Happy First Day of 2010!

But first … December 2009!

Reality

Between December 6 (my last post) and December 22nd, I…

*… spent my second day at the Filmmuseum Potsdam, and feel the urge to continue to plumb the wonderful archives there again and again.
*… had an intensive two-day (Fri.-Sat.) Genre Analysis session run by Frau Claudia Töpper in which we media studies students pored over 500+ German reality TV shows to determine their shared characteristics.  (I’ve been assigned the “living history” genre for next time)
*… saw a burlesque show called “Black Flamingo” at the infamous Wintergarten stage on Potsdamer Str.  (Ask me about it in confidence.)
*… attended the media studies department Christmas Party at the HFF, which didn’t resemble American X-mas parties at all.
*… celebrated Christmas by giving gifts to each other in our apartment. Yay!
*… came down with a bad cold (from which I have yet to recover).

As many of you know, from December 22nd to December 26th, Kat and I were in Prague.  Beforehand, we had heard that the city was one of the most beautiful in Europe, and one of the most affordable to boot.  These rumors bespoke the truth:  Prague is incredible-looking and quite cheap compared with most of the metropolises of Europe, not to mention relatively small and filled with friendly people.  The gem of the Czech Republic certainly lives up to its reputation!

On the 22nd, we arrived on the train from Berlin and stowed our things in the hostel, Prague’s Heaven (near Vyshehrad).  Ann, the woman working the desk that day, gave us some thorough directions in broken English and heaped good tea and good cheer upon us.  We were starving after the long train journey, so we made a point of getting an awesome vegetarian meal at the Lehka Hlava restaurant just inside the Old Town and then wandered amidst the crowded Christmas markets on Old Town Square and Wenceslaus Square.  Day 2 saw us visiting the Alphonse Mucha Museum (a short artistic feast) and the Museum of Communism (a one-sided, bitter depiction of the Cold War that goes so far as to blame Karl Marx for 100 million deaths…), taking a lunch break at the awesome and cheap Dhaba Beas Indian buffet near Tyn’s Church.  A significant portion of the day was spent listening to the surprisingly awesome neo-medieval band Krless, whose album I’m inclined to purchase.  The rest of our evening was spent in Lehka Hlava’s twin restaurant Maitrea with UMass sociology student Irene, who regularly celebrates Christmas in Prague, and her cousin Katharina.  Day 3 (Christmas Eve) offered fewer such good restaurants for our sampling, so we snacked at the still-open Christmas markets, went on a boat ride on the Moldau (Vlatava) River (complete with a cacophonic tour recording accompanying us in six different languages), attended a Christmas concert held on the stairs of the National Museum, saw the Jewish quarter and drank coffee in the gorgeous Municipal House café.  Christmas Eve dinner was at the Zahrada v Opere restaurant, where we had a “traditional” Czech dinner (we thought it was good, anyway).  Day 4 (Christmas Day!) had us return to the Municipal House for breakfast and for a tour of its magnificent turn-of-the-century modern interior decoration (we got a free beer at the American bar in the basement, too).  Then we undertook the intrepid task of visiting Prague Castle (Prasky Hrad), which turned out to be even more touristy than Old Town Square and all the rest could ever be.  We managed to fight the hordes enough to see the inside of St. Vitus Cathedral (which was, we admit, pretty spectacular), but we found ourselves too overwhelmed to enter the castle itself and were content with eating greasy food at an ex-pat establishment.  Thereafter, our journey brought us to the quiet splendor of the Bethlehem Church and to the electrical problems of the organ concert in Old Town Square.  After watching the music stage compete with the giant Christmas tree for energy for an hour, we finally heard the concert and then warmed up in the elegant Slavia Café afterwards.  Day 5 (Boxing Day) brought our trip to a close with breakfast at the Grand Café Orient, the cubist/futurist café near the train station, where we ran into Irene and Katharina again by chance!

December 29th was, as many people know, Kat’s and my second wedding anniversary.  We definitely gave the day all the special attention it deserved:  we spent the afternoon chatting with one of Emily Care Boss’ gamer friends in town – the ineffable Olle – went to the cinema, and then ate at a great Chinese restaurant across the street from the Chinese Embassy.

New Year’s Eve (last night?) proved as explosive as the other time (2003-2004) I celebrated the event in Germany.  Let’s start with the crowds:  we had neglected to go grocery shopping before Thursday, so we steeled ourselves against the throngs of people clearing the shelves into their carts.  No different from the U.S. before a holiday, I’d say, except that many of the shoppers were cramming an additional item into their carts… fireworks!  Snow fell on my head from a 5 story building, so I spent the rest of the afternoon bewildered.  The evening found us in Another Country, where we read some sci-fi/fantasy books in preparation for the coming New Year’s fireworks storm.  Alan compared his bookstore with a “bunker,” which was an apt description given the amount of explosives dodging we had to perform.  At about 10:45 p.m., we ascended the hill and monument at the top of Viktoriapark, looking for prime real estate to watch the fireworks “blast” in the new year.  By 11:30, we found ourselves overlooking a densely packed crowd and a continuous barrage of explosions.  The numbers of both reached their zenith at midnight, when the whole city transformed into a skyline of smoky explosions.  At 12:15, when the festivities had ebbed and I could feel my toes numbing, we decided to descend the snow-covered steps of Viktoriapark and discovered that one could only safely depart by sliding down the stairs.  Well, you can imagine the denizens’ surprise below us as we careened into them from above, part of a shuffling, intoxicated international swarm.  Walking through Viktoriapark was like a snowy war zone, with pitched battles of green and blue leaving behind scars and debris across the disturbed white blanket.  In fact, all of Berlin became said war zone as people from all walks of life satiated their anarchic impulses through fiery implements.

