Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What's Wrong with The Revenant

As its numerous awards and Oscar nominations would suggest, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant (2015) is a powerful film, but it gets some matters totally wrong.  Now, I don't expect a documentary approach to the legendary mountain man Hugh Glass, and I have no objection to making a film loosely based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Michael Punke (which I haven't read).  Nor do I object to giving Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, in case anyone doesn't know) a son he never had, any more than having his dead Pawnee wife appear to him in visions.  So what if the actual Hugh Glass never rode his horse off a cliff and, saved from death by falling into a convenient tree, then eviscerated his dead horse to climb inside its body cavity to survive the night?  Hugh Glass is granted almost no inner life, but this is an epic of survival.  A film is a visual work of fiction, and what counts in fiction is how well it works.

On one level, this film works pretty well.  For the most part, the landscape looks like the Rocky Mountains, except perhaps for a panoramic sunset which I'd guess was filmed in Tierra del Fuego.  The dialog is neither archaic nor contemporary.  The fort is architecturally convincing; its inhabitants are not sanitized like Bingham's jolly boatmen but boisterously drunk.  This marginally civil culture makes a powerful statement about life at the edge of the wilderness.  The costumes are appropriate to the time period of the 1820's, and the guns are flintlocks. (There is one lapse:  in a tense moment, expecting attack, one of the men is aiming his rifle with the frizzen open and forward, so there was no way the hammer with its flint could strike the spark needed to make a flintlock fire.)  By and large, however, this seeming veracity is at odds with the ignorance displayed by scriptwriters Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith about the realities of survival in the wild.

Again and again, this film betrays a complete ignorance of the wild and of ways to survive in it.  An elementary example involves wet feet.  Anyone who has read accounts of exploration from Lewis and Clark onwards will recall that they are always stopping after fording a river to build a fire to dry their footwear.  In The Revenant, however, nobody ever puts on a pair of dry moccasins or dries his boots.  The trappers are continually wading around in water close to freezing, unconcerned about their feet going numb, let alone about the subsequent hazards of frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia.

Higher on the scale of ignorance is what happens when a person goes over a waterfall.  The Revenant has some exciting footage of Glass floating down a turbulent river.  As the camera pulls back, we can see he's about to go over a major waterfall.  He does, and then his head promptly pops up above the water.  He laboriously makes it to shore.

But, as every wilderness canoer or kayaker knows, that's not how waterfall hydraulics work.  At the base of a falls, there's a vertically oriented and back flowing circulation of water that traps a person and keeps him from getting up to the surface--that's why waterfalls are known as "keepers."  One's only hope of surviving is counterintuitive:  to  swim downwards to get below the circulating current and then to swim to the side.  In the real world, as opposed to the one depicted in The Revenant, Glass would have drowned.

The director has commented that the river is important symbolically to Glass's epic ordeal.  Sure enough, just as he's about to be captured by a party of Arikaras, he manages to escape by taking to the river and letting it carry him downstream.  At this point, it's still winter.  Apparently, nobody involved with the film realized that Glass would have lost consciousness in something like fifteen to twenty minutes and drowned.  Why?  Because cold water removes your body heat twenty-five times faster than cold air.  I've capsized into a glacier-fed river in late spring, not winter as in The Revenant.  I was wearing a farmer john wet suit, and it still felt like a cold hand being clamped on my heart.  You lose body heat and strength with fearful rapidity.  When your core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, you become confused and perhaps hallucinatory; when it falls lower, you die.  But rather than drowning (yet again!), Glass serenely floats away down this river not of death but of life.

All films require a prolonged suspension of disbelief.  Unfortunately, the imagined reality of The Revenant is only rewarding to an audience equally ignorant about wilderness survival.  I'm confident it will win lots of awards.  It's a good film, but it gets too much wrong to be more than occasionally persuasive to this viewer.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank:  Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier (Random House, 2001) is one of those books that is sui generis, perfect in its own kind.  Like Henry Beston's The Outermost House, Samuel Chamberlain's Clementine in the Kitchen, and Stephen Bodio's Querencia, Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is so well done that it affords delight beyond all expectation.  I had never heard of this book until a friend recommended it, but I liked it so much that after I finished reading it I immediately read it again.

Carhart's plot is nearly non-existent:  he and his wife and daughter are living in Paris, and he notices a shop with a window display of tools for tuning a piano.  He thinks it might be interesting to start playing again, so he enters the shop with the idea of buying a used piano, only to be told, not just then but on a number of subsequent occasions, that there are no pianos for sale.  The French do things differently, he eventually figures out, and, indeed, he learns at last from a friend that he has to be recommended by a former client of the shop to even be considered as a suitable customer for one of their many, many pianos discreetly assembled in a back room.

