Friday, June 26, 2015

The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali

In May 2015, partners involved in the extensive restoration/reconstruction of Satyajit Ray's masterworks The Apu Trilogy released meticulously restored versions in a digital format. I've just seen the first film, Pather Panchali, about the birth and childhood of Apu. The sound is Ravi Shankar's music which in many cases renders dialogue unnecessary, expressing the emotional layers of life in a variegated stream of notes and beats. Mischief, mystery, argument, discovery - the wedding of sitar and drums to the camera's keen eye creates a rapturous and all-encompassing experience.

The camera loves everything it sees: a large lidded basket of kittens; a girl hiding in an orchard, stealing a piece of fruit, then skipping home where she places her bounty in the bowl of ancient Auntie, the penniless woman who shares her family's house; water striders moving on the surface of a river; a distant shot of sister and brother hurrying along the right-angle paths flanking rice paddies, in search of the family's calf, an excuse to go see the railroad tracks.

Whether the image is of Auntie struggling by the light of her oil lamp to thread a needle, or of young Apu fascinated by the behavior of his teacher who is also a merchant, or the exaggerated costumes and dialogue of the traveling troupe who entertain the village, this black-and-white film is eloquent, shedding light on family, on village society, on the full tapestry of life.

Satyajit Ray was master of his medium, and we are the richer for his vision. If you have the opportunity to see these restored films on a big screen, go!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon


Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon © 2006
Reviewed by NC Weil

In the nearly-1100-page steppes of this novel, Pynchon starts at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, carrying us through the tumult, political and scientific, that lay the tracks to World War I. We cross continents and oceans to linger in the mining boom-towns of Colorado; observe competing strains of obsessed mathematicians who gather in Illinois, at Yale, in London, Gottingen and Ostend to disagree about the shape of time; fly with a crew of perpetually adolescent extra-dimensional balloonists - The Chums of Chance - materialized from the pages of dime novels to ply the skies, unseen by the earthbound as they undertake missions-for-hire; loathe an evil plutocrat who perceives that money is the next ruler of the world; and most especially, follow the family of Webb Traverse, Anarchist dynamiter of mines whose murder scatters his wife Mayva, sons Frank, Reef and Kit, and daughter Lake to lives seasoned by explosion, whose travels suggest the scattering of bomb shrapnel: revolts in Mexico, mines and railway tunnels of the Alps, uprising in the Balkans, a journey in Siberia during the Tunguska Event of 1908. And to Venice, where they don't have purpose so much as compulsion to spend time.

Secret organizations advance their chess-games of strategic mayhem, at times in opposition but perhaps always in cahoots, their purpose the domination of masses of people by means of exhausting work, controlled information, and the lure and necessity of money, using nationalism and war to stamp out the anarchist dream of humanity in cooperation.

The students of time gather annually at Candlebrow University in Grossdale, Illinois, where one might find patrons, professors, lunatics, and a time machine junkyard:
"Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines - Chronoclipses, Asimov Transeculars, Tempomorph Q-98s - broken, defective, scorched by catastrophic flares of misrouted energy, corroded often beyond recognition by unintended immersion in the terrible Flow over which they had been designed and built, so hopefully, to prevail... A strewn field of conjecture, superstition, blind faith, and bad engineering, expressed in sheet-aluminum, vulcanite, Heusler's alloy, bonzoline, electrum, lignum vitae, platinoid, magnalium, and packfong silver, much of it stripped away by scavengers over the years. Where was  the safe harbor in Time their pilots might have found, so allowing their craft to avoid such ignominious fates?"  The time machines' names are made up, and some of those materials would seem to be too (packfong silver? bonzoline?), but Pynchon didn't invent them - he's just very skilled at finding obscure terms and ideas, then making them both exotic and necessary.

Meanwhile, gaps open between dimensions, and the alert and perceptive can use them to inhabit paired worlds. And it wouldn't be a Pynchon novel without hefty doses of kinky sex.

As a lover of words, Pynchon gives us indelible names: Scarsdale Vibe, the American financier/archvillain.  We also have Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematical genius of Russian descent; her inamorata spy-bait Cyprian Latewood; Merle Rideout, an itinerant American photographer and his daughter Dahlia (Dally), abandoned by wife/mother when Dally was little; Lew Basnight, a private detective hired by Vibe and his henchman Foley Walker to break up Anarchist gangs in the Colorado mines; the Quaternions (a mathematical cult who believe in four-space) vs. the Vector Analysts who dispute their conclusions. And there is Shambhala, an other-dimensional paradise to which only the pure of purpose have access.

