Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Whip Poor Will - the new neighbour

I´ve been living in a house at the foot of a mountain in Chiapas, Mexico for a year now, but it´s only in the past week or so that I´ve noticed someone else has moved into the neighbourhood. Rather late in the evening, past nine o´clock, a bird starts calling. It´s a very distinctive call but I´d never heard it before. A little searching on the internet revealed it to be a whip poor will.
It´s a beautiful little song they sing, and at nights I listen carefully now, waiting for a repeat performance. I knew about the bird from the Hank Williams song, ¨I´m so lonely I could cry,¨ where the bird gets a rather inauspicious mention. It seems that all the mentions of the bird in song and literature (I checked one or two) are similarly unhappy and even menacing.

How did such an innocuous insectivore get such a bad reputation? It may have something to do with its name being an order to lash a poverty stricken man or boy named William, but I have another theory about this. I think it has something to do with the whip poor will´s onomatopoeic name. The origin of this theory comes from my experience in China where I was staying in the mountains of Yunnan among the Ahka tribespeople. I found that when I asked them their names, they would avoid responding, and when I asked why I was told that it was bad luck to say their own names. ¨The crow calls its own name,¨ they said, ¨and that´s all the reason we need not to do the same.¨ Crowing in English too is associated with vanity and unseemly self promotion. Maybe our disdain for these birds has something to do with our desire to avoid of the hall-of mirrors fantastical qualities of self-reference that I was talking about in The Saragossa Manuscript post. Or maybe that´s just cuckoo.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Saragossa Manuscript

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges said in a lecture that there were four procedures found in fantastic literature: the voyage in time, the double, the contamination of reality by dreams, and the mise en abyme - the story within the story. The Saragossa Manuscript relies on all four over the course of its three hour narrative, but it´s the use of stories within stories, and stories overlapping stories that make it remarkable, boldly taking the technique to (and perhaps beyond) the limits of human patience and understanding. It may drive the viewer to distraction, but if you are so inclined, it will amply reward multiple viewings.
                                a little taste of surrealism

The Saragossa Manuscript was made in 1965 by Polish director Wojciech Has and a very large cast of what must have been Poland´s most talented actors. It was almost forgotten until some American celebrities put up the funds to produce a restored version of the film on DVD. The Saragossa Manuscript is adapted from the 19th century novel of more or less the same name by Jan Potoki. He was obsessed by ¨1001 Arabian Nights,¨ gnosticism and the mysteries of the orient. By the way, Potoki is another example of a Pole writing his most notable works in a foreign language.

We open with a comic battle scene in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. Two officers from opposing sides come across the eponymous manuscript in an abandoned house, immediately lose interest in the battle and become enthralled with the pictures and the story, which, coincidentally concerns the grandfather of one of the officers, another officer of the guards who has set off over the mountains for Madrid. Suddenly the scene changes to a closeup of the grandfather, Alphonso, a young man here, waking up among the skulls under a gibbet somewhere along the mountainous path. His servants are worried that the place is haunted but Alphonso presses on. Soon he finds an inn, seemingly abandoned, where he plans to spend the night. He´s startled by a hand on his shoulders. A Tunisian woman, one breast exposed, beckons him, telling him to follow downstairs where two foreign women are waiting him to join them for supper. He´s led to a cavernous, magical space below the inn where the girls, two Muslim princesses, proceed to seduce him. They tell him he is their cousin and the last of their family line. It´s his duty to bed the sisters, in a threesome no less, produce an heir, convert to Islam and keep the whole affair a secret. Alphonso agrees and the pact is sealed with a drink from an elaborate human skull chalice. He drinks, loses consciousness, and re-awakens among the skulls where we first met him. The movie continues. I´ve described about the first twenty minutes or so, and the rest of it goes on in the same comic, even farcical vein.

Something that stood out for me was the pervasive, casual semi-nudity. I hadn´t expected to see this in a film made under what I thought to be a prudish communist regime. At about the same time ¨Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf¨ was being made in Hollywood. A great movie and a notorious one which, due to lines like ¨screw you¨ and ¨son of a bitch,¨ tested the limits of the prudish production code. Comparing these two movies, we´d be hard put to choose which was made in a free society and which was made under totalitarianism. It´s conceivably possible that someone without the requisite background knowledge could even make the wrong choice.

