Global cinema illuminates the web of the collective imagination

12-filmI don’t understand the intricacies of empires and dynasties or nations. Government is really no more complicated than, some like coffee others prefer tea. In order to justify their preoccupation with hoarding resources for the benefit of elites, it would appear that unscrupulous leaders are forever sowing distrust and hatred among the very people with whose freedom they are charged, thereby converting them to slaves. If you study history, it would appear all nations need an enemy in order to unite them. Occasionally, some tyrant will behave in some way that proves he truly does need to be brought down, but if such a figure is absent from the world stage, one is manufactured.

What if there were more sustainable ways, not to mention noble means for uniting disparate nations? Imagine the possibility of each individual in society being able to achieve their optimum potential as they envision it, or the mind-blowing prospect of an entire society, indeed, an entire planet in which each individual is working at their optimum level in concert with the whole. Wasn’t that our heart’s dream before we were indoctrinated by history?

In certain quarters of most countries, there exist numerous groups where individuals are functioning at their highest level and doing so in a way that allows the group to thrive, while simultaneously incubating an environment in which what they are doing invites coffee and tea drinkers to cooperate, equitably participate and flourish. These groups are scattered throughout the arts and sciences and include filmmakers. In every country of the world they are doing what was just described. As with all these groups, not all filmmakers and their crews are achieving their highest potential at all times, but the formula for quantum leap is there, whenever we can rise to the occasion.

With the cell phone revolution and the motion picture medium in full flower, instantaneously vast, highly enriched cultural subsidies are now being circulated at fantastic speed throughout humankind. Judging by its bona fide value to the early 21st-century citizen, digital connectivity renders all other institutions outdated and obsolete. More than words or even figures, motion pictures close the communication gap between individuals and nations, immediately and without prejudice. You don’t need money or education to have your baseline intelligence elevated nowadays. The only requirement is to have at least one good eye.

Filmmaking always was and will ever be an open-source medium. The way that cameras have enabled us to play with time is its own triumph for the human race. Motion pictures put human genius into overdrive. Couple it with the internet and our present evolutionary leap becomes like that image of the Millennium Falcon in “Star Wars” blasting in to hyperspace.

Filmmakers are witnessing, documenting and conspiring in a global dimensional shift that will make the Renaissance look like a beansprout in hindsight. It would seem impossible to quantify all of the tectonic shifts in awareness that are taking place this instant. I am confident that the advent of this easily accessed, ever improving tool for multidimensional communication will open up space in our minds for insights that allow us to outrace our present impasse and relegate its numbing inertia to the past.

World Cinema has led a bona fide, triumphant, non-violent revolution for 100 years. The earliest inroads in motion picture distribution grew into what we now relate to as the information superhighway. The language of cinema is a single, universal, multidimensional instrument for connecting humankind. Currently, its technology is being placed into the palms of more than half of the world’s citizens, turning each one into a potential wizard.

Cinema can be used to make enemies or friends, depending on the intent, but it always dissolves boundaries between past and future. Being able to capture and re-purpose the past in the present challenges all former perceptual conventions as it exposes and dissolves subjective molds and reconciles outmoded paradoxes. Compared to how much it will eventually reveal of our potential to heal, we can’t see or feel it very much yet, but we have the remedy for social dysfunctions with which we were once terminally ill.

With the intention of exposing how completely arbitrary the notion of “the enemy” truly is, the movies I’ve chosen for this next series will all be made by movie makers in countries presumed to be my own country’s present day enemies. The fact that it was necessary for me to distinguish past from present day foes, speaks to the faulty logic of violent conflict from the get-go.

Global Cinema illuminates the essential unity of our collective imagination. People are people. That’s what we see on screen. All of our dreams, our demons and secrets are exposed. The vast majority of people on the planet relate to the same basic characters in the same basic plays, and are fundamentally aligned with the same essential morals in all our foundation stories. Our national prejudice gets eclipsed every time we witness how similar our nation’s are when we watch each others’ films.

First in line, from the Russian Federation, “12” (2009) by Academy Award winning director Nikita Mikhalkov. An opening card introduces this film’s straightforward, common sense directive. “Seek the truth not in mundane details of daily life but in the essence of life itself.”

