Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I fixed it! (I think.)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

For anyone as rock-knuckled and splay-fingered as I am, engine repairs are simply best left alone. Ever since causing the death of a perfectly good 1970 VW solely through an act of preventative maintenance, I’ve put my motorized vehicles in the hands of people I pay to know better.

That is, at least, until now.

Two years ago, my wife and I inherited 145 acres of Western Virginia hillside, and with them, a vintage-1960 Massey-Furguson MF-35 farm tractor.

With 30 or 40 acres of pasture-land, a tractor is a must. Miss bush-hogging one year, and your fields look messy. Miss it for two…and you've got pasture-land no more.

You’ve probably seen an MF-35 if you’ve ever driven farm country. Massey built about a zillion of them – and they build them to last – out of cast iron and thick sheet metal. There are plenty of them still around, since nothing short of a thermonuclear explosion can do them irreparable damage.

“Irreparable” is the key word, since – every 30 years or so – a part will wear out and require replacement. Require replacement, that is, by me, since the nearest tractor mechanic is two towns away…and doesn’t make house calls.

Where is a tractor dilettante to go in his distress? Online, of course!

You’ll not, I’m sure, be surprised to discover that there is a thriving – nay, flourishing – online community of MF-35 owners, collectors, restorers and amateur mechanics, a majority of which remains poised at their keyboards, ready to provide detailed advice to the likes of me, 24 hours a day.

There are downloadable manuals – 300 pages long – translated into Japanese, if one might wish. There are points and plugs…wheels and widgets in stock and shippable within a matter of days. At 40-plus years, this must constitute one of the longest running aftermarkets in the history of…well, aftermarkets.

This, to say the very least, was a surprise. But true delight still awaited.

For the first time in my appallingly effete life, I fixed a broken engine. Not once…not twice…but three times. The clutch and carburetor last year. And just last weekend, the radiator. And I threw in a new thermostat, as long as I had the thing apart. (What bliss those words!)

But for this I can’t take the credit.

For Fergie, dear Fergie, did not once confound my fumbling advances. She guided my awkward fingers to every wayward bolt and secret cotter pin with a frankness befitting a Venus in sheet metal . When the job was done, she purred as I imagined she had never purred for her previous owners.

“No words but things,” old Willie Carlos Williams said. With a waft of diesel about me, now I know what he means.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Don’t Care About The Book

A Coming (& Going)-Of-Age Film From Kelly Reichardt

Good movies are rarely made from great books.

There are the rare exceptions (think of Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita) that succeed mainly by trying to be something quite different from the books on which they’re based.

For the most part, however, filmmakers are content to abridge and abbreviate, jogging along behind the novel’s action, cameras in hand. Narrative voice is transformed into voice over – to quite different effect – in which hard-to-film subtleties of language can be slathered over by a fruity accent.

I’ve never read the short story on which Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Old Joy, is based, and now, I’m not inclined to. That’s because, in her small, lush feature, Reichardt has reversed the usual calculus, and given us an adaptation whose original could only – if perhaps unfairly – prove a disappointment.

Old Joy is a road movie, but one in which the road ends up being a closed loop. In this pocket Odyssey, two old friends cross the perilous straits between past and present, less transformed by their journey, than numbed by the passage of time.

What is remarkable about Old Joy, however, is the way it tells its tale – through silences rather than words. Reichardt’s searching camera is most expressive when focused – not on the characters who are talking – but on those who are listening. As a result, it speaks in a language unique to film, in a register too high for readers to hear.

The action itself is fairly simple: old friends Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) reunite and set off on an overnight camping trek to find Bagby’s Hot Springs – a spot both beautiful and beatific, nestled in the heavily wooded mountains outside Portland. On the way, times are caught up on, much pot is smoked (at least by Kurt), and the way, inevitably, is lost.

Forced to spend the night in a trash-strewn campsite, Mark listens, bemused, while Kurt shares his brilliantly stoned grasp of astrophysics (“the universe is a teardrop, falling through space”). But Mark’s amusement quickly turns to embarrassment when Kurt, in an almost unbearably awkward moment, tells Mark how much he desperately regrets the distance that’s grown up between them.

That distance, and the awkward feelings that accompany it, are not so easily to be dispelled. The lives of the two men have gone in quite different directions since the time they were close friends. Mark, now a prematurely harried, father-soon-to-be, senses that it’s time to leave such childish things behind, while dreading the less childish things that will replace them. Kurt, on the other hand, an aging, yet still childlike slacker, seems to have crossed that subtle but unmistakable divide between being a free spirit…and being essentially homeless.

But the beauty of their story – and in Reichardt’s telling of it – lay not in how much, but rather in how little the two men had themselves changed. It’s not we who are altered with time, Old Joy seems to say, but the world that alters around us. And like the urban landscape that gradually gives way to primeval forest, the shift can be so gradual that we don’t notice until it literally surrounds us.

By the time the friends finally reach their forest nirvana -- immersing themselves, naked, beneath the hot waters in a ritual of rebirth that’s at once mocking and loving – they already know there’s no cure for time. Like the hum of samsara that intrudes on Mark’s attempt at meditation, the world will have its way.

It is a rare treat to watch Oldham and London wordlessly express the way that discomfort turns to pity and pity to fear. And it’s an even rarer one to be given the space to watch them, as Reichardt’s camera lingers in reaction shots so lengthy and so tight that they make you long to look away.

In the end, however, it’s well worth keeping your eyes on the filmmaker’s art. With barely a false note, Old Joy offers us a snapshot of the universe in motion, and a reminder of the speed with which it turns.

But for all that, the mood of the movie is less bittersweet than worldly wise. Despite our best intentions, life teaches us that friends will grow apart and beauty will become shopworn. That is the price of living. And perhaps for Reichardt, also the seed of art.

While we are welcome to share in Kurt’s realization that “sadness is just worn-out joy,” she also seems to say that we are bound to remember that corollary in reverse – that joy, no matter how bright, is only unexplored sadness.