Painting White in Many Ways

October 22, 2009

Reality

(Kat is coming Sunday afternoon! The excitement had to be noted.)

Saturday proved an intensely social time for the solitary little me.  My first engagement was helping my friend Jan F. (from my Grinnell years) paint his old apartment in Friedrichshain.  Most people might’ve said “Spend an afternoon in Berlin painting?  No way!”  I see it differently:  activities that make me feel like a real person within a larger community are always welcome to me, and what better activity than applying white paint to not-so-white-anymore walls accomplishes this?  Our chief concern was actually the fact that I hadn’t brought any “old clothes” to Germany (would you – seriously – bring along your painting clothes as part of your luggage?), so we rigged together an outfit out of a garbage bag for the day, which worked rather well in the end.

After whitifying ~1.5 rooms in Jan’s apartment, my arm grew tired and I departed for the Yellow Sunshine Diner, an excellent and affordable Berlin eating experience for the vegetarian and vegan-inclined among us, to meet Beverly and Kira.  Our food was delicious – I had the Lappland Burger – and then we migrated to Café Bilderbuch in Schöneberg for drinks and dessert.  A fine day overall!

Monday marked our second day of shooting for the HFF Konrad Wolf film. Again we experienced no problems (our final cut of the film is already turned in, in fact), and were even able to eat/imbibe some of the props…  I will conduct a thorough analysis of our own film after its initial release on Friday, given that its premature summary jeopardizes its humor value.

Scholarly

(In between reality and fantasy, there’s interpretation.  Here are a couple of academic books I’ve read in full and can discuss in brief):

Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race

This was a highly engrossing book, complicated in its argumentation but simple enough in premise:  the world’s problem isn’t racism, but race as a construct, and it is specifically a product of whiteness, a Lacanian master signifier that organizes the paradoxical forces of identity (heritage: where you come from) and visibility (what do you look like, and what’s non-white about it).  Using the Lacanian logic of gender difference to explore the interaction of whiteness as master signifier with non-whiteness as a closed-system of pre-determined (and stereotyped) meanings, Seshadri manages to philosophically clarify what the heck do we mean by race and how we signify it.  Then she heads into her discipline – English literature – for a plethora of philosophical examples to illustrate her points.  A great work of scholarship, if a bit biased toward issues primarily concerning English departments nowadays.

Mark Cronlund Anderson, Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film

Anderson’s book is what I would consider a historian’s academically fueled rant against the right-wing politics of frontier westerns and their pernicious legacy across other genres.  Replete with swear words and hard-line diatribes, his argument basically contends that Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History has provided an academic justification for the American imperialism of the 20th and 21st Centuries, best sugar-coated through the cinema presence of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and others.  Some of his film selections proved rather interesting:  he prompted me to watch Howard Hawks’ classic Red River (1948) in full and consider Mario van Peebles’ Posse (1993) an extension of the frontier myth through the semblance of re-writing the race rules of the western genre – all useful for the dissertation.  I just wouldn’t recommend the work for those who want an academically disciplined, post-colonial genre discourse analysis across a broad range of national cinemas.

Fantasy

The Power of Nightmares (dir. Adam Curtis, UK 2004)

I remember watching Century of the Self a year ago and thinking it was a fairly decent intellectual history of public relations and the Freudian basis of modern advertising (not to mention commercial narrative, in general).  The Power of Nightmares is kind of like that documentary mixed together with Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), the recap of what Vietnam was really about.  Three hours of comparing neo-conservatives (as if they were different from neo-liberals, but I digress) to the radical Islamists in the Middle East actually proves quite interesting, since Curtis managed to snag crucial interviews from both sides, delivering a very even-handed and sober account of the web of fear and lies concocted by either party to support their political agendas.  Maybe in ten years we’ll get a documentary about all the domestic damage the neo-cons have wrought too.

The Piano (dir. Jane Campion, UK/New Zealand 1993)

A heavy work of post-colonial, Freudian melodrama, complete with primal scenes, sado-masochism, and conflicts over the power over sexuality and the means of self-expression.  I thought Anna Paquin’s character really held this film together, though all the actors – including Harvey Keitel in his standard “I’m naked!” scene – contributed to the high quality of this film.  And Michael Nyman’s soundtrack is still one of the best modern piano scores out there.  ‘Twas overall better than Forrest Gump (1994), but was probably too haunting (and too “directed by a woman”) to win the Oscar that year.

