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Monthly Archives: August 2008

Last day here.  The torpid heat and humidity does at it usually does, slowing things down to a snail’s pace, sitting and enjoying a cafe su da, the Vietnamese coffee made of a strong black brew, heavily sugared condensed milk and ice.  Delicious.  In its black variant (minus the milk part, with a dab of sugar) Marcella prefers it to Italian coffee.  I rank them different and equal.  We bought nearly a kilo of coffee from here to take back to Seoul.

As usual I’ve done little shooting though loaded down with 3 video cameras which I hauled along to let the Ha Noi workshop folks use, but only got one taker.  It is normal for me to be hesitant to shoot in new places, feeling the obligation to look and absorb and find some essential before actually running up footage.  For the most part I have been baffled by Asian cities, feeling a kind of moral demand to make an accurate portrait (and not the touristy or romanticized ones that are the normal view), and have yet to find some key into the aesthetic incoherence and jumble which I find to be the core of them.  With more time I think I could find a way into Ha Noi, as it had a very particular sensibility in its architecture and its feel.  Here in Saigon this seems absent, with a melange of French colonial, recent corporate, and a grab-bag of other improvised poor-man’s architectural forms tossed into a welter of motorbikes, smog, billboards, tropical vegetation, and dirtiness.  The sidewalks are covered with motorbikes in organized parking systems, with numbers scrawled on the seats and attendants waiting to go find the right one.  There’s precious little space for pedestrians, and one must detour into the frantic streets.  The traffic flow is absurd, with buzzing herds of motorbikes entering traffic circles from all directions, running cross flow against each other in the thousands, with cars, buses, and trucks, along with bicycles and rickshaws, and those of us on foot wending way through this dense cloud of belching vehicles.  One would think it would be the cause of a thousand accidents an hour, but last night, sitting at a little outdoor cafe drinking a Saigon bia with Marcella, we watched 10,000 wheels roll by at a traffic circle, and nary a bump.  Were the same scenario played out in Italy, where the visual looks suggest a similarity, it would be a mayhem of violence, with shrieks of arguing profanity, and for sure, accidents.  Here instead it flows on, motorbikes with whole families aboard, stopping where necessary, shifting wherever the current allows, everyone making room for the other without an aura of anger or hostility.  It is really rather amazing, and extends through the whole city, engorged on these mechanical beasts.  Watching them go by in their thousands and millions, I can’t help but wonder just where they came from and where they are going.  Like many such southern climed places, few seem to actually work.  The markets are crammed with little shops, each attended by 2, 3 or 5 attendants, some sleeping in the heat, and here culturally they are there to sell, at least to the obvious foreigner presumed to be loaded with cash to spend, and they seize you at the slightest hint of looking with any interest, offering for a price that plummets 50% in an instant if you appear like you might buy, but not for the opening number.  Last night Marcella got hustled into trying on a dress she looked at which was too small, but the lady seized her, slipped on a larger size, offered for 600,000 which shifted precipitously to 400 and then 200 when Marcella insisted she only had 200,000.  Talk about a discount.  But the dress didn’t fit and they guy she was with, an adamant non-consumer, was impatiently moving on, so the sale didn’t happen.

Lazily we’ve done only a few things – a visit (described at to the War Remnants Museum, long walks through the center of the city, the zoo (more by accident than design), and yesterday to the Fine Arts Museum.  It was a crumbling decaying colonial building, stained with the grime of 100 years, its stucco textured with time and no maintenance, an Italianate mansion of a building, with hints of indigenous aesthetics in the roof details.  They were putting up a new exhibit of current painting, mostly art student level, illustration, gaudy colors, ranging from pure kitsch “neked lady” items, to pastiches of international styles of the last century.   A few evinced some inherent talent and visual acuity, most did not. However a floor of older – meaning 1930’s through the American War period – work was quite interesting.  Normally I find war paintings to be unsuccessful as “art” – thinking of the German expressionist works from WW1, and other examples.  But here there were a number of works which worked as “art” while addressing the war in more or less propagandistic terms – paintings of jungle encampments, of guerillas (male and female), works which evoked the war, but in aesthetic terms that worked as painting.  Some particularly interesting ones were in lacquer techniques about which I’d like to study a bit and try out myself.

