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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yukon Kings

Yukon Kings, 2013
no copyright infringement intended

The Yukon River draws into its mouth the largest migration of chinook, chum, and coho salmon stocks in the world. For the chinook, or kings, the river offers passage from the Bering Sea to spawning streams across Alaska and Yukon Territory all the way to British Columbia. The iconic fish run is one of the longest freshwater fish migrations on earth. Because the kings will not feed once they enter the river, they must build up tremendous oil reserves beforehand. Burning only this fuel, some of the Canada-bound kings will ascend the river over 2,000 miles, climbing 2,200 feet, fighting the Yukon’s powerful current for up to two months. Consequently, with oil levels reaching more than 30 percent of their muscle weight, Yukon kings are the richest salmon in the world. More oil means more moisture, more flavor, and a lusher taste. Many epicures say these salmon have no equal. They’re like blocks of butter, says one Yukon River fisherman.

A nine minute documentary made by Emanuel Vaughan-Lee, telling the story of nowadays King salmon of the Yukon River. It's the most celebrated variety of salmon, now in danger of going into extinction. Historically, the average Yukon king run was around 300,000; but in the 16 years since 1997 half the run has disappeared; the average harvest is only a third what it was (Alaska Journal of Commerce). The fish is shrinking in size and in weight: evolutionary biology predicts that if a population is subject to significantly increased mortality, earlier sexual maturity will result, and breeding will occur at a smaller body size (Alaska Journal of Commerce). The ecological danger is tackled by the movie somehow obliquely: an old fisherman would love to have his grandchildren take over the trade (and pass the knowledge further, to future generations). His tone seems though far from optimistic. Under his plea there is concern. And so, the fisherman wish for his grandchildren becomes an elegy for an occupation that is in danger to disappear together with the Yukon king.

(Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee)


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Knut Hamsun

Knut Hamsun
no copyright infringement intended

I bought today two novels written by Hamsun. I had entered the bookstore nearby to find another author, and I discovered there Pan and Victoria. I will come back to them (and to Hunger, of course). Speaking about his political opinions: were I to live in that epoch, I would have been politically and morally on the opposite side (as I am also now). I must say, too: when it comes to analyze a person, I believe in the healing virtues of time. Let's say it other way: time brings perspective. Speaking about his importance as a writer: his works were seminal.

For now I would give here just a fragment from a movie made in 1966, based on his most celebrated novel. I think it is a good start to enter his universe.

fragment from Sult (Hunger), movie made in 1966
(video by schokone)

(A Life in Books)


On the Hunting Ground (Lie chang zha sha), 1984

...their traditions and rituals are often left unexplained, simply let play out for themselves in front of the camera. Like in all his movies, the landscape at times becomes the very subject. His long takes emphasize its vastness, its beauty, and its dangers...

... high-speed, fast-paced, uninhibited wild hunting scenes...

I learned about this movie (also about director Tian Zhuang-Zhuang) from Asian Cinema, an extensive monograph authored by Tom Vick. I used to live by then in DC Area and quite often I was going to the Freer Gallery, where Tom Vick was organizing sometimes screenings of Asian movies. I bought his book at the gallery bookstore, after such a screening. A splendid monograph covering the cinema across the whole Asian continent. The information Tom Vick was giving about Tian Zhuang-Zhuang showed me one of the greatest moviemakers of the Chinese Fifth Generation, in the same rank with Zhang Yi-Mou and Chen Kai-Ge (whose movies I already knew about). One of the first movies made by Tian Zhuang-Zhuang (actually the first made for the big screen, prior to this he had worked for television) had been On the Hunting Ground, in 1984. There was in the book a sentence or two about it: an experimental document/narrative hybrid about a traditional hunting society in Inner Mongolia. The movie was mentioned again by the end of the paragraph: in Tian's movies not only actors had to play, all else was left to play by itself, the universe of traditions and the surrounding landscape becoming active part in the whole, and this way understanding the language (or having it translated) somehow was no more so important - people in On the Hunting Ground were speaking Mongolian and there were no subtitles, not even in Chinese (while the movie was to be screened in China).

During the following years I was able to get most of Tian's movies, some of them on DVD copies, some others found on youTube: not On the Hunting Ground. Each of his movies was a great esthetic experience; with each one I deepened my understanding of his art, his exquisite treatment of everything surrounding the actors: each element plays an active role in his movies, furniture, landscape, magic of rituals - thus the lack of understanding the language (or the lack of translation) is really compensated by the way these elements are put in play. And with each of his movies my desire to watch the others was getting bigger. I was finding then another one, and so on. But On the Hunting Ground was no way to be found. No DVD, no video on youTube, nothing. I was thinking at it with melancholy. The first movie of Tian, spoken in Mongolian, with no subtitles, showing a hunting community far from the modern civilization. I could only imagined it.

