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Monthly Archives: June 2009


Neda Agha-Soltan, aged 26, transformed from living young woman to dead human and living icon, is now enmeshed in the distortions which death bequeaths.   For those on the side of “the Green Revolution” she is a potent symbol, an emblem of innocence and youth and all which that implies – hopes for a future, possibility, life, and this case life thwarted and broken, a metaphor for the youth of Iran.   Conversely, for the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (for clearly that is what it is, with “the President” merely the visible figure-head of other powers), she is apparently a dire threat.  So the government of Iran has issued two scenarios to explain Neda’s demise:  that she was shot by a sniper of the “terrorist opposition” forces, precisely to create a martyr and symbol, or, alternately, that her killing was arranged by a British documentarian, Jon Leyne, so as to spice up a film he was making.   That either of these explanations stretches credibility to the limit seems not to bother the propaganda arm of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad gang, or, more exactly, it shows just how bothered they really are.  One more lie lathered on the rest, the delusions of power gone mad.  Thinking they could crudely jiggle the vote count to secure a giant mandate against the evidence of real opposition, they opened a Pandora’s Box, and now must follow its logic.  The consequence will be fatal, the usual trajectory of despots, a history from which they never seem to learn.

From UK Guardian:

Neighbours said that her family no longer lives in the four-floor apartment building on Meshkini Street, in eastern Tehran, having been forced to move since she was killed. The police did not hand the body back to her family, her funeral was cancelled, she was buried without letting her family know and the government banned mourning ceremonies at mosques, the neighbours said.

“We just know that they [the family] were forced to leave their flat,” a neighbour said. The Guardian was unable to contact the family directly to confirm if they had been forced to leave. […]

Amid scenes of grief in the Soltan household with her father and mother screaming, neighbours not only from their building but from others in the area streamed out to protest at her death. But the police moved in quickly to quell any public displays of grief. They arrived as soon as they found out that a friend of Soltan had come to the family flat.

In accordance with Persian tradition, the family had put up a mourning announcement and attached a black banner to the building.

But the police took them down, refusing to allow the family to show any signs of mourning. The next day they were ordered to move out. Since then, neighbours have received suspicious calls warning them not to discuss her death with anyone and not to make any protest.

A tearful middle-aged woman who was an immediate neighbour said her family had not slept for days because of the oppressive presence of the Basij militia, out in force in the area harassing people since Soltan’s death.

Whether or not, as the Iranian government has asserted (and they have good historical grounds to do so), the CIA or the Soros Foundation or other such NGO’s operating at the behest of dubious interests had a hand in fomenting the present unrest, it is clear that a meaningful sector of Iran was interested in some change in their social arrangments;  in showing themselves  and their interests they provoked their government to showing its real hand and nature.  Iran is a police-state; like most police-states using brute physical force, a monopoly of arms and the major propaganda systems, and control of the economy, to consolidate power for a limited self-interested selection of people.  In this case the major players are apparently the Revolutionary Guard, formed by the clerics during the Revolution in 1979,  and which is the dominant owner of production and its wealth; the military is a power unto itself, and the Shia clerics another.  Among them, they – like the oligarchy which runs the USA – own and control almost everything in Iran.   In the minuet of forces which are used to keep such systems functioning, it seems the Iranian authorities badly overplayed their hand, and looking for the appearance of a massive public endorsement and mandate for their policies, they insulted a significant sector of the populace sufficiently to produce a reaction toxic enough to have set them back from whatever plans they had, and even to in due time induce their own collapse.   The post-US illegal invasion of Iraq chatter of Iran’s consolidation of power and influence in the middle-east has gone up in smoke.   Iran will be fortunate to stumble along at all, riven with internal contradictions and social disquiet until in due time the present controllers are overthrown by their own people.  In the poetics of politics, Neda will be named as the spiritual source, however incidental and accidental her death.

