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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Back a few decades ago, as the IFP had picked up steam, I was invited, in the wake of the marginally successful All the Vermeers in New York, to the new-spangled Indie Spirit Awards.  It had been going on a few years, and getting ever more “important” in the little burgeoning petri dish of “independent” cinema.  I was there to get a little honorific piece of paper, along with producer Ed Pressman:  the John Cassavetes Lifetime Achievement Award.  I guess I was supposed to die soon.  I was 48.

1991

The Spirit Awards move to the Beverly Hills Hotel with an attendance of 550 guests. Kevin Costner delivers the keynote speech and Oliver Stone is the event’s Honorary Chair. Edward R. Pressman and Jon Jost are recipients of a new award given in recognition of a bold, creative body of work and established in honor of the late maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes. Bravo produces a cable special on the event, hosted by Charles Champlin.

Noting the new locale, the pink Beverley Hills Hotel, gathering place of old-line Hollywood honchos, and the keynote speaker, Mr Costner, I didn’t feel it had much “indie” about it, or at least not in any terms I could acknowledge.  Costner’s agent, the most powerful man in Hollywood, Michael Ovitz (at the time  –  Hwd is fickle, and he took a great fall since), was sitting there in the first row.  Costner gave a little talk saying that any “good” script will get made in Hollywood, so if your script wasn’t made it must mean…    He didn’t mention that a lot of really really bad scripts also get made.  Ironically I was the next speaker, and noted that my films had no scripts usually, and that perhaps it was one of Hollywood’s problems that their films start on paper instead of cinematically, though this is logical since their real purpose is merely to make more paper: money.   Scripts are written by accountants.   I had been told by gushing IFP people that after this prestigious pat on the head studios would soon be knocking on my door.  Naturally none did.

All the Vermeers was made for a budget of $240,000, in 35mm.   SAG, a 3 person crew: myself as director, camera and edit; Sarah Cawley as assistant camera/focus puller; and John Murphy doing sound.  It ran 6 months in a few places – Chicago and San Francisco.  Only one week in a recently changed Village porn house in NYC.  In LA it opened the first day of the Watts riot to 7 good reviews and no open cinemas….

Black Swan, by Darren Aronofsky

Now, two decades later, the awards have bloomed into day-before Hollywood glitz, and “independence” costs a mere 10-12 million bucks, or so the budget for this year’s winner was said to be.

Black Swan and Fox Searchlight triumphed at Saturday afternoon’s [26] Indie Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, while 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right left a notable impression.

The budgets on the other films were 18, 2, and 4 million, respectively.   To place this in perspective my own last narrative films, in DV, cost from $500 to $2000 each.  Actors naturally mostly not paid.  Nor me.   Free place to stay courtesy of friends.  And of course they will make no money.   And of course never shown in America, and certainly not in the running for Indie Awards.  As the old American maxim goes, “money talks, bullshit walks.”  Sub-millions = BS.

I’d be happy though to place those films on an artistic scale with the multi-million budgeted ones.

The Great Golden Dildo

Second only, perhaps, to Super Bowl Sunday, Oscar night is the time when virtually all America and much of the bamboozled rest of the world huddle about their plasma screens to watch the anointing of the year’s “Best Movie” and “Best Actor”, etc.; such anointing will automatically vault, if not already there (most of them are), their winners into millionairehood (how petty in these days of the myriad billionaires of Wall Street and CEOdom).  While the Arabic world roils in a rolling revolution, we concern ourselves with rolling out the red carpet for more important things (the front page of the New York Times):

In keeping with America’s underlying philosophy, during this ceremony commerce is passed off as “art” and naturally all applaud in the communal delusion that it is so.  It is somewhat akin to the old Politburo of the defunct USSR except the money is far larger and the glamor is more evident; however the fraud is equal.

Still, the message that the year sent about quality and originality is real enough that studios are tweaking their operating strategies. Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio behind “The Social Network,” is trying to bet more heavily on new directors with quirkier sensibilities. To reboot its “Spider-Man” franchise, for instance, Sony hired Marc Webb, whose only previous film was the indie comedy “(500) Days of Summer.” The studio has also entrusted a big-screen remake of “21 Jump Street” to Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a pair whose only previous film was the animated “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”

“We think the future is about filmmakers with original voices,” said Amy Pascal, Sony’s co-chairwoman. “Original is good, and good is commercial.”

Thus speak the marketing wizards of Hollywood, ever ready to shuffle the 3 card Monte before your incredulous eyes, slipping $10, or whatever your local Bijou charges these days, from your pocket to offer you some star-studded flying photons for 90 minutes or so.  When you wish upon a star, matters not just who you are….

From interview with Pirates director Gore Verbinski about his new animated film Rango

Q. Instead of recording your voice actors individually in a studio, you produced their dialogue by having them act out their scenes together. Why did you go that route?

A. I guess fear, really. Fear of a microphone and a cold environment and nobody’s reacting to anybody. We didn’t want a performance that was too clean. If people are running, I want to hear them out of breath in the next line when they stop and talk.

