Saturday, November 6, 2010

Frank Trankina: A Talk, “Wall Tales and Shelf Stories"

The focus on toys and material popular culture has become the subject matter in the art of such well-known artists, like Jeff Coons, and Takashi Murakami. In recent years, the painter Frank Trankina, an SAIC alumni (MFA 1992) and current associate professor of art at Northern Illinois University has also adopted this subject matter in his very skillful and quite impressive observational paintings, still lifes of vintage toys.
On Saturday afternoon, October 9, 2010, Trankina gave a talk about his still life paintings on display at the Packer Schopf Gallery in the West Loop.

The talk was scheduled on the Fulton Market District annual open studio arts walk. Aron Packer, gallerist, at Packer Schopf, introduced Trankina as a painter who combines the serious and the humorous through his offbeat selection of material for his paintings.

Trankina describes himself as a still life and observational painter, who has he observes with a smile, recently has become known as the “toy painter.” Trankina for about twenty years had been a still life painter of “serious” subjects, like art materials, easels, palettes, one of which “Dilemma” (2006) is on display at the show. Thus, he has recently shifted his choice of subject matter to one that involves a much stronger sense of narrative.

To begin his talk, Trankina briefly discusses each painting, beginning with “Homage to Ray Ushida”, a former, long-time faculty member at SAIC (1959-2005), who was Trankina’s instructor while he was a graduate student at SAIC. Trankina later became Ushida’s friend, and fellow collector in search of still life objects to paint. In “Homage” Trankina includes a painting of a postcard that Ushida sent to him, and a small Hula girl figurine, which Ushida had lent him, but which Trankina unexpectedly ended up keeping, since Ushida passed away on January 10, 2009.

Almost all of Trankina’s paintings feature one or several toys or figurines, mostly old, set up on a shelf with different varieties of wooden boards, which serve as a background. Thus, the still life setup itself is like a small theatre stage on which the viewer has a stage seat. Appropriately, the series of paintings is called “Wall Tales and Shelf Stories.”

For the sake of searching for objects for his still life paintings, Trankina has become a collector of them during his travels and while shopping. Searching for still life objects at flea markets was an activity that Trankina pursued at times with Ushida.
The title of each of Trankina’s paintings implies a story. “Faust”, for example, alludes to the mythical Faust, who made a pact with the devil for eternal life. When Faust changed his mind, he became mortal and aged.

The toy head on a block of wood that represents Faust is a somewhat comic looking human head, starting to decompose that Trankina found in a Walmart sale bin. What makes the head disturbing is the manner in which it is set up on a shelf, an unexpected formal presentation that is creators never likely envisioned for it.

In another painting named “Line Up” Trankina simply did not paint the heads on three figurines of varying size and style and a small bust, an unlikely looking group to expect to see in a line up. The dark humor here lies in the fact that the differences are so great among the figures that we actually could recognize them without their heads.

After talking about most of his paintings, Trankina answers questions from the audience. He talks about the challenge of observational oil painting, like figuring out how paint plywood convincingly, or how blending a color make take hours of effort.

Trankina compares the painter’s relation to his or painting as a personal relationship. Initially, it is full of excitement and feels like a honeymoon when starting the painting, but as work continues on the painting, it becomes more challenging and complex, as does any long term relationship or marriage.

Some of Trankina’s influences include the aesthetic of modernist abstraction, notably the painter Piet Mondrian, who uses vertical and horizontal lines in his works. Trankina usually composes his paintings with vertical and horizontal planes, and only an occasional diagonal.

Trankina took an interest in nineteenth-century American still-life painting, after having been shown a book about by Ushida on the subject. The American painter, John Peto, in particular caught Trankina’s eye. In the exhibit, Trankina’s trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) painting “Pictures -- What are They?” with its photos and frame and reproduction tacked to a wall echoes Peto’s painted wall displays.

Trankina wanted to become an abstract painter, but he became an observational one, who in his most recent paintings sets up seemingly amusing and innocuous toys and objects of Americana on a surreal stage that no one had ever imagined they could be seen.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Passionate Holiness, La Llorona Art Gallery, 1474 W. Webster

Tonight I attended an exhibit opening at La Llorona Art Gallery (1474 W. Webster, Chicago) which primarily featured the iconic art of Lewis Williams (23 works) and Robert Lentz (9 works), as well as a few iconic prints and drawings of the artists, William Nichols and David Csicsko. Working in stylized Byzantine manner, Williams and Lentz have created images of saints who have been pushed to the margins of the Christian canon of saints and holy figures, who on account of their gender and or sexuality, have not been fully recognized in word, nor represented in imagery. Thus, the work serves as a corrective to the Church's censorship.

Though none of the works in the gallery are for sale, small reproductions are on sale at the gallery, and larger size reproductions can be purchased from Trinity Stores.

In contrast to traditional icons, the faces in these iconic paintings are distinctive, not generic. Also, the intensity and range of colors used in these iconic paintings draws from a much wider selection of colors (thanks to modern technology and chemistry) than was ever available to artists from the mid-nineteenth century when more colors began to gradually become available. However, like traditional icons, these works have a flat appearance, and imaginative treatment of shading of robes and hair. The backgrounds are typically plain color fields, whether gold leaf or a contrasting color to the figures clothing.

Seeing over thirty such original commissioned iconic works displayed altogether is a rare experience, and anyone with an interest in such work should see them thus before the exhibit ends.


To learn more about the stories behind the icons see a book written by Dennis O'Neill:

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------La Llarona Gallery specializes in fine Mexican and Latin American Art.
We carry pieces from masters and contemporary artists.

1474 W. Webster
Chicago IL, 60614

Upcoming Exhibition

Friday, June 18, 2010
6P.M. to 1A.M

Exhibition runs trough July 18th, 2010

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anonyma, A Woman in Berlin

Anonymna, A Woman in Berlin, is Russian-German collaborative film made with the help of Poles, since the film was shot in Poland. It focus is on the tense interactions between the conquering Soviet army forces and the women, children, some older men, just before and after Hiter ends the defense of Berlin by committing suicide. Thereafter, a high ranking German officer formally surrenders and orders any remaining Nazi soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender. (There fate was a stint at a labor camp in Siberia, where many perished.) The Russians are all enthusiasm, buoyed by their victory, ready to play with the defeated Germans left behind--women, children, old men--like a cat with a mouse---sometimes indeed just play, at other times torment, that is, rape, and even kill. A few of the Russians are eager to personally prolong the war, exacting vengeance on whomever happens to be caught in their grasp.

In defense, the German women try to latch on to one Russian soldier, often an officer, who offers protection to the woman, not allowing any other men access to touch her. The hero of the movie is one such woman who after being raped several times seeks out a protector. Her first one proves a lady's man, a Don Juan, who preoccupies himself with pursuing all the women who catch his eye. The second one, however, the Lieutenant proves to be a thinker, an idealist, a beleiver in the Soviet cause, who plays piano, speaks Russian, and actually stations a guard, a burly Mongol soldier to prevent any other suitors from approaching his woman.

Others around the lietenant are troubled: the nurse who treated his wound in the firefight in the street and building feels displaced and jealous by the attention the lietenant gives the enemy woman. The second lieutenant looks askance at his superior officer's dalliance. These two officers are true believers, completely given to the communist cause--neither cheers or dances or cavorts like wild as news of Berlin's surrender by the Nazi's sets off a party. The nurse and second lieutenant sense there is something more, too intimate, in the exchanges. Loving the enemy or the enemy's wives--that's unthinkable, but that's what happens to the lieutenant.

Thus the true believer, who also seems like his mind is somewhere else, gazing into the future, making plans for groups, for others, for the nation, but not himself meets the former journalist who lived in European capitals and uncritically accepted and then supported Hitler's grand plans of conquests.

Another strand of the story is how the woman cope with their loss of integrity and self-respect. They greet one another or a man asks--How Often? and the unmentioned word here is "rape." The best coping strategy that develops is to attach oneself to one man, usually an office, and then all other men will be off limits you.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

He/She & Me: A Love Story: the other side of the transgender story

He/She & Me: A Love Story
Academy Theatre, Avondale Estates, Georgia

Saturday, September 5, 2009: Visiting the Atlanta, Georgia area, with a friend, I've taken some time out to see a theatre production here, a one person show performed by Sharon Mathis, a psychologist and actor, and directed by Robert Drake. Whatever skepticism I had about just how effective a 40-minute long show could be was dispelled by this production. For I thought the performer did justice to selecting and distilling the most essential bits of dialogue and re-enactment of scenes that ensue from the seemingly stable life of a woman, Pat, in her fifties whose husband, Sam, decides to transition into a woman and become Sheila. Sam-Sheila never appears on stage; only a symbol of him, a bright red shirt that Pat clutches, wears, and tosses aside. The play is about the universal theme of coping with loss, in this instance of an intimate, life partner, a spouse. The form of the loss is unusual--the spouse suddenly changes into a different person--name, gender, physical body.

