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Nepal: Rising From the Wreckage

When surveyors first tried to measure the elevation of Mount Everest in the mid-1850s, one of the stranger obstacles they encountered was what is known as plumb-line deflection. This, in effect, is the ability of Everest and her neighbors to exert a gravitational pull on the leveling bubbles in a surveyor’s instruments, thus skewing its calculations. (Try leveling a picture frame at Base Camp and the result is rather Picasso-esque.) Compared to a New Yorker of equal mass, a resident of the Himalayas weighs less—if only slightly—and consequently is attuned differently to the earth, as his center of gravity is tugged imperceptibly, hither and thither, by the invisible forces surrounding him. In this way, the Nepalese people are uniquely in touch with the land—not only in the spiritual sense but in a physiological one as well. Nepal_connects_sideThis mystical connection to the earth can be thrown into relief by tragedy. Nepal’s three deadliest mountaineering disasters on record all occurred in the past year. The most recent happened last month, when an earthquake centered near Kathmandu triggered an avalanche 200 miles away on Mount Everest, killing 19 climbers. It was the worst tragedy Everest had ever seen, breaking a mark set the previous April when 16 Sherpas were swallowed in an avalanche awakened by a falling ice cliff on the aptly named Khumbu Icefall. At the midpoint between these two disasters was one even more severe: As the tail of a tropical cyclone moved south from India last October, it swept over the frigid Himalayas and, like warm air sucked through the coils of an air-conditioner, emerged as a powerful blizzard engulfing Nepal’s most popular trekking routes and killing dozens of vacationing hikers. That all three of these record calamities occurred at six-month intervals between April 2014 and April 2015 suggests a cyclical precision that would only seem unusual for a land less sensitive to the earth’s clockwork than Nepal. EverestBaseInset Everest. Photo courtesy of kyletaylor/Flickr Statistically, if you could select any year from among the Himalayas’ 55 million to go trekking, 2014 would be your worst choice. But it was during this ill-fated span that I was hired as an assistant trekking guide in Nepal, co-leading commercial hikes into the Himalayas with a small staff of Sherpas. (Often used as a catchall for a Nepalese porter, Sherpa actually refers to an ethnic group comprised of sky-high mountain-dwellers, all of whom share the surname Sherpa.) Had I been tent-bound on high when the October blizzard hit, I would have been fending for my life, but that day I was housed in Kathmandu, where the warmer clime and thick pollution melted the blizzard down into a violent thunderstorm, which toppled trees but caused no catastrophic damage. Incidentally, the house where I took shelter collapsed six months later in the April earthquake. NepalEarthquakeInset Nepal after the April earthquake. Photo courtesy of dfid/Flickr Some, surely, will see these cyclical tragedies as the work of climate change or man’s hubris. The evangelically disposed may view the October tempest as Noachic retribution upon a nation of non-believers, and April’s tremor as the devil’s rumbling. I prefer to think that the recent disasters are testament to Nepal’s terrestrial bond—that as a region sprouted from the ground, it remains synchronized with the rhythms of the earth. And born, as it was, of seismic conflict, Nepal is forever rising up from its wreckage. Feature image courtesy of dalbera/Flickr Nepal_connects_bottom

by Gabriel Rosenberg

May 22, 2015

Your Majesty, “The Audience”