And now it’s January 2010, and my dissertation needs writing.  Any other resolutions necessary?

Fantasy

Ashes of Time Redux (dir. Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/UK 1994/2008)

A broker of swords-for-hire living at the edge of a desert stands at the crossroads of many stories of painful, human loss.  An elliptically told wuxia film, completely captivating in its uniqueness as Wong Kar-Wai’s only attempt in the genre.  Find the 35mm version of the film and be amazed.

Avatar (dir. James Cameron, US/UK/New Zealand 2009)

A disabled veteran becomes a blue cat-person and saves the same.  Read my longer, contentious review.

The Big Mess (dir. Alexander Kluge, FRG 1971)

Some working-class people try to survive amidst corporate bureaucracy-dominated space politics in 2034.  Kluge’s materialist politics fail to coherently gel with his humorous, abstract tale and thus produces a film exactly like its title suggests.  This is one direction German sci-fi need not go again.

Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion, UK/Australia/New Zealand 2009)

A quiet love story between John Keats and Fanny, the daughter of his landlady.  An excellent example of how one frames three characters within shots to produce dramatic tension, as well as of how a soundtrack supports understated actors.  This one should win an Oscar, but it probably won’t.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (dir. Kenji Kamiyama, TV series, Japan 2002/2004)

A high-tech, cyberpunk cop show about the investigations of Section 9 into philosophically complicated cyber-scandals of the 21st Century.  The series is primarily enjoyable because of its extremity:  if it decides to spend an entire episode in what amounts to one dialogue scene, then by golly it’ll do it.  Such boldness to break with TV formulas is only encountered within the rarest of shows.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti, Italy 1971)

The story of American slavery, told tastelessly.  Told as a shockumentary of reenacted historical events, the film nevertheless exploits countless cheap African actors to tell a story not necessarily worth telling:  the filth and gore of the United States’ sordid slave trade is perhaps best read, and not voyeuristically re-created…

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (dir. David Yates, UK 2009)

Number 6 in the Harry Potter cycle.  Thanks to Michael Chabon and Jim Broadbent, Yates had a movie here.  Everything else from the Potter series (Quidditch, encounters with the fantastic, meaningful flirtation among the kids, etc.) appears somewhat subdued.  I think Prisoner of Azkaban remains the best film of the series thus far.

Pope Joan (dir. Sönke Wortmann, Germany/UK/Italy/Spain 2009)

The fictional biopic of the female Pope.  Surprisingly good as a candid description of medieval life, though a weak love story threatens to muck the whole thing up.  John Goodman’s performance was so excessive that it may have permanently warped the second half of the film…

The Scar (book by China Miéville)

A linguist-in-exile, a mutilated convict, a plucky young sailor and crafty government agent are kidnapped by pirates on the Swollen Ocean and integrated into the floating city of Armada, which is in the midst of a vast, secret project.  Miéville’s lush pirate epic proves perhaps his best work to date (though I still need to read Iron Council and The City and the City for final judgment) in terms of pacing and action.  A more suspenseful-yet-richly-detailed sci-fi/fantasy book I’ve yet to encounter in the last several years.  Read it.

Winnetou and His Friend Old Firehand (dir. Alfred Vohrer, FRG/Yugoslavia 1966)

Apache hero Winnetou and the “mountain man” Old Firehand team up to fight evil bandits and Mexicans trying to burn down a village.  Oh, and it turns out that Old Firehand’s old French lover and bastard son are in the village too.  Though this film was expensive and difficult to shoot, it turned out to be the dying gasp of the West German Winnetou film phenomenon.  Watch this piece of trite garbage to find out why.

Winnetou and the Half-Blood Apanatschi (dir. Harald Philipp, Yugoslavia/FRG/Italy 1966)

An evil group of bandits relentlessly pursue Apanatschi and her friends (Winnetou and Old Shatterhand) to find a hidden gold seam.  Contains more of Götz George’s patented “leaping attack,” and a fiery gun battle at the end.

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Night of the Nazis

September 25, 2009

Reality

I decided it might be a good idea to get out of the apartment and do something remotely academic before my brain shrinks with age (my birthday’s six days away… and I have no plans yet).  The Deutsche Kinemathek was having a symposium called “Kamera als Waffe” (“Camera as Weapon”) on the propaganda films of World War II, so I cast in my lot and registered for it, thinking I might meet some interesting people there.  Turns out I was right.

The first day (Thursday), I grabbed a coffee at the beginning of the conference and stood near another gentleman, who asked me in which room it was to take place.  We struck up a conversation and we were nearly inseparable for the rest of the night.  He was Herr Göres, a former GDR customs-agent-turned-journalist who had worked for Den Tagesspiegel among other newspapers.  He was also one of the most outspoken people in the audience, who’d make loud comments to people sitting next to them (i.e., me) during other people’s academic talks… as if it were a press conference or something.  The summary of the papers were as follows:   Rainer Rother, director of the Berlinale, introduced the whole shebang.  Klaus Kreimeier depicted war propaganda newsreels as a kind of sensory-motor means of warfare, inciting people toward war activities through the creation of a coherent fantasy world with all the clichés.  According to Kreimeier, the films were shot with a “secret screenplay” in mind, not as documentation.  Miriam Arani showed us some gruesome pictures and told us about how the Germans pretended dead Poles whom they killed were dead ethnic Germans (kind of like The Gleiwitz Case).  Klaus Hesse, a big guy at the Topographie des Terrors, showed us some private photos of propaganda photographer Arthur Grimm that illustrated German occupation in Poland as a kind of civilized police activity – all staged for the cameras.  There’s a kind of collapse between public and private sphere there.  Then Karl Prümm introduced Feldzug in Polen as a symphonic newsreel designed to make the invasion of Poland itself seem like a work of art.

