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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The Battle to Reside

September 29, 2009

In the darkness before the darkness before dawn

In the isle of desolation amidst a city of color

A few figures, shadows and backpacks, congregate

A few form a haphazard line extending back from the gate

This gate of the LABO is the absolute border of the country

This gate demarcates our courteous selves

From their mechanism of human reduction and

From our stampeding hive selves, desperate

But all is now quiet as the sky re-casts itself from black to gray

But all is silent, though we all know a little broken English

More vehicles drop off more shadows, the line grows

More vehicles drive by their early shifts, perplexed drivers

Wonder about the line, its curvature along the industrial river bank

Wonder about the Ausländer, Fremden, Farbigen, Amis

No reasonable person save s/he who needs a living

No reasonable anonymous group should be up at this hour

Lights flicker on behind the gate; the dawn is drowned

Lights flicker on to slip silhouettes on forgotten shadows

All are of one mind – the page with the stamp is needed

All are well-informed – only here, only now, only when first

And the gates open

And the flood patters forth

At least 30 meters down the cement walkway to the door

At least 100 desperate shadows suddenly illuminated

Trampling desperately, cattle running to feed

Trampling desperately, the line’s composition changes

Now it’s a smashed amoeba up against a tower of cement and glass

Now it’s time for the shadows to hurry up and wait

The sun’s time has come, its beauty covered by a train

The sun’s arrival is heralded by few anymore, let alone by the shadows

More conversation – civilization resumes its “civil” root

More conversation – mutual vipers flick tongues in ignorance

Rumors fly:  some have been standing there since 3 a.m., you need to get your visa before you can register for classes, only 50 people were given numbers last time, this is the 4th time I’ve been here, when they open the doors you have to squeeze in, they’re denying Egyptians for some reason, Americans have it easy, Americans have it hard, our late friend’s Irene’s going to join the line, this is ridiculous, this is stupid, I thought the Germans were supposed to be efficient, what kind of visa do you need to stay?  we ran out of days three days ago, I have a child – coming through, you should see the bathrooms in there, are we even in front of the right door?

Cantankerous, an official warns us to back away – they need to get in

Cantankerous, a surly Polish woman scoffs at this absurdity

“The ones who’ve been working are us!” she barks

“The ones who are making it worse – that’s all of you!”

Pronouncing his German very slowly and loudly makes him understood

Pronouncing his syllables for the 25% who know the language

The rest look around for broken English translations

The rest mock and jeer and call and mob; the only right they have now

We are to be let in a few at a time, so we don’t crush our way in

We are to let those lucky few with appointments through, the ones with papers

So many stones have been laid in the basket of our visas, yet

So many blasted hopes have been laid at the LABO’s threshold

7:00! Yet another surge, the waves like in concerts crashing against security

7:00! Yet more shouting from the German official, letting a few in

A guard with his back to us puts his arms across the door

A guard lets those few who ran first to get their prize

Hatred swells in the mass:  against them, the guards, the officials inside

Hatred swells in the guards: against the unruly students, some of them scientists

Half-an-hour later, the crush subsides, hope shoved to another dark morning

Half-an-hour later, guards mop the sweat from their brow, cursing the hordes and their
Inconsiderate outright forthright savage uncouth unprecedented impolite forceful
Impudent adolescent murderous screaming bloodthirsty thrashing crushing breaking

Dark skin American clothing headscarves shifty eyes hairy ears bushy eyebrows

Greasy hair unwashed faces grabbing hands strange accents broken English

It isn’t their fault – talk to the boss, get him to hire everyone back, make extra hours

It isn’t their fault – people need visas to eat and the visas eat the people

This is what Ordnung looks like.

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.

Arrival / Ankunft

September 11, 2009

As the first post of the blog, this document will serve to establish a few precedents as well as chronicle what I’ve been experiencing.  One precedent is that each blog post will be divided up into two sections:  Reality and Fantasy.  Now I know that’s a little heavy-handed, but I like to think of “Reality” as describing things I go out in the world and do, as opposed to “Fantasy,” which covers the vast quantity of media I tend to digest.  Since I’m a film student, that section’s likely to fill up with a lot of film reviews, which’ll be as much notes to myself as they are for the world to read.  The other precedent I will establish right now is a total lack of photos on the blog for the first month before my wife Kat comes out here and brings her digital camera.

