Friday, July 13, 2012

Gone Girl

Some books draw you in so quickly that you experience a thrill along with a sense of dismay - you know you'll struggle to pace yourself instead of devouring it in one sitting. A book that, despite its heft, you tote with you wherever you go just to sneak in a few more pages. One of those books that, you realize with sadness, you will never again experience for the first time.

Gone Girl is that kind of book. I lost the battle with myself to enjoy it over a week and was done in less than two days. I just learned that Reese Witherspoon's production company is going to do a film version with Witherspoon herself as Amy, the "gone girl" of the title. It takes the edge off, but only slightly, of reading that last page. I can't wait to see how the story translates to the screen.

Author Gillian Flynn has been compared to Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley series) and I think this is accurate. Gone Girl has psychological tension, very dark humor, and a sophisticated story line which provides serious food for thought for those who are married, have been married, have contemplated marriage, or have ever been in a relationship. So, pretty much everyone. Even if you think you know your partner better than you know yourself, surprises await. Just hope that they're not the "Nick and Amy" kind.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eavesdropping

Recently, I re-watched both Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (2007). Both award-winning films feature conflicted professional eavesdroppers - Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in the former and the late Ulrich Muhe as Stasi Captain Gerd Weisler. Enemy of the State (1998) continued with this theme as does the more recent and rather good TV series Person of Interest.


It's a peculiar line of work to choose. Maybe human nature has instilled in us the belief that other people's lives are more interesting, and maybe more illicit, than our own lives. While it's true that we learn a lot by gleaning information from all sources, at what point does the impulse to eavesdrop become an obsession as it did in the lives of the protagonists above? What if the tables were to turn and the eavesdropper were to become the eavesdroppee?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

To Woody with Like

I saw the Chicago premiere of Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome with Love, this past weekend. I liked it enough, but not as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Paris, Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, or Match Point, his other European-set forays since 2005.

Still, To Rome with Love made me laugh. Especially the opera singer in the shower plot and Alec Baldwin as a romantic guide to Jesse Eisenberg, playing a young Allen type. Yes, I rolled my eyes occasionally, but overall, I continue to appreciate Allen's Greek theater-Shakespeare-modern angst melange. I usually leave the theater feeling that life will still be okay in its neurotic way, but I like that the catharsis is always tinged with unease.

I wonder which European city Woody will tackle next. I vote for Prague or Berlin, maybe Krakow. But in color, not a black-and-white Shadows and Fog treatment. Or maybe he should explore a new continent? South America (Buenos Aires)? Asia (Shanghai)?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Living Your Dash

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog's 2011 moving documentary about a triple homicide case in Texas, evoked emotions similar to those I experienced while watching Dead Man Walking and In Cold Blood - fear, sorrow, pity, compassion. But Herzog's distinctive voice and empathetic discussions with surviving family members and friends of the victims as well others involved in the Texas criminal justice system raises his film to a higher level. As in his remarkable Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which he explored the Chauvet caves of Southern France, Herzog probes the mysteries of the human psyche without forcing an overriding agenda.


At the end of the film, a retired death row prison officer talks about "living your dash." It borders on the Oprah-esque, but the true meaning of the film is in this phrase. What do we do between when we're born and when we die?


Next week, my mom would have celebrated her 70th birthday and my parents their 50th wedding anniversary. She enthusiastically lived her dash until pancreatic cancer recently took her away after a long struggle. I like to think that I have lived my dash pretty well so far and hope to continue to do so for some time. But the truth is, we never know when the dash will be followed by a date. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Kind of Nothing

Studying Shakespeare was one of many enjoyable aspects of being an English major undergraduate. Of his 38 plays, we read, discussed, acted out, and wrote about the big ones: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello. Some of us, captured by Shakespeare's words, explored other works on our own in films or in theater. For instance, I saw some of his plays performed on stage when I worked at the Royal National Theatre in London. And still more at Shakespeare in the Park in New York.


But Coriolanus got by me - that is, until recently. Ralph Fiennes debuted as a director and starred in a 2011 film adaptation of the play. It's a modern, exciting take on the story of a Roman leader who refuses to cater to the whims of his fickle subjects. This mistake costs him his kingdom and eventually, his life. It's set in a "city that could be Rome," one that looks like Serbia in the 1990s. I liked the CNN-like constant updates on the war, courtesy of Fidelis TV. And how iambic pentameter as spoken by talented actors in 21st century clothing is completely believable. A comrade describes a soulless, bitter Coriolanus in exile - "He was a kind of nothing." After over 400 years, these words still have the power to chill blood and bones. 


I've liked Ralph Fiennes enough in Schindler's List, Quiz Show, The English Patient, Red Dragon, The Constant Gardener, Bernard and Doris, In Brugges, and the Harry Potters. But he is astounding as Coriolanus, a definite something. 




