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Category Archives: Travels

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The last time I’d visited the Grand Canyon – I don’t really remember how long ago, but at least 20+ years ago, it was already showing signs of the times: mass tourism.  Back then one had to get a permit to go down Angel Trail to the bottom, whereas in 1969, my first time, you could just go.  Now caravans of rafters can be seen as distant yellow dots going down the rampaging rapids, the parking lot at the visitor’s center is vast, and buses take you along the rim to the west of the old center whereas before you could drive yourself.  Outside the gate of the park sits an opportunistic town with motels and fast food places, along with a new “Western” steak house or two.   They all come to see the Canyon, or perhaps to have their pictures taken in front of it after a quick glance.  They stay a few hours, and one can overhear them as they mention having seen Zion, Bryce Canyon, and a few other places, “done” in the last few days.

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I came to do a “re-make” of a film I did in 1970 in 16mm, Canyon.  It was a five minute single camera viewpoint passage through a day, from sunrise to sunset.  It was very good, and garnered comment from Amos Vogel in his book Subversive Cinema (he died recently, some months ago), and laid the groundwork for much later work, from Muri Romani, to a passage in the most recent, Coming to Terms.  I decided to return, to shoot again in wide-screen HD, and with financial and temporal limits removed, make what may be a 60-90 minute version.  I certainly shot enough to do so – actually two of them since I shot with two cameras, looking in different directions.

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Given the new mass-tourism set up I was able to spend the night unnoticed, sleeping in the ’91 Subaru, in the parking lot of a large apartment rental complex, just a walk from where I could catch a 4 a.m. bus to set up some minutes before the dawn sky brightened.  Meant arousing myself at 3:15.   I stayed until sunset, around 8:30.  The price was a burned upper lip, conversations with a handful of kind people (who offered water and more), and a lesson in patience.  I was tempted to stay another day or two, and do it again from a different viewpoint, but the general haze discouraged me and I think I will apply for an artist’s residency of two weeks which the park offers – no pay or travel, but a place to stay and I imagine some assistance if needed.

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I moved then back northward, passing through the Navaho reservation to the east, up into Utah, and the towns of Junction and Circleville, where I’d spent an autumn in 1989, preparing and then shooting Sure Fire.  Like many, and perhaps most, of the small towns I’ve passed through in travels this last year, these places appear to be on their last legs.  Buildings for sale, collapsing; boarded up houses, and a general air of decay and abandonment.  The cafe I’d done the opening shot in Sure Fire was no longer there (though a new one was), some buildings I’d wanted to take shots of were gone, and everything seemed shabbier than 20+ years ago.  The spiel which Wes, the lead character in the film, had laid out to his banker, of cheap houses selling well to So Cal refugees had not played out – though it certainly did some 150 or so miles to the south in St George.  There a small city is now dwarfed by the upscale housing tracts of gated communities, in turn surrounded with the mandatory corporate big-box shopping malls.

I managed to find a space by an abandoned house to park and spend the night unhassled.  Awoke early in the morning and returned to Circleville for a breakfast and to take a mess of shots there and then in Junction.

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DSC02036SMCircleville, Utah

Back in 1989 when shooting the film, I’d noticed one house which seemed as if a minimalist had moved out West, having taken his house and simplified the facade to a blank white, and making everything on his property white with red trim.  Since he’s punched a window in the facade and put on a few little decorative items – patriotic American flag butterflies – and the place bears the wages of time.  Previously he had some seeming Kelley-like abstract panel sculptures in his yard; they’re not all there and those that are now sit outside, by his fence.  And on his car was a license plate which hints at the mindset.

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As I left Junction early in the morning I noticed chem-trails being laid out in the sky above, and as I drove northward, these same “clouds” drifted, with new parallel ones after them, on northward me, nearly to Provo.  I’d seen the same in the valley around Redding, Ca., though there they were criss-crossed carefully, like an overhead quilt.  These are not jet contrails,  which normally disappear by evaporating in a few minutes and are from 30-35,000 feet, normal cruising heights for commercial jet traffic.  These chem-trails last all day, widening as the wind moves them, ending the day as a smudgy sun-killing haze.  They appear to be more in the 10,000-15,000 foot altitude range.  Something is “up.”

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DSC01771SMChem-trails over the Grand Canyon.DSC02161SM

DSC02317 SM CHEMChem-trails over Junction Utah, and later in the day, more and dispersed, 150 north

And having spent enough time at this Sun Valley Starbucks to recharge batteries, clean up and wash hair, and do other internet chores, I’ll wrap up for the moment and head on up to the Sawtooth range.

