Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 2

Our last-minute lodgings took a turn for the even better this morning when the landlady arrived with a bag full of food. Bread, cheese, cold cuts, jam and butter — nothing fancy but plenty good enough. Thus the day began on an unexpectedly high note.

The rain is playing a gentle staccato tune on the awning as I sit here at a pleasant sidewalk café, reflecting on the movie I saw this morning. We were in an inflatable theater, which would have been a pretty good venue but the sound isolation from outside wasn’t very good. If the movie had been more interesting, that might not have mattered as much. Title I Can’t Reproduce From Memory had its moments, but when it was over I was rather amazed that only 90 minutes had passed. Was it Chekhov who said that when you show a gun in act one, it should go off in act three? In this movie the gun never went off. The blurb said something like “Kid is drawn into a dark and violent underworld,” when it really should have said, “Kid draws near underworld, doesn’t do much, and then goes home to take care of his mother.”

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Another movie, another gentle rain under the awning of a café. It’s a tough life.

This movie was Ma che ci faccio qui? (What the Hell am I Doing Here?), an Italian film, and when you boil it down it was an “I know! Let’s put on a show and save the bar!” movie. You’ve seen them before. Happily, this was a very nicely done LPOASASTB movie, with genuine humor and a bit of heart as well. There’s nothing wrong with rehashing an old idea if you do it well. Heck, somewhere around Homer all the good ideas were taken. (Although, it might have been Chaucer who did the first LPOASASTB story.) The movie was from a young director who made it in film school, which adds to the surprise of how much top-quality acting was involved.

Walking around after the movie we ran into a couple of fuego’s coworkers on one film or another. One woman, when she heard I was his brother, looked at me and said, “from Pirates of the White Sand?” She was enthusiastic. That was nice.

Now I need to get some work done.

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Movie three today was German-Polish-Czech movie that kept me chuckling for much of the time. I’m not sure how it would play to an American audience, although the stereotypes of the Czechs, Poles, and Germans are just as broad and unflattering as that of the token American in the film. Schroder’s wonderful World is about a man who has the idea to use American money to build a theme park where former East Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic intersect, an area that is rather an international mess of communist industrialization, much of which has now been razed. The mayors of the three towns of the triangle must cooperate to make the project work.

I don’t think I’m ruining anything to tell you that the project does not work.

It was a quick shift of location to catch our final flick of the day, A Romanian film that won the big prize at Cannes. My expectations going in were pretty high, and while the movie was awfully damn good, it didn’t live up to what I had come to expect. The marketing nightmare — get such great buzz that the movie disappoints. Still and all, If you get a chance to see 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (off the top of my head, I can’t reproduce the Romanian title), do so. It’s dark, but compelling.

Looking back, we are still talking about yesterday’s Mister Lonely, despite the cinematic flood we’re experiencing. That’s gotta mean something.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 1

The question is on everyone’s lips as I walk down the street. I can see it in the sidelong glances and the more honest stares. Starlets, wondering who to sleep with to best promote their careers, pause and try to answer the question:

“Who is that guy?”

While most patrons have a badge that hangs vertically from its orange lanyard, bearing the picture of some model who is apparently the face of this year’s show, my badge is horizontal, and the picture on it is mine. Stamped in big red letters are the words “FILM INDUSTRY”. Combined with the sheer power of my charismatic personality (*cough*), it’s easy to understand why people would be intrigued.

Here, on day one of the festival, the power of the badge showed its first practical superpower as well. We selected the film we wanted to watch, and fuego went to get the tickets. “None available,” the agent told him. He asked for our second choice. Nope. Then when booking the third choice the agent saw The Badges. Whaddaya Know? There were tickets available for our first choice after all.

We watched Mister Lonely, an offbeat story of a Michael Jackson impersonator who gets recruited by Marilyn Monroe into a commune of impersonators. Then there’s the part where the nuns are jumping out of an airplane…

The show was quite good but missed an “excellent” by going flat at places. Marilyn’s performance went soft at a key moment. Still, a movie I’m glad I saw and one that would definitely be worth the price of admission should it show up in a theatre near you. It manages to combine the entire range of emotion from farce to tradegy — sometimes simultaneously.

In other news, I’ve run into several friends while here, some by design, others by accident, and they have helped make this one heck of a good time so far. There was a tense moment when we found that the apartment we had reserved was suddenly unavailable, but the folks at Shadows of Stars and Cine-Jessy came through and now I’m sitting pretty! Today I’m gonna watch me some movies.

Looking down the throat of Mt. Etna.

