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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Photographs of Doug Rickard

Doug Rickard (American, born 1968) studied US history and sociology, before moving to photography. He has drawn on this background in research for his series A New American Picture, which focuses on places in the United States where unemployment is high and educational opportunities are few. On a virtual road trip, Rickard located these sites remotely using the Street View feature of the website Google Maps, which has mapped and photographed every street in the country. Scrutinizing the Google Maps pictures, he composed images on his computer screen, which he then photographed using a digital camera. The resulting pictures—digitally manipulated to remove the Google watermark and cropped to a panoramic format—comment on poverty and racial equity in the United States, the bounty of images on the web, and issues of personal privacy.
His photos are now on view in MoMA's New Photography 2011 exhibition.

(America viewed by Americans)

NY Times about Liviu Ciulei

Ms. Marica Solomon signaled me the presence of a great article in the October 27 issue of NY Times on the life of Liviu Ciulei.

Mr. Ciulei (whose name was pronounced LEEV-you CHEW-lay) made films in his native Romania, but in the United States he was best known for his provocative interpretations of classic plays. Contemporary art, he once said, is one that brings all the conflicts of the world into the poem, into the theater, into the painting. And the world’s enduring turmoil often rumbled, at least subliminally, through his presentations.

Ciulei's American debut was in 1974 at Arena Stage in DC with Leonce and Lena (written by Georg Büchner), a 19th-century German absurdist political satire. The production was described then in NY Times as electric and eclectic, a sort of time capsule of world theater right up to the foolish epics of Brecht and the epic follies of Ionesco. And Liviu Ciulei was immediately recognized as one of the most imaginative directors in the world.

A Hamlet followed at Arena Stage in 1978, set in Bismarck-era Germany. NY Times called it not the triumph just of a season but of a decade.

But the most important part of the theatrical activity of Mr. Ciulei in the US was at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Here he started in 1981, with a Tempest having Prospero’s island surrounded by a bloody moat with cultural artifacts — the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa among them — floating in it. And here at the Guthrie he also directed the play that has hunted his imagination for all life: it was the play in which he had debuted in Bucharest in 1946, in the role of Puck, the play he had directed in the 1960s at the prestigious Bulandra Theatre, the play he had dreamed to put in a great movie. He didn't make that movie, unfortunately. I'm speaking about Midsummer Night's Dream. At the Guthrie, Mr. Ciulei underscored a psychological savagery and sadism in the play’s romantic roundelay, depicting Bottom, the leader of the jesterlike players, as humiliated to the core by the indifference of his royal audience. Was it a reference to the American audience that was giving him much less recognition than he truly deserved? (Many people still want the theater to be like cool lemonade when it’s hot, he once observed). Maybe he wasn't right. He had recognition, no question about it. He wanted more. He should have known that masterpieces have always been ultimately for the happy few. Was it rather a reference to his pain that he didn't render the play in a movie? It's also our pain, of those who loved his plays and his movies.

Read the whole article from NY Times at:

(Contemporary Art)


Friday, October 28, 2011

Mircea Cantor Awarded with Prix Marcel Duchamp 2011

Mircea Cantor is the winner of Prix Marcel Duchamp 2011. The artist was born in Romania and currently lives in Paris and Cluj-Napoca.

(Mircea Cantor)


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ann Hu: Beauty Remains

movie posters published by Wabisabi in Iwa ni Hana
(where beauty moves and wit delights)

Two sisters meet again after long years of separation. Fei (Zhou Xun), an illegitimate child, had been forced to leave their home and constrained to poverty, while Ying (Vivian Wu) grew up surrounded by richness and affection. Now Ying calls her step sister to come back. The father has just passed away and his will requests the presence of both siblings and their reconciliation: otherwise the inheritance won't take effect.

To remake the bond is far from easy. There is genuine attraction between them, based on nostalgia for the times of early childhood, balanced by mutual suspicion. And, from the part of Fei, there is accumulated frustration which nurtures irresistible desires of revenge. She seduces Ying's lover and what follows is a pervert erotic competition pushing any certitudes toward the realm of moving sands.

