Poetry and politics

November 6, 2017.   Downtown Warsaw.  

A bikers' club pays its respect as about 2000 people march in silence 
to honor Piotr Szczesny who, in a political protest
set himself on fire.
The phrase on the placards - “I the common, gray man” 
comes from the letter Szczesny left behind.    

Fast forward to a poetry meeting in early December:

The meeting is with Adam Zagajewski a poet of a strong stature.  For years his name is spoken around the time of the Nobel For Literature announcement.  Although Zagajewski does not hide his political sympathies his poetry does not deal with politics.  

In one of his poems  called “Mysticism for beginners” Adam Zagajewski describes his epiphany that everything we see in our daily life is just preparation for …..  He does not spell it out but it’s clear he means death or moving into the unknown. 

The poem - after the list of daily images of wonder - ends with a phrase:

“are only mysticism for beginners, 
the introductory course, 
prelude to an exam,  that's been postponed
for later.”

At the beginning of 2017 the publication of the latest poetry book by Zagajewski lost state financial support.  (The new regime tries to marginalize its critics and create “a new elite”).  The publisher called for help and announced subscriptions for the upcoming title.  Among the citizens who chipped in was Piotr Szczesny who later in the year chose to take "the postponed exam" into his hands. 

Szczesny, in a public place, spread copies of a well written, measured letter protesting the current changes in Poland.  Then he set himself on fire and days later died in a hospital.    

Zagajewski says he is in debt to Piotr Szczesny.


Is theory futile?

 Cate Blanchett in Julian Rosefeldt film "Manifesto"

finally a film about ideas fueled by ideas and yet the one that puts ideas where they properly belong namely somewhere after the visible, after the felt, after the lived and experienced. 

it is a quite disquieting proposition: it seems to show immaturity, limitations and well… idiocy of any attempt to formulate a formula. 

does it show the need to transcend the urge to put things into a set of theoretic assumptions and scoldings toward reality in the name of a newly discovered “truth”? 

if so to transcend it with what?

does it express the failure of all attempts “to get things right”?

an amazing rhythmic feast, to say the least.  a wonderful acting presentations (who cares that a few of the vignettes could be critiqued as overdone - the totality of the piece if alive and moving)

my favorite one is of course a classroom scene with quotes from recent film manifestos. 



Self Immolation

 "I, an ordinary, common man, urge you - wake up!"
 "Wake up"

This is the site of the self immolation in a political protest of a 54 year old man.  The man, Piotr Szczesny,  before setting himself on fire passed around copies of a letter which listed 15 areas of his protest.  They included: limiting individual freedoms, destruction of judiciary system, breaking constitution, centralizing law, rampant nepotism, disastrous foreign policy, waging cultural and emotional warfare, encouraging anti-immigrant and anti-minorities attitudes, ignoring tremendous medical service needs, ruinous educational reform, destruction of nature.  Mr. Szczesny writes that we should not fight with the supporters of the ruling party because: 

they are our mothers, brothers, neighbors, friends and colleagues.  It’s not about fighting them (that’s exactly what the party in power wants), and it’s not about “converting them” (because that’s naive), it’s about convincing them to realize their views in a lawful and democratic way.  Perhaps a change in the party leadership will suffice.”

Even though the above paragraph seems to be directed to those who are personally responsible for the current disaster in Poland, the rest of the letter addresses the people and not politicians.  At the end of this letter Piotr writes “Wake up.  It’s not too late yet.”

Those who aren’t sensitive to the idea of democracy and a true common good society shrug their shoulders and go about their business.  After all economy is in great shape.  The government belittles Mr. Szczesny and paints him as a victim of the opposition which, according to the official party line,  just wants to maintain the old, bad way things were.   Others are terrified by the gradual but steady disintegration of freedom, democracy and decency very often done in a manner recalling worst ways of the previous Ruling Party.   Both sides call each other “commies.”

Piotr Szczesny is dead.


Screenwriting workshop

An insanely ambitious film-making workshop has begun with writing three short scenes.   


Spoor, the book III

continuing my translating attempts:

“I am moved by satellite pictures and the curvature of Earth.  Is it indeed the truth that we live on the surface of a sphere, exposed to the stare of planets, abandoned in the great nothingness, in which light after the Fall coagulated into small particles and spread out everywhere?  Yes, that’s the truth.  We should be reminded of this daily since we keep forgetting it.  We are under the impression that we are free and that God will forgive us. Personally, I think it’s not so.  Each deal, transformed into minute vibrations of photons like a film will eventually take off into the Cosmos and till the end of the world planets will watch it.”

With the access to such sensitivity of the narrator/main character we are nevertheless deprived of the knowledge of her innermost emotions that curry her to commit crimes.  That's what I don't understand and am waiting for the movie adaptation to hopefully make sense of this divide.


Spoor, the book II

the following is my clumsy attempt to quote from the book:

“We have sung about the brightness which exists somewhere far away and can’t be seen yet but when we die we will look at it with our own eyes.  Now we see it only through a mirror as if in a funny glass but one day we will face it full front and clear.  And she will envelope us, that brightness, because she is our mother and it’s from her that we came.  And what’s more amazing, we carry her part in us, all of us do that.  So actually we should rejoice death.

That’s what I though when singing but actually I never believed in any personalized distribution of Brightness.  No God handles that, no Heavenly Accountant."


Spoor, the book

 A promotional image for "Spoor" the movie.


Before seeing “Spoor” a movie directed by Agnieszka Holland I dived into “Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead" by Olga Tokarczuk, the book that “Spoor” is the adaptation of.

