Saturday, May 02, 2009

Just passing through


If I'm reading my copy of Stan Tekiela's Birds of Wisconsin right, this is a yellow-bellied sapsucker. It's a migrator, passing through on the way to northern Wisconsin and points north. It operates differently from most woodpeckers, by drilling holes to tap tree sap, which it which it doesn't suck but rather laps up, as do other birds. It also eats the insects the sap attracts. Unlike other woodpeckers, its drumming rhythm is irregular. "A quiet bird with few vocalizations, but will meow like a cat," says Tekiela in one of those wry observations that makes his books such a delight.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Happy May Day!

Time Lapse Tulip Sequence Day 42 of 42
Six weeks and a day since the first day of spring and the beginning of my time lapse tulip sequence. May Day seems a good occasion to wrap it up. There were a few weeks when watching these tulips grow had all the excitement of watching paint dry. But lately they've been coming along quite nicely. Thanks for bearing with us.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Who owns the air rights above Madison's Owen Conservation Park? The hawks? Or the crows?

Who Owns the Air Rights Above Owen Conservation Park in Madison?
You'll often find red-tailed hawks wheeling lazily above Owen Park, while crows fly back and forth between the oaks, usually keeping up a stream of raucous conversation -- especially when they see a hawk. I always assumed the crows were afraid of the big, fierce hawks. Was I ever wrong. I had to rethink things the other day, after I took this photo.

I had looked up and seen a hawk and a crow locked in what looked like a World War I-style aerial dogfight. They curlicued across the sky in tight circles, each jockeying for position, until they disappeared behind some trees. A moment later, the hawk flew off alone, into the distance, out of the park altogether. It was hard to tell who started it, but I assumed the hawk had been trying to catch the crow, until the crow finally got away, maybe finding protective cover with some other crows. That's what I thought. But the pictures showed the crow clearly harassing the hawk, not the other way around, and the crow must have succeeded in driving away the hawk.

I checked some references and found this wasn't an exception to the rule, but rather the rule itself. Crows compete with hawks for territory and tend to harass the hawks, sometimes singly, but usually in groups. Crows outmaneuver hawks in the air, which seems to drive the hawks nuts -- the crows are like nimble little fighter planes attacking bombers that have little ability to maneuver. The crows don't seem to hurt the hawks, but just to irritate them. Very occasionally a hawk will get even by catching and killing an unwary crow, usually while it's intent on something on the ground. But the sky seems to belong to the crows.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Perfect night to see a New Wave screwball Kafkaesque noir at the Cinematheque

Perfect Night to See a Screwball Kafkaeque Noir at the CinemathequeIt was umbrella weather last night, with gusty winds and light rain alternating with sudden drenching thundershowers. In short, a perfect night for us to take shelter in the UW Cinematheque while they showed Arthur Penn's long neglected Hollywood salute to the French New Wave -- Mickey One, a bizarre and unforgettable attempt to combine New Wave, screwball, noir and Kafkaesque elements.

Penn's Mickey One was the last film in their series, Treasures from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The black-and-white 1965 movie features Warren Beatty as a once successful stand-up comic who now plays second-rate clubs under an assumed identity (Mickey One) because he thinks the Mob is after him. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren't. Maybe he's just suffering from extreme performance anxiety.

In any case, he's on the run and paranoid as hell. The movie is a disorganized mess, but I love its junkyard surrealism, experimental verve and playfulness. And also its gritty black and white cinematography of the seamy side of life in midcentury Chicago, from the dives on Rush Street to a nightmarish scenes in a vast auto junkyard, where Beatty's paranoid fears turn a gigantic auto crane and a car-crushing metal compactor into surreal, fearsome predators. What has he done to merit such nonstop pursuit? What is he guilty of? In my favorite line in the film -- one that might even have made Kafka smile -- the question is put to Beatty, and he answers, "I'm guilty of not being innocent."

Peter Stack reviewed Mickey One in the San Francisco Chronicle when the Castro theater managed to get a print in 1995 for their "Dark Side of Show Business" film festival.
But fortune quickly turns -- witness to a torture murder in a back room, the comic flees, hoboes his way to Chicago's West Side and takes refuge in a junkyard. There he runs into another nightmarish scene -- police investigating a murder in an automobile crusher. The cinematic invention in Mickey One has been dismissed by some critics as contrivance. But Penn may have been decades ahead of his time in depicting an urban America as gallery of paranoia, cynicism and loneliness.

In a classic scene, the comic is up against a brick wall auditioning at a nightclub, a single, powerful spotlight trained on him so he can't see into the audience. Penn creates an agonizing moment of a man talking awkwardly to God while looking as if he's standing before a firing squad.
Stack was right -- that scene is an unforgettable classic. But Columbia (now Sony) seems to have been trying to get us to forget the film ever since it was made. Columbia hated the film. They put it in limited release and buried it in outdoor theaters. It's never been in DVD. It was once in LaserDisc, but those are rare (one used copy is listed on Amazon for $395 as I write).

Ironically, the movie that disappeared lived on as a soundtrack album, its jazz score by Eddie Sauter featuring memorable saxophone improvisations by Stan Getz. Sure be great if Sony finally decided to let Mickey One listeners and old movie fans see what all the fuss is about by releasing a DVD version.