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DSC00257smThe Jeonju Hanok Village outside the hotel window

Jet-lagged from the journey from Portland to Seoul, I arrived in Jeonju for what is maybe my 5th or 6th visit – I forget and don’t want to look it up.  I was here in 2000, with their first issue, a spanking new eager young festival out to put this small provincial Korean city on the map.  I recall that one, charmed by what seemed a modest provincial university town, suffering an inferiority complex which found them constantly inquiring of me if all was going OK, were they good enough.  They were. (I had experienced the same thing in my first visit to the Yamagata Documentary festival in Japan, in 1989).  Now it is 14 years later, and Jeonju has exploded, along with most Korean cities, with the standard issue concrete residential highrises (Lotte, Samsung, Hyundai, or another cheobol name signifying the brand painted on the side, along with a number – capitalist workers housing akin to the old Soviet ones of the USSR and eastern Europe, though built a bit better), stretching out from view, snaking up the nearby valleys, a version of soulless Seoul stuck in the midst of rice paddies, industrialized agriculture, and rural factories.   The modest charms of 2000 have pretty much vanished.  Similarly the festival ballooned, now a much bigger affair which takes over the downtown area,  has its own building, and after some kind of palace coup a year or two ago, is run by other people, and seems a little less organized than before, though the ticketing policies seem draconian now.

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Follies:  in a little error of idiot festival politics, I let Jeonju program both my new films, a failure on my part to think ahead and realize I was squandering one of my glorious “world premiers” by letting them show both.  So 120 or so people, off in little Jeonju, will see my films, and a large number of festivals will hence decline to show either of them because it isn’t a fkn premiere, a matter that no one except film festival directors/organizers could give a shit about.  So they trade a good film for a virgin of  dubious qualities.  Real smart…   While I know the ropes of the festival game I guess I find it all pathetic and indicative of some kind of warped cultural BS that those running these things should give another think.  There are a handful of larger festivals that show films that have shown elsewhere, but not many.  Those that insist on world premiers and such are merely slitting their own wrists, assuring that they fulfill my cynical view that festivals are by and large an institutionalized system for screening of a lot of mostly rather bad films under the least ideal circumstances for seeing good ones.

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So on Tuesday I showed The Narcissus Flowers of  Katsura-shima to an audience of 50-60, and got a look at the DCP of it and confirmed that the process only inflicts some damage on it (conversion from 29.97 fps to 24 fps). It was marginal damage, but visible and stupid, done only at the behest of Hollywood and its desire for a single uniform system for projection.  I am 100% sure the equipment here and any place that can show off computers could have as easily shown my original h.264 file and spared the motion quirks, color shifts and other crap the DCP conversion brought into play.  And spared me a $300 expense.  Put it this way: assuming the next audience is the same size, I had to pay about $2 per viewer to make their experience worse.  Ain’t that grand!

Even so, not having seen it for some time, and never having seen it on a good big screen projection, with good sound, I must say it is an impressive work – minimalist, beautiful, of measured (slow) pace, and intelligent – qualities which assure it will hardly be seen at all, and naturally I will never see a dime from it.  Which, after 50 years of doing this, draws from me some doubts – about the world I live in, about my sanity or at least my intelligence, about at this late date in my life persisting in this.  I recall a few years back seeing Raul Ruiz wandering the lounge space of the Rotterdam Film Festival looking inwardly lost, as if he were wondering the same thing I am: what’s the point? (Though Raul managed to make a decent living from what he did.)

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On May 1st I was present at the second screening of Coming to Terms here (hadn’t arrived for  first screening).  Packed house of 150 or so, which was a nice surprise, though as the film came up it was painful for me to see the damage inflicted in the DCP conversion: slow fades turned into digital waves of light jumps, all lateral movement (cars going by) now juddered in little jumps, even relatively slow human movements became jerky.  As I watched felt as if I’d been raped – another $300 to severely damage my film because the festival bought the Hollywood DCP con.  They will be getting a pretty harsh letter from me (and perhaps a request to pay for the stupid conversion they required though I told them before hand what it would do.)   Setting all that aside, and  some remaining sound tech matters, I was very happy with the film – certainly as good as anything I have ever done.   So coming full circle to Jeonju, where at a screening in 2006 my Yonsei teaching  job offer began and subsequently found me wondering if, after nearly 4 “dry years” of not making any new films when teaching  (I did edit previously shot ones) , I’d lost the creative moxie.   The two films here, made immediately after I quit in August 2011, seem to suggest the well is not yet dry.  Though I should hasten to state that it would be perfectly OK if it were dry – creative work is like that, and when the source runs out, it is fine.   I intensely dislike the critical view that  there is something wrong when an artist hangs it all up, or when, pursuing their work, it falters.  We get old.  We deplete our energies.  We curl up and die.  And that is as it is and as it ought to  be.

However, though I am happy to feel that this work can go on, I must say I am rather fed up with the other end of it: festivals, getting things shown.  And I think I will likely write an open letter to the festival and exhibition world, letting them know that while I continue to make films most likely, I won’t be sending in entry forms and jumping through all the hoops and idiocies required, and if they want to see my work, they can contact me.  Or perhaps I will post it on a private Vimeo channel and they can request to see it that way.  Meantime, given the nature of the cinema business these days,  in a few months – once I have the time to do so – I will be placing all my work on a Vimeo channel, to view for pay per the new Vimeo set-up.  However miniscule in the “real world” I do know there’s an audience for my work, and this will make it available for those who do wish to see it.