The book is fantastic, beautiful prose (I hope translations can convey it) and also, if not mainly, because it paints an inner portrait of a very captivating, off beat character.   Janina is expressive, full of (unintended) poetry (the best kind), practitioner of astrology, a feisty environmentalist, defender of animal rights, outspoken, full of zest.  A fabulous character.   I was totally enchanted. 

As we enter her inner world the outer environment is rocked by a series of murders.   She claims animals are taking revenge on people who hunt them.  OK, this fits her profile to date. 

Then, in the last part of the tale it turns out that the killer is herself.  A very strange narrative move. First I am invited to the inner world of a main character and then I am told that the most important thing about that person has been totally hidden from me during the long time I was learning to love her.   Is it fair?

That feeling of disappointment is however turned around at the end of the novel.  The murderer, together with her friend moves into a different part of the country where she lives a quiet, anonymous life.  Nobody knows about her murders there, so in some weird way the narrative loops back and justifies our lack of knowledge about her real inner life in the first part of the story.  

This is a very challenging and unorthodox construction.  I am not sure if I buy it. But I wonder how the film will handle this problem.


The View from a Cathedral - 2018

Stanislaw Elsner-Zaluski as prof. Marek Siemek

For some time I've been toying with the idea of blogging about a progress of one of my productions.  This hasn't happened yet, but several updates regarding "The View from a Cathedral" actually show a process of finishing a project.  It's been years (budget, budget, budget) and finally the final version is done.  I am beginning to seek exposure to this documentary and will be posting the results.

"The View from a Cathedral" (53 min.) explores the drama of prof. Marek Siemek (1942-2011), a Polish philosopher highly esteemed in Germany (a specialist in Transcendental Idealism) caught in the torment of loyalty, friendship and betrayal that resulted from the 1968 anti-Semitic purge in Poland.

In Polish, German and Italian - with English subtitles. 


Lawnswood Gardens online

 " Lawnswood Gardens"
  A ghetto bound tram on the streets of Warsaw.   

I have created a VOD vimeo page that will have a few of my productions.  The first is a documentary about Zygmunt Bauman.


truth versus glitzy

  "American Beauty" written by Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes

Watched again, 15 years later, the film has made the same impression on me as it did the first time.  And the impressions have been huge.   Almost a perfect masterpiece.  The confusions (in both viewings) came from the video parts, which were taking me out of the flow of the film.  

Down deep, the film seems to be a pretty much a loose connection of haiku like epiphanies circling around not beauty, not values, not culture - but rather around transformation, overcoming, transcending.  It is not the development of the plot (although there is one) that drives the experience of watching the film.  It is rather, the emotional impact of most of the scenes.   As if the brilliance of the execution sidetracked the underlying intellectual efforts to convey meaning through the story. 

Every major character in the story is on a wild inner ride.  Everyone except Ricky, the kid next door, who is the only smart one, or the only fully realized from the start.  And it is probably through Ricky’s weed that Lester finally breaks through his inner walls.  Ricky’s presence seems to carry the “official” meaning of the film - the beauty in the mundane - as in the plastic bag.   While the idea is noble, the execution seems problematic.  The plastic bag is videotaped in a pedestrian way while the everyday life which is supposed to be criticized gets dazzling directorial and cinematographic treatment.   This contrast is something I wonder about.  From a logical point of view the stylistic choices for showing both realities are correct, but their juxtaposition rises questions.  


Bauman and the Cross of Valor

“Lawnswood Gardens”, 
a portrait of Zygmunt Bauman

As Marlan Warren, a screenwriter for my teaching reading video series “The Reading Planet” wrote in one of its episodes - “Don’t knock ignorance till you've tried it!” The line comes form a Lethard, an inhabitant of a planet Lethargia, where everybody hates reading.

Back on the planet Earth:

The frame above is from a 2011 documentary I made about prof. Zygmunt Bauman a giant world class intellectual figure of the past several decades, who for the current political regime in Poland became the archenemy. They claim that Bauman received the Cross of Valor, the highest military honor in Poland, for his work in the military communist internal security forces.

“Lawnswood Gardens” makes clear the Cross of Valor was given to Bauman for his participation in a May 1945 battle against Germans. Since 2012 the film has been shown a dozen times in Poland on television (Planete +.) Wikipedias (English and Polish) also correctly identify the 1945 origin of the medal. Yet, many still attack Bauman with the misinformation about the source of his military honor. Clearly for some ignorance is politically more useful than knowledge.


The Master's Style

Carlito’s Way
A perfect match of a narrative set-up (the story takes place in a mind of a hero as he lays dying) with the stylistic choices for many scenes which often emphasize slightly detached, dreamy POVs.

Particularly one scene sticks in my mind: the palatial garden party conversation between a conniving lawyer-Dave Kleinfeld and Carlito. In this scene the fate of Carlito is set: Dave begs Carlito to assist him in helping a gangster to escape from prison, which just has to end up badly. The talk between the two man is preceded by a long, wide take of Dave’s girlfriend walking toward the alcove where the two men will be talking. For now however she finds there only Carlito and asks “What are you doing here by yourself Carlito?” The question has a double meaning should one seek it.

Everything in this one minute set up foreshadows the impending doom. It is however done in a subtle way. It’s realism, as if filtered by the memory of a dying Carlito who remembers the key situations in his life but does not allow the memories to dwell on the outcome to the point of narrative vulgarity, balances on the representation and interpretation of what’s being told through the camera. I find this balance fascinating and very satisfying as a storytelling devise.

Brian dePalma said somewhere that he considers Carlito’s Way his perfect work. I can see how this movie could be considered the ideal crafting of a subjective story.