Category: Films

Films

She staggers to stay upright

Last Thursday I attended a showing of a documentary on the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. After the film, there was a concert where Ida Bach Jensen, who composed the score for the film, performed.

It was a magic 40 minutes, and it gave me time to digest some of the themes and thoughts of Ekelöfs poetry. The following is a sort of summary of my thoughts.

Ekelöf writes:

Seeking stable ground in life.
Everything is fluid. Everything deceives us. Everything lures us into traps. To misunderstandings. Misconceptions. The only thing that does not waver is death. To think of death. To see life through death is to provide a pedal point to the dizzying uncertain melody we live.

Elsewhere he writes something along the lines of:

She staggers to stay upright

I find that intensely poetic. A condensation of a greater truth: That to be in balance you are always moving towards a disequilibrium. Always compensating to stay upright. Staggering back and forth. Like a tree in the wind. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle. Whether it is staying put or moving forward, maintaining balance requires constant work. To remain flexible.

In the same way, a major theme in Ekelöf’s work is how the good and the evil, the ugly and the beautiful are intertwined. They depend on the juxtaposition, the contradiction. They can exist only through each other.

Nothing can exist by itself. Nothing is pure and clean. Everything is raw, mixed and implacably honest. Like punk.

We may try to ignore it. Filter out the ugly and inconvenient. But it will only make us less flexible. Less in balance.

Instead, we have to see the ways in which the ugly highlights the beauty.

At the concert, the clean, clear almost crystalline spirituality of the music was deflated by the laughter, conversation and clinking of plates and cutlery from the café outside.

At first it annoyed me. But then I realized that it was the very dissonance of the ambient sounds of the café that gave the music its depth. And the ethereal spirituality of the music was underlined by the mundane chatter from which it sought to escape.

The beautiful and ugly complemented each other. It resulted in a calm sense of wholeness. Of balance.

It is the unpredictable, the unfinished, which creates the magic of the moment. We are never ready. We are always caught by surprise. It forces us to recalibrate. To stagger or fall.

On Saturday, I went to see a play that revolved around stories of the sea. As the play ended, they projected big photo of the wide open blue sea onto the stage.

I looked out at the sea. Exploring my newfound sensibility of the imperfect, I sought out the unexpected. The ugly. That which is set apart and breaks the harmony. The crack in the mirror. The matter out of place. That which is not in balance.

At first I couldn’t see it.

The sea is quiet, mirroring the sky in a plethora of blue nuance.
So beautiful. So pure.

Then I realize that the thing that doesn’t belong is me. The man. The boat. The attempt at control.

A tiny speck of intent merely tolerated in this vast aimless flow.

Visualising computer memory

Green letters flowing

Did you ever see the Matrix and wonder just how all of those green characters of weird computer code flowing across the screen corresponded to what was represented on the screen inside the matrix?

Well, today I came across a tool on the BERG blog, which shows this correlation very well with real computer code:

ICU64 is a real-time debugger for Commodore 64 emulators. On the right is an emulator program emulating a virtual C64 machine. This virtual machine is running an old C64 game. On the left is ICU64 displaying the memory registers of the virtual C64 machine.

Tom Armitage on the aforementioned BERG blog does well to describe what’s going on:

To begin with, you can see the registers being filled and decompressed to in real time; then, you can see the ripple as all the registers empty and are refilled. And then, as the game in question loads, you can see registers being read directly corresponding to sprite animation. What from a distance appears to be green and yellow dots can be zoomed right into ?? the individual values of each register being made clear. It??s a long video, but the first minute or two makes the part I liked clear: a useful (and surprisingly beautiful) visualisation of computer memory. It helps that the computer in question has a memory small enough that it can reasonably be displayed on a modern screen.

Seeing how the individual memory registers of the C64 as it runs the game, you can get an idea of how the individual bytes all play a part in presenting the game. And as the video progresses, you get an understanding of how you can change individual bytes and thus change the game – in realtime. This is pretty much what Neo does in the Matrix films: He hacks the code of the Matrix on the fly to give himself superhuman powers such as the ability to fly or fight, thereby breaking the programmed laws of the game.

It is a beautiful visualisation of the relationship between the physical computer (the registers on the disk) and the information we see displayed on our screen.