DSC01201smHeroic USSR-style sculpture of cinema-workers on Jeonju “Cinema Street.”

In another week and some I’ll head back to the USA, greeted more or less by a blank slate:  having called off the American essay film, and having screwed up the festival politics of a ticket to Europe, it appears wandering the west, or perhaps hunkering down to catch up a a large backlog of footage, fotos, and other things is in order until (and if) some screenings in the east draw me there, or an invitation for Narcissus Flowers, flies me to Japan (to stay a month).  Wait and see.  Though now that I think of it I did set in motion the wheels to shoot a feature in Port Angeles in September….  silly me!

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09funicello1_cnd-popupAnnette Funicello

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People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

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The last months, traveling the western US, I’ve somewhat consciously sought to see as many of my old friends who are around this region as I could.  Consciously since it is likely I may well soon decamp for some distant place, perhaps never to return.  Consciously, as in many cases – my own included – the clock is running down, and this might be a last chance to see them, either because I or they will no longer be.  Such are the thoughts which the diminishing of time – as well as of muscle tissue, sight, energy and the blossoming of liver spots, lack of hair, and the other vicissitudes of aging – impose.  Seeing some old friends, I am struck, as surely they are likewise with me, by how much they have aged.

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Annette Funicello was in the first Mickey Mouse Show, which began in 1955.  I am sure that while Uncle Walt would be appalled at the thought (or perhaps perversely pleased) that Annette was the jack-off queen for a generation of suppressed 1950′s boys – she had visible tits and exuded a sensuality the other girls on the show lacked, she was our go-to girl.  I know because I asked friends if she were their fantasy of choice while pounding the meat – the restrictions those days being far more stringent than today.  Back then Elvis was cropped above the waist for some modest gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show; today Lady Gaga can virtually lap-dance on your face and no one seems to raise an eyebrow.  But time indeed marches on, heedless of our wishes, and steadily grinds our bodies to bits.  Even those of stars, large and small, of the silver screen.  Annette dropped from social sight some time ago, a victim of time and MS.  She died today in Bakersfield, CA., 100 or so miles north of where I write in the San Fernando Valley where she once graced a sound stage, wearing the Mouseketeer ears with which the Disney Corporation made its global mark.  She was seventy.

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mag12JPG-2547289Maggie Thatcher, dead at 87les-art-bigLes Blank

The day before, on Sunday, April 7, Les Blank also joined the list of no-longer-here, hot on the heels of Roger Ebert, about whom I wrote only a few days ago.  Les was 77.  I met – and nothing more – Les a few times out on the festival circuit.  He was a well-known documentary filmmaker, a figure in the Bay Area film and cultural community, much liked by everyone I knew.  If I believed in such things, I’d imagine a raucous New Orleans wake going on now in his honor, for a life well spent.  But I don’t believe in such things, and know his spirit is now but a stiff piece of soon to disappear flesh, with everything that made him – like all of us – what we are in any way notable for, gone.  Sic transit gloria.

Les-Blank-at-CC-meeting.-Photo-Emilie-Raguso-1024x768Les last year, being “honored” in Berkeley

I will in another place try to get around to writing a bit more deeply about this process of aging – of watching one’s family and friends grow fat or gaunt, hobbled by infirmities, ravaged by disease, and finally slipping off into death, whether done with grace or rage or indifference.  It is, to say the least, an interesting process, one which our culture seems to do its best to avoid confronting except in a frantic effort to escape it.  Our medical system, our consumerist life-style, our shallow public philosophy of life in general sends us in flight from speaking of it, or contemplating it outside the dumb legal necessities which property imposes.

Today there was an article by Susan Faludi published in the New Yorker, on my long-ago friend Shulamith Firestone – an article prompted by her death in August 2012.  I’d tried to provide some information for Susan, not just about what little I could remember about Shulie back in 1964-67, but also things trying to give her a little sense of flavor to the tenor of the times, so I suggested she see a few short films made back then, one of which, unknown to me, was based on a real-life friend of Shulie’s — who had committed suicide while I was in prison.  Reading the article, for the first time in a fair while, I wept – for Shulie, her sister, and many others, including myself.  I wept for all the needless pain inflicted on us all, and which in turn provokes us into inflicting pain in our turn.

shulieShulamith Firestone

This Be The Verse

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
      By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
      And half at one another's throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
      And don't have any kids yourself.
            - Philip Larkin 

KC

I went to Kansas City for their small film festival, with a five day stay providing a respite from constant travels, and the chance to look around a bit.   As with other cities in the American mid-west there is the combination of a nearly brutal simplicity, of boxy buildings from the late 1800′s to the present, laid out in the customary grid, but counter-balanced with residential areas of handsome houses, and the occasional nod to a kind of showy opulence – in KC this would include the now restored, though not to its original use, train station.   And as in most of the cities I’ve been to of late, the centers are now marred with a disjointed mix of glassy contemporary skyscrapers, seemingly competing for some prize for worst amalgam of modernist/post-modernist design cliches.  The only virtue of these eye-sores is that they were built with modern day financially rooted intent, and will likely be torn down in 50 years or less, while their older companions, built to last, may survive them.  We can hope.