Politically, The Saragossa Manuscript is not nearly so adventurous or daring. It does owe its aesthetic to surrealism, a movement which made its bones in the early 20th century by playfully and sometimes bizarrely questioning or undermining the bourgeois conception of reality. Surrealism never really prospered in the socialist republics. Perhaps this film´s questioning of the bland certainties of the Enlightenment was as far as Poland´s nod to the spirit of the 60´s dared to go.

The Saragossa Manuscript is available for download here, via a bittorrent client.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hasan Arbakesh

I started this series on East European film of the 1960s and this film from Tajikistan will be the second installment. I know it's a bit of a stretch, a 10,000 kilometre stretch to count Tajikistan, which borders on Afghanistan and China, as part of Eastern Europe, but Hasan Arbakesh (Hasan the cart driver) is so wonderful, so under-appreciated and still so contemporary, I feel its inclusion is justified. Besides there are large swaths of Eastern Europe - Romania, Bulgaria and surprisingly East Germany that don't seem to have produced any cinema of note during the same period.
Hasan Arbakesh was made on location in Tajikistan, the poorest of the Soviet republics, in 1965 by the director Boris Kimyagarov, a Jewish native of Tajikistan, celebrated today as the father of Tajik cinema. 1965 was a time known as the "Thaw," a narrow window of tie when censorship was relaxed and heretofore forbidden topics and themes were explored. Alexander Solzhenitsyn first came to notice during this period.

It's not a technically or artistically innovative film, but well made in every respect. The director obviously has love for his homeland, its scenery and a good many of its folkways. The star, Bimbolat Vatayev, in his first leading role, is full of charisma, singing, dancing, loving, and fighting as well as any hero can be expected to. Hasan Arbakesh is structured as an epic, echoing the Herculean exploits of the Persian bard Ferdowsi's masterwork, Shahnameh. Hasan's horse is named Rakhsh, after Ferdowsi's hero's horse, although the cart he pulls is a disconcertingly crude contraption. The plot culminates in Hasan successfully discharging his tasks but he is left with only the very dubious rewards on offer by the new Soviet regime.

The film is set some time in the 1920s when the dust of the revolution and the civil war is settling but the Soviet ways are not quite accepted. We see the collectivisation, industrialisation and emancipation the Soviets have brought along them them, and while not explicitly condemned, to our characters, the new era brings bitterness, sacrifice and loneliness. All the qualities that made Hasan a hero count for nothing.

Recently I listened to a lecture on how Stalin incorporated Kazakhstan in the USSR, making the rather perverse effort to shape a clan-based nomadic society into a nation. Somehow, having had a national identity retrofitted, so to speak, for them the Kazakh people could more easily pass on to the higher stage of socialism. Now in Hasan Arbakesh, the only nation building I saw going on was of the Soviet variety, but it's worth noting that Kimyagarov drew on precisely the same sort of epic source material that Soviet historians used for their work in Kazakhstan. It seems that whatever the success the Soviets had in instilling a national consciousness in the people of Kazakhstan, their efforts in Tajikistan were a failure. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Tajikistan was plunged into a vicious clan-based civil war and the non-Tajik inhabitants, predominantly Russians and Jews, fled to Russia.

Perhaps Hasan Arbakesh represents a golden era of Tajikistan, a time of peace, prosperity and artistic license, if not freedom. It also recalls the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, at least as far as the women of Kabul are concerned. In one scene we see the outraged women tearing off their veils and throwing them into a fire! In an era when religious fundamentalism is rising from the Soviet grave, the film has renewed relevance. It´s available via bittorrent by itself which I will try to maintain, or with a group of other central Asian films which I won´t.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Nuclear Test in North Korea Tests Commitment to Peace

US President has called North Korea´s latest detonation of an atomic weapon a ¨provocative act¨ and a threat.