On the second day (today/Friday) Ralf Forster from the Filmmuseum Potsdam demonstrated how the newsreel production process was a well-oiled, highly modern machine that, well, more or less delivers on the “camera as weapon” thesis.  Matthias Struch provided an array of clips to show how authorship and individual directorial signatures could be found in the films of Walter Frentz, Hans Ertl and Heinz von Jaworsky.  Dirk Alt highlighted a few newsreels fragmentarily shot in color and why WWII wasn’t generally shot in color.  Hans-Peter Fuhrmann elaborated on the acoustic dimension of the newsreels and how music and/or sound effects frame the works’ sense of realism.  Brian Winston introduced The True Glory as a very effective piece of indirect propaganda:  acknowledging the negative and cynical sides of reality before turning to its myth-making, collectivist project.

After tonight’s screening, I had the pleasure of having a beer with Mr. Winston, Kay Hoffmann and another very nice woman who worked heavily with documentary film.  It turns out that this is THE Brian Winston who wrote Misunderstanding Media as well as Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, and who produced this classic Paper Tiger analysis of TV news.  So now that I understood that I was gossiping with one of the luminaries of documentary ethics and Communication Studies, I realized that when he talked about “Ricky” needing to get his autobiography out, he meant Richard Leacock, and when he referred to “Bobby” or “Stuart,” he meant Robert Flaherty and Stuart Hall respectively.  He’s currently working on the documentary on Flaherty, which caused a lot of discussion about Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948).  I learned maybe more in that one hour than in several Kamera als Waffe conferences, but so it goes.

Naturally, I remain without a student U-bahn pass and I’m cheap so I hoofed it back to my apartment from Potsdamer Platz after the beer.  My 30-minute nighttime journey on foot revealed the following items of note:

• A row of aggressive prostitutes near the Bülowstrasse U-Bahn station (but I was on the other side of the street)
• A hookah bar covered in a pale haze that was sucked outside as soon as someone opened the door.
• An older man with an open bottle of Baileys who nearly wandered into traffic.
• A local barber shop has a lot of activity behind its steel doors at night, meaning I think it’s a front for something else

Ah, the City of Sand.

Fantasy

Feldzug in Polen (1939/40, dir. Fritz Hippler)

Fritz Hippler, that lovely cutting-room documentarist who later put together the anti-Semitic montage The Eternal Jew (1940), worked together with Herbert Windt, composer of the score for Triumph of the Will (1935), on the first major documentary about the German blitzkrieg victory in Poland.  With enthusiastic marches, maps with big arrows on them, and exciting house-to-house fighting footage that may or may not have been staged, the film shows us how the Wehrmacht kicked the living tar out of the Polish army.  The general dynamic revolves around A) the continuous victory of the advancing German army and B) the continuous retreat of the cowardly-but-threatening Polish army, conspicuously eliding the presence of both German casualties and the nuances of Polish defeat (something about concentration camps?).  In my humble opinion, it reminded me of a music video:  structured more around its own self-gratifyingly simplistic narrative and the foregrounded symphonic music than around documentation of an event or the commemoration of something significant in detail.

The True Glory (1945, dir. Carol Reed)

An epic piece of propaganda filmmaking that kicks the living tar out of Feldzug in Polen, The True Glory provides a picture of the WWII battle on the western front toward victory told entirely through voice-over by real troops and General Eisenhower.  It is, in a word, gripping.  Ken Burns’ The War (2007) shows the message hasn’t changed a bit from when the U.S. and the UK hadn’t even defeated Japan yet:  the war was hard and fought by regular people called to do a great, global act of goodness requiring epic bravery, etc., etc.  The point is that, after this film, you feel both educated about the basic military history of the UK/American/Russian victory and certainly feel very good that all those Nazis are conquered, even though the Nazi Germans are not necessarily portrayed in a negative light.  Another key difference from Feldzug in Polen:  the bodies of American and British soldiers are depicted, which forces how “hard” the war was.  See this to see from where Saving Private Ryan (1998) effectively culled its most powerful material for the first 20 minutes.

Film Binge

September 23, 2009

Reality

On Saturday, I visited the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdamer Platz.  It is now a place with which I am thoroughly familiar:  after 5.5 hours of me poring over every inch of every exhibit, they had to kick me out since they were closing.  Of certain interest beyond original documents associated with films I know and love such as Joe May’s Asphalt, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, etc., was a giant wall with nothing but TV screens containing post-war German directors and buttons one could push to see a sampling of their work.  I loved it – I was able to get to know one or two new directors and their work in such a short time span!  It’s quite clear, however, that the museum is primarily concerned with Marlene Dietrich, her legacy and her estate.  They even had the Negerpuppe and the Chinesenpuppe that were featured in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which she brought around with her for good luck.  That’s going into my dissertation somewhere…

On Monday morning, I took a trip down to Potsdam-Babelsberg just to see what it was like.  The film school itself blew me away:  a giant four building structure encased in a cocoon of glass and bound together with assorted stairwells and catwalks.  Of course, I was looking for a bureaucrat in that labyrinth, so I suddenly felt like I was in Brazil or something (don’t you know we imagine in movies now?).  I would go up a stairwell and only reach half the offices on a floor, because the others were on the other side of the catwalk.  In addition, you can check out films from the library and watch them in these weird little space-age pods that slide around in the lobby…

The only downside to the earlier part of this week?  No Fulbright money yet to speak of, no good opportunity to get a Visa until after I register for classes (which I need a Visa to do ironically…), and with no money, little travel in and around the city.  This should all change within a week or so, one hopes.