Relayed by Twitter, YouTube, by blogs; shot with cellphone or small DV camera,  events in Iran now spill out across the world, carried on tenuous waves of electrons, much as the thoughts and feelings each of us have are carried by the same ephemeral waves, leaping synapse to synapse.   In impressionist flurries, as if a dream, handheld cellphones rushing in fear, in exhilaration, transmitting not only the fact, but the feeling, as if an emerging global consciousness enveloped us in an electronic web, to show us ourselves:

Her eyes seem to recognize something, then a flush of blood rushes from her mouth and nose.   The Iranian regime is finished – if not this week, then next, or next year.  Whatever legitimacy this government – like all governments, a kind of gang, with enforcers, costumes, rules – had, it is finished now.  Done by Twitter, by the viral flow of information in which the effort to block that flow is its own information.  The more the “authorities” (to say, “the presumptive authors”) attempt to deny information, the more they reveal of themselves.  The young woman is dead on camera;  in dying so, she becomes an angel of annunciation, delivering a final message to the powers which killed her.

All the force of a Greek tragedy (I am sure the Persians have their own variants) flows in these fleeting images, and like those tragedies they are universal.

June 22.

[A day after writing the above I came across this description on the blog Lede in the NY Times:]

Though her name, the location, and the cause of her death cannot be confirmed, the video refers to the woman as Neda, Farsi for “the voice” or “the call.”

And this item at Tazahorate Ma.

Watching the videos coming out of Iran I was struck by a handful of things. One is that many of the stonethrowers are in fact the basiji, and police, which suggests either that the government doesn’t really trust them enough to give them more lethal weapons or that the government is still holding back.

Another is the seeming failure of the demonstrators to take some elementary steps at street fighting tactics.  For several examples:

If one wore thick working gloves, one could (attempt to) grab the batons of the charging motorcycle basiji; if one could hold on and pull it would have a good chance of pulling down the bike and its riders, leaving them in a very vulnerable state.

Similarly if one took a short metal or even strong plastic or wooden rod as these vehicles passed the rods could be jammed into the wheel spokes of the bikes, immediately bringing down the vehicle and its 2 riders.  Watching how these basiji behave, in packs, if one could bring down a lead bike, the others would likely pile up after it.

In other images I have seen that the police are clearly very vulnerable to attack from those on the higher floors of the buildings.  Any object thrown from above would be dangerous, the more compact and harder the better.  Or a molotov cocktail from above would likewise prove intimidating.  Imagine 100 persons per block game to shower the advancing basiji in such a manner?   The basiji, being considerably outnumbered seem to hold into tight groupings for self-defense, this makes them vulnerable to molotov cocktails, or similarly, to being hit by quickly moving vehicles (preferably ones hi-jacked for the purpose – buses, trucks).

If this prompts the basiji or police to enter the building to go and get those who threw the items, one might note that if they take the elevator one could know where the power for the elevator was and turn it off trapping the occupants, or, should they take stairs, this is another point of instability and vulnerability, either to such things as oil covered stairs coupled to a push from above (using perhaps a long pole): down go a bunch of basiji. Or another molotov cocktail in an enclosed staircase could be problematic for those ascending, especially if the stairs were slippery.

It seems clear that the government is going to clamp down harder, so the response if the opposition is to succeed, will similarly have to escalate tactically and strategically.


molotov cocktail design

And more elegantly


packing up100

The house is a bit of chaos, piled with boxes, the litter of yet another move.  I long ago lost track of how many places I’ve lived, so this is all quite familiar.  I’m rather expert on packing things in boxes.    Next week it’ll all get shoved in a truck and driven 10 or so miles to another place, a little two story storage shed of a sort, where we’ll spend the next year.  New place will be bigger by maybe almost 50%, is more centrally located in city so the punishing thought of an hour each way to do more or less anything will be cut in half, and it is cheaper.  Or in Korean fashion, almost free:  here you can put down a fat deposit, returnable on departure, and have no rent.  Just what they do with the money to make this a paying proposition for the landlord, I don’t know.   But it is normal here.   So all these boxes will be moved along, and the next day Marcella and I will get to the airport and fly to London where we have 9 days to see friends, go to museums, plays, and such, and then on to Galway, Ireland.  There we show some films – Marcella’s first feature, Landing in the Morning Calm, and then a film we did together, a documentary portrait of Steve Lack entitled Rant, and then the little throw-away short, Mr Right.