There are mystical instruments: the paramorphoscope, which allows the viewer to see "...Earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface, the optical arrangements for whose eventual projection onto the two-dimensional page proved to be very queer indeed." And the Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus, or Hypops, "revolutionizing desert travel by providing a practical way to submerge oneself beneath the sands and still be able to breathe, walk around, so forth."

He gives us Iceland Spar, a calcite crystal through which one may see a pair of refractions - the same image in different space/time. Mined in Iceland and Mexico, it was used by mirror-makers in a sunken portion of Venice where the craftsmen were held prisoner and eventually went mad thanks to the clarity of their creations.

Okay, so what happens? Plot, please! Thematically, we have the hegemony of money and nationalism against unions and anarchists; war against cooperation; light against darkness, but with light the villain; we have the dominance of materialism over mystic options and dimensions; we have the importance and the futility of family ties - though the murderers of Webb Traverse are soon known, and two of his sons agree to go after Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, years go by and the brothers keep getting sidetracked. Revenge tugs at them like ill-fitting clothes, not quite annoying enough to do something about.

Pynchon draws some parallels between that era a century gone, and our own: the acceleration of travel and communications forming a web that entraps and constrains us as surely as the network of train tracks bound the earth; military uses of light in the 1900's evolving to today's lasers; sophistication of weapons enabling less human-to-human combat, tending instead toward large-scale deployment and slaughter; Muscle, whether in the guise of private enforcers like Pinkertons and thugs or well-funded armies, does the unquestioned bidding of Authority; and surely, the more factually-"understood" our world, the more we crave the lighter touch of mysticism: Tarot, travel through dimensions and time, the hidden relationships between things, places, people which our logical minds deny, but whose connections govern us.

He frames the Tunguska Event in Siberia as a rupture in the fabric of space-time. We think of it now as a large meteorite impact, but in this novel, people all over the world are affected by it in varying ways, depending on their sensitivity to extra-rational activity. It represents a great pause in the onrush of mechanization, war and the pitting of groups against one another by nationality, belief and class. As memory of it fades, accessibility to a higher plane of existence is lost.

When a novelist creates and populates a world, the details have to ring true. Recognizing inaccuracy ejects a reader from the story, damaging our faith in our guide through a place we do not know. My travels and interests have intersected Pynchon's at many points, and not once did I catch him in error. In an era of sloppy off-the-cuff "information" I find it refreshing to read a well-researched book. He so skillfully interweaves what we only believe with what we have proven, that his most outlandish-sounding ideas make more sense than much of what we take for "reality" these days.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mary Coin, a novel by Marisa Silver

--> Mary Coin is the fictional name given the woman in the iconic Depression photograph taken by Dorothea Lange; she became the face of Okies struggling to survive as migrant workers in California. Four story-lines carry Marisa Silver's novel to convergence: a professor in the modern era considers history and how images shape our perceptions, while also trying to connect with his estranged teenage daughter; the woman of the title grows up in Oklahoma then relocates with her young family to California where as opportunities narrow they move from cabin to tent to living in a car; a grower in California blinds himself to the consequences of below-subsistence pay for the pickers; a lame woman who has made a modest living photographing society ladies in San Francisco finds herself without clients, and takes a job with the WPA, traveling to migrant encampments to document living conditions.

In the novel, these different strands establish a tempo that eases us toward its conclusions, but I find only two useful: photographer and subject. The professor asks questions that in the end seem redundant, and the story involving the grower's family is smudged with the authorial fingerprints of Plot Device. Without those sections it's a much shorter book, and perhaps that's why they are included, but as editor I would have stricken them, and sent the manuscript back to Silver to reshape. The parts that work are profound; it seems unworthy to pad them with trivia.

The questions this book raises have to do with perception, and how we can and cannot affect how others see our lives. Silver's artistry is that, without asserting an answer, she lets us see the consequences. Do photographs lie, or mislead us? We think we know something about people by seeing their picture, but aren't we projecting our own ideas? What do we - can we - really know, just from a photo? When context is subtracted from the captured instant, aren't we at the mercy of our own experience and conjectures? A few sentences about the subject give us the illusion of empathy: surely we would rather believe a photo can make us feel more human, than acknowledge how isolated we are, how vast the gulf between my life as observer, and yours in one moment observed.

This photographed instant has its own trajectory. Even as the woman's life continues, largely anonymous, the photo becomes an icon: a rallying point for reformers pleading for migrant workers, an image that epitomizes a historic moment, an artistic statement that transcends both photographer and subject. Yet for her, it's a trap: some part of her is chained to that desperation. Even as she claws her way to a better life - her own home, her children grown - a glimpse of that picture tells her the rest of her experience is illusory: one shutter-click is all the world will ever know. It's a bitter irony: as time obliterates her and the progress she has made, the photo lives on, caught forever in hopelessness.

