Monday, July 28, 2008

Iris and Grizzly Man: Two Films That Seem Completely Unconnected, But Which Become Melded As One In My Fevered Psyche

Yes, it appears that all the deep thinking I conduct while driving to the YMCA for F's swimming lessons with the radio on full blast has finally borne fruit. I knew there was something that Iris and Grizzly Man had in common, I just couldn't put my finger on it.

Before I discuss my astonishing insight (ahem), it must be said that on the surface it would appear that a documentary about an eccentric bear activist in Alaska would have absolutely no shared territory with a melodrama about Iris Murdoch and Alzheimer's. Before watching both films, I had no knowledge of either of the subjects.

I've never read a Murdoch novel, in fact, I've rather strenuously avoided them on the basis of the prejudice I have against books that come from that milieu - there's something about stories of the privileged Oxbridge 1950s set that makes me shiver with distaste. (This comes from someone who married a Cambridge graduate. I love contemporary Cambridge. However, I've only ever been to Oxford via Inspector Morse). Perhaps one day I'll get over it, as I'm sure I'm missing a lot of really fabulous material.

Likewise, I've never been to Alaska, despite my rather extensive history of armchair mountaineering. I love the vicarious thrill of the exploits of people who risk life and limb on their adventuring; I've just finished the tale of Beck Weathers survival on Everest, and in a particularly exhilarating passage he describes his awful experiences on Denali. My experience with bears in the wild is confined to bursting into tears of terror while camping in Yosemite because I could hear people - very far away - trying to scare away a black bear (the grizzly's common, and by all accounts, less fierce, relative) from their cooler.

As I watched Dame Judi Dench portray Iris Murdoch "sailing into darkness", I was more drawn to the story of John Bayley, her husband. The film was based on a book he wrote, before Murdoch was even dead. Although the film is so exclusively about their relationship other characters are all but incidental, I felt he was more of a void than a real flesh and blood person. In fact, I was so unsettled, that I sought his book, Elegy For Iris. The film portrayed him as a kind of fumbling, bumbling, absent-minded academic; a peripheral satellite to the wondrous Iris. The only hint of a real personality was when he was shown entering the waves of Southwold fully clothed complete with a vest, snorkel and face-mask; eccentric and a bit potty. I felt cheated. It seemed as if the film-makers needed to dehumanize him in order to make his wife shine all the brighter. I think this sort of characterisation in a film about a disease that often entails the stripping away of the self was rather odd.

It was only because I felt that he had be wronged in some way, that I looked into the story more deeply. His book (part of a trilogy, which was somewhat controversial for various reasons)reveals him to be a fascinating, successful person - such a contrast to the way he was portrayed on film. Apparently, he approved of his portrayal on film, which made it seem even stranger to me. Here was someone who made me read his book and hang on every word, yet he was pleased to be a less than complete character in a film. Looking at his response to the film in the NYT article, I found a clue as to how this could be so. He talks about the film as being a work of "art". Perhaps when one sees oneself on screen, the only way to appreciate it is if it's treated as some kind of dynamic mirror, truly a moving image with no substance.

On to Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man. He was a man who credited encounters in the wild with grizzly bears as his salvation from a life of spiraling drug abuse. He became a media figure in his crusade to protect the grizzlies of Alaska from human harm. He survived thirteen summers in the wilderness before dying with his girlfriend in a bear attack.

Werner Herzog uses Treadwell's own video footage to admire his skills as a film-maker, and tell his story. However, there is a strange part of the video where Herzog narrates that some of the best footage was unintentional; when the camera keeps rolling and Treadwell ceases his breathless, almost unhinged narration. To praise Treadwell's skills, then to single out moments that he did not intend to be seen as particularly skillful seems like a back-handed compliment at best.

My fascination wasn't with the factual ins and outs of the story. What interested me was the obvious gap between Treadwell's public 'face' which was that of a rather amateurish, paranoid film-maker, and his quite remarkable private skill of living in grizzly territory. If I were to attempt to camp out in bear country in the same kind of circumstances as he lived in, I would with absolute certainty come to a horrible end very, very quickly. I wonder how he would have felt about these incongruencies, or whether he had enough self-awareness to recognise them.

His films show someone earnest, who anthropomorphises the bears and seems to worry about their safety as if they were his children. He appears to talk to the camera in such a markedly unselfconscious way, that I wonder whether he would have wanted this footage to be broadcast or whether he was treating his camera as an extension of his psyche.

We all have private selves and public selves which reveal themselves in various contexts. Different people are comfortable with different degrees of overlap and awareness of the differences. Some people are happy to lay all things bare in writing, and to accept it when they are transformed by others into a hollow image, a mask. If I had written Bayley's book, and seen it turned into the film Iris, I would have been furious - perhaps because I feel my public self and private self are not so different, and to see them so defiled would have destroyed me. I also wonder how Timothy Treadwell would react to his public self as it is now. I wonder if he would revel in his fame (or infamy) or whether it would horrify him to have been turned into an almost-caricature; the naturalist consumed by nature. I think that's why I could never be a writer or artist - that and the extreme lack of any talent.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, whom I am not in fact conducting is it; my rambling, incoherent thoughts on two films I saw recently. And that is why I stick to knitting.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Weekend update

So this is what I did with my free time at the weekend. I finally finished this albatross that has been lurking around waiting for a zip forever.