Beauty Remains (美人依旧 - Mei Ren Yi Jiu), made by Ann Hu in 2005, is a movie in which the loss of certitudes plays on multiple plans. There is the loss of certitudes that have kept so far the moral universe of Fei. In the same time, as the action takes place in 1949's China, the Communists will soon take control over the country, and all certitudes of the universe where Ying and Fei have lived and competed will be lost. The two conflicting sisters, as well as their lover, will face a new world where they will be just bourgeois elements, with all consequences.

This movie calls in my mind one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema , the 1948's Spring in a Small Town (and its superb 2002's remake crafted by Tian Djuang-Djuang): there also the tumult of passions inside of a family will be brutally ended by the coming Communist regime. The difference is that in Spring in a Small Town the heroes are not aware of their near future, while in Beauty Remains the whole fabric of passion is on the backdrop of Communists' advancement. Maybe also Dr. Zhivago would come to mind.

In such times of turmoil, on a personal level, also on the level of your country, is it anything that remains, when all else is lost? The movie of Ann Hu comes here with a great answer: when hope dies, and love fades, beauty remains. We can loose everything which is in our control, or in the control of society, but nobody has power on what comes from nature!

So, it is a movie about beauty, which cannot be lost, cannot be taken away. That means that beauty accompanies us in all our tribulations. Only we should observe that the way beauty takes shape depends on the state where we are. There is beauty in happiness, there is beauty in tragedy; there is beauty in times of accomplishments, there is beauty in decay.

I found a fascinating text about beauty in a Japanese blog (authored by Wasanabi). It is about the multitude of words that Chinese language uses for various nuances of beauty. When it comes to beauty in decay, a Chinese can use either 墮落美 [duo luo mei] or 頹廢美 [tui fei mei]. The first term, that duo-la-mei, designates a beauty that reminds us of a past state of innocence and induces a feeling of nostalgia (while in the same time perversely suggesting that the roots of the present decay were already there, in the longtime lost purity). As for the second term, tui-fei-mei, in this case beauty comes from our awareness that end is near. It is the superb beauty of the gambler who cannot escape his fate, as it is the special beauty of aristocracy in the dawn of revolution.

Beauty Remains was compared with some movies of Wong Kar-Wai: think at The Hand (WKW's episode in the triptych Eros), or at Days of Being Wild, and not only. The uncanny beauty of the images expresses the special beauty of those characters in decay, that tui-fei-mei.

A last word here about Beauty Remains: the nuanced solution found for Fei, this personage of lights and shadows. There is a very interesting statement made in this regard by Ann Hu (in http://asianmediawiki.com/Beauty_Remains):

During the script development process, I always felt Fei should gain our sympathies easily. But during the shoot, I struggled with Fei’s character as she loses her innocence and hurts the ones that love her most. Is she a good person? Are her actions justified because of her family history? Are any of us ever justified when we act upon our feelings and beliefs? I was torn between rushing to judge Fei and my feelings of compassion for her.

The solution wasn’t found until we shot the final scene. The lighting was dim, and though I couldn’t see her face through the monitor, I could feel Fei’s laughter and tears. At that moment, I knew I had gained the emotional balance that I was looking for

(Ann Hu)


Pace Gallery in Chelsea, NY: A Short History of the Light Bulb

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, sculpture, 2007
204 ice white turbo reflector caps, electronic light sequencer, holders and daisy washers, lamps, mirror polished stainless steel

Throughout the twentieth century the light bulb was used both as subject and material in the works of artist like Picassso and Man Ray, Philip Guston and Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon and Joseph Beuys, to name a few.The Pace Gallery in Chelsea, NY (545 W 22Street near the High Line Park) is hosting these days a group exhibition dedicated to this history. I would say, a crash course of the bulb in the modern and contemporary art.