Q. What was that like for the actors?

A. You show up in dress clothes, there are some props. There’s no lighting, there’s no dolly. You’re doing 10 pages a day. I think that’s very frustrating for actors who are used to doing movies where you do one line, you go back to your trailer for two hours, you come back out and you do another line. At first it’s a shock, and then it’s incredibly liberating.

Ah yes, liberating, just as in the mid-east turmoil, except in Hollywood the deaths are usually fake, as are the morals.

One does not “make love” with a dildo; one gets artificially fucked.

Welcome to….

Egyptian Army turns on Mubarak

The first sign of tension arose when hundreds of people rallied in the intersection in front of the prime minister’s office, barred from taking their protest any closer to the ornate building by armored personnel carriers and a line of soldiers armed with Tasers.

The crowd returned to a chant heard often in the days before Mr. Mubarak fell, replacing his name with the prime minister’s: “The people want the overthrow of Ahmed Shafiq!”

Military police surrounded the protesters and kept them from leaving until late at night, witnesses said, while in Tahrir about a thousand people began to pitch tents and settle in for the night.

After midnight, soldiers and police officers took over the square.

Salma Said was asleep in a tent when it began to fall down on top of her. Outside people were screaming, and she emerged to see people being beaten by soldiers and armed plainclothes security officers wearing masks.

“They had their faces covered like criminals,” she said, “They only showed their eyes.”

NY Times, Feb. 27 2011

A mere few weeks ago, under the klieg lights of the world’s attentions, the Egyptian Army turned on its ostensible head, Hosni Mubarak, and eying the future, it sent him packing (to an exclusive resort area where he has a palace.)   With the support of demonstrators, it asserted its backing for reforms, and promptly installed as a new temporary government a cluster of the old government’s ministers, though tossing in a few new “liberal” faces – one for the Ministry of Tourism, a major income area.  Following this bit of face-dressing,  the military, with heavy interests in the business status quo, began to issue cries for law and order.  And in the last days they have begin to seriously crack down on demonstrators, last night having cleared Tahrir Square.

Egyptian Army turns on demonstrators

Whether this presages the fate of Egypt’s revolution, and that of Tunisia, and those other current uprisings in the region remains to be seen.   As Gaddafi is showing in Libya, deeply entrenched interests do not let go lightly.  In Egypt Mubarak’s obvious lack of popular support, and the dangers he presented for them, made it possible for the military to sacrifice him and take on the mantle of the future’s protectors.   From a business viewpoint, stability and “law and order” are, as usual, the argument for profit.  It seems clear the military is not interested in divesting itself of its business side, and hence the current crack down.  Whether the demonstrators concur is another question.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s neighbor to the west, Libya, seems in the final throws of its revolt against the 42 year regime of Gaddafi, whose recent enuncio’s to his followers seem increasingly the unhinged utterances of a Shakespearean tragicomic fool.   He seems clearly inclined to die rather than submit to the popular will, seeing conspiracies of all kinds as the source of his downfall, rather than, of course, his own actions over the decades.

Tunisia, where 3 were killed todayIraq, 20 killed todayEgypt, where army removed demonstrators from Tahrir Square

Meantime it is clear that nerves of authorities are fraying in Iran, Syria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, not to mention in Georgetown, Washington D.C., where the misguided and cynical foreign policies of the United States of the last 60 years are rapidly unraveling.  A few safe bets: oil prices are going up, the US will behind the scenes support “stability” over democracy, and most plans for the future predicated on control of major oil reserves are no longer valid.


The Gaddafi Comedy Hour

In a handful of hours I’ll be leaving for Seoul on a 6:00 a.m. flight – Tel Aviv to Amsterdam; there to Frankfurt and on to Seoul.  A grueling silver tube transit back to work.  Behind I’ll be leaving the middle-east, which in the few weeks I’ve been here, has been transformed:  Tunisia led the way; Egypt followed.  In little Bahrain, next door to Saudi Arabia, things haven’t quite settled out, and in Libya the ugliest change is going on at this moment.   Muammar Gaddafi, having occupied the world’s stage for 42 years is making a tragicomic exit with broadcasts to his nation which veer from crazed to truly insane.  The tragedy is not in him, but rather in all those whose lives were mangled during his reign, and those whose lives are being laid down in the last days and next days to grease his departure.   In another day or two he will go the way of Mussolini, perhaps in a similar manner, strung up to show all he’s truly dead, and for a ridicule he always invited.   The other tragedy is that for all those decades he was propped up with western arms and money, naturally for the oil and gas to be extracted from Libya’s soils.  It is alleged he has extracted 60 billion dollars in “personal” wealth, squirreled away in squeaky-clean Switzerland’s banking system.