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The new Kaufman Center for the Performing ArtsWinstead’sAuthur Bryant’s BBQ

The architecture of these cities and towns seems duly reflective of the inhabitants:  a somewhat blunt and direct and practical people, who, with a small minority dissenting, vote Republican as if it were a religious duty.   What’s the matter with next door Kansas is the same thing that’s the matter with Missouri.

KC Airport

From Kansas City I flew on to Minneapolis and a few stops in small-town Minnesota – Northfield and St Cloud – before returning to the city.

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Randy Malecha at Willie’s Shoe Repair where “You Will Be Satisfied” (I was)Northfield Bank robbed by Jesse James (unsuccessfully)

Chip Demann, leader of the James-Younger gang (reenactment)Unsuccessful bank robbersSt Cloud, Minnesota

Minneapolis-St. Paul coming up next. 

Four days back, still a bit out of the local time, jet-lagged.  On arrival the four years absence seemed instantly erased, which seems my usual pattern: a life of travel and constant moves has made some kind of mechanism that really puts me in the old 60′s mantra, “be here now.”   Yesterday is obliterated, and LA, however changed since my last quick visit five years ago, seems more or less the place I lived in in 77-78, and 82-83.  Instant “home.”

Echo Park Film Center

Likewise, when I entered the Echo Park Film Center the second evening in town, to do my first screening (Chameleon, 1978), I felt instantly at home.  How could I not – it reminded of the funk and space of setting up the Chicago Film Coop long ago, in 1967, or the casual Santa Monica place, Focal Point Films,  I stayed in while editing Angel City in 1976.  Though this time the audience – a virtual full house in a space with maybe 36 seats – was a mix of young people and grayed souls of my vintage.   The screening went nicely (except for an over-bright projector), and the response and discussion was lively and long.  A very nice experience all around.

Bob Glaudini and John Steppling in ChameleonGlaudini and Winifred Golden

The next day to underscore the echo of time’s gone, I met with Mike Gray, who’d let me use his editing bench in Chicago back in 1967-8, and whom I’d known in 1977-78 in Los Angeles as he worked on The China Syndrome.  We had a nice talk over beer and wine, with intimations of our personal finality just off-screen.    In the evening, I had second screening, at Cinefamily in the Fairfax, not far from where I’d lived in 1978, in the old silent cinema theater.  Showed Angel City, to another mixed-age and highly appreciative audience.   Inwardly, both these two old films, despite naturally showing their vintage in the cars, clothes, lack of cell phones and other electronic gizmos, seemed to creatively dance circles around the last decade and more of supposed “indie” filmmaking which for me is almost (a few exceptions) all a tired old waltz around utterly conventional cinema, with its only “uniqueness” being that it is about the younger generation of the day, and done by them: mumble-core and other things.  But their cinema, whatever they imagine, is a tired old dead horse showing almost nothing that can’t be seen slicker on TV or Hollywood movies.  Cinematically DOD.   It was at these two screenings a pleasure to see a clearly positive response from younger viewers who seemed genuinely excited at their rather different approaches to filmmaking.  I hope for those it might rub off a bit.

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Glaudini, Golden, Roger Ruffin in Angel City

I hadn’t seen either of these films for some time, and was – as commented by some of the audience – struck by how pertinent to our current times they still are.   Chameleon, done in 1978, seems to have foreseen the coming decades of hustle and greed, while noting the acrid sourness by which such a life eats out one’s soul.  Angel City was a critique of capitalism’s tendencies in wise-ass detective-movie lingo, and remains as pointed and appropriate today as it was then.  Nothing changes?

Adam Hyman of the LA Film Forum

The last screening in LA was of Swimming in Nebraska (US Premiere !!), at the Egyptian theater in downtown Hollywood.   The audience was very thin, as I think such work is somewhat antithetical to the local community’s interests – AG films in the heart of the US filmbiz is a bit of an affront I suppose, and I think the people who live nearby are in the thrall of Hollywood’s offerings and mentality.  I hadn’t seen the film for some time, and found it quite strong – I have the tendency to have to learn to like my own work, and it certainly is the case with this one.    The density of Swimming takes some time to absorb, but now it seemed proper.  The audience seemed to like it very much, which was nice.

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Thanks to Adam Hyman for having set up these screenings in LA, and thanks to my friend Ryan Harper Gray and his girlfriend Tiffany for putting me up and getting me around town a bit.

