Monday, 22 September 2014

MOVIE MONDAY - VOYAGE TO CYTHERA

“I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” - Andy Warhol

We watched two Greek films at the weekend. One much fêted and critically acclaimed “art cinema” film that we detested with a vengeance, and one lesser known film that we enjoyed considerably and recommend most highly. Cinema is an art that has many facets and while one may view it as “high art” capable of expressing subtle nuances of emotion and thought, it also has an entertainment value, and above all one would desire to be able to watch films with interest and engagement – no matter what the purpose behind their making is. I’ll review the rotten egg this week and review the movie we liked next week…

Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos (Greek: Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος; 27 April 1935 – 24 January 2012) was a Greek filmmaker, screenwriter and film producer. He is an acclaimed and multi-awarded film director who dominated the Greek art film industry from 1975 on. Angelopoulos is one of the most influential and widely respected filmmakers in the world. He started making films in 1967 and in the 1970s especially made several movies with a strong political message. He later chose to make films full of subtle emotional content, characterised by slightest movement, slightest change in distance, long takes, and complicated but carefully composed scenes. At the best of times, this type of film can be seen as offering a hypnotic, sweeping, and profoundly emotional cinema; at the worst it may be described as soporific, boring, unengaging.

We watched his “Voyage to Cythera” of 1984, starring Manos Katrakis, Mairi Hronopoulou, Giulio Brogi and Dionysis Papagiannopoulos. This is about a film director who is searching for the right actor to cast in his movie (to play his father, perhaps – is the director making an autobiographical film? Who knows?). Suddenly an old man who is the director’s father (or maybe not) a political revolutionary and ex-patriot returns home after decades of exile in the Ukraine to reclaim his place in Greek society and family. But he is unwilling to sell his land to make way for a giant new construction project, making him hated amongst his neighbours who are anxious to get cash for their rocky soil. He feels alienated from his family and decides to go and live in a hotel rather than the family home. Before long, the man is found to no longer have standing as a Greek citizen, and his placed on a raft off shore while the authorities decide what to do with him.

The film is painfully slow and exasperatingly obscure (although it is said to be one of Angelopoulos’ most accessible films). I do not consider myself a Philistine nor stupid, however, this film (that we sat through till the bitter end two hours later) frustrated and annoyed us. Other directors have made films about similar topics that were uncomfortable, challenging, emotionally draining, but for goodness sake they were engaging and made the viewer desperately want to watch the next scene. Angelopoulos repels the viewers and throws them is a sticky mess of soft, yielding mud. Sure enough there are some “beautiful” shots, but we cannot watch them for minutes on end – that is what photography is for. A movie is meant to capture movement and action. Waiting for someone to say something that is enlightening and propel the plot forward is painful for viewers of this movie. The plot does not march forward it is dragged forward unwillingly by a snail.

After a few minutes of watching this (in fact at about half an hour into the movie) we considered stopping watching it. We did not care what was going to happen to the characters and the film seemed to have little plot or character development. This was confirmed as we kept watching, albeit painfully… We decided to watch till the end as the film was a famous and critically acclaimed one. At the end we decided that we were savages and devoid of any art appreciation skills and pronounced the film a dud. Or maybe we decided to say that the emperor had no clothes on

One of the few redeeming features of the film was the music by Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou (born 1941). Her first Soundtrack album was released in 1979 for the movie “Periplanissi” by Chistoforos Christofis. In 1982 she won the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and was noticed by Theo Angelopoulos, the president of the committee. They collaborated in the last eight films of the Greek director from 1984 to 2008. Karaindrou is very prolific. Until 2008 she had composed music for 18 full-length movies, 35 theatrical productions and 11 Serials and Television films. She has also worked with Chris Marker, Jules Dassin and Margarethe von Trotta. A musician of extraordinary sensibility, she received in 1992 the Premio Fellini by Europa cinema.

This is the fourth Angelopoulos film I have watched, and unfortunately it is the fourth film of his I have disliked. Watch it at your peril, considering what the critics have said who have raved about this movie (at the time of writing this IMDB rated the film at 7.9/10) and what I have written. I rate it at 4/10…

Sunday, 21 September 2014

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PEACE, 2014


“Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.” - Dalai Lama

Each year the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on September 21. The United Nations General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. To live in peace is a universal need and the right of all people, a responsibility for world leaders. All people the world over want it desperately, but it is ever-elusive universally, and only attainable for short periods of time in history and in limited geographic areas.

