The Fair, and other events

I’ve noticed that in other states, people don’t feel about their state fair as we do. In some places, people just don’t seem to be aware that they even have a state fair, and in others they are openly contemptuous of their fair, treating it as some sort of embarrassing spectacle of bumpkinhood.

Not us. When we call the State Fair the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” we’re not kidding. It may not be possible to represent the entire state at the fair, but, by golly, they do their best. So if you’re looking to buy oversized belt buckles with cherries on them, there’s that for you. But if you’re looking for superb examples of local photography, or an opportunity to learn about the latest green technology for taking your house off the grid, or want to hear some contemporary soul music, well, you’re probably covered, too. 

I’ll be spending the next week doing my own thing at the Fair, which, in my case, means creating infographics about the event. But it’s easy to get distracted by a big event like this and forget that there is other stuff going on, and I wanted to use my column this Friday to point out some non-Fair events worth checking out this weekend. We can’t all be at the Fair all the time, try though we might. Here’s a small sampling of what else is worth doing.

Kirk Douglas in "Ace in the Hole"
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Kirk Douglas in “Ace in the Hole”

Take-Up Productions has been working its way through the career of filmmaker Billy Wilder, whose films sometimes came off as daffy fun (“Some Like It Hot”) and sometimes seemed scripted in acid and filmed during one of those days when the sun refuses to shine, everybody is mean to each other, and nobody gets what they deserve (“Sunset Boulevard”). The sun shines on this weekend’s offering, but it does little but reveal how terribly crooked everything is. “Ace in the Hole” is one of Wilder’s bleakest offerings. It tells of a down-on-his-luck newspaperman (Kirk Douglas, oozing desperation) who decides to milk a local tragedy for everything it’s worth, causing the whole thing to turn into a grim carnival of misplaced ambition. Alll of it is watched by leering spectators for whom a man’s impending death seems mostly to be entertainment; you get the sense that Wilder meant this as a proxy for his own audience. The film is probably properly classified as noir, but it’s a peculiarly pessimistic sort of noir in which everybody is a villain. If you can handle the film’s misanthropy, it’s also a cracking good story, and if you’re in a particularly black mood, it’s possible to see the whole thing as a grim comedy.

Speaking of ghastly good humor, this is the last weekend of “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: The Melodrama of Sweeney Todd.” This isn’t the Sondheim musical but, instead, the original stageplay (with incidental music and songs — that’s what “melodrama” means) or, at least, an adaptation of the original play. This is one of the most ghoulish stories even put on the stage, telling of a what is perhaps the first recorded urban legend. Specifically, it tells the supposedly true but entirely unverifiable tale of a barber with a trick chair that drops his customers into a pit, where they are murdered, robbed, and baked into pies. The folks at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat like their melodramas arch and campy, with plentiful hissing and booing from the audience, and there has never been a better villain to boo at.

I haven’t mentioned it, and you probably already know it, but there’s a sort of alternative to the State Fair that’s opened last weekend. It’s a Great Minnesota Get-Together for Minnesotans who aren’t satisfied with the amount of chain mail to be had at our main fair, and just don’t see enough jousting at the coliseum, and feel the fair might be improved with a few Morris Dances. As they’ve been doing since 1972, these unsatisfied fairgoers have simply pitched their own tents in suburban fields and thrown their own event, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. It’s great fun, if often wildly anachronistic — some participants seems mired in the Middle Ages, or, at least, a Monty Python’s Holy Grail version of the Middle Ages, while others seem determined to push steampunk back by 400 or 500 years. I myself regret not having attended in the early Seventies, although I am not sure I would have fully appreciated it, as I was a little boy. I imagine a large number of attendees and participants were the sorts that especially liked when Led Zeppelin sang about hobbits, and I can imagine, late at night, as the Fair wound down, people gathering around campfires and working out arrangements of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” on lute. Those are the sorts of people I want to party with. Oh well — their contemporary incarnations are still at the Ren Fest, and still as much fun.

There’s an exhibit that’s been at the Minnesota History Center, but I haven’t gotten around to writing about it, and am remiss, as it’s terrific. The exhibit is titled “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom,” and, as is typically the case with History Center presentations, it boasts a superabundance of the artifacts of our past. It’s always interesting to pick through ol’ things, like music and comic books, but the highlight of the exhibit is the actual fuselage of a C-47 troop transport aircraft. History Center exhibits can occasionally be terrifying, as anybody who has been in their tornado exhibit can attest (one gets the sense that one is actually in the basement of a house that is crashing around their ears). This may be the scariest yet. Inside the fuselage, attendees listen to the actual stories of soldiers who flew over enemy territory, and as they tell their harrowing tales, convincing-sounding anti-aircraft explosions occur outside the plane, which is eventually riddled with bullets. The sense of helplessness is palpable — one well-placed enemy shell and you’re done. It’s as close to war as I ever want to get.

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