August 11th, 2008

State Fair 2008

On Friday, August 8, we made the second of two visits to the Wisconsin State Fair: there are really too many things to see and too many good things to eat to digest in one trip. The Friday trip included two things that we were particularly interested in: The Belgian/Percheron draft horses, and the Golden Dragon acrobats.

Draft horses, as with a number of the other animals, are at the Fair at different times. The first week, the Clydesdales are featured, and while these are inarguabley magnificent animals, we find the Belgians and Percherons more aethetically pleasing. All of them are HUGE. A four-month-old colt can be as large as an adult horse of other breeds. It's really kind of intimidating to realise that the animal is not only taller than I am at the withers (in excess of 17 hands) but all the length of the back. Nevertheless, these powerful beasts let us rule them, and it is awe-inspiring to see a young girl perched on the docile shoulders of one of them as she plaits ribbons into its mane. We watched judging of the Junior Mares Cart Class for both Percherons and Belgians, and I was pleased that after watching a couple of rounds I was able to pick out the best in class by carriage and stance.

We caught bits of other performers, but made a particular effort to catch the whole performance of the Golden Dragon Acrobats and were not disappointed. (In our opinion, this was worth the price of admission, alone.) The show was on a stage in the big exhibit hall building, which gave necessary height for the performance, and fortunately, there was not too much ambient noise. (The hall has a metal ceiling, which gives the general acoutical ambiance of a galvanized washtub. More than one musical performance in the building at one time results in cacaphony--.)

The troupe consists of a dozen or so women who gave some outstanding and new (to us) exhibitions of strength, flexibility, balancing, and juggling, some of which were truly astonishing. Imagine juggling a solid wooden card table with your feet while lying on your back, and then tossing the table (with your feet) to another person, and catching the one that has been tossed to you by a third person! Imagine lying on your back, balancing candlesticks on the soles of your feet, palms of your hands, and forehead--and then turn over onto your stomach--.

There was one aspect to the performance that bemused me. The 'star turn' was the only act presented by a man. (There were six others with the troupe who did "roadie" work and general tumbling--.) This was a classic chair balancing routine, wherein the performer ends up doing handstands twenty or so feet above the stage atop a stack of balanced chairs. It is very impressive and requires great balance and enormous strength. However, I do not think that it was as difficult as many of the acts the women did, but drew much more applause. I suppose the fact is that American audiences are more impressed with overt strength than subtle skill, and the placing of the acts shows the Chinese have figured this out--.

(Digression: I have become fond of the distinction between "easy" vs. "hard," and "simple" vs. "difficult." Easy/hard refers to the effort required; simple/difficult refers to the complexity of the task. Therefore, rolling a large rock uphill is hard, but simple. Repairing a watch is easy, but difficult. In this context, the women's juggling and balancing were very difficult, but perhaps not so hard. The man's stunt was hard, but not nearly so difficult--.)

Brideshead Revisited

On Sunday the 10th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see the new movie of "Brideshead Revisited," adapted from the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh. With most of the action set in the late 20's early 30's it is one of that generation of pre-war stories written from the post-war perspective.

The protagonist is Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), the only son of an ironically distant middle-class father (mother long dead), whom we first encounter going off to university at Oxford. Ater a very unprepossessing first encounter, he soon becomes fast friends with Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), who is both a notable member of the school's homosexual clique and the son of nobility (Lord and Lady Marchmain, played by Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson). When Sebastian takes him on a visit to the ancestral home, the magnificent Brideshead, he also discovers that the family are part of the minority Roman Catholic English nobility, and that Lady Marchmain rules the house with the kind of Papist tyranny that Elizabeth I warred against.

As portrayed in this film, mainstream British society of the time tended to view Roman Catholicism as what we would now call a "cult," and in reaction to this and centuries of religious warfare and discrimination, the Flyte family has twisted into cultic practices, a chief one being that you can't ever leave the faith--.

Although Charles resists Sebastian's wistful attempts at seduction, Charles does fall hard for Julia Flyte, Sebastian's sister. Julia frankly does not know what she wants, but by the time she decides she might want Charles, her mother has compelled her betrothal to an American (Jonathan Cake), who is a cynical fortune-hunter, but a Catholic one.

The story plays out a braid of sad tales, as Lady Marchmain's efforts to "protect" her children drive Sebastian into alcoholism and exile, immure Julia in her loveless marriage, and cause Charles to rebound into a similarly passionless marriage with a woman who mainly wants to be his artistic manager.

Uniformly nice acting by the young people leavened by veteran actors Gambon as the feckless Lord Marchmain, Greta Scacchi as his worldly mistress, and Thompson as the tyrannous Lady Marchmain.

The film has very high production values. The setting for "Brideshead" is the palatial Castle Howard in North Yorkshire ( )
which is the same venue used in the TV miniseries of 1981. Interestingly, despite the script's references to the beauty and desirabilty of the residence, the shooting lingers mostly on the collection of funeral-seeming statuary and a remarkably ugly "Holy Family" which is supposedly Lady Marchmain's favorite. This supports the film's theme, in which Brideshead is a mausoleum or suffocating place to be escaped from. The TV series did not have as dark a tone, and therefore showed off the glories of the property to better advantage.

Although there are no bad words, no violence, and minimal sex (rear nude shots of Charles and Sebastian are more comical than titillating-), the story and themes are for those of adult understanding, dealing as they do with desire, lust, and guilt.

Very well done for a gently paced and sad story, perhaps a good antidote for too many summer superhero movies?