Time running out as must leave hotel in a few minutes, then to wander the streets until this evening for a mid-night flight back to Seoul and new apartment and teaching on Monday.

Just a note to say posted item on Viet Nam travels, ruminations, etc. a in case you are interested.

Arrived yesterday, and had time for a long walk, a good meal, and for a nasty bronchial sinus thing to fully develop.  A very different city than Ha Noi, this one is clearly a lot bigger, richer, more “westernized” and corporatized.  Billboards everywhere, and that seemingly universal imperative, shopping (for the same corporate logo items, high and low end: Armani Chanel Pierre Cardin Vuitton Gucci and down lower Nike etc.)   Likewise the newer architecture is generic big city.  Marcella commented that it seemed a bit like LA – a run down version for sure, and having been there I’d say more Manila (which I thought had LA-like areas).  The traffic is thick with motorbikes though they drive in much more orderly manner than in Ha Noi.  My off-the-cuff view is that I prefer Hanoi, which is distinctive in its architecture, in the layout of the urban texture, and seems far less overwhelmed by global capitalism’s tastes and dictates.   Of course Hue was more so, but it is a village by comparison.

Anyway we have 4 full days to wander the by-ways of Saigon/HCM before heading back to the comparatively hyper-modernism of Seoul.  More to come.

Jon here.  A little update on travels and such.  Yesterday after a long air flight delay (9 am departure shifted to 3 pm) we arrived in Hue, former long ago imperial capitol of Viet Nam.  From the air we passed over areas of the once DMZ, a landscape of bomb-crater pockmarks, which looked like the signs of some kind of mineral extraction.  Ride in on bus from airport showed numerous religious sites, burial grounds, temples.  Hue is a small place now, much quieter that Ha Noi.  We took a walk into old section, a dense communal setting of narrow alleyways, and a mix of homes opening out into the little passageways, or homes the living rooms of which are 2 seat tea houses, or selling beer from fridges.   We stopped to have a dinner in a small restaurant but they refused to serve us, a bit of hostility showing.  Later found a place clearly used by expats and the like, with english language sign out of very funky place, saying owner is deaf and mute, all communication by signing.  Went in, food was good, as was beer, about $8 for two.  4 Aussies of my age or close sat at next table gorging and boozing.   Walked back to hotel in rain, with rickshaws pulling by periodically asking if we wanted a ride.

Today is sunny and we’ll go maybe on motorbike, touring Royal sites, etc.  Or we’ll walk.

In Ha Noi, we wrapped up the workshop with a look at what the students had done, which in fact came out better than I’d expected, with a few very nice things – one experimental kind of thing, which would manage OK in some festivals for such films.  It was clear at least one little group had picked up on some of the things we’d tried to pass along.  The rest wandered from good to dubious.  Then a ceremonial wrap up with long-winded thanks and such from the Film Department folks, and then from me a short word or two.  Followed with passing out little certificates, lots of photos, and then the participants took us out to a restaurant of a funky kind located on West Lake, up on a rooftop.  At first dragonflies buzzed about, and as the sun settled, out came the bats, either making short work of the dragonflies, or else the insects know when to duck and cover.  And then a massive thunder and lightening storm rolled in, and the hundred white swan pedal boats on the lake scooted to home-base, and our group all scooted downstairs for cover.  A wonderful show of distant lightning came, but the threatened rain did not.

Tomorrow on to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which is we are told bigger and more hectic than is Ha Noi, though some Italians Marcella talked to in a Buddhist temple who were practicing some kind of sword using exercise said they preferred Saigon to Ha Noi.  We’ll have 3 plus days to enjoy before we decamp for Seoul.

It for now.

Note:  whatever the problem was in Ha Noi, I don’t know the origins, but apparently at least here WordPress is not censored and I’m posting this one myself.

New Challenges for Documentary

New Challenges for Documentary by Alan Rosenthal

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Articles are hit or miss depending on their subject and my personal interest. I picked this up mostly for its perspective on the 1973 PBS series An American Family. Now, I am perusing other entries.

View all my reviews.