Fantasy

Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, dir. Gottfried Kolditz)

I watched this East German stylistic riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey late at night in the States, and I don’t remember finishing it then.  Since it forms a core part of my dissertation research, I sat through it again and probably will do so once more in the future.  Though I am a fan of Gottfried Kolditz and have seen most of his oeuvre, this film is one of his least successful productions by far.  The plotline is this:  the Ikarus spaceship is hit by an asteroid cluster and his badly damaged, such that the Laika has to mount a rescue mission to save the ship’s crew.  I remember East German critics bashing this picture on account of it being a “space adventure without excitement,” and now I fully agree with them.  The editing of the film is outright terrible, such that one has little orientation between assorted effects shots and where characters are positioned.  And speaking of effects shots – these largely consist of the camera spinning like in 2001 and leaving it to our imagination that we’re in OUTER SPACE.  For my dissertation though, the multicultural starship crew is a prime example of what I’m talking about in terms of the establishment of race hierarchies amidst an “equal” set of crew members.  It is also interesting that the African-American expatriate Aubrey Pankey turns up as he did in Osceola: The Right Hand of Vengeance, again in a strange bit part.

Whisky mit Wodka (2009, dir. Andreas Dresen)

A thoroughly delightful film that also thoroughly references film history as well as the exigencies of filmmaking.  Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s script is elegant in its simplicity:  an alcoholic, aging film star Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen) proves unreliable in the eyes of the producer, so another actor Arno Runge (Markus Hering) is brought in on the set to shoot all of Kullberg’s scenes right after him in case the celebrity flakes out.  Using a similar formula to Grill Point (Halbe Treppe, 2002) or Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon, 2005), Dresen latches onto the complicated interpersonal relationships between not two but five main characters (the two actors, two actresses and the director) and explores those relationships to their logical conclusion.  It does not matter what film material is used in the final cut – a question posed by the film and never answered – nor should the audience care.  There are also some special moments for us East German film scholars in there, as Dresen cites Solo Sunny in a piano riff played by none other than the DEFA composer Günther Fischer, and there are several moments where Runge is asked about being from the East – even though he’s one of the few main actors NOT originally from the East.  I felt fortunate to be one of four people in the theater to take it in, since the film isn’t that popular at Potsdamer Platz, apparently.

Read or Die OVAs (2001, dir. Kouji Masunari)

A recklessly paced set of three anime episodes if I ever saw one.  Read or Die is part James Bond-style thriller, part superhero film, and part sci-fi: A secret organization associated with the British Library is charged with retrieving a lost Beethoven score before it is used to destroy the world.  Fast-paced and drawing a great debt from the grandiose silly action foregrounded in my favorite anime of all, Giant Robo, the Read or Die OVAs are very cleverly staged and executed, with paper-manipulating hero The Paper performing dozens of neat superhero feats on her quest to save the world.  My major criticism is, as I said earlier, in the pacing.  The first two episodes establish a kind of pattern for what one thinks is a longer series, and then the plot is ramped into overdrive to resolve in the third episode.  I’m thinking it was budget-related…

City Breathing Children

September 18, 2009

Reality

“Sei bewegt / Sei belebt / Sei Berlin,” (roughly: “Be deeply moved, be active/bustling, be Berlin.”) were the words on a flag waving outside of the Rathaus Schöneberg as I waited for 2.5 hours in the stale, bureaucratic Bürgeramt.  Smug propaganda for a city that knows it has a lot of artists and movers-and-shakers all clustered together across a mess of parks, cafés and plazas.  Then again, I am continuously surprised at the cross-section of an active society that this city offers me.  In the United States, for example, people tend not to see children except in specific contexts:  accompanied by an adult while said adult is shopping, hanging out at the mall, and near a school.  Children are sheltered from random strangers and/or spirited around to various events in cars.  In Berlin, you can absolutely tell when school is or isn’t in session.  When it’s in-session, all the old people rush out to get their errands done, so one finds them everywhere on public transit and on the streets.  When it’s out, however, the children take over and everywhere (because there are schools every couple of blocks) there are groups of kids hanging out, playing soccer, goofing off and listening to music.  The schools are like lungs, the schools like breath – in and out, in and out comes the vibrant future of the City of Sand.