Open the film on sneakered feet descending dark stairs fluidly. Intercut this with titles of men’s names and numerals gaining in value flashing up alongside them from one to twelve. The steadily descending footsteps contrast with the crescendoing series of digits, in stark, edgy graphic grit, assigning the order of names of principle cast in relation to where in the jury they sit.

A simple but brilliantly stylized intro; twelve being such a number that forever courts mystery with there being twelve tribes and twelve disciples, twelve houses of heaven and Zodiac signs, besides beaucoup other permutations which this masterful sequence draws upon. This hooks us way down deep. That and the enticing possibilities behind any dozen men in any scenario when they finally align. This masterful first few minutes proclaim, if these twelve blockheads can agree on one truth, then anybody can.

Twelve is a superior high-quality composite number, according to Wikipedia. It’s also described as an abundant, a superabundant and a sublime one, as well. Twelve is also the kissing number in three dimensions, I hear tell. Swell! Any title with the number in its title evokes the tolling of month and year. Take our present day calendar, for example. I don’t know about you, but my ancestor’s math got hip during the 12th century precisely when Arabic numerals gained their grip. There’s another example of cultural exchange leading to quantum leap.

12th-ccentury mathematicians, 21st-century makers of movies; we’re talking about aligned groups of folks, from all different walks that have paved their way out of mass manipulation while dedicating their efforts to the collective liberation.

Now lets watch the movie “12” and reconvene here in a few weeks to discuss details.

Not About Capitol Punishment

In memory of the most illustrious hanged man in history, whose birth we commemorate this month, I’ve decided to explore two European motion pictures that end with institutional hangings. The first won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 1977. “The Ascent,” by Soviet director Larissa Shapitko. It details a young revolutionary’s climb to the gallows. The second film, from year 2000, Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” features Icelandic pop singer Bjork as a blind, young, single, factory worker bound for the noose. Watch these two films and then come join the discussion.

We often reach back through literature to find parallels in treatment of subject matter. This months subject being capitol punishment I didn’t have to delve very far back for something stellar. Like Kafka’s “ In the Penal Colony,” “The Ascent” is not about capitol punishment. Nor are the two films in this series.,Even though their story lines climax with executions, they are about something much more personal to each of us. As I see them, both films are focused on the integrity, or lack of, in each character more than the right or wrong of the punishment. At least Von Trier states as much, on the commentary track for “Dancer in the Dark” (Criterion edition).

We aren’t given that much time to sift through credos or dogmas in either film. The masterstroke in Shepitko’s opus must be how we are permitted to acquire sympathy for the humanity even in the enemy, especially the ruthless police inspector, whom the camera successfully susses out for that torturing angel of conscience that flits up in his eyes.

“The Ascent” becomes, essentially, a passion play. We don’t realize it until the very end. Gradually, the character Sotnikov’s peculiar compassion takes us in, but his motives can not be instantly, fully ascertained. When he finally does transcend, we don’t have long to admire him. That’s is usually how this type of story unfurls. But instead of thieves on the crosses beside this savior, there swing innocent folk on those ropes, including an elder farmer, a single mother and adolescent girl. All three of those punished with Sotnikov are utter strangers to the condemned man, which seals his second to last breath with karmic remorse. The last one is reserved for a redemptive exchange between the accused and an innocent in the crowd of onlookers for whom this hanging has been staged.

I cannot adequately describe the poignancy with which the execution scene in this movie is presented. We’ll try to provide you with a reference. The image above, of a painting by Paul Delaroche, “Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1834) seems to harbor some of the same spirit. This roughly 8 X 10 foot canvas is among the most emotionally overwhelming objects I have ever seen. Coincidentally, this particular image of the painting that you are looking at has been cited as one of the finest images on the entire English Wikipedia. Search your conscience, while examining this image, for a key to the end of “The Ascent,” and “Dancer in the Dark.” What’s wrong with this picture? Lady Jane was elevated to the throne for less than a month before she was deposed and beheaded by a relative, in a bid for power by protestants against Catholics during that time. The victim was scarcely 17 years old.