In case the brilliantly succinct tagline “Sixty Years. Twelve Prime Ministers. One Queen” leaves any doubt as to the story of The Audience, currently running on Broadway, a handy cheat sheet called “Meet the Queen’s Prime Ministers” is included with each Playbill. “One by one your prime ministers will fall under your spell. In here. In the Audience. In this room,” says Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) to flatter the young Queen Elizabeth II in one of their first meetings. He could just as well be describing the spell Helen Mirren is casting over sold-out theater audiences. Mirren, who won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the same monarch in The Queen, has again taken on the royal role. Named a dame of the British Empire by Elizabeth herself, in 2003, Mirren wasn’t exactly eager to wear the crown again. What was her two-word email response to playwright Peter Morgan (who also wrote the screenplay for The Queen) after he’d hoped she would play Elizabeth once more? “You bastard.” Mirren was “determined not to do” The Audience. She told The New York Times she changed her mind after meeting the play’s creative team: “There was the great designer Bob Crowley; there was Stephen Daldry, one of the great theater directors; there was Robert Fox, the producer; and there was Peter Morgan. And I looked at that team, and I said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. You can’t walk away from this.’” The idea for The Audience came to Morgan during filming of The Queen, as he watched Michael Sheen play Prime Minister Tony Blair opposite Mirren’s Elizabeth. Morgan remembers he “started thinking more about the sovereign and the PM—and the weekly ‘audience’ at the heart of their relationship and what a unique opportunity it presented a dramatist.” He chose not to present the story chronologically, and through the team’s theatrical magic, 69-year-old Mirren moves seamlessly from portraying Elizabeth at ages 38, 25 and 86. Her first transformation from a seasoned middle-aged sovereign to a young queen still in mourning clothes drew gasps from the crowd (myself included). The Audience begins with the queen’s droll equerry (played by Geoffrey Beevers) announcing, “Every Tuesday, at approximately 6:30 p.m., the queen of the United Kingdom has a private audience with her prime minister. It is not an obligation, nor is it written into the constitution. It is a courtesy extended by the prime minister to bring her majesty up to speed.” John Major (Dylan Baker) discusses a meeting with Diana, the Princess of Wales: “I’m sad to report she appeared quite fragile. She feels the marriage is to blame for her depression and several suicide attempts.” Sparks fly between Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey) and the queen, when it appears the palace has leaked unflattering comments about Thatcher to the press. Labour prime minister Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe) is obviously the favorite of the queen’s “dirty dozen.” Teasing her about being “not just happier with normal folk” but “one of us” at heart, Wilson jokes, “There’s a good Labour woman in there somewhere.” When Wilson singles out Elizabeth’s habit of reminding herself to “go back into the room and switch the lights off,” the queen mysteriously replies, “It’s the Bobo in me.” Margaret “Bobo” MacDonald (Tracy Sallows) had been the young Princess Elizabeth’s nanny; the two shared a bedroom until the future monarch was 11. In The Audience, it’s left to Bobo to answer Elizabeth’s difficult childhood questions, such as “What did Mummy mean tonight when she said everything would be different?” As the nanny explains, now that her father is king, young “Lilibet” is the heiress presumptive, and everyone must now call her Ma’am and curtsy to her too. As Morgan has drawn her, young Elizabeth struggles to retain her privacy and sense of self. Of her subjects, she tells her future queenly self, “I don’t want them to see me.” But as the adult Elizabeth reminds her, “Everyone knows you live here. They’ve seen you on the balcony, with Mummy and Papa.” The young princess makes a mature distinction, “But that’s me as…the other person. This is me as…me.” Morgan admits he doesn’t “know if the queen’s anything like the version of her that I write. She’s so unknowable,” and Mirren echoes those feelings: “She’s at the same time completely known and completely unknowable.” In The Audience’s concluding speech, the queen tells her younger self, “Your ordinariness as a human being will be your greatest asset as a sovereign.” Morgan and Daldry will continue “queening around”—a phrase Daldry notes the real-life queen has used to describe her activities. They’re starting work on The Crown, a Netflix series that begins in 1947 on the eve of Elizabeth’s marriage. Morgan says the show will spotlight the monarch’s battle with “how much of [her] is the queen and how much of [her] is Elizabeth Windsor and to what degree do the two things blend and blur into one another?” Mirren will not star, however. She notes, “We must all move on, and me most of all.” The Audience is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York through June 28. Photo by Joan Marcus Audience_connects_bottom