Among those who have consorted with Muammar are Silvio Berlusconi, the comic of Italy, who apparently learned of bunga bunga thanks to the Colonel.   Also the deposed Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair.  In truth nearly all western leaders found ways to accommodate themselves to this wild and crazy guy, even after he sent Semtex to the IRA, organized the Lockerbie bombing, and myriad other affronts.  But, he sat on lots of oil, and like the other regional potentates, this made going along worthwhile, or so it seemed.   Since the end of World War Two the US has cleverly mis-managed its relationships with the entire region, placing its weight, bets, and arms behind all those tyrants presently being toppled.   It wasn’t as if the behaviors of these people were hidden or unknown – it was clear all along.  But, for the sake of a hit of oil and gas, “anti-communism” or being allies in “the war on terror,” the US and its European counterparts went along with whatever outrages they committed.  Policy was bent into pretzels while America preached rhetorical words about democracy and freedom, and looked the other way when elections were transparently rigged, or when an honest election occurred, as in Gaza, and the result did not please the colonial oil-addict’s tastes, were promptly contested or punished.

So now, as 60+ years of misguided policy unravels, America and Europe, along with Israel, squirm, agitated with the sudden lack of apparent control over the politics of the region.  In turn, “national interests” have caused America’s responses to warp in the worst of ways, betraying – as if it hadn’t been clear for decades – what the real interests are:  when it comes down to it “democracy” and “freedom” are jettisoned while we fret about the oil supply, military bases and supposed allies for our “war on terror.”  The silences of Obama, the clear hedging of bets, the equivocation, the obvious worry about the next big domino, be it Saudi Arabia or Morocco, and the utterly transparent anxiety about Iran, all reveal the craven truth of the moment for America.  It is appalling, and, keeping  in perfect synchronicity with past policy, is 100% guaranteed to alienate the regional population yet again.  But then, being honest about it, America’s rhetorical postures have always been false, a cover for venal business moves, and it shows now whether in Tripoli or Madison.  Our powers-that-be don’t really have any principles that don’t cave in to the “national interests” of the corporations which dictate America’s posture in the world or at home.

While the Gaddafi King Lear show plays out, in Egypt we wait to see exactly how things will conclude – will the military continue to retain ministers of Mubarak’s, or dump them?  Will it really re-form itself, and let go of its large business interests?  This Friday there’s a call for another large demonstration, to push for a genuine reform, and not just a shuffling of the same old deck.   Meantime Washington continues to equivocate, leaving it very unclear where it really stands in these matters.   And here in Israel, from which I’ll be leaving in a handful of hours, there is a nervousness about just where all of this is leading.  It is, from here, understandable, though I think the local paranoia functions to blind political understanding here.  Here the worry is that these changes will lead axiomatically to an Iran-style installation of Islamic hard-liners.  I think the opposite – that the young (and many not so young) don’t wish to exchange one authoritarian system for another, but want to have the option of getting on with their lives, having a job, a future, a hope.  My view is that in not much more time the wave of  “revolution” crossing the Arabic world will wash into Iran, and unlike a year and a half ago, the next time it will wash the Iranian Islamic Republic aside.  But here in Israel they chew on their fingernails in fear.  I’d like to think that because they are here, and are closer observers, they should be right.  But my experiences tell me the opposite normally is the case – those nearest are blinded by narrow biases and self-interests and lack the capacity for a broad view.   Whether in the old USSR and “Eastern Bloc” or Berlin behind its wall, or here:  proximity seems to generate blindness.

For more information see Al Jazeera

Today’s email included a notice from the Ann Arbor Film Festival, in the usual convoluted language which festivals seem to think is required to say their piece:

Date: Tue, 22 Feb 2011 01:52:09 -0500
Subject: Ann Arbor Film Festival – submission notification
From: mail@aafilmfest.org
To: clarandjon@msn.com

Dear John Jost,

Thank you for submitting “Swimming in Nebraska” and “Dissonance ” for consideration to
the 49th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Although we recognize the merit of your films, they were not selected
for this year’s festival. We recognize that you have screened in the past at the AAFFand very much appreciate seeing your latest works.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is strongly committed to a rigorous screening
and selection process. Each work receives multiple viewings by screeners
and programmers. We are always eager to discover new work for each year’s
program and hope you will consider our festival in the future.

Again, thank you for sending your work to us.

With kind regards,

-The Ann Arbor Film Festival

Some many many years ago I think I got their first prize or some major prize for PLAIN TALK AND COMMON SENSE (1987 or so) and I vaguely recall a few other films getting in it and maybe winning a prize or two.  Ann Arbor is sort of the grand-daddy of American experimental festivals, beginning in the 1960’s.  I recall going to one shortly after I got out of prison, in 1967 or maybe 1968.  Recall being at a party with Norman Mailer and some of Andy Warhol’s Factory people.  I recall not being impressed much, but rather a bit depressed at the sycophantic fashion side.  I have no fond memories of the fabled ’60’s.   Here’s what I wrote Ann Arbor:

 

I always find the letters from festivals (if they bother) saying “no” to be a source of amusement with their elaborate ways of explicating “we didn’t like it” which is what it boils down to, never mind the rhetoric.  My impression, perhaps false, of Ann Arbor, is you tilt to shorter works, and from what tiny bit I have seen of what usually gets shown, towards what I’d call derriere garde work – kind of old-fashioned “experimental” as refashioned by academia.  Given the 2 things I sent (75 and 65 mins) I suppose they were too long, and I guess they don’t slip into the whatever of the day.  Since I doubt I’ll be doing anything in the future that might fit the Ann Arbor criteria I suspect I’ll save the postage, packaging and DVD money and let it go.

Best and have a good festival
jon

Professor Jon Jost,
Yonsei University
Graduate School of Communication and Arts
134 Shinchon-dong, Seodaemun-gu
Seoul 120-749, Korea

Following days of equivocation, in which the US administration did the usual rhetorical mouthings about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ while the backrooms busily calculated the nature of the natives’ uprising and how to deflate it, the sound of foot-dragging became the dominant note of the American political symphony, noted by one and all, and especially those in Egypt who were laying their lives on the line.  No one was deceived as America said order was the need of the moment, and the transfer of power from Mubarak to his right-hand man, Army General Suleiman, Chief of  Intelligence, overseer of torture, disappearances and all the usual practices of tyrants, be they Arabic or American, was the proper thing to do.  Tonight it appears Mubarak is making his move, hauling the $17 or is it $70 billions his family has skimmed off the $2 a day laborers of the Nile, and heading first for well protected Sharm el Sheik, doubtless to scurry off shortly to London or other digs.  Suleiman will take his place, mutter words about accommodating the demonstrators, as the military attempts to consolidate control – the same military which under US tutelage long ago morphed into a corporate system of production, distribution and, of course, bribery and other s.o.p.’s of iron-fisted dictatorships.  Our Barack, Nobel laureate, will sit back to wait for the dust to settle, with his military minions who have paid for and trained their Egyptian counterparts, and as noted by Leon Panella, official mobster-in-chief of the CIA, the shuffle will be done and all are supposed to be fooled.   Doubtless President Obama will mumble some articulate mealy-mouth words about freedom and democracy once again, and they will cross their fingers that the Egyptian people, exhausted, will accept the swift shift of the shells and be happy.

Unlike America’s now “professional” army, that of Egypt is conscripted, and while it offers certain benefits, especially to the higher ranks, it is reliant upon citizen soldiers.  So the question remains whether those citizens will follow unhappy orders, or break ranks.  Doubtless this is a concern of Suileman, now Vice President, as well as others of the Egyptian elite.   One feels the nervous hand of American CIA and military supervision moving the shells, crossing their fingers that the puppet strings still work.  The matter is made more complex by the alleged promise of the King of Saud house to personally put his 1.5 billion on the line in case America tries to cut off the Egyptian buck supply.  And of course the King of  Saudi Arabia has other leverage on his American friends – especially the US military, which is, surprise, surprise, the world’s single largest user of petroleum….

My uneducated guess is that the old invention of the military, the Internet, has opened a Pandora’s Box which will collapse the Empire which it was intended to protect from the communications collapse expected in a nuclear war.  Now it is the social-networking war at which government’s are proving curiously flat-footed.  Just deserves.

Let’s hope the Egyptian people don’t fall for the clumsy bait they’re being offered.  I seriously doubt they will.

White House pool reporters say that President Barack Obama has been watching events during a trip to Michigan. He told reporters, “We’re going to have to wait and see what’s going on.”

As if the US didn’t have direct communications going on with their clients in Egypt, and were not in a large measure calling many shots, even if final control eludes.   This entire sequence of events, if nothing else, has made utterly transparent that Barack Obama is a standard, Harvard-trained, Democrat of the “real politick” school of American imperialism and corporatism, someone who would feel quite at home having dinner with Henry Kissinger.   Anyone fooled any longer is, well, a fool.  Or, of course, a supporter of the corporate control of America and its politics.

The US is ever offering its wonderful lessons to the world, especially the Arabic world.  Perhaps it is long over due that we took some lessons from others.   In the case in Egypt today, one perhaps which our governmental masters in Washington will not like.   Real democracy?  Would that we had it in our Corporate States of America.

Today’s news would seem to confirm the below, mistakenly published on my other blog.   Our puppet met with the not real opposition of the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood, which in a perverse manner is part of the system and was very slow on the uptake in realizing the seriousness of the present uprising, and announced Mubarak would stay until September (translate: imprisoning and killing dissidents until they, as in Iran, subside into a manageable subservience) when new “elections” will be held, all of this under the watchful,  and supportive wing of Washington, for whom “order” is more important than human rights, democracy, or anything else.  Order meaning what appears to be in the interests of US corporations, our military’s oil supply, etc.

[An opinion piece by Ross Douthat, "conservative/right-wing columnist for the NY Times today, Feb 7, confirms the above and below:  Obama, in case anyone has failed to notice it, is a by-the-book hard-core American "real-politick" practitioner in which the nation's financial and power-oriented interests trump all other objectives.]

Obama Backs Suleiman-Led Transition

Now, the United States and other Western powers appear to have concluded that the best path for Egypt — and certainly the safest one, to avoid further chaos — is a gradual transition, managed by Mr. Suleiman, a pillar of Egypt’s existing establishment, and backed by the military.

NYTimes “news” item with this blatant editorial line.

“The transition to democracy will only happen if it is deliberate, inclusive, and transparent,” she said. “The challenge is to help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future, where people’s voices are heard, their rights respected, and their aspirations met.”

Sec of State Hilary Clinton

In case anyone needs translation, General Suleiman was Mubarak’s right-hand man, head of the Egyptian Secret Service, and complicit (being very kind) in the torture and killing of many Egyptians in the last decades; not to mention a participant in American “extreme-renditions.”  Thus, in effect, the US has come down firmly in support of Mubarak by proxy, the military which is funded by America, and the whole panoply of American directed interests.  Any “change” coming to Egypt at the hands of Suleiman is about as credible as the “Change you can believe in” which Mr Obama has delivered to his supporters.

To imagine that the Egyptians are going to buy into this is pure folly, leaving the option of a bloody army-police crack-down clearly supported by US policy.   If this is done, obviously because America’s oil needs are under threat, especially if the uprising in Egypt should spread across the region, it will signal for Muslim’s around the world that when nitty comes to gritty, America’s sole interest is self-interest, and all the blather about “democracy” and “freedom” is kicked out the door once a real threat to our military’s oil supply is present:  the US military is the single world’s largest consumer of petroleum.

If anyone needs further proof that Obama is totally in the pockets of the US corporate ruling elite, which has supported Mubarak for 30 years, and has stood behind endless dictators, constantly feeding weapons, training, and ideological positions in support of America’s interests to the severe detriment of those people who have had to suffer under our choices, Mrs Clinton’s mealy-mouthed quotations seemingly lifted directly from Mubarak’s recent talk in which he said that without him there would be chaos should provide final confirmation.   Along the way, if America had any shred of credibility in the region (why it should is beyond comprehension) the Obama administration just burned it to a crisp with this policy decision.

Co-conspirators in the change you can believe in

Marcella in the wind on the way to the Venster Lantaren

Aside from the films of Nathaniel and Tonino I didn’t see anything else during the festival.  I missed Michael Pilz’ Rose and Jasmine, an Iranian journey film, as I’d seen it on a DVD he sent me some time ago, and his screening was at the same time as mine, too.  Luckily I got to see him a bit,  if only briefly.

My own screenings were nicely attended, despite  the early afternoon time, except the last, late at night, also nicely attended.  At the first one I stayed, as I’d never seen it projected large, or in fact seen it all the way, thanks to the 18 hour a day dead-line grind I had before heading to the festival.   And so when a few sound lapses came I wasn’t totally surprised, though when then a piece of music was missing, and at the end some quarter seconds of unintended frames popped in disruptively, and another piece of sound precipitously cut out, I felt like an ice-pick had jabbed me in the gut.  Working against deadlines has its price, in this case a bit steep to my tastes.  The audience though didn’t seem to notice much or mind.   Despite it being a rather slow film, very few left – say 2 or 3 of audiences of 75 – 9o or so each time.  And, rather to my surprise – though I thought it a rather good and enjoyable film, despite it’s languid pace, absence of story, etc. – it was very enthusiastically received, with applause, most people staying for Q and A, and some lavishly nice comments.  I’m not quite sure just what I hit on, but something nice.    So that was a pleasure.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

At the last screening, Will Oldham, who was attending the festival for a film he was in,  New Jerusalem, and had been at Nathaniel’s screening, was there, and clearly liked the film and asked some questions.  I’d been tempted at Nick’s  to introduce myself as I’d seen him in a concert in Italy in the summer of 2009, near Ravena, and had quite liked his persona and music and had been tempted to inquire, since he acts in films (none of which I have seen), if perhaps….   But at Nick’s screening my usual reticence and a kind of shyness won out and I stayed back.  But when he materialized at mine, asked a few questions and seemed clearly to like, I felt emboldened and made my quiry, to a positive response, even if in my talk I’d mentioned my fictional DV films  with budgets of $50 or $500 or $2000, so he should understand the fiscal reality.   His co-actor, Colm O’Leary was also there, and likewise liked the film a lot.  Go figger, actors liking films with no actors?    While I am not at all sure I want to make another fictional narrative, maybe something else could be done.  We shall see.

Our visit to Rotterdam included going with Nathaniel to Den Haag to the Mauritshuis museum, where there are many beautiful works, among them Vermeer’s View of Delft, and Girl with a Pearl Earring, as well as a lovely Rembrandt self-portrait – a later one, drenched in pathos.  Nick was particularly entranced by a winter landscape scene by Jacob van Ruisdael.

Van Ruisdael Winter SceneVermeer, View of Delft

Nathaniel had thought to take the little trip to Delft, but as we accidentally got off the train enroute to Den Haag, and its dreary contemporary reality showed itself, he changed his mind.  Instead a day later we took a little boat-trip to Dordrecht, the oldest city in the Netherlands, passing very modern heavily industrialized landscapes full of the interesting objects of a huge port, to get off in a little perhaps overly picturesque town in the cold, where we quickly took refuge in a cafe for something warm: Nathaniel a wonderful mustard soup, Marcella a mint tea, and myself a Belgian beer.

Old yard in Den Haag

Of course, there is also the modern world, for what it is worth:

Den Haag street signs

As I saw the landscape slide by on our boat journey, and saw the paintings at Mauritshuis, and later in the museum in Rotterdam, I felt a pained sense of what is lost in our world, now over-run with ourselves and our machines, such as the one I am using now.  It is a lost world, surviving now only in a few remote  corners of this planet.   Back in the crazed environment of the festival, I did not feel at home.  See this for thoughts on that.

As a footnote, a few days ago, checking some film thing, I bumped into a notice that an actor I had worked with on Uno a te (Italian language film of 1995) Daniele Formica, had died of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 1.    He was born in 1949, 6 years after me.

Hosni Mubarak

U.S. Discusses Plan for Mubarak to Quit

Tipping the ever-obvious American hand in the game, the headlines announce overtly just who was and is meddling where.  Showing its persistent tone-deafness  – or it is really more a case of pure American corporate/government interests (these two being inseparable) – the US haughtily says we’ll slip in the brand-newly appointed Egyptian Vice-President, formerly head of Mubarak’s military  muscle machine, to step into the President’s seat, never mind that the Constitution there says the head of their (fraudulent, of course) elected House should do so.    Constitutions are, as our previous President said, just damned pieces of paper, and legality is a fiction, so hell, Uncle Sam once again steps in to insert a new puppet.

 

Social networking at work

As usual America’s self-interests betray themselves with rhetoric about democracy and freedom at the same time we jump in bed with the next CIA or US-military-trained whore.  And naturally our very well paid “intelligence” organizations are caught flat-footed again, wondering “what’s up, doc?,” a few miles behind the curve, as they were with the fall of the USSR and innumerable other assignments for which they suck up billions and deliver one-eyed costly and drastically incorrect reports.  As always with our Harvard etc schooled Best and Brightest.   Obama, feet to the fires of history, obligingly follows the military-corporate blue-print, while spewing some nice words and playing serious and subtle, but is himself no less a puppet than those he de-installs or installs in the name of hidden higher powers.   US policy in the middle-east has been so severely warped by oil-addiction and Israeli control of our foreign policy that we’re like a junkie told to cut cold:  shakes, sweat, and the urge to do whatever is needed to secure that next fix, and fast.

US guns and tear gas used for social managementResistance

Reading the frantic commentaries of the opinion pages and our professional bobble-heads, one gathers that the original fear which drove American policy still rules, especially from the Israeli lobby side: that real democracy (oh no!) would lead, as it did in Gaza, to an Islamist take-over and trouble for the alleged little outpost of democracy armed to the teeth with American billions.   I, naturally, being no expert and hence not in the nice pay of the CIA or other government agencies, see it another way.  My guess is that the multitudes of unemployed youth, Tweeting and Facebooking and Googling away are more than aware of how the larger world is, and are sick of being played for fools by their local tyrant, yanked around and wasting their lives on the deliberately fueled and distracting hatred of their neighbor, rather than on positive things like building their own country, schools, hospitals and lives.   And access to the internet has broadened their world so they see they’ve been played by their elites (just as Americans are played by theirs), who take the money and run, while waving a red-flag of distraction in the populace’s face.  So my guess is should the Egyptian people win this one – and not be suckered with America’s choice of their new interim leader (clearly put in to buy Washington time to try to rig the next phase of history) – they’ll likely turn inward, toward building their own dilapidated country to something reasonable, and not huff and puff about Israel.  And should they accomplish this, they’d likely be a far more accommodating neighbor than they are as a destitute nation played around with by a cynical and criminal elite operating in large part at the behest of America’s stupidly narrow-visioned and short-sighted sense of self-interest.

Of course I am just a Joe Blow, and unfunded with offical snooping equipment, so I must be wrong – even if my track record of beating the CIA is pretty good.

However, so long as things like this obscure the neighborly view, I doubt much positive is going to happen in the ‘hood.

 

Tonino De Bernardi

Gray and cold outside, inside the festival center the atmosphere seems to me a bit more subdued, less people, than my last visit here I think 4 years ago. For myself I’ve decided to see only a few films, those of some friends, and another one or two.  Along with showing my own.

The first film I went to was Tonino De Bernardi’s newest, Butterfly L’Attesa (Butterfly Waiting).  It is a typical Tonino film, magical, too long, repetitive, and finally, as “art” it doesn’t work. Occasionally he’ll luck out and his way of being works as a way to make a film which works as art; more often it falters and fails.  It is not possible to describe his work in words, or what works or doesn’t work.  Essentially he makes carefully orchestrated home-movies of a kind, often with his family playing roles, or friends, though sometimes it might be a famous actress or actor: such are Tonino’s charms.  His camera, and sometimes his orchestration of his characters is lyrical, in movement, intimate and personal. His love of his characters is transparent and joyous.   In this case he filmed in his country place north of Torino, using Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as his thematic base.  The surroundings are woodlands, fields with farmers gathering hay.  We see actors, almost frozen rigid, in postures, as the essential aria of the opera is repeated, sung by a woman who is clearly a trained opera singer, sometimes in sync, sometimes seeming to lip-sync.  A ship’s officer arrives in white naval suit and hat, walking improbably through the wood. Later another man arrives.  They stare into the face of the young woman protagonist, love presumably animating the unanimated faces.  This gesture is repeated again and again.  In walking candle-lit cadences the protagonists walk through a house, a knife appears (and appears and appears.)  The essence of the Puccini drama is visually outlined, repeatedly: women, sailor, knife, impending suicide.   Juxtaposed to this are sequences of farmers doing their work – cutting and bailing hay, doing their job.

Tonino’s family and friends watch the spectacle in a back yard, they applaud, they talk.  One pointedly says, as if it would cure the matter, “Give Tonino some good wine.”  Motifs arrive, are repeated and repeated, and while I was utterly caught in the first 30 minutes, slowly the energy and charm dissipated and became irritating.  In the latter part a family excursion to the beach is tossed in, perhaps vaguely related to our ship captain, but really just some further home-movie material, of daughter and children, and again, repeated to the point of aggravation.

Tonino is a charming 73 year old child whom everyone loves, and who in turn inocculates himself against the criticism he needs as an artist.  What he needs is to give his editor (he can’t operate a computer editing system) gentle instructions, and then leave them to apply the axe in his absence.  Butterfly runs about 90 minutes; if it were cut down to 45-60 it would be a lovely, charming and perhaps very good film.  But Tonino loves everyone and everything, especially his own shots.  He is unable cut one of them, and so variations on the same shot are repeated, once, twice, three, 7 times – not to establish a rhythmic musical quality (which in part is managed) but solely because Tonino can’t stand to cut out one of his shots (he shoots himself).  Lacking the self-discipline and capacity to sort out, to discard, his films stumble into a kind of narcissistic trance from which only occasionally do they survive.  Of course he is so sweet and disarming, no one will say so.  Instead they silently leave, and a cluster of people more taken by the man than the films, stay to watch his always odd, charming, child-like post-screening philosophy lessons.

I’d like to twist his arm, ask him to give the footage to Marcella, and sit back and let her make it into the really wonderful film it could be – if only one could take a knife to it and excise all the redundant needless shots and make a film rather than a lingering sequence of orchestrated home-film material that it’s maker can’t bring himself to mutilate in the interests of make a work of art, rather than a mirror of himself.  But, as a friend of Tonino’s, I know this is not possible.  He would rather be himself and have his work reflect this than suffer the pains of making it into art.

Nathaniel Dorsky with Karel Frabritius self-portrait

The next films we saw were a selection of Nathaniel Dorsky’s shorts, a program which included two newer films I hadn’t seen, and several I’d seen 5 years ago in a little arts gallery in Portland, Oregon.  Before the screening I’d met with Nathaniel, who was deliriously happy with the projection and facilities:  a small cinema of 100 or so seats, the screen crisply defined, a rich black place (only one lit green exit sign in the back of the room), and an excellent, properly bright 16mm projector running at silent speed, and real silence.  One could not fault the place technically.

The first program I attended was sold out and Marcella and I were snuck in by the organizer of the program, Erwin van t’ Hart, sitting in the last row along with Nathaniel.  He introduced each film with a little technical information and background, charmingly and briefly.  The projector ran, the title faded in and out, and then the screen filled with Nathaniel’s elusive and luminous images, enveloped in a deepening silence, draped often in darkness, barely perceptible, or illuminated with rich, saturated deep color surrounded with profound shadows.  Dense foliage, 3 and 4 layers deep, toying with the eye with sometimes gentle and discreet camera movements, sometimes with swift and firmly controlled aggressive movements. The back of a person, the sunlight piercing deeply shadowed pockets to illuminate a zipper or colored shirt or object.  Often the fore or background is very far out of focus, and sometimes an entire image is.  The camera traces down or up the stem of a plant, or some other linear guideline – a sliver of light let through by some structure, an architectural form, often diagonal.    The camera sits still, the spatial ground compressed with some degree of telephoto, capturing a furtive, shadow-bound hand reading a book, or writing.  The cumulative imagery is in a way claustrophobic, close, near suffocating in its intensity, and making monumental the most ordinary of life’s busynesses.  Layers of imagery are captured in a single shot, reflections in glass or water, but beyond that layer yet another and another.  Images so rich and intense, and often so abstract, that it is often difficult to discern just what they are images of, or how they are constructed.  The orientation of the camera is often sharply tilted, though often almost impossible to notice in the density of what is before and interpreted by the camera eye. Often the shots are so complex one would suspect some kind of double, multiple exposure were involved, and yet in the same instant there is an honesty and conviction in them that deletes this easier option: no, Nathaniel’s eye is so exquisitely tuned to his world, which is also our world, that he sees these things that we fail to see it.  It is his gift to us to so illuminate the realm of his world – a world largely confined to his neighborhood in San Francisco, the Sunset, a place of middling middle-class homes, shopping streets and the nearby Golden Gate Park and its greenhouses.  Occasionally this world branches out further in the City, to the beach and the dazzling Pacific, or even here and there to other places.  Out of this mundane world, he extracts heaven and earth in a luminous cinematic language all his own.

The cadence of Nathaniel’s editing is swift, with one image cascading after the next, sometimes in abrupt shifts of movement arriving at a hard stop, or a surprising cut to a stop; sometimes a dance of the camera over slanted lines, fences or a textural background; often the interplay between such a visual grid and another (or still another) layer behind it, building to a rich concerto in depth, a combination of rhythms, the relations between texture/grid/image combining into a mysterious whole, grounded by the mundane and elevated to the ethereal.  As his titles often imply, this is in effect visual music, of a particularly rich and complex kind.  It lacks the clear over-arching structure of a pop song, where the start, middle and resolution are transparently obvious.  Instead his work operates in a much more demanding realm, more Milton Babbit, where the structure is more intricate and indirect, in Nathaniel’s case with visual resonances bouncing around not just from one shot to the next, but reverberating 2 or 3 shots away, and then cumulatively, gathering together in a near imperceptible unity.  The end result, for those attuned to it, is what he aims for:  a meditative state, in which being open, as he is, to a sense of wonder in the face of the world, infuses us spiritually. As he describes it, a “devotional cinema” which serves as a mode of prayer.

The films are filled with truncated gestures or movements, as if depriving us of even a momentary narrative closure.  Dorsky’s editing seems almost a strategy of denial of the comforts of our expectations of cinema, done the better to pry the eyes and soul to another rhythm and aim.  Rather than offer the comfort of a resolution, he repeatedly offers an enigmatic image, a moment of stasis ruptured with a gesture, a sequence of visual chords cut abruptly – one after another, a repeated process of giving and snatching away, guiding us to a more open sensibility for the world he shows – even in images that in another context might seem unduly saccharine: flowers in blossom, a duck paddling in a pond, a cat or dog, almost a catalog of fatal genre cliches of cuteness, though in his hands these transcend their inherent dangers and through a mix of careful observation, mottled light, sure camera movement, and most importantly, context, they instead become harbingers of observation.  We look upon the world, no different than does the cat or dog, and we look upon this with the same unconscious amazement: this flower exists!  this cloth or object exists!  these hands exist!  While visually not at all similar, Dorsky’s eye seems to assert in a manner akin to Cezanne, that a thing exists, it has a certain specific quality: it is an apple, it is a lemon.  It is a hand or the nape of a neck.  Like Cezanne, while utterly attentive to light and its transiency, Dorsky’s images declaim assertively, “this is.”  This is an apple, this is a lemon, this is a tree.  Rather than the comfortable narrative arch arriving at a satisfying resolution, Dorsky instead offers and takes away, seemingly willfully disrupting our expectations and trained behaviors and replaces them instead with a sequence of privileged moments which cumulatively echo with one another, and as in a mosaic, combine each distinct and separate facet to produce a cinematic unity which has foregone the usual devices of narrative, sound, music, and the other stitching with which we usually are confronted by the cinema to hold our attentions.

As one young woman said in a Q and A session, partly correctly and partly drastically incorrectly, she felt like it was filmmaking by a 5 year old.  To which I wanted to respond that yes, it is the sensitive sense of wonder of a child, in which each earthly phenomenon is a kind of miracle, but it required a 68 year old man’s lifetime of hard work to be able to capture that with a highly conscious, disciplined and technically exacting cinematic capacity which, alas, 5 year old’s don’t have, and 99.9999% of whom will never acquire, be it in cinema or some other endeavor.

Life usually disabuses us of a sense of wonder early on, and, as far as being able to express this wonder later, as with any creative art, one is fated to it.  Nathaniel has offered up his life to salvage this, in a world which is mostly disinterested and even contemptuous of such work that is not aimed at securing money – our culture’s standard measure of value – but of something far more elusive, unmeasurable, and valuable.  It is, in our world, necessarily a cinema for a slim minority which has not been wholly seduced by the distractions and hurly-burly of our consumerist world.

While watching his work I was recurrently reminded of photography of the 1920’s and 30’s – many things from which Nathaniel’s vision clearly learned, but then turned into his own.  The oblique angles, use of shadow to form a frame or multiple frames, the reflective surfaces and distortions caused by them can be found in Andre Kertesz, Man Ray, Moholy Nagy and many others.  Dorsky has pushed these further, making of them a dense cinematic intaglio in which they cumulatively enrich one another, image after image flooding the retina and mind with the most exquisite of visions which paradoxically, with its intensity, serves through its excitement at the world to induce a quietude and prayerful sense of the miraculous.  The world, thus seen, is miraculous, as is our privilege of being in it, however briefly.

It is a pleasure to note that Nathaniel was given a Tiger Beat award (3000 Euros in cold cash) and his retrospective here has thus far drawn a request to do the same in Madrid and northwest Spain, and an apparent interest in Japan.  Also the Nederlands Archive wants to buy a print of one film and I suspect when it’s all over there will be a lot more of useful value for him.  A long time coming, he deserves it all and more.  I confess a vicarious deep pleasure in seeing the belated acknowledgment.  He has worked in the shadow of the academically defined avant garde for far too long.

Bless you Nathaniel for your persistence, your patience, and your capacity as an artist who shows us all what the spirit of a person can really do, and what art can really be.

[March 8, 2011: here's a little video portrait Marcella made of Nathaniel shooting and talking while on a little trip with us in the Netherlands.]

[March 14, 2011: new interview and article on Nathaniel.]

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