Archive | December, 2015


30 Dec

There’s a moment of dialogue at the end of Ron Howard’s film, In the Heart of the Sea, that pricked my conscience when I saw it last week.  The film is otherwise formulaic in its writing, although being a Ron Howard film the technical side (namely the directing-cinematography-editing troika) can always be counted on to deliver, especially in the sailing sequences, which can be breathtaking.  The Herman Melville character, played by Ben Whishaw, turns to the narrator/interviewee who is the subject of the film, and says something to the effect of: The plot of the story I could come up with, but you have given me the courage I need to write this book.

This was the first in a series of three films in three nights, a kind of paroxysm of release from the semester and other tensions.  The next night I went to see Trumbo, a film that takes on the thought crimes against the American Left in a way that is not only engaging but fun, followed by the new Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, with its unrelieved claustrophobic tension, no fun and no uplift.  Where Trumbo is a paean to writers who have the audacity to hold on to their morals, stand up for their values, while subverting what they must in order to survive, Son of Saul is a portrayal of Auschwitz as a chamber of horrors so circumscribed that one can hardly come up for air, let alone get enough distance to even begin to consider acts of rebellion.

Speaking of audacity, I know that there is more to these films than a springboard to thinking about my own individual courage (at a time when I happen to be dealing with ongoing writer’s block and a relentless year of personal tribulations that has made any focus on my own creativity a distant possibility).  All three are about acts of moral courage (although to be certain, the story within the frame story in the Melville film is about physical courage), with Dalton Trumbo having the guts and also necessity (psychological as well as financial) to keep writing because that’s what writers must do. Not that all writing is courageous, but writing when the world wants you to be silent is. Auschwitz on the other hand was a world in which even the moral space needed for a courage response was so squeezed as to be impossible – and I don’t think Primo Levi would disagree.  That there managed to be rebellion at all makes us consider how we must be wired for this on some level, or at least a few people, since moral weakness seems to be more the hallmark of the human condition than moral courage.

Full disclosure: Dalton Trumbo’s National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun was one of the most influential books in my life, one that, more than any other, turned me irrevocably against war and violence (and as the subject of a pivotal application essay that got me into an elite summer program in high school, also had an instrumental effect upon my intellectual careers as well).  Years later, when asked to recommend books for the “Suggested Reading” bookshelf at a local library, I had to have the librarian rescue the book from the depths of “young adult storage” where it most certainly did not belong for a number of reasons.  I didn’t just want to be a writer after reading Johnny Got His Gun for the sake of being a writer, I really saw what writing could do when it came to ideas and ideals and social change and how writing itself could break free from conventions of not only politics (which I would later see again in The Jungle) but formal written language (language without commas(!), language that represented interior thought and image, which I would come back to in Light in August, penned just a few years earlier).

At one point I wanted to be courageous, but somehow I had lost that over the past few decades.  Although in fairness to me, not giving up and still trying to stay within the bounds of the kind of career I wanted – which is to say, not working for any entity governed by the profit motive, while still occasionally being able to speak my mind in the form of a lecture or more collaboratively via a community or artistic project – took just about all the courage I had left in the tank. It wasn’t that I had lost hope that prevented me from “bothering” to write, it was that I have so profoundly lost courage because I’ve come to believe that nothing I have to say matters, in any way or on any level.  (And not being, like Jimmy Carter, a person of faith, I don’t have that pillar to lean on either.)

Trumbo reminded me that this is a time of exceptional moral challenge.  I also happened to have seen a production of Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller (himself a playwright concerned with the very theme of moral courage over and over again, from The Crucible to All My Sons) just last week, and my friend remarked that the play seemed relevant “especially now,” and I too felt that urgency.  Why?  We are not occupied, nor at war to any greater degree than we have been since 2001, and yet it does feel especially with catastrophic climate change, a widening war against and by ISIS, along with the current crop of presidential candidates as well as the failure of our educational system to inform students about enough of the basic issues to make intelligent, i.e. informed decisions about policy, that each of us is being asked to take a moral stand, or simply give in, to consumerism as opiate.  Excuse me, but it does feel like at least once a day I have to make a decision that reflects my ethical stance in the world, from the class lectures that I give to the food I buy – maybe because I’m a teacher and I see most of my students living lives that are reactive to the economy, while more than a few are standing up to everything they have had to overcome just to get to college.  The courage of writers like Trumbo and Miller is handed down from generation to generation like a baton in a relay towards justice.