After the performance, there was an informative discussion, which was about as long as the performance. We learned that the performer, Sharon Mathis, wrote the dialogue and selected scenes to re-enact from her own experiences as a psychologist, who counsels transgender clients and their wives. She also drew on a book written by Virginia Erhardt, Head over Heels: Wives who stay with Crossdressers and Transsexuals (2006). This book presents interviews the author had with women who stayed in relationships with their husbands.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gogol Bordello, Congress Theatre, Chicago, May 31, 2009

Gogol Bordello, Congress Theatre, Chicago, Sunday, May 31, 2009

Before the doors opened to the Congress Theatre, there was already a long line that stretched for a few blocks, but the line moved quite quickly as soon as the doors did open. Eventually, this enormous, former movie palace-theatre built in the 1920s, was virtually full by the time the main act started. The crowd was predominantly in their late teens and twenties, with a fair number of middle-aged and older audience members, most of whom appeared as if they were like several of the Gogol Bordello band members, immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Man Man, the opening band, played for an hour. Their music is intense and raucous, with many a primal scream and growl; it is a passionate, original, percussion-heavy with xylophone, rock-jazz style. The lead singer, a sturdy looking wild man, with long, touseled hair and a full beard, energetically thrashed around, inspired and responding to the spirit of the music of his band. Like Gogol Bordello, Man Man entertains with its performers and moves the audience to become one with and lose themselves in their music. However, aside from the audience towards the very front of the stage, the rest of the crowd did not seem to engage in a noticeably passionate way with Man Man's unique music.

Gogol Bordello's performance began with a large stage curtain with the image of slingshot shooting a star from their 2007 recording Gypsy Punk being lowered. Shortly afterwards, in the role of dj, lead singer-guitarist, Eugene Hutz, appeared with a woman dancer in a military jumpsuit. Several tracks of Muslim inspired dance music were played with accompanying dancing. With the anti-Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern rhetoric and attitude still strong in America, this struck me as Hutz's appeal for cultural inclusion and diversity.

The rest of the group then came on stage and Hutz energetically led his band to work the crowd into a frenzy. I've never seen a performer like Hutz seemingly glide around the stage as he played his guitar. Hutz's own love and passion for music irradiates his entire performance and stage presence, which is infectious. Later in the performance, he ceded center stage to band member, Pedro Erazo, who worked the crowd. Of course, after the group took a breather, there were requisite and lengthy encores, starting with Hutz alone playing acoustic guitar. One new song was introduced which Hutz explained was about a parking lot being paved that was displacing gypsies in Turkey.

A few days after the performance, I can stay that I'm still energized and inspired it. Personally, it was quite an incredible experience for me to see such a big crowd of American youth enjoying the sort of Eastern European folk melodies that I grew up listening to. I never imagined seeing this sort of music reworked and presented to a wider audience; it took someone like Hutz to come along and do it.

A final note, the staff at the Congress seemed a lot friendlier, smiling and saying enjoy the show, than during a previous concert that I attended a few years ago when they seemed brusque and surly.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Corneille's Illusion, Promethean Theatre Ensemble

Pierre Corneille's comic play "Illusion" (L'Illusion Comique, 1636), adapted by Tony Kushner, staged at the City Lit Theatre by the Promethean Theatre Ensemble, at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago.

Watching this play, similarities came to mind in terms of its witty, playful, elaborate use of language, which is a characteristic feature of Baroque literature. Presumably, this language in its translated form has been somewhat modernized in the adaptation by Tony Kushner. Aside from using such language, the play's theme is universal--distance and estrangement of parent from a child. In this case, a son has run off from a father, who over time grows concerned about his missing son's fate, so he consults a magician to try to discover the whereabouts of his son with whom he has lost contact.

The set of the play is kept spare and simple in this production, limited to three large, triangular blocks, which are moved about a bit in each act and illuminated with different lighting.

One theme in the play is the father's revaluation of his son whom he regarded as a flighty, wild rebel; this attitude is what causes the son to run away from home. The larger issue here is how a parent reacts to a child whose temperament provokes disapproval. In the context of the time, there was certainly much less understanding for a son to oppose a father, for in France, a father could legally have even an adult child imprisoned for disobeying his orders. In effect, the self-righteous parent could always feel in the right, and the father in the play struggles with his sense of moral entitlement.

The magician obliges the father's desire to show him what his son has been doing in life, showing him three phases of his life, notably different phases of love. First, he shows his son in the initial throes of boundless enthusiasm of love, but for an aristocratic woman, which causes a conflict, since the son is a commoner--his father is a lawyer. The son tries to solicit the help of a woman servant and literally brushes off a rival. Seemingly, despite the barrier of social class that separates the wild son from the aristocratic woman he loves, all seems to be turning out for the best, but this seeming success proves to be only that.

In the second act, the pursuit of love has led the son to compromise his principles and himself become a lackey, a yes-man to a self-absorbed lord with a swollen ego. This lord speaks in what sounded like to me with an Andrei Codrescu, a one time NPR writer and wry commentato and immigrant from Romania.) The wild son compromises his ideals in the name of love, to be closer to his beloved.

In the third act, the son is shown as having fallen out of love, unable to live up to any of his fervently made principles of sacrificing all in the name of love.

The audience, along with the father, is the observer of the staged scenes; the play, is thus a play within a play. The play is fairly light, entertaining fare, except towards its end, when a tragic conclusion seems to end it. Is love itself an illusion the magician asks at the end of the play, or is it the only reality of life?

This production was quite well acted by the actors playing the son and servant woman, and it had some timely sound effects and music. The third act, however, was somewhat difficult to follow, in part, perhaps it is because it may have been shortened to make the play fit into a less than 2-hour running time.

If there was any other problem, it was seeing some empty seats, which is not that unusual in a production of a foreign language theatre classic that people may be wary of seeing. Though it cannot boast a Broadway theatre scene like New York's, Chicago has its niche virtue in theatre--the city offers a plethora of small and amateur theatre companies that are willing to risk staging theatre classics.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reading Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, Violence

For many years, I took a break from reading theory, mainly literary theory. What bothered me about theory as it applied to literature and culture was that it lost (or never cared to find) a focus on the intrinsic merits, principally, aesthetic, as well as explore intertextual and literary biographical aspects of literary texts. Instead, the text all too often became a means to end, a stepping stone to demonstrate the workings of power (Foucault), logocentrism (Derrida), capitalism (Jameson). I felt I was in the presence of secular priest-academics, hell-bent on finding social truths, trampling rough-shod otherwise on literary history and value and aesthetics. But they weren't out in the field fighting and struggling and taking risks for social justice.

If I want to be informed about politics, why not just read a newspaper or the work of political scientist or journalist or sociologist? Why a literary theorist? Reading theory was heady, inspiring for me at times, but something that indulged in for too long, too much of it began to seem arid and empty to me. Thus, I would liken reading too much theory to taking cocaine: it was a drug that took you into an abstract world divorced from the material, everyday world by virtue of the scintillating play of ideas, deft application of theory, apt choice of words, virtuouso handling of syntax, head-spinning organization of ideas. And it all seemed so meaningful, but at the same time it was so, so far divorced from reality.

The paradigmatic figure in the world of Anglo-literary theory had become the prolific, neo-Marxist Frederic Jameson with whom I became most familiar. He is most notable for his paragraph long sentences and amazing facility at handling ideas and concepts like silly-putty, maneuvering them with formidable erudition and dexterity, much like Sartre. Exploitation, alienation, destruction wrought by capitalism--these are some of Jameson's underlying targets. At times, I was engaged to be sure by what I read,. But where did reading Jameson get me?! If political injustice is something I want to read about, I'd rather read the account of a historian, a political activist, or about an educator, who is on the front lines fighting for social justice. Rather than read a recondite literary theorist, I'd settle for reading a muckracking writer or journalist.