This book is also about women, and the added burden of being female in a world that limits what they can do. But they are strong, and stubborn: the photographer sets aside her work to be with her painter husband - but the drive to express her own vision finally frees her, and when she resumes, she understands more clearly what she wants her images to show. Mary Coin survives one catastrophe after another, because she does not give up - somewhere in her future her children will thrive; her persistence is the only force that will get them there.

By making these women characters not archetypes, this novel pulls us in without insisting we take sides. We can argue logically that Mary Coin should have had a smaller family - but she loves her children - if she could go back in time and prevent any of those seven pregnancies, we know she would not. We might think that the photographer - a woman, a cripple - would excite the sympathy of the migrant workers. She feels solidarity, that she's using her skill to help them - but no: they feel hostile toward her and her camera, her car, her life that can record theirs then go away. These unexpected attitudes animate the story. We're not reading a report, or a soap opera: these are real people, and their dilemmas don't have neat solutions.

Photography is distinct from other arts in that it gives the illusion of subtracting the artist from the encounter between viewer and image. When we see a painting, we understand it as an interpretation of a person, a scene, an emotional state. The factual nature of a painting is secondary, if it exists at all.  But a photograph supposedly shows something Real. That woman was not acting at being impoverished or hungry or hopeless - whatever we see on her face was really there. But what about the photographer? She chose to frame the recorded image. She considered the light, the background, the area of focus - and out of many pictures, she was seeking one that would express directly the impact she felt. Though we do not see her, it is through her eyes, mind, experience that we see the subject.

And once the picture has been printed and published, she has no more control over it than does the woman depicted. It comes to encapsulate her work. She intended her portfolio to stir politicians to action, to rectify the circumstances she captured - but its immediacy and pathos remain potent today, long after we have forgotten the specifics of that injustice. That's what art does - it escapes the limits of its creation, reaching us years or centuries later with a still-familiar truth about the human condition.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boyhood - a Review

Richard Linklater's Oscar-nominated film Boyhood is not just a time-lapse snapshot of the lives of a family - it is an exploration of time itself, shrewd and philosophical while staying true to the ages of its characters.

We start with Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as a seven-year-old, and nine-year-old sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), living with their mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in a small Texas town. Fed up with feeling stuck, Olivia packs up the kids and moves to Houston to pursue a Masters degree. Her ex, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), returns from Alaska and becomes a sometime presence in his children's lives. And they grow up, all of them, in a film shot over a ten year period. Samantha develops from a blunt-spoken (smart-mouthed) older sister, to a poised and confident young woman. Mason, Jr. survives the milestones of boyhood with the awkwardness, curiosity and half-step-back contemplation that help us to remember our own experiences: not just the times we were pretty sure we knew what we were doing, but the cringe-worthy assertions and blithe mistakes we have surely stuffed into a forgettory closet.

The standard narrative story-arc - conflict, climax, resolution - is missing here. What we get in its place is the flow of life told in moments - a camping trip, a drunken rage, an embarrassing haircut, being the New Kid at school, a teenage boy's heartfelt conversation with a girl he hopes understands him, the ways a marriage sours. Along the way, Mason, Jr. and Samantha learn about themselves and their parents. The film ends with Mason in college, visiting his mom at her new apartment.

"I like your mom," one of Mason's friends tells him.
"I like her too, but she's as confused as I am," Mason says in a tone of baffled worry: how can she have lived so long and done so much, and still have no idea what her life's about? The adults around him are more cautionary than positive role models.

The moments we see are scripted, but acting works hand-in-glove with the passage of time to create the film's impact. Arquette does the most masterful job, in my estimation - her character keeps trying, keeps failing, keeps choosing a new path and trying again. Her struggles and self-doubts, and her successes, prevent her from living a life on automatic pilot. Hawke settles into a role he finds comfortable and lets it expand around him, simplifying his character's life by dulling that hunger-for-answers. He's the happier of the two - because he's stopped asking questions?

