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Pacific Northwest, United States
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

los posibles -- Dance film review

Featured at the Northwest Film Forum's "Pulsos Latinos" film festival, "los posibles" is a production of Grupo KM29, a genre-bending Argentinian arts organization, and "La Union de los Rios," a film production brainchild of Agustina Llambi Campbell, Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui and Santiago Mitre. Some readers may remember last year's fascinating and much-accoladed "El Estudiante" at the Film Forum, also directed by this team.

"los posibles" is an unforgettable synthesis of dance and movement, original live music, stunningly effective photography and camera work, and a riveting ensemble of male dancers. In its utter originality, devotion to male energy and physicality, and eroticism, it bears some comparison to Fassbinder's controversial but arguably masterful "Querelle" -- not in terms of content or even style, but in both films' success in creating an otherworldy, almost hypnotic world where speech and storyline are transcended by a language of movement and relationship.

"los posibles" moves through a succession of "beats" or movements, starting with a somber, shadowy space almost devoid of scale and shape, where male figures prowl, emerge, disappear, return, engage, disengage, touch, look, submit and transfigure in what suggests the silent, erotic dance of a cruise park or under-the-highway trysting point where language and identity are non-existent: movement or the absence thereof are the prime medium. The actual "KM29" on National Route 3 outside of Buenos Aires is such a place, apparently: a kind of no-man's-land beyond the rules and conventions of the Federal Capitol, where boundaries blur and a kind of dangerous, erotic, subversive anarchy holds.

From here, as the twilight gradually brightens, the men leap to an open floor where a complex web of action and interaction unfolds. The camera follows particular dancers and clusters, illuminating fragments of stories within a surrounding vortex of outsiders, observers, invaders, and newly-germinating stories.

Fernando Lockett and Pablo Parra insert their cameras like knowing and well-practiced eyes amidst the deceptively improvised-looking choreography and the stark industrial sets. The original score played live by Ramiro Cairo, is penetrating, primal, and supportive of the dancers; it permeates the space of the film without crowding the performers who share it -- a perfect synchronicity of genres.

At a mid-point of the film, the camera tantalizes with an ambiguous glimpse as from the wings of a major opera or concert hall: rising ranks of red-velvet seats, pillars, gilt arcades, and one of the few glimpses of vivid color in the otherwise pale palette of greys and browns.

"Ah," this viewer thought, "now we will see the performance in a live theater."

But no: this film, and the KM29 project as a whole, does not appear to take an interest in the concert venues of the Federal Capitol. Viewers instead are  drawn into the dark, ambiguous spaces between and behind the facades of mainstream culture, where danger and eros and experimentation cohabitate in joyful irreverence.

In the final trope of the film an outlier, a solo dancer who has circled and watched and remained apart from the evolution of the dance, finally finds his groove and earns his place among the clan of men. Here, as elsewhere, the film reveals an aspect of its work: the use of arts and community to lift up and unite outliers of society: the poor, the despised, the ignored, and to show the amazing,  revolutionizing power of eros and expressive freedom to transform and uplift humankind.

The film is one of a kind, and will hopefully return to NW Film Forum or SIFF and garner a larger audience than the woefully small crowd at NWFF on April 26, 2014. Those present witnessed a rare work of revolutionary collaboration among genres of film, music, movement and performance, alongside a social element (see KM29DANZA on the website) that seeks to empower and motivate street youth through  opportunities and training in performance arts.

See the film trailer here.

Ficha técnica y artística
Argentina - 2013 – 50 minutos – Color – HD

Dirección: Santiago Mitre – Juan Onofri Barbato
Producción: La Unión de los Ríos – Km29 – Alta Definición Argentina
Con el apoyo de: Instituto Cultural de la Provincia de Buenos Aires – Teatro Argentino de La Plata – Universidad del Cine.
Coreografía: Km29
Fotografía y Cámara: Fernando Lockett
Fotografía y Cámara adicional: Pablo Parra
Producción Ejecutiva: Agustina Llambí Campbell
Sonido: Santiago Fumagalli
Escenografía e iluminación: Matías Sendón
Montaje: Delfina Castagnino – Susana Leunda
Música: Ramiro Cairo
Asistente de Dirección: Juan Schnitman – Marina Sarmiento
Jefatura de Producción: Martin Feldman
Coordinadora de Producción: Giselle Lozano
Vestuario: Km29 - Carolina Sosa Loyola

Interpretada por: Lucas Araujo – Jonathan Da Rosa – Jonathan Carrasco – Daniel Leguizamón – Alejandro Alvarenga – Alfonso Baron – Pablo Kun Castro

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Message from Oso

The Stillaguamish River looking downstream toward Oso, 2013

When 15 million cubic yards of earth, rock and forested mountainside came crashing down on Oso, Washington, sweeping away the lives and homes of dozens of victims, horror and disbelief quickly gave way to an all-out rescue effort by volunteers and relief workers from across the state and beyond.