Read more at:

(Contemporary Art)

(New York, New York)


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Regele Mihai

25 Octombrie 2011: Regele Mihai a vorbit in Parlamentul Romaniei. Priveam emotionat la ecranul televizorului si ma gandeam la toti cei care au suferit in inima lor atunci, la 30 Decembrie 1947, cand ultimul simbol al normalitatii Romaniei lua calea exilului. Cei mai multi dintre aceia nu mai traiesc astazi. Sa stie acolo unde sunt ca dupa atat de multi ani, Istoria a facut un act de dreptate.

Liviu Ciulei

Ne-a parasit pentru totdeauna un mare om de teatru, unul din cei mai mari pe care i-am avut, un roman al carui talent l-a facut cunoscut dincolo de granitele tarii, pana in America, socotit pretutindeni in lume ca o mare personalitate a teatrului contemporan.

Pentru generatia mea, personalitatea lui a fost coplesitoare, si pot sa zic ca prin spectacolele sale a fost unul din polii formativi in deschiderea mea intelectuala, in intelegerea de catre mine a actului teatral, si mai mult, a fenomenelor prin care se exprima universul culturii. Datorita lui, intreaga mea generatie a invatat curajul de a privi fara complexe catre marile opere clasice, totodata catre marii contemporani.

Dintre toate marile opere pe care Liviu Ciulei le-a pus in scena la Teatrul Bulandra, voi aminti numai doua, pentru ca impresia pe care mi-au facut-o atunci, in anii saizeci, imi este la fel de proaspata dupa atat amar de vreme.

Cum va place, despre care Ciulei avea sa scrie mai tarziu: cu spectacolul Cum va place, am reusit si in regie o ruptura fata de realismul socialist plat ... am creat o re-legitimare a conventiei scenice; acest spectacol a fost piatra de hotar care a marcat nasterea unei noi scoli de regie a teatrului romanesc; de aceea, cred ca e cel mai semnificativ moment din cariera mea. A declansat o cotitura spre un teatru virulent, puternic vizual, eliberand imaginatia regizorala.

Si apoi formidabila Opera de trei parale, spectacolul care m-a invatat cum sa ma apropii de marea cultura germana.

Si apoi toate celelalte spectacole ale sale, si filmele sale: in toate Ciulei a ars ca o torta, a dat totul: omul acesta a fost intr-adevar un geniu!

In America am vrut sa ajung sa dau de urmele spectacolelor create de Liviu Ciulei. Nu a fost sa fie. Am reusit insa sa dau de urmele unui alt mare om de teatru, regizorul Andrei Serban, care se formase la Teatrul Bulandra, sub ochiul lui Liviu Ciulei.

(Intalniri neasteptate cu Romani)


Monday, October 24, 2011

Alain Resnais

My first encounter with the movies of Alain Resnais was in the first mid of the 1960's. I was in college, studying to become an engineer, and I was often going in the evenings at the Students' Culture House, near the Bucharest Opera. By that time the Culture House was named after one of the important figures of the Communist regime in Romania, Grigore Preoteasa. As it happens, for us, young students eager for places with dance and fun, there was no connection between the name and the personage, rather something like, where are you going tonight? well, I don't know, maybe at Preoteasa, they say it's a French movie and then it's dance.

So it was at Preoteasa that I saw two of Resnais's movies: L'année dernière à Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, each one followed by discussions between us. We were young and naturally we believed that one hour of discussions would clarify everything, what troubled memory meant, and what Nouvelle Vague meant, and how to link Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Malle, Proust, Robe-Grillet and Marguerite Durras. This was culturally pretty intensive, to be honest, the good thing was that after discussions dance followed.

Well, today in the morning I watched a documentary made by Resnais: Nuit et Brouillard, and I had somehow the feeling of closing a loop. My first encounter was in the first mid of the sixties, now I am in the second mid of my sixties. I owe you anyway to comment the two movies that I saw fifty years ago.