by Colin J. Warnock

May 21, 2015

American Icarus

Marah Strauch’s evocative debut film, Sunshine Superman, tells the incredible true story of Carl Boenish (rhymes with Danish), a man who turned his hobby of jumping from high places into a career and helped pioneer the art of BASE jumping. (BASE stands for Bridge, Antenna, Span, Earth.) But more than just leaping off mountains, Boenish spent his life filming his own soul-soaring falls, and the breathtaking footage is a boon to Strauch’s documentary. Indeed, this film feels like it was destined to be made. Boenish’s wealth of helmet-mounted 16mm footage, as well as state-of-the-art aerial photography, allow the audience to feel the thrill of tipping head-first off cliffs and buildings, and out of planes over and over again. But perhaps more exhilarating than these death-defying drops is the infectious enthusiasm of the man making them. We see Boenish as an abnormally happy man—but there’s nothing deluded about his happiness. He seems authentically tapped into some rare source of joy and well-being. The childlike Boenish had worked as an electrical engineer for Hughes Aircraft until getting a gig doing free fall photography for John Frankenheimer’s film The Gypsy Moths. After that he never looked back, devoting his life to battling the illusion that jumping off a cliff is something one shouldn’t do. His purity radiates from the 1970s footage, warming you with its fuzzy glow and pulling you in—as it did his wife, Jean, a bookish, almost timid woman, who’d never jumped off anything before meeting Boenish. She too went on to build a life around plummeting through the air. SunshineSupermanInset1 Jean is as much the star of this film as Boenish. Surviving him, she recalls her husband’s remarkable passion with a commitment that is itself remarkable and emotionally stirring. Together they and a group of friends began jumping off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, prompting it to be outlawed, and then fought to make jumping legal with a permit. Later Boenish risked more entanglements with the law when he jumped from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, gliding smoothly to the ground and then right into a cab. His brilliance lay in that he had never learned what a man can’t do. Weakened by childhood polio, Boenish loved the freedom of body and will he later possessed, and all his feats of foot-launched flight came to represent his powerful sense of individualism and his conviction in the strength of nature’s law over the laws of men. SunshineSupermanInset2 It should come as no surprise that the many vistas and scenes of natural beauty in Sunshine Superman are breathtaking. And the visual return to the ’70s, now a seemingly simpler time, is also quite pleasing: We glimpse fledgling reporter Pat Sajack doing a piece on BASE jumping; TV journalist David Frost, who was briefly Boenish’s boss; and a young Kathie Lee Gifford interviewing Carl and Jean in Norway, where Boenish made his recording-breaking high dive, and his ultimate one. Together Carl and Jean set the record for the highest BASE jump ever when they dove from Norway’s exquisite Troll Wall, a deadly ridge of jagged mountains. On the morning after their historic jump, Boenish attempted another on his own. In the end, between the lust-for-life highs of Boenish’s existence we also glimpse a valley: one deep, shadowed, mysterious and eerily compelling. As Boenish’s employer at Hughes Aircraft once told him, the “man who knows ‘how’ will always have a job, but the man who knows ‘why’ will be his boss.” Boenish knew how to jump off mountains, but he also needed to know why. In seeking too closely for greater meaning in what he could do, Boenish found that shaded valley. Scored with a mix of classical music and popular radio hits from the era (most notably “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, which closes the film on an appropriate high), this inspiring documentary asks you to rethink the old question and its would-be answer—If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you? Sunshine Superman hits theaters this Friday. All photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures BASE_jumping_connects_bottom

by Jonathan E. Roche

May 20, 2015

Do Marketers Dream of Plastic Sheep?

I know it’s a trap. I know that using my children to sell me stuff is the black magic of marketing. I use it myself, handing out balloons at street fairs in the hopes of stopping parents to talk about my company. But knowing about it in advance doesn’t help—I fall for it every time. The tricks can truly be insidious. Yesterday at Toys R Us, my wife and I were nearly ensnared by a balance bike display featuring a demo video—at toddler-eye level. Those marketers, they go straight for the petulant and impulsive consumer, knowing that a no from above can derail a whole afternoon with tears and time-outs. Branded_Entertainment_culturemap_sideAnd still, my heart breaks that I can’t buy my daughter every cheap plastic plaything in the place. If I’m feeling this pang when she’s too young to ask for anything, I’m in for big trouble a few years from now. Faced with the same dilemma several decades ago, my parents discovered the brilliant idea of “toy visitation.” I could spend as much time as I wanted inspecting everything in the store, but taking it all home was simply not in the cards. If anything, toy visitation put me in touch with my own inner no. To this day I feel an intense buyer’s remorse before I’ve even bought anything. I’ve managed to avoid buying myself countless frivolous items, but how to apply this to the bright-eyed girl in the stroller who grabs knickknacks with abandon? It certainly doesn’t help that the word developmental has been grafted onto so many of these doodads. I’m not only saying no to my daughter; I’m stopping her development in its tracks. She’ll never be a craftsman because yesterday I walked right past a toy set called, I believe, “Lil Cobbler.” At least I bought the Giggly Gears (pictured), ensuring that a career as an engineer—or at least a machinist—is still on the table. It’s an interesting feeling: resenting being marketed to while falling for it anyway. Maybe they should make a Lil Marketers set. Unlike cobbling, it’s a career that will never go out of style. Photo courtesy of Little Tikes Branded_Entertainment_culturemap_bottom  

by Austin Murphy-Park

May 19, 2015