Saturday, April 11, 2009

Signs of spring in an urban wetland little more than a block from St. Mary's Hospital

Garner Marsh Signs of Spring
The Garner Marsh boardwalk is an often-overlooked part of the UW Arboretum, because you have to walk in and the path that leads to it is not very prominently marked. (See map at the link.)

Garner Marsh BoardwalkIt's not a showy place, just a magical one. Walk in and almost all signs of the city quickly disappear. Often you'll have it all to yourself. The view from the observation deck across the marsh seems to go on forever. And during the spring and fall bird migration seasons, it's one of the best birding spots in the city.

At the End of the Day

At the End of the Day
The last rays of the sun wash over the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the red brick building in the foreground. Rising above MMoCA is the spire of Holy Redeemer, one of the three Catholic churches in Madison's Cathedral Parish. You can check their interesting history at the link.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The boardwalk makes for a great marsh walk down behind Edgewood along Lake Wingra

Red-winged Blackbird
It used to be that you could only only look a this marsh on Lake Wingra from a distance. The woods and shoreline were overgrown and inaccessible. Invasive species like purple loosestrife and buckthorn were overwhelming native plants. Now a wood chip path through the woods and a boardwalk along the marsh provide access to the local plants and birds.

Flying Under the RadarBringing The Edgewood Community Earthwalk and Learning Environment (PDF) was a lengthy process that took more than a decade from inception and planning to completion. It was built with the help of Edgewood students, faculty, and volunteers from the community, with the financial assistance of several local foundations.
The Edgewood Community Earthwalk, consisting of woodland paths and boardwalk linking the woods and marsh on Lake Wingra to the campus community, is a collaborative project among the Edgewood Campus School, Edgewood High School, and Edgewood College. The mission of The Edgewood Community Earthwalk and Learning Environment is closely linked to the mission of Edgewood and the Sinsinawa Dominicans, which strives to develop “a community of learners.” We wish to develop an outdoor learning center where all three groups of students and teachers can “foster open, caring, thoughtful engagement with one another and an enduring commitment to service, all in an educational community that seeks truth, compassion, justice, and partnership.”
The Bird That Turned Its Back on the Rising Moon The walk through the woods and marshland makes for a meditative, beautiful walk -- especially this time of year, when the promise of spring has not yet delivered the expected color. The browns and beiges of the cattails and other marsh vegetation are beautiful in their own way, and what the scene lacks in brighter colors it makes up for in the variety and music of all the bird calls, the surest sign of spring of all.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I voted Yes on Garver with a photocopied flimsy ballot the machine couldn't even read

I Voted Last Night on a Strange, Flimsy Photocopied Ballot
There's normally something so familiar and reassuring about the voting process in a progressive city with a tradition of honest elections like Madison. The ballot for the optical reader is printed on substantial card stock. You sort of feel you're holding democracy itself in your hands as you carry it to the voting booth. You mark your ballot clearly with a black marker and slide it into the reader. The machine takes the ballot from your hand with a reassuring swoosh, the LED counter on the machine goes up by one vote, and you know your vote will be counted. The physical ballots provide a paper trail, the card reader is quick and accurate, and there are no hanging chads or touchscreen monkey business that doesn't leave a paper trail.

Last night the familiar pattern was broken. We were handed flimsy photocopied ballots printed out on really cheap office paper. You marked them the same way, but the machine couldn't read them and was taped over. Instead, we were asked to put them in a slot beneath the machine that could just as well have led to a wastebasket for all we knew. And there was no little little LED registering that it had counted our vote.

If we were living somewhere else (like Florida or Ohio, for example) and were voting for a national office (like president, for example), I would really have worried about what was going on. But we live in Madison. What happened at Wingra School was that they ran out of ballots. A low turnout of 20% had been predicted for the election, but we nearly doubled that at Wingra. When we voted, not long before the polls closed, the turnout was 37% -- respectable, if not great, for a spring election. The Garver referendum, btw, won in a landslide.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Bicycles bask in the shade of a familiar Brutalist landmark on the UW-Madison campus

Brutalism Meets Bicycling
The George L. Mosse Humanities Building, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, has been at the corner of Park and University for four decades. Some see it as a classic of the Brutalist style. Many who work and study there consider it an unlivable monstrosity. The Wisconsin State Journal summarized the situation last fall.
Some faculty and staff can't wait to see the building torn down, but it won't happen for at least another 10 years.
In another 10 years, the building will have taken on even more of a historical patina. Brutalist buildings are being torn down all over the country. By then, pressure may build to remodel it, rather than tear it down. Will Humanities survive?. I don't know. I do know that, as a photographer I always enjoy shooting there. But I don't have to work there.

Be Sexy Vote (Yes on Garver) Today

Be Sexy Vote Tuesday
Chalk message scrawled on the Library Mall on the UW-Madison campus. Note: To be even more sexy, vote Yes on the Garver Referendum.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Finding a way to have a nice meal while attending the Wisconsin Film Festival

Osteria Papavero
I really like both the food and the ambience at Osteria Papavero on East Wilson Street just off the Capitol Square -- including this old espresso machine and the shadows it casts in the corner. Apparently I'm not alone.