I was wary of reading Zizek who was a self-proclaimed follower of Jacques Lacan, a follower of Freud. Lacan takes Freudian ideas and puts them into neat semiotic formulas. He writes in an opaque, gnomic, elliptical style in which the meaning isn't readily evident. And he shares Freud's heavy handed moralism and sexism, and is all to ready find perversion and deviance in any sexual expression that doesn't conform to some middle class norm from the Victorian era. But Zizek uses Lacan in quite interesting ways that to me actually seem to make sense.

Zizek is a theorist like Jameson, but with a few twists, like, a morbid, zany sense of humor, a gadfly's proclivity for provocative overstatement and trenchant wit, a liking for and frequent allusion to popular film and fiction, and on occasion, he speaks bluntly, forcibly, and quite effectively, eschewing qualifications and provisos. All these qualities have made him a popular academic, and if you watch him on youtube, you can see just how engaging and entertaining he is compared to most other academics.

My main difficulty with In Defense of Lost Causes were the sections and chapters that Zizek devoted to trying to salvage some meaning and value from mostly recent social revolutions (the French, Bolshevik, and Chinese). I found myself grimacing at times as he wrote about Stalin's violent experiments in collective farming and industrialization, and the purges of the party leadership itself. Just how much instructive material can be gleaned from these disasters for the sake of future revolutions? Just how much a failure, just what cost of human lives is needed to realize that it need not be repeated yet again? Even if I was given pause to reconsider just how, according to Zizek, the road to utopia or rather hell is paved with good intentions, from which we can indeed learn when the attempt or rather revolutionary fervor explodes, unexpectedly, again on the world stage, the tone in which he does so, treating human casulties as just seeming numbers cannot but seem callous. Perhaps this is calculated provocation: we are too accustomed to dismiss out of hand the brutal, inhumane excesses of communism. While we do indeed tend to overlook the excesses of capitalism, as Zizek correctly, avers, as a matter of course, regarding them as the objective, inevitable consequence of history, that is no reason to adopt such an attitude to the excesses of communism.

The cover of Zizek's book features a rendering, a color drawing of a guillotine blade, but one that has been conceptually pulled out of its context from the larger wooden structure of which it is a part, as well as the scene in which it was deployed--a bloody spectacle of public execution. So, too, isn't Zizek's writing in his book about revolutionary violence largely taking place in a scene apart and distant from its agents and victims? Or is the focus not so much on the human agents involved--after all they are ultimately instruments of historical forces they embody and deploy, but which they cannot quite control according to their plans--but rather on the mechanisms, the inner laws that seem to determine the course that violent change and upheaval tends to take? That does seem like a worthwhile topic to investigate, not adopt a dismissive formula, as Zizek observes, of the revolution turns against itself, consumes itself. What else may we learn from the socio-psychological factors that determine this self-destructive turn. That seems a worthwhile investigation, but the tone in which Zizek conducts it, tossing in a devil-may-care humor seems to me, on more than a few occasions, excessive and inappropriate. For my sensibility there is too much mordant, black humor in the aftermath of social revolutions gone wrong with millions of casualties.

One wonders just how many readers take Zizek for his word, and even if they do, what access do they have to power? This talk of revolutionary embrace and reconsideration seems to me quixotic and misplaced. In the absence of relevance and reverberation in the larger world, in the relatively quiet halls of academia and bookstores, what other way is there to create a stir, then to provoke your audience, to make outrageous claims? Terry Eagleton in his review of Zizek's Drense in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) aptly likened Zizek's book as more interesting for its naves, than its halls.

When ZIzek is not making politically provocative overstatements, I read him with interest, for, informed as he is by philosophy, theory, psychology, linguistics, he has original, compelling things to say about political developments. Moreover, he applies abstruse theory to phenomenon unfolding today in a persuasive, readily understood manner.

to be continued

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Yella (2007) by director Christian Petzold

The German director, Christian Petzold's film "Yella" (2007) is a psychological drama about the plight of a woman from East Germany trying to escape her world of limited opportunity to West Germany. In the process, she loses her sense of humanity, as she becomes drawn into the world of flimsy and shady businesses and businessmen. The rapidly changing landscape of East Germany is ripe for speculation and schemes to make a quick Euro.

Yella, or rather her husband, was apparently tempted to try his hand in the computer business and lost badly, not only money and in his plan to make money by reselling computer equipment, but also his wife. The film opens with Yella walking away from him, trying to ignore his pleas for her to return to him. To what degree Yella was involved in his schemes, we never learn. But it seems he is the more to blame for this scheme, if we are to judge by his short temper, overbearing manner, and refusal to start his life anew without his wife. Even worse, upset that Yella has actually found work in West Germany and will be soon be leaving, this husband plans to do away with them both. He cannot bear the thought that his wife will pursue her own life without him.

So, the husband, unexpectedly, shows up, before the cab does to take Yella to the train station to West Germany. Predictably, he refuses to drive to the station. At this point it's best not to divulge just how the narrative plays out, but only say that for a time Yella does seem to escape, though her husband continues to pursue and stalk her.

Yella's job offer turns out to be at a company which has just been dissolved, or bankrupted, or suddenly taken over by another company. Her boss seems to take it all as business as usual, but she is crestfallen. Yet not for long, for she meets a shady businessman, who she unexpectedly helps to realize his business scheme to outfox another business. They continue their relation, he, intent on pursuit of the big Euro, amassing money for a scheme to acquire a business, and, Yella, whose motivations are simpler--to help her poor father and to strike back at the businesses who she have ruined her former husband.

There is a sombre atmosphere to the film, a minimal focus on characters, in particular, Yella, often isolated, alone. The world is simply one of roads, cars, clean and modern and sterile office and hotel interiors. It seems that other people, the world itself is left out of the film, that is, it is not a matter of concern to the main characters of the film who are preoccupied with their schemes to make money.

This is quite a subtle, powerfully moving film, quite critical of the reconstruction of East Germany by West. The film reminded me of Slawomir Fabicki's "The Retrieval" in which a young man in Poland, who is dismayed with his work prospects, whether its shoveling manure at the family farm or working at a cement factory where he witnesses a coworker fall down a shaft to his death. This young man gets drawn into the criminal underworld, working as an enforcer for a loan shark.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tonight I watched the compelling personal story of James Carroll that is very much a public and historical narrative that centers on Carroll's preoccupation with the nature of good and evil, in particular, how one institution, the Catholic Church, which he served for a brief time as an ordained Catholic priest (1969-1974) had and has become associated with violence, power, and persecuting Jews. The film is based on a long book that Carroll published in 2001, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews.

To make the film more current, Carroll adds two strands to his history: first, the campaign of the Christian evangelical church to recruit members at the U.S. Air Force school and base, in Colorado Springs; second, the link between political and religious, President Bush's characterization of the war on terror as a crusade. This latter point in the film is not developed, since there is simply not enough time for it, and it moves past the framework of the film (as well as the original theme of Carroll's, the relation of Christians and Jews). Carroll sees proselytizing of evangelicals in the U.S. Air Force Academy and Bush's use of biblical allusions to describe the war on terror as signs and symptoms of the fact that the bloody past of Christianity, it's use as a state religion to be used to fight wars and to persecute non-Christians, Jews and Muslims, remains unknown to most Christians. Though some efforts have been made by the pope and Catholic Church to acknowledge evils committed by the church in the name of good, they have not been quite inadequate.

The starting point for Carroll's film is the symbol of the cross. As a boy, Carroll liked the cross, but then, as an adult, he began to see the shadow its cast. The good he associated with the Catholic Church also came to be associated with evil. Where did the symbol come from? It came from Constantine, a Roman general, in the 3rd century; he claimed to have had a vision of a cross during battle, and he believed it was sign that helped him win the battle. Later, the cross was adopted as a symbol in battle. When Constantine became a Roman emperor he made the cross a key Christian symbol. Thus, a symbol of grisly Roman style execution was chosen as a symbol of a religion that became a state religion, and one used as battle standard. The cross, Christian faith, would be enforced on pagans and non-Christians by the sword. The cross was quite different from other Christian symbols at the time--the fish, the lamb.

Carroll asks, what sort of man was Constantine? We learn Constantine was a ruthless and violent man, who even went so far as to have his son and one of his wives murdered. One account from Constantine's time, ironically observes that Constantine was a man with so many sins that only the Christian religion was willing to accept him. Thus, when one asks whether Constantine accepted Christianity out of personal conviction, or as a means to an end, to consolidate state power and use religion, the symbol of the cross, as a means to inspire soldiers in battle, the answer seems clear.