There is a global message from this local tragedy.

For years before the most recent landslide, the mountainside was identified as a risk. A smaller slide less than a decade ago sent a loud signal that even an unmovable mountain could alter its character in a flash. Despite warnings from scientists and documentation of the looming danger, homes were built and lives lived in the shadow of impending crisis.

For decades scientists worldwide have been piecing together the global disaster awaiting us: glaciers crumbling into the sea and surging from mountains; snow-packs evaporating to be seen no more; sea currents and air disrupted and turbulent. Global warming is documented, and projected to become worse than we can imagine.

Yet we live our lives, drive cars and trucks, fly in planes, heat our homes and light our cities, burning, burning, burning age old carbon in a worldwide bacchanal of fire.

The dozens killed in Oso, and the many more displaced and grief-struck, are real and near and need our compassion and support. They are a tiny fraction, however, of the ongoing greater tragedy worldwide, as sea levels rise and the earth, our only home, undergoes a momentous and calamitous shift we have triggered and accelerated. Multitudes will be displaced, drowned, lost. There will be no bystanders.

The warnings have been sounded. Where are the leaders to exhort and mobilize us to prevent the unimaginable? Where the throngs of willing hands and hearts to avert it? We can wait, as Oso did, for disaster to sweep away all that we have built and love, or we can take action. Now.

Earth as we know it

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why Kennedy still hurts

With my sister Martha, maybe early spring after Kennedy's death

John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago today stimulates a new blog post after a long hiatus. Like many people my age and older, I am emotionally affected by this day.

My own story, briefly: I was 9 years old, making little "Pilgrim villages" out of construction paper in the week before Thanksgiving, which fell on the same calendar day as this year -- the 28th. The principal of my little village school in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts stuck his head in the room and said to our teacher -- and I quote -- "The President has been shot in the head. We're sending the kids home and closing school." I recall him as smiling as he delivered this news. It seems implausible, even if he was a right wing bigot in almost every way, but still... that's what I remember; I thought it must be a joke, since he was smiling.

The parsonage in Cummington, Mass.
We were sent home, and when a little later the news came on the radio that he was dead, I rolled on the floor and wailed. He was my hero: I had his picture on the wall of my upstairs back bedroom, and had been given a record album of his speeches on my birthday that summer. His death by assassination was unthinkable; assassinations were things of the distant past, the stuff of legend, not something real and present.

It was the end of an era in many ways, an end for which no one was prepared. It ripped open a deep wound in the collective consciousness of the nation, exposing a great and terrible vulnerability. It heightened the paranoia already in play, the suspicion that the world was descending into greater and greater chaos and even anarchy; that powerful forces and enemies were arrayed against us; that no security or safety could be found even in the highest echelons of power and privilege. It was as potent a moment of fear and loss as September 11; if anything so unthinkable could occur, what more horrors might follow?

Remembering Kennedy's death 50 years ago almost to the minute as I write this, tears spring as I read and remember. As a 9-year old, I was already moving from childhood innocence toward a darker understanding of the presence of inextinguishable pain in the world; toward awareness of my own and others' mortality; toward understanding that terrible things could happen, had happened, and would happen again. Kennedy's death confirmed all this, and more, and left me stunned and incredulous.

Today our country remains divided, fearful, and disillusioned. The Presidency, once a pedestal-mounted symbol of power and greatness, has shrunk in stature; the revered, almost god-like image of "The President of the United States of America" of childhood has been humanized to almost pitiable limitations. In my own journey over fifty years, I have come to recognize that my remaining span in which to enjoy and endure the miracle of sentience on this planet is shrinking. The journey from innocence and blind trust toward experience and wise discernment is long.

As an individual, I, and we as a country, have left the first stage long behind. Attaining the second is and will ever be a work in progress.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Concert review: Mind-bending "Brooklyn Rider" at Town Hall

Pina Bausch - The Rite of Spring
Occasionally a cultural experience emerges indelibly as a peak life event. By grace or luck, I made it to Pina Bausch's 1984 Rite of Spring at Brooklyn Academy of Music after reading a review in the New York Times while living in Manhattan in the early 80's. That electrifying performance opened my eyes to hitherto unimagined dimensions, as though from a balcony-seat view of the sun, a most elemental force of nature teeming with energy and creativity. I bounded out of that venue a changed man.

Joshua Roman
I no longer live in New York, and can't depend on cultural events around every corner to kindle flames in my soul. Thankfully, on Sunday night, January 29, despite my low spirits, I decided to join my partner Warren at Town Hall for a concert by Brooklyn Rider, a string ensemble invited to Seattle by cellist Joshua Roman as part of his TownMusic Series.