It was already warm at 8:30 when we caught the bus from Catania Centrale and began our meandering way through the villages that cling to the sides of the volcano. Steadily we made our way upward until there were no towns left, then it was up a new road, winding its way up a new lava flow, past new buildings. We passed a rooftop almost level with the top of the flow, a tile raft that until 2003 sheltered a family. Apparently there were sighs of relief back then when the lava stopped short of the town of Niccolosia.

We reached an artificial town, a tourist outpost, and piled off the bus. The only bus back down would leave at 4:30 in the afternoon. We were directed to the headquarters for the guided tours, where we were informed that there were two packages available. The first involved taking the cable car, then getting in trucks up to a point within striking range of the top, then a trip back down by truck and cable car after exploring a minor crater there. The other tour used the cable car and the trucks, then included a hike all the way to the top, followed by a long walk all the way down, exploring other features. It was designed to arrive back at the bus stop just in time.

After the guy explaining our options said “central crater” there was no other question. Our boots (and just about everyone else’s) were rejected as being inadequate, so we had to use theirs. Their boots were better than mine, but I have somewhat odd feet and it’s hard to find shoes that actually fit right. For a while I hoped I could put together an odd pair and have boots that fit both feet for the first time in my life, but no luck. Thus it was with quite a bit of concern for my left foot that I set out.

Tram, truck, and then then climb began. It was not a long trail, but pretty steep, and I counted myself lucky that there was at least one person in the group in even worse shape than I was. We crossed a lava flow from march of this year, and then one from 2006. Then more cinder fields, up, up, up.

The most recent eruption was from the southeast crater, on May 7. One and a half months ago. It was a small eruption, lasting only eight hours, but the southeast crater is still smoking and generally being threatening. “There are a lot of fissures on its face,” our guide explained, “and a lot of pressure. I think it could erupt soon, like in days. Of course, it is hard to predict…”

Our guide was great. Very patient and very knowledgeable. He took time out to demonstrate the proper use of walking sticks on steep loose terrain to one of our number, and was always watchful and helpful. He has been climbing Etna almost every day for twenty years. “I used to be a guide on Strómboli, but… this one is better.” He would stop to tell us about eruptions, using words like ‘beautiful’ to describe a lava flow that came within a kilometer of a town.

Finally, winded, I staggered to the top as our guide circled the group and drew the layout of the central crater in the dirt. In groups of three he took us to the edge of the “new chasm” to peer down. “Good conditions today,” he said. “Sometimes there’s too much steam and you can’t see in.”

I peered down. I eased myself closer to the edge, and peered again. The sun was straight overhead, shining way, way, down. I took another baby-step forward, and looked farther down. The wind was pushing me around a bit; it would have meant nothing were it not for Certain Death awaiting any misstep. I stepped back from the Very Deep Hole.

There are three chasms in the central crater. We walked to where we could get a good look at all of them and take pictures. We milled around a bit, finding places where the sulfurous gasses escaping from the ground all around us weren’t so bad. Crater 1964 is blocked now, which happens pretty often in volcanoes of this type, and eventually leads to explosions. So we were standing on a time bomb with (geologically speaking) a very short timer.

The central crater as a whole has been pretty quiet for a few years now, however — most of the action has been from the youthful and blustery southwest crater, which is off limits right now. We climbed out of the central crater to the portion of the rim closest to the southeast crater, and the guide gathered us around a large chunk of basalt. “This was from the May 7th eruption,” he said. The rock was less than fifty days old. I imagined standing there while semi-molten rocks rained down around me. “We will only stay here ten minutes,” he continued. “It’s not safe.”

I spent eight minutes taking pictures and two minutes looking wistfully at perhaps the best venue for stacking rocks I’ve ever seen. Good rocks in a variety of styles, level cinder terrain good for photography, dramatic backdrop. No time. A good rock stack takes a long time to compose (for me it does, anyway). I don’t like stacking in front of people, but up there I think I could have.

It was time to go down. Down and down and down, at times ski-jogging down ash and cinder slopes, pausing periodically to empty the quarries out of our shoes. By the time we reached touristville my legs were rubber, and I was not the only one in the group stumbling on fairly minor obstacles. You don’t realize when you walk on fresh legs how much goes into recovering from minor irregularities in the terrain. When you don’t have the strength to perform these basic adjustments, suddenly the world is a much trickier place to walk.

We returned our boots and caught the bus back down, winding cautiously down the steep road. Finally back in Catania we stepped off the bus and the evening heat hit me in the face like a steaming mackerel. Everyone, as they left the air-conditioned bus, said something like, “holy crap!” in the language most convenient to them. Something had changed while we were up on the mountain; the hot, hot sirocco winds from Africa had arrived and summer had begun. Time for one last seafood feast, and then back to Prague. News that it had been raining there made returning home all the more appealing.

