January 27, 2010


For my literature project, I read 10 plays by Euripides.

So much of Greek tragedy revolves around fate and prophesy and gods and grief and so many other things I don't believe in; it seemed crafted to repel me. I had hoped that Euripides would be different, especially after hearing the following repeated so many times: "Of all the ancient Greek dramatists, Euripides says the most to modern readers." How careless I was to consider myself a modern reader! (Even Cyclops disappointed me!)

What to say of Euripides? However much I may put him and tragedy down, honesty bids me say that I have enjoyed myself. Greek myth, once so foreign to me, becomes clearer with every play I read. With every play I read, I enjoy myself the more. I am now comfortable with the stories, the themes, the places, the people, the gods. And I desire more. I may read the rest of Euripides's surviving plays soon, and I am tempted to reread Aeschylus and Aristophanes (what emotions will they teach me this time through?).

But I am kind of puzzled about what makes Euripides so "modern." He is more cruel than Sophocles and Aeschylus, I think. His gods and people are less noble. Does cynicism speak to modernity? Do we prefer the flawed and ugly to the ideal? Undoubtedly we do. It speaks the most to our experience. But I -- to separate myself from tragedy -- seek something else. Something more mundane. Something more aloof. Something more--

But who knows what I seek? Perhaps a trip to the oracle will tell me. Excuse me while I make my sacrifices at Delphi...

January 24, 2010

a tale of the wind (1988)

Joris Ivens spent a most of his career making leftist documentaries. This did not please Western governments, and he was on bad terms with most of them, including his home, The Netherlands. By the end of his career, however, he wanted to distance himself from politics and release the philosophy-poetry that burned in his heart (and lungs (he was sick)).

In the early 1980s, he began to think about a film to be called The Roof of the World. During this time, The Netherlands decided they ought to repair their relationship with Mr. Ivens -- who, after all, can spurn a man so wise, so traveled, so old? -- and so awarded him the Golden Calf in 1985. This reconciliation opened doors for Ivens, who discovered that people suddenly respected him (and not just young-ish Paris intellectuals).

(A note: one of those young-ish Paris intellectuals, a lovely Juliet Berto, cast him in a film she directed, Havre (1986). What specific impact this had on Ivens, I do not know; nor do I know much about Juliet Berto aside from what I've gathered by her presence in JLG and Rivette films. This girl is one cineaste I must learn more about, as preliminary research turns up very meager results -- I shall follow this up sometime.)

Respect brought Ivens the financial backing necessary to embark on his project, an idea which had solidified over the years and which was now called The Wind.

A Tale of the Wind -- the title this project ultimately adopted -- follows Ivens around China as he attempts to film the wind. He muses about himself, Chinese culture, and life and death (as an 89 year old), among other such trivialities. It is his final film. The capstone of his career. The summation of his spirit. The Joris Ivens film.

However, I would like to point out a name that is usually forgotten in the discussion:

Marceline Loridan, wife to Joris Ivens (30 years his junior). She survived concentration camps as a Jewish teen. In Paris, she became interested in socialism and film (as people in Paris are wont to do). She participated in that cinéma vérité bedrock, Chronicle of a Summer (1960). She met and married Joris Ivens, who, though critical of these vérité and vague filmmakers, became friendly with some of them. The pair traveled and worked together. Loridan was with Ivens until his end.

For The Wind, Ivens originally planned to use two crews; Ivens's crew would film the wind, while Loridan's crew would film Ivens's crew filming the wind. Complications arose. Ivens was sick and, in a particularly serious incident, required on-the-scene surgery (in China, before transported back to France (from what I read)). Loridan filmed it all. (This is represented in the film -- and I believe this is a recreation -- when Ivens collapses in the desert and is rushed to a hospital.) This resulted in a reshaping of the film; in his biography of Ivens, Schoots writes:
with the expansion of Loridan's directorial role came a shift in the concept of The Wind. According to the plan, Ivens was to be a cineaste in search of the wind and Chinese culture and Loridan's crew would simply observe him at work.
Thus the two crews became one. The Wind became Loridan's film.

How strange, then, that her name is forgotten! As much as A Tale of the Wind is about Ivens, it is about Loridan's relationship with Ivens -- her love, respect, and dedication. And yet she is given so little notice; I have uncovered few biographical details about her (here is one bio) (she is not even listed as a director for the film on IMDb (but who takes that site seriously?)). She is a vital contribution to the film, and everybody who approaches A Tale of the Wind ought to keep her in mind.

Anyway, I want to digress into another topic: the Monkey King.

The Monkey King appears throughout the film; he throws banana peels and unplugs microphones and laughs and commits crimes of every sort. Schoots shares a story which intrigued me immediately:
There is a famous story in which the Monkey King sits in the palm of Buddha's [sic] hand boasting about his knowledge and insight. After Buddha asks him to show him how wise he is, the monkey sets out in search of the end of the world and pisses on one of the five pillars he finds there. He returns to Buddha and confidently tells him that he found the end of the world, whereupon Buddha says: 'You pissed on one of my fingers.'
Who is this Monkey King? Apparently he is a very influential character in Chinese mythology. He also seems to be a central character in Journey to the West. I found a summary of this Monkey King online which, thanks to its bad English, is disarmingly charming:
The Monkey King was born out of rock, and hence is extremely strong and durable - in fact he is totally invulnerable. He is immortal, having gorged himself on the life-giving peaches of the Jade Emperor's sacred garden. He is also extremely smart - he learned all the magic tricks in the world from a master Taoist, so that he is now able to transform himself into seventy-two different images such as a tree, a bird, a beast of prey or a bug as small as a mosquito so as to sneak into an enemy's belly to fight him inside or out. He can employ clouds as vehicles allowing him to travel 180,000 miles in a single somersault. He uses a Wishing Staff he got from the Dragon Kings of the Oceans as his favorite weapon - it can expand or shrink at its owner's command (he normally stores it in his earlobe). He can turns clumps of his hair into any object he desires. His fiery eyes can see through most illusions. Being made of stone, he is uncomfortable underwater.
Wikipedia offers a more informative (if less charming) summary (it seems the Monkey King comes to an unfortunate end -- Buddhahood).

At one point in A Tale of the Wind, Ivens himself appears as the Monkey King. Keeping the legends in mind, one imagines Ivens, carved of stone, somersaulting to the ends of the earth to commit unforgivable acts of mischief. One might examine this as a symbolic (and playful) representation of Ivens's career. But I am not that one; I just thought I should point this amusing symbol out.

Ivens is placed among other symbols as well -- the Moon Fairy, a dragon, the drunken poet, the warrior statues, the wind. Is Ivens saying something about himself? About culture? Is Loridan saying something about Ivens? There is a lot of symbolic information to work through when interpreting this film.

Ivens and Loridan finished the film and showed it around. Although it earned respect, one would not dare to call it a "hit." In an interview, Ivens spoke of his next project, though I don't imagine either Loridan or Ivens believed they would make it. This project: a film about fire, the second film in a series about the elements. A part of me still hopes this will be made.

Ivens and this film are still to be discovered and studied. Lately, Ivens seems to have become more popular. A good sign.

January 18, 2010

a short film about the indio nacional (2006)

Apparently, Philippines/Filipino cinema is hip these days. The names Lav Diaz and Raya Martin and Brilliante Mendoza keep appearing as I click across the internet. Adrian Martin, commenting on the fickleness of film culture, calls Filipino cinema "hot."

Intent on staying hip, I sought out a Filipino film last month. I had never seen one before, and the only Filipino film name I knew was Lino Brocka. But his films looked boring. I looked around some more and discovered the name Raya Martin. He is young, he is smart, and (it seems) he likes old movies. Furthermore, he is somebody I would hang out with (at coffee shops and cinematheques).

Filipino films are not easy to find here (must be why they are so hip), but eventually (it came to pass that) I saw Raya Martin's A Short Film About the Indio Nacional.

I did not understand it. There is stuff about a bell-ringer and a solar eclipse and a revolutionary; what's it all about? I know nothing of Filipino history, and the whole thing seemed foreign and inaccessible. The style intrigued me -- Martin obviously understands early cinema techniques -- but I felt there was a depth of symbolism and emotion that I could not begin to penetrate.

I read around online. "Indio Nacional" is the (common) people. They lived under Spanish colonial rule until the 20th century (the film is set in the 1890s, the beginning of cinema + the end of Spanish rule). This did not explain what I was watching.

Finally, I found help from blogger Oggs. He writes:
The film is elliptical. It begins with prolonged woe, with the wife's troubles and the husband's suggested sorrowful past, continues with a recounting of history, and ends with a conclusion of a nation's destiny of sadness. Martin is of an age group of Filipinos who have been deprived of history. History is merely learned through schooling, through books whose own sources are questionable results of centuries of colonial rule. Simply put, Martin is of an age where the history learned is the history of the privileged. The heroes of the Philippine Revolution are the illustrados, the wealthy, the learned and the titled. The indios (commoners) are merely pawns, foot soldiers of a revolution that led to the nation's supposed freedom from the clutches of colonialism. But has the nation outgrown its colonial masters when its own history is clouded by foreign historians who have neglected the stories of the common folk? Martin, through the film, has visualized his belief that ours is a nation that is bereft of a national identity. He fashions a film that could have been made by any native Filipino, if handed a video camera while in the midst of the Philippine Revolution. He will not capture the drafting of treaties or the promulgation of constitutions or other grandiose moments in written history. Instead, he will capture are the ordinary, the droll and mundane, non-effects of the War. There will be an abundance of religious articles, simply because that is what he was force-fed with. There will be numerous deaths, because that is the logical repercussion of poverty and slavery. There will be humorous sketches that display the Filipinos' ignorance and deprivation of knowledge.
Having puzzled over the film for a few weeks, I finally realized I was approaching it the wrong way. Why did I see a symbol-heavy historical commentary? The film is nothing more than a reclamation of history for those without it. It is a film made in the 1890s, but which could only be made 100+ years later. That, I have to say, is pretty cool/fascinating.

I have a lot of Filipino cinema to catch up on if I am to be hip. I imagine they are as difficult and novel as this. I hope that I can see another of Raya Martin's films soon. Or, even better, hang out with him and talk about movies and just be all around awesome.

some blog reviews:
Lessons From the School of Inattention
the persistence of vision
Critic After Dark
Lilok Pelikula
Landscape Suicide

January 15, 2010

cinema and post-representation

A conversation I had the other day turned my thoughts to post-representation. This post is about post-representation. Actually, these are more like preliminary notes on a subject I want to explore more. There will be little substance to this post and lots of disconnected musing (in other words, worth skipping*).

So, on to representation: most (all?) of film/art theory rests on representation; the image is approached as a representation of something, whether a personal artistic vision (auteurism), a broader cultural aesthetic (national cinema/artistic movements/so on), a symptom of a cultural context (multiculturalism/identity politics/so on), &c. The image itself is a representation of what is photographed (a face or a landscape or whatever happens to be in front of the camera). And so on. Art and symbolism and hermeneutics and it's all representation.

Well and good. What is post-representation? Let me describe how this subject came up: Dusty and I were debating. He said Brakhage's films were pre-linguistic; I said they were post-linguistic. No, Dusty argued, they are before language, they are before thought, they just are! Brakhage himself, I concede, will most likely consider himself pre-linguistical; his writing expresses his wish to achieve the magic of experience before language and all the surprises that the senses were in for. But no! I respond, Brakhage's films are only possible after language and after representation. Without language, how could we yearn for that time before language? Without representational cinema, how could we imagine a non-representational cinema? As you can see, I am obviously right, but we fought bitterly over it nonetheless.