This is the Olive Branch Hoodie. I finished its acres of stocking stitch a few weeks ago, but was intimidated by the prospect of hand-sewing a zip in. Much to my surprise, I found the zip-fitting not too taxing. Unfortunately, I made the damn thing too wide. It's quite short, so it should be closer fitting, and it just looks odd. So it is with regret that it gets donated to charity. And will no doubt become felted the first time the buyer washes it.

This is my other finished object from the weekend. It's much more satisfying.

This is Anais from Norah Gaughan Vol 1 for Berrocco. I found this quick and fun to knit, although if I had to do it again, I'd knit the smallest size (I appear to be having a bit of body dysmorphia after having A, as I seem to think I'm still getting the pregnancy weight off. If it's the same as when I had F, as soon as I stop breastfeeding her I'll put on at least 10 pounds, and then I'll be the size I think I am now.)

This is my favourite part. The insert is knitted separately, then sewn in. I was initially skeptical that I could do it neatly enough, but I think it looks more complicated than it really is.

I also managed to watch a film, by myself, with no interruptions. I'm now the last person on earth to have seen Iris. I think that it's worthy of a blog post for itself later in the week. Then in the evening, R and I watched Grizzly Man, which is also worthy of a post by itself when my brain hasn't been macerated by the grind of daily life.

On that note, when I dropped F off at nursery school this morning, or rather when I attempted to drop him off, I was told that his class had been canceled for the session (10 weeks). No reason given. Just, "It's not on any more, bye". Great. Poor F. We'll be going home before the next session starts, so he won't get a chance to say goodbye to his friends. It's also too late to try and enroll him in any other preschool programme (not to mention expensive - it runs at about $30-60 for each 3 hour block). He only attended 2 mornings a week, but he really liked it. Plus, I worry about him being immersed in the rough and tumble of the Scottish education system. Theoretically, he could go into Primary 1 when we return, but having no real preschool experience, and not being naturally drawn to the more academic side of learning (if it's not a car or lego, he's not interested), we were planning on keeping him out this academic year - thankfully possible because of his January birthday. I'm hoping we can cobble-together some sort of education for him when we go back, I just wasn't expecting to have to scramble to find something for him while we were still here.

Enough moaning. I'm going off to attempt my new project. Details to follow.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


What better way to manage the heat than to make the baby wear the hottest hat in the world made from (very bulky) handspun. This kid has a serious headwear fetish. It started when she put her toy hippo on her head by mistake one day, and she caught herself in the mirror and thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Now, everything goes on her head, to her great delight.

And now some proof that my spinning is getting better. This is on my new spindle from
Spinsanity. It's lovely and small, 0.8 oz. It seems obvious to me now that it's easier to spin finer yarn on a lighter spindle. I've got about 100yds of 2-ply kind of lace weight. I'm very taken with my new book Victorian Lace Today. I realise I'm very behind the curve on this one, but there are a few projects that have caught my eye.

I'm luxuriating an a morning without the children. R heard my plea for peace and quiet yesterday, so he's disappeared for a few hours with them. It's giving me time to catch up on a few little projects that have been languishing in the nearly finished pile. I'm going to crack on and see how it goes. i may update later.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Guilty Little (Not really) Secret

So a few weeks ago, I went over to the dark side and bought myself a beginning spindle kit from Ashford. I've been taking my time teaching my hands what to do, and I think I'm beginning to get the hang of it. A while ago I managed to spin my first kind of usable yarn, so I decided to make this:

It's a little scarf, with a very simple stitch pattern, but I feel so proud of it. I was so taken with it, that I immediately began another project with some other stuff I managed to crank out. This was older, and therefore much more uneven (and trust me, the scarf yarn is still pretty thick and thin), but it was the first two-ply I ever made. It going to be the warmest hat in the world for A. I don't know if I even have enough to finish, but it's fun to try. Photos will come later, if I manage to finish it today.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Heart Attack

If you want to cause yourself a heart-stopping moment, just start messing with the html of your blog without any clue (and I mean, no idea at all) about what you are doing. Unfortunately, I think I've managed to somehow absorb my husband's hacker mentality, without the technical skills. I have a feeling I'll discover that all those bits of code I deleted were actually quite useful.

Friday, July 4, 2008

New projects

I'm writing this to the dulcet tones of fireworks booming overhead. Unsurprising, really, considering it's the 4th of July. R has taken F out to the High School to see them. I'm staying behind with a (hopefully) sleeping A.

I thought I'd update on some new projects.

Firstly, there's the ongoing project, Moving: The International Edition. It looks like we're going home in September, as our tenants will be leaving then. We've been organised enough to get A her American passport, and we're currently waiting on her UK one. Flights are extortionate. Shipping is extortionate. As we can't do anything about the price of flights, we're having to cut back on shipping costs. Which of course means that we're having to dispose of the vast majority of our things again. Last time was very traumatic - I was immediately post-partum and we got rid of a lot of things I wish we had found a way to keep. This time I'm ahead of the game, because I didn't buy too many things while we were here with the intention of keeping them. Still, it's very unsettling to go through the whole rigmarole again. We start in earnest this weekend when the Great Cleansing of the Garage begins. Did I mention that we're moving from a three-bedroomed detached house with garden to a one-bedroomed flat above a pub and a (not quite legit) massage parlour? With two adults and two kids.

Happier things. This is a quickie. I took up the drop spindle a few weeks ago. I finally managed to produce some yarn I thought I could do something with. So I'm starting a scarf.

It doesn't look like much now, but hopefully, it'll get better with length and blocking.

And then there's the new blanket, which is galloping along.

R and F have just returned. My brave and fearless four-year old from the County Fair has morphed back into his more timid incarnation. The fireworks were too loud for him, and he wanted to come home. He wouldn't even come outside and watch from our front garden (which is two miles away). God help him when we're back in Edinburgh - we live right at the bottom of the Castle and the fireworks..well... lets just say we get a grand view of them, but it's a bit noisy!

County Fair

R had a bonus day off work yesterday (he really has a lovely employer), so we decided to make a trip to the County Fair. You Americans are very lucky to have such a venerable institution. I don't think I can adequately describe such an event to an outsider, because there really is no frame of reference for the rest of the world. Of course, I've only ever been to the LA and SD County Fairs, so I may not be speaking of the experience for the whole of America, but wow, they're really something special.

If I describe the day, it'll give an idea of the full scope of the festivities.

Firstly, there was the traditional line of traffic waiting to get into the truly vast parking. After our escapades last year (don't ask, but it involved an emergency trip to the hospital) we decided to park close by. That was our first nine dollars spent. We got there at lunchtime, so our first stop was the enormous food section. F got a hot dog, R and I got roast beef sandwiches. Then it was off to the animal section via the Monster Trucks for F. Wait a minute, I skipped an important part of the day when this happened

F got a ribbon for his participation in the squash toss - chucking a crookneck squash into a bucket in front of an audience.

On the way to the Monster Trucks and animals, I went to see some alpacas from a farm in Ramona. There was nobody there to ask anything of, so, well, I saw some alpacas and that was that. The animal barn was packed, so I waited outside with the pushchair while R took F and A around to look at the cows. Poor little A was a bit unimpressed with them, but the gigantic fans in the ceiling of the barn did it for her. We backtracked a bit to let A see some kitties that were up for adoption (she adores soft fluffy animals).

Then it was off to the kiddie fun fair. F did us proud - the little daredevil- as he threw himself onto some pretty scary rides. After that it was time for a quick snack of onion rings (battered of course). We made a quick trip to the Kids Best of Show tent. Inside was a truly amazing array of work that kids throughout the county had done - art, projects, models, collections. Really impressive. We had a quick stop for F to bounce around on some inflatable toys, then it was on to the next thing.

We went for a trip around the fine art section. Hmmm. Again, an impressive collection of work, some of it more impressive than others. Mostly it was just kind of stressful trying to keep F from destroying bits and pieces of sculpture, gourds, that sort of thing.

By this time we were definitely being moved by the Fair spirit. It was time for dinner. A got fruit from the one and only fruit stand (although it was smothered in syrup). I got deep fried battered zucchini (!), F and R got corn dogs. The zucchini transported me back to Scottish chippies, although I'm not sure the Scots would think of wasting good batter on actual vegetables. I ate only about a quarter of my portion, and believe me, that was enough.

It was getting dark, so we went for a walk through the grown-up fun fair.There were flashing lights, loud noises, and our own little four-year old desperately trying to persuade us that he was big enough to go on the gigantic vertical drop ride, or even the big wheel, but it was no use, he was too small.

On the way outside, we passed hundreds of people just arriving for the big concert that evening, but our two little fair-goers were exhausted and it was definitely time to go.

Oh, and these, they got third place! One and two were really nice Koigu efforts, so I felt a little ashamed. Still, now I can do entrelac, which was the purpose of the exercise, and it was nice to get a free exhibitors ticket.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I am without doubt the stupidest person in the known universe at times. Of course, at other times I marvel at my great intelligence (hmmm...). Last night I attempted to start another hemlock ring blanket for my mother-in-law this time. It's her 60th birthday in September. Anyway, having already done one of these I felt I would be an old pro at it. Hah. For some reason, Round 14 totally threw me. I just couldn't get it to work, no matter what I did. So this morning I tried again. Same problem. It's only this afternoon that I realised I was trying to overthink the directions, and that the pattern contains instructions for something I was already doing automatically. I was trying to increase and then add extra stitches because I wasn't thinking about the pattern properly. I'm off to start (yet) again.

It really is the season of socks.

I came clean to my mum about the sock yarn scarf of the last post, and she expressed an interest in it, so off to Scotland it goes.