Today, a colleague of mine Anne and I met up by the Brandenburg Gate to attend a photo exhibit at the Akademie der Künste.  The exhibit was called “Übergangsgesellschaft: Porträts und Szenen 1980 bis 1990” and provided what was (to me) a nuanced panorama of people and their experiences in primarily East Berlin during the slow death of the East German State.  I found a giant three-picture series by Matthias Leupold entitled “Kino I-III” most captivating, in which a man is standing up in a movie theater otherwise filled with people wearing 3-D glasses and mesmerized by the glowing silver screen.  In a kind of mockery of the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” visual cliché, he is clamping his hands over his eyes in the first photo, silently screaming in the second and holding a gun to his own head in the third.  Other parts of the exhibit included arrays of faces on the wall, contrasting photographs of faces with the interior spaces of their former workplaces, comparative photos taken of mothers and sons in the nude near 1989 and again in 2005, and a 1989 photo-collage narrated with stories of post-war struggle by Gudrun Schulze-Eldowy.  There was also a room devoted to Thomas Heise’s work, a friend of the DEFA Film Library, but it was so cacophonous that few of the films could be appreciated on their own terms.  What was also stunning was the film series happening simultaneously at the Akademie, which included Andreas Dresen’s Jenseits von Klein-Wanzleben (which I subtitled as part of the Silent Country DVD), Helke Misselwitz’s Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann? (which was part of our 2005 MoMA Retrospective) and Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer, which we’d been selling for a while.  6 years after my last residence in Germany, all these artists whom I’d never heard of then and whom I got in touch with in the interim period were now in center-stage.  20 years after the fall of the wall, the East Germans finally get a significant voice.  Must it always take 20 years?

In other news, I decided as a film student to splurge on a DVD player for our apartment, because I’ve got a pile of movies to go through and my laptop DVD players both don’t really work.  On my way home with the DVD player, a dude was just lying on the floor of the S-Bahn, mumbling something about needing money for an apartment.  Stellar urban citizen that I am, I immediately did the ethical thing and pretended not to see him, shuffling to my seat and minding my own business.  This actually turned out to be less malicious than the giggling high-school students at my end of the car, who took copious cell-phone pictures of the man, and the old German couple across the aisle, who seemed to think he was mentally retarded.  The situation became more interesting as a vile-smelling man with a cane arrived at our section of the train with a speech about living on the streets and needing some money, etc.  The man on the floor, who had been totally despondent, suddenly sat up and essentially told the man with the cane to piss off:  “Da gibt’s schon andere Wagen im Zug!”  This, of course, reminded me of Peachum the Beggar King’s speech in The Threepenny Opera about the various flavors of fake misery.  Ultimately, what I saw was a mild territory dispute.

Fantasy

Uncle Yanco (Agns Varda, 1967)

A short essay film on 35mm about Varda’s strange Greek-American uncle who speaks perfect French and lives as a painter on a houseboat outside of San Francisco with a bunch of hippies.  A terrific meditation on identity and where film as a medium is able to portray its asymptotic qualities.  The jarring cuts characteristic of the French New Wave show Yanco and people wearing buttons saying “Long Live Varda!” merge documentary with a kind of existentialist propaganda:  that individuals script their lives, but derive an essential power from this script, just as an independent filmmaker has raw control over his/her film.

Black Panthers (Agnés Varda, 1968)

This is a film we kept meaning to see in Barton’s “1968 and Film” course in Fall 2008, but I’m not sure we actually got around to seeing.  Again, it was fabulous to see it in 35mm and particularly illustrative of the film trends in 1968:  use of documentary material coupled with shock edits and decoupled sound and narrative.  Nevertheless, Varda plays it pretty straight with this documentary (unlike that of Uncle Yanco above), which politically situates her in the camp of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and the rest.  I’m sure she wouldn’t have disagreed then and now.

The Question of God (Catherine Tatge, 2004)

A 4-hour PBS documentary concerning the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis – representing atheism and deism respectively – of which I watched the first hour.  Basically, Walden Media had this as a Lewis side project while they worked their way through the dull cinema of The Lion, the Witch  and the Wardrobe (2005) – or perhaps they felt a twinge of guilt about creating the same – and used it to address the serious issues of spirituality at the core of Lewis’ work.  There are historical re-enactments of Lewis and Freud’s lives, actors reading their texts around, and a reality-television style group discussion hosted by eminent Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi  filled with a bunch of white American academics and a token black filmmaker Louis Massiah, who helped create the infinitely better PBS documentary series on African Americans Eyes on the Prize, about basic (i.e. tired) questions of theology.  There are so many cues in the soundtrack and editing that heavy-handedly state “Hey, we’re having a deep conversation about meaning here!” that I grew steadily disillusioned with the ability of Tatge’s project to convince me of anything.  It comes up often enough that our spiritual lives are totally relational (I’d go so far as to say socially constructed), in that we project God through figures we know such as mother/father, as Freud projects his atheistic philosophy through the same.  I’d say that this film is totally relational as well, demonstrating the limits of white people’s understanding of religion, science and the critique thereof when they talk among themselves.

A Bureaucratic Interlude

September 17, 2009

Reality

The last few days I spent in Göttingen for the Fulbright Orientation.  Highlights included a city tour conducted in German that emphasized the city’s literary history, as it was the kind of epicenter of early German romanticism, and many opportunities to get to know my fellow Fulbrighters.  Unlike the American programs I have dealt with in the past, I know that Fulbright has effectively selected some of the best projects that exist today in German Studies, so the students who have these projects tend to be fully developed scholars.  Thus it was a pleasure to spend an extended time with them in Best Western am Papenberg, and I feel that we will serve as an appropriate support network for each other (rather than as a cluster of Amis afraid of those pesky Germans, like in past years).

That being said, we were confronted with a lot of bureaucracy, much of which I still need to settle today:  residence permit, visa, bank account and other pesky details need to be resolved quickly, but the German system moves characteristically slow.  Patience and persistence will get me through, though it still puts a small obstacle in my explorations as I seek these different Ämter.  Thanks to the Meldeamt in the Rathaus Schöneberg closing early, however, I got to wander all over Schöneberg and see the endless cafés, ethnic restaurants and small shops that make up this vibrant Stadtteil.  Some things I spotted yesterday included a delicious-looking Indian restaurant YogiHaus, a café with a bunch of ex-pats outside of it called the DoubleEye, and a café for women only called Café Pink.  That being said, I hope to actually make it to Potsdam today, though, and see where I’ll be spending a lot of my time.

