bread I came to love — a form of cornbread so basic its ingredients might as well be earth, wind and fire. I first ate it in Halifax County, among the cotton fields and abandoned tractors, pickup trucks and windbreaks of oak trees. I asked how to make it.

“First, you mix up a mess of cornmeal,” she said. No half-cup of this, or 6 ounces of that. Just mix up a mess.

That’s white stone-ground cornmeal, if you are brave enough to try this, with salt and enough water to make a thick batter or thin dough.

In a black-iron fry pan, you melt some bacon grease or the renderings from streak-o’-fat-streak-o’-lean and heat it up till it sputters at you. Dump in the cornmeal and stick it in the oven till it’s done. Can’t tell you how long. It depends.

When it comes out, it is heavy as a transuranium element, with a thick, dark undercrust that makes it all worthwhile.

Cut it into wedges and use it to soak up your “pot likker” or your sop.

THE SEVEN KEYS

There are seven defining ingredients in Southern cooking. From Virginia through Alabama and out towards eastern Texas, these are the comestibles essential for your pantry. hog snout

Pigmeat

The hog is Providence’s gift to the Southern belly. Pork is central to so much that defines the cuisine, from barbecue to country ham to the many varieties of bacon — side meat, fatback, not to mention bacon grease. Nothing seasons pintos like ham hocks. “The hog seasons everything that isn’t him,” said one Southern cook. Pigmeat also defines the McCoy-Hatfield divisions between those who soak their ham before cooking and eating it and those who cherish the crust of salt that develops as they fry their slice of unsoaked country ham in a black-iron frying pan. Special mention should be made of liver mush, which is to North Carolina what scrapple is to Philadelphia.fried chicken

Fried chicken

There is almost no controversy over fried chicken. It defines White Southerners and Black Southerners, upper-crust and redneck. Fried chicken, slowly cooked in a black-iron frying pan till it’s brown and crusty on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside, is the very badge of Southern regional pride.biscuits

Hot breads

You don’t find a lot of yeast breads, but baking-powder breads are all over. Biscuit dough can be baked into biscuits, buttered, covered in jam or jelly with dinner, or split in two and slathered with gravy for breakfast. It can also be dropped into boiling stock with cooked chicken to make dumplings. On the other side, cornbread can be baked in a sizzling-hot frying pan or in a black-iron form to make cornpone, or dropped into hot fat to make hush puppies, or, what may be the best, cornbread cakes, which are cornmeal pancakes, buttered and served in a stack with your pintos. You can’t beat a meal of fried fish, caught yourself, with new potatoes and scallions, eaten with a helping of cornbread crumbled into buttermilk.collards

Greens

The recipe reads, “Cook up a mess of greens.” This means you take a pile of collards or mustard greens, turnip greens, young pokeweed, or peppery “creasy greens” — which is wild watercress, “the caviar of Southern greens,” one woman called them — and cook them down with some fatback or bacon until they are a fraction of their precooked volume. You serve them with vinegar, and don’t forget to sop up some of the “pot likker” with your cornbread.leather britches

Field peas and beans

The number of varieties of Southern pulse is immense — field peas, Crowder peas, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans — and whether dried or fresh, makes a daily contribution to the plate. A variety of green beans, dried on a string on your front porch, is called “leather breeches” (or britches) and when reconstituted in a pot of water with seasoning meat, develops a deep flavor almost beeflike in character.biscuits and gravy

Gravy

In France, they say, “La sauce c’est tout,” the sauce is everything. In North Carolina, they say, “Could I have some more gravy on them biscuits.” A Southern gravy is sometimes so thick you might be forgiven for thinking it is mortar for bricks. Gravy comes in many forms: sawmill gravy, red-eye gravy, chicken gravy, chocolate gravy.peach pie 2

Pie

Finally, you can barely survive in the South without pie or its kissin’ cousin, cobbler. Sometimes, lunch is just a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Southern food isn’t always the most heart-healthy, for sure, but as one Southerner put it, “Is there a better way to commit suicide than pie?”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.

 
 
 
 
 

delacroixPro patria mori,” said Stuart.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. I’m not sure I ever understood that.  I remember traveling through France and in every town, usually near the oldest church, there would be a monument with the names of those who died in the First World War, and always the phrase, ‘pour la gloire de la patrie.’ Routot monument textAnd I always wondered what those named on the stone would now think of that phrase. Was the gloire de la patrie worth the pain and loss? The lives truncated, the families not earned, the whole sacrifice really just a preparation for the next guerre, the next round of destruction. Stultum est pro patria mori.”

“Is it the war you despise?” I asked, “or is it the patriotism?”

“No question, the patriotism. War will always be with us; I have little hope for humankind’s redemption. I can see no way ending the habit of the strong using brute force to coerce the weaker. But patriotism is something I cannot fathom.”

