Saturday, November 3, 2012

Verses after a Storm

I woke on Tuesday with a poem in my head. It was the morning after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, and I was relieved to discover that I had been spared the worst of the storm. The power was on, water was flowing, and both my partner and I were safe in our home. I know that many others were much less fortunate, and that, as I write this, too many are still lacking basic necessities. For them, returning to normal shall take longer. I am thankful for my good luck, and offer these verses from my perspective:

The Sensation of Subtle Sounds

I awake to a variety of subtle sounds:
A hammer tapping,
Tires gliding over damp streets,
While footfalls trod upon the sidewalk,
And from some nearby, though uncertain location,
Soft organ music surfaces.
Eventually, the more obtrusive voice of a leaf blower joins the mix
Along the front walk,
Another sign of moving on,
A partial return, at least, to a routine of daily life.
But most reassuring
(As it has been throughout the storm)
Is the sensation of your warm body
Wrapped tightly in my loving embrace . . . 

*      *     *

Best wishes to all . .  .

photo by creighton blinn, all rights reserved

Friday, October 12, 2012

Glasses Ever Darkly

Religious skeptics have a long history of reexamining religious phenomenons through an ever changing lens of science. Some of these thinkers attempt to construct a middle path between the two perspectives, demonstrating how science is simply a natural outflowing of Divine Providence. Others use a more antagonistic method, employing science as a conflicting explanation for what was once believed to be miraculous or supernatural. One such example of this latter approach is the 1922 film Haxan:Witchcraft through the Ages. Made by the underrated Danish director Benjamin Christensen, this silent movies explores the history of witchcraft in Europe. While the film begins with a series of images tracing the iconography of the Devil to pre-Christian times, it soon settles into the Medieval period. What follows are a series of reenactments depicting the staples of witchcraft folklore: the local village witch, the Black Mass, black cats, demonically possessed nuns, etc. These visually stunning sequences seek to recreate a world where any tiny physical detail could be viewed as some potent for deep distress, and superstitions could be fatal, especially during a visit from itinerant witch-hunters. Christensen clearly holds to the view of Medieval Europe as The Dark Ages devoid of any science or reason (there is even a short segment demonstrating the cruel fate of medical students brazen enough to study cadavers). This attitude towards religion is reinforced in the final section of the film. Here Christensen revisits the extraordinary occurrences of earlier centuries, and explains them away by using the, then current, prism of Psychoanalysis. In such a manner, the possessed nun who disfigures images of her Lord Jesus is compared to a high class society shoplifter. Both commit their crimes unconsciously, in an attempt to strike out against an environment within which they feel powerless. They are simply sleepwalking through a life that they do not understand. Such individuals should not be feared or condemned, but pitied. Circumstances have made them who they are, and sympathetic treatment will help. Prejudice will only make the situation worse, until you have not one distressed nun, who has slid into disillusion, but an entire convent which has lost its reason.

As I stated above, perspectives shift over time, so that 90 years later, Christensen's linking of witchcraft and hysteria may seem more simplistic than profound. After all, in the intervening years we have witnessed many types of "illnesses" swept under the catch-all rug of  "hysteria." In fact, many contemporary thinkers, including some within psychology, would smirk at the thought of Psychoanalysis being labeled a "science" instead of merely another philosophy, another set of theoretical beliefs. Probing for a deeper understanding often leads to a more complicated portrait, which, in turn, leads me to Beyond the Hills.

