A writer departs …. Does she?

We were siting around a conference table talking business when a cell phone rang. Andrzej pick it up, greeted the caller who turned out to be our mutual friend, and listened for maybe five seconds before his face went gray. I instantly realized the news. So when Andrzej turned toward me and whispered “Mrs. Janina has passed away this morning”, I was already prepared to hear it. Yet, it was the spoken confirmation of the bad news that made it irreversibly tragic, hit hard and produced a lump in my throat.

The third person in the meeting was aware of Mrs. Janina but never met her or had any emotional ties to her. Yet, she too was visibly shaken, trying to remain calm after the announcement of Andrzej. Such is the power of words which can cross the tees and dot the facts of our lives.

It so happened that for the last few weeks I have been immersed in re-reading Mrs. Janina's book “Winter in the morning”. Every morning and every evening a new section of this harrowing and so very moving account of a young girl's survival in the Warsaw ghetto and beyond assisted me in greeting the day and departing to sleep. Were the borders between literature and my life blurred? I can't say they were, but the impression produced by the book has been huge. So vivid, so powerful, so shocking and so telling were the scenes I was reading that the situations they described kept returning as flashes throughout the day. Such is the power of words, which can be the guardians of our decency and the watchdogs of our sins.

For example: at one point in the book Mrs. Janina quotes something she wrote in 1942 and shared with others cramped for days in a hiding place on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall. This Umschlagplatz real event based scene ends this way:

“For a while he could not bring himself to start, his fingers trembled. Then, suddenly, he played. It was a subtle, inspired music which sounded like a prayer, like a mighty call for help to God himself. The condemned and the butchers held their breath. They all believed the life of the gifted child was going to be saved. The boy knew it, too, and smiled. He finished with rich powerful chords of thanksgiving. There was silence again. The boy waited. The listeners waited, too. Commandant Brandt stood numb, spellbound. Raising himself, he glanced at his watch and pointed at the boy: “Same time tomorrow,” he said with a spark of amusement. “He'll play in Treblinka.” And, as if to himself, he added, “Pity!”

Those who master the words and through them offer us insight, remembrance, warnings and hopes are with us forever. Such is the power of words.


How to enable an idea

Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691)

The documentary that I am currently working on deals with some of the most intriguing social science ideas on the planet. Designing the film I remind myself of the following quote, which although describing nature painting, could apply to other aspects of visual  communication :

When painting threes and grass, position the branches, leaves and flowers only when they are absolutely indispensable. Even then, paint a few less than seem necessary to you. It is simplistic to paint branches and leaves if they re not necessary. When reproducing the pattern and draperies of attire, it is better to use but a few lines to mark them. Whatever you paint do not describe all the details. The best way is to express the full meaning through a few suggestions. A mediocre artist does not know how to convey meaning; in consequence his work - full of detailed descriptions - produces an impression that something is missing. A master’s work, containing just a few details, enables the idea to speak on its own, thus making its self manifestation possible.”       

Tosa Mitsuoki 


A modern journey

“How It Is” by Miroslaw Balka
at Tate Modern

The most amazing aspect of this installation is a roller-coaster of emotions it evokes. All seem carefully planned although allowing a space (!) for interpretations.

The first part of “the journey into It” is the most specified: walking around the cold, scary and gigantic container that almost fills up the interior of the Turbine Hall brings unpleasant associations. The structure awaits those who have to pass along its tall, menacingly metallic walls. Risen on thin polls it is ready to be transported. With us inside? I don’t even want to voice where to. Not good.

Once in front of “It” the uneasiness is augmented by the Mystery. The container acquires some transcendental, otherworldly vibe. It mostly comes from the celling light. Taking the picture above I was thinking of the “Space Odyssey 2001” and specifically about the scene of the astronauts entering underground lab with a mysterious, alien structure.

My film crew (I was there shooting a doc footage) was left unimpressed. Modern art scholars I afterwards talked with did not confirm this metaphysical take either. Clearly the ramp is meant to trigger subjective reactions. Some visitors are afraid to enter the blackness, others feel pulled into it, yet others are simply curious. Higher Intelligence? Extermination devise? A rescue mechanism? A personal challenge? All possibly bundled together.

Entering the pitch black interior initiates the third, distinctively different part of the journey. In it the danger gradually disappears replaced by relief and playfulness. This most amazing flip returns our attention to that which is the most important - the presence of the other.

Such a scenario of the encounter with “It” runs from the menace (of extermination?) through the transcendence (of the unknown) to the comfort of (the social) other. It is an uplifting progression, hopeful with its “happy ending”.

Yet I tremble envisioning what would happen if Miroslaw Balka in some future work reverses the order. Devastatingly it could turn out more realistic, more in tune with what we have recently gone through as a civilization. Unless he has already done it since the only way out of the Turbine Hall is by walking back along the steel container of “As It Is.”


Plato's cave

Screening of "Light Denied"
Photo by Pawel Soja

The whiteness of the screen comes from Greece, the original playground of Dionysus. Greece's Elefsina and Myceene are the key Greece locations I used in "Light Denied", a docu-fiction essay. The film attempts to explore the Dionysian light as a challenging, disturbing and inspiring force which although dangerous is essential to life and as such cannot be denied.

The life giving light seem to come from many sources - some mysteriously internal, others frequently disguised as synchronistic external chances or personal messages the universe patiently puts in front of our oblivious selves. It takes guts to follow the light - I suspect most of us shy away from its challenges and instead opt for living in its reflected glow. Watching a film (and making one!) can be such a trap. Unless one uses the process in an active, enriching way.

The above photo was taken during a recent screening of “Light Denied” at the 2009 International Philosophical Film Festival. Pawel Soja, a young cinematographer from the filmmaking workshop I conducted at the previous IPFF, pressed the shutter at just the right moment.

This time the light comes from the screen itself. Nietzsche (the main figure of the film) most likely lost his mind because he, rather than looking at the screen as we all do, turned his head around and stared right into the blazing abyss, the unfiltered raw power, the Dionysian fuel of life.

The Nietzschean quest was a courageous act. Can we follow him and remain sane? Can we, seating in a movie theater, turn passive spectacles into an eye, soul, mind and heart opening encounter? Can we by doing so unchain ourselves from the limitations of the Plato's caves? Can we do the same as filmmakers? Or rather: are we allowed not to do so if we want to fill the screens with significance and meaning?


Meaning and sparsity

"Light Denied" written and directed by Pawel Kuczynski

Recently I have shown and discussed “Light Denied” in several places. Two days ago the film opened the IV International Philosophical Film Festival in Cracow. The panel discussion afterwards contained many flattering remarks and was also inspirational and insightful in its critical parts.  I'll write about it soon.  

The film has some strong supporters, even enthusiasts, but also leaves some people cold. Making it I was focusing on rendering the emotions of my own nietzschean journey, perhaps with not enough consideration for the audience. As a result the film works with those who, I am guessing, share my vibe.  

Watching it again on Thursday I realized how and where to possibly include elements that would make the viewing more “user friendly”, less compressed, with possibly a broader appeal.  Should I do it? Should I attempt a “Light Denied - extended version”? Or should I just apply the lessons learned to my next project? And more specifically: 

How much is enough, how much is too much? Once we know the right amount of “stuff” that we want to convey, what's the best way to disseminate it throughout whatever it is that we are doing?

Do we need to show or only inspire, or provoke?  How much of our communication should be complete to be understood? How much of it should be easy to consume?

What is the role of a challenge in visual communication?  Whose sensitivity and understanding should we check our attempts against?

