iffr: no one knows about persian cats

Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi returns to the IFFR with 'No One Knows About Persian Cats', a rare and exciting look into the underground music scene of Tehran. In dramatized documentary form, Ghobadi shows how hidden below the surface of Iran's religious dictatorship Tehran is alive and buzzing with musical talent.

No One Knows About Persian Cats - 1

The story follows the indierock duo Take It Easy Hospital in their search for band members, and for black-market passports to leave Iran. After 'Turtles Can Fly' and 'Half Moon', 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' is Ghobadi's lightest film yet, an ode to the power of music and free expression prevailing in the face of repression. But the uplifting tone has a grim ring to it - after all, these musicians risk jail and worse for playing what they want.

A master at combining comedy and tragedy, Ghobadi poignantly shows the bitter and often desperate reality behind the music. For instance, one hilarious scene has a man arguing with a judge about his supposedly subversive dvd collection. Behind the comedy, however, is the brutal fact that the man is trying to avoid a sentence of 80 whiplashes.

No One Knows About Persian Cats - 2

Here are some clips from the film showing the vibrancy and variety in the Tehran scene - ranging from indierock to rap (Hichkas) to metal in a cow shed (Nik Aeen Band).

iffr: hadewijch

Modern mysticism at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, with Bruno Dumont's new film 'Hadewijch', a thoughtful meditation as austere and introspective as its troubled heroine.

The story is like a religious parable, cryptic and open to endless interpretation. A novice at a convent, who has taken the name of Hadewijch, the thirteenth century Dutch mystic, is sent back into the world because the nuns worry about her martyred fervor. (They tell her she's a "charicature of a nun".)

Hadewijch - 1

Back in Paris she befriends a Muslem boy and his brother, a student of Islam. While God and Allah are shown to be one as a matter of course, and pose no scriptural problems, it leads her into a wholly different interpretation - or rather implementation - of her faith.

Without giving away all Dumont's puzzle pieces, suffice to say his nuanced treatment of the complex and 'internal' theme of mystical struggle is quite an achievement, carried to no small degree by a stunning performance by debutante Julie Sokolowski (Hadewijch).

Hadewijch - 2

As the Islam student tells us, God is both omnipresent and absent, both the most visible and most invisible, but he will manifest himself only in devotion. 'Hadewijch' manages to convey something of both God's desperate absence and beatific presence.

See also this overview of reviews and this conversation with Bruno Dumont.

franny and zooey

Franny:

What happened was, I got the idea in my head - and I could not get it out - that college was just one more dopey, inane place in the world dedicated to piling up treasure on earth and everything. I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven's sake. What's the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? It all seemed like exactly the same thing to me, if you take off the wrapping - and it still does! Sometimes I think that knowledge - when it's knowledge for knowledge's sake, anyway - is the worst of all. The least excusable, certainly!

Zooey:

You talk about piling up treasure - money, property, culture, knowledge, and so on and so on. In going ahead with the Jesus Prayer - just let me finish, now, please - in going ahead with the Jesus Prayer, aren't you trying to lay up some kind of treasure? Something that's every goddam bit as negotiable as all those other, more material things? Or does the fact that it's a prayer make all the difference? I mean by that, is there all the difference in the world, for you, in which side somebody lays up his treasure - this side, or the other? The one where thieves can't break in, et cetera?

Franny:

Don't you think I have sense enough to worry about my motives for saying the prayer? That's exactly what's bothering me so. Just because I'm choosy about what I want - in this case, enlightenment, or peace, instead of money or prestige or fame or any of those things - doesn't mean I'm not as egotistical and self-seeking as everybody else. If anything, I'm more so!

This is just a short excerpt from an ongoing discussion that Zooey Glass has with his sister Franny, who comes home from college in a spiritual crisis, carrying a copy of 'The Way of the Pilgrim' (a 19th century religious classic about a Russian peasant practicing incessant prayer).

J.D. Salinger's 'Franny and Zooey' collects the short story 'Franny' and the novella 'Zooey', about the youngest siblings of the Glass family. Most of Salinger's work after 'The Catcher in the Rye' was concerned with their seven precocious children struggling with their own genius and spiritual sanity in a world that's dopey, inane and phoney. (One of the traits of Salinger's inimitable style was his capacity to render disgust through italics.)

The tone for this fragmentary family saga - besides 'Franny and Zooey' including 'Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters' and 'Seymour, an Introduction' - was set in the short story 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish', in which the eldest son, Seymour, commits suicide while on holiday with his wife. His absence looms large over 'Franny and Zooey', which in some sense is the story of their coping with the loss of their brother.

Zooey:

Why are you breaking down, incidentally? I mean if you're able to go into a collapse with all your might, why can't you use the same energy to stay well and busy? All right, so I'm being unreasonable. I'm being very unreasonable now. But, my God, how you try what little patience I was born with! You take a look around your college campus, and the world, and politics, and one season of summer stock, and you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything's ego, ego, ego, and the only intelligent thing for a girl to do is to lie around and shave her head and say the Jesus Prayer and beg God for a little mystical experience that'll make her nice and happy.

Franny:

Will you shut up, please?

Zooey:

In just a second, in just a second. You keep talking about ego. My God, it would take Christ himself to decide what's ego and what isn't. This is God's universe, buddy, not yours, and he has the final say about what's ego and what isn't.

mondrian's trees

The exhibition 'Cézanne - Picasso - Mondrian, A new perspective' at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which ended this weekend, connected three of the great modernist artists to show their 'cumulative' influences. From the "father of modern art", Cézanne, who influenced a whole generation of artists, to Picasso's discovery of Cubism, inspired by Cézanne but soon moving into radically new territory. And on to Mondrian, who was influenced by the Cubists and drawn to the Paris epicenter of modernism, but ended up taking his own singular path.

Mondrian may be most famous for his later works, which epitomized the particular Dutch brand of modernism, De Stijl, but how he got there is particularly fascinating to trace because of its clear step-by-step development. There is a short period (roughly 1911-14) where you can see him discovering Cubism and then using it as a stepping stone to make the leap towards total abstraction.

Mondrian - The Grey Tree

It starts with a tree ('The Grey Tree', 1912), still figurative but already flattening the distinction between subject (tree) and background (sky). Then, as if Mondrian took his own painting as the subject for his next works, the tree becomes a Cubistic pattern of lines and planes, with experiments in curvy ('Trees in Blossom', 1912) and angular ('Composition Trees II', 1912).

Mondrian - Trees in Blossom

These works still seem to somehow convey the idea of a tree, but maybe that's just because their titles still mention a tree. Otherwise, the extent to which these works can still be called representational might be a question of context.

Mondrian - Composition Trees II

Then Mondrian takes the idea of his tree and abstracts it further. Again it's as if he took his previous works as the subject for his next ones. This time he settles on angular lines, eliminates diagonal lines and fittingly gives the work an abstract title ('Composition No.6', 1914). By now, the question of representation passes into the realm of psychoanalytics...

Mondrian - Composition No. 6

From here, Mondrian would go on to limit himself, using progressively fewer elements in his paintings - only rectangular shapes, only black lines, only primary colors - resulting in his famous 'Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue', 'Composition with Blue, Red and Yellow', etc. Until only 'Composition with Two Lines' remained and he would again reinvent his own style, introducing a new element of playfulness for 'Broadway Boogie-Woogie'.

For a good overview of Mondrian's work, see this gallery.

Update: For more in this series of Dutch abstraction, have a look at Escher's trees and Van Warmerdam's trees.

landscapes with oil

For over 10 years, Edward Burtynsky has been photographing the global influence of oil. From the vast industrial landscapes of oil fields, oil sands and refineries, to the equally vast landscapes of oil-addicted suburbs and highways, and finally to the scrapyards and abandoned production sites in remote places like Azerbaijan and Bangladesh.

Edward Burtynsky - Oil - 1

As in Burtynsky's earlier projects like 'Quarries' and 'Urban Mines', 'Oil' is at its best where his industrial wastelands take on an abstract quality - as if we're looking at the impressive but incomprehensible remains of some alien culture. But of course, they are really the uncomfortable, and often ecologically disastrous byproducts of our own culture.

Edward Burtynsky - Oil - 2

This kind of visual Verfremdungseffekt was also visible in the documentary about Burtynsky's work, 'Manufactures Landscapes'. Besides showing Burtynsky at work in China and other locations, the film translated his visual style into moving images - often with mesmerizing results. (Here, for instance, is the opening shot, an endless tracking shot through a factory in China, revealing the enormous proportions of the production activity.) 

Edward Burtynsky - Oil - 3

'Oil' is on display at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, until February 28. Or view his photographs online.

easy riders, raging bulls

In response to Billy Wilder's sneer (see previous post) at the new generation of filmmakers that took over Hollywood in the late 1960's and 1970's, here's the same contempt from their perspective:

1966, Hollywood, California. The once great Hollywood dream factories that were teeming cities of technicians and artists stood empty. The audiences for the movies these studios had produced had drifted away, busy building families or lured away by television. The old studio moguls who roamed these vast empty domains were confused and uncertain. And, like the movies they were producing, largely irrelevant.

It's the opening narration from 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock 'N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood', the documentary based on the same-titled book by Peter Biskind. Both chronicle the rise of the New Hollywood, or American New Wave, which for a brief period operated outside the studio system and, like the French New Wave, treated directors as auteurs.

The story, and the masterpieces that came out of this period, are well-known - from the alienated violence of 'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967) and the pivotal '60's experience of 'Easy Rider', via '70's classics like 'THX 1138', 'The Godfather' and 'Jaws', all the way to the "last primal scream of defiance" of 'Raging Bull' (1980). By that time the auteurs that hadn't gotten permanently lost in sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were either encapsulated in a new studio system or struggling as independents...

The documentary - required viewing for films buffs - is online available somewhere I'm sure.

fedora

"The kids with beards have taken over, with their zoom lenses and handheld cameras," Hollywood producer Barry 'Dutch' Detweiler sarcastically remarks in 'Fedora' (1978), one of Billy Wilder's last films. He was referring to the new generation of filmmakers who reinvented Hollywood in the '70s and who would later be documented in 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls'.

Wilder's earlier masterpiece, 'Sunset Boulevard' (1950), was a nostalgic ode to the silent film era, and the decline of its stars when the talkies arrived. "I am big," its faded star Norma Desmond defiantly claimed, "It's the pictures that got small."

In a similar way, with in fact the same main character (William Holden), flashback structure and voice-over narration, 'Fedora' looks back on the studio era in which Wilder himself thrived, and which by 1978 was gone forever. This time the movie star, the mysterious Fedora, has committed suicide - like Anna Karenina, she threw herself in front of a train - and the film is framed around her funeral, a lavish public spectacle which as Detweiler comments is "like some goddamn premiere".

In flashbacks, Dutch Detweiler's attempts to cast her for his Tolstoy adaptation slowly uncover the bizarre mystery behind her unfading youth and beauty. Though meticulously structured, the plot is quite outrageous at times, and in many ways a charicature of itself. But still, by the final scene when a horde of mourning fans rushes in to see the beautiful corpse of their Fedora, the cynical fickleness of stardom does sink in.

It makes 'Fedora' feel like a swan song, a curious and deliberately old-fashioned film. As a New York Times review from the time put it:

...if it seems outmoded, well, that is very much Mr. Wilder's intention. "Fedora" is old-fashioned with a vengeance, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become.

korreltjie sand

Korreltjie korreltjie sand
klippie gerol in my hand
klippie gesteek in my sak
word korreltjie klein en plat

Sonnetjie groot in die blou
ek maak net 'n ogie van jou
blink in my korreltjie klippie
dit is genoeg vir die rukkie

Kindjie wat skreeu uit die skoot
niks in die wêreld is groot
stilletjies lag nou en praat
stilte in Doodloopstraat

Wêreldjie rond en aardblou
korreltjie maak ek van jou
huisie met deur en twee skrefies
tuintjie met blou madeliefies

Pyltjie geveer in verskiet
liefde verklein in die niet
Timmerman bou aan 'n kis
Ek maak my gereed vir die Niks

Korreltjie klein is my woord
korreltjie niks is my dood

- Ingrid Jonker

Or in the English translation by Antjie Krog and André Brink:

Little grain of sand

Grain little grain of sand
pebble rolled in my hand
pebble thrust in my pocket
a keepsake for a locket

Little sun big in the blue
a granule I make out of you
shine in my pebble little grain
for the moment that's all I can gain

Baby that screams from the womb
nothing is big in this tomb
quietly laugh now and speak
silence in dead-end street

Little world round and earth-blue
make a mere eye out of you
house with a door and two slits
a garden where everything fits

Small arrow feathered into space
love fades away from its place
Carpenter seals a coffin that's bought
I ready myself for the nought

Small grain of sand is my word, my breath
small grain of nought is my death

One of Jonker's most famous poems, the repeated diminutives in Afrikaans ('korreltjie', 'kindjie', 'wêreldjie', etc.) make it hard to render in English. They give the poem its distinct quality of a lullaby for grownups, starting out as a soothing childhood memory which gradually transforms into a meditation on death.

The English tries to keep the rhyme, which is always a translator's dilemma but in this case gives some forced results. For instance, while the original turns on the 'dead-end street' ('Doodloopstraat', which for some reason loses its capitalization in the translation), the English announces the theme earlier, and a bit bluntly, by substituting 'tomb' for 'world' ('wêreld'). The simple statement of 'Carpenter works on a coffin' ('Timmerman bou aan 'n kis') is also unnecessarily embellished.

Still, the poem loses none of its power in juxtaposing the vulnerable little things of this world with the looming presence of 'the nought' ('die Niks'). It reminds of Virginia Woolf's work, especially 'To the Lighthouse', which also envelops human activity in nothingness.

More poems by Jonker, haunted by children, dolls and death, are online in Afrikaans and English translations.

Jonker's tragic life is also inspiring a growing number of films. A 2001 Dutch documentary, 'Korreltjie niks is my dood', is available online. Another, South-African documentary is 'Ingrid Jonker: Her Lives and Time'. Meanwhile, a Dutch feature film about her is in development, called 'Smoke and Ochre' 'Black Butterflies'.