Beyond the Hills, which I viewed last weekend at the New York Film Festival, is the most recent movie by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu. It centers on the relationship between two young women who bonded deeply while living in an orphanage. (The film implies that their relationship may have included lesbian elements, but leaves the matter up to the viewer's interpretation). At the beginning of the film Alina is returning to Romania after living abroad in Germany for three years; the reason for her return is to visit her former companion, Voichita, who is now a nun in a local monastery. Alina has been troubled lately, and wants her old friend to accompany her back to Germany. Voichita is willing, but the priest in charge refuses to grant her leave. As the tension between the two women grows, so does Alina's mental distress, which quickly comes to include violent outbursts and attacks against the priest and other nuns. Mungiu never offers a clinical diagnosis of Alina's condition, yet it would appear to be some sort of bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia. (Once again, the reality of mental illness is much uglier than in the rose-tinted world of Ron Howard). The priest and nuns wish to help Alina, but have been given precious little guidance from the doctors which examine Alina after a suicide attempt and violent attack on the community. Left to fend for themselves, they ultimately resort to their own frame of reference: the young woman must be possessed by the devil. In such a way, Mungiu, like Christensen, presents how supernatural lore of old might have quite concrete roots in today's accepted science. Unlike the earlier director, however, Mungiu, does not scapegoat believers for their faith. When tragedy arrives, the priest is the only person anywhere in the film to take responsibility for what has occurred. He may have been wrong to do what he did, but at least his compassion moved him to try something, which is much more than can be said for any secular authority (civil service or medical) who had an opportunities to intervene in Alina's life. At the Q&A after the screening, Mungiu explained that he wished to examine the consequences of indifference, and make us think twice about those troubled souls who we ignore every day with a shrug of our shoulders. In such a way, Mungiu is working in the same tradition as Christensen, whose film is also a plea for sympathy towards those whose thoughts and actions are not easily understood. (Finally, it should be noted that both directors' took their inspiration from recorded incidents; in the case of Beyond the Hills, it was events which occurred less than a decade ago).

Taken together, these two films demonstrate a shared interest in understanding the human experience in order to gain a deeper compassion for those in need of assistance. The fact that one film may be more nuanced than the other simply shows how that search for understanding is a perpetual process of growth. After all, who can predict how thinkers a century from will consider our most profound thoughts on human behavior? We cannot. We can only continue searching for a deeper answer, acknowledging that our comprehension shall never be complete, that the glass will always remain somewhat darkly . . .


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Returning with a Poem

Sorry that I have been away for awhile, but, there has been much going on in my life. I am happy to report, though, that these developments have been quite positive & I am in good spirits. It also pleases me to say that I have been keeping at my writing, composing new pieces and performing them around the city. Today, I would like to share with you a poem which was inspired by music. For a few years now, I have been a fan of the Portuguese tradition of fado. Introduced to this music by one of my oldest friends, I quickly fell in love with its sounds and melodies. Last December BAM hosted a weekend of fado concerts, which I eagerly devoured. The vast majority of the acts were quite strong and the audience very receptive. The first night I was so swept up in the music that, after leaving the main stage, I was compelled to check out the cafe for even more fado. After the show ended, I stopped in a nearby bar for a drink, and wrote a poem. As a final note, I should add that the word fado is usually translated as "fate."

Fado is a mournful music
Made up of somber rhythms
And solemn tones
Comprising a lament,
As well as an acceptance,
For what once was
But now has been lost.
Yet, its songs may not always be funereal;
At times they might contain the sounds of celebration
Set to a more lively tempo
Offering up defiance
In the face of circumstances
Which try to confine our movements.
We strain, instead, to be their master
By proclaiming our fado
In a voice of our own choosing.

For those interested in sampling the diversity of fado, I would recommend Carlos Saura's film Fados. Not a talking heads history, but instead a series of performances which run from traditional to contemporary, all of which are strikingly staged. (That Saura is well known for his ability to capture dance on film is readily apparent). Here are two excerpts, both featuring Mariza, one of the most well regarded living fado singers:


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Violent Entertainments & Hungry Games

Yesterday I finished reading Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which I thought was quite good. Collins has crafted strong, intriguing characters, and placed them in a believable fictional world. As I have two more volumes of the series to go, I shall keep my speculation on further developments to myself for the moment, though I shall say that I am eager to see what happens next. Also, I hope to keep this post free from spoilers.