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Landing in the Morning Calm, by Marcella Di Palo Jost




Mr Right

The occasion for the screenings is the Galway Film Fleadh, a festival.  A friend of mine in Ireland, Joe Comerford, tried for some years to get me invited, and this year they finally did so.  I confess I did a little of the final bit myself, more or less inviting Marcella and myself.  We’ll be doing a 5 day workshop too, with, if all goes well, a public screening on the last day of the festival of the things made.   So it should be a busy time.  Afterward we’ll take a week to see the Irish west coast, and I hope to do a bit of shooting with the new Excam.  Landscapes I think, but we’ll see what we see.  Taking a little tripod, and some cheaper storage chips that I got after some web-research: 16 gig chips for $100 rather than Sony’s proprietary ones for $500 for 8 gigs.  After Ireland we fly to Bologna to visit Marcella’s sister in Rimini, and some other relatives near Bologna.  I’ll make sure to go to Ravenna, to which I’ve never been, to see the mosaics.  And perhaps to Rome to shoot a quick film, though I think better to pass on that for now.  Then down to Matera in Basilicata, where we’ll nose around the region, while Marcella visits parents.    I return to Seoul end of August, and Marcella will stay on another month to be with family a bit.

Marcella’s film was casually pieced together, initially without a real intention to make a proper film, just shooting with a cluster of Americans living in Seoul, using a little Sony HDR HC9, with its on-board mikes.  After a bit this began to form into a film, in which Marcella and her friend Amber Hill, who plays a lead role, collaborated in developing a minimal bit of story, and in the span from October to March, a film emerged.    I think it came out quite well, an interesting glimpse into the lives of these 20-somethings out in the larger world while still cocooned inside their youthful incestuous smaller one.  Luckily a number of them are musically talented, which Marcella put to good use.  Landing has been sent to a number of festivals, and we’ll see how many take it.

Minnie cuLanding in the Morning Calm

Rant was shot in two bursts, back in 2006-07, on a whim.  I’d met Steve Lack originally when making All the Vermeers in New York, in which he was the lead actor.  We got along well, and on my visits to New York afterward I’d try to see him.  At some point we rather casually thought to make a portrait, and on the next visit, we – Marcella and I – started to shoot – just goofing around without too much forethought aside from my decision to shoot most of it in a slow shutter mode, to have a “painterly” kind of imagery which I thought would be fitting to his work.   Marcella edited the first chunk, and we decided we needed more to fill it out, and on another visit to the East Coast we spent 5 days hanging around with Steve, going upstate to his house and studio near Saratoga, and got another sizable chunk.   Steve digitized pictures of his paintings, we got his son Asher’s first album, Reichenbach Falls, with his band Ravens and Chimes (very nice music) and Marcella set down again to wrestle it into form.  About a year ago it got pretty much finished, running just over 60 minutes.  But somehow it didn’t quite work, being a little too soft.  We sat on it a while, and then I took a look at some material Marcella hadn’t included (or, as it turns out, even looked at), and without changing much in her edit, I added a few things that seemed to give the film a needed bit of bite.  Now runs 87 minutes.   It was pretty much a 50/50 collaboration between Marcella and me, in all senses.  I shot most of it, Marcella did a bit of camera too, she edited mostly, and I added a bit.  It’s our film.  And of course, Steve’s.



Mr Right was shot last year with my students at Yonsei, a little sketch of the lives of these students, revolving mostly around the matter of love, getting married, under the pressures of Korean cultural norms.   It screened at the Rotterdam festival this year in the context of an omnibus work including 2 other 30 minutes shorts done by my students, titled Love in the Shadows.

mira2wide XX.jpg

Mr Right

However, out in the larger world, while we may imagine moving time, it is much more that time moves us.  Currently playing out in the world’s attention is the drama in Iran, seemingly heading toward some kind of conclusion.  Listening to the night-time chants of Allah Akbar, echoing from the rooftops and windows of the city, there is a sense of the organic communal life where hidden in anonymity, the many become one.  Those in power surely must find this sound haunting and deeply threatening:

Just as the populace finds these men threatening.

