Sunday Salon 3-31-13

Happy Easter, everyone, from rainy and overcast Reno! It’s a lazy day, and time for a little looking back at the week past.

On the book front, this morning I completed Donald Keene’s 5 Modern Japanese Novelists, which wasn’t an in-depth scholarly work but nonetheless a good critical introduction to the writers he treats — Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, Abe, and Shiba. Keene’s personal anecdotes (he knew all five personally) enliven the commentary. I hope to have a fuller review of the book in the next few days.

Ongoing reading projects are Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and the exhibition catalog Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy. I admit that I’ve been working on the latter for months, but I still intend to complete it! What my next reading project will be, however, I don’t really know. I have many great options, and am being pulled in multiple directions. Perhaps because I want to continue the Japan theme, and because the book is sitting here next to me, An Edo Anthology, a collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century writings and art from the city that later became Tokyo, is calling out to me, as is Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature. There are other temptations, like the new biography Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music by Joel Sachs, which looks quite excellent.

In the realm of movies, I’m continuing my slow pace, with only two films viewed this week: Anima Mundi, Godfrey Reggio’s short film on wildlife and their habitats, and, on TCM, I Love You Again, a lightweight but very enjoyable 1940 film with William Powell and Myrna Loy (how could any film with those two delightful stars be anything other than enjoyable?)

As for Easter Sunday, I fear I’m going to be spending much of it staring at the television. I would quite like to see the PBS presentation of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest — I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a note of Adès music, and I would hear quite a few notes by this much-praised British composer if I tune in for this opera. I had already tentatively planned to watch Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in honor of Easter, from a Blu-ray disc featuring the “ritualization” of Bach’s work by Peter Sellars that the Berlin Philharmonic presented a couple of years ago. Also, it’s time for another episode of “Sunday Nights with Ozu,” about which I recently wrote. I was considering the relatively short The Record of a Tenement Gentleman. But adding this 75 minute film to the six or more hours of Bach and Adès music makes for a rich day. We’ll see how it turns out.

Coming tomorrow, of course, is Opening Day, so I’ll leave you for this morning with a hearty “Go Giants!”

kogonada on Koreeda

While in San Francisco for CAAMFest a couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to see some videos by the film critic and video essayist kogonada. Along with his film explorations – here’s a good interview with him where you can also see his short “supercut” films on Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, and more – kogonada runs a tumblr, missingozu, in which his enthusiasm for the great Japanese director is on display. Appropriately, kogonada’s films were presented at CAAMFest as a prologue to the showing of Late Summer, the Ernie Park film I praised so heavily in last week’s Sunday Salon, which owes a lot to Ozu’s style. (kogonada’s name, you may recognize, is in itself a tribute to Ozu, or rather Ozu’s longtime writing collaborator Kogo Noda.)

One of the kogonada films I got to see at CAAMFest was his really excellent exploration of the films of Hirokazu Koreeda, among my favorite directors working today. He gets right to the heart of what makes Koreeda’s films so memorable and moving. As kogonada says in his introduction to the video, “The cinema of Koreeda Hirokazu is defined by moments of everyday life. Whatever potential there is for heightened drama – the suicide of a husband, a cult massacre, abandoned children – it is diffused by the familiar rhythms of everydayness.” On the comparison to Yasujiro Ozu, he says, “I think the reason we compare Koreeda to Ozu is because his cinema tastes like Ozu’s. When we leave his films we experience a similar aftertaste, which is to say, a deeper sense of life.”

The World According to Koreeda Hirokazu from kogonada on Vimeo.

The Virtue Trap

“…For an artist, virtue can be deadly. The urge toward respectability and maturity can be stultifying, even fatal.

“We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world. But what we really want is to be left alone. When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we’re there. We may act like we’re there. But our true self has gone to ground.

“What’s left is a shell of our whole self. It stays because it is caught. Like a listless circus animal prodded into performing, it does its tricks. It goes through its routine. It earns its applause. But all of the hoopla falls on deaf ears. We are dead to it. Our artist is not merely out of sorts. Our artist has checked out. Our life is now an out-of-body experience. We’re gone. A clinician might call it disassociating. I call it leaving the scene of the crime.”

— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way (Week 5)

Hermit Resting By A Stream

Hermit Resting By A StreamHermit Resting by a Stream, Ming Dynasty – Dai Jin

“As for the people and affairs of the contemporary world, they hold no attraction for me. If in becoming a teacher one thinks only of wealth and honor and is not concerned about the importance of literature, it would be better if we had no teachers. If in being a friend one thinks only of power and profit and cares nothing about the frank exchange of opinions, it would be better if we had no friends. So I close my gate, shut my door, hum poems and sing songs by myself.”
— Yoshishige no Yasutane, 931-1002

Reblogged from Artemis Dreaming

Sunday Nights with Ozu

OzuSometimes the emotional resonance of a memory lingers long after the specifics of the event that brought about those emotions have faded.

When I was in my late teens or early twenties, only a very few television stations were available. I came across a station on the UHF band (remember that?), about which I remember nothing except for the fact that at 9:00 p.m. on Sundays, they played Japanese language programming. It may have been Japanese television shows, or perhaps theatrical films. The characters generally wore modern clothing, although there may have been period costuming on occasion. I don’t recall any sword fights or samurai or any of the typical historical trappings – just conversation, with no subtitles. For a young person with little knowledge of the world beyond what was happening within a foot or two of his nose, this gave me a glimpse of the larger world that I have never forgotten. I became fascinated by whatever this programming was, the emotional dramas of these characters whose language I couldn’t understand, and was there every Sunday for a long time.

Skip ahead twenty-five or so years. Foreign, independent, and older films have captured my attention, and through Turner Classic Movies, Netflix, and my own purchases, I’m starting to explore. Reading about Japanese film, the name Yasujiro Ozu keeps coming up as one of the most esteemed of Japanese directors. I’ve never seen anything by him, so I get hold of the film that seems to attract the most attention, Tokyo Story (in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Tokyo Story topped the directors list of greatest films ever, and came in at #3 in the critics poll). Read more

Sunday Salon 3-24-13

Good morning! On this fine spring morning in Reno, I’m taking the opportunity to do a little looking back at the week or two that was. What’s coming in the future, in the way of blogging or reading or anything else, I haven’t really worked out yet. But I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out myself!

Although I haven’t been filling my blog with stuff recently, it isn’t from lack of activity. Much of the last week has been spent writing program notes for the last Reno Philharmonic concert of the 2012-13 season: Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. This was the first time I’d ever written about a Mahler symphony, and I quickly found that any attempt to do a detailed “play-by-play,” moment-by-moment description of the music is pretty much doomed to fail (even more so if you only have around 1,000 words to work with!) There’s just too much going on, too many interrelationships among themes and between movements, too many dramatic changes in mood and intensity. So my goal was simply to hit some of the musical highlights, and hope that this will provide at least a little guidance for listeners. Happily, this is my last program note writing for a few months – maybe now I’ll get busy on the blog!

Right before that I had the chance to spend a few days in San Francisco. Going in with the assumption that I wouldn’t be writing in any detail about my experiences gave me the freedom to simply enjoy them, which was a nice change of pace. One of the main reasons for my visit was art, not surprisingly. Several of the famous Terracotta Warriors are on display at the Asian Art Museum, and it was impressive to see them. They are at least life sized, even a little larger, and surprisingly detailed. The de Young also has some great stuff going: etchings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries, Dutch painting from around the same time (including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is even more beautiful in person than in books), and forty or so pieces of traditional art owned by the Vatican and collected by missionaries over the centuries.

Another motivation for my visit was CAAMFest, the former San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (hosted by the Center for Asian American Media, or CAAM). I saw only three films from the event, sadly, but it was still worth the trip. One film that I must call to your attention, should you ever have a chance to see it, is Late Summer. It’s a re-imagining of the world of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, transplanted to modern day Nashville (luminously photographed) and featuring an African-American cast. Having read about this film beforehand, I had a sneaking suspicion that the concept was too much of a gimmick. But I was entirely mistaken. It’s a beautiful film, fantastically acted, and extremely moving – proving, as if such proof were needed, that Ozu’s way of looking at the world and his approach to film can still be inspirational, and emotionally wrenching. All kudos to writer-director Ernie Park and the fabulous cast. The trailer gives a nice sense of the film.

Buffalo Boy

Buffalo Boy coverBuffalo Boy
2004, dir. Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh, 98 minutes
Global Film Initiative (DVD)

Buffalo Boy, Vietnam’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Academy Awards, is apparently writer-director Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh’s only feature-length film to date (according to imdb he has a couple of other short films to his credit). Based on its quality, I certainly look forward to anything he might do in the future. Buffalo Boy tells the story of the coming-of-age of Kim (played by Le The Lu), the son of farmers who live and work in Vietnam’s southern Ca Mau Province. The family relies heavily on its two water buffalo. For much of the year their lowlands environment is inundated with water, so finding grazing land for their buffalo is essential. Such land is scarce and at a premium, and in the dog-eat-dog world of 1940s colonialism in which the film is set, leaders of buffalo drives can often be unscrupulous or even deadly.

Having just recently watched, for perhaps the fifth time, the Howard Hawks western Red River, at one point as I was watching Buffalo Boy I started mentally translating the film into a Western, replacing the usual cattle drive with one of buffalo, the denuded desert landscape of many westerns with the watery expanse of the southern part of Vietnam depicted here, and the typical characters of a Western with those I found in Buffalo Boy. The exercise was an interesting one, and highlighted the unusual, appealing ambiguity of Buffalo Boy. No one is entirely good or entirely evil here. Every major character seems to have at least one defining bad deed lurking in their past, but each is also capable of great benevolence. Even one of the characters we might have taken to be one of the “bad guys,” the buffalo driver Lap, has a secret that, once revealed, completely changes his standing in the film. Read more

Writers Are Liars

“Writers are liars. They are liars unless they live the truths they write about, and only then. Life is not talking or writing, but living. Life is doing. So any truth that may be spoken of, or reduced to written forms, must have a lived counterpart … otherwise it is not a truth, it is something else, something not alive but dead. So the realisation that writers are liars and that writing is lying is, for a writer aiming to write the truth, nearly impossible to live with. After this enlightenment there remain for him only two choices and one evasion. The choices are to adjust his life so that it conforms to what he has written, or else to die. The evasion is to lapse back into unawareness as black and bleak as a starless sky at night.” (Christopher Ross, Mishima’s Sword)