Because the festival screening took place in “Manggha”, the Japanese Art and Technology Center, I find it fitting to quote a seventeenth century Japanese master painter in regards to sparsity in visual storytelling:

In all varieties of painting, whether monochromatic or colored, make simplicity your primary rule. The pattern should rather remain unfinished. A better effect will be obtained by depicting only one third of the backdrop for the objects. If you are dealing with a poetic theme, do not describe it in full detail, but leave some meaning understated. Empty space is also a component of a picture: leave the space white and fill it with understatement.
- Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691)


A guest poet about Christmas

Forrest Curo, a poet from San Diego and the author of a short story that became one of the most insane scripts I have written just sent me his latest poem. I love it. It captures the yearning, the frustration and the hopes that visit with me every year during the Holiday Season. Here it goes:

Forrest Curo

My heart is sick of being right.
Liars, fellow-cowards, fools caught
between God and Satan, listen!
Isn't it time for
honest yearning?
Haven't we had enough
of being too wise to trust?

I can take disappointment; I cannot
endure another year's prudence.
Roll back the sky, shatter
my face with a terror of angels
but make me yours, God!

Another stillborn Christmas
and another, and another?
Wake us! I've seen enough
of reasonable expectations.

Let me babble incoherent
prophecies of mercy coming, mercy here!
with only our need as evidence

and may the dead rise singing hallelujah
before I worry anymore
what people think

More of Curo’s poems can be found at sneezingflower.blogspot.com

Despite that we have managed to cheapen so badly such a truly fantastic idea as a celebration of the birth of God - Happy Holidays Everybody!


A tear drop

Photo by Witold Krassowski

The image above advertises a just published photo album. The album, as the words in red say, is “one of its kind story about Poland during the time of transformation 89-09.”

The photographer explains the origin of the lead photo: The year is 1989. A political rally. The man bursts out crying as he listens to “simple words about what needs to be changed in the country for life to be bearable.”

The actual photo extends two figures to the left of the man. Yet it is the tear that centers the image. This single tear on the cheek summarizes two epochs: the old one ends with the tear leaving the eye. The new one beings at the same time.

My utmost respect to the forces of change that created the moment, to the man photographed and to the photographer.

More about the book: www.powidokizpolski.pl


Reading Bauman

In the November blog post on zygmuntbauman.pl (only in Polish) the author of the “Modernity and the Holocaust” writes about one of his favorite authors, Albert Camus.  The phrases jump out:  

“absurdities of our lives which we continue to make daily consciously or not”, “impenetrable mystery of human nature”, “ambiguity and ambivalence (...) perhaps defining attributes of a (truthful) portrayal of human plight (...) should not be sacrificed for the sake of logic and clarity."

I get it all and see how it could be applied to a film structure, or to the development of a screen character. But that's just the beginning. Then comes a paragraph that opens the flood of challenging questions:  

“Several years ago I was asked by an interviewer ‘to summarize my concerns in a paragraph. I could not find a better shorthand description of the purpose of a sociologist's effort to explore and record the convoluted paths of human experience, than a sentence borrowed from Camus: “There is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I should like never to be unfaithful either to the second or the first”.

This sentence is breath taking for its audacity, strength and the enormous mind fire it evokes. “Beauty” comprises narrative craft, aesthetic choices, storytelling values. “Humiliated” are the weaker ones, those who, by being minorities, oppressed or otherwise not fitting the mold, should not be subjected to the tyranny of the majority. Another words: a healthy democracy. If we serve our communities as politicians or storytellers we should be sensitive to both “beauty” and “the humiliated”. That's however is not sufficient. Bauman rises the bar higher: 

“Camus has shown (...) that ‘taking sides and sacrificing one of those two tasks for (apparently) the sake of better fulfilling the other would inevitably end in casting both tasks beyond reach. Camus placed himself, in his own words, “half way between misery and the sun” 

Does it mean that for a politician being aware of the aesthetic is not enough? That an entertainer cannot forget the ethical in his craft? It seems to say even more: Our duty is to be equally attuned to the ethical as to the aesthetic. One cannot be realized without the other.
This would indeed be a wonderful world: no vulgarity in politics, no carelessness toward the other in entertainment. Further the note enters complex territories of acceptance, rebellion, resignation and revolt. The entry, titled: “Albert Camus Or: I rebel, therefore we exist,” ends with the admonition against tyranny always ready to rise from behind good intentions of “admirable pursuits”.

This chilling reminder of the dangers of “solutions” blends in my mind with the earlier urging for the merger of the ethical with the aesthetic. I remain puzzled as the questions twirl around: Is it practically doable? Are we ready for such a high level of self awareness? Doesn't this part of our entertainment which is sick, violent and immoral diffuse the dark forces so that they don't enter the social sphere? Or does it simply add fuel to the fire?  

How in practice shall we navigate between “the beauty" and "the humiliated”? Perhaps the real “Bauman’s challenge” is more complex than I would initially want it to be.


Never enough

A voracious appetite for understanding, for communication, for seeing, for changing things, for living. Getting up after a hard knock and going again. Regardless of set backs. With empathy for those who failed. With silence when needed and a laud cry when required.

The above could be a snapshot of several individuals I have met. Intellectuals. Politicians. Activists. Artists in art or life. Those with "names" and those known only to a few around them. All passionate. All courageous. All inspiring.

Recently I found an expression of this attitude in The Guardian's profile of Zygmunt Bauman (written a few years ago by Madeleine Bunting). Here it goes:

“The real pessimism is quietism - not doing anything because nothing can be changed, argues Bauman: "Why do I write books? Why do I think? Why should I be passionate? Because things could be different, they could be made better. [My role] is to alert people to the dangers, to do something. 'Don't ever console yourself that you have done everything you could, because it's not true,' says the philosopher Levinas, who believed that you recognized a moral person as someone who does not think he or she is moral enough. That is also how we recognize a just society - a just society castigates itself that there is not enough justice in our society."


Life on Marz

A documentary by Marian Marzynski

18-26 of November, Centre for the Culture and Languages of the Jews, University of Wroclaw, Poland screens several films by Marian Marzynski, with the Emmy and Dupont Award winning filmmaker present. Such titles as “Return to Poland”, “Life on Marz: a memoir of a film teacher”, “A Jewish Mother”, “Shtetl”, “Anya”, “A Jew among the Germans” and “Settlement” can be seen there.

Get yourself to Wroclaw for this event or seek other opportunities to watch the Marzynski’s work and perhaps even meet him. (He resides in Boston and occasionally lectures around the US.) In addition to being a great documentarian he is also an inspirational film teacher.

My rave recommendation to seek contact with Marz comes from experience: years ago, being his assistant powerfully influenced the way I see a documentary film. Here are a few things I learned from him.

Marz’s example proved merit of an openly personal approach in telling a story. He did not shy from putting himself into the frame. His strong presence filtered a subject matter and in doing so made it personable and therefore accessible.

Working with a DP Marz insisted to cover a scene with a continues moving shot. Such technique was quite demanding on whoever operated the camera. It pushed an operator to think fast in editorial and therefore conceptual terms while observing the scene, framing, managing focus and keeping the shot steady (without a steadycam). Astonishingly, Marz managed to convey this approach without ever touching the camera. It worked. The Marz’s “cinematographers stable” includes names with Oscar nominations for documentary cinematography. I was never a cinematographer but being often responsible for shooting things for Marz’s Governors State University classes put me in the training and left a strong imprint on my filmmaking style.

Another lesson of Marz had to do with the heart of his stories: diving into our past to embrace the forces that have created us in a primal way.

And finally his passion for teaching and for documentary making: here is a quote from Marz’s book “A Polish-Jewish dream book”:

“Who to make films for? For oneself? For the public? Perhaps only for the intelligent ones? Wouldn’t I want to touch the millions? Here’s my answer: (I want to make films) for those who see more than I would want to show”.