After a rushed week of packing and moving home cross-city in Seoul, in a significant down-market drop from university paid lux apartment to $370 a month 3 room apartment in a far-from-the-center neighborhood, we had a day to settle and then take the metro to the airport for the flight to Hanoi.  Here we’re on day 4 of a 6 day workshop organized by the Vietnam Film Department, a government agency dealing with filmmaking and exhibition.  As anticipated the workshop is turning out to be an iffy matter.  Originally we were told there would be 40 participants – way too many for my tastes – and they’d mostly be “professionals.”  Day one started with 21 or so, a handful of film students and the rest from various film units – police, army, docu – and a mix of others, including some directors.  Mostly cameramen (35mm mostly) and directors. A handful of women of the 21.

I showed them some DV shorts, of experimental kind, hoping to open their eyes to digital possibilities, but feeling it was a risk for these kinds of people.  It was, and they were apparently mostly left perplexed.  Asking for an introduction of themselves, and of their interests, they said, mostly repeating each other, they wanted to learn low-budget film techniques, and how to make work that was commercial and how to sell, etc.  Internally I rolled my eyes, thinking “you got the wrong guy here.”  But I kind of knew this would be the story here, in keeping with my experience in some nearby realms – Singapore, India, Philippines.  They dream of making bucks, competing with Hollywood, and maybe in Hong Kong and Beijing they can, but not here.

Vietnam has a population of 93 million these days, and it is poor – though allegedly their economy is growing in leaps and bounds.  Hanoi is a jammed melange of architectural curiousities – colonial and governmental buildings, some new high-rises, and mostly 3-5 floor long thin buildings each topped with a kind of improvised fantasy, very interesting in many ways.  On the streets a million motorbikes compete with far fewer cars, in a smoggy mess, in which lanes are conceptual only, with little practice.  Kind of like southern Italy, except where in Italy there is a sense of frenetic spurting ahead, passing, and an aura of anger over it all, here it is in fact messier traffic-wise, but the ambiance is calm, and there is little sense of anger, rather a perhaps Buddhist resignation to the way of things.

Anyway back to the workshop.  After a first day of feeling a bit wobbly, had them shoot some things and got some interesting things back, if all rather timid relative to my request to let ‘er rip with digital mayhem and fun.  After a look at the first things I gave an exercise of limited shots, time, and the rule to keep the camera fixed except for one shot of 8 to 12.  When they came back most had ignored the rules, shot numbers, camera movement, etc.  So I pointed out how the few that had kept to the rules worked and looked better, and then I sent them out to try again.  We looked at those, and sensing a kind of frustration in them, I asked if they’d like to break into groups and make a film the last 4 days.  They said yep and so today we talked a little, did a head count (down to 12 or 13) and let them go try to shoot little films.  One about gays and HIV; one about “loyal virginity” (fictions), then a few docs.  They are due on Saturday afternoon i.e., two and a half days.  Tomorrow we’ll see what they’ve done and help with advice and editing if need be.  I am not optimistic on the results, but hopefully it’ll come out OK.   Basically their schooling is here is very much rote learning, by the book, and though they purport to be professionals, little things like white balance, keeping the lens clean, etc. seem to elude some of them.  I think the reality is that between the educational methods and poverty here, they get little chance to actually practice and shoot/edit.  I have been underlining that this is what they need to do, and that DV lets them do it for lowest possible costs.  Hopefully a bit sinks in.

Tomorrow we’ll meet and have lunch with the director of the film department and if circumstances allow I’ll propose possibly returning either for a long workshop (6 days under the circumstances of limited equipment, breaking culturally imposed learning habits, etc. is really not enough) or perhaps for a year or two to set up a proper little school.  It is interesting and lively enough here to be inviting, and I guess my sense of moral obligation to this country and its people is such that a little something nudges and says to me, return a small bit of something as recompense for how much the USA inflicted in damage here.  So I’ll report on this after the lunch and we see if there’s this option for the future.

I note here that apparently is censored here in Vietnam as I am unable to access here, and note that other wordpress things don’t open.  So I’ve posted this to Ryan who is posting from Milwaukee for me.  (Thanks Ryan!)