“Dancer” will be zoomed in on next month. In “The Ascent,” the child actress, Lyudmilla Polyakova, gets to be a part of one of the most tender and lyrical passages in cinema, just as the noose slips around her neck.  Shepitko orchestrates the scene for maximum heartbreak. It’s like something straight out of Chaplin’s “The Kid,” but with darker twists. Let’s begin dissecting this sequence with her approach to the noose. It was obviously tied up there for someone much taller. Because, evidently, not even the chief of the gallows could correctly anticipate the needs of this hanging. So a square apple box booster is hastily brought out and laid on top of the too short trunk of tree. All these things look gigantic next to the sparrow-like frame of the little girl. Those heavy implements of demise take on the scale of sandbox toy or circus ring geometry, reminiscent of children’s playthings. She’s a hatchling, for God’s sake. Those goddamn Nazi’s plan to hang her. That’s an act of terror. Tissues please.

Shepitko cares about human beings that will die before they outgrow the playground. She confronts us with an innocent being blatantly victimized.  Watch this one take that giant step. She’s literally lifted off the ground by the hangman, by taking hold of his hand. The staging evokes some father helping his daughter on the jungle gym. She slips her head through the loop and peeks out at the spectators like baby bird on a limb. It is an evocation of pure pathos. Why should a child go through this? Authorities commit such atrocities to provoke fear.

What are we afraid of? Before he’s captured, in those wintery wilds of Russia, near the close of WWII, Sotnikov appears too physically weak to buck the status quo. Marooned in the forest, sporting a bad cough in his chest and a slug of lead in his leg, he rails against the branches on a low hung bow. Right out on the screen, for all to comprehend, here, a “man for the people” rues the masterplan’s unraveling, but at this stage, all we can see is a hurt soldier trapped like a rabbit under a tree.  There’d be scant evidence that he’s a figurehead for the resistance, except for this one, raw expression of rage.

The backdrop for this rabbit hunt is rendered all the more claustrophobic with shrouds of snow dust whipping about all the time and a howling wind singeing everything else back down to zilch. By the way, let’s own up once more, thanks to Shepitko’s camera crew, to how old-fashioned 1:33:1 black and white film can convey the menace of frigid skies and fields as good as anything digital and new.

“The Ascent” has been called Shapitko’s masterpiece. I can’t find any reason why not. The filmmaker made her warm-hearted tragedy in the bitterest cold. Her ability to capture such subtly nuanced performances, consistently, in uncommonly long takes, under harsh conditions indicates bona-fide directorial grace. Her actors display world-class gifts. Sensors often made it hard for auteurs working inside the Soviet egg to make their movies competitive at international contests, but this one broke the shell.Prolonged, intimate close ups invite us to witness and be amazed at the ways ligament and scruple can hitch and mesh inside the human face.

In the political chess game of that took place during those times, history lays much of the blame on Nazis. Including this in her anti-war film probably helped Shepitko avert big showdowns with censors, but it was popular with everyone because she struck a universal chord. There was evidently enough of an openness to gender equality built in to that republic at that time, for an enlightened woman director to make positive contact with the outside world. Shepitko’s movie as well as Delaroche’s painting propose, at the level of conscience, we are all pretty much the same. Everyone that looks at them comes to the same conclusion.

“The Ascent” is an adaptation from the novella “Sotnikov” by Vasili. Bykov. I don’t know how it begins, but the opening of Shepitko’s film frames a blizzard on a Russian landscape. Violent gusts whip snow crystals and ice dust into pale, grainy gradations of grey.  Silent telegraph poles lean both ways like staggered burial markers along the railroad right of way.

A vanishing veil of snow serves as a wipe reveal of a village, in the near distance, in which no one is left to defend.

This and a hand full of other shots are re-inserted after the finale of the film, like bookends. Was the filmmaker suggesting that the way out in of this predicament is the same as the way in? Or are we simply left reminded of home and liberty lost at the end?

A vacant village and machine gun fire is the first sign we see and hear as the film begins. Then a man’s upper body pops up from a hiding place and signal’s to retreat with his arm. Many heads pop up. What’s left of the population of that village ascends into view from the bottom of the frame. We watch from behind, the backsides of folks in retreat, fleeing in fear. Does this ascension accentuate a notion of this population’s “rebirth” as refugees, or perhaps The Rapture is being interpreted quixotically?

Either way, through lashing wind, extended families and neighbors carry what they may and make their way over snowscapes warily. A few rifles hang off uniformed shoulders of mutinous soldiers, shepherding those gentle folk as kin. As 2013 comes to an end and 2014 begins. Let us pray this historical trend stops before it sweeps us all in.

…next month, “Dancer in the Dark.”

Cooking Up a Surprise

In his 1958 dark comedy, “The Magician” Ingmar Bergman makes comparisons between his experiences as a movie maker, and the adventures of an itinerant magic troupe from the 1840’s headed by Dr. Albert Emmanuel Vogler.  An interesting side note: from about the middle of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th, my family trekked across America’s heartland with their big top show called The Eells Family Circus, replete with snake charmer, contortionist and disappearing act, so Bergman’s movie hits close to home.

Traveling entertainment became popular a few thousand years before the printing press and was an early form of mass media. Storytellers, from acting troupes and solo troubadours to freaks and medicine shows, were prime sources of information and culture for the common folk. In Bergman’s film, Vogler and a handful of collaborators are on a tour of neighboring lands. As the story opens, we encounter magician and crew, down on their luck, working their way home.

On well-worn tracks wanders the enigmatic Vogler and his ragamuffin regiment, calling themselves the “Magnetic Health Theater”. Our magician arrives by carriage to the latest village. His reputation has preceded him. Disturbing reports from the south suggest the stranger may exert an unsavory influence.

A bewigged police chief and monocle-ed coroner interrogate Bergman’s hero on suspicion of skullduggery. Vogler pretends to be mute, while his wife presents herself cross-dressed as his manservant. Vogler provokes a good deal of suspicion by playing games but also avoids having to answer their awkward questions. Bergman, the filmmaker, is demonstrating the importance of silence and obfuscation in spinning a good yarn.

Through their own projections, conscious and unconscious, it seems that everyone becomes part of Vogler’s web.  That includes us, the audience, but only for awhile. In act one we are left in the dark. By the time Vogler starts his manipulation in earnest we are allowed to watch behind the screen. In the third act, by showing the audience more than all the other characters but not as much as the magician himself, Bergman manages to bamboozle us once more.

The most magical moment for me is when an itinerant actor, whom Vogler regards with great tenderness and respect, dies in the opening scene and appears quite alive again in the third act, only to die for real this time in Vogler’s arms. The magician manages to fulfill the dead fool’s dying wish by weaving him into his web of illusion.

Bergman, the storyteller, displays a knack for cooking up surprise, so that in this moment, we cannot tell that we are observing a secret. From the outset, the story keeps us off balance making sure our expectations are continuously upended as we watch the game played out. Things only add up after the spell is broken.

Of course the magician’s luck has improved by the end. This is a comedy after all. By the time Bergman’s film is over, his magician is summoned to the court to entertain the King and Queen–an obvious promotion, but we’ll never know the fate of the magician after that. Perhaps he went on to become a movie director in the dawn of cinema.  One of Dr.Vogler’s contemporaries was motion pictures’ first great pioneer. I mentioned his name in the last post. He will be the subject up next.

Magic and Movies – Part 1

This begins a multi-part series on magic and movies. Does magic really exist? If so, what is its definition and who are its practitioners?

The digital reproduction above comes close to being, itself, a kind of magic spell by depicting the famous encounter between Circe the sorceress and Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The painter’s treatment of his subject is an example of the kind of visual tour de force that storytelling artists were able to draw on and enchant motion picture audiences with as soon as they were invented.

This type of painting makes use of our imaginations the same way as movies do, which is to prompt us to fill in essential information that is left out of view. In order to help his audience fill in the missing story with strictly visual cues, a pictorial storyteller must exercise complete control over the frame. The same goes with a magic spell or enchantment.

Whether attempted by a painter, filmmaker, magician or any other artist, a well-performed trick keeps our reasoning brain busy while it plays with our subconscious. Film appears to defy nature’s laws by shaping the action at 24 frames per second. Magicians can swap sets and props to string together a series of illusory events. Painters have only a single canvas with which to cast their spell, but we can study it for as long as we wish.

The convenience of being able to freeze the action in painting will give me an opportunity to read into every detail of Waterhouse’s interpretation of Homer and see if we can dodge Circe’s trap.

To be effective a spell or enchantment must be worked out in intricate detail. In “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” we see a gorgeous woman garbed in silvery gauze, seated on some kind of throne. Sunlight accentuates her left breast–a rosy nipple peeks out over the sharply slanted whisper of her gown. On a totemic footstool, her naked toes bathe in the sunbeam with her breast. On the floor to her left is an intoxicated swine–one of Ulysses companions that drank from Circe’s cup. A wary Ulysses, which you will detect in the circular glass that comprises Circe’s backrest, stands before the sorceress. He appears behind her in the mirror, like he is bowing to her breast.