Post-representation is about experience. Language is a representation of consciousness. Words name experiences (which include sensations and emotions and thoughts and probably more stuff). Understanding this gap between language and the inner-experience it represents teaches one to consider the experience rather than the representation. And consciousness is a far more broad, fluctuating, uncertain thing than representation.

Film (and art and pears and sex and everything, actually) is both representational and non-representational. When one consumes an image (in one's mind), one naturally analyzes it as and through representation, building on to it all sorts of meanings and contexts and things. But before that, beyond that, all around that, is the immanent conscious experience of the image -- the sensations one sensed and the feelings one felt. These experiences are what is turned into representation.

Your mind without thought -- that is experiential non-representation.

Now about cinema: the earliest theorists worked, for the most part, to describe what was experiential. Eisenstein, Epstein, Clair; montage, photogenie, cinema-pur -- these are theories about cinematic rhetoric, about which formal qualities create the most thrilling and awesome cinematic experiences. Although theories of representation were appearing in other arts and seeped into film theory, cinema was still young, still innocent. Theories of representation, however, sprouted like weeds with the emergence of semiotics and post-structuralism and psychoanalysis and other things many and absurd. Film (+art) became increasingly self-conscious about its representational qualities. Artists no longer created art -- instead they crafted feminist or Marxist or post-colonial critiques.

We are still in this paradigm today. It has grown up a bit, and has expanded alongside cultural criticism. With cultural criticism and identity politics, however, there has been a peculiar shift back to the experiential. Note this. Cultural criticism focuses on how the interpretation of a film (+art) is shaped by a person's cultural experience. It is still representational insofar as experience represents a cultural/historical context, but cultural criticism is looking once again at the non-representational.

Following my crude history, I ask the question: Will post-representational theories emerge?

I want to answer "yes" to this, considering it sounds like a fine project for a fellow like me, but I am not sure what a post-representational theory would look like. I list some observations below and hope that within them is a base to begin with---

Observations on post-representation

-if the emphasis is on conscious experience, description of this experience will be most important. Descriptions of experience must include descriptions of what is experienced (the film). I, who have always had a distaste for symbolic and representational readings of art, have noticed that in my own writing I strive for the detached and empirical -- jettisoned are the subjective descriptions (as in: "this film is sad") and totalizing overstatements (as in: "this film is a masterpiece" (blech)). One becomes scientific when dissecting one's own soul.

-this in mind, it seems there should be a renewed interest in film form and its various rhetorical effects.

-the representational and non-representational always intermingle. As language is shaped by experience, so too does language shape it. One's representational analysis of a film is just as important as one's non-representational experience of it. Representational film readings will not vanish; on the contrary, they will be important tools for shaping and expanding one's own conscious experience.

-artists, hip to the new post-representational phenomenon, will be freed from self-conscious representational critiques. They will explore new forms of perception. Filmmakers will be less intellectual (but don't have to be) and more physical -- a cinema-of-the-gut.

*You have now skipped my post. Thank you for stopping by!

January 12, 2010

no trifling with love

Before going too far into my lit project, I wanted to get some practice writing about books and I wanted to write about some of my favorite plays. This post is about Alfred de Musset's play No Trifling with Love (1834).

Here are the play's opening lines:
CHORUS. Gently rocked on his prancing mule, Master Blazius advances through the blossoming cornflowers; his clothes are new, his writing-case hangs by his side. Like a chubby baby on a pillow, he rolls about on top of his protuberant belly, and, with his eyes half shut, mumbles a paternoster into his double chin. Welcome, Master Blazius; you come for the vintage time in the semblance of an ancient amphora.
The chorus and stylized language recall the Greek tradition. What is striking (what stroke me) is the expressiveness of the language. These are details and descriptions usually found in serious literature, not in plays. More naturalistic dialogue would fail to capture so expressive a tone. From what I have read, Musset wrote his plays without any intention of having them staged (because of the disaster the production of his earliest play proved to be); and they are, indeed, seemingly unstageable. Though No Trifling with Love is quite stageable (in spite of its frequent scene changes), its high language conveys a stiff attitude of indifference to performance and theatrical convention. I find this a most attractive feature of the play.

The play's opening lines set the tone for what is to follow. Observe how Master Blazius, a man in a position of respectability (as tutor to Perdican), is characterized as slovenly and child-like, as a hypocrite and a drunk. The language is dense, the portrayal brutal. So too the rest of the play swells with vicious satire and cruel wit. One might call this "comedy" but would soon find the description inadequate. The best description I have yet read calls the play a "tragedy of innocence." But this too is inadequate.

The play reverses the time-worn comic conflict -- two young lovers, cousins Perdican and Camille, have both just finished their education and have come of age; they are brought together to their childhood home by the Baron, who intends for them to marry. Rather than the Baron standing in their way, as classic comedy calls for, he has planned for this day his whole life. No, it is not the Baron who keeps the lovers apart but the lovers themselves. It is in particular Camille's education at the convent, where she has adopted the wounds of life of the elder nuns, that prevents her from accepting this marriage proposal. Upset with each other, Perdican and Camille play games of jealousy and revenge, ultimately ending in tragedy.

The lovers destroy themselves. This appeals to me. They understand only too late that happiness was there for them were they but to accept it; but they, humans that they are, did not want it, could not have it. Camille's fear is singled out as the igniting cause, fear that she would end up broken and alone like the nuns in her convent. In the final scene of Act II, Perdican confronts her fears and scolds her for refusing life. The following is from his speech:
Farewell Camille. Return to your convent; and when they tell you one of their hideous stories that have poisoned your nature, give them the answer: All men are liars, fickle, chatterers, hypocrites, proud or cowardly, despicable, sensual; all women faithless, deceitful, vain, inquisitive and depraved. The world is only a bottomless cesspool, where shapeless monsters climb and writhe on mountains of slime. But there is in the world a thing holy and sublime -- the union of two of these beings, imperfect and frightful as they are. One is often deceived in love, often wounded, often unhappy, but one loves, and on the brink of the grave one turns to look back, and says: I have suffered often, sometimes I have been mistaken, but I have loved. It is I who have lived, and not an imitation created by my pride and my sorrow.
Perdican is trying to teach what few humans learn: life hurts (a lot), and is going to hurt... and that's OK. Camille, who has lived life's pain through the stories of her convent's nuns, has chosen, in declining marriage to become a nun, to reject life. Too blinded by the anticipation of pain, she has rejected what it means to live and all the highs and lows that life might bring. For Perdican, pain and ugliness are part of being human; we must accept it. He (with weighty viciousness) rebukes Camille for doing otherwise.

I love this speech. I had, upon first reading the play, absorbed it into my own philosophy. We are human, we are monsters; and I'm fine with that! I have taken a lot more from the play as well, especially Musset's writing style -- one can be tragically expressive yet incisively witty (though his other plays are perhaps better examples; they are less vicious, and I hear it theorized that this is because of his personal romantic life, which looked quite bleak while writing No Trifling with Love).

The play's rich style and tragically youthful philosophy have branded me. I hope I have conveyed something of my admiration with this post. I leave you now with other quotes from the play that have left quite an impression on me, and I hope that if you have not yet read the play, I have convinced you now to do so:
AiSii ... Neither friendship nor love should accept anything but what they can give back.

AiSiv ... Knowledge is a fine thing, lads. These trees and this meadow find a voice to teach the finest knowledge of all -- how to forget what one knows.

AiiSi ... I don't deal in pride; I care for neither its joys nor its pains.

AiiSii ... like Caesar, I would rather be first in the village than second in Rome.

AiiiSVii ... Shall I not find a sensible man here? Upon my word, when you look for one, the solitude becomes appalling.

AiiiSviii ... Why is truth itself a liar?

AiiiSViii ... We must do wrong, for we are of mankind.

January 10, 2010

Sophocles and Aesop

As a part of my lit project, I read the surviving plays of Sophocles and Aesop's fables.

Tragedy has something to teach me, but I am not yet sure what that something is.

Ancient Greek Dramatist Scorecard--
Aeschylus ... no
Aristophanes ... yes
Euripides ...
[Menander ... yes]
Sophocles ... no

Let's do this, Euripides.

I do not understand why I did not read these as a child instead of Dr. Seuss. These are so much more bizarre. Many similar stories strike on similar morals, undoubtedly leaving a fine impression on young minds. Their matter-of-fact telling is at odds with the whimsical story told. It is adorable.

Favorite fable:
The Ass and the Grasshopper.

An Ass, having heard some Grasshoppers chirping, was highly enchanted; and, desiring to possess the same charms of melody, demanded what sort of food they lived on to give them such beautiful voices. They replied, "The dew." The Ass resolved that he would only live upon dew, and in a short time died of hunger.

January 05, 2010

literature project

Some months ago, DG emailed me the following:
I'm thinking of devoting much of my reading next year (i.e. when I can start doing leisure reading again) to classic novels and plays. I want to understand the form that 20th century literature did away with. I don't suppose you'd be interested in joining me for the novels but would you be interested in looking at plays? Wait of course you would. I think some of the stuff I want to read is stuff you like - 18th and 19th century stuff, maybe going all the way back to Shakespeare? Could always go for some more Greek stuff too I suppose... it's time for this to happen. I've done the 20th century - must move backwards...
[Update. DG has decided he does not want to follow through. The following paragraph has been edited to reflect this.]
So this is our my project. We I will read classic literature. I will blog about it here. DG there. We will try to synchronize some of our readings, but will otherwise go our separate ways (and hopefully cover a lot of ground between us). DG is the worst online lit friend ever and I hope something really bad happens to him. Not so bad that it ruins his life but bad enough that he regrets abandoning this project and being an overall jerk. Watch yourself, DG. Trouble lurks in the margins of every 20th C book you read.

All posts I write will be linked below.

[lit project write-ups stopped]
J 11 The World as Will and Idea
Je 20 The Sorrows of Young Werther
Je 19 Montaigne
M 13 Homer
M 4 Callimachus
Ap 26 Homeric Hymns
Ap 23 Ovid's Fasti
Ap 18 Tibullus
Ap 9 Propertius
Ap 5 Hesiod
Ap 2 Pindar's Odes
Mr 25 Idylls of Theocritus
Mr 24 Heroides
Mr 20 Eclogues and Georgics
Mr 6 Odes of Horace
Mr 2 Lucretius On the Nature of Things
Fe 25 Aratus
Fe 23 The Aeneid of Virgil
Fe 17 Ovid's Metamorphoses
Ja 27 Euripides
Ja 10 Sophocles and Aesop

January 02, 2010

December 09 favorites

These were my favorite first-time viewings during this past month.

Some Photos in the City of Syliva (2007)

Miss Mend (1926)

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

Joris Ivens films
(of the 9 Ivens films I watched, these were the 4 I most enjoyed)

Pour le Mistral (1965)

...A Valparaiso (1963)

The Seine Meets Paris (1957)

Philips-Radio (1931)

This is my third month making this list. Had I been making these for the entire year, I could have picked my favorite first-time viewings for the whole year. How cool would that have been? Instead, all I can offer are my five favorite first-time viewings for the past three months:

1. Joris Ivens films (see above)
2. Film Ist. a girl & a gun (2009)
3. Four Seasons of Children (1939)
4. Diatoms (1968)
5. Under the Bridges (1945)

If I can keep these lists up for another year, expect a cooler list at the beginning of 2011.