Is Martha's Vineyard a Chinatown?

In preparation for the latest from Roman Polański, I am reading “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, set largely in Martha's Vineyard.

The diagnosis of our world as it appears in this page turner of an airport novel is grim: nothing in our lives is fresh, original or spontaneous. We are hollow, without our own true emotions or a sense of the inner. In order to become “somebody” we have to get help from “the outside”, nowadays that’s media. It is the external culture that tells us who we are, what we think, what we remember, who we are. The novel shows it via ghost writers who have to put human emotions into the memories of their clients, who without them would be shallow, would “not exist”.

It’s not only the media that lie to us. We do it to ourselves. Gladly. Our own lives are so pathetically dull that memory serves as a mechanism to space them up (post fact, but who cares):

“Most of us tend to embroider our memories to suit the picture of ourselves that we would like the world to see." — Ghostwriting, by Andrew Crofts (Each chapter of "The Ghost" opens with a quote from this book)

We are like fish in a tank never being able to touch the reality. Or worst, we could touch it but it would be less real than watching it professionally presented by the media. Specifically: television offers a better way of experiencing reality than the reality itself. Here the Ghost Writer watches the exit of his high power client from a mansion where they both hide:

“I COULD HAVE GONE down to see them off. Instead I watched them leave on television. I always say you can't beat sitting in front of a TV screen if you're after that authentic, firsthand experience. For example, it's curious how helicopter news shots impart to even the most innocent activity the dangerous whiff of criminality."

We are weak, lying, inauthentic and that's just scratching the surface. The more conscious of us don't even think of going any further:

“I have no opinion on the human condition, except perhaps that it's best not examined too closely.”

Even if we sense that something is not right, even if we feel the need to speak in a true, new, revealing voice, the resistance of the mater, of the reality is overwhelming. Our steps drag in a mud. Be it the mud of immoral (the thesis of the novel), be it the mud of the limitations of our talents:

“A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earthbound. Set down one sentence and it's halfway to being just like every other bloody book that's ever been written.”

The world is overcast, gloomy, gray. People are not who we think they are. The motifs for their behaviors are low. The naive ones who try to fight the way things are end up dead. The rest buy into the system or live their lives in quiet despair and frustration. The world of the novel strangely resembles some of Polanski’s films. Even the Asian gardener is there, with the almost “bad for the grass” line:

‘Duc kept his eyes on the ground. "Soil bad. Wind bad. Rain bad. Salt bad. Shit."

In short, it all smells like Chinatown.


Half a shoe

Vancouver Olympics
Justyna Kowalczyk at the finish line

Whistler, British Columbia. The Winter Olympic Games. The 15 kilometers ski race. A grueling fight among the best athletes in the field.

The finish line. A Pole, Justyna Kowalczyk, the number one in 2009 ranking, fights with a Norwegian, Kristin Stoermer Steira, for the third place.

Both, applying a classic finishing technique, crossing the line stuck out their shoes.

Justyna’s foot goes half a shoe further.

The photo finish grants her the bronze.

Kowalczyk is elated. Steira devastated.

Seconds after the photo finish grants her the win (not yet officially announced), Justyna is called to see the judges: there has been a formal motion submitted by the Norwegians that at one point during her race she applied an illegal skiing technique. The jurors consider disqualifying her. She defends her actions. The motion is rejected.

Before the Games Justyna is considered the favorite. Everybody expects her to wind gold medals. Yet, so up until now she's got only (!) a silver one. This could be her second medal of the games.

Justyna is the only athlete among the world top 6 who does not suffer asthma. Those who do take steroids, normally illegal. Steroids taken before a race increase the amount of air in the lungs - a huge bonus for a competitor.

Just before the official announcement of the results of the 15K race, a TV camera catches a glimpse of a never crying Justyna.

This time she does, waiting for the decision.

Finally it’s official, the bronze medal goes to her.

Half a shoe.

Every step of the way.


Random “Niagara” notes

"Niagara", directed by Henry Hathaway

“Let me stay dead” - that’s at least as good a line as “drag me to hell” - except the former actually comes from a screen dialog. It’s Niagara (1953). Strange picture: watching Marlin Monroe there, one senses her huge and unstoppable wave coming. Or is it just one’s off screen knowledge of her other films slated by destiny to appear later? A very few can see the future screen stardom cocooned in a performance. Afterward everybody “knows”.