Defunct American flagship airliner from Pan Am, flying over old Bay Bridge (also defunct)

Commencing in March, this life will take a turn, and leaving Korea, which has been “home” the last four and a half years, I’ll be taking to the road for a long trip of 18 or more months.  Initially a handful of days in Tokyo, to talk at the wrap up of an 11-film partial retrospective being mounted at the Athenee Francais.  This place stands in as the Japanese Cinematheque, since for some reason there is no Japanese thing like that, so this French cultural institute seems to have taken on the job.  A few years ago they did a Pedro Costa retrospective.  The schedule for my program is as follows:

ジョン・ジョスト監督特集2012
The Works of Jon Jost

Feb 28-Mar 3 2012

Feb 28
16:40-Speaking Directly
19:00-Last Chants for a Slow Dance (Dead End)

Feb 29
16:30-Bell Diamond
18:30-Plain Talk & Common Sense(Uncommon Senses)

Mar 1
16:50-Rembrandt Laughing
19:00-London Brief

Mar 2
17:00-6 Easy Pieces
18:30-Oui Non

Mar 3
14:00-Images of a Lost City
15:40-Special Screening & Talk ※Free
Screening: The Student Films of Digital Cinema Workshop at The Film
School of Tokyo
Talk: Jon Jost and Toshi Fujiwara

Ticket:
1000 YEN/ 2700 YEN (for 3 screenings)
Athenee Francais Cultural Center members: 800 YEN

Venue:
Athenee Francais Cultural Center
4F 2-11 Kandasurugadai Chiyoda-ku Tokyo
JAPAN 101-0062


That covers not quite a third of my work, though I guess these days a full retrospective would tax the scheduling time of the most lavish of such places.

Saddle ‘em up

And then come March 14, I’ll fly to Los Angeles to begin a 6+ weeks screening tour, as follows:

Los Angeles

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March 16, 8:00 pm   Los Angeles Filmforum at the Echo Park Film Center, 1200 N Alvarado St. (@ Sunset Blvd.) Los Angeles, CA. 90026 | (213) 484–8846, showing Chameleon
March 17,    4 pm     Cinefamily, 4 o’clock Saturday matinee (bring popcorn), showing Angel City
March 18,  7:30 pm, Los Angeles Filmforum, at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., LA, TBA
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March 28, Nashville, Tenn.
International Lens,  Vanderbilt University 310 25th Avenue South  Nashville, TN 37240, 6 Easy Pieces, and classroom workshops 27th
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Knoxville, Tenn.
March 29-31, Society of Media Arts, Over Here, and workshops on 29th and 30th
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Tampa, Fl.
March 4,  Tampa, Univ Southern Florida, TBA
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Chicago
April 6 , Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640  Over Here

April 7, Chicago Filmmakers Coop, Parable
Columbia College classroom workshop, April 9 or 10.
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Kansas City
April 11-16,    Kansas City Film Jubilee, Swimming in Nebraska
and Imagens de uma cidade perdida, and a two part seminar, Digital Dancing

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St Cloud, Minn.
State University, TBA
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Northfield, Minn.
Carleton College, screening of All the Vermeers in New York, and daytime meeting, classroom seminar.

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Lincoln, NE
Ross Film Theater, TBA
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Portland, Oregon
May 31, NW Film Center,  Last Chants for a Slow Dance, Parable
Workshop June 1-2
June 3, La Lunga Ombra, Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Seattle, Washington

June-July screening(s) and workshop, Northwest Film,  1515 12th Ave.
Seattle, WA 98122, dates and film(s) TBA

[As I get more information, time/place/etc. I will update this post.]

The foregoing is but a prelude to an 18 month (or perhaps more), lingering, last American trip, zig-zagging the continent, shooting a new essay film, Plain Songs, along with a few fictional narratives.   The essay film I imagine will be a sprawling 6 or more hours long, a wrap-up to the sequence begun in 1973 with Speaking Directly (some American notes), and then Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses) made in 1987.  I’ll be doing some kind of blogging as I go, video and text.    I hope to raise some modest funding for this with Kickstarter or some grants, and try to avoid dipping into my small bit of savings, which, once this grand tour is done, must suffice to see me to “the end,” somewhere necessarily very cheap.   Needless to say, any help, of any kind – fiscal, places to stay, suggestions as to things or people of interest – will be much appreciated.

Whether for this spring trip, or in the upcoming 18 months after March, if you’d be interested in arranging a screening, talk, workshop, or other engagement, please contact me at http://www.jon-jost.com. 

Tokyo street

Yesterday I finished up the 6 day workshop at the Film School of Tokyo.  Given that it was really just 4 days as a hole was knocked into the schedule by the Christmas 24/25th days making no room available those days, I’d say it came out very well. 13 participants, all of whom tried, and last night, showing the rushed little films they’d made during the last day, I was very pleased at how good they were, and how much they’d learned in so short a time.  I come back at the start of March to give a talk at the Athenee Francais, which is doing a partial retrospective, and the last thing we’ll show is new films these people make in the 2 months at hand.  I am optimistic most of them will make something worthy of showing in public.  Anyway a nice time, even if I am a bit tired in consequence.

