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castroville artichokes

It is one of the eeriest sights I have ever seen: miles and miles of dense, spiky artichokes, looking like a carpet of green sharks’ teeth on the hillsides. It seems like the kind of alien vegetation a Hollywood art director would design for a Star Trek sequel set on some lush, hostile planet where the foliage dines on people in a nice vinaigrette.

As you drive inland from Monterey, you run across the characteristic pattern of California agriculture. Instead of small, mixed-product farms, you have specialized industrial production. san juan bautista agriculture

So that the area near Castroville is all nettled with artichokes and up the road, you pass through towns claiming to be the ”mushroom capital of the world” and the strawberry capital, followed by fields of broccoli, orchards of apples and, finally, the town of Gilroy, around which grows 90 percent of the world’s garlic.

But that’s not the way farming began in the Santa Clara region.

Exactly 200 years ago, a Roman Catholic mission was built at the foot of the Gabilan Mountains, overlooking a broad flat valley. San Juan Bautista was the 15th mission built in California in a series that attempted to space them a single day’s journey apart, from San Diego to Solano, north of San Francisco. Eventually, 21 missions were built.

A portion of their original connecting ”Camino Real,” or Royal Road, is still visible near the mission, named after John the Baptist.

In May of 1797, a detachment of six Spanish soldiers arrived in the area and began construction. They built a chapel, a granary, a rectory and a guardhouse.

One month later, Father Fermin Lasuen came to the new mission from San Jose and dedicated the site.

As with other missions, its goal was to baptize local Indians and spread the word of the Church. By the year 1800, there were more than 500 Indians, from most of the 23 nearby tribes, living in the mission and farming the land around it.

Also in that year, the first major recorded earthquake hit and devastated the compound. A second church, which eventually became the largest in the series, was begun. The church of San Juan Bautista, in the small town of the same name, had a long nave and two aisles, unheard of in California when it was completed in 1812.

It is still an active parish church, although it is also a tourist attraction, with a small museum and gift shop.

The Church is advised to build on rock and not on sand, but the biblical injunction fails to make note of plate tectonics: San Juan Bautista’s nearest neighbor is the noted San Andreas Fault. As you stand near the mission’s large front doors, you can look out over the green valley behind the church and see the odd, torn ground surface, scars of grinding geology.

The mission has suffered numerous tremors. In the Big One of 1906 that most people call the San Francisco Earthquake, San Juan Bautista’s side walls collapsed. The aisles were abandoned and the central nave bricked up to make a much narrower church. It wasn’t until 1976 that the original floor plan was restored when piles of old, crumbled adobe were recycled and made into new bricks for the project. san juan bautista facade

The mission is also known by millions of moviegoers as the location for the church-tower acrophobia in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when Jimmy Stewart tries to save Kim Novak.

But there are odder episodes: One-eyed stagecoach driver Charlie Parkhurst lived in the town that grew around the mission. Charlie was born as Charlotte and picked up the masculine habits of cussing, tobacco chewing and firearms and later became — 50 years before women’s suffrage — the first female to vote in California, although the truth of the matter wasn’t known at the time. san juan bautista interior

But that can’t really be said to be the most peculiar incident in the mission’s history. That palm goes to the story of a hurdy-gurdy’s military use.

In 1828, the mission acquired an English barrel organ. That is one of those ”music box” instruments that makes music with a large rotating cylinder covered in a pattern of protruding pins. It is an impressive thing, with mock organ pipes showing on its front through Gothic wooden tracery.

One day, some hostile Tulare Indians attacked the mission, roaring into the compound. An alarm was sounded, but the place was essentially unarmed. The padre had one last desperate idea and brought out the barrel organ and began cranking.

The Indians stopped cold and began singing. And then they decided they liked the music so much, they laid down their arms and decided to stay at the mission.

accordion lady

Time, said Alfred Hitchcock, was meant to be stretched and squeezed like an accordion. Sometimes, you need to cover a lot of ground quickly; sometimes you need to slow the ticking clock to drag out the tension.

Joan Fontaine is eating dinner with her wealthy family in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and she is called to the phone. She rises slowly and anxiously and walks through a door, down an endless hall and off screen to the right, and we follow her with our eyes, a long, slow aggravating wait with suspense for the possibly distressing news the call will bring.

It’s a typical moment in a movie by the master of suspense. What happens next may be even more typical for Hitchcock. After the suspense is drained, Fontaine puts the phone down, takes two steps toward us and eases quickly back into her seat.

joan fontaine

What happened to the hallway? The door? The slow steps?

It’s the time accordion. Hitchcock was its virtuoso.