Some say “Niagara” is a Hitchcockian film: in some remote and pale way it could be true. Yet such comparison unavoidably brings a question “how would the Master himself handle the plot and show the Falls”? I bet it would be different than in this (absolutely watchable) Henry Hathaway’s film.

The Niagara location insists to be more than a backdrop for action. When a young couple gets on the “Maid of the Mist” the film action stops and dissolves into a state of some unnerving, mysterious expectation. As if the location forced itself upon an anecdote.

The same happened to me when I was there shooting a documentary. In the doc ("A Philosopher's Paradise") a group of philosophers got onto the boat facing the brutal nature. Immediately the situation turned allegorical.

Furthermore, in the doc and in the “Niagara” the scenes on the “Maid of the Mist” are similarly edited and the shots similarly composed. Clearly there is something “in the air” there that forces such an approach.

The above similarities bother me. Anybody can show a roaring falls as dangerous and awe inspiring. A true visionary filmmaker would squeeze out of such a location its true psychic essence. I am thinking of the sequoia trees in “Verdigo” - which for me is one of the best use of space for expanding a character’s psyche. Such handling of the Falls I would love to see!

The conclusion that I am directing to myself is - even if it looks good, never shoot the obvious.


Disturbing sociology

"Modernity and the Holocaust' by Zygmunt Bauman says that the Holocaust was a direct result of both modern technology and bureaucracy which in themselves tend to disarm and corrupt ethics. Therefore our current contentment and closing the books on Holocaust as something evil that happened in the past and belongs only there is dangerous. The very foundations of the ways we organize ourselves as a modern society are pregnant with demoralizing tendencies, that, if met with right conditions, can (easily!) explode in mayhem, inhumanity and unspeakable evil.

Some learned scholars argue to what extend this gloomy vision of ourselves is correct. I think that unfortunately it not only unveils our darkest potentiality, but in a very scary way announces something. Let's pray that the announcement has to do with the way we ought to process the past and analyze the present. However, what if it is also the announcement of something approaching. Something real.

The book shows how a complex matter of mass murder aiming to exterminate the entire nation was possible by diluting, shifting and obscuring moral responsibilities of the individuals involved. In short, how a truly unspeakable became possible by breaking it down into smaller, acceptable steps.

Not us, not here, not now - you'll say. Really? Are our social choices fully ethical? Don't we accept hypocrisy, cynicism and blatant lies because the system (elected officials, media, science, experts) absolves us from the immediate responsibility? Don't we swim in conformity, even though we know that things are not right?

On the record: it was the Germans who did it in the 30s and the 40s. Yes, the ship was turned around, yes the bankers could care less, yes the peasants were oblivious, yes some helped the murderers, but it was the Nazis and other assorted Germans who did it. No ifs, no buts, no excuses. Or if you want a more hardcore version see my entry on "Inglorious Basterds" ("Remake of "Basterds" needed" - the tragic memory label.) I still stand by it.

Yet, the Bauman's disturbing analysis makes the past calamity more contemporary than we would want it to be.

Therefore on a certain level it is justified to ask:

What are we really involved in this time?


The Japanese influence

Gerhard Riessbeck, 'Kamchatka"  
From his current exhibition at Manggha,
Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, Cracow  

Manggha is a great institution.  Its way of thinking about the Japanese aesthetic and "the rest of the world" is wide and inspirational.  I am reminded here of a quote from Feliks “Manggha” Jasieński, whose collection of Japanese art became the basis for the museum.   

What he wrote is a pretty good recipe for a strong visual composition, effective artistic installation or a captivating film:

“All that is best in modern European landscape art is owned to Japanese influence. And it is always a synthesis of the most essential properties, intensification of the primary features, omitting the secondary ones. (..) A narrow blue stripe here is your sky. A few lines - here is your tree. Through the furious study of nature, which is still manifest, the whole ballast is ultimately discarded, and what is reached is a kind of brilliant artistic shorthand.”   -  Feliks “Manggha” Jasieński, 1906

(emphasis - PK)


Opera everywhere?

La Traviata at the Valencia Market
November 13, 2009

Recently and elsewhere I have written some rather shallow remarks about an opera as a dead art form. I want to bark them off! The Velencia Market La Traviatta event looks so wonderful that it adds faith in the human spirit and creativity.

Perhaps the only deadness in anything is its form and not its spirit. The spirit of an artistic expression, like opera for example, can always be updated, humanized and presented as a joyful inspiration. (Or a relevant statement of another emotional and conceptual meaning.)

So let's sing! Let's break the barriers between storytelling ways of the past and the demands of the present.