While here, at the behest of Toshi Fujiwara, who translated for me, and has his new film No Man’s Zone showing in the upcoming Berlin Forum, I screened for just a few of us, my last finished film, Dissonance.   I had, in fact, never actually sat down and seen it – instead I’d set it up on the computer, rendered a file of it, and since the conceptual nature of it didn’t really require I look at it there, and once finished I didn’t take time to sit and look at it, I never did look at it.  On finally seeing it I guess I’d say it confirmed my thoughts about what it would do – ruffle your psychic feathers in some undefinable manner.

The first sequence lasts 50 minutes: 3 panels, per above, each a single take.  As I thought, it doesn’t get boring at all – instead it slips under your radar and plays with your subconscious.  The remaining sequences do the same:

So I guess it will join the growing list of my unseen cinema.  I sent this one, and previous ones, out to enough festivals, but for some reason they don’t accept them.  I confess they’re not what one would call “audience pleasers” and it seems increasingly that is what festivals, bowing to the dictates of commercial pressures, require.  Don’t want to challenge or upset our audience.  Recently, while looking for screenings in US for the coming spring, I suggested to programmer in the mid-west that I’d like to screen my Iraq war trilogy - Homecoming, Over Here, and Parable.   She nixed the idea, saying that whenever she’d screened films having anything to do with Iraq or Afghanistan, the warm butts had not shown up.   I guess even the so-called liberal kind of people who go to art-house type cinemas would rather keep their heads in the sand about what America does, and what that does to us.   Nice for the government that does these things in our name that the citizenry, acting like good Soviet ones, makes censoring unnecessary: they do it themselves.

From Parable

At Toshi’s request also showed Parable, which I had not seen in quite a while – a few years perhaps – and it is one weird film too.  I guess in my dotage I am going off the deep end.

Homeless in Tokyo

Tomorrow back to Seoul, for a few more months.  Later perhaps some further ruminations on the rich texture of Tokyo, where a disembodied present collides with fragments of the past and sends signals of the future spiraling out.

Happy Gregorian Spin Around the Sun 2012 !

Asakusa Temple

Christmas, a day I normally evade as best I can, found me in Tokyo where I’m doing a workshop at the Tokyo Film School.  As it happened the space we were using there was not available on December 25, so it was a free day for me.  In the days before in the hyper-busy Shibuya district I’d noted the frenetic Christmas theme in the many young people dressed in red Santa outfits, hawking restaurant offerings and such.  Noxious seasonal songs pervaded the speaker systems, though it was clear that this country – unlike South Korea – is very minimally Christian, but they seem to have gone whole-hog on Christmas as yet another excuse for rampant consumerism – as if they needed one.   While Japan supposedly wallows in a now several decades long malaise of the economy, and was hit with the double whammy of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster it caused – recently said by the government to be a 40 year long problem to clean up – one would be hard-pressed to note this on the streets.   Or when exchanging money, where the Yen seems to stand supreme, despite the alleged difficulties in Japan’s economic machinery.   Rather there seems a constant rush of well-dressed people, young and old, wrapped up in fashion (a wide range of often curious ones), and with the means to have it, as well as engorge themselves in the endless restaurants and bars, not to mention classier places which I can’t afford to enter.   As well “love hotels” hawk their space and time with notices of 1,000 to 4,000 Yen for “rest” (120 mins) or 6K for “stay.”   Yesterday during my random walk around Asakusa and Ueno I bumped into a street of these, nearby the Ueno station and across a railway track from the Tokyo National Museum, with appropriate ladies standing about on the street offering their wares.  No Christmas outfits though.     As it happened the museum was mostly closed, as was the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum and I found myself instead going to the National Museum of Western Art for a somewhat dismal collection of 2nd and 3rd rate works from major artists, and a larger assortment of lesser artists.  There were though a few good paintings – a Hammershøi being perhaps the best.   They did, however, have a very interesting exhibition of William Blake engravings.  At least they let in the elders for free.

Buddhist prayers

Tokyo seems a vast melange, a cyclotron in which the sublime and the crass are racing by one another at the speed of light, and occasionally they smash into one another and produce a hybrid of the two, spinning out in delirious design.  From their arts it seems they’ve been at this a long time.  I am sure Mr Blake would have found it all fascinating.

William Blake draws himself

Castle wall, Yamagata

A few nights ago there was the Awards Ceremony for the festival, and indicative of the evident tastes of the jury, and how out of synch it was with my own inclinations, the first prize (worth about $25,000) was a film I walked out of, finding it a somewhat sloppy TV-style doc affair – The Collaborator and His Family.  The other winners in the International Competition suggested more tilt along that line:   Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzman’s rather glossy paean to the cosmos and Pinochet’s victims got runner-up, Distinguished Flying Cross, some honorary mention with some cash, and The Woman with 5 Elephants, a very nicely done by-the-book TV doc got something, as did Apuda, the Chinese film of long long takes of a father dying from which I also left.   It was clearly a jury that tilted toward the by-the-numbers film-making book, with some modest nods to very conservative modes of wiggling the rules, or so it seemed to me.

