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sabato 26 novembre 2011

Wonderlands, part 1

It all started with a dinner and a mirror. A few weeks ago we were invited to spend the evening with my in-laws, and as is often the case with small children, my daughter started to run around and explore their big, cozy flat, so full of cool and interesting objects. In the hall there's a big rectangular mirror with a carved golden frame, almost reaching the floor. We don't have such a low mirror at home, so it was an exciting surprise for my daughter to see herself in full length. She started to talk with "the other Elin", the one in the other side of the mirror. She even asked me if she could actually go to the other side. I was struck by her fantasy, because she came up with that thought just by herself, with her 3 year old (young) experience of the world. The same evening as we went back home I ordered Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass on the internet, the original text with the drawings made for the very first edition. When the parcel with the book slipped through the mail slot in our door, it was my daughter who picked it up and opened it, and again I was surprised when she recognized Alice in the watercolour painting on the cover of the book. She had seen the Disney cartoon only once before, and not so recently. Even if it was a "grown-up's" book, she decided it was hers, and I had to read it for her, translating simultaneously from English into Italian. As I told my mother about this, she decided to send us a copy of the book in Italian, so yesterday we got it, together with a bag of chocolates. Elin hugged the parcel when it came in trough the door, and looked at the pictures many times. She was particularly fond of the one where Alice swims in her own sea of tears. AND, last but not least, my in-laws had some new posters on the wall, some uncanny, surreal and truly beautiful pictures of weird girls, flamingoes, flying pigs.... I found out they were some illustrations by Maggie Taylor, an American digital image artist who, among other things, made this. So, in a couple of weeks a series of coincidences triggered by my daughter and a mirror lead to me Alice and different Wonderlands: the novels by Lewis Carroll, who was also a lecturer in mathematics and a photographer, so automatically another door opened onto his photographs, and then Maggie Taylor.
Maggie Taylor was born in Florida, and she studied Philosophy at Yale and photography in Florida, and worked 10 years as a still-life photographer before starting to use computer techniques to create her imaginary world. This happened in 1996. She intermingles different sources of inspiration, like 19 century photos, vintage objects, and her own photographs, which are all combined to create her unique pictures, so disturbing and yet so beautiful and calm. "It all seemed quite natural", quoting from Alice in Wonderland, has she first notices the white rabbit. Natural with the distorted and astonishingly plausible logic of dreams.
Her photos look very much like paintings, and they perfectly match not only the disquieting atmosphere of Carroll's novel, but even, somehow, his works as a photographer. In 2003 Douglas R. Nickel, curator of photography at the S. Francisco Museum of Modern Art, arranged an exhibition called Dreaming in Pictures: the Photography of Lewis Carroll. The exhibition displayed 72 pictures, mainly portraits of people and enigmatic portraits of children, who were maybe his favourite subject. According to Nickel, "Carroll's photographs show the workings of his unique intelligence, underscoring his literary concerns with fantasy, dreaming, childhood innocence, and the power of the imagination, but they also illustrate a strain of Victorian photography that has been largely ignored by or suppressed in official histories of the medium. This exhibition offers the opportunity to examine both the individual and his times."

venerdì 25 novembre 2011

The sea, the sea (wonderful Iris Murdoch)

I bought this book when I was pregnant, back in 2008, sometime in the spring. I tried to read it several times, because I knew it had to be a great book, and because I wanted to like Iris Murdoch. Yet I regularly got stuck, not because I was bored, but because I couldn't stand the main character, who is narrating the whole story in first person, in the form of his memoir. I simply couldn't stand him, that is, Iris Murdoch's fictional character felt as lively and plausible as any existing human being you can instinctively perceive as unpleasant. This fact alone tells very much of Murdoch's amazing gift with words. She can really create, re-invent herself completely to give voice and life to the character she's building. Last January I took The sea, the sea again from its place in the bookshelf, and made another attempt at reading it.... and just couldn't stop. I devoured and adored it. I still think Charles Arrowby is sort of a bore sometimes, when he abounds in detailed, extra-precise accounts of his meals and food tastes. Like this passage, for instance:

"For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London.) Green peppers would have been a great addiction only the village shop (two miles pleasant walks)could not provide them. (No-one delivers to far-off Shruff End, so I fetch everything, including milk, in the village.) Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water-biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheese are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest `cellar`. I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly)and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger."

I mean, writing this at page 8 on an over 500 pages book can really discourage a big share of readers. Yet, from a wider perspective, Iris Murdoch has been amazingly good at standing in the shoes of a 60-year-old unmarried man, just retired from a glittering theatrical career in London to an isolated cottage by the sea. He has plenty of time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like food, swimming, watching the sea, thinking. And it is plausible that he can express his feelings through words much better than many people, because working in the theatre means constantly facing and dealing with emotions; plus, he is quite cultivated, which means it doesn't sound strange to read wonderfully written and deeply evocative descriptions of the sea, and of his own states of mind. Here are some:

"I am still almost shy of my emotions, shy of the terrible strength of certain memories."