Sunday, June 24, 2012

Julia Ormond (Smilla) and Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth)

I was pleasantly surprised to see Julia Ormond guest star as Megan Draper's mother on Mad Men this season. Her appearance reminded me how much I have always liked this actress - from her earliest role in the excellent 1989 BBC series Traffik (the 2000 remake was bland), to Captives with Tim Roth, the Sabrina remake (Ormond was the only good thing about it), several TV and HBO series, and My Week with Marilyn to name just a few.

Ormond's steeliness has only gotten better since her performance in the 1997 film Smilla's Sense of Snow, which I recently rewatched. This film is a great adaptation of the Danish writer Peter Hoeg's novel of the same name. I loved Smilla's strength, her non-asinine behavior, her compassion, and her "don't mess with me" demeanor. I see Smilla as the precursor to Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson's tough Scandinavian protagonist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

Maybe it's the snow and darkness that gives these women their mettle. Whatever it is, I'd like to see more characters like Smilla and Lisbeth. Another good one is Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. I haven't seen her in The Hunger Games yet, but I hear she's great. Here's hoping that we are plagued less by helpless females in film and literature and treated to more inspiring women. Let's be on a roll.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Eric Rohmer and The Perfect Sense

For those who have long appreciated the intelligence, beauty, and simplicity of French New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer's films, his death two years ago at the age of almost 90 was a sad blow. Fortunately, most of his work can be seen on DVD and indirectly in the films of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh, all of whom have cited Rohmer as an influence.

In 2006, Criterion released a box set of Rohmer's Six Contes Moraux (Six Moral Tales), which also included extensive essays as well as early Rohmer films, discussions with the actors, and interviews with the notoriously reclusive director. In one of these interviews, conducted by close friend and producer Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer talks about his original idea for the Moral Tales. The theme is the same throughout all six, i.e. a man committed to a woman in some fashion is diverted by the attentions of another and then goes back to the original woman. All six stories take place in different locations with different actors and in different years, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. Rohmer discusses stage directing, aspect ratio, acting and improvisation, and many other technical elements of his film-making.

Most interesting for me was when the interview turned to the subject of music. Rohmer famously never used scored music in his films, allowing only diagetic sounds (those which are part of the scene, like a radio playing or Paris street noise). He said that "music was the easy way out," and condemned the tendency of most film makers to intentionally manipulate the audience's emotions, insulting them in the process.

Eric, I completely agree! This has always been one of my strongest pet peeves. Unless there is a compelling reason for the music to be there, I quickly lose interest in the film the moment I hear unnecessary soaring string instruments. (Don't even get me started on running soundtracks that play throughout the entire film.) In  The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique, and the Trois Couleurs series by Krzysztof Kieslowski, for instance, the music is crucial to the story. However, it is interesting that the composer for these films, Zbigniew Preisner, has even criticized the overuse of music in films, stating that the directors must not believe in the strength of their own stories if they need to use music as a constant crutch. When music is absent, the audience must focus exclusively on the dialogue and action and form his/her own judgment on what is taking place. This is how it should be.

I also recently saw Perfect Sense, starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor. The film has been described as  "an apocalyptic love story," and while I think this is partially true, the story's most interesting facet for me was the intense exploration of the senses and what would happen if we were to lose them one by one. Frightening. The plot: a mysterious plague is sweeping across the world, causing people to first lose their sense of smell, then taste, then hearing (this segment of the film was eerily silent), and finally, sight. Only touch was left, but the film ended without addressing that specifically. The characters adapted to the gradual loss of their senses and started focusing on the importance of love and human connection. In some ways, the movie was overwrought - sadly in the music department, too - although there were some very pretty pieces of music. But the film made me appreciate the silent beauty of Rohmer and how removing extraneous sounds from films (and from our lives) forces us to let other senses take over and become stronger.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Art of Deaccessioning

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, an unusual exhibition called First 50 deserves a visit. Why? The element of surprise. The show's title implies that the viewer will see the first 50 of the MCA's acquisitions, a very interesting concept inspired by the museum's 45th anniversary; however, First 50 contains just 19 tangible works of art. The remaining 31 are accounted for with wall text, pictures, the date these works were deaccessioned and little else. Deaccessioning is the process by which a museum eliminates an artwork from its collection; it occasionally provokes strong opposition in some, while others accept it as necessary to a museum's organic growth. Generally, works are deaccessioned according to guidelines which allow for replacement of the works with similar works, whether by the same artist, or in the same style. Certain things are verboten, however, like selling an artwork to cover the museum's operating costs.

First 50 made me think about the things we keep and the things we let go. Everyone has gone through the laborious task of  figuring out what we really need in our lives - usually, this is precipitated by a move. Right now, I have three good friends who are either preparing for or have already done transcontinental moves. Two other friends are relocating within the same city, but the process is the same whether you move 10 or 10,000 miles away.