The last days have been a mess of moving down-market, from our Yonsei paid 15 floor fancy-ass apartment (everyone who entered it exclaimed how nice and how big it was, for Seoul) located near downtown, and into a cramped little 3 room place in Hwagok, a residential area of middling economic level about 40 minutes from downtown by metro.  We packed everything up, and some moving guy came and did the manhandling in and out for $150 on a steamy hot day.  Started at 7am, got moved into new place by 10.  Unpack and try to figure out how to cram it all into our limited space – we’re going to have to do a major weed-out of earthly possessions.  Today, second day of new home, it’s almost sorted, but lots of loose ends which will have to await our return from Vietnam, for whence we depart tomorrow morning.  There a day in Hanoi, then a few in a beach area not far from Hanoi, and come Monday start a 6 day workshop for the Vietnam Film Department.  Should be interesting.  I’ll try at the same time to shoot some kind of film, probably an essay-poem of some sort on the meaning of “Vietnam” in this life, in their lives, and in many American’s lives.  A meaning which reverberates today under a new sound, “Iraq”.  And I read a fleet of America’s Shockingest and Awingest is at this moment steaming toward the Persian Gulf, prepping to flex George’s apparently drunken inclinations in time to swerve America’s elections (off a cliff).

Anyway we’re off in some hours, and I’ll try to find time and mental something to post some thoughts from Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City.

Ark. city neighborhood under 24-hour curfew


Associated Press – August 10, 2008 8:34 PM ET

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) – Helena-West Helena Mayor James Valley says he ordered a round-the-clock curfew and heavy police patrol in a ten-block section of town because the neighborhood was “under siege with repeated gunfire, loitering, drug dealing and other general mayhem.”

Valley ordered the emergency curfew Thursday, effective immediately. It was still in place today. He said it would remain in place as long as the problems persist or until the city council can come up with a long-term plan at its August 19th meeting.

Thursday night, 18 to 20 police officers carrying M-16 rifles, shotguns and night-vision scopes patrolled the “curfew zone.” They arrested about eight people and confiscated drugs and loaded weapons.

Under Valley’s order, officers do not tolerate loitering or “hanging out.” Officers can stop and investigate all foot traffic, bicycle, horseback, mo-ped, motorcycle, riding mower, golf cart or other means of transportation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas says the curfew is “blatantly unconstitutional” and has demanded that Valley lift the order immediately



A curfew doesn’t scare me, nor do police officers patrolling the curfew area, but when they do it with M-16s and Night Vision goggles, I get a bit freaked out and disappointed.

If you’d like to post, aside from adding in the comments, you must sign up with WordPress, and have an account with them (no cost, can then do your own blog, etc.) and send me your email so I can list you as an “author” on CE.   I just noticed that in posting it doesn’t say who, so I think its best if people say who it is.  I’ll start doing so here on out.  Thanks.

For your amusement, watch animatronics be interrogated American Style.

For your amusement, watch animatronics be interrogated American Style

If you climb up a few cinderblock steps to the small window, you can look through the bars at a scene meant to invoke a Guantánamo Bay interrogation. A lifesize figure in a dark sweatshirt, the hood drawn low over his face, leans over another figure in an orange jumpsuit, his face covered by a towel and his body strapped down on a tilted surface.

Feed a dollar into a slot, the lights go on, and Black Hood pours water up Orange Jumpsuit’s nose and mouth while Orange Jumpsuit convulses against his restraints for 15 seconds. O.K., kids, who wants more cotton candy!

In interrupting a day at the beach with scenes of the United States government’s rougher practices, Mr. Powers is being deliberately provocative. “What’s more obscene,” he asks, “the official position that waterboarding is not torture, or our official position that it’s a thrill ride?

Link (Image: Michael Nagle for The New York Times)

I don’t know quite how to feel about the whole thing. It smells like a stunt. I think Americans need to understand just how torturous waterboarding is and why its inhumane, unethical, and a serious crime. At the same time, using animatronics  and putting this in Coney Island somehow reduces the issues to a pity spectacle quickly lost amongst the sideshow and amusement park rides. Perhaps, its fitting to find a torture show right along side hot dogs and cotton candy. It’s all so American and also sad.