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A few things along the cinema front.

On Sunday, July 22, my friend Toshi Fujiwara will be screening his new film, No Man’s Zone, in New York at the Japan Society.   I highly recommend going for a look.  Toshi will be there to introduce and discuss afterwards.  Here’s a few reviews on it: Hollywood Reporter and The Wall Street Journal.    These are two sources primarily concerned with money, and not art, or the things art attempts to reveal, so I’d say they are somewhat jaundiced in their views.

Here’s a YouTube trailer, made for the Berlin Festival (Forum) screening last February.



And then I have started a Vimeo channel, posting things I have made, old and new, and likely I’ll post, with OK from authors, other items which I think should be seen.   The URL is this.   Later on I will be starting a channel, for subscribers, to the upcoming new film, Plain Songs: Essaying America.   It’ll be embedded in a blog by same name that I’ll be starting soon.

And, for High Def fetishists, a friend in Missoula sent a notice along about NHK’s new Super Hi-Vision camera with a resolution of 7680×4320 pixels.  Soon we can just replace reality with something better….  Or perhaps we should think about our quasi-Neo-con con-job of thinking the virtual realities we make are an improvement on the mundane reality we have at hand.

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

It’s been a while since I was last here – 2003 – when I attended in competition with Oui Non.  Yamagata is a documentary festival, and they have had me here now 5 times.  I’m told that’s the most anyone has been here.  For me it is a kind of little homecoming, though I find it hard to perceive of myself as a “documentary” filmmaker.  I think of the films of mine they have shown here, very few other documentary festivals would consider them as proper “documentaries”: Oui Non began as a fiction and remains one, and is rather “experimental” in its aesthetics; 6 Easy Pieces, which won a prize here, is similarly far removed from normal doc modes and methods; London Brief most would consign to the “experimental” ghetto.  Likewise Plain Talk and Common Sense, shown here at their first festival, in 1989.   In their opening ceremonies they mentioned that it had been 22 years since then, which reminds that the clock is definitely (and defiantly) ticking.  Since that first festival Yamagata has grown as a town, and as a festival, now being regarded certainly as the premiere documentary festival in Asia, and up with the best anywhere else.

Image from opening film, a rather charming TV documentary made in Yamagata in 1963, about immigrant farmers going to Tokyo to work in a bread factory over the winter.  Very nice and so unlike anything that could be made today.

This year’s festival seems subdued, clearly impacted by what they have recurrently called The Great Eastern Earthquake.  Fukushima is only 100 kilometers away, over a modest mountain range.  While Yamagata itself did not suffer serious damage in the earthquake, the neighboring areas to the east were devastated, and for some time Yamagata was a place for refugees to stay.  Clearly their economy, as all of Japan’s, has taken a severe hit.   The festival organizers, in their opening ceremony and remarks, were happy that those of us who came did so – it seems some or perhaps many of the filmmakers did not come.

This morning I saw at 10 am a first film, from Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach, titled Day is Done.   I found it completely absorbing, despite its self-chosen restrictions.  Made from a compilation of 35mm footage shot over a period of 15 years, largely from the window and roof of his loft-like space in an industrial neighborhood of Zurich.  The imagery is often strikingly beautiful with rich skies, rain, snow, and dramatic light shifts over the same cityscape imagery.   The sound track is a mix of telephone answering machine messages, coupled with sections of a mix of songs, used somewhat aggressively, the verbal content being used to prod the film’s seeming message along.  The film, as read between the lines, could readily be titled “Self-Portrait of myself as an asshole.”   Indirectly it paints a picture of Imbach as a voyeuristic, self-involved, irresponsible person.  Part of its fascination is in this self-exposure, but also in his seemingly obsessive voyeurism, and his ethical utilitarianism.  Using the tape recorded messages as a major part of his content, the voices of friends, bankers, ex-wife, son, father, businessmen and others are clearly manipulated to form a jig-saw puzzle of Imbach’s life at this time.  His father talks, gets ill, dies.   His affair with his wife comes, along with a child, and goes.  A number of evident lovers talk and disappear.  His career zooms along with nice notices.   The visuals are repeated shots across the city, with a prominent modern industrial chimney shot again and again, with planes taking off or landing at the nearby airport, birds, snow, rain, light and dark.  Other images show trains zipping by in time-lapse which often changes speed and exposure in the shot; the camera jerks around finding its image.  Down on the street below he obsessively tracks in hyper-telephoto a woman who goes into the same door; he catches other drama there – some fires caught on fire, a major motor-bike accident, a club opening opposite, lovers wildly kissing.   A few sequences take the viewer out of this confined viewpoint – a visit to his mother, his (ex) wife, his child at the beach – sort of home-movie.    The film is often gorgeous.   And “T”, as he names himself, appears periodically next to his camera in the reflection in a window.

