Monday, July 18, 2011

Upgegradet worden

The German film, Shoppen, (2006) focuses on the phenomenon of speed dating. It's a masterwork of economy, telling the story of eighteen single men and women in a series of short scenes that leave big gaps in the viewer's information, but provide just enough key details to make us believe we know a lot more. It's a quality I admire in film and one I try to apply in my own paintings. The characters in Shoppen are all living in München, all are single, and all are eager to find a life partner, or at least a temporary liaison. The film addresses a problem that faces many in the US as well as Europe: as conventions and traditions are examined and discarded, what structure can take their place? In an earlier generation, Germans married earlier. Woman didn't enter the workforce as regularly as today, and members of the opposite sex could meet in such thoroughly outmoded institutions as church social groups. As far as I can see, religion still plays a very important role in Germany, but it's a political one. Few Germans would be so foolish as to spend any time worrying about a spiritual need that could be met in a church. That's what Art and Kultur are there for.

One of the characters we meet in Shoppen is Frank. He's a self-described "gatherer," as opposed to, hunter-type, leading what is apparently, an amazingly dull life. He stumbles into the speed dating experience almost by accident and in his first interview responds to the question "What's been the most wonderful surprise in your life?" by saying that he was once "upgegradet worden" on a return flight from London*. How sad," I thought as I watched the film for the first time, "that one has no more significant experience than that to share with a potential life partner." And then it happened to me.

On my recent return from Europe, I too was upgraded, and now I can understand Frank's response. Instead of being jammed into a tiny space and forced to make a choice between either a peanut OR a pretzel, I lounged in pampered luxury while my sommelier worked out which wine I would drink with my smoked almonds. My seat reclined to form a rudimentary bed and I was presented with a teeny tiny tooth brush and correspondingly tiny tube of paste. With my main meal I was given over 8 pieces of cutlery, three of them knives. This from an airline that less than two hours previously confiscated my nail clippers, presumably worried that I would threaten the cabin crew with a really aggressive pedicure. Just look at these pictures:

Chose a knife. Any knife.

Crisp radicchio and an excellent oil and balsamic vinegar dressing, but which white should I drink to complement it?

The strawberries were a little under-ripe. I sent them back.

Another big plus in first class: movies are free. Even the recent stuff you have to pay for in coach. I watched a great film about an alien invasion of earth. Directors like Fellini, Truffaut and Scorsese, have techniques for insuring that plot is advanced and momentum is maintained in their films, but in my alien invasion film, the director just made sure that some marine said, "Go! gogogogogo!" every 3-4 minutes. This kind of action film also benefits if a helicopter blows up from time to time, and I believe the director of this one managed to break a record for rotary-wing aircraft destroyed. As you may imagine, dialog was minimal, but they still managed to work in some hilarious redundancies like "evacuate you out." And every once in a while, some marine would shout out "Let's get to that police station and save the civilians," just in case a viewer forgot what was going on. If you're thinking I'm being facetious in my praise of this film, you're mistaken. There's kind of a ban on alien invasion films at my house and I crave this kind of cathartic release. This movie was so good, I watched it a second time in Italian: "Andiamo! andiamoandiamoandiamo" No real need for subtitles, but you might need them for the Shoppen trailer below.

*Ich bin ma' upgegradet worden von dem Rückflug von London...  da bin ich in den Business Klasse gerutscht, es war nicht übel und echt überraschend.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Der Man in Schwarz

US American culture is readily embraced by Germans. But even in a market that's as receptive to American culture as Germany is, some US artists seem to be more readily accepted than others. In literature for example, John Irving is a big favorite here, as is Philip Roth. Cormac McCarthy, on the other hand, or Michael Chabon don't seem to appear in bookstores here anywhere near as often.

One classic American musician who is incredibly popular in Germany is Johnny Cash. Here in Deutschland, Mr. Cash's music appeals to people in a way that isn't clouded by the artificial categories that are so important to marketing in the States. Cash's music crosses all boundaries in Germany, appealing as easily to a burnt out old hippie-type as to a twenty-something punk. I hear Johnny playing as background music in department stores and on the radio and his CD's stand in the bookcases of almost every home I visit here.

My own radio interests here don't include Johnny Cash. I admire him and his music, but I don't travel to Germany to spend my time listening to American popular music. In Essen the radio dial is dominated by the WDR stations, with WDR Eins focussing on current popular music and WDR 5 offering a broad range of news and cultural offerings. I doubt if many of my acquaintances here listen to WDR5 very often: it has a reputation of being just a little spießig. But I enjoy the variety and novelty of the station. There's just nothing like it in the US.

I often wonder how Germany can offer this kind of entertainment: what's the business model, and how do they pay their bills? The answer is, of course, that Germany is a socialist economy. Until recently, the government ran all radio and television. If you own a radio, you pay an annual tax on it, and those taxes go to supporting public programing, like WDR5. The catch is, WDR has to serve a wide audience to maintain the government support they depend on and their constituents include organizations like the Catholic and Evangelical churches (which, incidentally, are also state-run institutions here.) And that's why WDR5 can sometimes be just a little stodgy. Every morning at 6:05, I listen to a piece produced by a prominent religious figure in the region and they're rarely very dynamic. The speakers are all so damned earnest, so unctuous, so anxious to please. They talk slowly,  and their arguments are formatted in a way that reminds me of the ads the white-haired guy on Wild Kingdom used to do:

The hammerhead tortoise has a shell to protect him from wild predators and you need protection too....

But this morning's piece, by Diplom Theologe Markus Potthoff from Essen was really quite entertaining and he made his point with a quote he attributed to Johnny Cash: 

Das Christentum ist nichts für Weicheier

Loosely translated, it means something like, Christianity is not for sissies. It's entertaining for me because it uses some of the great vocabulary German has to describe sissies: Weicheier, Shattenparker, Warmduscher... And ironic too, because, no matter what they do to escape it, all of these religious commentators wind up sounding like a bunch of Weicheier. But today at least, I listened eagerly to the Kirche in WDR5 address, and I'll continue to be a faithful listener, even following the station on-line when I'm back in the States. Tomorrow at 6:05 there will be another preacher greeting me from the electronic pulpit, but at noon I'll be listening to a Hörspiel about a fictional dominatrix who runs a shop in the government quarter of Berlin, beating up on Muttersöhnchen for fun and profit. Public radio in Deutschland makes for strange bedfellows and reminds me every day that I'm not in Kansas anymore.