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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.

Korean Drunkard Mask

As the last few weeks in Korea come up, naturally things are a crush of things-to-do:  final editing on Japanese film, which found its title finally – The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima.   Running 74 minutes, very simple and direct.   The product of a quick 2 and a half day shoot, that couldn’t have been done without the help of Moe Tomoeda, a young Japanese woman who acted as my translator and help in simple but necessary ways.    It will screen in a kind of private showing in Tokyo on Saturday, March 3.  I hope it is finished by then but I suspect some little things will still need to be done.  I’m quite happy with it – after a fashion the first film done (aside from a 30 minute short) since I moved to Korea.  I’d begun to wonder if the creative batteries were shot, but I think this says “no.”


This film was really a pleasure to make, though I will have to see on this coming Saturday if I am way off the mark or managed to slip into something Japanese.  I’ll report back after the screening and let you know what I get as feedback.

[Tokyo Update, March 4th.]

Last night had the first screening (also for me) of The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, to a 100% Japanese audience.  This was after the screening and talk for 90+ minutes of my workshop students’ pieces, done since December.  I was very pleased with what they did, really some very nice work.  Then my piece screened.  Aside from some marginal technical glitches, likely seen only by myself, and a few name titles with the wrong people, on that level it all went fine.  As I screened an unsubtitled version, so as not to have the distraction for an audience which didn’t need them, I couldn’t really see the film myself as while I knew more or less what was said, I couldn’t really follow the talking – of which there is a lot.  So I looked a bit at the audience members to see if I could glean anything there – bored?  falling asleep?  twitchy?   After the lights went up, I tried to extract as much information as I could – usually difficult with Asian audiences – and bluntly asked if it was boring, if my use of some Japanese poetry seemed pretentious, or other things I imagined might be problematic.  I didn’t get any confirmation of that.  What I was able to get was that they were over-saturated with things about the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and that in a way this film didn’t “fit in” to their expectations.  Instead of being rough and brutal and ugly, as apparently most the films made on the matter so far have been (exception is my friend Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone, recently shown at the Berlinale Forum), this one is rather elegant.  I’d call it elegaic.  And this one let’s ordinary people speak on their own terms, at length.  My impression was that this almost confused the audience, and in a way they “liked” it inwardly but felt conflicted, as if they shouldn’t be liking something that didn’t slip into their preconceptions of what earthquake/tsunami films should be like.

After the public discussion, one older woman came up to tell me that she found the Japanese language of these people – a dialect for sure in their isolated situation – was very beautiful, and that the way and manner in which they spoke seemed honest and from the heart.   The latter I can agree with – they certainly facially and in their gestures convey a sincerity which is tangibly written on the screen in their personae.  If indeed the Japanese is also beautiful to listen to, then lucky me!    A few others, individually, said they very much liked and were moved by the film.  So I guess, taking everything into consideration, I can conclude that for a Japanese audience it works, and is appreciated.  Toshi liked it a lot, and some of my students, now familiar with some of my work, concluded that though it is “different” from my other films, it is, well, a Jost film.  A Japanese Jost film.

Bottom-line, I think not self-deluded, is that my personal view, if somewhat language deprived in perspective, that it works and works well, was confirmed with this screening.  For which I am very happy.   Among other things it likely will help in assuring that I return in 18 or so months to take up a modest job to oversee a Tokyo portrait, circa 2013-14.

Meantime here in Korea, I finished shooting the film on Ahn Eun me’s dance project, which was very interesting for me, if rather marred with a very “film world” experience, of which more in a a future post.  I amassed 40+ hours of material, and when the hell I will have time to look at it, much less edit it, in the coming two years, I do not know.  Likely I won’t have time to mess with it for a long time.     What I had imagined – foolishly – as a simple project that I could edit as I went along, turned out instead to be rather complex in creative terms.  And it was all my own error.  I had seen a handful of Eun me’s works, which are kitschy, flamboyant, highly theatrical – all rather the opposite of my tendencies.  But I liked them very much.  They are full of energy, sharp turns, and most of the time – if not always – she has a control over the rambunctious overload.   I thought shooting this in an austere manner would be a nice complement.  So in my mind, before hand, I mistakenly imagined her studio as a normal dance studio – spare, a mirrored wall, and little else.  Instead it was a space like her work, if more modest: rather busy with kitschy decor, anything but spare.  And in turn that altered my foolishly preconceived ideas.    Here’s some images of what I shot.


Ahn Eun me’s troupe is in Bahrain now, putting on several performances of her fabulous piece, Princess Bari – a real spectacle in every respect.  I’ve had the luck to see it 3 times now, and I suppose it is the work that drew me to asking to shoot her process.


Ahn Eun me

It was a pleasure and a privilege to watch her work with her wonderful dancers (who also are superb athletes and acrobats) and I hope sometime in the future I can sit down with the material shot and make a film of it – I think there’s something good hiding in there, but 40+ hours is a lot, and for the next 18 months (at least) I will have almost no time as other things will be on my front burner.

The shooting of this work entailed some extra crap of the “You’ll never work in the town again” kind, a rather absurd and silly story of how tinsel town warps people’s brains.  Because it is a nice cautionary film-world tale, I’ll tell it in a later posting, in all its comic detail.  Need I say it has to do with a wanna-be producer(ette).

Meantime for updates on the coming travel and screening schedule, see this.

And in passing, Eleanor Callahan, her husband Harry Callahan’s photographic muse, died this week at the age of 95.



Posted from Tokyo.

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.]