It is a puzzling quote which upon reflection makes perfect sense. We make films to dialog with others, to present our points of view and to hear responses. The responses are intriguing if they bring out a new and true aspect of that which we originally presented. In this way the screen becomes a facilitator for mutual betterment. I like that.


Dialoguing with John (1)


“Done with the elegant incisiveness” you write

which I read with the utmost surprise.

Honestly - this attempt of mine to talk about

a subject barely felt,

only suspected and half guessed,

half perceived through the veil

of a collective refusal to even admit it could exist,

and my own self doubt and fear,

was undertaken with hesitant small steps

and much hesitation.

It still shakes in my hands

like a home made soft jello

with no plate underneath.

Yet I extend it outward,

feeling a bit like a cheat

since I am using a screen as a plate

to solidify that, which can’t be solid to stay alive

to keep movable that, which can be presented

only when captured and frozen by images and sounds.


The “Sacrifice” (3) remake

“The Banishment” written by William Saroyan (book),
Artyom Melumian (script), dir: Andrei Zvyagintsev

How to analyze a great directorial talent? Luckily for those of us who like to ponder the nature of things, narrative achievements in cinema usually inspire works that try to follow them. When comparing the two films in which one is trying to achieve the mastery of its inspiration we get the tools for study what makes a director great.

One of them I call “the preposterousness test.”

It can be applied to “The Banishment” which is a disguised attempt to remake “The Sacrifice” by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarities are big and small, the internal and the superficial. In "The Banishment", as in the “Sacrifice”, the hero is called Alexander. As in the original we’ve got a house in the country and a mailman - this time however relegated to a lesser part. There are also attempts to copy visuals from the original. One long (LONG!) shot of water floating down hill is a particularly blatant try. Blatant and painful to watch. (Otherwise the film is beautifully photographed.) Why one works and another doesn't could be a treatise in itself.

Visually, from the first image of a slow camera move featuring a solitary tree in a barren landscape (the frame above) we know this is going to be a dialog with “The Sacrifice”, which opens with a similar image and the same camera move. But Zvyagintsev is too smart to copy the Tarkovsky’s image exactly. He stages different action around the tree and builds up a different rhythm for the first few minutes. Yet, this first image establishes an alchemical connection between the films.

The most important commonality however comes from the stories told: both films are about the sacrifice needed to save our hypocritical lives. To carry out the sacrificial deed Tarkovsky chooses Alexander, Zvyagintsev flips the story inside out and selects Alexander’s wife.

So what's "the preposterous test?" It compares the abilities to narrate a truly insane and unrealistic element of a story. A master is able to validate and present as true a genuinely absurd in a narrative. When a lesser storyteller attempts a similar action the viewers go “hehhh?", “how come?,” “well, I don’t know about that”. In short, they don’t buy the way a preposterous element is presented.

Such is the case in these two films. Zvyagintsev does not convince that the sacrifice in his film is psychologically plausible (unless the woman is mentally ill, which would undermine the whole point.) It is a pity, since the beautiful Maria Bonnevie does an amazing job. Tarkovsky on the other hand pulls off the impossible: in his film, for the sake of sacrifice, time gets reversed as the greatest gift. The director uses many tricks to accomplish this. Since I have already mentioned one, the bicycle, let me conclude with a quote from Saroyan, the man whose writing inspired “The Banishment” and who, via such a strange connection, could shake hands with Tarkovsky. Something tells me that these two, although so different in their styles and a sense of humor (Tarkovsky has none), would really hit it off, as they seem to be spiritual cousins.

First of all, my bikes were always rebuilt second-hand bikes. They were lean, hard, tough, swift, and designed for usage. I rode them with speed and style. I found out a great deal about style form riding them. Style in writing, I mean. Style in everything. I did not ride for pleasure. I rode to get somewhere, and I don't mean from the house on San Benito Avenue in Fresno to the public Library there.'
- William Saroyan, "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills"


The time bicycle - Sacrifice (2)

"Sacrifice” written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

So we’ve been misbehaving. In ways small and big, or is it the other way around? It does not matter anymore how it started and what started it: the missiles have been lunched. What’s left is to cover your head with a sheet. Unless you are around Otto who posses the Knowledge. He knows where to go, how to get there and what to do. He also knows who should embark on the quest. First things first: where to go:

“(...) Prophetic dreams (...) come to me from the transcendent word, from beyond. (...) What is certain is that up there time is reversible. Which proves to me that time and space only exist in the material incarnation. Time is not objective.” - Andrei Tarkovsky talking to Thomas Johnson, 1986

That’s clear and simple. We have got to go to the dreamworld. No surprise here: the Australian aborigines, the Amazonian ayahuasca consuming tribes and others much smarter than us have known it forever. They revered the process as sacred and dangerous. Alexander senses the high stakes of the game: he takes a pistol with him.

How do we get there? By bicycle, naturlich!

Heaven forbid. I hardly ever think. It’s bad for my health...

But it must be impossible to write,
if you’re thinking only of success or failure when you do.

Naturlich! But on the other hand
if nobody reads me in a hundred years’ time,
then why bother writing at all?


Time again. The passage of time as the motivator of our actions. Anyway, back to the “Sacrifice.” A magical bicycle is the vehicle that can save us. Only Maria knows how to ride it with grace. She does so at the end of the film, when the peace is already restored. At the beginning Otto rides it clumsily. Later, Alexander falls off it riding on a straight country path. Why does he fall? Because it the secret vehicle, impossible to master by a mere human.

The way Tarkovsky stops and reverses the time is the most amazing directorial maneuver in this film. Note the absence of any vulgar film time tricks. Formwise, all is based on rhythm, light and sound.

Tarkovsky wanted to name the script “Eternal Return”. Even though the Nietzsche’s eternal return is talked about and the Boy for a moment becomes the Dwarf, the key character in the Nietzschean metaphor of the Now, this is not a film about the strive to find the eternity in the Moment. It is rather about old, plain reversal of time, or rather of our smallness.

Look at the faces of the family members “the morning after”. To them nothing has happened and yet they seemed to have undergone a powerful inner transformation. The scales have dropped off their eyes. The Doctor for example announces that he wants to go to Australia because he is “tired of this perversion”. Their small (yet so powerful in their consequences) lies have become unbearable. That’s one more reason Alexander has to keep his end of the bargain.

OK, we know where to go and how to get there. Now comes the question what to do.

The answer is the only one possible: love.

Finally, who should do the loving?

For the sake of peace, the Boy, the tree and the future

- it should be you!


A case nr. 285 - Sacrifice

"Sacrifice", written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The frame above starts the key shot in "Sacrifice." In a moment the camera will pan down and reveal a miniature of the house behind Alexander’s head. The sudden change of perspective and scale produces an unnerving, dizzying feeling. It is as if we were suddenly catapulted over the real house.

Alexander is perplexed. Maria (the one that, as we learn later, has magical powers, and who is the only one capable of reversing the time) explains that the model was done by the Boy and Otto as a gift for Alexander, “but don’t give me away, Mr. Alexander.”

The Boy and Otto make a strange pair: the opening scene has them already together, literally circling Alexander. The Boy is the innocence, openness and the future personified, Otto is the messenger from “the other side”, fittingly he works as a postman (!) and is the only character who understands and to some degree controls the link with the other reality, the reality that causes strange, paranormal occurrences in our world. Otto collects them: to date he’s got 284 cases.

With the camera tilt down, the case number 285 has just begun its course, even thought Alexander does not know it. Neither does Otto but luckily for us all he figures it out just in time. Maria, although possessing the magical force, does not know what’s going on.