So, instead of plot mechanics, I would like to touch upon theme this afternoon. For those unfamiliar with the narrative, it revolves around a future society in what was once termed "North America." In the aftermath of a crushed social revolution, the elite have instituted an annual competition (the titular Games) in which 24 youngsters between the ages of twelve and eighteen are tossed into the wilderness and manipulated into killing each other. The last remaining survivor wins. This contest is broadcast live throughout the nation for the great pleasure of well-off city folk and to the poorer classes as a reminder of their utter subservience. For the benefit of both audiences, the more bloody and harrowing the competition, the better.

One of the reasons this book works is that Collins gets the tone right. It is, after all, a fine line to write a critique of violence as entertainment without your story becoming entertaining violence itself. Collins' keeps her story dark, never portraying her main characters reveling in any of their kills. When death happens it is quick and usually gruesome. This is not violence that has been sanitized for your protection. What is extra chilling is imagining all the citizens of the nation's posh Capital sitting around their living rooms, munching on snacks (popcorn anyone?), laughing and simply having a jolly good time watching all the maiming. Roman gladiators are clearly one reference, as are more contemporary sports and pastimes -- even someone who has viewed as little reality television as myself can pick up on the tropes riffed on by the packaged presentation of the Games to the populace. It would seem once again that from the Coliseum to today to the future there is precious little alteration in human nature.

Which leads me to the fact that somehow this story has been turned into a "major motion picture." I do not believe that there exists an "unfilmable" book, though some offer more challenges than others. What Collins merely described in her novel must now be rendered into moving images. In the process, the filmmakers have to find a way not only to maintain the balanced edge of Collins' narrative in their screenplay, but also transfer that tone to the screen. In other words, for this movie to work, in my mind, it should disgust the viewer. The violence should make your stomach turn, sicken you. Like the novel, there should be no catharsis in the kill, even if it saves a beloved character's life. This is not the type of story to elicit an audience reaction of "oh man, did you see how the spear just pierced her throat like that? Awesome!" If it is, well then, what's the difference between you and the citizens of the Capital placing bets on these young kids and hoping that this year's bloodbath will be even more thrilling than the previous?

This is not to say that violence cannot be entertaining (I read superhero comics, OK?), but that I feel it is the wrong tone for this particular story and the message its author wishes to convey. It is also true that intentions and reception are two different things (i.e. those viewers who somehow thought that A Clockwork Orange was a fun film worth imitating).

While reading the book, my mind was brought back to Peter Watkins' film Punishment Park. Made in the early 1970s, the British director imagines an America where political dissidents (read leftists & hippies) are arrested for sedition. They are given the option of prolonged prison sentences or a short stay in "Punishment Park." The park, as it turns out, is a dessert that they must cross (without supplies) in order to win their freedom. Only, it slowly dawns on the viewer that the whole thing is a set up, as National Guard troopers start killing them off one by one. It is a highly brutal and disturbing movie, yet also the closest example I could think of what I believe a Hunger Games film should resemble.

Not that Hollywood would let anyone like Peter Watkins near a property with as much profit potential as this one. Nope, instead we get Gary Ross. Gary Ross? The guy who made Pleasantville, a film that copped-out at any & every opportunity at nuance? A film that refused to truly challenge the audience or ask of it any question for which the filmmakers did not have a ready-made pat answer? A movie that avoided addressing any real issue of how actions have their consequences, both good and bad? This is the director to whom they've entrusted the book? Sorry, I'll pass. (At least they didn't find some way to cast Tobey Maguire in this one. Come on, you know that he auditioned for Thresh . . . :)).

As I said at the beginning, I have only just finished book one of the trilogy, and apologize if anything I have written is contradicted by the following two volumes. (Though, if they are, please be kind and do not respond to this post in such a way that spoils them for me. Thanks). I feel as though I have a sense where Collins is headed and that "the center shall not hold." Oh wait, I said that I would avoid second-guessing the author at this stage . . .