(Cinéma Français)


Alain Resnais - Night and Fog (1955)

Alain Resnais's documentary from 1955 (Nuit et Brouillard - Night and Fog) combines footage shot by him while visiting the places of Nazi concentration camps with newsreels and stills of the epoch, shot by Nazis, or by allies when they arrived there to liberate the surviving prisoners. It's an almost inhumane depiction of inhuman horrors, hard to watch, and raising the same questions we continue to raise since then, without finding the answers: how was it possible? how can banality of life and banality of evil be so much alike? And, maybe the most terrible question: if so many banal people were not aware of the evil during those times, are we aware now of the tragedies of our times? I'm quoting here from the movie: those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.

Nuit et brouillard - 1/3
(video by Iclolwut)

Nuit et brouillard - 2/3
(video by Iclolwut)

Nuit et brouillard - 3/3
(video by Iclolwut)

(Alain Resnais)


Ghost Towns

Gold rush (and generally rush for any precious metals) has given birth to towns which soon would have anything a town should have: a hospital with a doctor and a nurse, a casino, a red light district, gunslingers and gamblers, and, of course, one or two churches. But this was in the good old days of golden times. Gold and silver are longtime exhausted, people left in search of better horizons, and what remained is what we can see today: houses where wind is the master and ghosts are his advisers.

Elkhorn is home to Montana’s smallest state park — only one acre — designated to protect Gillian Hall and Fraternity Hall, two of the best-preserved remnants of Elkhorn’s 1880s glory days. Located about 40 miles southeast of Helena, Elkhorn was a silver town, and unlike other boomtowns was populated by couples, including many from Europe. That perhaps explains the prominence of the halls, which were the heart of the social community. Theater, prizefights, a brass band and a glee club all met here, and baseball games, bowling and horse racing were other forms of entertainment.

Silver was king during the 1880s in Calico, which had 500 silver ore mines that paid out $12 million to the miners lucky enough to make their fortune here before it ran out. The town in San Bernardino County has been preserved and restored as a historical landmark and is a fun place to explore around Halloween, when weekends turn the town into a Ghost Haunt festival. Take cemetery tours, attend the dead wedding, carve pumpkins and more. Road trippers take note: This is a great side trip from Route 66 near Barstow.

In its heyday, Bodie put the wild in the Wild West. It began in 1861 as a humble home to about 20 miners. Less than two decades later, an estimated 10,000 people crammed into Bodie, creating a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie cast with prostitutes, gunslingers and gamblers. During the glory days, miners pulled more than $14 million in gold and silver from the Standard Mine, so they had plenty of money to spend on extracurricular activities at the 65 local saloons. Come Sunday morning, however, there were only two churches where they could repent. Bodie today is a state park with about 100 buildings still standing, including the jail, livery and gambling hall.

The tiny town of Scenic made headlines in August when it was sold for $799,000 to a church in the Philippines. The township, named Scenic because of its proximity to Badlands National Park, consists of about 12 acres, some padlocked buildings, the Longhorn Saloon and the post office (still operational). It’s unclear what the church’s plans are for the ghost town.

You couldn’t ask for a prettier setting for a ghost town, and Cripple Creek makes the most of it. This national historic district southwest of Colorado Springs preserves the feel of the days in 1890 when 10,000 or more prospectors flooded to the area mines in search of gold. They found it — by some counts more than $500 million worth was pulled from the region's mines. Pikes Peak or bust! was the rallying cry back then, but today people come here for attractions such as the narrow-gauge railroad, mine tours, gold panning, shows at the restored Butte Theater and the casinos. Events are scheduled throughout the year, such as the spooky Cemetery Tour, scenic aspen tour for fall leaf-peepers and, in winter, an ice-carving festival.