Negronis at Osteria PapaveroSeeing a full schedule of films at the Wisconsin Film Festival and also trying to have a nice meal now and then can be a challenge. Sometimes you just have to do the fast food thing. (Our fastest turnaround was Saturday night -- there was a Civic Symphony concert at the Overture Center and the downtown was just swarming with people -- when we got out of Noodles & Company in under 20 minutes.) But Thursday night we had a better schedule, with plenty of time for a leisurely dinner. Osteria Papavero provided a warm atmosphere in which to decompress on a rainy night. Warmed by two Negronis (equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari), we watched the rain splatter outside and shared memories of our favorite parts of The Beaches of Agnes. The entrees were excellent, and we had time to savor them before going on to our next movie. I had the scallops special. At the risk of seeming hopelessly gauche, I have to confess that the sauce was so good that it took all the self-discipline I could muster not to lick the plate. We went out into the rainy night totally revitalized.

Not just my favorite film at this year's film festival, but one of the best I've seen in years

My Favorite Film at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival
Now that the Wisconsin Film Festival has started to recede into the blurred vision of memory, there's one film that remains as joyous and sharply etched in my mind as when I first watched it, entranced: The Beaches of Agnes (Les Plages d'Agnes), by the indomitable 80-year-old French filmmaker, photographer and installation artist, Agnes Varda. It was not only my favorite film at this year's festival, but one of the best films I've seen in years. I don't normally collect DVDs, but this is one I can't wait to buy when it comes out. It's one of those films you want to have close at hand like a favorite book. (It's not just me: The French Union of Film Critics chose The Beaches of Agnes as best French film of the year. It also went on to win "Best Documentary" from the Academy des Cesars -- the "French Oscars.")

It's hard to describe the film and do it justice. You could call it a film memoir, but that doesn't capture the mix of wisdom, joy, humor, whimsy, melancholy, beauty and film technique that this extraordinary film provides. The image here is one of many that keep flashing through my mind. It's Agnes dancing on the beach dressed in black, with her children and grandchildren dancing in white.

Rather than ramble on and on, I want to share two remarkable essays I came across online. One is by British film blogger David Berridge, who wrote about The Beaches of Agnes after it showed at the London Film Festival last fall.
If there was one film at this years London Film Festival festival that had me leaving the cinema newly empowered about the possibilities of cinema it was also the film by the festival's oldest director, and may, the rumour goes, have been her final film.

Not that the film revealed anything but a vital, active creativity, theoretical sophistication and a delicious wit. I so relished Agnes Varda's Les Plages d'Agnes for several reasons. It was a case study in how the most complex ideas about form and cinema can be explored through wit, humour, personal confession and eccentricity. Secondly, related to this, because it could engage with a whole range of experience and imagery: from feminist marches to a giant cartoon cat version of Chris Marker, from domestic life to celebrity portraits to studies of those living off rubbish gleaned in the street. Thirdly, it was an essay about the meaning of a life pervaded in cinema. Future historians could do no worse than show Les Plages d'Agnes alongside Godard's Histoire du Cinema when trying to fathom the meaning of a society based around representations of itself in film.
The other is a long love letter to Varda by the equally indomitable Roger Ebert, whose writing on film has only grown more passionate and lyrical since cancer ended his TV career.
Dear Agnes Varda. She is a great director and a beautiful, lovable and wise woman, through and through. It is not enough that she made some of the first films of the French New Wave. That she was the Muse for Jacques Demy. That she is a famed photographer and installation artist. That she directed the first appearances on film of Gerard Depardieu, Phillipe Noiret--and Harrison Ford! Or that after gaining distinction as a director of fiction, she showed herself equally gifted as a director of documentaries. And that she still lives, as she has since the 1950s, in the rooms opening off each side of a once-ruined Paris courtyard, each room a separate domain.

That is not enough, because her greatest triumph is her life itself. She comes walking toward us on the sand in the first shot of "The Beaches of Agnes," describing herself as "a little old lady, pleasantly plump." Well, she isn't tall. But somehow she isn't old. She made this film in her 80th year, and she looks remarkably similar to 1967, when she brought a film to the Chicago Film Festival. Or the night I had dinner with her, Jacques and Pauline Kael at Cannes 1976. Or when she was at Montreal 1988. Or the sun-blessed afternoon when we three had lunch in their courtyard in 1990. Or when she was on the jury at Cannes 2005.
This is a must-read for anyone who cares about film or art. Ebert concludes by placing Agnes Varda in a great tradition:
At Illinois I had a class that made a great impression on me, taught by the famous critic Sherman Paul, about the organic tradition in literature. As models he held up such as Emerson, Thoreau, Louis Sullivan, Edmund Wilson, William Carlos Williams. These men, he said, created as a part of their lives, not as a separate cerebral activity. My professor would have approved of Varda. She never studied film. She never moved in circles with Sartre, Beauvoir and other cafe philosophers who measured out their lives with coffee spoons. She simply went to work, doing what felt right to her, filming, photographing and designing what came to hand. For her there is no distinction between fiction and documentary, for they are both ways of observing and feeling.