O...M...G. This foursome, members of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, hooked me in the first startling seconds of their new composition, the mind-altering Seven Steps, a journey through texture, dissonance, harmony, fluidity of sound and movement unlike any piece of music I have heard. Riveting is too weak a word. Music beamed in to Earth via radio from another inhabited world somewhere in the galaxy (as could happen any time) would possibly recreate my first exposure to Seven Steps. By its conclusion I felt certain I was in for an unforgettable evening. 

Philip Glass' Suite from the film Bent followed, and fulfilled the prophecy of the first. Brooklyn Rider has made Glass' music a specialty, evidenced by their disc Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass. The Bent suite, thrillingly enlivened by the mastery and cohesion of this talented team, further soothed my spirit and opened my mind. These dramatic, contrasting short pieces throb with currents of life and transformation, despair and apotheosis. 

Glass, and the Brooklyn Riders, take familiar musical cadences, chord progressions, rhythms, and bend them through a prism, stretching out, slowing down, remolding, reinventing our experience of melody and form. The organs of sense must bend to encompass such aesthetic alchemy; in its thrall one feels almost a physical metamorphosis of the self.

Brooklyn Rider: Johnny Gandelsman, Eric Jacobsen,
Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords
Photo credit: Sarah Small
It takes special chemistry among performers to achieve this. Brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen on violin and cello, Johnny Gandelsman and Nicholas Cords on violin and viola, almost dance to the music they draw from their 16 strings. I’ve never seen a string quartet perform on its feet before (Eric Jacobsen sits on a raised platform to be at eye level with his colleagues), nor infuse its playing with such visual movement and appeal.

This band of musical brothers goes beyond chemistry into physics, with quantum connections nowhere more evident than in the last work before intermission, company member Colin Jacobsen's amusing, exhilarating Sheriff's Leid, Sheriff's Freude, a weirdly cartoonish fusion of classical, bluegrass, and the-yet-to-be-labeled. 
Photo credit: Sarah Small 
At this point in the program parallel universes began to shimmer in the staid concert hall. Wandering through fun-house mirrors of convention, hip-shooting at expectations, Sheriff astonishes with its originality, culminating in Colin Jacobsen's utterly unexpected, laugh-out-loud funny vocal solo near the end, and the trippy Looney-Toons climax. Space-time warps near creations of this magnitude. Art so close to the edge of the known universe does not lightly touch an audience. Like certain drug-induced or psychic experiences, there is no going back: you will never see or hear the world quite as before.

This remarkable first half laid the groundwork for the Beethoven String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, which followed John Zorn's solemn Kol Nidre at the top of the second set. Artists take liberties with a musical score by the mere act of lifting it from the page to the stage; the extreme technical challenges of Beethoven's late magnum opus demand new insight and intuition from every group that takes it on. I was aquiver to hear Brooklyn Rider’s approach, and was not disappointed, or fully prepared for what followed.

Brooklyn Rider infused the quartet's first movement with lusciously fluid tonalities and shapes; again images of the sun come to mind, as seen through a powerful telescope: impossibly huge and distant, but through the power of optics near enough to discern its vast, slow welling of energy and power, explosive force restrained by its own gravity.

The following movements, some seamlessly flowing into one another, others separated out like beats in an unfolding chant, highlighted contrasts of pizzicato and legato, fortissimo clashes and pianissimo reconciliations, quantum waves of multi-layered sound and brittle particle interactions sparking muons of audio delight. While unerringly true to Beethoven’s score, Brooklyn Rider thrusts the German genius to the forefront of 21st century avant-garde. I will never hear this quartet, or possibly any Beethoven quartet, with quite the same ears. My doors of perception have been thrown open, and it's a new world.

By the end of the concert and that Seattle rarity, a third curtain call, my Sunday-night doldrums were dissipated, my heart and spirit refreshed and uplifted. Amazing, the power of music to transform the human condition.

Galaxy core
I suspect that music holds a deeper mystery than we yet fully conceive, in its correlation with elemental forces of nature, the fabric of the universe(s), and the unique role of human life in its discovery and exploration. I have no doubt that sentient beings on other worlds have also discovered its power through whatever organs of sense nature has created in countless permutations across the wide orchestral score of the cosmos. 