I haven't moved very recently, but have done so many times in my life. I actually quite enjoy the jettisoning of things, whether giving them away to friends, donating them to charity, selling, and/or recycling. I feel lighter and better-prepared for whatever the next chapter holds in store. Despite my Minimalist tendencies, though, there are ten (smallish) boxes of items that I can't let go of. They contain mementos, photographs, journals, letters, diaries, and art work. Five years ago, prior to a major relocation, I deputized my brother to sell my 300+ book collection, which had added another 20 boxes to my collection. I kept a handful of books which had dedications, were gifts, or which had been autographed by authors I'd met. I suppose I used an internal deaccessioning method not determined by any museum regulations. I decided that since the Since the contents of the books I chose not to keep were all in my head, it was time for others to benefit from them.

Whether human being or cultural entity, deaccessioning is a paring down, a renewal. It provides the opportunity to shed unwanted layers while retaining elements of the original. Until it's time to move again.





Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Elles at the Music Box

My vote for a great place to spend a 95-degree day is inside a beautiful old air-conditioned movie theater (the Music Box in Chicago) complete with an organist for your ears and stars and clouds floating above you for your eyes. Not to mention an intriguing film for your mind.

I usually don't read reviews of films before I see them, but in this case, I did. What I found was that all the reviews (all by males, but for this excellent one) were negative. My curiosity thus piqued, I looked forward to seeing why the film disturbed men so much.

Elles, a film by the young Polish director Malgoska Szumowska and starring Juliette Binoche (Anne), follows a journalist who is writing an article about two young students (Charlotte and Alicja) who work as call girls to support themselves. Anne interviews these young women and we also see (though Anne can only vividly imagine) quite graphic, sometimes brutal, sex scenes between the women and their customers. Darkness in the male psyche is not easy for anyone to watch and this is why men may find it uncomfortable. But the darkness in the female psyche also has the power to disturb.

Anne is simultaneously repelled and attracted to what she perceives as the economic and psychological freedom that Charlotte and Alicja experience through their exchanges with men. But the emotional toll it takes is just barely touched upon. Szumowska juxtaposes scenes of Anne's bourgeois, non-passionate marriage (like preparing a dinner for her husband and his clients and dealing with unruly teenage sons) with the sex scenes involving the women and some when she is alone. We see the emotional turmoil Anne is going through and so we expect that a stronger resolution will emerge by the end of the film. But if there was an indication that Anne's life had changed significantly as a result of her relationship with Charlotte and Alicja, I missed it.

I am a fan of unresolved endings, and most non-American films don't disappoint in this regard. However, I wanted the conclusion of Elles to provide a glimpse of a new Anne. And though there are brief mentions of it, I would have appreciated more insight into what drove Charlotte and Alicja. Their story is the bigger one to be told.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Michael Robbins at Printer's Row Lit Fest

On a hot yesterday afternoon, my friend and I heard Michael Robbins read from his latest collection of poetry, Alien vs. Predator, at Chicago's annual Printer's Row Lit Fest. Robbins is a funny, self-deprecating reader of his own work - which is lively and loaded with references to Walt Whitman, consumer products, and hip hop -  and this is a big deal. Some writers aurally and visually captivate with charismatic readings of their written work, while others...don't. But should those already gifted with writing ability be obliged to promote themselves by telling people how many Twitter followers they have, for instance? Alas, these are the realities of publishing today. In Robbin's case, he seemed not to care; in fact, he was more concerned with the odd noises coming from the fans blowing in the tent. At one point, he wondered if we were being breached.

I was not surprised when Robbins said that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had a life-changing effect on him. In particular, he was moved by the emotional power and imagery the bizarre combination of words inspired. You can clearly see this influence in poems like Alien vs. Predator.

I asked Robbins what the tattoo on his left forearm said. He shyly said it was an excerpt from a Yeats poem. He was wearing a Strand Bookstore T-shirt and baggy jeans. He smokes. He likes Prince. He is not what you think of when you think of poets, and maybe this is a good thing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ten Days in Portugal


Things to consider doing in Lisbon:

Ride (often) the 1930's-era Tram 28 through narrow, winding, HILLY streets (and occasionally cope with long wait times because of workers' strikes); 


Enjoy the marble and tile art of the subway stations and buildings; 

Stroll through Jardim de Estrela amid a riot of green parrots, a profusion of lavender jacarandas, and old Portuguese gents playing games of cards and chess;

Explore the Jardim Botanico and see plants from all over the world coexisting side by side; see the Dragon tree, strangest of all; be enchanted by the Borboletario (butterfly garden);

Think of The Mysteries of Lisbon while imagining life in centuries past;

Eat Portuguese food, especially sausage, seafood, soup, and steak;

Sample Portuguese wines from Alentejo and Minho (vinho verde);


Decide not to eat in John Malkovich's restaurant after all and go instead to a place also located on the river, but with views of people sitting in pastel-colored planters, many sea birds, and the 25 of April Bridge (twin to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco) and the Cristo Rei statue (spiritual companion to the one in Rio de Janeiro);

Take the Elevador de Santa Justa, designed by a Portuguese apprentice to Gustav Eiffel, for magnificent views of the city;

Enjoy restaurants all over the city, especially the one in the Jardim Amalia Rodrigues near the top of Eduardo VII Parque;

Appreciate the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chiado situated in a former monastery;

Spend time in the Museum of Decorative Arts and marvel at the gold and silver treasures from former Portuguese colonies as well as the hand-tooled mahogany furniture in the Manueline, or nautical motif, style;

Visit the Centro de Arte Moderna (Fundacao Gulbenkian) and the adjacent gardens;

After walking up and down all of Lisbon's Seven Hills for a week, try to avoid that sinking feeling in your heart and your tendons when a kind local giving directions instructs you to just go straight and then right, and then up the hill, particularly when you have just come down that hill. At this moment, even if you are an Athiest, thank Deus for the Elevador da Gloria and the Tram 28 (see above);

Have dinner with a Portuguese man with four surnames and mention that you saw a street sign with some of these names in one of the older parts of town. Ask about this and be told that this might have mattered when there were fewer people in the world, but it is not so important now. Discuss other topics like the meaning of life;

Be amused that, in harsh contrast to the status of most banks these days, some Portuguese banks have an elevated status, e.g the Banco Espiritu Santo;

Get intentionally lost in 12th century Alfama, the Moorish/Roman part of Lisbon; 

Peek into St. Lucia Church, a place sacred to the Knights of Malta, and wonder how many tongues St. John the Baptist really had because you're sure you've seen it somewhere else, too;
Check out the Feria da Ladro, the 25 de Julio Market, the 31 de Janeiro Market, and the Campo de Ourique Market. Beware of overwhelmingly strong fish odors on hot days;

Almost feel moved enough to perform some impromptu Fado songs at Tasco de Jaime, but realize that lack of Portuguese language fluency and actual knowledge of these melancholy songs are serious impediments;

Finally figure out the way to LX Factory in Alcantra, where a collection of cafes, shops, and galleries in warehouses under one of Lisbon's many bridges awaits. Think, this reminds you of DUMBO in Brooklyn. Meet artist Leonel Moura in his studio and chat with him about the Robot Action Painter (RAP) he designed in 2006 for a permanent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC;

Glide above the Tejo River in one of the telecabines in the Parque das Nacoes (located on the grounds of the former Expo '98) and see the Vasco da Gama Bridge; 

Play a few games of pool with some nice Portuguese fellows at Pavilhao Chines, a former Chinese tea house. Drink a couple of ginjinhas, a local favorite made by infusing sour cherries with alcohol;


Be content as you watch swallows swoop;


Love the magical light here;

Meet other tourists and locals enjoying Lisbon as much as you are; and

Think of ways to prolong your stay here.

Near Lisbon:

See Belem - take Tram 15 from Placa Figueira and get off at the Geronimo Monastery. Afterwards, visit the Cultural Center (CCB) and have lunch on the terrace where you can see the Henry Moore sculpture and view the river. Walk further west to climb the Torre de Belem, then walk east to the Discoveries Momument (and admire the navigational prowess of the Portuguese), then continue further east to the Electricity Museum and check out any Contemporary exhibitions therein. Last but not least, eat as many pasteis de nata as is humanly possible at Pasteis de Belem. Even if you are not a sugar addict, force yourself to have at least three. This is not to be missed. 

See Sintra  - take a train 40 minutes west from Lisbon to experience this UNESCO city. See the Pena Palace, the Castle of the Moors dating from the 8th century, and the National Palace and gardens.

Outside of Lisbon:

Visit Porto, another UNESCO site - take the high-speed Alfa train (comparable to the TGV in France) and travel at 220 km/hr three hours north from Lisbon to Porto. On the way, see the loveliest countryside you might ever see, e.g. lemon trees, olive trees, cacti, pine and palms, rolling hills, vineyards, horses, sheep, cattle, the odd ostrich or two, poppies, and bougainvillea. Once in Porto, be sure to visit the Musea de Arte Contemporanea (Casa de Serralves), take a boat tour, and sample port wines at one of many caves on the south bank of the Rio Douro. Be warned: Porto has even steeper hills than Lisbon!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Deep Thoughts by J.W.v. Goethe

"I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized."
                            - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Eames: The Architect and the Painter

Charles and Ray Eames were collaborators in art, life, and love. Their story is told in the brilliant 2011 documentary Eames: The Architect and the Painter. Charles, an architect by training, was behind the design of the eponymous and extremely influential chair, in addition to countless other creations, not least of which was the home he shared with his wife, Ray, a painter who studied under the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman. She was not just "the woman behind the great man," although some had relegated her to that position; rather, Charles depended heavily on her aesthetic sense. With voice-over narration courtesy of the latter-day Renaissance man James Franco (whose recent film/NYU Master's thesis The Broken Tower was a rather interesting, but not completely great, reflection on the life of poet Hart Crane; Howl was better), the film tells the Eames story through interviews with Charles and Ray as well as with the designers who were, as they readily acknowledge, fortunate to have been in the orbit of two of the most intensely fertile minds of the time. It made me wish I could have been a part of that world; watching this documentary is the closest I'll ever come.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mildred Pierce

I have always enjoyed films that depict Los Angeles during the time when it held out great possibilities and promise. Chinatown, In a Lonely PlaceThe Postman Always Rings Twice, and Sunset Boulevard are just some of my favorites. Modern-day versions of films that capture a similar mood, but of a later era, include Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Somewhere. I recently saw the HBO series, Mildred Pierce, based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name. Kate Winslet is wonderful in the title role and the excellent supporting cast includes Guy Pearce, nicely roguish and handsome as ever. The story is about a woman whose husband leaves her and she must care for her two daughters. She becomes a waitress and then manages to open a successful restaurant. Some plot twists and turns deviate from the original book and film, but the overall atmosphere of depression-era Los Angeles is evoked in somber colors and comes to life as the characters struggle to make their way in a city which appeared to offer much to many, but came through for few. Just like today.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun

Creative ideas developing concurrently without their creators ever having known each others' work happens more frequently than one might imagine. For an example of this phenomenon, visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see the photography exhibition Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun. My friend and I took part in a docent-led talk where we learned that this collection of 80 distinctive works featuring Cahun's gender-bending, ambiguous images, put up for auction in the 80s and exhibited for the first time in the United States, had probably not been seen by Cindy Sherman at the time. Sherman, a New York-based photographer who first rose to fame in the 1970s, made her mark by posing as real or fantasy characters in her own work, much as Cahun (nee Lucy Schwob) had done. But Cahun, unlike Sherman, never intended her photos to be seen by a mass audience; instead, hers were highly personal images to be enjoyed privately by herself and her partner, Suzanne Malherbe (aka Marcel Moore).

In order to get a sense of the highly-charged intellectual and political climate Cahun lived and worked in, it's best to look closely at the rather small photographs - take your time. Cahun was a part of the Surrealist, Left-wing Paris milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. Andre Breton, Henri Michaux, and Robert Desnos were close friends and kindred spirits. Breton applauded and and encouraged Cahun's writing in particular. The photographs reveal a strong Surrealist influence as well as changes in the European social landscape of the time, particularly the fluctuating roles of individuals. One remarkable photograph, taken during the Nazi occupation of the Isle of Jersey (where Cahun and Malherbe eventually relocated to, active resistance workers and propagandists until their incarceration), depicts her as a matronly woman clutching a Nazi star in her teeth while standing on a sign that says "Private Property."

My friend remarked that Cahun appeared to be a completely different person in each of her photographs - not just in the more obvious male/female images, but in the overall look of her face. I was reminded of Shame, starring one of my favorite actors, Michael Fassbender, a film during which I had the same thought. While the story left me a little cold, I never ever tired of watching Fassbender's chameleonic visage. I also couldn't take my eyes off of him in Fish Tank, Inglorious Basterds, Hunger, and Jane Eyre.

Is it a gift or a curse to "shape-shift" in this way? How do you know who you are seeing for certain? It is profoundly fascinating, yet deeply unsettling. Which mask will you wear today? And which mask will others wear?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

This is Not a Film


Is it or isn't it? That is one of many questions raised by This is Not a Film, a 2011 "effort" by Iranian director Jafar Panahi and documentary film maker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. The title of the film pays homage to Belgian artist Rene Magritte's Surrealist work This is Not a Pipe (Ceci n’est pas une pipe). Panahi’s film about/within a film was smuggled out of Iran to France on a USB drive tucked inside a birthday cake and was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche vocally protested Panahi's house arrest in Tehran. Many films being made in Iran that are critical of the current regime, including Kiarostami's, could conceivably be judged in the same manner, yet it was Panahi the religious rulers targeted. 

My friend and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy a panel discussion following the screening of This is Not a Film at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago. The panel members were moderator Steve Bynum, senior producer of Worldview on WBEZ 91.5; Professor Hamid Naficy of Northwestern University and author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema; and Milos Stehlik, founder/director of Facets Multimedia. The discussion revolved around themes and trends in Iranian cinema, which share many of the characteristics of films made under Communist and other repressive governments. What I found intriguing was the idea that once these regimes were toppled, artists lost their common cause against which to protest and create art – a very powerful raison d’etre. Despite the potential for a lull in output of creative endeavors, I hope that Iranian artists will eventually experience this phenomenon, if only because of the greater freedom it will signify for all Iranians.

While I watched this provocative film, I kept second-guessing my reactions. What was I really seeing? Basically, it is a home movie of Panahi in his apartment eating breakfast, taking calls from his lawyer and from various friends and colleagues, all the while being "directed" by Mirtahmasb. so as not to be in violation of the "no directing" fatwah. Panahi attempts to read his screenplay, describe his process, and even map out the storyboard of the film he was prevented from making. There moments are all interspersed with comic relief in the form of Igi the pet iguana and Micky, a neighbor's yappy dog. I am a fan of Panahi’s friend, Kiarostami, and have seen a number of his films, including The Traveller, Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, and the 2010 Certified Copy. What runs through these films is a kind of unreality bordering on surrealism that forces the viewer to continually question what they are observing. For me. this moment reached a high point when Pahani took out his cell phone and began to "film" his cameraman as well as a conveniently photogenic neighbor who also happens to be a student at a Tehran Arts University while moonlighting as a garbage man in the building. Based on all of this, I wondered if Panahi had set out to deceive everyone on all levels with a wink and a nudge. Whatever the motivations, the viewer is forced to contend with something much deeper that is happening. I could not always fathom it, but found it utterly compelling.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, an Amnesty International spokeswoman informed us that Panahi recently lost the appeal of his sentence to six years in prison and was prohibited from making films for 20 years. He continues to live under house arrest and can be taken away at any time.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Island Time

One of the many things I enjoy about traveling is the opportunity to discover a place through its flora and fauna. Today, my friend and I visited the St. George Village Botanical Gardens, situated on the ruins of a Danish sugar cane plantation dating back to the 1700s. We wandered through the area and saw astonishing varieties of both local and non-native flowers, trees, and plants.  I like the delicate national flower of the US Virgin Islands, the yellow Ginger Thomas, but my favorite is the frangipani (above right). There were some impressive almond, carambola, cedar, and mahogany trees, too.

Although these creatures were absent from the gardens today, they have certainly been visible during my visit to St. Croix: the odd mongoose scurrying across the road, numerous iguanas at the beach and also scurrying across the road (one unfortunate fellow did not make it), as well as countless geckos. I remember them from my time in China and India and I was trying to figure out a way to smuggle one back to the States. They are quite cute. I resisted this impulse, however, and instead brought back some shells.

Besides enjoying the flora and fauna, we visited Point Udall, the easternmost part of the United States. We saw the Whim House, a former Danish sugar cane plantation. Lots of beach time, picking up the odd sea urchin shell, drinking tamarind juice, and avoiding getting hit with coconuts falling from the trees kept us busy in a leisurely way. The Curzon Rum distillery tour was interesting, albeit brief. Most people go for the free rum cocktails at the end anyway. Ours today was a refreshing one called The Creeper. We had some great Caribbean food at a local favorite in Christiansted called Kim's. We drove through a rain forest in Frederiksted on the west end of the island and poked around in some abandoned sugar mills along the way. A pair of falcons was nesting in one of them. Speaking of birds, in addition to numerous shore birds, white egrets as well as chickens and roosters have free reign of the island.

Of the three US Virgin Islands, St. Croix is the largest and yet the least developed. Quite a bit of the land is protected area; hence, you get a feeling for the environment Christopher Columbus and later, the Danish settlers encountered when they arrived. What's missing are glimpses of the native Taino Indians, whose population was wiped out quickly due to European-borne smallpox. St. John and St. Thomas are more touristy, besieged with cruise ships as they are, and I have no desire whatsoever to visit. No, I like my islands as island-like as possible and I'm happy to have experienced the authenticity of St. Croix.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Layover Thoughts on "A Million Little Pieces"

Nearly ten years after it was published, I finally read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. The only reason I read it was because I happened to come across it in a used bookstore and it cost me all of .39 (.43 with tax). I felt sorry for the book and its author, who was humiliated on Oprah in 2006.

Alas, the book annoyed me right from the start -  its egotistical narrator, the pretentious capitalization of Important Words, and a prose style that was a slavish imitation of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, though at least Frey admitted to these influences.

Despite the above strikes, I forged ahead and was surprised by some of the nuggets of wisdom, compassion, and humor. It's not a David Sedaris book, it's a story about an addict, so I wasn't expecting to laugh at all. It is pretty graphic in some parts. Unfortunately, these nuggets were buried in over 400 pages of repetition and silliness, and as we now know, a lot of embellishment. One of the reasons the book sold so well was that so many people identified with it. What a disappointment when Frey was forced to confess that a large part of it was a lie. And what a way to have to confess!

I'm the kind of person who jettisons items like books and clothing whenever I leave a place - a sort of physical and psychological unburdening. I brought A Million Little Pieces with me to the airport this morning with the intent to leave it there for someone else to read. So I did. On a chair at one of the gates near mine. Within minutes, an airport maintenance person came by, took a look at the book, and then promptly tossed it into the garbage bag she was filling with empty cups, wrappers, and other detritus. Even though I didn't enjoy the book all that much, I had hoped for a slightly better future for it, as I suspect Frey did when he wrote it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Sky Turns, Le Quattro Volte, The Way

I saw a remarkable film yesterday called The Sky Turns (2005). The director, Mercedes Alvarez, returns after 35 years to La Aldea, the ancient village in northern Spain where she was the last child born. First settled by the Celtiberian people over 2,000 years ago, La Aldea was later occupied by Romans and then successions of the Spanish and Moorish populations. Today, only 14 older villagers remain. Part of the film is comprised of conversations they have with each other about the past, the present, and the future and include often-humorous anecdotes. These are juxtaposed with scenes of the gorgeous landscape depicting the passage of time through four seasons of the year 2003. Lending poignancy to the film, the intrusion of modern-day events show the looming gap between the the village's present and future, for instance, airplanes flying to Baghdad at the beginning of the war, enormous wind turbines being assembled, political campaigners, and plans to convert an ancient castle into an overpriced hotel. With all of these elements, Alvarez could have easily created a maudlin film. But she is too intelligent and subtle for that. The Sky Turns is a jewel.

The film reminded me a great deal of another film I saw not too long ago called Le Quattro Volte (2010), also about the passing of time, but in a small village in the southern Italian region of Calabria. A strong metaphysical, almost mystical theme infuses Le Quattro Volte. If you get the chance to see them, do so, and perhaps you will notice some similarities in tone and subject matter. In any case, you will not be disappointed.

The Way is a more commercial yet personal film about the passage of time, also filmed in northern Spain. Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen, the film tells the story of a father's journey to honor the memory of his son. It is also a tale of redemption. Both father and son follow in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before them who have walked the 480-mile Santiago de Compostela for over 1,000 years. I found the basic story rather moving, but some of the characters were embarrassingly one-note and the music was overdone, to the point of detracting from the plot. Why do directors do this? I suppose they don't have faith in themselves or in the audience to "get" the right emotions and need to manipulate us to do so which is insulting. In stark contrast, I don't believe there was any music at all in The Sky Turns or Le Quattro Volte, or if there was, it simply added to what was already a hypnotic experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Love Crime and Other Stories

I've never really liked Kristen Scott Thomas in her English-speaking roles, with just a few exceptions: Mary Sharon in Prince's guilty pleasure film (for me) Under the Cherry Moon; Fiona in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon; Sylvia McCordle in Gosford Park; and Lynn Lockner in The Walker. However, since her relocation to France decades ago, Scott Thomas has taken on a number of French-speaking roles in exceptional films. So far, I've enjoyed her in The Valet, Tell No One, I've Loved You So Long (she was magnificent), Leaving, Sarah's Key, and the latest one I've seen, Love Crime, a kind of Hitchcock by way of Polanski thriller that was quite creepy. In her French-speaking roles, Scott Thomas fascinates me in much the same way as Isabelle Hupert does; they share the same subtle nuances. I am anticipating Scott Thomas' upcoming roles in future films, whether French or English.




Monday, March 26, 2012

Mudwoman

I'd like to thank a good friend of mine - a man - for encouraging an appreciation of several authors years ago, especially Stephen Jay Gould and Joyce Carol Oates. If not for my friend, I probably would not have gotten so hooked on the astonishing output of these writers. I mentioned that my friend is a man because it seems that JCO has been universally acknowledged as a women's writer. But I don't really know why. Her stories are scarier than many books I've read by male authors (with the exception of Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe) whose literature often pales in comparison when it comes to establishing tone and a distinct mood of dread and foreboding. Oates is fantastic. And Mudwoman, which I'm currently reading, is just the latest in this prolific writer's highly satisfying body of work. I have read many, many of her novels, short stories, essays, and poems and she never fails to astound me. I got to meet her awhile back when Zombie came out. Oates is a very frail-looking woman who does not seem capable of coming up with the horrific plots and characters in this book or the ferocity of Blonde, for instance. I admire her all the more for this reason.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Little Bit of Russia

I saw this great Russian film today, directed in 1959 by Mikhail Kalatozov with cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky, called Letter Never Sent. It's one of the eeriest films I've seen. The story is about a foursome on a mission to Siberia to hunt for diamonds for the Motherland. But it quickly becomes a story about survival, as one by one the expedition members drop off due to fires, cold, and other calamities. Through it all is an undercurrent of longing and love for those left behind as well as those right before their very eyes. I've never seen a camera get this close to a human face; it is very effective. The black and white images are often frightening.

Yesterday, I saw Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) directed by Louis Malle, based on the Andre Gregory stage directed version of the Anton Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. The film captures one version of years of rehearsals of the play in a decrepit theater on 42nd Street, The New Amsterdam. It was never intended to be performed for an audience and was only reluctantly performed for friends and family of the cast. It is a fantastic experiment in Method acting and just acting in general. The film/play starts before you know it and evolves into a moving portrait of what it means to be human. David Mamet adapted the dialogue from a translation of the play and it works so well. I wonder if anything like this will be done again.

Springtime

I've been pretty successful in adhering to a bike-riding routine for the past year and a half since I've been in the Chicago area. That is, every other day for 13 miles a day on this great trail that goes through the woods, during which I see all kinds of wildlife and generally enjoy being outdoors. Today was no exception. Because of the uncharacteristically warm weather we've been having lately, I went out yet again this morning and am pleased to report that the acacia trees have sprung leaves - I love their smell, which instantly transports me back to India; mockingbirds are here - my very favorite bird of all, didn't think they came to these parts; and a variety of flowering fruit trees, which I think are apple and possibly pear. So many frogs near the ponds and of course, red-wing blackbirds, whose territorial calls are deafening. I love it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

If you happen to find yourself in Chicago between now and June 3rd, may I recommend visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art? In particular, the show entitled This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s. There is much to like about it, but what I found most memorable were the pieces that showed the artists responding to feminism, AIDS, gay rights, Reagan-Thatcherism, the culture wars, appropriation of art works, and the outrageous commodification of the art market.

Highlights of this exhibition included: Candy Jernigan's Found Dope: Part II and Ten Kinds of Beans; Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; David Robbins' Talent; Sophie Calle's Shadow; Julian Schnabel's black velvet painting of Andy Warhol wearing a truss after the assassination attempt on his life; Doug and Mike Starn's Christ (Stretched); and Sherri Levine's appropriations of Egon Schiele drawings.

Postmodernism began to flourish during this time as artists challenged the traditional notion of the function of art. This exhibition served to shine a spotlight on the relative dearth of such commitment to political causes lacking in most art these days.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Films and Books I Loved This Week

For nearly two years, I've kept a log of the films I've seen and the books I've read. The tally is now at 400+ and 300, respectively. I haven't kept track of anything before that, but I imagine that the totals are in the thousands for both books and films. Maybe one day, I can make a decent living doing reviews.

Films: this week, I saw The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen. Aside from the one-note characters and the annoying tendency to over-music a film (we already know what we are feeling; there is no need to hit us over the head), the story of a father and son and a long trek (El Camino de Santiago de Compostela) to honor someone's memory was inspiring. I saw several other films this week: Cat People (I rewatched this remake with Nastassja Kinski and I kind of enjoyed it, although the 1942 original was better), 3 (an intriguing film by German director Tom Tykwer who also directed Run, Lola, Run, and Perfume - the latter based on the book of the same name), Margin Call (decent stars and terse story about the first 24 hours of the 2008 economic meltdown; it reminded me a bit of the mood in The Social Network), The Tempest (with Helen Mirren and loads of other good actors), London River (excellent, about an unlikely relationship that develops in the wake of the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London), and finally, Protektor (an unusually stylized Czech film about a married couple who tries to cope with the Nazi occupation of that country, plus the assassination of "The Man with the Iron Heart," Reinhard Heydrich). On deck is Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior.

The books I've read this week and can heartily recommend include: Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists, 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You DieThe Portable Jung, and an excellent collection of short stories entitled Best European Fiction: 2012. On deck is Jeannette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Indeed.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Tenant

Thank you, Roman Polanski, for cheering me up considerably. You are accused of a terrible crime, yet I can't help but feel that you are a warm and decent human being, given your traumatic history and the compassion and humor that I have seen you display in many interviews. Not to mention your films. I have seen all of them, some a number of times, with the exception of Carnage, your most recent film based on the tedious Yasmina Reza play which I saw in London and absolutely did not like. Aside from the latter one, your films have always instilled in me a sense of calm, despite often disturbing subject matter. Why is this? I feel the same way after seeing Michaelangelo Antonioni films. They unsettle me profoundly, but I gravitate towards them anyway.

The Tenant (1976) is the last film in Polanski's so-called "Apartment Trilogy" series. The excellent Repulsion (1965), starring Catherine Denueve and set in London, and the equally fine Rosemary's Baby (1968), which I saw again in New York in 2009, were the first two films in this series. This afternoon, I finished watching The Tenant, set in Paris. Aside from the annoying dubbing of the party goers and other extras in this film, there is plenty to feel horrified and simultaneously compassionate about in this tale of a simple man who just wants to live a quiet life.

I must confess that one of the reasons I decided to post this entry to my blog after a long reprieve is that certain elements of the The Tenant reminded me so much of a wretched upstairs neighbor of mine in New York, a city to which I might return. Roman, would you be willing to provide guidance?