A week ago I started to look again for it on the web. It could not be found by his international name (On the Hunting Ground), nor by its Chinese name in Pinyin transliteration (Lie chang zha sha). An idea came to my mind suddenly: to look for its Chinese title in hieroglyphs! I didn't know it, but there was a way I decided to try: using Google Translator, I could get the Chinese translation for On the Hunting Ground. I knew that Google Translator provided also a transliteration for the non-Latin alphabets, so I could compare the result with the Pinyin that I already had! I made several attempts till I got the transliteration: not the order of words as in the Pinyin title, however close. I tried then to change the order of the hieroglyphs till I got the matching title!

I started then to look on the web with the four hieroglyphs, and Gosh! I found the movie: four consecutive videos on a CCTV site!

no copyright infringement intended

All this being said, let's discuss a bit the movie. If you are against animal cruelty, then don't watch it. The hunting scenes are real, in all their mercilessness and ferocity: a team of hunters on their horses, some with rifles, some with bows, some with maces, their dogs, monuments of brutality; and the abundant prey walking innocently on the abundant grass, deers, rabbits, big birds, without any chance to escape, dying without understanding what's happening to them and why. Nietzsche would have loved it.

But that's their life, of that community of hunters, doing it since immemorial times. That land has always been hunting ground, the imperial family was coming there in bygone times,  for huge parties of riding their horses, running their dogs, killing the prey... the emperors are no more, the villages of hunters are still there and will remain.

Yes, the hunting scenes in the movie are dreadful, but one cannot make otherwise a documentary about the real life there, within that community so remote from the references of modern civilization. Apocalyptic images: the camera follows uninhibited the hunters, the dogs, the prey, and captures perfectly the rhythm, the dynamic of the whole. We are told this way an essential story, about the primary instincts defining our nature: the fight to kill and to survive. In contrast, the scenes showing the village life, and the animal farming, are quiet, serene, slowly following sunsets and sunrises over the immense pastures, populated by flocks of cattle and sheep: here is another story told, the coexistence of man and nature. Hunting and farming, like two universes in a fragile balance.

And like in all these movies of Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, a spiritual sense sublimated in the story. The hunted deer is beheaded, and the trophy is hanged on a post. Then hunters bow in deep worship: the paradigm of deity accepting in innocence to be sacrificed for redeeming the world, a primary truth beyond any religious convictions and affiliations, just that: you kill the innocent, you kill the divine, and the divine is revealed.

(Tian Zhuang-Zhuang)


Friday, August 22, 2014

Yasushi Inoue

Yasushi Inoue
(image from Talented Reader, A Literary Journal)
no copyright infringement intended

famous for his serious historical fiction of ancient Japan and the Asian continent, his work also including semi-autobiographical novels and short fiction of great humor, pathos, and wisdom (wiki), he published 50 novels and 150 short stories (Talented Reader, A Literary Journal).

(A Life in Books)


Delamu (The Tea Horse Road), 2004

Delamu (Cha ma gu dao xi lie), 2004
no copyright infringement intended

There is no place like home, as the word goes. Well, sometimes it's different. For Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, one of the greatest Chinese film directors, home seems to be one or other of those regions at the border, as remote from the center as it can be, whose inhabitants still live following ancestral rhythms, sometimes speaking an idiom of their own, unknown even in the neighboring regions, sometimes observing traditions and rituals long time forgotten anywhere else, almost totally  decoupled from what's going on in the rest of the country. One of his first movies, On the Hunting Ground (猎场在狩, 1984), was a docudrama about a traditional community of hunters from Inner Mongolia. His next film, The Horse Thief (1986) was unfolding its plot in Tibet in some indefinite time (a year, 1923, specified in the first scene, while everything there breathing the eternal). A movie made much later, The Warrior and the Wolf (2009), definitely immersed in legend: a story of longtime ago, taking place (again) at the border, with people becoming wolves when falling in love...

Parajanov comes to mind (first of all his Тіні забутих предків, but also his other works, maybe not so directly). I would call this kind of movies cinematic anthropology - observing traditional societies not yet altered by modernity, as a way to better understand our own identity, where we come from and who we are.

And this anthropological flavor can be noted also in other of Tian's movies, not dedicated to faraway regions: Springtime in a Small Town (2002) revives a forgotten masterpiece from 1948 of Chinese cinema; The Go Master (2006) is a deconstruction of a Chinese genius of Go who has spent all his life in Japan. The same tendency to go away in time or in space, in a quest of understanding our collective and individual identity. Well, we know what happened when Tian tackled the recent history of China, in Blue Kite (1993): he was banned from making movies for ten years.

Delamu, made in 2004, is a documentary dedicated to the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, a mule caravan path used for more than two thousand years, connecting Yunnan (the origin homeland of tea, it seems) and Tibet, from there opening its gates toward India and Western Asia, and ultimately toward Europe. The name comes from the trade of Yunnan tea-bricks for Tibetan ponies, and it is through this road that tea spread across the world. It can be considered an alternate Silk Road.

Anyway, this Ancient Tea-Horse Road is an extremely dangerous route, winding through high mountains, on narrow paths sometimes carved between vertical slopes and precipices, traversing gorges on very unstable suspended bridges, or even on ropes stretched between the two sides: men and animals tied to these ropes.