Postscript, 3-22-12: So, I was on the subway yesterday, reading Catching Fire as part on my morning commute, when it suddenly occurred to me who should have been handed the job of adapting The Hunger Games: Alfonso Cuaron. The man has experience adapting children's/young adult literature (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The latter film also demonstrated that he can deliver profits on a big-budget fanchise Event -- gotta keep the accountants happy, you know?  At the same time, he has shown an ability to see into the more complicated aspects of young psyches (Y Tu Mama Tambien). Most importantly, there is Children of Men. One of the reasons I have always admired this film is the starkness of Cuaron's presentation of violence; it is sudden, often short, and always harrowing. In other words, just how I would imagine that The Hunger Games should be faithfully handled on screen, especially now that I have a glimpse of where the second book is going (only a little over a hundred pages into it so far). True, Cuaron has had his misses (though, if the only good thing that came out of his Great Expectations is Pulp's song "Like a Friend", well, then that whole movie might have worth it anyhow). Still, maybe, if I cross my fingers long enough The Powers that Be will give Senor Cuaron a chance at Catching Fire. One can hope at any rate . . .

I have yet to read any of the advanced reviews of the Hunger Games film, so it is always possible that my pessimism shall be proven wrong. We'll find out soon enough . . .


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Film, 2011

Yeah, I know that the year actually ended two months ago, but I have been playing catch-up (more so than usual this time around, but that's another story for another time and place). So, as the Oscars are tonight, let me offer up what lingered with me once I left the theaters these past several months . . .

Best of the Year
[The films listed are not ranked. Also, to simplify matters in this world of global financing, country designations refer to the director's origins].

1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Germany): The subject of these cave-paintings proved a natural fit for Herzog's characteristic musings about humans and their place in this world. And, yes, the 3D suited the subject as well. A truly haunting film. On a personal note, as a long time Herzog fan, I think that I have reached the point where I would be soothed by the sound of his voice reading a phone book.

2. Tuesday, after Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania): Possibly the best film I saw at the 2010 New York Film Festival, this stellar movie is one of the best theatrical films of 2011. A portrait of adultery and the final dissolution of a marriage filled with fully drawn characters and all the messy ambiguity of everyday life.

3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can See His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand): There seemed to be a preponderance of films last year examining the cycle of life and our place within it. This example is filled with ghosts, fantastic whimsy, beautiful imagery, and a scene in a cave that, I believe, is an allegory of reincarnation. Either way, I left the theater wanting to hold onto the sensations of this film for as long as possible.

4. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland): An examination of Pieter Bruegel's creation of his painting The Road to Calvary, this may be the greatest film I have seen on the life of an artist. Not a bio-pic of Bruegel, but instead a study of the times in which he lived. Like the work of the painter himself, Majewski dares to capture all of human experience, only to admit by the end, that it is too vast for a single canvas of any type. Simply stunning.

5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark): Opinion, as always with von Trier, was all over the place with this film. I have often had a mixed experience with the director, but was swept up in this one from pretty much the beginning. Another vision of our place in the cosmos, and speculation on the End of Things (note the use of Bruegel images throughout), it avoids massive physical destruction, for more psychological suffering. His best since Breaking the Waves, if not simply his masterpiece.

6. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France): The silent film junky in me was pretty much in love with every moment of this film. A superb combination of both fun and pathos.

7. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, USA): Yes, it started slow; for the first third or so, I was thinking "not bad, but nothing special." However, the more I watched, the more the characters deepened, until I was completely absorbed by the end. Another first rate film for Payne.

8. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran): Similar to Tuesday, this film also is a close character study, whose story spins out of a crumbling marriage. However, this film employs a larger cast, weaving a wider social portrait. In the end, it seems to be illustrating how small omissions of consideration for those around us can create unintended and quite poisonous circumstances. Again, a film with no easy villain -- only finely drawn characters. Oh yeah, and in a year where I saw the world end, literally, at least three times in the cinema, this may have been the most emotionally intense film of the year.