Fortunately, Carhart speaks fluent French and becomes friends with the young owner Luc, who eventually lets him see and try out the piano Luc has chosen for him.  Carhart loves it, and in this instance the course of true love really does run smooth.  He finds a teacher who is willing to take on an adult, and we learn more about what really counts in music.  At intervals, Luc discovers another "dream piano," one that is extraordinary or will become so under his loving care.

The more lore Carhart learns from Luc about pianos, the more we learn about Luc and his seemingly inexhaustible passion for pianos in their almost infinite variety. I'd say that all of this is charming, but that word has become almost meaningless.  I shall say only that The Piano Shop on the Left Bank makes you wish that you too were fluent in French, living in Paris, and friends with Thad Carhart and Luc.  Oh, and that you could also play the piano so Luc could pick out the perfect one for you as well.  This book, as the subtitle indicates, is about rediscovering passion, and thus it is entirely fitting that the last line has Luc justifying his own, "You can never have too many dream pianos."

Monday, January 4, 2016

Herter's Catalogs

In one of my all too infrequent attempts to get organized, I recently went through my father's fly tying box, something he probably last used in the 70's.  In it were some odd bits of fur I didn't recognize together with little cardboard boxes of hooks, one of which was from Herter's.  And then I suddenly recalled why those bits of fur were there:  we'd ordered them from Herter's one time when I was in college, back in the late 50's.  I could remember sitting with him, laughing about whether colobus monkey fur might tempt those selective trout on the Firehole.  Herter's prices were so low, however, that we ordered a variety of stuff, and some of it still survived in that box.  Herter's had long since gone out of business, but seeing the hooks and fur made me wish I had kept a copy of one of their annual catalogs, a treasure trove of outdoor gear.

Not long after, I came across a 1968 catalog from Herter's in a used book store and promptly bought it.  This one is Catalog No. 78, suggesting that Herter's began issuing catalogs only a few years after its founding in 1893 (the company may have been founded then, but several sources on the web state that the company only began to offer sporting goods after WW II).  Its cover was just like all the ones I remembered.  It always featured a coat of arms:  in the center was a shield of crossed flintlock rifles with a superposed dagger as well as a duck below plus two wildly out of scale fishhooks.  A white tailed deer on its hind legs supports one side of the shield; a seahorse supports the other.  Adding to this trademark's bizarre quality are a length of red and black rope surmounting the shield, a leaping trout or salmon touching the rope, and a three-masted ship resting on the fish's back.

These catalogs were good sized, 8.5" by ll", and this 1968 one runs to 597 pages plus index.  What stands out, however, is less its bulk than its hyperbole. Everything listed is the best available, regardless of price, and produced to the highest possible standards.  The copy is anything but routine:  absurdities are everywhere.  Herter's stainless steel set of garden tools will not only stay mirror bright but "they do not destroy the vitamin or mineral content of soils as with ordinary steel tools."  Say what?  Herter's "Genuine Hudson Bay Wilderness Ice Chest" is the only ice chest endorsed by the International Guide Association" (which as far as I know was a figment of George Herter's imagination).  George L. Herter designed the sheath knife carrying his name after "generations of testing and opinions from some of the best known guides in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia."  In fact, it is a blatant rip-off of the knife and sheath designed and sold by D. H. Russell in Nova Scotia.

And then there are the books.  Herter wrote the "World's Greatest Book on Fly Tying," books on reloading ammunition, a professional guide's manual (my copy has disappeared, but I still recall the entry, "How to Make Pond Scum Soup"), and several volumes of cookbooks advertised to contain "the secret recipes of the most world famous cooks from before the time of Christ up to the present time."  It will teach you not only how to make "the finest Canadian type whiskey from the cheapest American whiskey for 10 cents a fifth," but  how to make the "secret hors d'oeuvre from the Monk Perngon (sic) who invented champagne.  After you eat one of these small sandwiches, any liquor that you taste, no matter how poor in quality, will taste like the very best." 

Herter's only lasted another ten years or so after this catalog came out in 1968.  Accounts of the company's demise vary, some stating that the company filed for bankruptcy in 1977, others in 1981.  I recall hearing at the time that Herter's had run afoul of the laws regulating importation of fur and feathers into the US.  The few bits and pieces left in my father's fly tying box, like the catalog, serve as a reminder of a vanished era of merchandising, a time when hyperbole was not the exception but the rule.  It's a hoot to read this catalog.  And I'm going to keep my eyes open for an inexpensive copy of Herter's Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices.