Friday, July 06, 2007


My favorite moments from yesterday came before and after the great evacuation,* though that was fun. Beforehand, we were standing in the Thai weaving tent at the Folklife Festival* when I noticed a woman crouched on the ground looking for all the world like she'd lost a contact lens. Sure enough: one blue-tinted hard contact was around there somewhere. What I like about this story are of all the people who began chipping in to help. Minutes after I stooped to sift through the sun- and culture-blasted grass, there was a whole ring of strangers blocking the area off to foot traffic. After several minutes, the lady found the tiny glass disk where it has fallen into her cleavage, and the group disbanded. Not one person uttered "I must have been looking right at it." After the evacuation we ate Malaysian dinner up 19th Street at Panang.* I had a clay pot of tofu in brown curry gravy and octopus salad. After dinner, we found a nice, uncrowded corner of Constitution Avenue to spread our pink Hello Kitty blanket and watch the best fireworks show I've ever seen. The first moments were comparable to the crescendos of most other municipal July Fourth displays, and for the next fifteen minutes I was rapt as palms of burning glitter lit up inside coronas of expanding stars which, in turn, burst fractally into multicolored fires and comets that trailed all the way into the crowd around me. Pieces of blackened, smelly cardboard casing rained down on us. It was awesome. The whole crowded Metro ride back was alive with the smell of sweaty gunpowder. A quick note: I'm leaving today for Readercon,* a literary convention near Boston. It is unlikely this Update Column will return before late on Monday the ninth. [Cavin]

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day. We celebrated by traveling to the National Mall this afternoon for another crack at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.* Our plan was to hang around until the fireworks, shortly after nine. The first indication, besides common sense, that this was a big ordeal in DC was the special holiday Metro schedule: yellow and blue lines had been switched south of Arlington Cemetery, and north of the cemetery all lines heading into DC were now orange. This meant that twice the normal number of main east-to-west lines were running. Also, Smithsonian Station was closed today. I'm glad we noticed this, since Smithsonian was where we'd been heading. The reason for the closure was apparent after we detrained at Federal Triangle and walked south to the Mall: they had fenced the whole grassy expanse off and were checking bags at the entry points. There were police roving everywhere on horses, bikes, and motorcycles. It was really hot. Around six, we started noticing cruisers driving along, making announcements about gathering at the museums. It took us a while to hear this information, since most of the announcements were distant or oblique. Finally we flagged a park ranger down; he told us there was a severe thunderstorm warning and that the collective Smithsonian was the best shelter. We were advised to seek the closest museum. Since many Smithsonian museums are made of glass, we opted for the solid stone National Gallery, and waited on its many steps until they forced us to go on inside. We walked around the exhibits a while, among other Folklife refugees sitting with cafeteria pizzas arrayed around them on the floor. When we attempted to leave we had to use the back door: the National Mall had been evacuated entirely though no storm ever came. [Cavin]

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


I finally finished my medical clearance stuff yesterday after rising early and going to Foggy Bottom for the walk-in chest x-ray. The nurse practitioner gave me a sheet listing radiology labs two Fridays ago when I endured the second day of my "two day" ordeal. I picked from this list based on Metro access. From initial paperwork to lunchtime, the whole process of getting x-rayed took twenty minutes. I'd scheduled five hours, owing to precedent. I killed time wandering the District before taking the Metro at Chinatown, heading to Silver Spring again. Last night's movie: Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku; literally, Heaven and Hell, 1963),* a pulp procedural elevated to naturalist art through allegory and incidental photography: here reality falls into lockstep with poetry. Only a master could make a movie look this easy. In the first of several ever-less-delineated acts, Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) sits in his hilltop mansion plotting the takeover of the shoe company he runs. The phone rings. Your son has been kidnapped, says a voice--he'll have to pay a king's ransom to save the boy. He's already borrowed enough money, but if he can't purchase a controlling share in earmarked stocks he'll be ruined: house taken, credit destroyed. No problem--until Kingo discovers the ruthless kidnapper has mistakenly stolen the Chauffeur's son instead. Will he offer the ransom he knows will bankrupt him? This is only the moral issue of the film's first third, it then neatly segues into a police attempt to foil the kidnapping and the resulting manhunt. They search high and low, in this case, literally: while Kingo's newly mortgaged life over Yokohama quickly dissolves, the narrative action descends by turns onto the summer warp of the shanty class, who suffer spitefully in his house's shadow. [Cavin]

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Because all we really did this weekend was watch TV on DVD and take long walks, I'm still talking about movies I saw Friday. For that night's first film please see yesterday's entry.* The second of these movies was the ruddily Technicolor Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959),* a western so deeply iconic that many of its motifs are generally considered universal for the genre.* In a dialog-free opening, Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) confronts brute blackhat Joe Burdette in a rough whiskey joint. Burdette's harassing the sheriff's drunkard former deputy by offering him liquor money if he'll stoop to retrieving it from the saloon's spittoon. When fighting ensues, Burdette shoots a bystander and finds himself jailed for cold-blooded killing. Incidentally, Burdette is the thuggish enforcer of his older brother's villainous band of outlaws, who pledge to free the jailbird during the last days before a marshal's to arrive with hanging authority. The sheriff has his own tribe: the aforementioned drunkard--a sultry Dean Martin at wits end after a soured marriage, and crippled old staple Walter Brennan, in true Pa Kettle form, who spends the movie holding a shotgun on the jailhouse door. There's also Ricky Nelson, the young mercenary gunslinger with untested allegiances. Between these archetypes the movie simply excels, locating a beating heart in each character while nonchalantly riffing on human nature and bonding in the west as, incidentally, tensions mount throughout a week where everyone will be tested. Howard Hawks always includes some unbuttoned male heartthrob, delivering a naturalistic and sultry performance that slaps some sex appeal into a genre usually regarded as fustily macho. Even John Wayne wanders these frames in a relaxed incarnation of the usual bravado, the fatherly sheriff of a wayward family, who's more comfortable smiling than drawing lines in the sand. [Cavin]

Monday, July 02, 2007


After the Folklife festival, I headed to Silver Spring for the first of two Friday night movies at AFI's Silver Theater:* the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962).* Senator Ransom Stoddard returns to the little berg of Shinbone, state unknown, for a reunion around the coffin of old acquaintance Tom Doniphon, triggering a hubbub at the local newspaper. Who is Doniphon to the senator? Braced with questions, Stoddard sits everyone down to relate his story in flashback. It wasn't so many years ago that young Rance Stoddard arrived in a wilder Shinbone, unconscious in the back of Tom's wagon. He'd been beaten by a black-clad villain with a silver-tipped whip. "I said his name was Liberty Valance," drones Tom when Rance regains consciousness. Tom has a habit of addressing the future senator as "Pilgrim". Rance plans to practice law in this territory destined for statehood. The wild west's been won, and he's there to tame it. Rance pledges to visit the letter of the law on Valance, just as soon as he's convinced the gluttonous comedy-relief sheriff to jail him. Tom thinks he should get a gun, handle this the wild west way. The sheriff is too frightened of the outlaw, and anyway lives in the lockless jail. Rance is adamant that Liberty Valance will face legal justice. But Rance is wrong. This is a great and bitter movie, made when westerns were undergoing their political sea change, shedding innocence for social deconstruction. John Wayne, as Tom, yet again subverts his supposed legacy, swaggering manfully outside of society, an antihero apart; yesterday's knight looking after yesterday's dragons. James Stewart, playing Rance, as the center of the movie focuses its bitterness: his helpless failure secures a legacy, should he surmount his chagrin and accept it. Ten stars. [Cavin]

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Yesterday, Sunshine's entire language department held class at the National Mall during the forty-first annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival,* partially dedicated to Mekong River cultures this year. Since she was meeting everyone a little bit later than her normal class schedule I decided to get up a little bit early and join them. Finally, yesterday morning, I met Sunshine's teachers. I also met a few of the students heading to Hanoi. Her southern dialect classmate, there's only the one now, I'd met already. The festival was great. At the tent dedicated to Thai silversmiths, there were dozens of delicate necklaces and bracelets, featuring polished jade in swirly silver floral settings. At the woodcarving tent, there was an insane ottoman-sized elephant carving with seamless looking, but nevertheless articulated, ears and tail. Intricate pathways deep in its wooden anatomy allowed it to occasionally pee into a hole in its base. Across the way, at the puppet tent, colorfully detailed two-dimensional warriors and animals, articulated by wooden posts, were available for people to handle between professional demonstrations. These were fashioned from stretched hide, and decorated with sequins and fabric and intricate cuts allowing backlighting to pinpoint here and there in the surface of otherwise dully translucent skins. At the weaving tent, beside displays of ochre, cochineal, cobalt and other raw materials used to dye silk, a woman operated a loom slowly enough for me to see what she was doing, but prestigiously enough for me to still be confused as to how she was doing it, even after ten minutes of standing a foot from her blurry hands. There was plenty more: traditional gong music and singing and lion dancing on stilts. I ate something new to me, too: coconut sticky rice with mango. Best food I’ve ever bought in a tent. [Cavin]