Following the diminished closing party and gathering at the festival watering hole, the Koumian bar, it was departure.  The next morning Iman Kamel, who made Nomad’s Home, and earlier in the week, after seeing my film had asked me to see her film and give my thoughts, came up to talk.  She’d Googled and up had popped my capsule review with its comment about “sloppy images.”   She was charming, and said some critique is better than the usual “nice film” or no comment, though the “sloppy” clearly bothered.  I explained I meant it for a handful of parts where a camera is rather waved around while walking, in telephoto, mostly out of focus though sometimes in.  These parts were clearly deliberate, as a kind of punctuation mark, but I felt they went on too long, revealed nothing, and didn’t work as intended.   The rest of the imagery was competent enough, but not more – and in a setting where the opportunity for a lot richer imagery could have been had, and appropriately to the content and context of the film.  Just her camera person (not her) didn’t have the eyes to get it.  And she, working with a group, didn’t guide it to a better place.    Try harder next time – get better camera person, whatever.   It was meant in a way to be lyrical but it didn’t quite fly.

Naoko Komuro and Iman Kamel

Overall I found the competition films rather disappointing – the made-for-TV work ranged from really manipulative or crudely done, to very finely mounted, but “for TV”; those not aimed at a mass audience were for the most part modest in their bending of the rules of engagement, and for the most part in my view didn’t work.  I suppose if I were in the jury, recusing myself regarding my own film, I might have pressed for Day Is Done , whatever my reservations the film left in my mind about the maker, his voyeurism and his implicating his viewer in the same.

When teaching or doing workshops, or in meeting younger filmmakers and encouraging them I tell them to enter festivals (but not pay entry fees), and keep their ego out of it. I tell them festivals are like rolling dice – submitting and then if you get in, the jurying.  Like dice, it has almost nothing to do with you.  While I was in Yamagata, I got two more rejections for Imagens – from the Florence Festival and Jihlava in the Czech Republic.  They joined a list of other rejections – Margaret Mead, NYFF, docLisboa, Bilboa, Mumbai, Busan and DocSDF in Mexico City.   I’m about run out of documentary festivals to try for it.  Whatever these places say, Imagens de uma cidade perdida is among my best films, which, whatever selectors think, seems to be the view of audiences which have been very positive.   Festivals?  Go figger…

Toshi Fujiwara translating Jon pontificating

I caught the train to Fukushima, to head for a hot spring resort for a brief break.   About 40 kms away is the Daichi nuclear power plant, three reactor cores melted down, oozing radiation.  Iizaka, the little town on the edge of Fukushima seems deserted – I don’t know if because it’s a week-day, or that people have decided it’s too close for comfort.  Seems like a ghost town.  And the particular one I am in is located next to a mini-power transmission thing – the taxi driver seemed a little bewildered that a foreigner was going there.  It’s almost empty.

Jon as Max von Sydow by local artist Mochizuki Rie

Short-wave tower, Yamagata

I decided on coming to Yamagata that I would try to see all the films in the competition – which means a small fraction of the films being shown.  I intended to actually try to see them, sit through them, like it or not, though conflicts in the schedule meant I had to miss something, so I decided to sacrifice John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail as he’d given me a DVD of it some time ago.   So, following those I saw the first day, it was off to the movies.

Havana Suite

While I missed the first 20 or so minutes, having carelessly gone to the wrong cinema, saw one of the juror’s films, Cuban Fernando Perez’ Havana Suite.  It is a kind of mosaic of the prosaic in Havana – following the daily lives of a handful of characters – a young boy with something like Downs syndrome and his father; a ballet dancer, a man who emigrates, a woman who sells peanuts, and a handful of others.  Stitched together in a passing-of-a-day manner, morning to night, the film holds together nicely, and evokes a sense of Havana, worn down by America’s embargo and, if my reading-between-the-lines is correct, a critique of a failed revolution.  The sense of loss – of lives ground down – is palpable, as is the sense of hope.  A nice film, if lacking something indefinable to make it a truly great one.  Here’s another view.

Armadillo

Then in competition was a Danish film on their troops in Afghanistan, Armadillo by title, directed by Janus Metz.  It follows a handful of soldiers from their preparations in Denmark, with their families as they leave for their “peace-keeping” role, and onto their stationing as newbies at Forward Base Armadillo, out in the boonies of Afghanistan.   Very nicely shot, with a kind of intimacy that clearly demanded the trust of the soldiers for the two cameramen, one being the director, it revealingly shows the kind of brotherhood that military life imposes, from the crass pornography and crude macho behavior that is part and parcel of war, onto the boredom of patrols in which little happens, and then into sequences of vivid combat.  And then to showing blatant war-crimes which the soldiers enjoyed, and the brass then tried to cover up.   We also get ample glimpses of the distorted relationship of the soldiers with the Afghani’s who chronically suggest they should leave.    I had a major problem with the film’s use of sound, what with a huge pounding bass being used to hype the audience as the men went out on patrol, along with other places where I felt music was needlessly used.  I would much have preferred the real sounds to this superimposed and bombastic use of sound.  I knew it was coming when the opening credits included “sound design” which for me invariably seems to mean sound is used to make a mess of things.