Aristophanes (born ca. 450 BC; died ca. 388 BC) is the greatest representative of ancient Greek comedy and the one whose works have been preserved in greatest number. His plays are a mixture of chorus, mime, outrageous satire, lewd humour, with a good peppering of political criticism. Aristophanes’ reputation has stood the test of time; his plays have been frequently produced on the contemporary world stages in numerous translations, which manage with varying degrees of success to convey the flavour of Aristophanes’ puns, witticisms, and topical allusions. But it is not so easy to say why his comedies still appeal to an audience almost 2,500 years after they were written, although there is a universality and timelessness in the topics he deals with.

In the matter of plot construction Aristophanes’ comedies are often loosely put together, and are full of strangely inconsequential episodes. Many of them often degenerate at their end into a series of disconnected and boisterous romps. Aristophanes’ greatness lies in the wittiness of his dialogue; in his generally good-humoured (though occasionally catty satire); in the brilliance of his parody, especially when he mocks the controversial tragedian Euripides. Aristophanes has ingenuity, inventiveness and brilliant absurdity, in his comic scenes, which are created with the most imaginative fantasy. Some of his choric songs are amazingly lyrical word pictures whose freshness can still be conveyed in languages other than Greek. As far as modern audiences of our permissive age are concerned, he is also popular because of the licentious frankness of many scenes and of the scatological allusions in his comedies.

“Peace” (Εἰρήνη - Eiréne - 421 BC) is a play that was first staged seven months or so after both Cleon and Brasidas, the two main champions of the war policy on the Athenian and Spartan sides respectively, had been killed in battle. This occurred only a few weeks before the ratification of the Peace of Nicias (around March 421 BC), which suspended hostilities between Athens and Sparta for six uneasy years. In Aristophanes’ “Peace” the war-weary farmer Trygaeus (“Vintager”) flies to heaven on a monstrous dung beetle to find the lost goddess Peace, only to discover that Ares, the God of War has buried Peace in a pit. With the help of a chorus of farmers Trygaeus rescues her, and the play ends with a joyful celebration of marriage and fertility.

The play although boisterous and full of wit and humour is a wry observation on the times of Aristophanes when the Greek city states were forever fighting amongst themselves for supremacy. The choice of Trygaeus and his farmer friends as the rescuers of peace is a pointed allusion to the people that need peace the most and who are instrumental in the peaceful pursuits of working the land. This strikes a remarkably sensitive chord in today’s troubled times and perhaps points the way to where our hopes for earthly peace lie: With the ordinary people, the toilers, the tillers of the earth, the people aware of their environment and their fellow human beings.

The illustration today is a collage of two images: An ancient Greek bas relief from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “The girl and the doves” and one of the pictures I took last time I was in Ioannina in Greece, proving that two points in distant time across the centuries can be bridged quite spontaneously because of the unchanging humanity of though and experience. If you live in peace, be grateful and appreciative of it, for there are many who are steeped in conflict and warfare.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

MUSIC SATURDAY - DVOŘÁK’S SERENADE FOR STRINGS


“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” - Pythagoras

For Music Saturday, a wonderful offering from Antonín Dvořák. The Serenade For Strings in E major, Op.22, played by the RNCM String Ensemble. This was composed in just two weeks in May 1875. It remains one of the composer’s more popular orchestral works to this day.

1875 was a fruitful year for Dvořák, during which he wrote his Symphony No. 5, String Quintet No. 2, Piano Trio No. 1, the opera “Vanda”, and the Moravian Duets. These were happy times in his life. His marriage was young, and his first son had been born. For the first time in his life, he was being recognized as a composer and without fear of poverty. He received a generous stipend from a commission in Vienna, which allowed him to compose his Fifth Symphony and several chamber works as well as the Serenade.

The piece was premiered in Prague on 10 December 1876 by Adolf Čech and the combined orchestras of the Czech and German theatres. It was published in 1877 in the composer’s piano duet arrangement by Emanuel Starý in Prague. The score was printed two years later by Bote and Bock, Berlin.

Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings consists of five movements:
Moderato
Tempo di Valse
Scherzo: Vivace
Larghetto
Finale: Allegro vivace

With the exception of the Finale, which is in modified sonata form, each movement follows a rough A-B-A form. It is believed that Dvořák took up this small orchestral genre because it was less demanding than the symphony, but allowed for the provision of pleasure and entertainment. The piece combines cantabile style (first movement), a slow waltz (second movement), humorous high spirits (third movement), lyrical beauty (fourth movement) and exuberance (fifth movement).