“Well, we both came of age during the Vietnam war, and I think that must color what we feel, both the anti-war and anti-patriotism. I certainly felt jerked around during those years by the constant appeal to a cheap patriotism…”get a haircut

“Yes, ‘Get a haircut’ was the summum bonum of love for country…”

“You’re feeling very Latin this morning.”

“Perhaps because the Romans seem to have invented the concept. Not so much love of country, but rather a jingoistic sense of ‘Hooray for our side,’ that ‘We’re Number One.’ That we should root for the nation simply because we were born here, or decided to move here. ‘My country right or wrong.’ That always seemed to be a thoughtless idea.”

“An idea rather more of team spirit, like in high school, rather than love of country.”

“Exactly. That reminds me of how I felt when we were required to attend those pep rallies. Why am I supposed to believe my school is better than the other guy’s, or that I owe some sort of allegiance to my school rather than the school in the next town over, which was basically the identical thing, with the identical pep rally but for their team. Didn’t add up.

“There has to be a reason to assent to this tribalism, and I can seldom see it. One nation, like one high school, can be better at some things and less good at others. But school spirit or rabid patriotism demands you believe your side is always better, always right, always worthy.

“So, when I hear politicians say, ‘You don’t want to be like France, do you?’ I say, well, yes, I would love it if we were more like France. Or Norway, or a dozen other places where the standard of living is higher than in the U.S., with better health care, safer streets and happier populations. Why am I supposed to believe that the U.S. is the greatest country on earth, when we rank so low in so many categories. Pretty much the only place we are Number One is in having the biggest military.”

eagle“I see, you hate America.” I was teasing, of course.

“No, but I see a big difference between patriotism and love of country. They are not the same thing.

“I can easily see loving the place you were born; not because you were born there, but because it is the landscape and people you know, that you grew up with. You know the very weeds beside the road. It doesn’t mean you believe it is necessarily better than anyplace else, but because you simply love it.”

“The way you can argue with your spouse, or glance at pretty young women, but it in no way changes the fact you love your wife.”

“Yes, very much like marriage. You don’t have to believe your wife can write better than Virginia Woolf, or play piano better than Valentina Lisitsamadeleine albright or conduct foreign affairs better than Madeleine Albright. You don’t have to believe your wife has no flaws. You may, in fact, love her because of her flaws. It is the same with your love of country.”

“Lately, the right-wing has been upping the rhetoric on so-called American exceptionalism. They want to change the way history is taught in schools, emphasizing the special mission they see for America in the world. They complain that President Obama doesn’t love America enough. It all sounds so high-school, so puerile. After all, every country believes in its own exceptionalism. Is there any nation with more faith in its specialness than France? And Putin’s whole shtick in Russia is reasserting its special place in history. It’s like the Special Olympics: We’re all exceptional. China has its thousands of years history, Tanzania has its cradle of humanity, Great Britain has its never-setting sun, Greece — little Greece, wallowing in economic quicksand — is the birthplace of democracy. American exceptionalism is hardly exceptional.

“And these yahoo Republicans complain if we mention slavery, or the Indian wars or Jim Crow. If you love your country, it has to be warts and all; it cannot be a whitewash job.”

“Ah, but it winds up that way, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, if your love of country is summed up by flag waving.”

“But, isn’t there a problem with that formulation …”

“Probably many…”

“…in that you can love and have that kind of familiarity with a chunk of land and people — say, northern New Jersey, where I was born — but that Iowa or Utah remain as foreign as Northumberland or Brittany? In other words, what is the geographical extent of this love of country?”RE Lee

“Robert E. Lee talked about his love of country. It led him to general an army in revolt against the Union; his love extended to Virginia. He didn’t even have much feeling for Alabama or Texas. His patriotism was reserved for his home state. And I expect it was focused primarily in the northern part of the state. One wonders what he would have made of Wise or Norfolk. It isn’t imbecilic “Hooray for our side,” but a deep reverence for the land. But it is the land whose dirt you know between your knuckles when you squeeze it in spring to decide if it’s time to plant.”

“So, you are saying love of country and patriotism are two separate impulses.”

“Of course. And by extension, we have to remember that what we call a country, a nation, is a fairly recent invention. Treaty of Westphalia and all that. Before that, nationhood was defined primarily by ethnicity, unless it was co-opted by conquest and you had to pay your taxes to a foreign invader. Borders were whatever you could defend and were constantly shifting.”

“There was a neat internet animation that showed the shifting borders of Europe from Medieval times to the present; looked like squirming worms on the map. Whole countries appeared, disappeared and reappeared in another location. Poland, especially rolls around the map like mercury on a dinnerplate.”

“And so, your patriotism is a fugitive thing, dependent on the vagaries of time. But this only brings up another dragon to slay. The modern notion of nationhood is defined by lines on the world map: Here is France, here is Indonesia. But all across the world, there are people corralled inside those lines screaming to get out: Basques and Catalans in Spain, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Chechens in the Russian Federation, Russians in Ukraine, Scots from Great Britain, Quebecois from Canada, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, Uighurs in China …”

“Driving around southern France and the Camargue, I kept coming across angry graffiti demanding Occitan separatism.”

“… It is everywhere, it seems. Northern California wants to split from Southern California. So, in all this, where does your patriotic duty lie? Are you a Jerseyite, a Northerner, and Easterner, a Tri-Stater, a Yankee, an American, and English speaker, a Norwegian-descent immigrant, a world citizen, what?”

“You can be all those things, can’t you? Can’t you like Jersey pizza and Chicago pizza, too?”

“And what happens when one allegiance conflicts with another? That is certainly what many Southerners faced in 1861. Heck, many still face it. How many times have you heard the extreme right say, ‘I love my country but I hate my government’? Is your love of country based on the dirt you stand on or the government you pay taxes to? Is it all amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesty? Because, you know Russia has those, too.”Russian wheat

Russian wheat

“You have made a dichotomy, but really, I see a three-way split. One can feel allegiance to the nation, as defined by arbitrary borders, or to the land you grew up in and know like the breath you breathe, or, thirdly, to the people you know and feel comfortable with. And this third may be the most human, and the most dangerous. When the national borders break down and you swear upon the sword of ethnicity, you get the former Yugoslavia, or the genocide in Rwanda.”

“All of which is why I find the very notion of patriotism toxic,” Stuart said. “A curse on both your houses.”

“Or all three.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Linville Falls
It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.Linville Falls 03

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.Linville upper falls

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.Linville Falls from above

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.Linville trillium

It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.

In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In just those few years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

 
 
 
 
 

rules of the game 5In Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, “The Rules of the Game,” one character sums up the problems of existence: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

The film, which tops many lists as the greatest film ever made, has no heroes, no villains; it has no right, no wrong; no simple lessons to be learned, no closure. It is as French as it gets, and despite Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, it could never be made in America.

On the other hand, the 1980 “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” has plenty of heroes and villains: It’s the quintessential American film; it could never have been made in France. “Horizontal boosters. Alluvial dampers? Ow! That’s not it, bring me the hydrospanner.” empire strikes back 1

Jamais!

The difference is more than merely language; it’s sensibility. Both excellent films, they sum up the divide between European cinema and Hollywood movies, a divide filled by more than the Atlantic Ocean.

One doesn’t have to take sides. There are great films from both sides of the pond. But it is important to realize when you go into the theater that there is a difference and which kind of film you’re about to see. If you’re looking for an amusement-park ride, European cinema probably will bore you to tears; if you want intense drama about the human condition, Hollywood films will feel trivial. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

This is not to dismiss American films. First of all, they remain the most popular films worldwide. Many countries, including France, have felt the need to restrict the percentage of American films available to their citizens, to subsidize the local product. Steven Spielberg would always sell more tickets than Jacques Rivette. It doesn’t matter where you go, American films remain popular.

Second, American films remain the major influence on world cinema: The tics of Hollywood become the universal style of everyone else, too. There are the editing rhythms, the lenses and equipment, the green-screen technology, the CGI — these are all the lingua franca of movies everywhere. Even a quiet film like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s popular “Amelie” would not be possible without computer assistance: Most of its signature color was digitally added.

One should not forget that the inspiration for the French New Wave in the 1960s were the Hollywood films the movement loved. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is his take on American films, with their gangsters and girlfriends.breathless 2

We in the U.S. now are exposed to more foreign films than ever before. There are Hong Kong martial-arts films, Bollywood films, the emerging films of China and Korea, not to mention those from Iran, Israel and the Arab world.

All that is in addition to the many French, German, Italian and British films that traditionally have constituted the world of foreign films.

They’re not only in theaters but frequently available on cable channels, on DVD and from Netflix. Even Turner Classics has its percentage of foreign-language films.

It’s nearly impossible for the curious filmgoer to remain provincial in the comparative flood of world cinema.

It is true there are American indie films, but even those, no matter how gritty they are, tend to follow an American world view.

Americans see the world differently, so their films portray the world differently. We prize directness and informality; we despise hypocrisy and airs; we look for answers, not questions. We are fundamentally optimistic.

It is partly a matter of history. Because we have seldom suffered the devastation of war on our homeland, we have a different relationship with the past. Europe is haunted by history; for Americans, history is largely a matter of colorful costumes.paul schrader

The American writer and director with the most European sensibility is Paul Schrader, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and he puts it simply:

“American movies are based on the assumption that life presents you with problems, while European films are based on the conviction that life confronts you with dilemmas — and while problems are something you solve, dilemmas cannot be solved; they’re merely probed.”

The American sensibility demands we open the box to find out if the cat is dead or alive.

For American audiences, an unsolved story is profoundly unsatisfying. We demand closure.

It’s the Oprah in us.

 
 
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