Such is the set up on this planet: there are those who understand but are not able to produce physical results, and there are those who can make things happen but need help in knowing when and with whom (and to whom?) to apply their force. In between these two groups there are mere mortals, the semi blind Alexanders, who, according to Tarkovsky, need to make an offering of what’s the dearest to them to keep calamities at bay. Such action proves their highest humanity. Hmmm. Being a “good nietzschean”, as my friend Alan Rosenberg from “Light Denied” would say, I am not crazy about such an interpretation, nevertheless the film's directorial brilliance is awe inducing.

So with the shot above the alchemical spectacle of the sacrifice begins: immediately afterwards a nuclear war starts, as if to trigger the transformation of the hero. To save everybody Alexander has to embark on a journey to conquer time.

Later: on Tarkovsky’s eternal return.



28 years ago, to the day, I arrived in the United States. Back then going anywhere from Eastern Europe was a major crossing. Coming to America was arriving at the best place on the planet.

To this day I remember minute by minute of my first American hour. It consisted mostly of the (surreal to me) drive from JFK to a friendly home in New Jersey.

The dreamy sequence of moving, slow motion (that's the free airline booze effect) images of night lights, amazing highway announcements, strange road signs, suburban homes (too clean, pretty and large to be real) is my first American memory.

During the drive a question uttered by my host (a wise, European escapee) turned out to be prophetic.

John turned from the front seat (Mary, his wife was driving), locked his eyes on me and asked - “So Pawel, did you come here to stay for good?” The question shocked me. I never allowed myself to voice such a thought. He did it for me. I mumbled some insignificant, stupid answer. However, at this moment something had pierced through and we both realized the truth.

John and Mary, I bow to you in my eternal gratitude. For your compassion, understanding and help. You will remain forever in the top of my Book of Life. Wherever you are, God bless you both!


A Missing Self

Mikhail Epstein in “A Missing Self”

Didn’t I say “I am not ever again making a documentary project without a script”? Yes, I did. From now on I’ll really do it right: write a script first (starting with an outline!), eat my oatmeal, exercise daily and be always present and accounted for. Yeah, right.

Still, the project is done. And I like it! I must have grew attached to it during the long process of editing. It took months and months to lock its final 29 minutes. As always I tortured my students, friends and loved ones with multiple versions of the emerging film. Bless you all for patience and putting up with my process.

This essayistic documentary riff on identity, cultural boundaries and ways to transcend them takes its philosophical cue from Mikhail Epstein’s concept of transculture. Here is a video clip with Mikhail. It is taking almost 100 years for culture and psychology to catch up with the noncontinuity, noncasuality, nonlocality model of reality formulated by modern physics at the beginning of the XX century.

Anyway, “A Missing Self” is a companion to "The Phenomenology of Truth." Both projects marvel about the ways we seek the truth. While "The Phenomenology..." deals with our perception of the outside world, "Missing" attempts to address the way we see our own selves.

The art piece that’s the center of “A Missing Self” comes from a Japanese performer who has already appeared in “The Phenomenology”.

The second layer of the film comes from an international philosophical conference in Hiroshima. The material represents wealth of ideas, scenes and personalities which - together with other similar archives of mine - waits for the right circumstances to blossom into some philosophical “Gone with the wind” documentary. Until that happens, snippets are used here and there. “A Missing Self” is such an occurrence.

I regret that I had to limit the number of contributors and only took short lines from their talks. These quotes are used in a highly selective an arbitrary fashion, mostly out of their original contexts. The same is true about the performance piece. Therefore any conceptual shortcomings in either material are solely mine. At the same time the film's value is overwhelmingly due to the performer, the philosophers and the people I met during the production. Thank you all.

More info about the film.


Are you dangerous?

Stanislav Grof, MD

In his lecture “The Future of Psychology” Grof, an accomplished psychiatrist and a researcher of consciousness, offers a view of the world that is an alternative to the prevailing mechanistic, industrial, “scientific” reality. In this new (or old but forgotten) paradigm the consciousness is not only separate from the brain but also superior to it. Clearly, medical, therapeutic, social and cultural implications of such a stand are enormous. For example: Grof’s work on para-natal and pre-natal trauma offers a new insight into wars and other social calamities.

To those who are already shrugging their shoulders with dismissal, here are the words of Vaclav Havel as he presented Grof with the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation Vision 97 Award:

“The Foundation also tries – in the spirit of its name - to orient itself in the direction of what in a certain way points to the future, what is – I would say – farsighted, what transcends the horizon of momentary attractive opportunities, but may not be appreciated and validated until some years pass. What is in a certain way visionary and pioneering.

It is a risky endeavor, because it usually has two groups of opponents. Perhaps not directly opponents, but two groups of dangerous people. One group consists of the hard scientistic traditionalists, who are unable to imagine that modern science could transcend its own boundaries and traditional paradigms; they engage in a great determined fight against that which eludes their grasp. It is interesting that their fight undertaken in the name of rationality often reaches fanatic proportions; they tend to have a peculiar obsessive gleam in their eyes.

The other group that is dangerous, even though probably less, consists of a wide range of madmen, sectarians, and members of various strange fringe groups wanting to attach themselves, by their little claws, to this kind of scientific exploration, so that they could test and validate their various, more or less interesting, delusions.“

To the Havel’s list I would add a third category: religious fanatics and various warriors of “I have the only correct way to perceive The Mystery and if you don’t follow my dogma you are clearly in cahoots with evil.”

I hope you do not belong to any of these groups. If you do and somehow are reading this line - hang on - you have a chance of liberating yourself. Just open your eyes, ears, heart and mind. Do not fall into the “deaf ears madness”, which is the inability to hear what the universe constantly attempts to reveal to us. Constantly, as in “all the time.” This includes now.


A watercolor demon of the past (1)

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920

What is the facial expression of the above figure? Is it fear or focused concentration? Is the figure's body language that of horror and stepping back or rather of getting ready to step forward?

The prevailing way of reading the image comes from the following text: "There is a picture by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus. In it, an angel is depicted who appears, as if trying to distance himself from something that he stares at. His eyes and mouth gape wide, his wings are stressed to their limit. The Angel of History must look this way; he has turned to face the past. Where we see a constant chain of events, he sees only a single catastrophe incessantly piling ruin upon ruin and hurling them at his feet." - Walter Benjamin, “On the concept of history”, 1940

Benjamin had more than enough reasons to see the world in such terms. Nothing was making sense around him, the horror was closing on Europe and on him personally. (Shortly after writing these words he committed suicide on the French-Spanish border, while trying to escape to America.)

Seventy years later, some still see this image through the Benjamin’s glasses to illustrate the unpredictability and cruelty of History to us. Recently in “The Art of Life” by Zygmunt Bauman, (2008) I have found a more balanced approach: (My translation from a Polish edition) “People of that epoch, like the Angel of History, from the Paul Klee’s painting, with its memorable commentary by Walter Benjamin, stared in horror at the past and present cruelties. Terrified by what they saw - the sea of blood and human suffering - they were escaping into the past. The force of rejection was stronger to them than the force of attraction. It was not a vision of a happiness that pulled them toward the future, it was rather a sight of pain and misfortune that pushed them away from the past.” (This quote appears in the context of commenting on the ideas of Jean-Claude Michea)

Encouraged by Bauman's clear distinction between the past and the now, I wonder how can we honor and respect the cry of the victims without giving power to their persecutors. Don’t we need to constantly dust off our metaphors? How can we remember, yet not allow the horror of the past to rule over our present? I also wonder about the "angelic" aspect of the figure Paul Klee drew. Was it an angel or a demon? What should it be to us?

A watercolor demon of the past (2)


The tense watercolor figure watches things closely.
Is everything ready? Will the evil go as planned?
The figure is full of intention, precision, anticipation,
perhaps curiosity about how the humans
will take the calamity he prepares.

The chicken legs, the fire like hair, the burning rod on his chest.
This devil does not retreat, his wings spread to bring in the fury.
To initiate the storm. To envelope all in flame.