Friday, 19 September 2014

FOOD FRIDAY - TRIFLE


“Scotland should be nothing less than equal with all the other nations of the world.” - Sean Connery

Well, it seems that the will of the Scots is to stick together with the United Kingdom for just a little longer. By 55% to 45%, a majority of voters rejected the possibility of Scotland breaking away and becoming an independent nation. UK Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed Scotland’s decision in a televised statement outside 10 Downing Street, saying it was a clear result. Here is a dessert to celebrate the intactness of the Union Jack, at least for a little while longer…

BRITISH TRIFLE
Ingredients
1 sponge cake (25 cm diameter), cut in cubes
1 and 1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam
200 g fresh raspberries
200 g fresh strawberries
300 mL + 300 mL fluid ounces whipping cream
3 egg yolks
4 tablespoons white sugar
100 g sliced almonds (optional)
Blueberries, strawberries to decorate

Method
Heat 300 mL cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat. While the cream is heating, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale yellow and smooth. Strain yolk mixture into a clean bowl. Pour hot cream into egg yolks and stir vigorously. Return mixture to pan over low heat and cook, stirring, until thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Place almonds on a baking sheet and toast, in a 150˚C oven or toaster oven, stirring frequently, until golden, 2 to 10 minutes. Allow to cool.
While custard is cooling, whip the other 300 mL of cream until soft peaks form.
Spread a little jam on each piece of cake.
Assemble the dessert in a large glass bowl by layering cooled custard, cake, berries, cream and so on.
Top with whipped cream and toasted almonds (if desired), decorating with berries.
Chill 2 hours before serving.

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Thursday, 18 September 2014

GREEN TEA

“There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have always liked drinking tea, especially so in the afternoons and evenings. Lately I have been enjoying increasingly the delights of green tea. Its delicate flavour and limpid, light green colour are delightful and refreshing not only for the taste buds but also for the eyes. As William Gladstone once remarked:


“If you are cold, tea will warm you.

If you are too heated, tea will cool you.
If you are too depressed, tea will cheer you.
If you are too exhausted, tea will calm you!”

Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world today, second only to water. The story of tea traditionally starts in China, at about 2700 B.C.  It is recorded that the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who was a scholar and talented herbalist was travelling with his retinue in the provinces. He was sipping a cup of hot water under a wild tea tree. As he sat in its shade, some leaves floated into his cup from above. He was fascinated by the colour of the tea-tinged water and the graceful shape of the leaves, and in a flash of inspiration sipped the infusion. He was delighted with the flavour and this thereafter ensured that the tea plant was harvested widely.


Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture reaching into every aspect of the society. In 206 B.C. during the Han Dynasty it was ruled that the Chinese character for tea should be pronounced Ch’a not Tu. In 800 A.D. Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book on tea, the Ch’a Ching. From the earliest of times, the health benefits of tea drinking were expounded and this attitude is still prevalent in traditional Chinese medicine.


Scientific research in both Asia and the west is nowadays providing hard evidence for the health benefits long associated with drinking green tea. For example, in 1994 the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the results of an epidemiological study indicating that drinking green tea reduced the risk of oesophageal cancer in Chinese men and women by nearly sixty percent. University of Purdue researchers recently concluded that a compound in green tea inhibits the growth of cancer cells. There is also research indicating that drinking green tea lowers total cholesterol levels, as well as improving the ratio of good (HDL) cholesterol to bad (LDL) cholesterol. There is also evidence that green tea is helpful in losing weight and also in fighting infections.


The benefits of green tea are related to it being rich in polyphenols, which are powerful anti-oxidants. Links are being made between the effects of drinking green tea and the “French Paradox”. For years, researchers were puzzled by the fact that, despite consuming a diet rich in fat, the French have a lower incidence of heart disease than other Westerners. The answer was in the high consumption of red wine, which contains polyphenols that limit the negative effects of smoking and a fatty diet. In a 1997 study, researchers from the University of Kansas determined that green tea polyphenols are twice as powerful as red wine polyphenols, which may explain why the rate of heart disease among Japanese men is quite low, even though approximately seventy-five percent are smokers.


But what sets apart green tea from other teas? Green, oolong, and black teas all come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Green tea is processed differently to other teas. Green tea leaves are steamed, which prevents the polyphenols from being destroyed. By contrast, black and oolong tea leaves are made from fermented leaves, which results in the polyphenols being converted into other compounds that are not nearly as effective in preventing and fighting various diseases.