(America viewed by Americans)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cao Fei: i.Mirror

(published in New World Notes)

A movie made by Cao Fei (using her avatar name: China Tracy). I found in New World Notes an enthusiastic presentation, but I also suggest you watch i.Mirror having in mind Deeparture, the movie of Mircea Cantor. Here is a comparison between the two artists (the author is Doryun Chong, from the Minneapolis Walker Art Center):

Cantor’s nearly three-hour Deeparture (2005) is as severely economical in its setup as it is intense in its poetic potential... [Cao’s video], in contrast, is highly cinematic, condensing an entire narrative arc—albeit without spoken words... It is also frenetic and colorful, unlike Cantor’s strict and structuralist piece. If Deeparture is powerful because it is an anti-spectacle, the pleasure of [Ms. Cao's film] derives from its unapologetic spectacle. The two artists indeed come from highly contrasting lineages: while Cantor, a new-generation European conceptualist, looks toward older figures such as Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman, Cao seems to have more affinities with transnational popular culture and new Chinese cinema. With interests that range from labor conditions in Eastern Europe to post-communist ideology in contemporary Chinese mega-capitalism, the two artists similarly exhibit an acute awareness of a world in which rapid transformations and remnants of the past constantly collide and mingle. Cantor’s nonnarrative work is a highly complex architectonic of gazes of desire and apprehension, fear and alienation. These emotions and psychic reactions unexpectedly match those found in Cao’s piece.

i.Mirror - 1/3
(video by ChinaTracy)

i.Mirror - 2/3
(video by ChinaTracy)

i.Mirror - 3/3
(video by ChinaTracy)

(Cao Fei)

Cao Fei

Cao Fei - UN-Cosplayers, 2006
(published in Artkrush by courtesy of Cao Fei's Blog)

Cao Fei (b. 1978 Guangzhou, China, lives in Beijing), a video artist, theatre director, photograph, writer and blogger, has become a notable presence at contemporary art events around the world: New York at MoMA, Paris at Centre Pompidou, Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center, biennials at Singapore, Sydney, Moscow, to name but a few.

The cosplayers that inundate her videos and photographs play a double role: they are the heroes of an alternate universe Cao Fei is proposing to us (the Second Life, to use her definition), while also youngsters from nowadays's China emphasizing that a new generation has come and world is now different.

So, what are cosplayers, anyway? People dressed like manga heroes, and performing that way anywhere but on the stage: it's Performance Art. They are not playing in roles, they are rather emphasizing roles; they are not playing fictional characters, they are simply emulating the appearance of these fictional characters. You will ask me now what manga means? It's the Japanese term for comics, and cosplayers don't emulate only manga characters, but also manhwa personages, and so on.

Well, as I said the cosplayers of Cao Fei play a double role: they invite us to imagine an alternate universe and they tell us that maybe this Second Life has come: Cao Fei's works demonstrate that Performance Art is but another form of Conceptual Art.

I will come back to Cao Fei and her cosplayers soon.

(Contemporary Art)

Labels: ,

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Other 3 Nominees to Prix Marcel Duchamp

There are four nominees at the Prix Marcel Duchamp this year. I've already presented a bit of Mircea Cantor's artworks. Here are the three others.

Guillaume Leblon, Le Grand Bureau, 2010
metal, plastiline, wood, glass, various materials
published by Caitlin Ruttle in Artlog
(courtesy of the artist and Galerie Jocelyn Wolff)

Visitors to a Guillaume Leblon exhibition should be ready to find their way blocked by a white cube that has crashed through the exhibition space (a piece titled Raum). The French-born artist manipulates perceptions of space and creates uncanny sculptures like L’arbre, a ginko tree with black and white leaves resting on wooden trestles. He has described his approach as follows, if you aren’t making art that challenges art, you aren’t making art that challenges you or anyone.

Damien Cabanes, Ceramics, 2006-2008
published by Caitlin Ruttle in Artlog
(courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eric Dupont)

For over twenty years Damien Cabanes has worked in figurative painting, sculpture, and drawing, refining subtle and restrained portrayals of his subjects. The oldest of the nominees, this French artist garnered a following in the early 1990s, and France’s St. Etienne Museum of Modern Art is currently celebrating his work in a retrospective exhibition comprised of 110 drawings, paintings, and sculptures created between 1990 and 2011.