I hope, on the day human beings first thrill to the music of an alien race, that cutting-edge composers and artists like Brooklyn Rider will be credited with having prepared us to appreciate it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Concert Review: Onyx Chamber Players
January 15, 2012, Town Hall, Seattle
The Onyx Chamber Players:
Meg Brennand, David White, James Garlick

Braving the snow and bridging the centuries with Schumann and Brahms

On Sunday night, January 15, 2012, with snow blanketing Capitol Hill in Seattle, a small but dedicated Town Hall audience was rewarded with a sparkling concert by the Onyx Chamber Players, Seattle's best-kept chamber music secret. Following the group's outstanding October concert of trios by Mozart, Debussy, and Shostakovich, Sunday's pairing of Schumann's 1842 Piano Quartet in E-flat with Brahms' Quartet in A, composed two decades later and five years after Schumann's tragically early death, was a fascinating musical and psychological study of the two composers.

Guest violist Melvin Butler
Pianist David White was in fine form in his brief pre-concert lecture, sharing insights into the music and the intertwined fates of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. White and his Onyx partners, violinist James Garlick and cellist Meg Brennand,  joined for this concert by Melvin Butler on the viola, flung themselves into the contrasting pieces with their inimitable élan and playfulness. The alternating sostenuto, allegro, scherzo, andante cantabile, and finale vivace of Schumann's quartet require a high level of ensemble discipline. After a slightly nervous start, the players quickly found their usual seamless cohesion, elegantly navigating Schumann's almost bi-polar changes of mood and rhythm.

The andante movement makes a special demand on the cellist, who must perform an unusual mid-movement "scordatura," or retuning of a string, from the low C string to a B-flat, and back again, all to produce a single note, or "organ point." Meg Brennand handled this potentially awkward maneuver graciously, though one is tempted to ask Schumann, posthumously, whether he mightn't have found a simpler way to achieve his desired effect.

The blazing finale, which echoes the quartet's "Finlandia"-like opening theme with an abbreviated three-note motif, achieved an intensity of emotion and energy spearheaded by James Garlick's ever-charming bravura and David White's unflagging piano work. The resounding finish brought closure to the work's battling elements, no easy task for a composition which, as Meg Brennand noted after the concert, struggles to "rise from the page," requiring an intuitive reach beyond the notes themselves to kindle Schumann's conflicted and fiery spirit.

In the second half of the program, Brahms' Quartet in A, the Onyx Chamber Players were at their very best, rendering the broad, layered strokes and romantic passion of Brahms with breathtaking subtlety of dynamics and tone. The standing ovation was a spontaneous response to an uplifting aesthetic experience and, perhaps, an acknowledgment of the genius and journeys of the two featured composers, who, across their overlapping lifetimes, built a bridge from the high classical periods of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, so influential on Schumann, to Brahms, who missed the 20th century by a mere three years.

Several opportunities remain to hear Onyx Chamber Players before the end of the season. A reprise of the Schumann-Brahms program is offered on February 25th at the Battelle Auditorium in Richland, WA, as part of the Camerata Music Series, and their annual all-Beethoven concert, March 18 at Town Hall, is always a delight. The final concert of the year, June 24th at Town Hall, will feature music from America and the British Isles.

Next in Seattle:
Annual all-Beethoven concert, Sunday, March 18th, 2011 at 7:00pm  - Downstairs at Town Hall Seattle -- 1119 Eighth Avenue, Seattle, WA

"Kommt mal, wer noch hört!"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hope for Haiti and Soccer Dreams

On Saturday I attended an author reading/event at Secret Garden Books in Ballard, featuring my friend Clare Hodgson Meeker reading from her book Soccer Dreams, and author/illustrator Jesse Joshua Watson with his picture book, Hope for Haiti.

Both books center around the game of soccer, and bring out inspiring, world-broadening themes that children can relate to on emotional, imaginative and physical levels.

Jesse's book deserves a wider audience than it has so far received. Haiti's misery in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake has largely disappeared from the media and hence from the minds of most Americans. As Jesse said at his reading, on this small island just a short hop from our shores "the quality of life is beyond bad, it's just shameful, it's so difficult there. So I just want to help our kids understand something about what's going on in the world."

Like Soccer DreamsHope for Haiti uses the internationally popular game of soccer as a vehicle to express hope and build bridges between children of incredibly different backgrounds, but who can relate experientially, as children so readily do when given the opportunity, through play.

Author Clare Hodgson Meeker
Soccer Dreams creatively weaves fiction and non-fiction, a trademark of Clare's style evident in earlier books like Hansa: The True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby and I Could Not Keep Silent: The Story of Rachel Carson. Soccer Dreams  tells the story of Todo, a boy from a Nairobi, Kenya who plays soccer in an empty lot with a ball made of plastic bags wrapped in twine.

When his family moves to Seattle, Todo gets recruited onto a neighborhood soccer team, and begins to learn about much more than soccer as he transitions to his new culture and home, facing universal challenges of childhood and growing up.