"I loved my father so intensely at that moment and was at the same time conscious (I was ten, twelve?) that I could not express my love, and that perhaps he did not know of it, how much it was. Did he ever know?"

"It is after tea and I am sitting at the drawing-room window watching the rain falling steadily into the sea. There is a terrible grim simplicity in this grey scene. Apart from an iron-dark line at the horizon the sea and the sky are much the same colour, a muted faintly radiant grey, and expectant as if waiting for something to happen. As it might be flashes of lightning or monsters rising from the waves."

"And I felt upon the empty darkening road a shuddering sense of my utter solitude, my vulnerability, among these silent rocks, beside this self-absorbed and alien see."

"....and there was a new extremely anxious excitement and a sheer plucking physical longing to be in her presence, the fierce indubitable magnetism of love."

"Time had suffered a profound disturbance, and I could feel all sorts of dark debris from the far past shifting and beginning to move up towards the surface."

"The past and the present are after all so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of a material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of."
Charles Arrowby buys this cottage in a remote place by the sea. He expects to be alone (not lonely) and to relax,leaving career, friends, and lovers far away in London. Yet the people he left behind appear one by one, threatening his peaceful isolation. And, quite absurdly, he happens to meet his childhood sweetheart Hartley, now turned into a secretive, dishevelled middle-aged woman. He become utterly obsessed with her, and at this point I won't say anything more, in case someone might want to read the book. I'll just add that, as is often the case with Iris Murdoch's fiction, events ramble on and on, becoming increasingly absurd and exaggerated as Iris Murdoch explores the extreme possibilities and consequences of our actions and feelings.

After reading this book, I wasn't able to read anyone else but Iris Murdoch for a few months, and I even re-watched the film about her life. She was born in Dublin in 1919 and published her first novel, Under the net, in 1954, two years before meeting and soon marrying John Bayley. They were a happy, loving couple all through their life together. The film Iris is actually based on his memoir. In 1995 she started to develop the first symptoms of the Alzheimer disease, which she first attributed to a writer's block. She died in 1999.

giovedì 24 novembre 2011

Café Lumière, with digressions

Café Lumière is a film by Taiwanese-born Hou Hsiao-Hsien that was shot in 2003 and meant as a homage to Yasujiro Ozo. For some reason, I had quite high expectations about this films. First of all, I was intrigued by the title. I automatically connected it with a collection of photos by Anders Petersen, called Café Lehmitz. I found out about this wonderful Swedish photographer by chance: one photo taken from the Café Lehmitz collection is the cover image of the album Rain Dogs, by Tom Waits. The photo shows a man and a woman hugging, they could be friends, mother and son, lovers, brother and sister.... it's an extremely powerful picture, full of life. So, Rain Dogs was the way I found out about the wholeCafé Lehmitz collection. In 1967, Anders Petersen started to photograph the regular late-night clients of a café (named Lehmitz, of course) in Hamburg, and went on for over 3 years. It was mainly prostitutes, drug-addicts, drunks, lovers. A blend of humanity and lives that became a book about 10 years later. 
"The people at the Café Lehmitz had a presence and a sincerity that I myself lacked. It was okay to be desperate, to be tender, to sit all alone or share the company of others. There was a great warmth and tolerance in this destitute setting." He wrote.
When I found out about all this I was a student, working in a hotel at weekends and in a café 3 nights a week. Of course, I felt I could really understand what Petersen meant, because I always saw the same people in the café where I worked, basically a sex-obsessed piano player and his entourage, an English young man playing Stairway to Heaven on a guitar and keeping me company as I cleaned the bar, and some other people I have now almost forgotten. His photo collection became intimately connected to my experience, and to my idea of "café".
Going back to our issue, the title Café Lumière brought that very special atmosphere back to life, like eating a madeleine. Plus, one of my favourite actors (Tadanobu Asano in the role of Hajime) is in the cast, and the plot is actually intriguing, even if it's not a "plot" in the proper sense of the word.
Yoko,a Japanese  researcher who has spent some time in Taiwan returns home to tell her family and male friend that she is pregnant with her Taiwanese boyfriend, but that she doesn't want to marry him. Hajime also helps in her research about a composer, as he works in a second-hand bookshop and seems very devoted to his job; he has the singular hobby of recording the sounds of trains in different parts of Tokyo. So far, so good. What I found difficult to accept was the almost total suppression of emotion(s) from the film. No one reacts to the news that Yoko is pregnant. Actually, Hajime makes a computer desktop with the picture of a foetus in a womb of trains. He also searches for and finds a children's picture book telling a story that perfectly corresponds to a dream Yoko had told him about. So we understand that he cares for her (he makes food for her when she's down with flu), that he even likes her. Yet everything feels so dry, so polished.
I can't say I didn't like it. On the contrary, the slow, meditative scenes are beautiful, poetic, never dull. The film is basically a long walk through the streets of contemporary Tokyo with Yoko and Hajime, and through the minutiae of every-day life: hanging clothes, making and eating food, getting the flu, being on a train, spend time working and doing small things we like. It is all beautiful, the absence of emotion makes everything serenely dry, somehow unreal, somehow sad, because there aren't any true human connections. This is what left me slightly dissatisfied....
Café Lumière was awarded the Golden Tulip at 2005 Istanbul International Film Festival, the award as "Newcomer of the year" by the Japanese Academy in the same year, and was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival in 2004.

Last Life in the Universe

Last Life in the Universe is a 2003 Thai film directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and set in Bangkok. It is one of my favourite films, for different reasons. It's a film about two troubled people, finding a troubled comfort in each other. It is trilingual: the characters shift between Thai, Japanese and English according to their needs, showing how language is always imperfect, caressing the smooth surface of things while so much more lies underneath. It is very much about unspoken feelings, invisible currents of emotions drawing Kenji and Noi closer and closer, yet never as "close" as a western audience might expect, or rather, not with the same kind of closeness. The soundtrack - so delicate, melancholic, and beautiful - enhances the dream-like atmosphere of the whole film, sometimes interrupted by the presence of other characters, reminders of the past life of Kenji and Noi.

The title refers to a picture book Kenji decides to read (and always keeps with him), after seeing a girl looking at it at the library where he works. The book is about a lizard waking up and realizing she's the last surviving member of her species. She ponders on the thought of loneliness, getting to the conclusion that even being surrounded by enemies is better than being alone.

Talking about the plot of this film is somehow the wrong thing, because Last Life is about Kenji and Noi, about what they experience together, and all the rest is meant to explain and give sense to what they do and feel. Anyway, here it is.

Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) lives alone in Bangkok, working as a librarian at the Japanese Foundation. The film opens showing his flat, made of obsessively precise stacks of books, obsessively tidy wardrobe compartments and museum-like displays of knives. Then we see a pair of feet dangling over a scattered pile of books, obviously belonging to someone who has hung himself, and the camera slowly moves up as Kenji starts talking: This could be me two hours ago..... He hasn't actually committed suicide as he attempts to do several times throughout the film. This time, he has been interrupted by his Yakuza brother Yukio, hiding in Thailand after raping his boss' daughter. A Yakuza "colleague" of Yukio's follows, and as Kenji, alone in his bedroom, finds out that Yukio had hidden a gun into a teddy bear, the other two start fighting in the living room. Yukio is shot to death, and Kenji shoots the other man with the gun he has just found. Kenji leaves his flat after some mild attempt at washing the blood stains, and wanders through Bangkok at night.
He stops on a bridge, where traffic flows intensely. Again, he flirts with the idea of suicide, watching the dark, muddy water under the bridge. He climbs on the railing and stares down (T. Asano said in an interview that climbing on that bridge was maybe the scariest thing he ever did). Meanwhile, on her car driving home Noi is having a fight with her sister Nid (Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak are popular TV actresses in Thailand and sisters in real life, too), as Nid has apparently slept with Noi's boyfriend. Noi suddenly stops the car and forces Nid to gett off, right on the bridge where Kenji is standing. He recognizes Nid as the girl he had seen at the library, looking at the children's book, so he steps down the railing and watches her. It all happens in seconds: as Noi changes her mind and calls her sister back to the car, Nid is run over by a car, a hit-and-run, and Kenji witnesses the whole scene. This is how their lives intermingle. Kenji offers his awkward, dry support to Noi and later asks whether he can go home with her. She lives in a huge house not far from the sea, with stylish furniture and details yet extremely dirty and unkempt, in short, the very opposite of Kenji's home. They form a shy, subtle friendship at times tentatively resembling love. Surreal elements sneak into the film: after smoking pot, Noi sees the objects in her house fly back to their place, and Kenji fantasizes about having Nid leaning on his leg, instead of Noi.
As their innocent friendship develops, Noi's violent and unfaithful (ex-)boyfriend is spying on her, while three Yakuza members are looking for Takashi. Both tracks lead to Kenji, who has gone back to his flat after driving Noi to the airport to pick up his passport and follow her to Japan, where she has planned to go to further her career. The corpses are still there. Kenji has to go the loo and while he's busy there, both the Yakuza and Noi's ex-boyfriend sneak into his flat. It is not clear whether Kenji escapes from the window or is taken by the men, because the film shows two different endings, cutting back and forth between two scenes: one in which Noi arrives home in her new place in Japan and sees Kenji's bag lying on a chair. She looks extremely happy. The other scene shows Kenji at the police station. So we actually don't know what happens. My own interpretation (I like to be optimistic) is that Kenji was actually arrested, so he couldn't travel with Noi, but managed to reach her afterwards. I like to think it this way. And it makes sense. 

I truly loved this film, melancholic and sad yet so positive under the surface, showing how two wounded souls can heal each other, how human desire for warmth finds its complicated ways. And everything happens so subtly and silently as only an Asian film could show, without being neither sappy nor dry. To my humble opinion, a wonderful, wonderful film!

Last Life in the Universe received the Thailand National Film Association Award twice, and the FIPRESCI Prize at Bangkok International Film Festival, as well as the AQCC Award and Jury Prize at the Fant-Asia Film Festival. Tadanobu Asano received the upstream Prize for Best Actor at the 2003 Venice Film Festival for his role as Kenji.