Lovers on the Road (dir. Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, China 2008)

There’s an Asian Women’s Film Festival happening at the Kino Arsenal, so I figured I should go take a look at the offerings.  It turned out the filmmaker was present for the screening, which was a short feature about a relationship on the rocks after the couple moves from Hong Kong to Beijing for the boyfriend’s graphic design career.  Our female protagonist leads us through the ambivalence of passionless life transitions, which ultimately leads her to have an affair with an itinerant Japanese barista and then decide perhaps to do something else with her life (we don’t know for sure).  One particularly great portion of the film involves audio interviews conducted with various (one presumes) real people who have recently come to Beijing for assorted purposes.  This documentary realism provides a welcome diversion to an otherwise introverted and claustrophobic (one might say “angsty”) portrayal of relations between two fictional characters.  Ah, alienation.

Apaches (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR/Romania/Poland 1973)

This was/is, bar none, the most popular GDR Indianerfilm, and there are many good reasons for this.  Reason #1:  Gojko Mitic actually co-wrote this one, which means there are lots of scenes of him doing neat things and kicking ass.  Reason #2: All the moralizing of the earlier Indianerfilme was stripped away for a basic good vs. evil scenario:  evil capitalists mass-murder the Apaches because they could, and then the Apaches exact bloody revenge.  Sergio Leone would’ve been proud.  Reason #3: The cool thing Gojko does is firing a flaming arrow at a covered wagon, which then explodes.  If I were 10 years-old and watching this thing (sort of like the logic that drove the recent G.I. Joe movie, in fact), I would’ve been mesmerized.

Pre-Production

October 17, 2009

Reality

This week marked the beginning of our film projects at the HFF Konrad Wolf.  The assignment:  The approximately 100 incoming students are arbitrarily divided into 10 groups of 10 to shoot a 3-minute feature with only a DV camera + accessories at their disposal.  In addition, the students must work in an area that’s different from their Studiengang – cinematography students can’t do camera, acting student can’t act, etc.  We were all collectively given the topic for this year’s project of “Was bisher geschah” (“What happened before now”), which understandably gave us a lot of leeway to come up with ideas.  Most of the time, creative projects assembled arbitrarily seem to lead to artistic tension and inefficient action.  Ours has been quite the opposite:  we decided on a great idea within an hour of brainstorming (which I will disclose once the film is completed), everyone kind of naturally settled into their assorted changed-up roles, and production details were quickly arranged.  Even the first day of shooting went precisely according to plan and gave us some great starting footage.  I’d like to personally thank Alex, Anna, Laura, Maurice, Nick, Burkhart, Cate, Claudio and Veit for such a smooth and entertaining student film experience.  If only all productive endeavors ran like this!

Tuesday was something of a “play-date” – we were let loose inside the Studio Babelsberg Filmpark and given tours of the Babelsberg facilities.  This was a mixed experience for me.  I’ve been working with the legacy of the Babelsberg Studios starting from their genesis under Guido Seeber in 1912 to their Weimar artistic glory to their UFA Nazi heritage to the “totalizing workshop” of the DEFA in East Germany to their purchase by Vivendi and conversion into an international filmmaking prestige location.  So on the one hand, I was visiting very sacred ground for me: the origin point of what we consider to be major-league German studio cinema.  This is where Murnau developed those fantastic tracking shots in The Last Laugh (1924), Heinz Rühmann flitted about in Feuerzangenbowle (1944), Alfred Hirschmeier developed sets for Silent Star (1960), Herwig Kipping tore apart what remained of the GDR in Land Beyond the Rainbow (1991), and Roman Polanski depicted Nazi-occupied Warsaw in The Pianist (2002).  On the other hand, this was all very banal:  here’s the building where they keep the props, there’s the television studios, here’s the fake street for some scenes from Sonnenallee (1999), there’s some retired junk from our stunt show, here’s a few Universal Studios-esque rides, there’s some paraphernalia from assorted terrible German co-productions, here’s the wall where they shot part of the Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), there’s a set of tourists who actually paid the 18 euros to see this stuff.  In many ways, the Museum für Film und Fernsehen was far more enticing.  Then again, my lack of enchantment might have stemmed from the itinerant hail landing on our heads as we meandered around outside.

On Wednesday night, I had a very nice evening with Sylvia Fischer, a prospective Ph.D. student who must have visited at least half-a-dozen U.S. schools in an effort to literally change her present way of life for the (intellectually) better.  We ate at a restaurant in Friedrichshain, a place with which I’m becoming more familiar by the day, and swapped tips about Berlin and U.S. graduate school respectively.  I’m always happy to meet up with assorted people in Berlin, and the city fortunately makes it quite easy to do so.

