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.