So as luck would have it, I picked up a paperback copy of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, that I found in the trunk of my car, and began reading.  With the break between semesters, I’ve also been able to do some “outside” reading for the first time since at least the summer.  There’s a lot in the slim volume, and to be honest, he does still subscribe to the Western, high art bias that creativity and imagination require on some level novelty, something new, something replacing the old.  While that is an ethnocentric view of creativity, for me already there are at least four takeaways that have added to this week’s ruminations on art, writing, and courage.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying, but here are the main points (for my purposes):

  1. The act of creativity is fundamentally an act of courage.  (Although he contrasts “moral courage” with “creative courage,” and I see them as complementary, if not overlapping.)
  2. Artists have to deal with the existence and synthesis of several conflicting pairs, including chaos vs. form, conviction vs. doubt, and the “solitary” with the “solidary,” meaning, after Camus, the need for solitude as well as the need to connect with others out in the world.
  3. This: “the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as opposed to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the god of apathy, material success, and exploitative power” (p. 26).  He wrote that in 1973.
  4. Psychoanalysis historically viewed creativity or the imagination as something negative, even a kind of neurosis, whereas May writes that “The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health” (p. 38).  (To me the whole diagnosis of ADHD as a kind of “disorder” reflects this residual hostility towards creativity and an institutional desire to destroy it.)
  5. Creative people use threat and anxiety as motivators that push us to creative action in response, while resolving those feelings of anxiety and tension through techniques like meditation can actually dampen our need or desire to resolve them creatively through action; they help us to tolerate the anger and imbalance rather than channeling them into something communicative as art is.  “Bliss” and the need to write can be antithetical.

I don’t know where I’ve misplaced my courage, but I’ve got to take it out of the drawer and start to wear it again.  Without it, in a way, I am and have been nothing.  I don’t have the kind of flow that Trumbo had to keep going, keep going, keep going, but neither have I faced the threats that he, or certainly Primo Levi, ever faced.  Although, that said, these are times when the gods of conformism and materialism are particularly harsh and destructive.  Maybe that’s why it feels that “especially now” the moral choices we make – whether speaking out against injustice or simply welcoming a refugee – are so immediate, a daily occurrence, even as we go off to work or pay the bills or learn the identity of the latest unarmed shooting victim.  That and the threat of a climate that we may soon need to renegotiate on a massive scale if we are going to continue living and flourishing, which will take all the courage and creativity we can muster, morally, socially, artistically, scientifically.

Hope is all very well and good.  But I wish you all Courage for 2016.


2015 Film festival experiences in review – Montreal, Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC

17 Dec

The following started out as just kind of notes to myself to remind me how I felt about films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. So I apologize in advance to my (at most) six readers for writing about something of no interest to anyone but myself. But then I realized, due to family circumstances beyond my control, almost all my moviegoing this year was to festivals, at least since this spring, when I saw the magnificent Thomas Hardy adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd.  But, largely thanks to the excuse of class trips, I was able to get to two films each at Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC, which I’ll discuss below.

My first festival has always been Montreal though.  This August I was able to go to the Montreal Festival for the first time in two years, and just for the first weekend; classes started the day after I returned (and there was the matter of a visit to the emergency room in between my return and my first class – but that’s another story) and I haven’t had a moment to breathe or catch up until now.  Montreal always has something like 400 films to choose from, lots of documentaries, from every corner of the world, much less commercial than its Toronto cousin.  While I am always drawn to Asian cinema, this year I seemed to lose my touch when it comes to choosing memorable experiences from the catalogue: ten films in four days, but only two were what I would call very good, one was from Nepal (which I’ll get to below) and the other from China.  For some reason though the festival website has taken down the program, so I have to use Google to find their names, since they’ll probably never be distributed here in the U.S.