From Day is Done, by Thomas Imbach

I am not sure it is a good film – for me it began to wear out its welcome perhaps 20-30 minutes before it ended, though it was not then boring at all.  What made it fascinating was the internal cross-fire in your own mind as you questioned the ethics of using the answering machine tapes; the somewhat lurid-feeling and repeated shots of the girl walking down the street; the constant sense of voyeurism compounded by T’s evidently irresponsible behaviors with his friends, family, wife and son.   Combined with the repetitive imagery, these all collided into a rich internal intellectual stew in my mind, and which in a sense were clearly intended to be provoked.   At the conclusion there was a kind of sour emotional sense of questioning whether one should “like” a film by someone who seemingly is a lout if a person.  An old conundrum:   good artists can often be lousy humans.

The girl

Whatever my reservations, it was a film which I enjoyed, felt was a good wedge to press the viewer to think for themselves, and certainly made me wish to see some of his other work, documentary and fiction.

Still from Travis Wilkerson’s Distinguished Flying Cross

The other film I saw today, also in competition, was Travis Wilkerson’s Distinguished Flying Cross.  Running just an hour, it consists of a set-piece of Wilkerson on one side of a table, his brother across from him, and his father at the end.  Rigidly composed, and with a few other shots of a close up of a beer glass, and of his brother’s profile inserted for a slight change of pace, this shot is interrupted frequently by very brief title cards, usually accompanied with a percussive sound or noise.  Wilkerson’s father essentially tells the story of his Viet Nam days, and of receiving his Distinguished Flying Cross medal as a helicopter pilot.  Four or five times this tableau is disturbed by longer sequences of somel minute’s length of Viet Nam combat footage taken by soldier cinematographers.  One of those sequences is strewn with VC corpses.    I found the story-telling less than engaging, in part owing to the distanced and rigid imagery, which was amplified by the sons’ less than lively presence.  Also the miking/EQ made it a bit difficult to understand as the bass and boominess of the room managed to smother the sound frequently.   Cumulatively it didn’t seem to add up, in part because the story Dad had to tell was ordinary military stuff, and failed to arouse much emotional contact one way or another.  The tepid applause at the end suggested I wasn’t alone in this view.  Travis is participating in the Far From Afghanistan omni-bus film I am taking part in, so this criticism is diplomatically touchy, but I think honesty is always the best medicine – especially for artists among themselves.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

And then I had my own screening, first one, of Imagens de uma cidade perdida.   It was shown with an NTSC conversion of my PAL original, and apparently played off a Blu-Ray disk.  The cinema is very large and likewise the screen.  I must say it looked gorgeous, rather better than I thought it could, and sounded equally good.  The audience was not very large, and I think about 20-25% left after about 60-70 minutes.   Of those that stayed the applause was generous, and many came to a talk session in the lobby that went on 30 minutes or so, by which I’d guess the response was pretty positive.  Owing to a mistake of my own the version they saw was minus a few minutes of subtitles which should have been there, but….  My own error in sending an incorrect tape with no subtitles,  and while I said I’d send the correct one to festival they said they could take off the DVD I’d sent, which turned out to be an older one which I’d sent before changing the subtitles.  Not fatal, but, well, stupid. The price of haste when traveling.  Or an unraveling brain.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Tomorrow I’ll find out if the thin attendance (in the audience, at the festival HQ) is owing to it being the first day, or it being a weekday, or if instead it is because the reverberations of the earthquake/tsunami and the fear of radiation.  I’m told of the 15 invited filmmakers, only 8 or 9 are attending.  In any event I recall in my previous visits much more hustle and bustle surrounding the festival, and my guess the seeming quietness this time is owing to the disaster of last February.    Of which I will get a close look after the festival as I’m arranging to go visit some of the area devastated by the tsunami.

The biggest recorded earth-quake arrived off the coast of Japan,  a place much accustomed to such tectonic shifts, sitting as it does directly along the Pacific Rim “Ring of Fire,” and in a handful of minutes unleashed a tsunami of epic proportions.  The news at the moment I write suggests a thousand and some dead, though the images caught by cell phones and little HD cameras surely tells another story, of tens of thousands or perhaps 100’s of thousands.  Meantime two nuclear reactors, sitting on the shoreline, are spewing radioactivity, their cooling systems ruptured.  Authorities tell bland stories seeking to calm the fractured nerves of the populace, though each passing hour seems to betray their assurances.