Todo is based on the real life story of a Kenyan boy, Tolosa, an avid soccer player and now high school student in Seattle. The parallel story in Soccer Dreams consists of profiles, photos, and quotes from Seattle Sounders players, which complement the narrative of Todo's journey. The result is a unique combination of fan-book, picture book, and inspirational resource for kids, parents, and any sports-minded reader.

Even I, who am no more a sports fan than a nuclear scientist, am drawn into the story and its message, and at events like Saturday's reading and book signing (which also featured opportunities to make soccer balls out of plastic bags and string) I was swept up in the soccer fever and excitement filling the bookstore.
Jesse Joshua Watson and colleague in Haiti

Both Jesse's and Clare's book are great for kids, for soccer lovers, as gifts or to share in families and among friends. Support your local bookstores, and buy a copy!

By the way, Seattle Sounders star player Steve Zakuani was also at the bookstore event, signing books, autographing soccer balls and shirts, and making a humble pitch for his foundation, Kingdom of Hope, through which Steve is helping low income children and youth discover the life-changing possibilities of cooperation, teamwork, diligence, and fun through the great game of soccer.

All these creative efforts to use sports, writing, and imagination to inspire children as readers, team players, and world citizens, are worth lending our support!

For that matter, so are independent bookstores like The Secret Garden Bookshop!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Film Review:
Why Hugo Stinks

Despite fawning reviews and a Golden Globe award, Martin Scorsese's indigestible blob of treacle stinks. Not one frame of this bloated, purposeless film has a gram of authentic charm. That won’t stop the Academy of Motion Picture blah blah blah from heaping praises on it.

The child actors, preciously over-dressed and made up, look like pampered dogs going through their show routines. Every moment the camera lingers on those pretty little faces betrays the heavy hand of their handlers, presumably starting with Scorsese, who seems to have as much chemistry with kids as he does with wives.

The adult actors show calculated mastery of film and TV conventions, telegraphing their intentions to an audience the director assumes is so deadened and starved by contemporary culture as to be impervious to any but the most belabored semaphores. Ben Kingsley seems to be perpetually watching himself in the mirror; Sacha Baron Cohen’s wooden station master looks terrified of losing his mustache; Ray Winstone, the evil-incarnate uncle, finds one note and toots it like a bratty 5-year-old with a kazoo.

The repetitive musical score grinds familiar grooves: tinkling chimes for magic, throbbing legato in the heart-warming bits, pizzicatos of excitement for moments like the chase scene with the Doberman pinscher in the mall – sorry, train station. Sentiment like this is available in a gingerbread box with built-in digitized Christmas carols -- a fair description of this film as a whole.

As warm-hearted and uplifting as a prostitute in fairy-tale drag, Hugo screams "fake me" while wriggling seductively through its 3-D effects. The faux Belle Epoch décor and costumes pander to that peculiarly American yearning for the fake that drives hordes to palaces of banality like Disney World and Las Vegas. Over-engineered set pieces and badly-directed actors seem rented from a literary/cinematic chop-shop: great ideas from literature (and the decent book by Brian Selznick) have been stolen, dismantled, and repackaged as trivial bon-bons.

Hugo is a huge, steaming plate of candy-crap dolloped with sugar sauce. Underneath, it’s an over-lingering glimpse of American movie-making that celebrates excess and mocks its audience's ever-rising threshold for mediocrity. Whether there was any shred of redeeming originality or humility before the end of this overblown sugar-puff of a movie, or not, I cannot say, as I left well before it ended, clutching my friend's elbow, fearing for our souls. If it got better before the end, well, good for Mr. Scorsese, and exc-u-use me!

Sadly, the fact that Hugo stinks is exactly why it is likely to garner the biggest, loudest, smelliest blasts of praise at the Academy awards. It's a pile of crap, but to Americans inured to the self-congratulatory Hollywood blockbuster assembly-line, it's a piece of cake. So let those eat it who will; I will happily gnaw bread.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reflection: An Island of Sorrow

Photo by Will Rose, Orcas Island, WA. Nov. 2011 

My father Dave passed away in September at age 95. After his diagnosis with cancer, when we knew his life would last only weeks, our family drew closely together. As the end approached, time compressed. We did many things for the last time with Dave: watching family slides, singing songs, saying grace at table, listening to an old joke. And then he was gone.

Grief remained as an unseen guest, and followed me as I took much-needed leave from my teaching job and rented a small cabin on Orcas Island, alone, hoping to do some writing. Much of the time I ached with depression and sorrow, sleeping, reading, staring at waves lapping a pebbly beach. Grief peopled my solitude, crowding into silent caverns of my heart, holding up memories and mirrors, demanding contemplation. My retreat was a time of convalescence on an island of sorrow.