This weekend, there’s a Berlin electronic music festival BerMuDa that I plan on attending.  Maybe then I’ll get to see what this esteemed Berlin club scene is all about…

Fantasy

(Note: I recently became obsessed with this role-playing game called Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies and began writing a bit of cliché-driven adventure fiction set in its story universe, which is analogous to that of Skies of Arcadia or Last Exile.  This will be updated every week or every other week, I imagine.)

The Peppersmoke Players across the Seven Skies

by Evan Torner, Fulbright Berlin 2009-2010

Chapter 1 – An Authorless Play

Fatima couldn’t remember her damn lines.  Rubbing her eyes from the wisps of irritating smoke that occasionally wafted in from the city, she pulled the well-worn play manuscript from her coat-pocket and paged through the delicate paper to the problem passage.  “’Til the dark of that very day,” she read aloud in a wooden voice.  “When no one another one doth pay, shall ye ne’er cross this way.”  What stilted poetry!  Her thoughts betrayed a firm indignation to her role in this whole production.  She was, after all, a skysailor and a musician, not an actor.

Captain Misra Naftaly was all too blame, of course.  At their last port, the hitherto insignificant isle of Therem, a courier had given her a neat package containing seven copies of a play.  Naftaly had taken the material into her room that night and emerged the next morning – their day of departure – woefully sleep-deprived.  She confided in Fatima, her own first mate, that her blatant irresponsibility to her crew was well-warranted, for this play was a top-notch piece of work that merited a performance at the Peppersmoke Players’ next play date.  Fatima had then reminder her that Mr. Duchamps was in control of the troupe’s repertoire, and that she was under the impression the Agua Azul schedule had already been finalized and put to ink.  The captain had turned to Fatima at that moment, hefted a copy of the play with vigor and exclaimed:  “Duchamps not only finalizes the schedule, but he owns the opera house, meaning I need only persuade one man.  And the play will do all the persuading for me.”

Indeed, Duchamps was overwhelmed by the work, deeming it in his pompous baritone to be the “greatest piece I’ve ever perused over lunch” – a high compliment, given how many lunches he himself took.  He immediately set about preparations for a grand premiere in Agua Azul and inquired about the whereabouts of its playwright, as he most certainly should be invited.  Yet no author’s name stood on its cover, neither stamp nor seal on its binding and not even a set of initials that marked from whence it had come.  This turn of events so perplexed Misra that she released one of her two rare, precious messenger pigeons back to the now significant isle of Therem in the hope that the courier who gave her the manuscripts might release the location of his client, if indeed he were still on the isle at all.  Misra did not ordinarily waste pigeon trips on frivolous affairs, out of fear of losing them to their own desires or those of others.

In any case, once Duchamps had decided on performing the accursed play, he then broke the less-than-gratifying news that the play required a cast of seven players on-stage most of the time.  An impossible task, since the entire Peppersmoke Players consisted of only four regular actors, one stage technician, one musician and three skysailors who usually did little.  Nell Sturfield and Magnus Firedancer (likely a pseudonym) were both trained in the classic Kroyese acting model on Viridia and always swapped the chief protagonists between them.  Aesop Southwind Duchamps, an ex-law enforcement officer long associated with the theater scene on Crail, usually donned the roles of the avuncular type or the lecherous scoundrels, while the Ilwuzi ruffian Chatterbox Chang was stuck with whatever roles there were left over, often playing four different bit-parts over the course of three acts.  Rembrandt Silver, an enterprising koldun from Barathi, plied his magical abilities in the lighting and special effects trades, and Fatima the Fearless provided background music when called for, as the Zultanista skysailor had learned many song hooks over her shipping assignments.  Captain Misra Naftaly the Refined was a connoisseur with little practical showbiz experience who sometimes played Archduke Tyrol in “The Ballad of Shellwick” or a warrior woman in “Origins of Barathi,” but generally avoided an on-stage presence in favor of a faux impresario role.  And the two remaining skysailors Abraham and Dustin were contractors earning their pay – they stayed away from the Peppersmoke plays, even the troupe’s profits determined their wages.

But Seven Goddesses for Seven Gods, the name Duchamps had given the play, which also had no title, required all the active human-power in the troupe.  Dustin and Abraham even grudgingly agreed to usher for some drinking money.  In the piece, seven goddesses bar their husbands from entering their collective palace until the situation among the humans in the Seven Skies is fixed – that everyone be rendered equal and even justifiably so.  The seven gods then turn to the World to try and effect change to woo their wives.  This basic plot structure, of course, had been employed before in dozens of other works, which usually amounted to the husbands attempting to cheat their way to sexual reunion with their wives.  Yet this particular play took a more nuanced approach:  each god approaches some fundamental truth about the radical redistribution of wealth and power and eloquently explores its paradoxical qualities.  This was a play superficially about uxorious lust, but more precisely leveled against a society floating in the Seven Skies that did not value each newborn child equally, nor provided for all when all were needy.  “A radical work like this,” Duchamps explained with wine droplets hanging from his moustache, “requires special treatment from its interpreters.  Since there are seven gods or goddesses on-stage at any given time – but never all fourteen at once – we must at least remain faithful to the original vision of the work and include all the actors on-stage when arranged.”