basij iranian militia

basij militia, the police force of the political powers of Iran

teheran image

Off stage, at least to much of the world, another confrontation is occurring, one which, however seemingly distant, is directly enmeshed in each of us:  as with the conflicts in the Nigerian delta over oil extraction, this one, in Peru, has to do with the re-ordering of indigenous cultures – or of wiping them out – in the interests of corporate powers extracting raw materials to support our “modern lifestyle.”   This is the price:

peru police garcia president

peru thomas quirynen marijke deleu

On a more “personal” level, this past week a cousin of mine died, Cis Porter-Chambers.  She was my age, give or take a year, and had lived what I suppose was a thwarted life.  She wanted to be a writer.  She became a mother, had her children abducted by her husband, and then was estranged from them (in a scenario a bit normal for those – like the mother of my daughter Clara – who seize their children like objects, keeping the other parent from contact, and then indoctrinate them as they will).  For the past years Cissie struggled to stay afloat, and then a year or so ago was hospitalized with colon cancer, had a good piece removed, and then last week was hospitalized again with infection which overwhelmed her.   She had found an English teaching job at a community college which she liked and had begun to think of writing, started a blog.  And life is sometimes cruel.

Moving On 1992

No More 1992

A Walk from the Cage 1986Paintings by Steve Lack


And now back to the boxes and the myriad last minute things of setting off for a trip.


Last night, enticed by the enjoyment had from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, we went to see his latest, lauded in Cannes, and opened a week or two ago to BO boffo here in Korea.  Mother by title, starring now middle-age star Kim Hye-ja as a real ajjuma, and TV series heart-throb Won Bin as her mentally slow 28 year old son.  Kicking off in his observant style with a very Korean little shop, where mother labors away peddling various herbal items, he promptly shifts gears into a commercial hook:  Do-joon, the not-swift son is side-swiped by a Mercedes on the small town street outside the door of Mom’s shop, and we get a quick dose of smashing cars, blood, and obligatory commercial tension.  Do-joon prompted by his smarter “friend” takes off to exact revenge at a nearby golf-course, an episode which lands up in a police station.  This is mere set-up, to underline Do-joon’s not-all-there state, Mom’s desperate love for him, and to sketch in the provincial small town setting.   The real stuff arrives later, when a school girl is found dead leaning over the roof-top parapet of a building.  Duly evidence points to dim-witted Do-joon, who is prompted to a confession by the local good-cop bad-cop guys, and Mom, ever protective kicks into high gear to prove his innocence.  One plot contrivance falls tidily into place after another as Bong delivers adrenalin jolts, a touch of comedy, blood, a scrambled time-sequence, repeats of earlier scenes, Hye-ja in melodramatic high gear, and hyping the thriller tension with various devices, some rather well-worn as the genre cliches pile up.  All this leads to an ever less believable story when at end it turns out that indeed Do-joon did do it, and Mom in turn kills the witness who saw it, sets fire to his place, and wanders (suddenly less bloody that she should be) off into a lovely grassy field, the same one in which Bong had begun the film with Hye-ja strangely dancing.   Had he concluded the film here, it might have lingered as an elusive vaguely Lynchian weird one.  However Bong lays on another 15 minutes or so of further explication which serves only to underline the heavy plot contrivances which he’d laid out to make his story.


As you might gather, I was not much taken by this film, though there were many things I did like and enjoy.  Bong has a very clean and direct cinematic visual style, and his observation of real-life seems acute, at least for things Korean.  Settings, gestures, behavioral actions are clearly drawn from his close view of Korean life, and the texture he sets his stories in is richly drawn.   Likewise the sets and the lighting are all credible, utterly lacking in the glossy falseness which pervades Hollywood films of our times.  Unfortunately in this case he seems to have felt compelled to cram a connect-the-dots commercial pot-boiler into this setting, flawed with far too much plot contrivance, and further damaged by a dim one-note performance by Won Bin, who may be a tube hottie, but he’s no actor.  His characterization boiled down to an asymmetrical lip curl and bugged eyes.  A few other performances were less than great as well (a secondary detective comes to mind).


Given Bong’s gifts for observation, his succinct visual style, and his usual ability to evince strong performances, I’d like to see him do something less plot driven, along the lines of Hou Hsou Hsien, something that perhaps tells a very simple story while simply showing Korean culture as it is.  I would think he could  do something very wonderful along that line, though it seems clear that neither the Korean film industry would be inclined to fund such a non-commercial film, and perhaps Bong would have no interest either.  Pity.