Eventually I got to some writing, but soon it was time to leave. I wondered if I had wasted my time, mooning around and feeling sorry for myself rather than sticking to my writing goals. As I ferried homeward across the water to the mainland, grief fell behind, somehow rooted to that island shore.

In the following weeks, life gradually shifted to a new "normal." I went back to my teaching with revived enthusiasm, and stayed in close touch with my mother and siblings and other family members. We have comforted and counseled one another as we move on with our lives. Friends, too, have helped in countless ways.

So has my muse. My writing work has had a renaissance. Fitting it in among other commitments, I've been taking risks, trying out new ideas and letting others go, revising and slimming down the manuscript. The novel, and I, are gaining clarity. As a teacher, too, I'm back on my game, learning from the ever-changing challenges of the classroom, which is another kind of mirror. Work and play and family and day-to-day life have achieved a new equilibrium. Perhaps my retreat served a purpose after all.

As Christmas approaches, another milestone "After Dave," I look back with gratitude at that island with its stony shore. Loss lies heavily on a human heart, but time bathes the pain with ever-moving tides and currents. Lightness returns, and as the stone rolls away, new life does spring forth. 

My sisters Debbie (left) and Betsy (right) and me with our dad, Dave, days before he passed away.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dream: Tumbling from the sky

A dream I was in an airplane, flying and talking casually with a group of people. Suddenly the plane began to yaw and pitch, but our conversation went on untroubled. Then I became aware that things were looking pretty dire: the plane tipped violently to the right and spun around. "We've lost air traction!" I cried out, and knew there was no way we could recover. Through the windows I saw buildings and trees spinning, growing closer. Somehow calm, I prepared myself for imminent oblivion.

Photo by Will Rose, December 2010, Guemes Island, WA

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dream: Crumbling bluff

A dream the night before last: realized I was getting old, no longer with any connection to the younger generation. I felt vivid awareness of my inner youth belying my aging body. I walked along a rocky coastline, sliding with all the grace of a young 'skater' along a slippery ridge of half-submerged rock; I hopped to shore at the base of a towering bluff of reddish rock, a jumble of sedimentary rock and packed mud, noting my graceful leap and the strength and control I had of my body; a young man walking past saw me and averted his eyes as the young do, writing me off as an old guy devoid of any possible interest.

I saw and felt this, but also awareness of the self I am now and always have been -- a continuous, if illusory, sense of who I am regardless of the impressions of others. I began to scale the rocks, deeply conscious of the road I have traveled, my rich past, the boy I remain in my soul... To my consternation, the bluff crumbles; I can gain no solid foot or hand-hold. Every rock I try to grab pulls loose and falls; chunks of rock and sections of the bluff tumble dangerously under and around me.

Me on the Lizieux, France, 1973, 18 years old
Somehow I manage to clamber to the top, but find I am emerging from a narrow opening in a roof of a smaller room or shed inside a larger structure, a barn perhaps. Below me on the ground a young boy looks up at me, and at his feet I see a shaky wooden ladder. I ask him to prop it against the roof for me, and he obliges. I climb back to terra firma, wondering why everything has become so uncertain and difficult. I awake with very much the same thought.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Film review: Chaplin's Tramp is King

"Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve": The Films of Charlie Chaplin
April 15-21 at SIFF Cinema.
The Charlie Chaplin Film Festival closed Thursday night at SIFF Cinema. A week ago, with little fanfare, it opened to a small but excited crowd, among them young devotees in Chaplinesque attire and moustaches, 20-ish couples, middle-aged folk, elders, and single odd-balls like this writer - an approximate cross-section of Charlie Chaplin's 21st century following.
          As the audience dwindled through the week, the significance of his oeuvre seemed only to grow. In 2011, more than three decades after Charlie Chaplin's death and 122 years after his birth, "Charles the Silent" reigns over a threadbare kingdom. Still a name and figure almost anyone can recognize, Chaplin's genius gets lip service even as his legacy fades in the imagination of a generation and an era. People think they know Chaplin: the little man with the funny walk and the top hat and cane. In today's America, to know a little is to know it all, but a closer look at Chaplin reveals depths beyond the scope of casual acquaintance. Everyone knows who he is, but few know him for what he is. 
          SIFF's high-quality prints and large screen brought him vividly to life across the decades of his evolution, evoking laughter, awe, and tears even from viewers like myself seeing some of the films for the dozenth time. Full-screen, Chaplin can be painfully accessible, cracking us up while breaking our hearts with his loves and hopes and dashed dreams, his deceits and humiliations. If the Self is King, Chaplin is Jester, mocking our delusions of grandeur and importance, laying bare our pettiness and frailty. The Little Tramp disarms the ego with laughter; in laughter is humility, and brief liberation from the chains of self-interest. 