Where is the future? In front or behind him?
Is he stepping forward or stepping back?
Is he an evil demon, or the Angel of History? Perhaps both.
If we allow him to take over History, the evil will triumph.
It will continue its poisonous, hypnotic song:

"No hope in sight.
The forces above us
are so strong that even
the History Angel backs off.
How could weak humans
withstand upcoming calamities?
No hope in sight.
The bad approaches,
it can’t be avoided.
The Angel steps back in horror.
Alas, we are off the hook.
No hope in sight."

Angelus Novus, aren’t you glad?
They think you are terrified of the past
while actually you are in the act of destruction,
stepping forward. How clever of you!
They think your “wings are stressed to their limits”
while you haven’t even begun to extend them.

Angelus, I will not allow your devastating song to continue.
We are not powerless. History does not paralyze forever.
You will not be its metaphor.
We are in charge. Not demons. History is us.


Jumping over shortcomings

Rachel Bilson in “Jumper”
written by David S. Goyer, Jim Uhis, Simon Knberg,
Steven Gould (novel). Directed by Doug Liman

A superhero popcorn flick formula is a great one: it allows for major mishaps and still more often than not is a lot of fun and brings in the dough. In short if you want to jump over shortcomings of a narrative, you better be a superhero. Or at least write about one.

“Jumper” is such a case: a lame film which nevertheless made 3 times its budget in the box office. The franchise (planned from the beginning) is almost certain. What’s the reason for the success? A calculated casting? A fresh premise? Special effects? Effective marketing? Probably all of the above and perhaps something to do with a superhero himself.

What is a superhero? It is an extreme exercise in transcending human limits. A break with our limitations, it is the strongest role playing game available for the weak, limited, confined, ineffective, cowardly and tired. In short, for us all.

“Jumper” punches up a basic superhero trait: being able to quickly move from place to place. This skill is taken to the limit: the space collapses at will and the hero acquires the ability to appear and disappear as well as to switch locations in an instant. In its popcorn movie style, this concept somehow corresponds to the recently mounting global, cultural and psycho-social suspicion that perhaps things are more together than they are apart, that our being in the world is not as singular in time and space as we have previously thought. Maybe this is the upcoming major paradigm shift that we all subconsciously suspect to appear anytime soon. A shift that we sense and await for with anticipation and trembling.

The film cost 80 million and took 100 days to shoot (!) It was developed in a workshop-during- the-production method of constant rewrites and re-shoots, typical to Doug Liman already on his previous (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) film. “He shoots until literally the money and the lights go out,” (the quotes are from memory) disclose the writers of Jumper when talking on the “Creative Screenwriting” magazine podcast. They voice it also on the dvd commentary track.

“We decided to cut out the boring parts” they say. Apparently the early drafts fleshed out the backstory and gave more insight into the family life of the main character. They showed him arriving at certain decisions. For example it took him 4 scenes to ask the girl to fly with him to Rome for the weekend. On the screen he meets the girl and bum... asks her out. “We realized we didn’t need all this time because as a jumper he lives a condensed life.”

The writers also talk about ‘humanizing the hero.” These two premises - humanizing a superhero character and devoiding him of the time needed to develop his rationale do not easily go together.

The writers band over backward not to talk themselves out of sequels. It is however clear that that they have fallen victims of some external forces: be it a towering personality of the director, or the studio. If you watch the film all sorts of character, plot points and structure questions come up. You wonder what’s going on, don’t they know this is not working? When listening to them talk you realize all the ideas that would make this story stronger and better were written and considered. Some even shot. Finally all were rejected. So of course they know how to design a story. Some other force knows better what will lure people to buy tickets. I do not believe in “the dumber the better” option for a popcorn movie. The 18-25 target is smart and sophisticated enough to consume complex stories. So what’s going on here?

Ironically, the hope is in the sequel. (The producers apparently convinced the great Diane Lane to play the mother promising her a strong character, which is yet to come.) Perhaps a sequel will allow to develop the superhero and his parents connection, which in its darkness, drama and twists potentially could rival the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader model.

Bottom line? Putting aside the complains about the missing opportunities this sucker will line up to buy a ticket for Jumper 2 even if it is as half baked as the original. Just to see what’s next. Wait, let’s be honest here: in actuality - to jump myself.


Filmmaker with a heart

Michael Moore

Did you know that Michael Moore at the age of 18 became the youngest person elected for a public office in the United States? That happened a few months after a new law allowing the 18 year olds to vote and be elected came into effect. Moore, still in high school, run for a school board. His campaign was about firing a school principal. When he got elected he became the boss of his school director! Amazing, isn’t it?

It took 20 signatures to put him on the ballot. That’s why he says: “it takes very little to produce something significant in politics. So little is need to produce a lot.”

Another amazing thing: there is a web site put up against Michael Moore. The owners of this site had a health problem and no health insurance. Moore unanimously sent them 12 thousand dollars and only disclosed it much later, just before the premiere of “Sicko”. The idea was “we should threat them the way they don’t treat us.”

The above info is taken from the (great) Creative Screenwriting podcast series.


Tragic memory (2): the Bagiński way.

“Hardkor 44” by Tomasz Bagiński

Tomasz Bagiński, of the Oscar nominated animated short “The Cathedral,” plans to blend actors with animation (in a “300” and “Sin City” fashion) to retell the story of the Warsaw 1944 Uprising in a feature length film “Hardkor 44.” In this project Germans will be portrayed as (literally) evil cyborgs and Polish fighters will be beautiful, smiling, resembling heros from American comic books.


Tragic memory: is Tarantino right?

“Memory of Shoah”
Publishing House Officyna, Lodz 2009

This 900 pages collection of essays edited by Tomasz Majewski and Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska has several sections. One of which, “Memory through art,” is edited by Alicja Kuczyńska, also a contributor. Even though I do not know how my Mom would react to the film (I liked the script but was dissipated by its screen version) her remarks introducing the art section seem to offer some validation to the wild concept of “Inglorious Basterds,” and, what’s more important, clarify the landscape of tragic memory.

Here is my riff on her thoughts:

That which was – changes. With passing time, that which was reveals less of its original self and instead increases its unknown territory. In hugely traumatic events which reside in our memory the ratio between the “known” and the “unknown” changes with time. Yet their total space stays the same.

Within this space, the “unknown” still has power. It exists as a void, a moral wound, a cry of souls, as something that is not given a proper presence. The fact that the memory fades does not remove its traumatic weight from our collective or individual subconsciousness.

Additionally traditional narrative techniques are running out their courses. The narrative becomes anti-narrative, new materials appears, new spheres for artistic expressions emerge and with them new sides of a tragic event or a traumatic issue from the past are brought forth.

If the sphere of “memory” needs to be constantly adjusted and filled with the new and if the tools are changing, aren’t we pushed to seek new ways to deal with the horror of the past?

Don’t latest attempts in the new media, new art, result in treating the past as a layer of the present? Meanings multiply, their sensuous dimensions change. There is a transition from representation to interpretation. There is a push to favor more existential, broader approach. In a generational change the witnesses are slowly being replaced by the “memory guardians,” who unavoidably change the transmission of the message. To carry the pain, they have to make it personal, with new techniques and new sensitivities.

The trauma of the horrors experienced by our grandparents is always present. If it’s not voiced and remains “blank” or unexpressed, it does not mean it does not exist. If we don’t diffuse its cry the trauma can explode and create additional damage. Art can attempt to handle those “blank” tragic memory regions and by doing so help it (and us) to heal. The tragic memory does not seek the restitution of the past. It wants to negate it. If so, isn’t the alternative, victorious past of “Inglorious Basterds” a step in the right direction? (Even if this particular attempt is shallow.) Furthermore, can we seek catharsis changing the outcome of a past horror? Can we use our imagination to heal the wounds?