Prompted again by Jean Poulot, we went last week to see Coraline, the stop-motion animated film funded by Portland Nike zillionaire Phil Knight (much maligned back there for myriad dubious corporate behaviors).   We went, of course, owing to Jean’s animation interest, and I suppose as well a little bit of a kind of Portlandphilia, thinking of friends there, including one, Mark Eifert, who turned down a job on this film as he didn’t want to deal with the long commute to southern ‘burb where Nike’s campus is. And I was again curious about the state of 3D and what people are doing with it.


As with Monsters vs Aliens, I was duly impressed with the technical qualities and capacities, but as well with deeper narrative elements and the underneath subtexts.  In this case the animation was a hybrid of stop-motion sort of cleaned up digitally, so that seams in the puppets were erased, and some of the basic crudeness of stop-motion work was tidied up.   Visually it was certainly distinctly different from the CGI of Monsters, with the characters more puppet-like in both looks and movement, a natural by-product of the techniques used.  On the other hand because they were “real,” the clothes, hair, and other elements looked, well, not like high-grade CGI facsimiles, but like “the real thing” because they were, albeit miniaturized to fit the puppets standing a foot or so high.   The result was a pleasingly familiar quality of home-made-ness, which in fact fit the Oregonian setting: gloomy rain forests and cloudy atmospherics.

The story is basically a rather simple moral fable:  A little girl – whose character was clearly willfully less than snuggly-cute, but instead somewhat obnoxious, a real kind of brat – Coraline, has parents who are recognizable types, self-involved and giving minimal time to daughter.  Dad is a writer computer-geek, and with his wife is writing a catalog on gardening though they can’t stand dirt or gardening themselves.   Coraline, moved to the sticks outside Ashland, Oregon, is bored, and in her dreams invents Other Parents who are what her real ones aren’t.  Except in due time the ideal Other Mom morphs into a veritable skeletal witch and is bad news.  Coraline, after some traumatic adventures bee-lines back to the home hearth, and in a final sop to decency Mom gives her the wool gloves she’d hankered for earlier in film and been refused.  Sandwiched into this are a handful of wacky characters who live in the same converted mansion, plus a little boy who befriends our anti-heroine.


The tone of this modest fable is another story, more Brothers Grimm than Disney by a very long shot, so much so that in the audience I was in some young ones could be heard crying.  I don’t think, having seen it, I’d take someone younger than 10 or 12 to it – too many dark turns, and frankly I felt the overall content was more adult than child-aimed, and I doubt many kids would really get it, however much they might like the fantasy world constructed.  And then, on conclusion I had serious doubts about the actual content of the story which boiled down to “better to accept the real world you have than take chances on changing it.”   Tell that to Phil Knight’s south-east Asian sweat-shop shoemakers.  I’m sure he does.   The Grimm tone of this film seemed reflective of a certain Republican frame of mind, making for a little too much of a down-to-earth landing which subverted most of its imaginative fantasy and left one with a distinctly down-beat feeling at the end.  Perhaps Mr. Knight’s Adam Smith’s unseen hand at play?

The 70-year-old Nike founder has done hundreds of separate stock sales since mid-April, collecting $1.05 billion – well ahead of his $780 million cash-out of shares in 2007. That’s the year he placed 14th in Vanity Fair’s ranking of windfalls made by the rich from selling stock or family empires.

At Knight’s current pace of selling his shares, the one-time track star at the University of Oregon is likely to pass reigning cash-out king Bill Gates, who topped Vanity Fair’s windfall rankings last year at $2.8 billion in stock sales. [May 2008, just before the market crash….]


And then there is Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati), much beloved of critics, many of whom place it on their “top 10” of all cinema lists – not that anyone who has not seen every film ever made has any business making such lists, and no one could possibly see all of cinema in a single life span.  We went to see it at the Cinematheque here, in a traveling retrospective for which the French cultural institute made sparkling new restored prints, so we were spared looking through a veil of scratches, splice marks, fade chemistry and could see pretty well the 70mm splendor.  Well, sort of.  I think we were watching an HD tape of a 70mm to 35mm print.  Still it looked rather good that way.