Photographer and filmmaker Telemach Wiesinger queries his Wisconsin Film Festival audience

Wisconsin Film Festival: Telemach Wiesinger, German Photographer and Filmmaker
I loved the way German still photographer and filmmaker Telemach Wiesinger leaned forward like an attentive crane at the UW Cinematheque Saturday, while answering questions about his experimental short film -- and asking a few of his own.

"Passage" is a black and white film that Wiesinger calls a "film poem." It's a stark visual meditation on movable metal bridges and other forms of marine engineering shot on waterfronts and rivers in France, Germany, England, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. It's a haunting, hypnotic work filmed with the eye of an accomplished still photographer. If the still on the right looks familiar, maybe it is -- it was shot in Chicago, according to this article (in German) from the Badische Zeitung.

Wiesinger filmed various old pivot and lift bridges, gigantic dockyard ship hoists as well as the last remaining air cushion boats. The title refers not only to his own journey to these sites, but the water and land traffic with which the bridges are associated. He photographs them moving with slow, ponderous grace, to the accompaniment of an electronic musical score by composer Tobias Schwab that to my ear perfectly evoked both the busy hum of mechanical activity in harbors and ports, but also a sense of underlying melancholy.

There's a heaviness and stillness to the film that seems to owe something to Wiesinger's background as a still photographer. The motion in the film is slow, not because it was shot in slow-motion, but because the massive objects being filmed move so slowly in real time. It almost feels like a film about the physics of inertia. I really liked the effect and "Passage" was one of my favorite films of the festival.

Wiesinger's dialogue with the audience was also interesting. He explained how he got the dark skies of many of the shots. "When photographing with black and white film, one can use filters to darken the blue of the sky," he noted. Indeed -- it looked as if he often shot with a deep red or orange filter. Someone else asked about images that were superimposed -- ghostly images of people or other bridges. He said it wasn't done electronically, but by running a roll of film through the camera two, or even three, times to create multiple exposures -- a process that adds a chance component to the filming process, at least when shooting things you can't control.

Wiesinger also had a question for the audience: Did they like the sound track? Turns out that he originally conceived of the film as totally silent and first showed it as an installation along with still photos of the structures in the film. He only added the soundtrack recently, giving it more of a filmic qualty. It seemed as if he seemed to still think of it as a silent work and wasn't quite sure about the version with music. Perhaps he still sees it as more of a photographic than cinematic project. But most members of the audience liked the soundtrack, and some wanted to buy it (he said it would be on Schwab's next CD). And in a perfect small-world demonstration, one woman said she had seen the original silent version in Freiburg last year and liked this version more.

Incidentally, this isn't Wiesinger's first time in Madison, which is a sister city of Freiburg. In 2005 his "Faces of Freiburg" exhibit showed in several Madison locations as part of the sister city program. And in 2007 he was a Brittingham Visiting Scholar in the UW Department of German and had another show in the Madison Municipal Building, "Jazz Traveler." Some photos from both shows are on his website.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sampling Wisconsin Film Festival's limited edition Babcock ice cream flavor, "In the Dark"

Wisconsin Film Festival's Limited Edition Babcock Ice Cream Flavor, "In the Dark"
After watching the first afternoon screening of shorts at the UW Cinematheque yesterday, we wandered over to the Memorial Union to use our discount coupon for the Wisconsin Film Festival's Limited Edition Babcock Hall Ice Cream Flavor, "In the Dark." The UW News Service explains how the legendary Babcock Hall Dairy came up with the cinematic flavor:
As the Wisconsin Film Festival (April 2 to 5) rolls into its second decade, the Babcock Hall Dairy is rolling out a limited edition flavor for the festival, called “In The Dark.”

Festival director Meg Hamel says, “Not only do I have the best job on campus, watching movies all day, I get to have my dream ice cream, too. I grew up a few blocks from Babcock, and my grandparents always had a tub of chocolate chip in their freezer.”

Hamel and Babcock Dairy manager Bill Klein came up with the In The Dark flavor: chocolate malt ice cream with chocolate truffle pieces, chocolate chips, dark fudge swirl, and pecans.

The ice cream will be available starting Saturday, March 7, at both the Babcock Hall Dairy Store and at the Daily Scoop counter in the Memorial Union. As a bonus for people buying advance tickets to the Wisconsin Film Festival, the Memorial Union will also be offering coupons for 60 cents off a single cone (of any flavor). These coupons will be distributed by the festival box office.
The film festival is all about standing in line, and this was no exception. We found ourselves in a long line of people clutching the little red discount coupons like ours (foreground). The wait was worth it -- the ice cream is delicious! I hope they keep it around.

Our time lapse photo sequence tulips go through another stupid spring snow episode

Time Lapse Tulip Sequence Day 17
We had another encounter with a bit of snow last night, although it's all gone now. Yesterday's first crocus of the year seems to have buttoned up its coat in self-protection. To get a better view see Large version. (Entire time lapse sequence is here.)