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?