Fatima had refused to participate resolutely at first, instead offering to shave his wine-soaked moustache with her prodigiously sharp cutlass and produced said blade during the heightened course of the conversation.  Duchamps’ training with the Crailese Falcons of Agua Azul had kicked in, however, and she immediately found her brandished blade expertly trapped by the handle of a simple truncheon he kept on his person for just such occasions.  A stalemate reached in the physical confrontation, Fatima pushed back in the contest of wills, declaring herself ex officio as first mate of the Peppersmoke if forced to act in the work.  Naftaly gently suggested a possible bonus based on the opening weekend’s revenue to help assuage Fatima’s creditors at Agua Azul’s famous Diamant Casino, to which she guiltily acquiesced.

Now she was standing on the primary dock of Agua Azul’s harbor on the sky isle of Crail keeping watch on the cargo ramp with smoke stinging her eyes and force-feeding bits of rhymed “god-speak” into her head.  Her resentment might have blossomed strange mental growths and engulfed her senses had not a figure approached the ramp precisely as she looked down at what evidently was her next preposterous line.  Rare book be damned, she threw the play to the dock wood, grabbed the nearest long object – a long hook used to pull small boats in and catch the occasional ill-fated fish – and struck the ship’s plank with it so as to bar the figure’s next footstep upwards.

Suspended in mid-step like in a slapstick comedy, the man’s foot abruptly dropped and his face turned widdershins with an obviously forced smile.  He had bushy black hair extending to his chin in a thin line, framing his dimples.  He sported a velvety mauve frock coat, white cloth pants and a pair of boots so expensive-looking that he had to be a Colronan Royalist:  sensuously laced up the side, tastefully flared at the calf and assertively pointy in the toe.  A Colronan saber hung jauntily at his side, meaning he’d either fleeced a Musketeer or had at least some working knowledge of Nangatrad fencing technique.  His gaze fell back on his obstructor.

Fatima came from the other edge of the Colronan isle, the Colronan Zultanate.  Above all things, this meant her hat was her most impressive article of clothing.  It was a fancy tri-corner with tiny silver beads that reflected the moonlight, held in place at a canted angle by her star-studded head-wrap.  The rest of her garb hung loosely off her body for better movement:  a long off-white skysailor’s shirt, baggy cerulean pants and padded sailor slippers good for gripping deck and line alike.  Lashed across her body, a substantial musket belt and bandoleer sported no less than four short muskets, a light shamshir and a parrying dagger.  The weight of all this weaponry was what forced her loose clothing firmly to her skin, still maintaining a degree of modesty in the face of total strangers such as this man.

“Pardon,” he politely stated in an exaggerated Royalist accent.  “But is this perhaps the Peppersmoke?”

“Perhaps,” Fatima replied coolly.  Her smuggler days had given her an easy diffidence to potential clients.  “What’s your trade?”

“I am but a performing artist, like many on your ship,” he replied with a slight, unconscious bow.  “An artist disposed to speak with the captain about her new play.”  Fatima’s hand eased on the hook as she considered all at once the possibility of having an understudy lift this accursed role from her shoulders.  But the man’s obvious impatience together with his Colronan Royalist egotism kept her hook in his way.

“She’s in rehearsal preparations at the moment – an unusual occurrence, to be fair.  Shall I pass on your message?”  The man’s nose lifted almost imperceptibly.

“No, you shan’t.  I am Tellebrandt Maurison of Sir Edoard Duvalson’s Grand Opera Company and I insist on speaking with your captain.”

“And I counter-insist that she’s in rehearsal,” she said, then added:  “What common purpose do we have with your troupe anyway?”

“Company,” he corrected.  “The purpose of an … erroneous date.  A scheduling oversight.  You see, Sir Edoard has chosen the third Windsday of Stones to hold a gripping performance of Menonuaque’s glorious Perish Noble Kroy! in which I play the part of the pacifist Quinlan and one of the First Orl’s ill-fated goats.  I’m sure you know the story.”

“I don’t.”  Fatima found being obstinate entertaining with this guy around.

“You don’t?  Anyway, your captain’s troupe’s performance of this 7 Gods play or whatever:  it opens the same night and Sir Edoard fears our beloved public might unevenly distribute themselves twixt the two acts.”

“Our date is not in error,” Fatima stated hastily.  “And Edoard would have done better to come here in person to make such demands on our schedule.”

“He sends his deepest regrets, but is preoccupied with…”  Fatima cut his statement short with a gesture.

“My captain’s preoccupied with similar tasks, I assure you,” she replied sternly.  “But I vouchsafe she won’t change the date on such flimsy pretenses as those you seem to extend.”

“If you’ll allow me to… ”

“You?  Under no circumstances.”  Tellebrandt Maurison’s hand was now fully covering his saber hilt.  Fatima’s eyes narrowed.

“Then, good madam,” he spat sardonically.  “On behalf of my employer Sir Edoard, I challenge thee to a duel beyond that of our wits.”

With that vague-but-somewhat-threatening remark, he applied a firm tug on his saber to loose if from its sheath for combat.  A deafening pop and a sudden pain stopped his arm in its tracks.  He gawked as it fell limp to his side.  Without letting go of the hook, Fatima had drawn one of her pistols, cocked the hammer and shot his dueling arm square on the bone in one fluid motion.  No further fight would be seen, as Tellebrandt clutched his bleeding arm and opened his mouth slowly as if to scream.  Satisfied with her technique of persuasion, Fatima spun the empty pistol back toward her and pushed it back into its place on her bandoleer.  She’d been practicing that quickdraw maneuver for many years, but this time it was an existential work of art:  a perfect act conceived and executed.  She waved away the remaining smoke from the pistol.