Humble farming

Found this fascinating film on the future of farming through Euan Semple’s blog:

The idea expounded in the film is that of permaculture – short for permanent agriculture, it is an agricultural approach that seeks to tweak the natural ecosystems of a given locality to yield crops without disturbing the balances set within that system.

As Euan Semple writes of the film:

What struck me watching this wonderful film was the degree to which arrogance and fixation for imposed order was what got us into trouble in the first place and how much humility and willingness to learn from apparent chaos is what will get us out of it. Any parallels you may draw with organisational life are totally intended.

I think that this lack of humility is not just relevant to the way we produce our foodstuffs and organise our worklives. I think it might well be one of the core issues we face.

Humble idiots

Not too long ago, I went to see Lars and the Real Girl at my local art cinema. It’s both a fun and a sad film but what sums it up best is that it’s so human.

The film revolves around the unlikely situation where a introvert but sympathetic young man buys a life size doll off the Internet, pretends that she is a real person and courts her (he asks his brother if she can stay at their house, since it wouldn’t be fitting for them to be living together unmarried). This plot premise may sound ridiculous, but the magic of the film is making this situation – and the people involved in it – believable.

Lars is an example of one of my favourite literary archetypes: The humble idiot. The humble idiot typically leads a quiet unassuming life, and is generally dismissed as harmless by people around him. But brewing within him is hope and dreams of something more and else than the life he is leading now, and the story only really takes off when he moves to put these dreams into action – usually in a way that only he considers to be possible, or even sane.

The classic example of the humble idiot is Cervantes’ Don Quixote who has spent years reading chivalric romances, and eventually decides to become a knight himself, fighting giants where others only see windmills.

Another example is Dostoyevsky’s the Idiot, the first part of which contains perhaps the best prose I’ve ever read. The idiot prince Myshkin remains so pure, humble and good throughout the book despite of all the cynical and conniving people around him. His idiocy is proven in amble measure when he continues to defend the honour of Nastasya, who continues to let him down whenever she can.

Yet another example is the main character in the Never-ending Story, Bastian Balthazar Bux, an introvert, unhappy boy who skips school to read this fascinating new book and dream himself away into a fantastic dream world, where he can make a difference.

The most recent book that I’ve read starring the humble idiot is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Rich in magical realism and wonderful American and Hispanic street slang, it is the story of Oscar, a Dominican kid in New Jersey. Unlike all other young Dominican men, Oscar has no way with women at all. He has no greater goal in life than to feel the soft touch of girl, but he is too shy, too honest and way, way too geeky to achieve it.

Oscar is like a grand wizard of geekness: He writes science fiction novels, watches Japanese manga, and plays table top role playing games. He sinks deeper and deeper into this life of escapism but remains deeply unhappy. But there is magic in Oscar’s life, in the form of an ancient Dominican curse, the fukú, which leads his life in unexpected directions which I won’t reveal here.

What all of the idiots share are some of the most fundamental human qualities: Trust, empathy, humility, imagination, and hope. They share that geek wonder, which leads them to escape into fantasy, only to return to fight the apparently irrepressible evils of the world in their own wonderfully naïve ways. Their true adventure lies in realigning themselves to the real world from a life of fantasy – without losing neither their sanity nor their hope.

It was Dr. Jones

It is not uncommon that people ask me how I ended up studying anthropology, and usually I just respond that it was my broad and undefined interest in all things social, cultural and human that led me in that direction. But that it is not the whole story.

I don’t think I was entirely aware of it at the time, but later, and now again with the release of the new film, I’ve come to realize that the Indiana Jones films have been quite the inspirational factor leading me towards anthropology.

Though Indy is an archaeologist, much of what he does is connect the strings between various cultures, languages and events across history and geography to uncover new and fascinating interpretations of the world – with lots of adventure, danger and romance to boot – so what’s not to like?

I liked the wealth of variety, the intricate scientific theories regarding these, but most of all, I liked the stories – not just the folklore and myths, but also their discovery and interpretation. Indiana Jones was all about that. To top this off, I was surprised to find out that it was none other than famed proto-anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who helped inspire Indy’s choice of career.