Japan, historically habituated to the jangled reality of plate tectonics, in some measure has done about as much as possible to deal with the physical effects of earthquakes.  It has strict construction and engineering codes, intended to adequately deal with the motions incurred when a part of the crust of our earth slips against a neighboring piece, and as occurred during this earthquake many of the tall skyscrapers of Tokyo swayed back and forth, built flexibly, like an airplane wing, to absorb the energies unleashed, and to dissipate them in movement.  Doubtless for the occupants of those buildings the effect was nauseous, but far better than were they rigid and had simply broken up and collapsed.

Yet, “in some measure” proves not adequate in the face of what nature can really throw at us once in a while.  The only defense against the tsunami that ravaged the north east coast of Honshu, would simply be to not populate it.  A low lying coastal plain, good for agriculture on a very crowded mostly mountainous island, this was simply not an option.  And even the most solid of seawalls would have done nothing meaningful in the face of the tsunami that hit them.  Cars and trains, whole neighborhoods of houses and factories – all were bandied about by the forces as if playthings.   It is then just a gamble to live there, a gamble the Japanese have little choice about making.

Nuclear plant that was badly damaged

In the 19th century, Japan, previously isolated by choice, in the face of the Western intrusions, chose to compete on Western terms.  It industrialized, and is in this time perhaps the most industrialized area of the world.  The computer I am writing on was made there, as are the cameras I shoot with, and many other things I have come from this powerhouse.  Yet, beyond the energy and discipline of its people, Japan has little to warrant its industrialization in terms of natural resources: it has no oil, its habitable and arable land is very limited by its geography, it lacks many other natural resources which most other industrial nations possess.   Japan must import almost everything except for the labor that goes into its industrial manufacturing.  It was a choice, an elemental one, which has  guided Japanese politics ever since.   It was Japan’s Faustian bargain with the future – to make itself utterly dependent on the import of almost everything it requires to be an industrialized society.  And in turn this guided such decisions as to build nuclear reactors adjacent to the fault-lines which guaranteed major earthquakes would arrive at some time.  As we have seen in the last days, even the most stringent of engineering does not suffice to make such plants “safe” in such conditions.  As the map above shows, Japan is littered with nuclear energy plants.  Nuclear power now provides about 30% of Japan’s energy “needs.”  Most of the rest is from oil (50%) and coal (15%).   Almost all of this must be imported.

Nuclear power stations

The US, though on the West coast accustomed to earthquakes, has done far less in legislating construction requirements, or other measures intended to cope with these events and their consequences.  There is no question that an earthquake near the intensity of the in Japan will strike the US, perhaps most likely along the Pacific Coast, but perhaps on the Madrid fault-line in the Mid-West.  With far less precaution taken in engineering, or even utter thoughtlessness in their placement – I recall in the early 70’s construction was begun on a plant in Bodega Bay, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, on a lovely site overlooking the Pacific, and after they had begun to dig the foundations it was halted, not for being an aesthetic insult, but because it sat directly on top of a major fault-line, one that had jumped laterally 8-12 feet in some places in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1909 – America could expect far more catastrophic consequences both to the nuclear plants, and architecture in general, in an equivalent shake.  However, despite the forewarning provided by this week’s events, one doubts that real measures will be taken to reinforce architecture, or perhaps close down certifiably dangerous power plants, even though there is, in the longer run, a 100% assurance that a catastrophe will strike.

It will be interesting to see if in the coming time the Japanese, being a far more social/collective culture, have second thoughts on their bargain with the future, and begin to dismantle their nuclear stations and perhaps even conclude that the costs of industrialization are in fact fatal for them.  In America, it is almost assured that our capitalist and “individualist” ethic will result in little being done for the communal welfare in this regard: the power stations will remain (or multiply if some have their way); architectural engineering will be as cheap as profit-making allows, and one day the price will be paid.

The San Francisco 1989 earthquake

San Francisco earthquake 1909

San Andreas fault, everything on west side moving to Alaska

In light of the most recent word on the reactors, here is a map of potential fall-out:

See this for a remarkable example of both the technological capacities of our time, and of the power of nature to wash them away.  One day the sun will in its death throws explode and obliterate all the planets spinning around it; we will have very long before departed.  Sic transit etc.

[This item in the NY Times seems to suggest I am not the only one thinking perhaps Japan should consider stepping out of the technological industrial race and trying just to make a society for people to be happy.]

[Little update note, August 24, 2011:  in Paris saw my friend Toshi Fujiwara’s new film, No Man’s Zone, in late editing – he went to the Fukushima area about 3 weeks after the quake, and has made what I anticipate to be a very strong film on the devastation, the effects on local people, the duplicitous ways of government and corporations.]