Remake of “Basterds” needed.

Weird, isn't it? "Inglorious Basterds"
premiering at The Cannes Film Festival.

I am going to rant, but first let me say that I really like the idea of a furious, wild and historically untrue screen revenge bestowed upon the Nazis. The pain and the horror they caused are around us forever. We have to process it and there must be more than one way to do it. The over the top, cartoonish style could be certainly one manner of dealing with the issue. If done right, that is.

Most of the time however, regardless of style and subject, things are not done right. We consume half baked goods and get high on sour wine. Being as starved as we are justifies our devouring of those clumsily prepared dishes we call films. Yet it does not justify sloppiness and haste of their cooks. Aren’t the entries most often deep fried and over-sugared? This fast food for human psyche clogs up arteries of our dignity, freedom and advancement. Yes, it’s that serious.

Let’s take a recent example of the obviously tired and absent minded cook (Quentin Tarantino), who previously delighted us with the most wonderful and innovate dishes. This time working with a promising recipe, he clearly allowed it to undercook. As a result we got a good looking thing with mostly uneatable interior.

Before we move to the style: there is the whole discussion about “ethical dilemma” of violence in the film. This astounds me. Do you cafe late drinkers really debate if that’s okay to cheer fictitious killings of the Nazis? Am I hearing it right? We are talking the killing in which Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, their whores, flunkies, the entire entourage perish. The war ends sooner. Yet, you feel “uneasy”? You feel that’s “not morally right” to equate the Nazis’ cheering their soldier/actor killing our people on screen with us cheering when our people massacre on screen the Nazis. Are you serious? Would you like me to teleport you back in time?

Yes, let's the motherfuckers die. In reality and in our collective psyche. Let’s cheer these killings. Perhaps doing so will offer some consolation. Thanks Quentin for that.

It’s just that there is something missing in the delivery. What could have been inspired and cathartic appears juvenile, rushed, superficial. With not enough fire. Not enough balls. The entire story is with not enough heart. Another luck warm dish pretending to be something else. We eat it up because there is nothing else in this category. That’s why I am postulating an instant remake.

Here is my dream set up for such a production: The script stays as originally written, not as presented on screen. The script's second chapter based on flashbacks is an audacious formal experiment. Little of it remains on screen. What has happened? Also what has happened to Donny Donowitz before the war scenes? They were great. They and other omissions (like the speech of Landa that Shosanna could become “a president of the United States”) on paper nicely punched up craziness, and - in case of Donny Donowitz provided more passion and heart. More character. How come the most interesting characters in this flick belong to the Germans? Something is not right.

To ensue that the film has a soul, I would ask Edward Zwick and Pieter Jan Brugge of “Defiance” to produce. (Contrary to many, I think that the “Defiance” is a great film. It gives a solid emotional and cleansing ride, which is missing in “Basterds.”) Directing should go to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor of “Crank: Hight Voltage.” This wonderful and absolutely insane flick has all the kicks, fury, preposterousness and aliveness needed to make the "Basterds" script truly rise. (Yes, I am aware of the aesthetic differences between the restrain of the QT style, and the madness of "Crank". Yet, a blend of the two is is possible, energy is transferable.)

Just for the record: otherwise I am a big fan of Tarantino. I am writing this the day after I finished conducting a filmmaking workshop which ended with “Pulp Fiction,” in my book one of the best films ever.


Marlan’s novel

Marlan Warren, my ex-wife (of a 10 year long marriage), has just put on scribd.com her novel “Naked Roadmaps for the Sexually Challenged.” The book, set in the mid nineties, with the O.J. trial in the background and plenty of LA vibe, describes a hot romance of a just divorced Los Angeles woman. There's humor (“cat doing backstrokes” is my favorite), steamy sex and a captivating and multi dimensional main character - Carrie.

The story beings after Carrie, a writer and a filmmaker, after a 10 year long marriage has left Boris, also a filmmaker. Boris is a sociopath, self-absorbed, intense and absolutely obnoxious asshole from Russia. The jerk is so well drawn that your skin cringes at the very mention of him. (Marlan, I understand everything, but ... a Russian? Named ... Boris? How could you!)

Luckily for me Boris provides just an emotional springboard for Carrie’s new love affair and mostly throws his despicable self in the background, appearing less and less as the novel progresses.

It is a great read, a page turner. I am very happy for Marlan and wish her a huge success with this piece and with a film adaptation which should follow as the novel is so cinematic.

Later: on Marlan’s narrative skills which resulted in such sparkling and effortless prose. However, be not fooled by its ease. Her novel (OK, part memoir), years in the works, is carefully, precisely and cleverly crafted. Also later: on the benefits of seeing yourself as a true villain from hell. No, marrying a great writer and being a jerk to her is not the only way to get there. I’ll show you how to do it - all by yourself.

For now however, here is the link to the book. I highly recommend it.


Feedback, kindness and self evaluation.

There are already 427 comments to the hilarious “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” Josh Olson’s blog entry in the Village Voice . I’ve read the first 380 or so. Clearly the writing has hit a nerve. The author plays a furious pro who has to deal with the barrage of help requests from various “civilians” (link)

I’d like to suggest that, contrary to the heated discussion, the issue is not so much about how to break into the industry, whether to pester the insiders with (to put it gently) undiscovered work, or to what extend (if at all) the pros should be kind to those who approach them seeking help. The real question beneath the “I will not read...” controversy deals with two aspects of our attempts to communicate with others.

The first aspect has to do with self-evaluation. We don’t immediately see our mistakes. They become clear to us only over time. Teaching is a controlled process that helps to collapse or shorten time needed to see our shortcomings. In life this teaching is called maturing. For some it takes a lifetime. In film it takes years or decades. On each step of this life/craft journey most of us think we have already reached understanding or being “good at something”. Time passes and we learn that we were wrong.

When we erroneously think we “know” we attempt to share our “scripts”. Yet they are not ready. How can we master the difficult skill of self-evaluation so that we don’t hurt others by immature life decisions or don’t submit junk scripts? How can we step outside and really see the fruits of our actions or “artistic” labor? It is almost impossible without a kind help from “the other.” Unfortunately no formula exists how to seek this help. Each case requires special handling and enough sensitivity so we don’t torture others with assaults on their time and good will.

The second aspect deals with difficulties of being a saint. Only a saint can fully let go of anger and frustration when dealing with a hopeless case of ignorance or stupidity, usually totally blind to reasoning. If we know something that “the other” does not, most of the time there is no way to communicate it to “the other.” Experience is not transferable. Neither in life nor in the arts. Unless of course the listener is ready to hear the speaker, which happens so rarely that it justifies “I will not read your fucking script” rant. That's why in martial arts the teacher appears only when the student is ready.

Synchronistically, among the comments there is one that mentions Eric Roth as an example of a thoughtful, emphatic behavior toward “a civilian” who wasn’t even seeking “a Hollywood connection.” The anecdote points to something that I tried to address in my previous entry about a possible source of the effectiveness of Roth’s screenwriting.


The power of personal

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord,
from a short story by Francis Scott Fitzgerald
directed by David Fincher

Hearing Eric Roth (another great podcast from the creative screenwriting series) makes clear that the success of this movie comes also from the writer sharing his very intimate emotions and experiences. “It’s my most personal work” he says. Preparing for the film he and David Fincher wondered “who’s going to finance a 150 million film about death.”

I’m curious - says Daisy on her death bed. Roth reveals it is a line of his mother just before her final journey. The line strangely corresponds with the Fitzgerald's short story title, the basis for the film.