Pre-Reality

I must say that I was mentally ready to go to Germany as of last month, but I was only physically transported here today.  By this phenomenon, I mean that since I began applying for the DAAD and Fulbright around this time last year, people around me were already hearing my elevator narrative: “I’m going to Berlin so I can do my dissertation research on Cold War genre cinema at the HFF-Potsdam-Babelsberg, the prominent film school of the East German film cycle.  There, I imagine I’ll be watching movies, but I hope to (and did) get a Fulbright so I don’t have any major presentation stipulations that get in the way of my work.”  Okay, so I modified it for text, but after having delivered this spiel about 4 or 5 times a day to all those around me, including those social-networked to me, I eventually became sick of my own great plan – imagine that!  To add to this was the pat response by everyone I knew claiming Berlin was such an idyllic place and I’d have a wonderful time there.  So I basically have been having more-or-less the same conversation on a loop for the past year (which, from what I hear, is actually good dissertation training).  You can imagine I was eager to get past the talking and move to the living here and “doing things” bit.

Reality

So I can now reference Berlin with the illocutive signifier “here,” because that’s where I am now.  My flight was a calm, uneventful experience made all the more harrowing by the over-the-top, violently nihilistic German drama I was reading (see Fantasy below) to force my brain back into “German mode.”  The reason why I have any mastery of the language at all is because of this kind of discipline, so you might not be shocked to discover these are some of the few English words I’ve written all day.  “German mode kick-starting” mitigates any culture shock that may arise from linguistic sources and also may satisfy a deep-seated, nerdly urge felt by all Germanists worthy of the name to be immersed in the German language.  That being said – all German-language nonsense aside – I was notably the only person reading a book in my section of the airplane.  Everyone else was watching The Hangover, the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Angels and Demons.  The relevance of film to our culture re-entrenched itself in my mind.

I arrived at my apartment earlier this afternoon, and suffice to say I will need to use a new blog post to describe it in detail.  After screwing around with the router to get some Internet and taking a short nap instead of setting up my bank account and purchasing my train tickets to Göttingen (my original goals of the afternoon), I decided to take a stroll north of Schöneberg to Potsdamer Platz.

Some observations before I collapse:

• Many Berliners travel on bikes. Few wear helmets.
• The number of Americans one encounters is directly proportional to one’s distance to either Potsdamer Platz, Kreuzberg or Mitte.
• Old German apartment buildings have loud staircases.
• I still can’t remember what recycling items go in what colored bin.
• They’re holding both an Agnés Varda and a “Winter Adé” film festival at Kino Arsenal, which is filled with movies I want to see.

Needless to say, instead of ending my long day with food or sleep, I ended with watching a movie.

Fantasy

Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s Herzog Theodor von Gothland

This work is so totally incoherent that it almost inspires me to hold a panel entitled “When the Medium Isn’t the Message” about works of German film, literature and theater that literally cannot function as works within that medium, but are instead homages to the fact that we can imagine plays as films, movies as books, etc.  A king is convinced by an evil, Satan-worshipping Moor to kill all of his brothers in a fit of revenge, and then take over the army of the Swedes and Finns to become an unstoppable tyrant, only to be beaten by a spot of intrigue that passes for a “tragic flaw.”

Sans toit ni loi (Agnés Varda, 1985)

A film about a female drifter who quite literally does not want to do much with her life and, as a result, winds up dead in a field.  Like Dudow/Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe, the film removes all suspense by showing her body in the first minutes, and then exploring her as a cantankerous, chain-smoking figure who nonetheless touched the lives of so many people.  I found Varda’s use of sound bridges of well-selected music pieces and ambient car noises between shots to effectively maintain a veneer of “realism” without dredging into the jerky camera of reality TV domain.  In fact, Varda produces many sweeping tracking shots of landscapes and people going about their purposeless lives in the midst of them.  The drifter, Mona, turns out to be neither a particularly nice human being, nor a monster, and thus the film turns into a meditation on what an impact any human being – particularly the insignificant ones – can have on their fellow humans.  See it if you like the works of Andreas Dresen and Robert Bresson, which may seem an odd combo until you watch the film.