Linklater has a philosophical bent: his 2001 roto-scope animated Waking Life examines dreams and ideas in a way that gives us dreams and ideas of our own. In Boyhood the actuality of time is the driver. This cinematic journey is a long trip to a destination we can name as a point on a map while knowing nothing about it, except that if we keep going, eventually we'll find what's there.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bring up the Bodies - review

Hilary Mantel's Booker Award winning novel Bring up the Bodies continues the story, begun in Wolf Hall, of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to King Henry VIII. In that first volume, Mantel paints a sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who through intelligence, alertness and luck has risen far, serving first Cardinal Wolsey, then after his death, appointed Secretary to the King. It was in large part his machinations that removed Henry's first wife, Katherine, and put Anne in her place. We have seen him as a loving husband and father, who lost his wife and both daughters to illness one devastating summer, who gathers into his household young men of promise, mentoring them to service in noble households where they report back on intrigues. He has a spy in his own house but doesn't worry - it's how news travels, alliances are made and careers improved.

This second volume opens with Anne Boleyn, now Queen (at great cost to England's standing in Europe, where the Catholic Church holds sway), becoming an impediment to Henry - he wants a son, but her only progeny is a girl, Elizabeth. Henry already has a daughter, Mary (child of the repudiated Katherine), as well as a bastard son. He wants a legitimate male heir. His eye falls on Jane Seymour, a virginal young woman with whom he feels he can succeed where Anne has failed him. But how to get Anne, crowned amid acrimony, out of the way? For this he depends on his advisers, none more than Cromwell.

And so the Secretary gathers gossip and witnesses to build a case against Anne - and her numerous family, who have profited greatly from her rise and intend to keep their wealth and honors. His allies are those put out of favor by the king's divorce of Katherine - which makes them his deadly enemies too - once he has engineered the ouster of Anne, they will have no further use for him. He has seen the deaths of those who loyally serve the king through his shifting demands, and knows he must act with especial care.

But this Cromwell is a loathsome man, using his power to take revenge on those who dishonored Wolsey after the Cardinal's death, making them the means for removing Anne. In some accounts of this fascinating period in English history, Anne Boleyn is a sympathetic character, but in Mantel's telling she is not only an adulterer but incestuous, and even as the executioner's blade swings, imagines herself redeemable, that Henry will let her retire in peace.

Having spent formative years in Italy, Cromwell learned from masters about manipulation, extortion and torture, tools he puts to effective use in the intrigues he must put in motion. Now we see the man in harsh light - he is kind when it costs him nothing, but he is without scruples, letting his position dictate what he must do, not pushing back against the cruel methods required. Even as his enemies grow more numerous, he will serve his king as demanded. Henry expects the path to be cleared quickly to his next desire, so his minions use whatever means they think they must, to achieve that end.

Cromwell observes: "He once thought... he might die of grief... but the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone."

Mantel's next book will surely chronicle Jane Seymour's failings as a bearer of sons, and perhaps the author will take us further in the succession of Henry's queens, along with the end of Cromwell. We have seen the man's good side and his ugly one - which will win out? 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Denver Film Festival - Viktoria

It's been a long time since I've seen such a visually exquisite film. Every frame is a breathtaking still. If you're after a narrative - beginning, middle, end, with a nicely-tied-up conclusion - Viktoria, the debut film by Bulgarian Maya Vitkova, is not for you. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez, who brings her expression to life, is one to watch - what arresting imagery!

Three generations of women are featured: Boryana, daughter of a silent (eventually we learn: mute) mother, lives with her husband in the mother's apartment. In 1979 the film opens with Boryana longing to leave Iron Curtain Bulgaria - but she is pregnant, and the connection who arranges escapes will not risk her passage. Though her husband is thrilled, Boryana  tries to miscarry. Still, Viktoria is born - with no navel. The baby is hailed as a Socialist hero, and her parents are given a car and a new apartment. You might think Boryana would be happy to live away from her mother, whom she despises, but she asks the Party chief if she can have the money instead. No deal, but Viktoria is the Party chief's godchild, lavished with gifts and privileges, spoiled and nasty because the other children don't dare touch her. As Viktoria gets older, she loses her hauteur - when the regime fails and the Party chief cannot protect her, she learns to live a more normal life, finding love with her grandmother, who communicates through embraces and notes.

A sampling of images:
A poster of Venice becomes the city: night falls, and lights wink on in the buildings.
Milk emptied from a packet onto the ground puddles, slowly soaking in, a close-range image showing the bubbles, earth receiving, grass stubble emerging as the milk absorbs.
Viktoria bicycles at night down a forested path, each streetlight catching her features, then her forward motion returning her to darkness.
Boryana, driving the red car on the day she and her lover attempt to emigrate, comes to a roadblock, a camera shot from above of a circular-patterned dark stone plaza with red car in the center, white cars converging from three directions.
Another time, the husband drives with a neighbor woman (his refuge after Boryana's rejection), the windshield reflecting trees and sky, giving us glimpses of their contented faces.
After the grandmother's death, Boryana, her husband, and Viktoria struggle up a long snowy slope and stand at the top, the landscape black-and-white except one sunset-rosy cloud.