Movies and time:

One small experimental film I’ve seen takes 90 minutes to cover the events of 10 minutes. Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life apparently covers 12 billion years in its two hours.

But time, in America, is money, and we have little of it to waste: We want our rewards now. We don’t want to work for it; we don’t want to linger.

One-Hour Photo? Takes too long. Digital is instant.

Minute Rice? Who has the time? You can buy a pre-made pilaf at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Instant tea? Why, when you can buy it in a bottle?

Let’s face it: Do you actually have the time to read this story?

Or are you conference-calling on the cellphone while driving 75 mph down the freeway on your way to drop off a package at FedEx?

In America today, not only has time speeded up, but we demand it be so.

There is little patience for anything slow. Especially in our movies. Fast editing, short, punchy dialog, and lots of things blowing up, without too much exposition in between the ignitions. Fuses, thus, must be short: We cannot wait for the boom.

I remember coming out of one recent art film and overhearing a fellow audience member saying, “I just spent the last two weeks at the theater watching that movie. Maybe it was two hours that just seemed like two weeks.”

But people go to the movies for different reasons. If it’s action you want, or a good plot, Hollywood has a vast menu of tapas, quick hits. Even most Indie films — the butt of many a complaint about sluggishness in film — move like arrows through the air compared to some of filmdom’s real glaciers.

There are films – and filmmakers – who do their best to slow the viewer down, make him pause and ponder, to consider the smaller issues, or the details that normally go past us unnoticed. They are the Bruckner symphonies of the cinema.

They want to to notice what’s hanging on the walls of the bedroom, what the weather is like outside the window, what emotional color the lighting is.

Such art movies are aimed at a different audience from those usually found at the multiplex. Such films are difficult. Some are nearly unwatchable.

But they are great art nonetheless, and true classics.

Those of us who appreciate glaciers on film don’t just want to “get” the story, to move the plot along, but rather, we want to live in the world the filmmaker has created, so savor its flavors, scents and sensations. We engage with that world even as we compare it with our own to find the congruences and divagations. Some of the greatest films ever made are long, slow and trying.

Here is my list of the Top 5 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Films:

 

La belle Noiseuse

La belle Noiseuse

Number 5: La Belle Noiseuse (1991)  – Director Jacques Rivette  spends a good deal of this 4-hour  film showing us an artist drawing. He’s drawing a naked Emmanuelle Béart,  so it’s not all tough going, but we watch endless moments of pen-scrawl on paper as the fictional artist who is the film’s hero, tries to recapture his earlier genius.

The Sorrow and the Pity

The Sorrow and the Pity

No. 4: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)  – This is four hours plus  of talking heads, discussing the collaboration with the Nazi government during the Vichy years of France, and the excuses otherwise good people make for acceding to evil. By director Marcel Ophuls.

 

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

No. 3: Andrei Rublev (1969)  – Spend 3 ½ hours  in medieval Russia with Andrei Tarkovsky’s  truly glacial moodpiece about a 15th-century  monk and artist who created religious ikons.  Utterly hypnotic, it is also opaque: We don’t always know what’s going on, but it is almost mystical.

 

L'Avventura

L’Avventura

No. 2: L’Avventura (1960)  – A young woman goes missing on a rocky island in the Mediterranean in Michelangelo Antonioni’s  ur-existentialist rumination, and her lover and her friend spend the rest of the film looking for her. Hint: They never find her. One of the most beautiful films of all times, it also drives many viewers crazy with impatience.

 

And the No. 1 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Film of all time:

 

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)  – The poster child for artsy-fartsy films, Alain Resnais  notorious L’Année dernière è Marienbad  is the most self-conscious film of all time. You never know – and never find out – exactly what is happening, or if it is happening, or if it happened, or maybe it will happen. This is the supreme test of the artfilm lover. You have to check to make sure you are still breathing by the end.

 

Of course, there are lots of candidates for such a list. If we forgot your “favorite,” well, here are a bunch more of the movies that give art film a bad name. Nevertheless, they are all great films. Just not for the multiplex.

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Renais)

Heart of Glass (1976, Werner Herzog)  (He actually had the actors hypnotized for their performances)

Woman of the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

Solaris (1972, Tarkovsky)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodore Dreyer)

Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

Arabian Nights (1974, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Zabriskie Point (1970, Antonioni)

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Mallick)

The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway)  (Actually, anything by Greenaway counts. He’s the current king of the pretentious.)

 

Pillow Book

Pillow Book

You probably have your own nominees: But for this list, it only counts if you also think they are great films: Bad tedium remains bad tedium.