9. Hugo (Martin Scorese, USA): If The Artist was about the thrill of making movies, Hugo is about the joy of watching them. Scorsese has taken his love for the history of cinema, stripped it of academic baggage and delivered it with a sense of pure excitement. Mix in two charming young leads and a wonderfully restrained comic performance by Sacha Baron Cohen and you have a bit of fun. And the 3D works well to boot. Of course, I'm also the guy you heard sighing at the brief glimpse of Buster Keaton in The General . . .

10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden): At a third of the length of the Alec Guinness miniseries adaptation, this film may not keep the same amount of plot detail from the book, yet it makes up for it in atmosphere, and thus in rendering the moods and emotions of le Carre's novel perfectly. I have a couple quibbles about Connie's character, but beyond that, first rate all around. As for the final scene? Is it too early to hope for bringing the gang back together for The Honorable Schoolboy?

11. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA): Much ink has been spilled on the Oscars and nostalgia for the past. Well, here is film set in the past without any trace of rose-tinted glasses. Tracing the increasingly desperate wanderings of a lost wagon train, this movie serves well as a companion piece to her brilliant Wendy & Lucy. Both concern the lengths to which individuals will travel in search of dreams of a better life, as well as the sacrifices required along the way. (The ending of Wendy & Lucy still lingers in my mind).Once the pioneers take captive a stray Native American, circumstances get even more complicated. Reichardt (and writer Jonathan Raymond), smartly avoid thematic resolution, since, as a society, we're still debating what all this means anyway.

Honorable Mention: The Tree of Life; La Havre

Repertory Discoveries: These range from silent Wiemar melodrama to Pre-Code Hollywood comedy to delinquent Japanese youth to a non-romantic documentary on life along the Ganges River. The last one even inspired a couple poems, one of which I debuted recently at Cornelia Street Cafe . . .

The Wonderful Lies of Nina PetrovaMe and My Pal; Live Today, Die Tomorrow!; Forest of Bliss

Best Ensemble Acting: The Artist, A Separation, The Descendants, Melancholia; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Notable Performances: Viggio Mortensen (A Dangerous Method); Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Ganisbourg (Melancholia), Jean Dujarden, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman (The Artist); Shailene Woodley (The Descendants); Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Chole Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo).

Best Dog: The Artist

Original Score: The Artist (Ludovic Bource); Cold Weather (Keegan DeWitt); Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alberto Iglesias)

Best Use of Non-Original Music(aka The McCabe & Mrs Miller Award): "Love Song" by Bernard Hermann in The Artist; Tristan and Isolde by Ricard Wagner in Melancholia; "La Mer" by Charles Trenet in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Most Intriguing Missed Chance at Type-Casting: Tom Hiddleston in Thor & Midnight in Paris . . . "Excuse me, is that?" "Yes, it is: Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, great American novelist, noted drunk and Norse God of Lies & Mischief." Definitely would have spiced up Allen's film a little . . .

Least Interesting Bit of Type Casting: Jon Hamm in Bridesmaids. What can I say? I'm sick of the sight of his naked chest and the new season of Mad Men hasn't even started yet . . . Oh well, as long as he doesn't mind spending the next decade of his career playing cads. I suppose someone needs to tackle the roles that Michael Caine is too old for these days. How's your Cockney, Jon?

Biggest Waste of a Single Talent: Tadanobu Asano as Hogun in Thor. Maybe he's just biding his time for a Warriors Three spin off, but, come on, at least Stevenson's Volstagg got to interact with the other characters. Funny thing, though: just a few days before seeing the film, I was wondering why I hadn't seen more of the actor lately . . .

And, finally, something to look forward to in 2012? Well, I'm sure as the festival season begins, there'll be plenty of enticing offerings, but, for the moment, all I can say, is: The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle? Can't. Wait. Don't care if doesn't even put on the catsuit during the film. Still. Can't. Wait.

Meanwhile, back in the present moment, I hope that everyone's weekend has been running smoothly.