Symbols: blood, milk: red, white. Boryana, 6 months pregnant, lies in the bath, and blood begins to seep from her and spread through the water. She has nosebleeds, as does Viktoria. Viktoria lies dreaming, and a snaking line of blood curls from where her navel should be, up to her red phone (her personal hotline to the Party chief). Viktoria wears a red coat and carries a red satchel to school. The car Viktoria's parents are awarded is red.

When Boryana is far along in her pregnancy, she abruptly craves milk (before this, we see her consume only cigarettes and Coke), and when she has drunk all the milk in the house, accuses her husband of using too much in his coffee, thereby depriving her. But Boryana's breasts are barren - in one sequence she dreams of a fountain of milk exploding from one nipple - her husband is the one who nurses the baby, with a bottle.

Viktoria regularly visits her grandmother, and the old woman gives her packets of milk to take home. But Boryana has demanded no milk be brought into the apartment, so after leaving her grandmother, Viktoria pours the milk onto the ground. After the old woman's death, Boryana comes to her apartment and cuts the night-dress off her, then gives her exposed body a loving sponge-bath, much as the grandmother bathed Viktoria earlier. As Boryana washes the belly, she finds a scar running from her mother's navel to her right side. Is this why Viktoria had no navel? Is this scar the reason mother could not love daughter, for three generations?

Near the end, after the grandmother's death, Boryana stands in a rain of milk, high contrast to her black hair and dark clothes. Thwarted in expressing it, nevertheless these women do finally love each other - at the end Viktoria sends a postcard to Boryana from Venice, telling her it is only 1243 km away - which brings us full circle to Boryana's musing at the beginning - though the poster she treasures is of the Statue of Liberty, her first longing was to escape to Venice.

If you get a chance, see this film. Leave your expectations at home, come with your eyes and ears open, your heart receptive. Let the images wash over you, and be glad for film festivals - likely your only chance to view such beauty on the big screen where it belongs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour

A beautifully restored version of Alain Resnais' 1959 black-and-white film Hiroshima Mon Amour is making the rounds, and you should see it. In a time of noisy, violent, in-your-face cinema, step into a story with a jarring reality - stones that burned in the 10,000 degree A-Bomb blast, iron that melted, people whose hair fell out and skin sloughed off, deformed babies and disfigured burn victims - presented calmly. The horror is not in gore, but in realization that humans did these things to each other.

Intercut with these images is the lovemaking, in a Hiroshima hotel room, of a French woman and a Japanese man. Gradually their story unfolds: she is an actress, finishing an international film about peace; only last night did she invite him to her room, and tomorrow she returns to Paris. They are in love, and yet she intends to leave. She describes herself as a woman of dubious morals, then jokes she is dubious of morals. Both say they are happily married.

As he questions, she talks about her youth in Nevers, a French city on the Loire. During the war, she and a German soldier fell in love, and met wherever they could. On the day France was liberated someone shot him, and as she lay with the dying man she was found out, her hair hacked off, humiliated and scorned, and descended into madness. Two years later, restored to sanity, she made her way to Paris and never went back, and blocked out the experience.

Marguerite Duras, who won the Prix Goncourt for the script, asks us to think about memory, about how forgetting is both healing - allowing us to continue with life - and ravaging - we lose what matters most when we can no longer bring its details to mind. The touch of a lover's hand, his warmth, their full hearts - when these fade, we lose something precious. Not to remember is not to have lived.

The French woman makes a gift of her secret loss to this stranger/lover, this Japanese man she will never see again, and in the process he allows her to re-experience that first momentous love. When she tells him she has never shared this story with her husband, the Japanese man is thrilled and elated - only he holds this potent memory, feels its power over her. Through her last night in Hiroshima they sit in a tea-house where he plies her with beer while she confesses, then we think maybe she will stay with him - we know it's impossible and they both agree it's impossible but so is love: surely there is a way to sustain this experience They want it, we want it for them, we know it can't happen.

Many masterfully-composed images benefit from the restoration - the patterns made by overlapping palm fronds against the sky while the lovers fill the foreground; long dolly-shots through a series of high-roofed market buildings; a vertical bar of light reflected off the river behind her as they sit in the tea-house; the peeping of frogs, that same soundtrack in her Nevers memories. Hiroshima Mon Amour touches heart and mind profoundly - see it on a big screen.