“In this state,” Fatima declared triumphantly.  “You’re quite obviously less than duel-worthy.  If your Sir Edoard still has such trifling business with the captain after this incident, he will show up in person and take it up first with me!”  Accompanying the dusty stench of gunpowder was a wet hint of human blood, and now Tellebrandt’s silent maw began to usher noises of pain and complaint.  “Don’t attempt to summon the Falcons:  the ones portside are only interested in settling stolen cargo cases, since goods and tariffs are their ducat-flows.  Personal disputes between two non-residents of Crail like us rank next to those of treehuggers and monkeysquids –  a curiosity more than a case.”  Tellebrandt doubled over onto his knees.

“This is an injury most foul, you…” he said through clenched teeth.  Fatima drew a fresh pistol with the same hand with which she shot him.

“I hear such injuries are thrice as painful when shot twice.  You’d best be hence.”  Though wounded and angered, Tellebrandt rose to his feet and walked away rather calmly, a drizzle of escaped blood drops staining the harbor.  When she raised the hook again, her hand began involuntarily shaking from the excess adrenaline.  She heard her name called.  It was Magnus.

“What’s the trouble worth all the noise?”  he shouted down from the shipdeck, his long blond hair hanging lazily overboard.

“I just turned away a bad actor, ‘tis all.”

“Waking up some of us, that’s what you’re doing.”  Magnus said with a yawn.  He’d clearly been napping when not needed at today’s rehearsal.  “An actor, you say?  Too bad – we could’ve used a few extra hands on this production overall.  Well, at least you only winged him, or else we’d have to use Duchamps to pull some strings with the Falcons to look the other way.”

“Never you mind,” she said, changing the subject.  “When’s your plank-watch begin again?”

“Quarter of an hour, which is when Nell and the captain need you for rehearsal.  How are those lines coming?”

“Perfectly fine,” Fatima said, but as she looked down at the dock she immediately knew this was an outright lie.  Her book was gone.  Now she really couldn’t remember her lines.

Reality

I might be still experiencing jet lag, but I’ll only be able to tell once my head stops spinning.  Thanks to the recent S-Bahn Chaos, my train got about halfway to the Hauptbahnhof before I had to get off Friedrichstraße to a closed track.  So I hoofed it over in the nice weather and took in some sights, seeing as Bertolt-Brecht-Platz, the Berliner Ensemble, the Bundestag, and the scenic Spree River lie between Friedrichstraße and the Hauptbahnhof.  Of all these buildings, the one that impressed me the most was actually the Hauptbahnhof, which embodied a similar grandeur as Grand Central Station in New York.  So much shiny glass at assorted angles (though the same could be said of much of Berlin)!  From there, I couldn’t find a decent S-Bahn line that’d take me back to Yorckstrasse that didn’t cross a closed line, so my feet took me all the way back – through Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz, and Schöneberg past Kleistpark.  Loud speeches and cheers attracted me to Potsdamer Platz, which was surrounded by traffic cops and security guards with berets.  It turns out it was this Freedom Not Fear 2009 Rally, an event jointly organized by Die Linke, die Grüne Partei and the international anti-copyright Piratenpartei.  I saw union leader Frank Bsirske deliver this speech, and noticed that there were a lot of computer-geek-type people in the crowd demonstrating against corporate and state privacy-violations.  My sympathies against the surveillance state, which is a giant problem in the States as well, earned me a free copy of the TAZ Junge Welt.  The issue contained more Marx than I would think relevant to today’s young people, but maybe the texts of young Marx will galvanize another generation of Germans like they did in the 1960s.

Though visiting this rally was pretty cool, I generally felt an ennui settle in about my first weekend.  I had intended to come here and finish up a few projects before heading to the Fulbright meeting in Göttingen on Monday, but I thought that as a new resident of Berlin, I should wander around and get to know it better.  It turns out that – emotionally speaking – I probably should just stay in tomorrow and work on those projects.  See, in Berlin, there are two types of people out and about:  people who walk efficiently and seem to have important goals… and groups of friends/acquaintances walking inefficiently and hanging out.  There is no middle ground, and woe to he who has neither goals nor friends like – to be frank – me at this point.  This will all change once A) I begin to head down to Potsdam regularly for classes,  B) Kat moves out here, and C) I become embedded in some social networks, so that I can join the inefficient groups of acquaintances.  But as a cultured flaneur, I pretty much get a big “F” for now.

Fantasy

Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

It’s 1936: Sada Abe falls madly in love with Kichi and, well, vice versa.  Hopelessly addicted to each other, their relationship spirals into madness and into a historically documented violent act.  This was my second time with Oshima’s ode to Eros’ destructive relationship with Thanatos, with the first being a bad VHS copy viewed during my phase of watching every controversial/banned art film I could lay my hands on.  Even more sensuous on 35mm than it was on VHS, the film offers us a strange dilemma:  we must choose between being more disturbed by the unblinkingly graphic sex scenes and the looks on the actors’ faces while they’re performing them.  A movie that plays with your empathic instinct like putty in the director’s hand, In the Realm of the Senses remains an absolute masterpiece of modernist pornography, drawing a line of continuity between incongruous films such as Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat, The Legend of Paul and Paula, The Night Porter, and Satan’s Brew.