So it is not for everyone to make the Tea Road, while it is the occupation of people living there, in the tiny villages from the region. An occupation passing from one generation to another, since the very beginnings. They make a living from traveling on this route with their mules, carrying tea, salt, grains, bartering them in the other villages.

Jeff Fuchs, the Canadian mountaineer and author, was the first Westerner to  trek the entire Tea-Horse Road, covering six thousand kilometers around there, and writing a book that I intend to read. And Tian Zhuang-Zhuang spent some months there, together with a  small film crew, befriending the people, quietly listening to their stories, patiently trying to understand their traditions and their ways, following them on the Tea Road with the camera. It resulted a gorgeous documentary. The people are approached with great empathy, it is a universe very different from ours, in the same time a world where anything can happen, and the sole rule is to expect the unexpected. Two brothers are married with the same woman, they explain that it's only normal, as each of them is missing long time with the caravans. A priest considered lost during the Cultural Revolution lives there. A family of devout Catholics lives in the village (actually only one of the spouses is Catholic, the other is Buddhist, and everybody's happy). An old woman (seemingly older than hundred) tells how she kicked off her lazy husband and found another one (presumably less lazy). A female schoolteacher wants to leave her job and go out to find the ideal man (who knows how to talk to her, and how to love her - a toxic mix, if you ask me). As one can see, the simplicity of life hides a certain sophistication of spirit.

People rely on their mules for their travels on the Tea Road. This creates a formidable bond between human and animal. The movie takes its title (Delamu) from the name of a mule: it's a Tibetan word meaning Peace Angel.

And above all this, the landscape, a road toward the transcendent. The journey to decipher all our unknowns starts here.Splendid movie!

However, there is something essential about this movie that I haven't said anything about. Like in all his other works, the contemporaneity is actually present (sometimes elusively, here directly). A large auto road is in construction, and the Ancient Tea Trail will disappear; the caravans on the perilous paths will become useless, and the raison d'être of these people will die. The mules of the last caravan on the Tea Road carry materials for the construction site. This movie is an elegy for a vanishing universe.

(Tian Zhuang-Zhuang)

(Jeff Fuchs)

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem
on the banks of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY
(uploaded on Wikimedia Commons by Dreamyshade)
no copyright infringement intended

Es una pena que no pueda publicar directamente en segunda mano; soy un verdadero apasionado de los libros usados, no de los nuevos (Jonathan Lethmen, quoted in El País)

[It's a shame I cannot publish directly for resale; I am a truly aficionado of used books, rather than first editions]

novelist, essayist and short story writer; his first novel (Gun, with Occasional Music, mixing SF and detective fiction) was published in 1994; Motherless Brooklyn (published in 1999) gained mainstream recognition; The Fortress of Solitude, from 2003, entered the NY Times Best Seller List; and he wrote many other novels and short stories; his books are kind of genre bending (mixing SF, detective, and autobiography); El País has in today's issue a column consecrated to Jonathan Lethem (El perfil izquierdo de EE UU), speaking about his most recent novel, Dissident Gardens, from 2013 (translated in Spanish, Los Jardines de la disidencia); his Chronic City, from 2009, is also mentioned in the column; you should read also Contracultura y caricatura, also from El País (Jonathan Lethem afila su pluma frente al activismo político en Los jardines de la disidencia); if they say so...

and another quote from the guy: los americanos son un pueblo ahistórico, los europeos no se lo pueden permitir

(A Life in Books)


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Refranero español

it's not what you know but who you know
no copyright infringement intended

(A Life in Books)


Cada loco con su tema

no copyright infringement intended

The greatest value from learning the idioms, I think, is learning the actual literal meaning of the sentences in the original language, because then knowing the suggested idiomatic translation gives insight into how the new language works

Cada loco con su tema

Cada cabeza es un mundo

À chacun son sujet

Each madman on his high horse

Vienas apie batus, kitas apie ratus
(Lithuanian - literal translation: one about the shoes, the other one about the wheels)

Jeden o koze, druhý o voze
(Slowak - literal translation: one about goat, another one about carriage)

На вкус и цвет товарищей нет
(Russian - literal translation: on taste and color there is no comrade)

Каждый сходит с ума по своему
(Russian - literal translation: everyone is foul on his own)

Fiecare cu aia'mă-sii

Te poţi ... în plăcerea omului?

(Refranero español)


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo

Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo

El diablo no es malo por diablo, sino por viejo

Ce n'est pas aux vieux singes que l'on apprend à faire la grimace

There is nothing like the old horse for the hard road

Nu vinde castraveţi grădinarului

Sluga veche, mascara bătrână

Şi dracul pare frumos când e tânăr

Cine n-are bătrâni să-şi cumpere

Note: diablo in Spanish could mean also smart, cunning, stuff like that, not only devil

(Refranero español)


Amigos son los amigos

En la necesidad se conoce al amigo

Un vieil ami est un cheval harnaché

A friend in need is a friend indeed

Друзья познаются в беде

Prietenul la nevoie se cunoaşte

(Refranero español)