For Carroll, the cross, which is brought to others by sword, military force and violence--this is the starting point for Christian crusades against the infidel, its anti-Semitism and its use as a battle standard against pagans and Muslims. Since Constantine made Christianity a state religion in the twilight years of the Roman Empire--it frayed apart and collapsed in the next hundred years--there was no much time to put this militant religion into practice. However, eventually, when the medieval states that espoused Christianity became stronger in the 10th century, the crusades were launched--the imposition of the cross with the sword on non-Christians. The first to suffer were the Jews who lived along the Rhine River; they were attacked and killed by crusaders on their way to "liberate" Jerusalem and attack Muslims. Carroll goes to visit the archives, which hold books from the time, which have accounts of these atrocities. He visits Trier, for instance, and the archivist there finds a book with a description of a murder. Carroll also goes to visit the grave sites that still remain of victims.

Carroll asks, why didn't he learn about this dark past of the Catholic Church? He had even been a resident of Germany as a boy, since his father was an air force general stationed in Germany during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, as Carroll observes in retrospect, he lived in an artificial world of moral purity and goodness. His father served the forces of good--first, the FBI, then the armed services of U.S. His parents were devout Catholics. Carroll himself harbored two dreams: either become an air force pilot or a priest, and he chose the latter. In his studies in the seminary and then in his years working as an ordained priest who was committed to the peace movement to end U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Carroll began to investigate how state power and Catholicism were involved and implicated in evil. This investigation led him to quit the priesthood and to become a writer and journalist. In time, the result of Carroll's personal odyssey led to the publication of long, 751-page book published in 2001, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews; the movie based on the book, was released this year.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Strangerer by Mickey Maher, Theatre Oobleck

Now playing at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division, Chicago), and in its third run, is Mickey Maher's play "The Strangerer," an absurd, satiric, dark comedy featuring George Bush, John Kerry, and Jim Lehrer, a news anchor man, who serves as the moderator. The play is based on the debate between Bush and Kerry in 2004, but only in a very loose manner, that is, it is replete with euphemisms for brutality and violence, circumlocution, posing, empty rhetoric, and pursuit of tangents, so much so that nothing really does get said about the Iraq invasion. The actors playing Bush, Kerry, and Lehrer act like bufoons, and I was reminded of Eugene Ionescu's absurdist rewriting of Shakespeare, MacBeth, called MacBett, which I saw when it was staged a few years ago at the Chopin Theatre. In Ionescu's play leaders are presented as possessing all too human failings.

I will not comment on the play itself, but rather make some remarks about the issues raised in the play. For viewers who haven't seen the play, I would give too much away about it, if I discussed it, so I will refrain from doing so.

The playwright, Mickey Maher, who plays Kerry, gives his play an absurd turn by likening Bush to the antihero of Albert Camus's novella, The Stranger, Meursault, who commits a murder on a whim in a nihilistic fashion. Of course, neither Bush nor Kerry nor Lehrer ever get their hands "dirty" and "bloody" as such. The president ordered others, the U.S. armed forces to invade Iraq. In the name of security, in the name of democracy, in the name of stability--you name it--but there were various ideological justifications and explanations for the unilateral invasion of Iraq by Bush, which was supported by U.S. House and Senate. The mainstream media and press, including Lehrer's news hour, can be regarded as complicit in their support of the U.S. militarism, since they would often give the government, especially its representatives and spokes persons a free pass, a forum to drone on and on in their official rhetoric that would justify their militarism as anything--an effort to develop and support democracy, offering political stability, and so on--but what it it really and primarily was--an exercise in unilateral imposition of American economic and military power abroad.

Of course, Bush is quite different than Camus' Mearsault, who is a nihilist, who murders for no reason and who is detached from any feeling of connection to fellow human beings. Likely, Bush and others, in their own minds believe, deeply and passionately, that their militaristic policies are indeed justified, just as leaders of powerful countries have often believed they had some sort of religious and political right to impose control, occupation, democracy beyond the borders of their nation. Thus, the parallel suggested between Mearsault's nihilistic murder and the state sponsored militarist policies of President Bush is an absurd one. A more apt comparison between the two is based on their lack of coherence, which Maher's Bush in the play readily admits to, though quickly adds that that fact is not important. One memorable such and recorded incoherent response of Bush in the second debate with Kerry is still available on video online. When asked by an audience member that opinion abroad has become critical of Bush's invasion and how he responds to it, Bush rambles about the need to take decisive action that may be unpopular. The camera that pans the audience on occasion records looks of incomprehension and amusement and impatience at Bush's response. In Maher's play most of Bush's responses are like this.

But Maher does not write a play with an eye for satirizing the delusions of American imperial power politics that justifies its policies. His real target is the verbal game of double-speak, obfuscation, and misinformation, which is practiced by Bush himself, at times, ineptly. Bush makes many malapropisms in the play. Maher's other targets are the lackluster opposition epitomized by Kerry who cannot or for the sake of not appearing unpatriotic cannot bring himself to call the president and his administration to task for their militaristic policies that are packaged in lies and half-truths. And the mainstream American media which plays along with the government, rather than questioning it, is also a target for Maher's satire.

Maher presents Bush absurdly as someone who wants to call attention to death and murder. Of course, it's well known that the Bush administration has undertaken extraordinary measures to avoid calling attention to the deaths its Iraq invasion has caused. For instance, photographs of coffins of dead U. S. armed service men and women are not permitted to be made. Thus, in Maher's absurd debate Bush wants to stage a death during the debate itself! I will not elaborate on this development, since it would reveal an element of surprise and suspense from the play to those who have not seen it.

The debate constantly veers away from the questions posed by the moderator. The main diversion of debate becomes an argument on the nature of theatre, the theatre of politics and the theatre of death. How does one present political policy, and how does one present the death that it can cause? Bush and Kerry argue about a play they had gone to see together the night before the debate, and this serves as a meta-commentary on how their own politics, the posing, the rhetoric, the appeals to voters, is itself a staged performance. In the case of pursuing an invasion of another country, the question becomes for the administration how to stage the event, package and present it to the public. Kerry, in turn, plays along with the administration; he does not so much as protest or oppose it, as simply offer suggestions on how to modify it. In effect, this is a toothless opposition, one which in making itself "moderate," palatable to the entire game of staging politics, is not a viable alternative.

Another issue the play raises is that the lack of substantive debate and discussion in the 2004 presidential debates suggests that much of the American public is either tuned out or already has its mind made up. At one point, Maher's Bush observes that no one is really listening to him, for his supporters already agree with him, and his detractors only focus on his malapropisms. Kerry in contrast at one juncture asserts that the best theatre is the theatre that will put its audience to sleep, which is a commentary on his own inability to differentiate himself and his policies from those of Bush.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Short Films by Asliuk, Strembitsky, Loznitsa, Pakalnina, Buraja

Falling Out of Time
Gene Siskel Film Center
Curators, Oona Mosna and Jeremy Rigsby
Thursday, April 3, 2008

"Once the home of state-sponsored social realism, the former Soviet Europe has given rise to a new breed of documentary featuring the observational ambiguities and formal rigor more familiar to experimental cinema."

The Mine, Victor Asliuk, Belarus (2004) 16 min

Wayfarers, Igor Strembitsky, Ukraine (2005), 10 min

Halt, Sergei Loznitsa, Russia (2000), 25 min

Papa Gena, Laila Pakalnina, Latvia (2001) 10 min

Mother, Oksana Buraja, Lithuania (2001) 10 min

Five short experimental, documentary films from the former Soviet Union were shown. None of the films had narration or extended dialogue; some had background music. Before the films were shown, the curators gave some background information about them. Though the union came to an end in 1991, seventeen years ago, directors from nations that were a part of it, were strongly influenced in the 1990s by the film schools and documentary film studios that had been formed in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. Each province or oblast in the former Russian Soviet Union had a film school and studio, as well as the centers of Russia, Leningrad and Moscow. Each of the Soviet republics also had its film schools and centers in their capitol cities.

"The Mine" was shot in color and follows a crew of miners to their work site. There is no narrative commentary, no dialogue and some background movie only towards the very end of the film. The sound of the film is strictly on the machinery. The camera shows the workers trudging down a tunnel to the elevator, which then follows them as the elevator takes them further underground. A sensation of claustrophobia, feeling confined, is likely to develop in the viewer as the camera pans the faces of the miners in the elevator. The elevator reaches its destination and the workers leave one confined space to enter yet into another such space--the system of tunnels. The camera follows a few of the individual miners as they split up in order to attend to their particular tasks.

There is an implicit commentary being made by the director: the life of a miner is grim and grimy and harsh. We get closeups of miners attentive at some task; they are stoic, reserved, suggesting not the laborer as hero--as the 1920s propaganda films suggested--but rather a detached and dutiful attention to the task at hand. A triumphant sounding classical music score begins at the end of the film as workers depart from the mine; this is clearly an ironic comment, a suggestion that departure from confined and dusty underworld is the one source of solace for the miners from their difficult work.

The "Wayfarers" also offers us a grim view of life, in this instance, life at a home for mentally ill men, but there are occasional cuts in this narrative focus to shots of women sitting alone, a child, and a woman with a child. All these shots are presumably references to the social world outside the nursing home, a world that its inhabitants have left behind (in childhood) or dream about (meeting a woman to share life with). The film opens with the nursing home's director making his morning rounds with a forced cheerfulness and sarcastic comment (Here is our hero) to a former veteran confined to his bed. In one scene an elderly man reads aloud a nostalgic love poem near a tv that is playing, but is not tuned to any station, but simply showing static. There is no need for commentary or narration for this poignant scene, which shows us an older man's loneliness and estrangement from the world. In another similar scene, as the men mingle and sit outside the building, one man is prompted to sing, and he obliges. In several shots, individuals are seated and face the camera, but none of them talk nor seem to be quite sure how to respond to being put on the spot or interviewed. The film ends with a woman singing a lullaby in the background. Again, an ironic comment on the subject of the film--the tragic separation and isolation of mentally ill men confined to a nursing home.

Halt by Sergei Loznitsa is a black and white series of images that focuses on people sleeping at train station, which is full of them. The camera lingers on one or two or several people. Usually the edges of the screen are slightly out of focus, and often the angle of the camera is from the floor. The distance of the camera from the sleepers is uniform throughout: they fill the screen. Each sleeper or sleepers seem to get a minute or two of time on which the camera lingers on them, and usually there is some subtle and slight movement to observe

Each individual has fallen asleep in a different position--seated, slumped, stretched out, curled up, and so on. The only sounds we hear are the people breathing, stirring slightly, the occasional train whistle and the train rumbling nearby. The absence of action, the repetition of poses with slight variations leaves the viewer free to begin to form his or her own reflections; in effect, I see this as an open ended occasion for the viewer to reflect on whatever topic is on his or her mind. In this regard, a parallel experience would be looking at and reflecting on an abstract painting. In this film the burden of finding and making sense of the film is placed almost completely on the viewer.

Papa Gena by Laila Pakalnina is a black and white, gritty film that contrasts mundane life in a flat, urban, industrial landscape with Figaro singing Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. There is a strong contrast between the lively music that people are listening to on headphones and the gray setting they inhabit. The music, Mozart, often brings the dead scene to life, and on occasion puts a smile on the listeners face, usually on older listeners. The children and young adults don't seem to take as much pleasure and joy in the music as the adults. The film is made up of a series of scenes in which the listeners to the music are standing still and waiting, it seems, for the music to begin. At that point they listen to it for a time, and then walk away off camera which doesn't follow them. From one perspective, listening to the music is an indicator of the interviewees mood--are they amenable, open to the joy of the music, or are they indifferent to it? Will it make a change in their mood? If not, why?

The last film shown "Mother" by Oksana Buraja is shot in color and ironically, we never do get to see the mother of the boy in the film. As the film opens, we see a boy staring at a tv, and then a room full of smoke and people sitting around a table drinking. Presumably, the boy's mother is at the head of the table. All we see is her her back facing the film as she sits at the table full of bottles and glasses offering guests more to drink. A nonstop party seems to be in session, and the only people not partaking are the boy, who is about age six, and his friend who appears later in the film. Most of the film follows the boy around; the adults don't seem to pay much attention to him, except when he plays with the stove and is asked to get some water for a drunk man (his father?). The man talks about the struggle for good and evil in the soul; clearly, he has lost his battle, and is in the grip of alcoholism.

The residents of this apartment speak in Russian, and they are part of the Russian minority in Lithuania; such a Russian minority remains in all the new nations that formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This particular group illustrates not only the prevalence of alcoholism among Russians, whether it is in former Soviet republics that have been independent nations, or in Russia itself, but a widespread health and social problem throughout Eastern Europe and in particular the former Soviet Union.

From the naive perspective of the child, his life is boring, and he lacks structure and direction which his parents and family are supposed to be providing him. From the viewers perspective, we can only cringe and wonder what will be the long term consequences of this parental neglect on his development.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Perspeolis: a free spirit finding herself

Persepolis is a a moving coming of age story of Marjane Satrapi who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and the takeover of the country by its religious right during the 1980s. Her personal story is political: just as her nation undergoes turmoil and upheaval politically, she too leads a turbulent life trying to find herself. For a time her parents send her abroad for a few years to Vienna because they fear her outspokenness and independence at school would inevitably get both her and them in trouble with the authorities. The theme of the narrative is Satrapi's own search for stability and meaning in a life, whether under repressive religious rule in Iran that forbids free thought and expression, or living in Western Europe, which allows for such thought and expression, but such freedom is over-indulged by young outsiders that Satrapi meets.

From the first scene of the film, Satrapi as a child at a family party, one sees that she is someone who is eager to explore and test boundaries. Imitating her hero Bruce Lee, she practices martial arts moves, more zealously than called for. Perhaps, her rebellious streak is one inherited or similar to her uncle, a man who became a Marxist revolutionary, studied in the Soviet Union, and was eventually jailed in Iran after his return. He becomes one of Satrapi's heroes. The other more moderating source of guidance for Satrapi is her grandmother, who is less confrontational than her uncle--she doesn't politicize her rebellion--perhaps sensing the futility of that course of action, but is quite outspoken and independent minded.

Initially, Satrapi is an adolescent who takes a liking to the West, but in time she experiences culture shock and isolation, so she returns home at the age of 18. She tries to find her place in post-revolutionary Iran, going to far as to marry an Iranian man at the age of twenty-one, but again has difficulties--with him, the school--so she eventually leaves after several years.

Visually, the mostly black and white animated film was a pleasure to watch. The animated nature of the film serves as an effective vehicle to convey the plight of Satrapi and the Iranian people. The background is sketched in generally with spare and simple urban or nature scenery. Tehran at times appears as a dismal ghost town, its streets empty and dark, suggesting the set of German expressionist film.

This is not only a story of Satrapi, but also of her family, and other middle class families like hers in Iran, who never do fit in the theocratic government of Iran in the 1980s, nor the 1990s. There is a constant reference to events in Iranian history, and brief suggestive scenes of these historical developments, like the 8-year long war with Iran. The educated and middle class residents of Tehran hold illicit parties with alcohol, music, and dancing; after all, there is no great harm in having a bit of fun, is there?! These people enjoy Western popular culture, which is available in the underground market on the street. Satrapi's use of an increasingly popular Western art form, the graphic novel, adapted into a film, allows to both enjoy and understand her story.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Rape of Europa, a documentary film 2007

Tonight I saw the film The Rape of Europa, a documentary about the the plunder, theft, and destruction of valuable art during and after WW II. The film begins with Hitler's own relation to art. He was a watercolor painter, who applied to art school at 18 in Vienna, but was rejected, a rejection that in retrospect gave him opportunity to become more involved in politics than art. Another young man, Oskar Kokoshko, who had applied at the same time as Hitler was accepted to the school; he later quipped, he would have made quite a different leader had he been rejected and Hitler accepted to the school.

Though Hitler set aside his artistic ambitions, as he acquired political power in the 1930s, he made his own conservative artistic sensibility a matter of state and public policy. He took much more and close personal interest in art and culture than other state leaders. His conservative taste that recoiled at the avant garde changes and developments in painting and art made condemnation, censorship and destruction of such art, which was labeled as degenerate, a matter of state and public policy. Such art was removed from museums, sold off, or destroyed.

But much of pre-twentieth century art was appreciated by Hitler, who became a collector of masterpieces from the past, whether by purchase or simply theft. In fact, even in the late 1930s, he had already set his eyes on acquiring more past masterpieces from countries that he would eventually invade. Other Nazi leaders, notably, Goering also collected art.

As a matter of policy, art in nations that German invaded and occupied was to be plundered and become a part of Nazi collections or stored for eventual housing in a museum that Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria, his home town. The focus of the film is on Poland, France, individual collections and galleries of Jews throughout Europe, and Soviet Russia. The film has a chronological narrative thread. The art theft and appropriation commences in Austria in 1938 when it becomes united to Germany. Collections and galleries of prominent Jews in Vienna are identified and their art along with their property is simply taken away from them. Recently, and after legal wrangling, some paintings of Gustav Klimt are returned to the daughter of their owner.