Apuda

And then, going to a Chinese film, Apuda (He Yuan), ostensibly an ethnographic documentary, I spent an hour of a scheduled 2 and a half, watching very dark quasi-Rembrandtesque images in a cottage in Yunnan province, where a man lies still, gets up, laboriously helps his father get his pants on, and his father goes outside.  Done with very long takes, it was stultifyingly boring for me and I gave up thinking it would shift gears.  Some compared to Pedro Costa, but I think it is a superficial comparison as Costa animates the world he shows with artfulness; here the images are as inert as the characters.   Long shots in and of themselves reveal little – there’s something more needed.

So, having liberated a few hours, I went to take in some of Gianvito’s Vapor Trail, a long 4 hour item dealing with the US military’s contamination of the former Philippine bases Clark Air Force base and Subic Bay Naval base.  Along the way we get a didactic course on Philippine history, Spanish and American imperialism, and other matters of history and politics.  While interesting, I found what I saw too heavily dressed as a lecture, and the cinema side to me was too loose and aesthetically lazy: long shots of activists giving talks, driving in cars, casual street scenes, none of which really snapped for me as well-conceived or thought out, all a bit too rushed and casually edited.  I’ll give the DVDs a look when I get back to Seoul but I doubt I’ll have reason to alter this critique.

Vapor Trail (Clark)

Next in line for me was a Swiss film, The Woman with the Five Elephants, by Vadim Jendreyko.  A very nice, if utterly conventionally done film, its topic is an 85 year old woman,  Swetlana Geier, who works as a translator, and is famous as one.  Her story is sketched out, and life in the process intervenes, with her son injured and then dying from a accident, which prompts Geier to make a journey back to her Ukrainian homeland, for the first time since 1943.  Getting the back-story it turns out she was, after a fashion, a collaborator with the Nazi’s, a matter which the film largely skirts.  She’s a charming woman, with a sparkle in her eye and mind, and the film is well-shot, paced, and, as said before very standard fare cinematically.  And it made the process of translating/writing interesting to see and entertain.   It even has German TV’s ubiquitous voice-over giving information the cinema missed.  I liked, but, sorry, no cigar.

The Woman with Five Elephants

And, then I tried, but gave up exasperated in about 20 or so minutes, a French film titled What is to be done?  Set in a neighborhood of Alexandria, Egypt, it follows the dim fortune of a man whose house is chronically flooded by a few inches of water.   The shooting was competent, if nothing more.  And the interaction was for me deadening.  It runs 2 and a half hours.   Like Apuda (but not nearly so self-consciously composed) this film seems to be one of the styles evoked by digital media: long takes, using the camera just like a film camera, just showing things.  And showing.  And showing.  And aside from the inescapable matter of framing, and time, there seems little sense of artfulness involved.   I find this kind of supposed cinema dreary and lazy, as if simply by picturing something, it makes it “art.”  It doesn’t.  And it doesn’t make it “life” either.  Even if the pictures are “beautiful” and some things happen.  Art demands a lot more, though just what that “more” is is difficult to nail down.   The economics of digital media have opened this pandora’s box.  But perhaps practice makes perfect and those doing these will learn after a while.   The criticisms I make here of these two films I can well imagine coming from someone regarding my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida.   Though I’d not agree and point out the differences I perceive, and apparently many viewers share.

Embrace the River

And now just saw another competition film, Embrace the River, by Nicolas Rincon Gille.  Shot in Columbia it rather schematically tells of a river myth, a supposed spirit-being, Mohan,  which lives in the Magdalena River.   This is used as a rather clunky guide line, with obvious set-ups of people talking about Mohan and their imaginary encounters, or stories they have heard of it.  Shots of people on carved out boats, fishing and swimming in the river, all rather National Geographic in slick HD looks.  While the setting was ripe for something creative with the camera, it sticks to tried and true and lacks any creative spark, the camera used like a 35mm film one.  The flow then segues into stories of corpses in the river and goes through a long passage of talking bodies, mothers standing and telling about the paramilitary groups coming and taking their sons to kill them and dump them in the river.   The shots are static, long, compositions a bit rigid.  Occasionally the women weep.   Then a few more shots in the river and that’s it.  I found the film boring, its structure too fixed, and the end result rather as  lifeless as the corpses dumped in the waters.  I would have walked out but it was only 73 minutes, so….

Update: next morning went to The Collaborator and His Family, (Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash), from Israel.  It is about a Palestinian collaborator moved to Tel Aviv, and his family.   I lasted about 45 minutes.  While the “story” was of interest, the cinema was grab and go chasing the (alleged) reality, with pedestrian hand-held shooting.   Again, in my view, a lazy and careless way to deal with what could be an interesting topic.  There are about 6 billion other such interesting topics, and it is in how one reveals them which elevates matters to be worthy of one’s time and interest.  No go for me here.

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