Roth's talk about screenwriting (Munich, Forrest Gump, The Insider) reveals other examples of treating subjects "from within". He is sincere and serious (not that he doesn’t have a sense of humor.) His depth seems an important element of his writing talent. He has been around, knows the value of things and is equipped with the powerful craft. All that makes him so valuable to great directors: Mann, Spielberg, Fincher. They listen to him carefully, since they all have the inner radar for truth. Apparently his scripts are mostly shot as written, which is the highest complement from the industry.


Intent versus structure

The cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 1920.
Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer.
Directed by Robert Wienne

The case: the film, told in flashbacks, is about Francis who discovers that a magician Caligari is behind bloody murders. Francis tracks Caligari to the insane asylum where Caligari works as the head doctor. Francis accuses Caligari. Then .....

The perception: Francis ends up himself in the asylum put there by Caligari to ridicule his accusations as delusions. (A sane perceptiveness loses to the brutal system. Not unlike in “One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest.”)

The study: the watching over, I started reading about the flick and learned that the ending was supposed to reveal that from the beginning Francis was the patient of the insane asylum, and Caligari was in fact his doctor. A good doctor. The film was taking place inside a sick mind and describe a delusion.

I got alarmed! Can’t I get a simple, classic story right? I kept reading and found some consolation: wikipedia announced: “The producers, who wanted a less macabre ending, imposed upon the director the idea that everything turns out to be Francis' delusion. The original story made it clear that Caligari (...) was responsible for a number of deaths.”

Alas, the intent of the writers was so clear and strong that it has gotten into this viewer and has completely taken over his perception of the entire story including the imposed ending and some other third act sequences (like arresting of Dr. Caligari - which in my interpretation could be the only fantasy in the film).

More reading revealed that I wasn’t alone in my perception, the ending was ambiguous or suspicious to many. The original starting point of the story, backed up by the brilliant direction and the production design, prevailed. (What an absolutely fantastic idea to paint light and shadows on the already distorted walls! Not to mention other expressionistic tricks everybody describes.)

The conclusion: the intention is often stronger than structure. Visionary directing can totally alter the story. Or: the screenplay structure rules only so much. It can be changed with the help of visceral, emotional images.




The hours that you spend in this world

are few and between.

The rest of your time

you are not here,

dreaming, waiting,

preparing to dip yourself into this reality

floating somewhere near

yet not here

disconnected, alien, alone

only occasionally being lured back

by the mercifully thrown rope

of somebody’s stare,

preferably indicating interest,

but in reality

any movement of

any emotion

will do

for you to be back


where you visit so



The ladder

In response to the “Mirror image” (Zwierciadlo) a poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz.

The ladder

Maestro Tadeusz, I respectfully disagree

with your sad poem

about the needless noise

of questions and answers

that lead to the unavoidable silence.

Questions pile up

one upon another.

All needed, all building a structure upon which

one has to keep climbing up

not so much as to reach above the darkness

that /I must reluctantly agree / bits our ankles

but to continue upward not missing a bar.

A noble definition of a human being:

he who does not skip a step.

A ladder of questions. And answers. And questions.

Once it commences, the climb cannot be stopped

since it would precipitate the fall.

That’s the rule only a few hear and practice.

Rembrandt’s old face is a necessary coda

before his next movement can begin itself

in somebody standing in front of his painting,

or just writing about it.

Maestro, silence does not have to indicate

emptiness and despair. Please.

It is rather a gathering of energy

ready to be experienced

on the climb up,


and so human.


The rooster of Mr. Welles

Citizen Kane
written by Joseph Mankiewicz and Orson Welles,
directed by Orson Welles

Some say that "Citizen Kane" with all its visual brilliance is one dimensional in psychological characterization. I would attempt to counter such an accusation with the analysis of the script (which is quite innovative even today), but for now will only point to a single directorial moment which impressed me during a recent big screen re-watching of the film.

The set up:
We are in Xanadu. Susan Alexander, the untalented singer and the abused wife, announces that she is leaving Kane. His plea for her to stay is rejected. He won’t have his way this time.

The take:
The camera shoots toward the floor to the ceiling terrace opening with the ocean behind. A darkly dressed Eastern European butler, who recalls this moment, is positioned on the left. On the right, a huge white rooster, almost obstructing the frame, sits disquietingly close to the lens. With a laud creek the bird flies away a second before Susan Alexander furiously enters the frame and follows the rooster.

The charge:
With the distant ocean, unexpected frame organization, the surprising bird, sudden movements, perspective changes and intense tonality contrast, this is the most surreal take in the entire film. Yet, it also oozes strange truth about a huge emotional turmoil of the moment. It feels as if suddenly some mysterious and very disquieting window into the psyche of the characters has been opened. The window rarely encountered. The playful rooster-shadow on the wall from their first meeting has gone mad and aggressive. The marriage is dead. The pain is unprocessed and blinding for the both of them.

The follow up:
In the next moment, Kane, who in a few takes will explode furiously demolishing a room, steps back. He is positioned against the wall that is decorated with .... barely visible roosters.

If the white rooster take isn’t the great directorial moment in the history of screen psychology than what is?


Phenomenology of Truth

Krzysztof Janczar as professor Lewinski
and Sakiko Yamaoka as the Performer
in "Phenomenology of Truth",

written and directed by Pawel Kuczynski

In the volume 5 of “Melee, a quarterly of philosophy and culture” there is a transcript of a discussion that took place after the premiere screening of the “Phenomenology of Truth”, a 30 min. narrative short starring Krzysztof Janczar as professor Feliks Lewinski and Sakiko Yamaoka as the Performer. Both Sakiko and Krzysztof did amazing jobs in this totally fictitious story. Another words: screen characters have nothing in common with the real lives of the actors.

The December 2008 discussion took place in Manggha, the Center for the Japanese Art and Technology, Cracow, Poland. (Melee hit the polish bookstores, mostly Empiks, in August 2009). The amazingly positive and upbeat talk on film language, philosophy, Japanese and Western cultures lasted almost two hours. I am translating some of its parts in the order of the discussion:

“I have watched the “Phenomenology of Truth” for the first time and must admit I am enchanted. It shows that film as a medium not only can translate from one level to another, but also is capable of commenting on a specific philosophical idea.”
- Michal Oleszczyk
(a film scholar and a critic)

“I liked this film a lot. It is witty, warm but also provocative (...) It asks if the East-West dialog is possible and if so how. It excellently shows the problem of the “surface of things. To me this film, I am saying this a a practitioner, could be a very good illustration of how East and West can communicate with each other”.
- Bogna Dziechciaruk-Maj
(the director of Manggha,
the Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Cracow)

“The film deals with meeting of two cultures. When I watched it today - that was my first viewing and I am very impressed by it - I thought that perhaps a good keyword to this film would be transculture. (...) Today the question “to what extend can I penetrate another culture?” is replaced by “to what extend even a surface connection with another culture can change my relation with my own culture?" I will give you an example from my own life. My discipline is aesthetics. For many years I was educated in it and then I educated others using its primary principle: that a work of art must be perfect. This perfection is understood in various ways - for example as the harmony of many elements within the whole, when nothing can be eliminated or added to the work. The work of art is a masterpiece if it makes a perfect, completed whole. When I started dealing with the Japanese aesthetics I came upon a notion that perfection in a work of art is vulgar. It is so because a perfect work of art is a closed system, it does not contain mystery, it does not invite to be entered, does not motivate a viewer to participate. I do not think that in the moment of encountering this notion - and it was a shocking experience for me - I penetrated another culture, penetrated Japanese culture, but it allowed me to profoundly change my relationship to my own culture. It does not mean that I abandoned our idea of perfection in art. It continues to be my idea. It is just not so universal, so unquestionable as it was before. When I deal now with various aesthetic issues, the experience of meeting the Japanese perspective is somehow present.”
- Krystyna Wilkoszewska, Ph.D.
(the head of the Aesthetic Department,
the Jagiellonian University, Cracow)