The next country on Hitler's list is Poland, which Germany invades in September 1939. Here a policy of destroying Polish art and culture, most visibly, buildings is pursued. Destruction and desecration of art in Poland and Soviet Russia was a matter of policy: art deemed Polish in Poland was destroyed; what's more its culture itself was to be destroyed as well. Unless art was made by a German artist, as the case of many works in Cracow, which was to be appropriated and taken to Germany, it was not deemed valuable. In Russia, though the German army was held off at the outskirts of Leningrad, the nearby summer palaces, which had become state museums under Soviet rule, were plundered and then ruined when the Germany army retreated. The film goes back and forth between past and present, adding interviews with Polish and Russian curators.

The film then moves to France and then to Italy where some American artists and curators join the army to help in the effort to save art from the destruction of retreating German armies. There are even more stories to this film--the immediate post-war years, following the efforts of a conscientious German Christian who returns Jewish religious items to their family if he can find them; the remaining impasse of Russians holding onto to German art, which they stole from Germany; the continuing efforts, now more than sixty years after the war to restore artwork in Italy.

If there is any fault to this film, it's that there is so much territory covered in it, and so many fascinating stories to tell. Still, it's worthwhile to just see the entire story compressed into one narrative, and to see the images collected together in a film. Some of my visceral reactions to the film were to wince and flinch at the wanton greed and brutality of Hitler, the Nazis, the German army as they steal and destroy art and culture. Ironically, the ugliest and most inhumane and brutal actions are undertaken in the name of claiming art that is regarded as beautiful and the epitome of Western civilization. At times, I felt uneasy as world of wealth and art as a precious commodity comes up--what's the auction price for what's deemed a masterpiece? The film does show the war from quite a unique perspective of the art, and a few themes emerge, which pose interesting questions--to what extent is defending art as valuable as defending human life? To what degree do people identify with the art?

The website for the film has more information and links.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A solar system similar to ours discovered

Below, I've posted a recent article based on the news that what seems to be possibly a solar system similar to ours has been found far, far away from ours. So far away is this planet, 41 light years, that even if it were to harbor life, and even if this life form were intelligent enough to have developed science and technology, it's unlikely they would be able to create the technology to bridge the vast distance that separates them from us. Nonetheless, it's electrifying, at least to me, to read that there is a possibility that life of some sort exists elsewhere. The thought that our universe itself is so large, yet, aside from our planet, is otherwise devoid of life on other planets is dismaying--it can't be such a cold, uninviting, dead place, can it?! We can't be entirely alone, can we?!

The new discovery suggests that maybe, no, that perhaps we're not alone. Still, even if life were to possibly exist on this planet or others, one realizes the incidence of life seems quite rare, infinitesimally so. First, there are a few stars that serve as good candidates to serve as suns, which will develop a gravitational forcefield that causes a solar system of orbiting planets to form around itself. Second, one of these planets needs to orbit within a certain distance from this sun so that the temperature allows water to form. Third, the composition of this rocky planet needs to have a certain density with a hot core and a planetary surface above which which an atmosphere can form. Finally, at this point, life can possibly begin to take shape. But meeting all these conditions is a tall order, and one that is not frequently met.

Well, just how the high the incidence is uncertain, for if there are billions and billions of stars, there are seemingly innumerable chances for life to form. Still, at this point, it seems that our universe is indeed largely, dead or to use the more neutral term--inorganic--and virtually everywhere inhospitable to the development of organic life.

THE NEW YORK TIMES November 6, 2007

A Planetary System That Looks Familiar

They say there is no place like home, but it is beginning to look as if there is a place sort of like home 41 light-years from here in the constellation Cancer.

Astronomers reported Tuesday that there were at least five planets circling a star there known as 55 Cancri, where only four had been known before, making it the most extensive planetary system yet found outside our own. It is also the one that most resembles our solar system, with a giant planet orbiting far out from the star and four smaller ones circling closer in.

The new addition to the system circles 55 Cancri at roughly the distance of Venus in our own solar system, in the so-called habitable zone where it is warm enough for liquid water. But, with 45 times the mass of Earth, the planet is more apt to resemble Neptune or Saturn than Earth, and thus would be a deadly environment for any kind of life that we know.

“It’s a system that appears to be packed with planets,” Prof. Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University said of 55 Cancri. She is the leader of the team that reported its results in a paper to be published in The Astrophysical Journal and in a telephone news conference on Tuesday from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The scientists said the discovery augured well for the chance that with time and more data, astronomers would find places out there that look like home. They also said it marked the beginning of a transition between studying planets and studying planetary systems.

Another team member, Geoff Marcy, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the discovery had him “jumping out of my socks.” He said, “We now know our Sun and its family of planets is not unusual.”

Jonathan I. Lunine, a professor at the University of Arizona who was not part of the work, said that astronomers were on the verge of beginning to answer a question posed by Albertus Magnus, the medieval German philosopher and priest who wondered whether there was but one world or many worlds. We now know, Dr. Lunine said, “how lonely the universe is, how far we live from distant stars.”

In the last decade, about 250 planets have been discovered around other stars — the vast majority of them by the so-called wobble technique of monitoring a star’s light for signs of the slight to-and-fro motion induced by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

As technology and techniques have improved, the planet hunters have been able to move down the scale from Jupiter-size planets to ones only a few times as massive as Earth. But detecting rocky planets like Earth is probably beyond the current technology and must await future space-based missions, the astronomers admit.

One of the first of these “exoplanets” discovered, in 1996, was at 55 Cancri. Dr. Fischer and her colleagues have been observing that star for 18 years, adding more planets to the list of its retinue as they have made their presence known.The outermost and heaviest planet in the system, which is four times as massive as Jupiter, circles at a distance of 500 million miles, slightly farther than Jupiter in our own system, and takes 14 years to complete an orbit.

The star’s three innermost planets all circle more tightly than Mercury at distances from 22 million to 3.5 million miles. The closest of three is also the smallest, only 18 as massive as Earth and surely permanently scorched.

The new planet, which Dr. Fischer called “one of the more annoying planets” because it resisted being folded into their mathematical models for such a long time, basks in the lukewarm light of its star from a distance of around 70 million miles, taking 260 days to complete one orbit. Although too massive for life itself, Dr. Marcy said, the planet could harbor rocky moons, just as Saturn and Neptune in our own solar system do, and these would be warmed to the same lukewarm temperatures as Earth.

The moons would have to be as massive as Mars, however, in order to keep their water from escaping into empty space. Dr. Marcy said, “All bets are off on what evolutionary biology would be like on one of these moons.”The astronomers said they were also intrigued by the large gap — a band about 450 million miles across — between the new planet and the outermost one, in which they have detected nothing. There is a similar, but smaller, gap in our own solar system between Jupiter and Mars, caused by the disruptive effects of Jovian gravity on planetary formation. Dr. Lunine suggested that the more massive Cancri planet could have had a similar and deeper disruptive effect.

But the possibility remains that rocky planets could be lurking beneath detectability in that gap. Dr. Lunine said, “This gives us a name and an address to point out space telescopes at in the future.”

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Polish Ukrainian Film Festival Aug 24-26, 2007 Chopin Theatre

The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago, has been hosting Post Revolution Blues: the Polish-Ukrainian Film Festival, the last two evenings. The film on the first evening was "Acts of Imagination" made by a Canadian director, Carolyn Combs, and script writer, Michael Springate, neither of whom are of Slavic descent. The film focuses on the difficulties faced by two young immigrants from Ukraine, a brother, who is eager to assimilate and his sister who is haunted by the tragic past of her parents and grandparents, victims of a famine. While the brother has taken a natural step toward assimilation, meeting a Korean woman he falls in love with and plans to marry her, his sister meets a man from Pakistan, but she doesn't feel ready to become intimate with him. But both seem to live very isolated lives, separated from any immigrant community and the larger community as well.

To me the film felt claustrophobic in its relentless focus on the inner conflicts faced by its subjects, and it reminded me of a stage play in its reliance on dialog. Some of the exchanges would certainly be much more forceful and moving in a live performance by actors on stage.

The cinematic element offers some rays of light in its engaging and long lasting closeups and occasional shots of the dark, looming horizons. The lighting in most of the film is dark and scant on color, perhaps capturing Vancouver during a rainy season, but also the meager and straightened circumstances of its characters. There is a strong sense limited mobility and entrapment in the film that reflects the situation and psyche of its vulnerable immigrant subjects, who are . For example, the film begins with a close up of the sister peeling and cutting an orange. It's she who is concentrating on this simple act, as if using it to anchor herself in a world in which she feels adrift and uncertain of herself and troubled by the past. But in the film there are also elusive symbols of transcendence, like an icon, which may serve as a source of rent payment for the brother and sister who have fallen behind in its payment.

This was for me a difficult film to watch. I appreciated the carefully done closeups, the scenic shots, the dialogs, but I felt as if I was locked up in a small place with these characters for too long in their very circumscribed world. After the film an informative post-film discussion took place with the director and screenwriter. We learned from the screenwriter, for example, that mixed ethnic marriages between immigrants are very common.

The second evening there were three films, a long documentary and two short films. The first film was again a film made about Ukraine by a non-Ukrainian, a Spaniard, the director Carlos Rodriguez. "The Unnamed Zone" is a film made about the daily lives of the people living just outside the contaminated zone of Chernobyl. Though they live in a purportedly safe zone, the children from the area are reported to have more illnesses and sickness, and one who is filmed takes medication for headaches. We meet three families and the children talk most of the time, but their parents are also given some opportunity to speak. The film avoids presenting scientific and medical data about the nuclear disaster, and its consequences; instead, the focus is on the daily lives of the people who live in the shadow of this still contaminated and dangerous area. It was a well made and engaging documentary.

In the discussion after the film, we learned that the director took an interest in the film, because every summer children from around the Chernobyl area are sent away for weeks or months to European countries in order to live in an area far from the scene of the disaster. The director curious about the appearance of Ukrainian children in Spain took an interest in them that led to making the film.

The next film was a documentary made about a homeless girl about age 12 named Liza. We follow her around the city and in the reform school where she lives. She smokes and smarts off and swears and violates personal boundaries of others with impunity. She has soaked up much too cynicism at too young an age. The film speaks for itself about the effects that homelessness has on damaging the spirit of a child. In this documentary, as in the first one, statistics and an overview of the problem of homeless children was not given. In the discussion after the film we learned that it is serious problem in Ukraine. Often the children run away from an abusive home, or from homes where grandparent(s) become the guardians, since the parents are compelled to leave the country in search of work abroad for months to years.

The last film in the evening was a short film, A Man Thing, also devoted to a children, in this instance child abuse. The director, Slawomir Fabicki, was at the festival and at the discussions. I found this film to be the most moving and riveting of any I had seen up to that point. It was shot in black and white, and its focus was on a boy at soccer practice at school. The coach tries to toughen up his team of boys by talking tough to them, but this really proves to be not the abuse the boy is suffering from. Instead, it's at home he suffers from his father's physical beatings for misbehaving at school. I won't say more about the plot of the film, for it may take away some of its beauty and charm.

In the discussion afterwards, the director, Fabicki, stated that in his film he focuses on a social issue, like the problem of child abuse, and his purpose in film is to provoke emotions by leading the audience to identify and sympathize with its characters.

The final evening featured two more films. First, a short documentary, again about the problem of homeless children in Ukraine, "There was a woman who lived in shoe," but this time about a family in Western Ukraine who have adopted five young children, though they have two sons, who are young adults in their late teens and attending college. I found this film quite moving. The woman in the film shows an incredible reservoir of love and compassion that she feels compelled to share for her adopted children.

The evening ended with a feature length film, "The Retrieval" by Fabicki. It is a tale of on level of a Polish economy in upheaval and for many young people one that leaves them with few hopes for the future. One such young man weary of work at a cement factory where his friend dies and work at a hog farm of his family, drifts into the criminal underworld, working there as an enforcer, who collects money on loans and threatens and beats those who can't or don't pay up. On another level this is a film that details the process of desensitization to brutality and violence, that is, overcoming a natural human unease about evil. That process is especially well documented in the film. Watching this film, I felt as if it echoed the festival's first film: again, the viewer is led to follow and witness the difficult plight of isolated and young individuals.

This film was even more difficult than the festival's first film: we, who know better, are compelled to follow the descent of a good young man into darkness. There are recurrent scenes of brutality and violence in the film, and ironically, what one would hope would possibly lead this young man away from this path--a woman he loves, a Ukrainian woman--ironically only provokes him to choose this path. For he believes that he will impress his woman by making money.

I can't but help feeling the viewer felt emotionally crushed and beaten up, much as the protagonist of the film is at its end. While the film is technically brilliant, its emotionally grim and tragic in tone. I can't help but feel that the director perhaps wanted to impress on the viewer what a dead-end the new economic situation has become for some young people in Poland.

For a link to a film site created by Yuri Shevchuk, one of the moderators in the film festival discussion and founder of the Ukrainian film club at Columbia University see

More information about the films, which I've cut and pasted here:

Post Revolution Blues: Polish Ukrainian Film Festival

Friday, August 24th

7p Reception

8p "Acts of Imagination" by Carolyn Combs and Michael Springate, 2006
The story revolves around Jaroslaw (Billy Marchenski) and Katya (Stephanie Hayes), Ukrainian immigrants to Vancouver, who each find their place within Canadian society and struggle to make ends meet and honor their Ukrainian heritage. The film touches on the problem of immigration, historical memory and reconciliation with history which resonates with the public on both sides of the Atlantic. English and Ukrainian.

930p Discussion - "Global Identity" with Zbigniew Banas, Film Critic; Carolyn Combs, Canadian Director; Slawomir Fabicki, Oscar ® Nominated Director; Alton Miller, Columbia College Chicago and Yuri Shevchuk, Columbia University.

Saturday, August 25th

730p "The Unnamed Zone" by Carlos Rodriguez, 2006
Follows the stories of three young Ukrainians directly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worse nuclear disaster in history. They live perilously close to the exclusion zone around the destroyed station and recount their fears, dreams, fantasies and hopes for the future. There is a palpable sense of despair in this cinematographic trip to the heart of one of the world's most contaminated places still inhabited by close to five million people, who have basically been forgotten. Ukrainian with subtitles.

9p "Liza" by Taras Tomenko, 2006

The award winning filmmaker Tomenko follows a homeless teenage girl to understand the personal and societal reasons for the rise in numbers of Ukraine's unwanted children. Ukrainian, Russian, and Surzhyk (hybrid of Russian and Ukrainian) with subtitles.

930p "A Man Thing" by Slawomir Fabicki, 2001
Three days in the life of a thirteen-year-old boy trying desperately to keep secret the fact that his father beats him. Lonely and with no support from his mother or from school, the boy finds his only friend in an old stray dog from the kennels. Polish with subtitles.

10p Discussion - "Social Activism through Filmmaking" with Zbigniew Banas, Film Critic; Carolyn Combs, Canadian Director; Adam Ensalaco, Greenpeace; Slawomir Fabicki, Oscar ® Nominated Director; Yuri Shevchuk, Columbia University; and Stephen Steim, Human Rights Watch.

1030p Reception

Sunday, August 26th

4p "Retrieval" by Slawomir Fabicki, 2005
Follows the fortunes of a nineteen-year-old trying to make his way in society. Living in an industrial city that has seen better days Wojtek faces a dismal future. However, he has fallen in love with Katja, a slightly older Ukrainian woman who lives with her young child. But how can he earn enough money to support Katja and her child, and get an apartment large enough for the three of them? Polish with subtitles.

6p "There Was A Woman Who Lived In A Shoe" by Olena Fetysova , 2005

Documentaries about homeless children on the streets of Ukrainian cities are a common sight in countries in transition. This film is about a couple who offer their own solution to this problem. They take in homeless children into their own family and create a home for them, a private crisis center for orphans. Original Ukrainian with subtitles.

630p Discussion - "Family Redefined" with Zbigniew Banas, Film Critic; Slawomir Fabicki, Oscar ® Nominated Director and Yuri Shevchuk, Columbia University

7p Reception

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hell on Wheels: Women's Roller Derby film documentary

Another night at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and tonight I watched a documentary, Hell on Wheels, directed by Bon Ray, about the recent rebirth of women's roller derby, which took place in Austin, Texas, 2001. My expectation was to see a film about the character and motivation of the individual women, but instead what the film documented over the course of several years was the initial organization of the league, its split, and emergence of one league from this split. The issue that provides suspense in the film is whether this league will put the focus more on the model of the skaters enjoying the camaraderie and skating and less on running a business with a management staff in order to make profit.