The problem for me was, well, uh, heretically, the film itself.  Starting off in a seeming hospital turned airport turned cubicle office-ville, our reluctant central character Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s alternate self, is found lost in the modernized wonder of the new Paris: sterile 60’s architectural glass boxes announcing the future.  It is said Tati no longer wished to play Hulot, whose character had made his name in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, and carried on through Mon Oncle and Trafic.  But the cruel invisible hand of Mr. Knight’s beloved market dictated otherwise, and in order to obtain the funding Tati was required to shamble along as Hulot, yet again.  In this case he materializes as a minor thread in the film, bumbling through the maze of modernity playing something more akin to “Where’s Wally” than a character.  Using his 70mm visual acreage to maximum effect, Tati plants his various characters across a deep space, the screen – a least in the opening passages – speckled with minor figures carefully orchestrated, with little comic incidents in the far background, or anywhere else.  M. Hulot also may be anywhere else, hence where’s Wally.


The major thread through which Hulot attempts to knit his non-narrative is a bus-load of hokey American tourists, who are duly skewered for being hokey American tourists. We follow them on a their tour of the spanking new anonymous Paris, in which the old Paris occasionally materializes as a reflection in the glassy mirrors of the new: the Eiffel Tower, SacréCoeur, and other emblematic icons slide by in the turn of a door. The one “real” slice of Parisian life is an old lady at her flower stand who is used by our tourists as a prop, and likewise by Tati.  Several other nationalities are duly skewered.

Following the deep space escapades in the bland cubicle-land, Hulot is whisked away by a friend from the army to a bland glass-fronted first floor modern apartment where socializing seems to consist of watching television, fully exposed to the street. This scene is replicated as in new apartment buildings, in the next apartment and the next. Ha ha. This set-piece falls rather flat.


The film now moves along to a newly minted nightclub, where many a spratfall is made on the basis of its just opened (almost) state, and the screen is crammed with diners, musicians, the staff of the club, and the spectator is tiresomely bludgeoned with increasingly more frantic, repetitious and less funny humor. Of course the bus-load of American tourists arrives, and Mr Hulot/Wally wanders in and out.


At end the club closes, a rich obnoxious American who has played major role in the nightclub sequence retires with friends to a cafe for a cuppa, and the American tourists depart in the bus. The film does not end, it deflates in a merry-go-round traffic circle of not-so-funny montage, and Tati closes the curtain on his career.  Well, almost.  Despite the allegedly fatal effect on his career, Playtime was followed up by Trafic (more of the same) and Parade.

Back when it was released audiences apparently voted with their feet, and this film, costly by the standards of the day, was a flop from which Tati never recovered. The critics of the day were mixed, but slowly Playtime has clawed its way to a place of reverence in critical circles. In my view the audience was right – this film is a turkey, and despite occasional flashes of brilliance (mostly at the beginning), it fails to sustain anything, uses its threads (Hulot, the American tourists) as cheap devices to string together a sequence of essentially unrelated set-pieces, and collapses in the unfunny chaos of the closing night-club passage. Its handful of funny concepts are usually driven into the ground with repetition, just as its satire tilts towards the overly obvious and far too easy.  It was apparently unscripted, and in the pejorative sense of it, looks it.   That Tati shows flashes of brilliance in his use of the screen space does not salvage the utter failure to orchestrate time, an essential element of any work which operates in time – be it music, theater, or cinema, or cover for many of his jokes which are facile and worn.

What this seems to say about critics is that if you’ve had a run-in with the business, or worse yet, the audience, this must be ipso facto evidence that you are far ahead of your times. Never mind that the evidence on the screen is that you made a flop, an incoherent pastiche of set-pieces which don’t really hold together, resorted to dim slapstick, repeating of the same jokes to exhaustion and culminated with a long and boring finale which fails miserably to pull it all together. That this was done on 70mm, includes some visual panache here and there, doesn’t really matter. This film is a god awful mess, and the hoi polloi were correct. The critics were and are wrong.

Wally/Hulot lost his way, and is not to be found.