          Chaplin drives us to laughter, then slaps us back to our senses with harsh truth, challenging not only the tyrants in our own hearts but those in the world at large, whatever their sizes and disguises. The fickle millionaire in City Lights who embraces the Tramp when drunk and rejects him when sober prefigures today's billionaire bailouts as taxpayers stretch their shrinking dollars. The lust for "a mountain of gold" in The Gold Rush drives men to betrayal -- Madoff, anyone? -- while the humble working man of Modern Times first figuratively, then literally, plays a cog in the machine, chewed up and spat out at will by competing demands of industry and labor. "Pathetic little tramps" today no less than in the turbulent 1930's are shouting for justice from Madison to Damascus. 

          No film more poignantly lends voice to the powerless than The Great Dictator, where Chaplin's social idealism soars in "the little barber's" final oration. Whatever its flaws may be of sentimentality or hyperbole -- and one may find such "flaws" throughout Chaplin's work if one wishes -- that scene must be the bravest 4 1/2 minutes in cinematic history. The irony of the King of Silent Comedy speaking truth from his throne, the screen, holds no trace of cynicism. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor," says the humble barber, and goes on with exquisite rhetoric to exhort soldiers and citizens to rise against their oppressors: "You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power." If only our leaders could invoke democracy with such sincere passion.

          Chaplin broke his silence to challenge us with this message, but our deafness may be incurable. It is no coincidence that the last word of the film is a command to "listen." In the final seconds of the film, Paulette Goddard's Hannah, her spirit and hopes crushed by oppression, does hear; in a stunning apotheosis we see her uplifted against an open sky, a goddess of liberty. Read the speech and listen to a complete audio recording here
Read it and weep, for in this age of pomposity and deception, where plain truth stumbles like a humble prospector through a blizzard of lies, we drift ever further from the vision of Chaplin's controversial masterpiece. A thoughtful look back at the King of Silence and his long creative journey was an eye-opening, ear-opening experience for the devoted or curious few who made it to SIFF's Chaplin Festival. If you missed it, well, there's always DVD, or god help us, YouTube.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflection: Flying Dreams

All my life I've been fortunate to have dreams of flying, beginning with the mystery dream when I was four or five, when the difference between dreaming and waking must have been still working itself out in my budding understanding. Across the street from our house on Church Street in Salem, Oregon was a school for the blind; my best friend was the son of the director, a boy named Jerry. We played on a swing-set under some trees on the lawn, a set with chains from which canvas straps were strung, making a flexible seat. I loved swinging there, up and down, high into the trees, back to the ground, that childhood joy of danger and daring and flight.

The whole experience is somewhat lost in the haze of time now; I recall the recollection more than the experience itself. I know that for a long time I believed, without questioning, that I had actually flown at one point, while swinging: the straps were gone, maybe even the chains; I just swung up into the air as if lying on my stomach, gliding, soaring upward, weightless and unattached, in a golden light, sky-blue world of puff clouds, dancing leaves, breeze and beauty, flying like a bird.

Further recollection is that years later, eons in childhood time, perhaps when I was 9 or 10, this long-held memory of flight suddenly dawned on me as an impossibility. It had been there in the background of my mind as a sort of a priori given; unremarkable, though lovely, no more questioned or pondered than the presence of the sky. In one of a series of gradual "falls from grace" with the onset of puberty and growing consciousness of the world around me, it hit me that that experience could only have been a dream. Again, what I remember is the memory of how that realization shocked and puzzled me, as if I had learned that gravity, a given my whole life, only worked with your eyes open.

The discovery reshaped my whole concept of who I was in the world and how things worked. Magic, ingrained in me deeply from an endless supply of books treating that subject (more about that in other posts!), was an essential and continually elusive aspect of the real world, and only gradually, over many more years, did I release my belief that it was as true as any other law of nature, just harder to pin down. I'm not sure I have released that belief to this day -- just reshaped it, really.

Helping to keep belief alive is the steady flow of flying dreams through my complex and vivid dream life. The flying dreams come again and again, in all kinds of permutations; they are one set in a catalogue of magic dreams: the ones where I can breathe underwater and explore the bottom of an ocean or stream bed (these have become much more rare); where I can talk to animals and befriend them in their languages; where I explore underground worlds; where I fly or leap or float, sometimes with control, often losing control in some way, either to fall, or drift, or fail to fly high enough or far enough to escape an approaching danger.

For a while not too long ago I was wondering if I was losing the gift of flying in dreams; it seemed I hadn't had one for quite a while, and I speculated as to the cause. Maybe becoming a public school teacher, I thought, had taken away the magic. It seemed like a logical association of ideas. The dreams have returned, though.