Her face tilts back in a wily, come-hither gaze while she raises the potion in her right hand and steadies a long wand over her head with her left.  Gold-cupped incense fumes waft up from lower right toward the raised-cup in the upper left.  Her forty-five degree neckline ups this rapport. The painter invites us to notice how these details combine to stupefy Circe’s subject with multi-sensual assault.

Supported on the backs of roaring lions, each with a serpent coiled around its neck, the painter poises the sorceress, literally, between the man and his reflection. She reigns there on her altar, capturing his eye, her ready cup and rod held high. Classic columns fill in the glass, interspersed with shards of Aegean sky.

Circe’s leonine throne recalls the wild cats Ulysses encountered outside, wandering her domain. They were strangely tame and approachable, having been drugged by this demonic dame. So the painter manages to articulate the essential mark of a good magician, who begins weaving his or her spell even before the audience has entered the dark. Let us not overlook the profusion of purple flowers tumbled down from the diabolic shadows. No doubt this is the wicked herb. It looks so fragrant and appealing.

I have left out, until now, the erotic charge of the image. It portrays a naked woman most desirably and represents a clear case of high-class smut. Sexually stimulating paintings, for the past 500 years, have been socially accepted in the west. Why? Their ability to arouse and enchant is highly prized.  If you wore the fashions of The Guilded Age, long before porn went pop, this picture could put you in touch with your passion, provoking potent and inspired thoughts.

Even today, if your imagination is given to flights, you might readily put yourself in this scene with a keen thirst for her drink and the aftertaste of regret. For it is quite intentionally the same moment when you will be close enough to appraise her exquisite skin, navel, knees, hips. Voila! Are we swine yet?

The circular censor and tiled rings repeat the cup and mirror in shape and theme. Graduating circles emblemize the enclenching cinch of Circe’s ingenious scheme.  Notice too the stoop that raises her above the rabble has a radial indent, to impress upon us one more way that we are ensnared already by her intent.

Now she may be imposing her illusion on you and me, but Ulysses was warned about Circe’s treachery. He has drugged himself to resist her with the Holy Moly.  Holy Moly!  To this day, when we see something unexplainable, those two words are sometimes exclaimed.  It stems from ancient superstition, invoking the antidote with which Ulysses foiled Circe’s aims.

With that in mind, there is a peculiar detail in the upper right corner–a very important feature of the painting–that slice of light above the sorceress’s left hand. Why that shape in that position? It appears most distractingly strong up there in the darkest zone of the composition and makes her hand look deformed, projecting from it like a dagger or a talon.

Why did the artist paint that? Why there? What are we looking at? He fails to completely conceal some background behind a large curtain or tapestry which subtly dilutes the illusion of Circe’s magic trap.

We can escape the fate of Ulysses friends, through this brilliant detail, in which the set is left slightly open for us to see, so that we don’t fall victim to Circe’s spell. Ulysses sees through her deception and anyone who finds this antidote in the painting can too and avoid becoming plump, languid and jowly with a snout and a squiggly tale. That little up thrust dagger of light becomes our counter-spell.

Needless to say, this is superb pictorial storytelling. It took more than 800 words for me to briefly make plain the narrative evident in one single pass over Waterhouse’s exquisite frame. We will have to leave it now in order to take Homer’s allegory to it’s logical extreme, but we’ll take it up again in a subseqeunt part of this series in which we introduce the first magician of motion pictures, Georges Jean Méliés.

To conclude the tale, when Ulysses leans over to sip the potion, Circe taps him with her wand and is shocked when he does not go porcine. Since he can resist Circe, her yearning for Ulysses grows. Swine are turned back into soldiers. Circe now moves to Ulysses’ tune. His men stay on her island with him for a year, eating, drinking, and nursing their wounds.

By the end of the stay they are such good friends Circe sends her lover to seek council from the ghost of the prophet Teirisias in the underworld. She wants Ulysses to avoid certain pitfalls that await him on his way home.

When I recalled this episode of the Odyssey and decided to explore it as an allegory for connecting motion pictures to magic acts, I had forgotten about the Holy Moly. It ends up providing the perfect metaphor for how movies themselves are the antidote to the many spells of our modern day.