Samuel Rousseau, Montagne d’incertitude, 2008
video projection
published by Caitlin Ruttle in Artlog
(courtesy of the artist and Galerie Guy Bärtschi)

Multimedia artist Samuel Rousseau has the unlikely ability to impart an eerie warmth and humor to digital artwork, often in surprising contexts like pharmaceutical blisterpacks containing tiny walking characters. Many of his pieces insert themselves into domestic settings, like the videos Rousseau has incorporated into shower drains, washing machines, and tapestries. Sometimes approaching the brink of kitsch, Rousseau comments on what Westerners hate to love about their culture. Stained glass fireplaces and animated wallpaper have given way to recent work examining the ironies of city life, currently on display at Parker’s Box in Brooklyn.

(Mircea Cantor)


Mircea Cantor: Tracking Happiness & Vertical Attempt

Mircea Cantor - Tracking Happiness, video, 2009
production still
published by Caitlin Ruttle in Artlog
(courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert)

Mircea Cantor had in 2009 a solo at Kunsthaus Zürich. The centerpiece of the exhibition was Tracking Happiness: seven women in white casually walking barefoot and carefully wiping with their brooms over white sand; each one's trace is removed by the broom of the woman who's following: a modern (or rather post-modern) avatar of Sisyphus's myth? Another film presented at the exhibition was Vertical Attempt: a boy trying to cut the water that is pouring out of the tap. Learning through trial and error?

The exhibition at Kunsthaus presented also other works by Mr. Cantor: following the tradition of Marcel Duchamp he uses Readymade objects to emphasize what he has to say, only his Readymades often come from the Romanian traditional universe and subtly send to that Weltanschauung.

(Mircea Cantor)


Friday, October 21, 2011

Mircea Cantor: Deeparture

Cantor’s nearly three-hour Deeparture (2005) is as severely economical in its setup as it is intense in its poetic potential. It involves two unwitting players, a wolf and a deer, in perhaps the most unlikely and artificial environment in which they can find themselves—a white-cube gallery. The artist shot the animals in 16mm film with a seemingly unforgiving eye, structuring a series of taut close-ups from various angles into a seamlessly looping video. Confounding expectations, the “natural” predator-prey relationship does not play itself out here. Instead, both animals keep their distance from each other and appear in turn tense, confused, exhausted, and dejected, even oblivious. As viewers are gradually roped into emotional engagement with the ultimately unreadable animals, they’re led to wonder if these nonhuman players serve as a blank screen upon which human emotions and psychological attachments are projected.

(Mircea Cantor)


Mircea Cantor

Mircea Cantor - Response, 2009
corn, cut tire, wood
published by Caitlin Ruttle in Artlog
(courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert)

Mircea Cantor (a Romanian artist living in Paris, France and Cluj-Napoca, Romania) employs in his works video, animation, sculpture, drawing, painting and installation. His works elicit the ambiguities of everyday life in this postmodern era of cultural overlap with the disintegration of cultural boundaries (wiki)

His works have been presented at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Minneapolis Walker Art Center, Centre Pompidou, GAMEC (Galleria di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo), Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico, etc.

Mr. Cantor was awarded with the Prix Ricard in 2004, and in 2011 he won the Best Dance Short Film at Tiburon International Film Festival. This year he is a nominee for the Prix Marcel Duchamp.

(Contemporary Art)


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

David Ensign in the Political Theology Blog

David Ensign, the pastor of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia, has a very impressive post in the Political Theology Blog. I am copying it here, as his deep sincerity, his courage to try to answer the hard questions and to go far beyond the easy answers - all these are exemplary. We can agree with him, or disagree on one or other aspects, or even in many aspects, but let me tell you, David is a real priest of Christ.