The Island Life

I am sitting now at a place called Moby Dick, near the hydrofoil dock in the city of Lípari, on the island of the same name. We ordered big beers, and we got big beers. Our boat back to the main island leaves in two hours. The wind for which the islands are named is kicking up a bit, making our stay under the bar’s giant umbrella quite pleasant. The view isn’t much, though.

Said fuego when we saw our room in the hostel in Canneto (just up the coast from Lípari), “did I hear the price correctly?” The cheapest place on the trip was also the roomiest, coolest (in the literal sense), and even had its own bathroom. It’s not quite the busy season on the islands, so the rate might be going up in a couple more weeks. The only downside was noise; our balcony overlooked the main road and people around here get up pretty early in the morning to buzz around on their noisy little scooters. At night, however, the streets are quiet.

After we settled in we made a grocery store run to stock the fridge and then we explored the town, which didn’t take long. We settled in at a sidewalk caf

Island Bound!

Today has been a day devoted primarily to getting from one place to another. We are still in that process, on a high-speed boat from Messina to the island of Lipari. The island sounds like a pretty cool place to hang out, and it has the added bonus of being a stone’s throw from another island, Stromboli. There are many volcanoes hereabouts, but Stromboli is a particularly consistent one, throwing sparks out more or less all the time.

The best time to witness this phenomenon is at night, we have read, when the sparks are easier to see, so night tours to climb the volcano are a popular thing. That’s all the future, however, so I’ll wait until we actually do it to write about it. (This process is called ‘journalism’, I’m told.)

It was a tough call deciding to go this far afield, since the time spent traveling is time not doing something else. In the end, however, there are beaches all over the place, and Greek and Roman ruins more places than this. Active volcanoes, however, are a little more unusual. fuego called a hostel in Lipari, made a reservation, and we were decided. Now all we had to do was get there.

At the train station we checked the schedule and saw that a train was heading for Messina in… two minutes. The next one didn’t leave for hours. In fact, the guy in the tourist office said the next train wouldn’t be running because of a strike.

The train was still sitting there. We dithered for a moment and then I said, “let’s go get our other bags and see if the train is still here.” Without much hope we went back to hostel (just up the street), quickkly collected our things and hauled them back.

The train was still sitting there. We hauled our stuff out onto the platform and fuego asked someone if we could buy tickets on board. Nope. fuego stood by our bags on the platform while I went in to the ticket window. The woman there buying tickets in front of me was a Problem Customer. Time dragged. I stood, dripping sweat, while the ticket guy tried to work with this lady. Every time it looked like they might be about done she came up with some new way to introduce a problem into the transaction.

Worst case: the moment I buy tickets the train pulls out. The train remained put, however, and the uniformed guy who had answered our questions earlier would poke his head into the station to check on me once in a while.

Problem Lady left the window, with her son there to hold her place. The buildup behind me started saying something, and the ticket guy shrugged and gestured. “I’m in the middle of a transaction,” he seemed to say. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Uniformed Guy didn’t buy it. I don’t speak Italian, but I think he said something like, “The train can’t leave until you take care of these people! Screw the Problem Lady!” Whatever he said did the trick and sixty seconds later I had tickets. Uniformed Guy then showed me how to validate the ticket in a little machine and we were on our way. Well, almost on our way. It was still quite a while before the train departed.

Transfer from train to boat went smoothly, but it appears that we are not allowed up on top, and the windows are pretty much opaque, which limits sightseeing. It feels more like air travel than sea travel, right down to the crying children.

It’s the Heat, AND the Humidity

We siesta’d through the heat of the afternoon, then went out for a most pleasant dinner at a little hole-in-the wall place. It was the most relaxed meal we’ve had here yet, and prices were reasonable. The place had about eight tables but it was early when we got there and at first we had the place to ourselves.

The food was quite good (you may be catching on by now that the eating is good in these parts), and once again we got a little adventurous with one order; we got ricotta-stuffed pasta with cuttlefish ink sauce. (This was partly due to the inspriation of my Cuttlefish Man post a while back.) That dish was merely good rather than great, but visually striking, as the sauce was completely, opaquely, black.

Earlier in the day we went to check out the old Greek theater (right next to the slightly-less-old Roman Theatre), which was all right, but nothing like the photos in the books and on posters. The difference is that the old greek theater is still used for productions, so much of the seating area has wooden benches on it to protect the stone, and there are modern lighting towers and whatnot directed at the very modern set on stage. Nearby there were some cool caves — literally cool, which was a welcome respite from the heat of the day.

We tromped back to the hostel after that, stopping for sorbet on the way. It was good but I was tempted to pour the ice concoction on my head.

Another Big Day

Today I flirted a bit with a pretty girl, and I showered. Nearly missed the bus, saw some old stuff, ate some good food. Sicily, man, Sicily. It’s easy to get used to being here.