There are several types of scenes that recur throughout the film. Group discussions, which often become arguments are common up until the very end of the film. The main issue of controversy is how to run the organization, how to spend the money, and who leads it and how much power are they given. There are interviews, usually quite brief, with individual skaters. There are scenes from training, from practice, from the games, as well as the injuries that seem quite common, and a few quite serious that result.

While the focus of this film is understandable--to present the nitty-gritty, often contentious discussion and argument that is involved in setting up the league and determining its structure and goals--it inherently does not seem to make for good film scenes: anyone who has ever sat in on an organizational meeting knows that they can be protracted, contentious, and a hassle that you are happy when concluded. Thus, I found myself fearing in the film, oh, no, not another discussion and argument. Furthermore, without any narrator who intruded to clue the viewer in and provide more information about the context, I often felt lost. The director clearly wanted to leave this narrator out in the name of making the film more realistic--you saw things as the participants saw them--but this I believe this made it more difficult for the viewer to get involved in the film, in terms of better understanding what was going on.

Another disagreement I have with the film is its focus on the logistics of forming and operating an organization. With this focus we see many taped scenes of arguments and bickering about just what to do and how to handle the logistics of running what proves to be a costly enterprise--renting a hall, attracting paying spectators, finding training space, buying skates, dealing with frequent and costly injuries, some quite serious. I suppose someone interested in the business aspect of this enterprise would be curious about this aspect of women's roller derby, but I was not particularly so.

True, this gives you the nitty gritty and unpleasant, yet necessary perspective on what is quite a difficult start up venture. This is truly a realist and documentary film! But in my view it just doesn't make particularly dramatic film. Personally, I would be curious to learn more about the personalities of the participants--what draws them to roller derby and why they enjoy it. For instance, a woman in the film observes that the skaters were loners who didn't fit in, but this observation isn't developed. Or the entire question of using sex to sell the sport, that is, wearing sexy outfits to draw an audience. We get a few brief explanations that the skaters are okay with that, but I sense there is more to it than simply a pat answer. Or probably there are a variety of answers to this questions, it depends on which skater you would ask.

This film constitutes quite an ambitious ground level view of the formation of a women's roller derby league. The director and his friends and associates spent several years on this project and their purpose was to document the messy process that led to the league's formation. In this they do succeed. But if you are interested in learning more about the personality of the skaters, more about their issues of gender, if they have any, then this film may not satisfy you.

Anna Biller's "Viva" (2006): Camp sex film with a critical twist

Tonight at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, I saw Anna Biller's "Viva" is an independent film, which is a labor of love, a visually striking film with wonderfully evocative, period sets and costumes in some of the tackiest and brightest colors that 1972 had to offer. Reading about Biller's background as a student in art explains why this film is so beautifully made. A number of films seem to have come out in recent years that revisit the 1950s through 1970s with an informed perspective that did or was not allowed expression at the time, like, interracial sex and homosexuality in a film like "Far From Heaven."

The hero of the film, Barbie, played by the film's director, takes the name of Viva, which in Italian means a desire to live. Trapped in an empty, predictable existence with a husband who is more wed to his work than her, with a friend, she sets off in pursuit of personal and sexual fulfillment. But she only encounters men who want casual sex first, then may consider Viva as a person. In other words, these men don't share her desire to link sexual to emotional fulfillment. Thus, it seems, from Viva's perspective the sexual revolution empowers men more than women, because most men, it seems, don't take into account women's needs.

One paradox that Viva faces is that she can begin to enjoy her sexy body and her stylish, provocative, sexy clothes, but at the same time this source of strength and new found self-affirmation works against her, attracting men to her who desire her body, but not necessarily her as a person. Thus, there is an irony in taking the name Viva: it symbolizes the promise of life, finding personal fulfillment, yet at the same time these goals prove elusive, if not unattainable.

From the film itself it's hard to determine just what is Anna Biller's position regarding the swinging seventies. While she clearly enjoys conveying the look and color of the decor and outfits--she wears the outfits herself and designed and made the sets--yet she is also clearly critical of the way people, mostly men, behave. This is just an undercurrent in the film, a ripple, for the film is primarily meant to be light, entertaining fun, which indeed it is. Still, the undercurrent of criticism for me provoked a conflicted response to the film. I felt uneasy with the glimmer of the critical eye on the sexual revolution from the perspective of the woman who is more its victim than beneficiary, while at the same time I was admiring the visually stunning recreation of the past and entertained by the film's humor.

This mix of disparate elements that I found jarring in the film "Viva" brings to my mind a book written about Picasso by Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning. Cowling considers how Picasso appropriates and often parodies other artists and art forms, often mixing the styles and time periods in a jarring, unexpected manner. Of course, this complicates our response to such paintings--what are we to make of them?! When dealing with say just one nude, however, our response is not that problematic; we can appreciate the manner in which Picasso takes primitive African sculpture and renders it in a cubist style. But consider a more complex subject in a painting, Picasso's now famous painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" which shows five women rendered in a loose, cubist manner and which incorporates an element of social criticism of prostitution. The basis of this painting was a photograph of prostitutes that was meant to entice and titillate, but in Picasso these figures become aggressive and disarming, confront the viewer with their large eyes and frightening masks in place of faces. Visually, this painting is a stunning, dynamic study of interrelated figures. But how does it affect the viewer, what sort of response does it provoke? One may be attracted to its composition, but repulsed by its aggressive and blank faces that stare at you. And the viewer can walk away with this mixed response. What in the world am I looking at or who is looking at me in this painting, and why?! If curious, the viewer can read about the painting and learn exactly what is its subject matter.

For me visual art that provokes a jarring response is okay, because I can walk away from the work of art, and return to it, but I find that when this occurs in a film it feels unresolved in a disconcerting way that makes it difficult for me to experience for an hour or two. I don't want to make too much out of this particular reaction I had to Anna Biller's film "Viva"--the combination of a fun, comic film provokes laughter, but at the same time, scenes in which Viva the hero is imposed upon and taken advantage of by men provokes thoughts and the realization that the sexual revolution served as just another means to exploit women. In other words, there are two referents--one, to fun, campy film, the other to a troubling reality avoided in such films.

The film "Viva" resembles a sexploitation film with its lack of character development through extended dialog and conversation; instead, there is more focus on humorous exchanges and deadpan and campy humor. It differs in a very effective and subtle manner from these films when the manner and tone in which the actors speak is transparently outrageous. Viva's husband, for example, is the epitome of the clean cut, handsome, self-righteous, hard-working, and worst of all self-absorbed successful breadwinner and husband. Any time he speaks, he provokes amusement and laughter. When he asserts that Viva is a ball and chain who can't let him go because he wants to go away from an extended business trip that will include skiing, but not Viva, we can only smile in amusement at his self-absorption and self-righteousness.

Perhaps, I want to take Viva as a character too seriously, more seriously than the other characters. She differs in this regard from them: instead of going along with the flow, she hesitates and protests, but she never articulates just how. I imagine doing that would really introduce a new and perhaps undesired tone into the otherwise fun film. In the film all the men that Viva meets impose themselves on her, aside from one woman she meets, so inevitably she must feel dismayed--all her hopes for liberation sexually have been dashed. But how deeply we never do learn, since Viva remains pretty much a closed book, her face, the cover suggesting that she is troubled and disconcerted by her foray into the sexual liberation.

Thus, for me, the film works against itself or at cross purpose: while it wonderfully evokes a sexploitation film, it at the same same time introduces something quite alien to the genre--a critical point of view about the sexual exploitation from the woman's victimized perspective. For me, it seems, the film's last scene, Viva performing with her friend a song and dance on stage, is quite hard to believe, because it implies that somehow despite all her disappointing experiences in seeking love, everything is just fine for Viva who has learned that the sexual revolution is not for her.

Still, the film, for anyone interested in the period is worthwhile watching, especially for its visual reproduction and evocation of the time period, as well as humorous evocation of the past. There is musical accompaniment that sounds like popular music from the time, and there are several well done, amusing singing interludes in the film. Viva's visit to the nudist camp, her song and dance performance at a mansion orgy, her visit to the hair dresser--these are a few of the memorable and entertaining scenes I liked. I am impressed also that Anna Biller ventures into making a film in a genre that had been the domain of male directors and male viewers, and gives it her own critical perspective as a woman. At the same time, she enjoys making the film, having an opportunity to wear a variety of outfits. For a first film this is an impressive accomplishment, perhaps with a few flaws, but I am eager to see future films directed by Anna Biller or films in which she is involved.

For an interview with Anna Billers: