The Pillars of the Earth

I’ve just started watching this new series, currently appearing on pay cable (Starz) but sure to be available through other media eventually.

Although I’m not a big Ken Follett fan, I  read Pillars of the Earth some years ago. I was introduced to it, oddly enough, by a tour guide at Mont St. Michel, who happened to be a French architectural student.  The book imagined the lives of the earliest cathedral builders — folks who, using little more than geometry, trial and error, and a kind of intuitive engineering sense, built churches of incredible beauty that still excite the imagination.  Follett’s insight, that the seeds of Western European cultural ascendancy might well lie in this willingness to try what looks impossible, might well be correct. The book also offers a balanced perspective of the role of the church in medieval Europe.  Certainly there were venal bishops. But the Church also attracted thoughtful, intelligent men of high principle, who eventually created much of we consider our cultural posterity.

So far, the series seems to be following the book pretty closely, although, since it’s TV, there’s a litle more blood, guts and s*x than I remember.  Still, the story is absorbing enough to be worth watching, and it includes some fine acting (Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Donald Sutherland being among the more recognizable names).

My favorite scene so far — builders fixing the site of the new cathedral’s altar by the light of the rising sun. Most people know that Islamic mosques, all over the world, orient their prayer walls in the direction of Mecca. Fewer know that the medieval Europeans oriented their cathedrals similarly — to the East, towards Jerusalem.  (That’s why the entrance is always called the “West Front.” )

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The Pacific

First run on HBO earlier this year, this series should be available on DVD soon (if it’s not already). It’s a masterful re-creation of the war in the Pacific, based on the memoirs of and interviews with actual veterans. This is not your musical version of the South Pacific — although there is a rat-infested island used for R&R that might have inspired it. This is the Pacific War as a long, hard slog — covering both the heroism and acts of selfless bravery that we knew about, and the awful realities (trophy hunting and mutilations of enemy corpses) that we didn’t.

There’s some overlap with the Ken Burns series on World War II. Eugene V. Sledge appears in both series — his memoirs ought to be required reading for anyone who thinks of war as merely a political strategy. But there is a lot of new material, and new stories. My favorite scene — Sledge, the grandson of a Confederate general, discovers the lieutenant he much admired was the grandson of a Union officer.  Therein lay the seeds of a more united, postwar America.

Inception

Not a great piece of art (it won’t change the way you look at the world), but excellent entertainment.

The story, such as it is, involves a guy whose job is to steal ideas from (or, sometimes, insert ideas into) someone else’s subconscious, through the use of carefully constructed dreamscapes. That’s pretty much all you get — this is fantasy, not sci fi.  But following the rule of all good fantasy, the story generally stays true to its own rules.  It helps immensely Christopher Nolan both wrote and directed the film, which means that by definition the writer and the director share the same vision. And the movie is free from those logical jumps that indicate script doctors at work.

Leonardo diCaprio is famous for his intense preparation. It really pays off here, where he creates a believable figure out of an essentially fantastical premise. The supporting cast, largely composed of actors who have carried other films, is particularly strong — Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, and that guy who plays Leo’s father (not credited, so I won’t spoil the surprise).

Some of the reviews have complained that the story is hard to follow. My suggestion — think of it as a video game. Just remember which level you’re on, and don’t worry too much about whose brain you’re in. It’s a shared experience.

The film is full of little references to some of the actors’ prior movies. What shipwreck is Leo crawling out of the water from, exactly?  And there’s Edith Piaf warbling in the distance. It’s almost as if Nolan wants to remind us that movies, too, are a shared dreamscape.  As one of the characters notes, “Just draw in the outlines — your subjects will fill in the rest.  And they won’t notice the stuff that’s missing until they wake up.”  Indeed.