So, it was with all of this luggage that I went to see the newest installment in the chronicles of the aging archaeologist, Dr. Jones and his visit to Crystal Skull country. In a short bulleted review:

The Good

  • It did have the proper Indiana Jones feel. The action sequences were clever and inventive, and there was a sufficient of the old comic spark in it.
  • Indy – has aged believably, and as dryly sarcastic as ever.
  • Mutt Williams – as a sidekick I thought he was okay. He had enough character to make him interesting and the age difference between Mutt and Indy was a good basis for comedy.
  • Irina Spalko – a good villain, she made the switch from Nazis to Commies work out alright. Unfortunately, she was given too little depth and too little time with Indy to develop properly.
  • Marion Ravenwood – a lot of heart and good fun. But again, there were too many distractions to allow time to give that relationship the depth it needed.

The Bad

  • The number of sidekicks – there were at least two sidekicks too many, and they stayed on for far too long with adding any depth of character or plot, offering only a little comic relief. Both Indy’s old army buddy and his crazy archaeologist friend could easily have been left out – they stole focus from the more interesting characters
  • The references to WWII – So Indy was a big war hero. We get it.
  • The political references – I suppose it’s a rule that any Hollywood film taking place in the 50s should have some sort of reference to McCarthyism. But it doesn’t really fit in Indiana Jones universe – at least not if it is done as clumsily as this. The film would like to turn Indy into a god-fearing patriot wrongly-accused. But hey, maybe he’s a pinko?

The Ugly (SPOILERS)

Eating garbage

My flat-mate Hannibal is an avid ‘skralder’. That’s Danish for dumpster diver. So much so that a group of media students made a short film about Hannibal and his friends who go dumpster diving late at night. Though I didn’t partake in the hunting and gathering depicting in the film, I did help cooking the meal which resulted from it, since it took place in our commune. There’s even a glimpse of me near the very end of the film. The food was delicious, by the way.

One of the reasons for dumpster diving is to raise awareness about the surplus of food in our society. To do that, Hannibal and his friends have put up a web site offering tips on how to gather your own food for free. Similar information is available in English, as well.

Though these Danes don’t draw much ideology into their actions, they do sympathize with American dumpster divers who have termed their lifestyle as “Freegan.” As one anonymous freegan puts it in the freegan manifesto Why Freegan, “when you “vote with your dollars”, consumerism always wins, capitalism always wins”, so the best way to make a stand against consumerism and capitalism is to stop consuming. And if that means eating the garbage, so be it.

Le scaphandre et le papillon

I suspect you think that this is an awfully pompous title for a blog post, or a film, or a book. And in a way it is. It is French, and means “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. And it is the title of both a book and a film. And their subject matter are neither pompous nor awful.

Both tell the story of the French bon vivant and editor of ELLE magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at age 43 suffers a massive stroke, and upon waking from his coma finds himself suffering from “Locked-in syndrome“: Locked in his completely paralyzed body, with all of his senses and mental capacities intact, he can only communicate by blinking his left eye. By having an assistant read the letters of the French alphabet aloud in order of frequency of use, he can blink whenever she reaches the letter which he wants to use in a word or a sentence. Ever so slowly, he can let his surroundings, his family and friends, as well as his doctors and nurses know how his life is now.

letters

It is in this state that he dictates the book, which he calls “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in reference to his complete isolation in this vacuum of easy communication, which he fills with his still-sprawling imagination, dreaming of all the things he has lost or never had.

listening

I saw the film yesterday, and it is amazing. By giving the viewer Bauby’s perspective, we too are a dumb and unable to take part in the happenings in front of us. For a while, we share his pain and gain a vivid perspective of life within the diving bell. It’s wondrous.

But even, so Bauby managed to tell his tale, though he died within days of its publication. It reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges‘ short story “The Secret Miracle“, in which Jaromir Hladík, a Jewish scholar and playwright, while standing in front of the firing squad just before his execution, is granted one year of time by God to finish the play he never dared complete. But that year of time is relative. It is basically time frozen for year, where nothing apart from Hladík’s conscious mind is in motion. Unable to write his work down, Hladík is forced to recite and refine the play in his mind, line by line.

When he finally finishes the play, reciting it in full before adding his epithet, physical time resumes and the bullets rip. The secret miracle unobserved and his play unheard.