Some more observations:

• The consensus among both German nationals and foreign students is that the StaBi (the Berlin city library) kind of sucks and could be greatly improved in a myriad different ways.  Someone oughta form a committee…

• In terms of causing human discomfort, the moist cold of Berlin kicks the butt of the semi-dry cold in Massachusetts hands down, but Iowa in October is still worse than either.

• German waiters are very quick mathematicians (due to their regular dealings with split checks), and probably use much more of their brains than American waiters, whose job is nevertheless much more aggressively about both pleasing the customer and forcing them to leave the establishment.

• Dogs are people here.

Fantasy

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (dir. Eric Brevig, USA 2008)

Thanks to the formidable resources the HFF Konrad Wolf has placed at our disposal so that we might produce and consume films, I saw this Brendan Fraser adventure flick for free and in glorious 3D.  Now our blogs are not yet 3D-image capable, but in this case I wish they were, because this film can only be described in 3D terms.  In effect, Eric Brevig (of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) created an almost encyclopedic homage to every major 3D trick in the book, from the “yo-yo in your face” to the “flying water droplets” to the “roller coaster” to the “suspend a floating object against a dramatic backdrop.”  Rather than evolving a “new” 3D vocabulary, Brevig seems content to offer a carnivalesque array of 3D attractions nestled in a skeletal, cliché-driven plot designed to get us from one effects sequence to another.  In this respect, the movie thoroughly succeeds from an effects angle, and Fraser proves himself as  the sympathetic human to whom special-FX-related events always seem to happen.

I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence, USA 2007)

This post-apocalyptic film was quite spectacularly bad, but instructively so.  The Last Man on Earth (1964) brought us Vincent Price as the doomed hero who would discover he is the villain.  The Omega Man (1971) brought us Charlton Heston in a similar idiom, except less adept at the task of acting.  But I Am Legend (2007) spins an elaborate escapist post-apocalyptic fantasy in which Will Smith becomes a Christ figure and unequivocally saves humanity with his selfless actions – more analogous to Byron Haskin’s 1953 Christian re-interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds than to either of I Am Legend‘s two predecessor adaptations of the Richard Matheson text.  All of the movie’s foregrounding of a decimated Manhattan isle aside, the chief focus is just how virtuous albeit lonely Will Smith is with his dog.  I don’t know what to make of it, other than as Hollywood dumping a pile of syrup on an otherwise perfectly serviceable parable about human decadence and then expecting an introspective piano score, edgy mise-èn-scene, and post-Bourne hand-held camera action sequences to convince us this is a serious work espousing something constructive.  It isn’t.

Destricted (dir. various, UK 2006)

I watched some of this with Steve Wilson before I left, but the HFF just so happened to have a copy on their shelf so I got to watch the rest.  Advertised as “the most controversial and sexually explicit film ever to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC,” Destricted is a collection of seven short films from acclaimed art-film directors directly exploring pornography and sex in our times.  Larry Clark (Kids, Ken Park) provides us with interviews of young men about how they grew up with pornography, and then proceeds to cast a young man paired with a porn-star for some on-camera action.  Clark’s film highlights the indexical as well as the audience-performance aspects of pornography.  Gaspar Noé’s film (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) is a strobe-heavy exploration of a man sexually assaulting a blow-up doll in his room.  Sam Taylor-Wood’s film “Death Valley” is an actor candidly masturbating against the backdrop of, well, Death Valley.  Matthew Barney strapped himself naked inside some massive machine and shaped some pottery with his member.  Richard Prince distances the audience from a cliché porn flick with Boards of Canada-style ambient music and the fuzzy color distortion that one gets when one crosses film and digital video.  Marco Brambilla has a brilliant 2-minute clip of thousands of images from romance and pornography cut together to overload one’s senses with the conventions of the porn industry.  Marina Abramovic uses a combination of live action and animation to portray assorted Balkan superstitions involving the genitalia.  All in all a worthwhile view, but only if you’ve got the stomach for both the ugly bits and the strobe effects.

Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, USA 1948)

Whoever thinks Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) is the first gay cowboy movie has obviously never set eyes on this classic.  In the era when movies seemed to possess a cinematic subconsciousness and deep social subtext (Gilda, Fury, Casablanca, Some Like It Hot all spring to mind), Red River explores the macho manly activities of cattle-herding and trail-blazing from Texas to Missouri, as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift meanwhile develop one of the most bizarre, sexually repressed man-on-man relationships ever to hit the silver screen.  I watched it for the clear justifications for American imperialism, but it turned out to be far more entertaining in its subtext than its principle plot.

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.