I saw two films from China, actually, both on the same theme of traditional ways of life being displaced by the market forces of modernization.  This must be a source of anxiety in China, because I’ve already seen two other films on the same theme: the outstanding Canadian documentary, Up the Yangtze, which is actually more about the loss of traditional villages to dam-induced flooding, and Postmen in the Mountains, which I saw in Montreal thirteen years ago and which remains one of the best films I have ever seen at that festival.  So as I looked through the festival program, I thought, hey, this topic must be “a thing” in China and since cultural sustainability is a theme I have already announced I am interested in, I should check these out.  These two films were Drifting Goats, about the end of the river ferries on goatskin floats, and Song of the Phoenix. about the dying tradition of suona players.

Drifting Goats is a father-son tale (like Postmen in the Mountains) in which the father is a ferryman on the old-fashioned river boats, and while the ferries are being replaced with more modern motorboats,  the growing local tourism industry is basically buying out the ferrymen and turning the picturesque and now exoticized ferries into a tourist attraction.  The stark choice comes down to, either you join the tourist industry and continue to make your livelihood from the boats, by giving rides to tourists, or you give up your ferry and your lifestyle and you retire.  With the son imploring the resistant father to recognize the flow of progress, eventually the ferrymen embrace the opportunity to stay on the river and tourism becomes the only way they can sustain their tradition – a happy ending in which traditions remain economically viable, which is what really matters, even in neoliberal rural China.

In contrast, Song of the Phoenix, while teasing us with the possibility that the folk musicians may give up their instruments and their folk music, stubbornly clings to the idea that traditional music and instruments cannot be replaced.  Nowhere is the criticism of pop commercialism more apparent then a kind of impromptu battle of the bands that arises when a pop group shows up to woo the village crowd away from the suona band.  Characters are not stuck in an idealized village setting and in fact the film acknowledges the tremendous pull away from the villages towards the industrialized wage-economy city.  But rather than espousing the liberal compromise of adapting to the new world, the film holds out for the necessary indomitability of folk music, even in a commercial world, and even for that matter in a commercial motion picture.  It is worth a second viewing.

Of course I’m going to be more favorable to a film with this point of view – and indeed if the story had gone the other way, I would have liked it far less and been less inclined to overlook its conventional or predictable elements.  I tend to have a strong rejection towards films no matter how well-made that espouse a reactionary point of view or that ask us to smugly accept the status quo (especially around issues of violence).  Rather than being open-minded as my society tells me I should be, I tend to think of the values expressed in the film and the damage they can cause by encouraging complacency and self-satisfaction.  It’s not that I can’t learn anything from that with which I disagree, but I do think we need to remember that cinema and television inevitably have an impact that exceeds other popular art forms.

Anyway, that said, even an art film like Postmen in the Mountains can have an impact, as it did on me, even more than just preaching to those naturally inclined to agree.  I saw it only once so far, in 2002 at the Montreal Film Festival, where, I just learned, it won the Audience Choice Award. Though it was made in China in 1999, it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2004.  (Eventually I’ll have to buy the DVD to see it again.)  Also a father-son tale, it’s the story of an elderly postman in rural Hunan province who has a three-day mail route to all the mountain villages, a job from which he will be retiring and handing off to his son after this last round.  I still remember not only the great performances, but the spectacular cinematography, reminiscent of Chinese watercolors in its composition.  But more than just nostalgia or a theme of anti-modernity, the film shows more than any other (including Song of the Phoenix) what is lost when the old ways will be no more.  It’s not just that those lifestyles and means of subsistence will be gone, it’s also that there’s something very deeply embedded in those practices that, when gone, will change the nature of humanity.  Part of the beauty of the film is that this is implicit, and I wish Song of the Phoenix shared more of its depth; after all, if delivering mail can be rendered meaningful on screen,  the role of traditional music for both villagers and the artists themselves and why it’s survived so long ought to be explored some.  For me, coming from a society in which success is tied in with achievement, and wealth, Postmen was the first I had seen to make the case that ministry to others is a noble achievement and necessary to maintaining the glue that keeps communities, and families for that matter, together.  You don’t have to know a lot about China to understand that people must be incredibly anxious about this, and that both modernization and the consumer economy make those moral choices that much more insanely difficult.

Speaking of both modernity and mountains, the other outstanding film I saw in Montreal this year was the Nepalese art film, Serdhak – The Golden Hill, a low-budget high-altitude film set in the Himalayan villages of northern Nepal.  Shot with a very small crew and using natural light, even for some impressive interior scenes, this independent, naturalistic film avoids cliches while depicting the everyday dramas of village life, in the kinds of villages that outsiders never get to see.  The mountains are not just gorgeous backdrops for exotic effect but are the land on and around which people survive.  (As opposed to the also outstanding documentary, Meru, where the mountains exist to be conquered by humans.  I loved it anyway, largely because of the photography but also the editing.)   The characters and their lives are real, neither sentimentalized nor overly dramatized and the film has the feeling of conveying a story very much within the framework of real life.  There too one of the internal battles characters must deal with is the pull of education in the city, with the ties to the home villages, and what will be lost in terms of beauty when educated young people must leave these villages for city – which becomes synonymous with modern – life.

Also breathtaking, in a different way, is the documentary Song of Lahore, which hasn’t received anywhere near the critical attention it deserves, although it was runner-up in the audience award for documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival.  It tells one story spread out over two continents: the suppression of Pakistani, or Punjabi, traditional music under Islamist regimes, and the invitation of the musicians to join Wynton Marsalis at his Jazz at Lincoln Center program.  The film is about love and made with love: the love that the musicians have for their music, but also the love they have for one another and their families, expressed through music, as well as the love for a city and what it once offered culturally.  The way that the musicians in the film articulate their feelings about music, especially when it is silenced, is incredibly moving, and in a way useful to those of us who think about art and culture as a humanizing influence.  Co-directed by a Pakistani Oscar winner and an American, the film is so timely it’s hard to believe it hasn’t gotten distribution, and yet its themes transcend current events.  It’s one of the great films I have seen about music and musicians, shot and edited with warmth and compassionate sophistication.

Films can take us inside worlds we would never think we could see, and in documentary film this is especially true today.  At the Margaret Mead Festival, I saw the recent history of Kashmir and the city of Srinigar through the eyes of three artists – two of whom also incredibly insightful verbally – in the extraordinary documentary, Kasheer: Art, Culture, and the Struggle for Azadi, which is rich and thoughtful on at least two levels: telling the story of human political conflict through visual arts, while reflecting on what visual art can do in a time of upheaval and violence.  It also is one of the rare films I have seen to treat folk art and craft with the same respect as fine and graphic arts, and this is due largely to respectful camera work and editing that is nothing less than brilliant.  Likewise, The Anthropologist, which appeared at DOC NYC takes us to Siberia, Kiribati, and the ice glaciers in Peru with anthropologist Susan Crate to show us her work on climate change and its impact on culture.  My adult students who attended with me came out with the firm belief that we need not only more anthropologists, but more jobs to do this kind of necessary work.

Finally from Tribeca, I want to recall the landmark Romanian film, Aferim!, the first film from that country to acknowledge, let alone criticize, the enslavement and mistreatment of Roma people (known also as Gypsies) well into the 19th century.  Worth seeing for that reason alone, but also for the stunning black-and-white photography, the writing, and the disturbing depiction of Romanian 19th century mores – or is it human nature? – and one really unforgettable, incredible period hat.  I see that it’s going to be distributed in the U.S. in late January 2016.

(There.  Glad to have finally gotten all that off my mind and penned down, so to speak, however superficial it all may be.)

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