“This is the third film by Pawel Kuczynski that I am watching and each time I am struck by his attitude of distance, humor and, I would say, impishness, which in a way makes fun of philosophy. (...) The film provokes questions such as: isn’t the “phenomenology of truth” indeed a great vision but just requires better prophets? Aren’t all philosophers condemned to theorize about the truth and the seeing instead of just seeing themselves? Doesn’t the Japanese woman in the film, in her naiveté, see more and deeper, and therefore better exemplifies the rules of the phenomenology of truth than its creator could ever do? I think that - as is required in a truly philosophical film - we do to get any conclusive answers here.”
- Adam Workowski, Ph.D.
(a lecturer at the Papal Theological Academy in Cracow
and The Collegium Civitias in Warsaw)

“I tried to build the story using a formula of a counterpoint: if there is a controlling idea, there should be also its reverse. In the accord of the dialog idea of this festival, I wanted to create a filmic dialog between philosophical ideas. I am glad that was noticed. Transculture was also very important, not only in this film, but also in the workshop that we conducted during the festival. The workshop was based on short dialogue written especially for us by Mikhail Epstein, an American scholar born in Russia, the theoretician of transculture. He rebells against identities being totally determined by places of birth, by native cultures, and not by our free and conscious choices. Epstein is convinced that one can live “on the border of one’s culture”, that one can have a few cultural identities.”
- Pawel Kuczynski
(more about the festival workshop
in the “lecturing” part of www.directing.com)


The antagonist’s power (2)


How wonderful that scripts mirror life, I marvel

going to a lecture by an accomplished writer/director

with a huge output, many awards, international status.

Yet, his public talk is sprinkled

with bitterness and resentment,

a few times almost boils with anger.

This guy is for real, he really hurts, I discover,

suddenly liking him more.

Then I remember that some time ago

upon watching (graciously I must say)

one of my docs, he said:

“You defended yourself in this one.”

What kind of a statement is that, I fumed long afterwards.

Movies are not about “defending”!

Not understanding that the metaphor

is quite apt for the screen battles,

so hard to win.

Anyway, the lecture continues.

The speaker proceeds to exculpate himself.

From living in the 20th Century?

(an urge that many intellectuals feel compelled to address)

From success?

From being alive?

He, who remembers the second world war,

says in reference to one of his films:

“We know about ourselves

only as much as we have been tested by life.”

He sounds serious, real and sincere.

My lofty and comfortable concept of writing

as a magical tool that gives great power to the writer

is defeated on the spot.

(As in "In this one, you didn't defend yourself.")

I could not.

(How could I forget uncontrollably shaking arms

of that beautiful woman

suddenly destroyed by the news given

on the hallway of the oncology female hospital ward,

while her paled companion

tries to protect her from falling down.)

Sadly, we don’t choose our antagonists.

Neither in war nor in peace.

Neither publicly nor privately.

Neither outside nor inside.

Instead something writes us

with a cruel or a gentle pen,

challenging us with horror,

other times with luck,

selecting our antagonists.


The antagonist’s power


The biggest lesson of screenwriting

is a truly astounding one:

your future does not depend on you.


you are made by your opponent.

It is your antagonist that decides

if you are great or just mediocre,

pedestrian or inspiring.

Pick your battles,

the instructors of life yell at you.

Pick your antagonist,

if you want to shape your destiny,

says quietly the blank page.

The page of your life.

Think if over very carefully:

Who will you vote for?

Who will you fight against?

Which country will receive the gift of your life?

Who will you hate with passion?


Lessons from Ronald Harwood

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", screenplay by Ronald Harwood
from the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.

Another fascination conversation from the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast series conducted by Jeff Goldsmith:

It was Harwood who came up with the first person subjective for the film. The decision that the camera is the protagonist jump-started the writing process. Harwood has the highest praise for the work of Janusz Kaminski, whom he calls brilliant.

It is interesting to hear that when starting a process of adaptation he spends a lot of time figuring out what the story is going to be about. That means further selecting the thematic scope of the material given to him. The choice is his own decision. Harwood is a strong believer in allowing a writer to discover where the story wants to go. He is against the internal and the external pressures resulting from outlining or pitching prior to writing.

Of course upon turning in a draft, Harwood closely works with the director. On “The Pianist” it was a 5 weeks long daily intense collaboration with Polanski. When Jeff Godsmith asks him what he learned from Polanski, he responds with one word: precision.

Also there is a really funny and telling bit about the post “and the Oscar for the best adapted screenplay goes to” conversation with his agent, the famed Jeff Berg. Harwood says that when, the day after, Harwood announced his total lack of interest in directing, Berg’s face immediately became 25 years younger.


Beating the system down

I am listening to Creative Screenwriting Magazine Podcasts. A fantastic series. It has plethora of great info.

For example: I didn’t know that 5 days before going to production with “21” a read through was such a disaster that pulling the plug seemed almost certain. Yet the last moment script changes and the power of Kevin Spacey brought the project back to life. Hmmm. The film is glossy, that’s for sure.

The card counting teams is such an awesome subject. I knew some members of a blackjack team. One of them was an aspiring screenwriter. The guy was funny and talented. Reading his scripts I was rolling on the floor with laughter. Why hasn’t he managed to produce his film? I guess it easier to be a top “winner in disguise”, to successfully rob casinos of millions, to evade wrath of furious Las Vegas types than to produce a Hollywood film.

Somebody may say that perhaps my friend's script was not so great after all. That's the matter of opinion. However one thing is absolutely certain: the guy had a fantastic concept - equal to or better than "MIT students in Vegas". He just didn't have his story described in "Wired" nor was lucky to hook up with Kevin Spacey, who deservingly, has such an enormous cloud.

So what was my friend's concept? You don't expect me to reveal it, do you? After all we compulsive gamblers of film never quit trying to beat the system down. Never.


Pastiche - storytelling about storytelling

"Inglorious Basterds",
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

“I love rumors. Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.” - Col. Landa - “Inglorious Basterds”

The characters in Tarantino’s films are high on performing their own lives. They are storytellers of their own lives. They are self-aware of their own, self created NARRATIVES. That’s what makes them so cool. That’s probably why the entire planet went nuts over “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”.

Not only the characters in these stories are high on storytelling. The storyteller himself is high on his craft. More: the story is high on itself. Through its stylization, its self awareness. The story is at the same time both sincere and self-reflective. The key is “at the same time”, because any fool can write something straight and later comment on it.

In the Internet posted (leaked way too early?) script for “Inglorious Basterds” there is so much typographical and grammatical lapses that either Tarantino uses a manual typewriter, writes very fast, is a dyslexic or just plainly fucks with some future uptight reader. Probably the latter, as per (narratively justified) “basterds”. It works, judging by the number of indignant “He’s a fraud. He can’t write, he misspells!” comments. I wish I could participate in this delicious game, but with my English I have to restrain to the most general aspects of storytelling in the script.

Let’s take the 18 page long prologue. The upcoming events are foreshadow by the four stylistic elements:

The title. “Once Upon a Time in France”. A narrative aspect of what will follow can’t be spelled out more clearly.

The context. In the Nazi occupied France when a military car drives up to a farm house it most likely announces something no good. In fact, anything Nazi is no good.

The initial info (on page 2) that something is dramatically off. “After living for a year with a sword of Damocles suspended over his head, this may very well be the end.” We don’t know what’s wrong but the sentence is clear enough. Afterwards the more time is spent on pleasantries the more suspense accumulates. Pure Hitchcock.

And finally the narrative self-consciousness of the bad guy, Col. Landa, who gets off on his act and whose “acting” drives the Proloque.

The resulting pages are a great read. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating so I can’t wait to see the actual film.