Now, how much should one drink to have all of these benefits? Apparently the more you can drink per day, the better it is for you. A Japanese report states that men who drank ten cups of green tea per day stayed cancer-free for three years longer than men who drank less than three cups a day. However, a University of California study on the cancer-preventative qualities of green tea concluded that you could probably attain the desired level of polyphenols by drinking merely two cups per day. Given all the evidence, I think that drinking four to five cups of green tea daily should give you enough benefits.


Brewing a Good Cup of Green Tea
It’s particularly important not to overbrew green tea as the polyphenols and other compounds are altered chemically and this can make the tea distasteful. Use one tea bag (or 2 - 4 grams of loose leaf tea) per cup.

Boil a kettle of water and allow it to stand for up to 3 minutes. Then, pour the still hot (but not boiling!) water over the tea, and allow it to brew for up to 3 minutes. If using a tea bag, remove the bag. Allow the tea to cool for three more minutes. Traditionally of course, tea is drunk unsweetened. However, some honey can be used to sweeten it for those people who cannot drink it unless it is sweetened.


Various flavourings may be added to the tea during the brewing process: Jasmine flowers, ginger slivers, mandarin or orange peel.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

POETRY JAM - HARVEST TIME

“Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, the more intense that yearning.” - Johan Huizinga

This week, Poetry Jam has the theme of “Harvest Time”. This is to coincide with the Northern Hemisphere season of Autumn, which begins with the autumnal equinox on September 23, 2014. My contribution looks at the topic figuratively rather than literally…


Autumn Harvest


The days are pale, and their shortening foretells a rapid death.

Cool winds forebode wintry chills,
While gathering rain clouds signal the end of a sultry summer –
The harvest of sorrow watered with tears is awaiting to be gathered.
The seeds of bitter pain ripen
And fruit of misery hang heavy on the vines of woe.
The sickle of unrelenting duty is sharpened
Ready to slice through dry and twisted grasses of desolation.

How hope has been deluded,

How every expectation hollow has become,
How dreams of rich harvests have turned to nightmares.
The seasons of joy have passed us by, unnoticed
And now that the winter of misery approaches
How can we not be cut to shreds
By its ice-cold sharpened claws?

I gather my melancholy harvest of despair

Pick fruit of poison, collect each seed of pain
Knowing that in the winter solitude that I must face alone
Such as my harvest is, it will feed my shattered life
Helping me to evade death, if only to await
For new sprouts of dejection in the next phantom spring.

The image above is “Autumn melancholy day” by_mckatalyn

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA: 4 BOOKS & A FILM


"We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate." – Henry Miller

Occasionally on Tuesdays I review some books I’ve read. Today, I give you two novels (and two more books!) about Hypatia of Alexandria. Who was Hypatia? By all accounts she was stunningly beautiful, dazzlingly brilliant, yet always modest and kind, living in an age when women were mere chattels. She is history’s first female mathematician, as well as the first female astronomer, inventor, and natural philosopher. As the daughter of the last head professor of the Museum of Alexandria, she practically grew up in the Great Alexandrian Library, where all the world’s knowledge was kept, for in addition to being a child prodigy, she was a voracious reader. A little more about her life, before I review two novels that I have read, which are based on her life.

Hypatia of Alexandria (about 370 – 415 AD) was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria who was a teacher of mathematics at the Museum of Alexandria, Egypt. The famous museum was a centre of Greek intellectual and cultural life, and it included many independent schools and the great library of Alexandria. Hypatia studied with her father, and with many others including Plutarch the Younger. She herself taught at the school of philosophy, whose slant was Neoplatonist. She became the salaried director of this school in 400 AD. She probably wrote on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, including about the motions of the planets, about number theory and about conic sections.

Hypatia corresponded with and hosted scholars from others cities. Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais, was one of her correspondents and he visited her frequently. Hypatia was a popular lecturer, drawing students from many parts of the empire. From the little historical information about Hypatia that survives, it appears that she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer and the hydroscope, with Synesius of Greece, who was her student and later colleague.

Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, like Hypatia, was a pagan (non-Christian). Orestes was an adversary of the new Christian bishop, Cyril (later canonised). Orestes, according to the contemporary accounts, objected to Cyril expelling the Jews from the city, and was murdered by Christian monks for his opposition. Cyril was also opposed to Hypatia due to the following reasons: She represented heretical teachings, including experimental science and pagan religion. She was an associate of Orestes. And she was a woman who didn’t know her place. Cyril’s preaching against Hypatia is said to have been what incited a mob led by fanatical Christian monks in 415 to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, tore her clothes off, killed her, stripped the flesh from her bones, scattered some body parts through the streets, and burned some remaining parts of her body in the library of Caesareum.

Hypatia’s students fled to Athens, where the study of mathematics flourished after that. The Neoplatonic school she headed continued in Alexandria until the Arabs invaded in 642 AD. When the library of Alexandria was burned by the Arab conquerors, books were used as fuel for baths, and the works of Hypatia were also destroyed. We know her writings today through the works of others who quoted her (even if unfavourably) and through a few letters written to her by contemporaries.

Charles Kingsley has written a novel based on the life of Hypatia, simply called ‘Hypatia’ (1853). This novel is set in fifth century Alexandria and portrays decadent Romans, effete Roman Catholics, sophisticated pagan philosophers and vital Germanic warriors struggling for mastery as the world around them collapses. By setting the novel in the 5th century he was able to attack 19th century attitudes, which he believed were rending the fabric of English life. Kingsley was criticising through his novel what he considered to be destructive ‘high-church’ tendencies in Victorian England. Kingsley’s novel is typically Victorian, but nevertheless replete with atmosphere, accurate in detail and with great characterisation. It reminded me somewhat of Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ in style.

The second novel is by Brian Trent and is titled: ‘Remembering Hypatia’ (2005). This is essentially a historical novel about Hypatia, in the tradition of historical fictional epics. Obviously, Trent has studied Kingsley’s novel and uses some of the details of the earlier work in his novel, but Trent’s version is more likely to appeal to the modern reader, in that his style is more engaging in terms of writing and plot development. The web page for this novel includes a preview of the prologue and first chapter.

I would recommend either of these books to you if you wish to learn about this great human being whose murder by a fanatical mob can be taken to be a presage of the dark ages that followed in the West, where the quest for knowledge, active scientific enquiry, philosophical thinking and rationalism were suppressed by superstition and fanaticism.

A third novel, also called ‘Hypatia’ by Khan Amore (2001), I have not read. However it sounds intriguing… Here is a description:
“Khan Amore’s ‘Hypatia’ defies categorisation. It is even difficult to decide which genre it might fall into. The book is fictionalised, yet it is strictly based upon fact, so that it cannot rightly be called either fiction or non-fiction, but perhaps demands a separate category: ‘faction’. The novel could be called a controversial erotic historical science-fiction adventure, although it might also be called a self-help book, humor, or a synthesis of hedonistic and humanistic philosophy. Like George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, this is not just another robots-and-laser-battles-in-space science-fiction potboiler.”

If your tastes are more inclined to the strictly historical figure of Hypatia, then the biography by Michael AB Deakin, ‘Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr’ will be more useful. On Amazon.com, SkookumPete reviews this book:
“This is a difficult book to evaluate. Deakin is a mathematician, not a classical historian, and apart from his discussion of Hypatia’s place in Alexandrian mathematics, this biography contains little that is not already to be found elsewhere, most notably in Dzielska’s study. Deakin does a reasonable job of putting Hypatia in a cultural context, but his understanding of late antiquity is superficial and admittedly garnered largely from encyclopedias. On the other hand, he has closely studied the sources for Hypatia’s life (which he includes in an appendix) and the meagre evidence for her influence on philosophy and science. His introduction to astrolabes and conic sections is of some intrinsic interest and helps illuminate the state of knowledge in the fifth century, but since we have not one shred of writing that is inarguably Hypatia’s work, the connection is rather tenuous. Nonetheless Deakin’s conclusions give a valuable new perspective on this best-known of female Hellenists: one of a teacher with a wide range of interests, if not an original thinker.

If your tastes are more inclined to the seventh art, there is a relatively recent film about Hypatia, which I have seen and can recommend. This is the 2009 film “Agora”, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac. It paints a realistic picture of Alexandria, the costumes look authentic, the performances are flawless, and the cinematography - always beautiful. Ultimately, however, what makes this film so great is the way in which it puts human beings into perspective (fundamentalists ransacking the agora are like swarming ants), and in one scene, Alexandria is viewed from high above, looking sublime and utterly insignificant all at once. The film demonstrates ably the contrasting duality of human beings:  Capable of reaching the heights of reason, while also plumbing the depths of blind unreason.