Less than a week ago I had a most elaborate one, starting in a park in Manhattan, pedaling upward as if on a magic, invisible bike, laughing down as people stared at me in wonderment. I sped westward, ending up at a castle where the skyline of the city was barely visible in the distance. Several adventures there involving climbing over rooftops and discovering mouldering cadavers under the shingles, then creeping along a window ledge back toward the gate and an open terrace, a perfect and much-needed launching ground for my return to the city. I stood there, amazed at how far the city was; summoning my strength, determined, I finally launched down a steep hillside, airborne, and headed homeward. Once aloft, though, I realized I had forgotten something -- I wish I could remember what -- and would have to fly back. Of course, this proved virtually impossible; my intuitive, invisible directional instruments were off-kilter; it was a huge effort to describe a long, slow circle back to where I had started, with a deepening sense of gloom about ever succeeding of reaching either of my destinations: the city in the distance, or the castle from which I had just escaped.

More dreams of this kind than I can ever count or remember have leavened my night life, filled me with hope, wonder, terror, and elation. Thank you, o Muse. All my life I have been lifted, warned, deceived and tantalized by the invisible trick of flight. What it has meant to me as a waking creature is not fully knowable, except to say, perhaps, that without those dreams I should have been confined to a flatland of my imagination, rather than a recurring and inspiring realm of air and sky.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Film review: "Unmistaken Child"

"Unmistaken Child" 

Nati Baratz, Writer/Director/Producer
Ilil Alexander, Producer/Co-writer
Arik Bernstein, Producer

If you have the slightest interest in Buddhism, anthropology, or on-the-edge filmmaking, you should not miss this marvelous film.

Neither Roger Ebert's inanely dismissive review nor Stephen Holden's more nuanced discussion acknowledges this film's incredible achievement: documenting and participating in the discovery of a deceased Lama's spiritual successor according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The filmmakers must have begun their years-long journey with the same tenuous uncertainty and dogged commitment as the monk Tenzin Zopa, whose quest for the reincarnation of his spiritual master rests on sheer faith and sense of duty. Neither the monk nor the film-makers could have known how the journey would end, and that is one of the marvels of this crisply edited, stunning documentary: it undertakes the same risky journey as its subject, and, like the young monk, is transformed by the process.

The film we watch for the first half or so of the movie is not the same film we see by the end. Just as the monk and those he meets are transformed by their success in choosing the "unmistaken child," the film changes over time. Better cameras improve the image quality by the second or third year of the process (new grant money, perhaps?) The Israeli filmmakers seem ever more integrated into the communities they observe, their camera witnessing intimate moments of family life, the testing of the chosen boy, monastic traditions and rituals such as the hair-snipping and naming by the Dalai Lama, and the child's celebratory return to the monastery.

Ebert and Holden both underestimate the emotional and spiritual impact of this excellent film. Ebert displays astonishing provincialism in his critique: "I know I am expected to believe the tenets of a religion on the basis of faith, not common sense, but during this film, I found that very difficult. How reliable are wind directions, the interpretation of ashes and astrological readings? Would you give over your son on such a basis? Would you trust such a chosen one as your spiritual leader?"

Ebert's questions miss the point laughably. A documentary on Christian priesthood might arouse some astonishment at a faith that practices daily miraculous "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of a 2,000-year-old martyr. "Unmistaken Child" does not rationalize, explain, or ask us to accept anything. It allows us to witness an ancient spiritual tradition through the journey of faith of a humble man and to judge for ourselves the fruits of his work. Through his eyes and experiences, presented with humility and authenticity, we observe a spiritual quest suffused with beauty, mystery, emotion, sacrifice, and finally transcendence. What more could one ask of a spiritual experience? What more could one ask of a cinematic experience?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Poem: To George Pissarro

So glad to have known you my friend,
lived a piece of your life and art.

To my eyes a genius
unsung, penurious as the greats,
stone and oil
wood and wax, aflame
in your vision,
aloft with wings of canvas
marbled smoothly skyward
you drifted
studio to studio
fed the pigeons that strolled
your kitchen more at home than I,
biked the Hudson,
ferried Staten Island
for twenty years
handed off programs
at Avery Fischer Hall.

What became of your works?
I treasure the sheaf of photos you sent
images of your heart
and wild, wild soul
(your madness could be scary)
and the head of stone
you bequeathed me
broken from its body,
the very piece you struggled to hoist
up your west-
fourth stoop
a winter day
in the past century --
something fluttered in my ribcage:

"Need a hand?"

How a life may bend on such a bone.

So glad to have known you,
crazy Portuguese francophone,
amazing carver and smoother of stone;
had I the means I'd have been the patron
you deserved,
could have saved your work and vision
but probably never


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