Quiet holidays with The English Patient

For years I spent the Thanksgiving holidays alone. Solitude always has been a great comfort for me, a form of re-energizing. Thanksgiving weekend 1996 stands out and I oddly comeback to it year after year.

I usually avoided telling people I was alone on Thanksgiving in order to avoid the awkward invitation to the festivities of other families. In 1996 I lived in Norfolk, Virginia. The weather was a cool, damp, gray autumn (or so I recall). That Wednesday night before Thanksgiving I wanted to go to the movies, which I did quite often in that stage of my life. A movie starting that night was The English Patient. I drove out to the Regal Cinema in the suburban city known as Virginia Beach. I always arrive almost anyplace far too early. I sat in the parking lot in my Honda Accord, waiting an appropriate amount of time, probably fifteen to twenty minutes, which is why I remember the weather that evening, though I could very well be confusing it with some other evening in the cinema parking lot.

A few years before when I lived in Knoxville I had read Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, which I enjoyed immensely despite the complicated plot structure. Upon completing the novel I remarked to myself, “This book can never be filmed.” Obviously I was wrong. But I did not have high expectations for the movie. And it seems on that first night few people did.

In those years I regularly read a glossy movie magazine that highlighted current films. A special edition highlighted movies coming out during the holidays. The English Patient was given small mention but greater attention was given to another period piece starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock. I recall the magazine touting that The English Patient had little chance competing at the box office against the O’Donnell/Bullock In Love and War. Perhaps that was a fair assertion, though it seems ludicrous in hindsight. But In Love and War was directed by the acclaimed Richard Attenborough, based on writings by Hemingway, and starred two popular names at the time.

It must be pointed out that I avoid reading reviews of a movie until after I’ve seen the film. Movie reviews just reveal too much. At the Regal Cinema that night, only a small auditorium was allotted to The English Patient, again another hint that large crowds were not expected. But the tiny theater was packed. And now whenever I see that movie again, as the opening credits play, followed by the tinkling sounds of the bottles, I find myself mentally transported back to that night. Almost three hours later I left the theater, having stayed seated through the final credits. I walked out to my car alone and drove back to my apartment in Norfolk.

I would go see that movie again before the weekend was over. During the Christmas holiday I went home to Tennessee and took my mother to see the movie at the old Belcourt theater in Nashville. Back in Virginia I would see the movie even more. I never watch a movie more than once on my own, but that fall and winter I went to see The English Patient at least a half-dozen times. Maybe I had fallen in love with Juliette Binoche.

A more personal turn

I keep wanting this blog to have a focus, but there are too many varied thoughts in my head. So I’m opening this blogging space up to myself, which is appropriate since I write as much for myself as for anyone. Actually, I write mostly for my daughter Mila so that she might find these posts someday and learn more about the ideas that excited me.

For those of you out there following along, I promise to, at least, mark my posts in relevant categories so that you can choose what to ignore.

My first friend

Earlier in the week I learned of the death of Van Perdue at the age of 51, a man from my hometown, a guy I’ve not seen in decades. Yet, he appears in so many of my early childhood memories. We lived around the corner from each other. Our parents were friends. As the case in a small Tennessee town our families knew each other, and their parents and grandparents.

I have a young daughter approaching her fourth birthday, which has caused me to think a lot about myself at that young age. Over the past year those memories have been much in my mind. Of course, the memories are just fragments. And there has been Van in those memories of when my family lived on Lee Street. After we moved to the other side of town when I was in the 2nd grade I lost touch with him since he was a few years ahead of me in school. But he was my first friend and will always be there in my mind.

Planning for DH in the liberal arts

One of the exicting areas I’m involved in at Washington & Lee is the digital humanities initiative. I recently co-authored a case study that describes the first two years of DH at this liberal arts college: Launching the Digital Humanities Movement at Washington and Lee University: A Case Study.

A lot of really great DH activities are in the pipeline here. I’m quite amazed at where this small liberal arts college is heading with DH over the next few years.

Talking to humanists about GIS

Mapping is forming a large part of our digital humanities initiative. Through an excellent in-house tool that layers over the Google Maps API we have students engaged in building thematically content rich maps. A course in Classics maps aspects of the ancient world. An English class pinpoints locations in London from contemporary novels that the students are reading. An art history class examines Rome during the high renaissance and realizes through overlays of historic maps that the Rome of that period was a desolate shell of the imperial Rome that existed hundreds of years prior.

We know maps as visual representations that identify locations in a geographic space. Mapping is easy to grasp. GIS is not. While an annotated Google Map that pulls data via an API from a Google Docs spreadsheet or another source is a rudimentary Geographic Information System, the automated task of enabling pin placement on a map merely scratches the surface of geospatial visualization in the huamnities.

Is GIS even the right term within the humanities? With its basis in the sciences and social sciences and the need for exact precision of data, GIS presents an intimidating learning curve before a potential user even realizes the possibilities of the software. And that’s the key: understanding the possibilities of thinking in terms of place, the spaces that comprise a location, the attributes distinguishing each spot, and the relationship among those elements as they consist in a neighborhood, a city, or a broader area.