At least in that way, Fate was kinder to Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Free documentaries online

At the Danish Social Forum, there was a film festival called “This way out” which showcased a collection of the latest political documentaries. I saw Johan Söderberg’s film The Planet a visual feast examining the same issues as “An Inconvenient Truth” – but it does so in a more poetic and somewhat less factual way. As one of the film interviewees notes, climate change will force humanity to change its outlook of the world from unhindered human progress to sustainable living. This is a change of such epic proportions that we cannot fathom it. We can only relate to the immediate crises produced by this environmental change. So how bad does it have to get before we will get our act together?

Another of the interviewees, an economist, argues that once the unexpected climate costs of focusing solely on human progress through economic growth hits us, we will have to realize that this single-minded focus on “economic growth” easily can turn into “uneconomic growth” as the costs of natural disasters, pollution, and urbanization will continue to increase.

These are all issues which documentaries do well to illuminate. Like the Austrian montage Our Daily Bread shows how our food production has become industrialized and alienated from natural cycles. Or the film Darwin’s Nightmare, which describes the horrid effects of a globalized economy solely focused on economic growth at high environmental and social cost. Or the Canadian documentary The Corporation which describes the history of the multi-national corporation as the main institution generating and propagating this economic growth at all costs throughout the 20th century.

And there are lots more. Recently, I came across a website which provides access to loads of documentaries for free, which is well worth a look. And meanwhile, expensive documentaries such as The Corporation are also released for free, to some extent practicing what they preach. So go see a documentary film today. You might learn something.

Good Copy Bad Copy

As the awareness of the issues surrounding copyright and copyleft increases, filmmakers have begun to take notice and make films which focus on these matters.

Recently, Danish state television aired two such films which are now available for streaming off their website. Simply paste the following link

rtsp://streamer-01.dr.nordija.dk:554/DR2Tema1700.mp4

into a movie player such as VLC (go to “Open Network Stream” and paste the link in the rtsp line) to see the films. The first film starts around 5:10 in the stream, so you can safely skip past the first few minutes.

That first film is a Danish documentary called “Good Copy, Bad Copy” which explores how copyright is interpreted differently in different parts of the world with regards to music and movies. A fascinating example is how Gnarl’s Barkley’s smash hit “Crazy” is reinterpreted by Brazilian remixers as a Tecno Brega song to be played at the Sound System parties of Northern Brazil. It’s well worth the watch. Be warned, though: Subtitles are only available in Danish.

The second film, Alternative Freedom, has much more of a manifesto-like quality which is sure to turn some people (including me) off. Yet it is interesting if you haven’t seen or heard much of the Free Software movement yet (I, for my part, may be a bit overexposed to that rhetoric…)

Oh! Update: I just found a shorter, all-English version of Good Copy, Bad Copy here. I suspect you might be able to download the full version from the Pirate Bay – legally, even.

Haitian haunts

This Friday, I went to see the new Danish documentary, “Ghosts of Cité Soleil“, by Asger Leth, son of famed Danish film director, Jørgen Leth. The film is a documentary about the gangs of the slum town called Cité Soleil on the outskirts of the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince.

These heavily-armed street thugs are called the ‘Chimeres’ in French which roughly translates as ‘ghosts’ and it was through the raw force provided by these gangs that former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide sought to maintain his rule until the riots in February of 2004 forced him to flee the country.

The film follows two brothers, Bily and 2pac, who are also leaders of rival branches of the Chimere, through their daily lives up until the riots which also threaten to pull their lives apart. It is absolutely incredible to see how closely Leth has been allowed to depict the gang leaders and their surroundings, and how they are extremely honest with him and the camera throughout.

It is hard to believe that it is a documentary considering the action-pace and the military-grade weaponry that they show off. The motion of the camera feels very much like a person’s point of view, moving back and forth, being distracted and surprised. And the editor has done a marvellous job of connecting these frayed images into a coherent and fast-moving whole.

The film reminded me a fair bit of the film “City of God” – a fictitious film which similarly describes the everyday gang life and history of a Rio de Janeiro slum district called Ciudade de Deus. Interestingly, the two directors behind that film had made a documentary about gang violence in Rio previous to filming the fictitious piece, connecting the fiction with reality more closely than most people can appreciate.

“Ghosts of Cité Soleil” makes much the same connection, as you are constantly reminded of all those various Hollywood action films with ever-so cleverly coreographed violence – the only difference here is: This one is real.