What Obama seems to be missing is that for a nuclear deterrent to work, the weapons have to be functioning and seen to be functioning, and the owners of the weapons have to be seen to have every intention to use them, should the occasion arise. Without these deterrence won´t work. This is true of every nation that possesses nuclear weapons, and I see no reason to expect anything different from North Korea. North Korea, in acquiring nuclear weaponry, has simply put itself on a par with the other nuclear nations. The threats and provocations from North Korea are no different from those of any of the nuclear nations that wish to maintain a credible deterrence.

We see much speculation in the press on how China is finally going to be forced to reign in North Korea. This has been going on for almost a decade now, and North Korea has in this time developed nuclear weapons and gained the ability to launch satellites into space. With the recent election in Japan of the most bellicose government in decades, a government that is directly provoking China herself over the issue of the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, Korea seems destined for the back burner, at least as far as China is concerned. Nevertheless, after the test, China released a statement calling for peace and stability and a denuclearized Korean peninsula. I think these sentiments might be closer to the hearts of North Korea than the USA and allies.

We might not have noticed, but the week before this test the USA and South Korea were engaged in military exercises in the waters of the peninsula´s east coast. These exercises are routinely held and essentially they are preparing to attack North Korea. Imagine a bunch of guys parked on the street outside your home and going through a dry run on burning down your house and killing you. Most of us would react, and the North Koreans are no different. Last week they condemned the exercises and said they were open to peace talks. No response. This week nuclear tests.

I have to agree with both the Chinese and the North Koreans here. There should, at long last, be peace talks on the Korean peninsula. The Korean war has gone on long enough, and continuing it serves no purpose I can see. It´s a shame that Obama and the USA can´t endorse this idea.

Friday, February 8, 2013

East European Film of the 1960s - Sedmikrasky (Daisies)

I´m thinking that over the next little while, I´ll write about films. Specifically films made in the 1960s in Eastern Europe. I can give three reasons for this.
1) They are not widely known or celebrated.
2) They are available for download over the internet and as far as I know, not subject to copyright (being produced in social countries.)
3) They are noteworthy for being made at a time of world-wide cinematic innovation and exploration in police states undergoing political liberalization.
In short they are unknown treasures that with only the slightest effort are there for the taking.

I´d like to start by introducing a Czech film made in 1966 by the director Vera Chylitova and her husband. It´s titled ¨Sedmikrasky¨ or Daisies in English. It´s available at the Pirate Bay here, so long as you have a bittorrent client. I use this one available here.

Sedmikrasky (I´ll refer to it as Daisies henceforth) is a film about two lively young women who, thinking about what a degenerate and destructive place the world is,  decide to become degenerate themselves. They do this mostly by inveigling older men into taking them out to dinner where they shamelessly over-indulge themselves in food and drink. It is bold, visually compelling, humourous, though without a solid narrative. It´s a Dadaist work that uses anarchic absurdity to attack bourgeois morality.

         Maria 1 and Maria 2 playing with scissors

Daisies was banned on completion and the director had a great deal of difficulty in making other films for a decade. The authorities cited the wastage of food depicted in the film as the reason for the ban. They saw the Dadaist attack on morality for what it was and they were not amused. Most of the commentary on the film I´ve seen on the internet makes the film out to be an attack on communism (mostly because it was made in socialist Czechoslovakia) or a feminist statement (mostly because the two protagonists, Maria 1 and Maria 2 are female.)

I prefer viewing Daisies as a Dadaist Potlatch. Like any Dadaist work, its target is the bourgeois tout court, and not restricted only to the socialist bourgeois of Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Potlatch refers to the gratuitous destruction of property practiced by the natives of the west coast of North America. The practice so offended the morality of the Canadian government of the time, that it was banned. In Daisies, the Dadaist sensibility is obvious in almost every frame, just like ritualistic destruction of the potlatch.

Daisies begins and ends with a credit sequence over scenes of actual footage of war time devastation. Finally there is a postscript which reads:

¨This film is dedicated to all the people indignant only when their salads are trampled¨

The English subtitles supplied with the file are less than perfect but the print of the film is excellent. Daisies has all the innovation and experimentation of European film of the 1960s with an absurd irreverence.
I hope you enjoy.