I spent some time last week with the folks, mostly young folks, who are occupying K Street at the moment. As the old Crosby, Stills and Nash song put it, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Clear or not, there is something happening here, and through it I think the spirit is trying to say something to the church.

Last April, as the Arab Spring was in full flower, I had a fascinating conversation with our eldest, who’s a junior at Mary Washington this year. He was closely following the news – watching Al Jazeera streaming on line because they were covering what U.S. media was largely ignoring. He was also creating a video game to simulate the situation.

I was incredibly amused at the dichotomy: Arab kids in the street, American kid turning the experience into a video game, so I asked him why his cohort, who are shouldering so many of the worst burdens of the Great Recession, weren’t following the lead of the Arab youth and taking to the streets here.

Now I know the answer: they were getting ready.

As of last week, there were Occupy Together Meet Up groups in more than 1,400 cities and towns across the United States. There were roughly 120 active occupations in American cities. There were related demonstrations in Europe, Asia and Africa over the weekend.

While not everyone I met at the K Street occupation was younger than 30, the vast majority are, and that seems to be holding true across the country. Whatever is happening, it’s happening among young people.

More to the point, this widespread social unrest is happening precisely among the generation of Americans who feel abandoned by or failed by all of the major social systems that previous generations of Americans have come to take for granted.

* For more than 30 years – the lifetimes of the young adults we’re talking about – American education has been a failing system. To be sure, not every aspect of it, not every classroom, not every teacher. But the system as a whole, from preschool to graduate school, is broken.
* For those same 30 years, American politics has been broken. Outside of the well-connected, it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who believes their elected leaders hear them or care what they say. If citizens no longer believe in democracy, then it’s broken.
* The failure of our politics is not unrelated to a far bigger systemic failure that young adults, statistically speaking, pay far more attention to than their elders: the failure of the environment, and, in particular, our inability and unwillingness to come to grips with the looming disaster of global climate change.
* As this cohort comes of age, the American economy has been broken as well. The unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds is double the rate for all workers. The average young adult graduates from college with $20,000 in student loan debt, and almost half of them spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. A generation ago, fewer than 20 percent of 25-34 year olds spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

This litany goes on and on, but the bottom line is this: most Americans now believe that the current generation of young adults will be the first in American history to be economically worse off than their parents.

And what is the generation least likely to show up in a church, mosque or synagogue for worship? Whatever is happening, it’s happening precisely among the people whose absence is lamented in American houses of worship.

None of this is particularly new or startling, but it has occurred to me for a while that if young adults are not going to come to church – and, let’s be utterly honest with ourselves, they are not about to – then perhaps church should go to them. And not go to them asking, “why don’t you come to us?” but, rather, go to them and ask, “what’s going on in your life?” “what are you most concerned about?” “what makes your soul sing?” “what breaks your heart?” and, with respect to all of the huge issues that hang like a multi-bladed sword of Damocles over the futures of an entire generation, “what would you like to hear the church say right now?”

So I went down to the demonstration … not to get my fair share of abuse, because, even in my clerical collar, to a person, the young adults with whom I spoke were happy to engage in respectful conversation with a representative of the church even as many of them offered sharply worded harsh criticism of the church. Indeed, they have sharp criticisms. Not surprising or novel criticisms, to be sure, but sharp ones.

Megan, a young woman from Richmond, a military vet, decried the church’s hypocrisy about sex, and especially the way the church has condemned gays and lesbians. Megan’s friend, Mary, nodded in agreement, and wondered why the church condemned people of other faiths. Will, a young man who grew up Lutheran in suburban Maryland, said that it is hard to take seriously an institution that takes its ancient scriptures literally, especially when it comes to questions that are answered definitively by science. He said, “you’d be better off if you stuck to the parts of the Bible that are written in the red letters.” Ah, yes, the red letters, the parts that are attributed to Jesus. The things like, “blessed are the poor,” or “love your enemies,” or “I came that you might have life.”

The folks I spoke with at the occupation certainly do not want to hear anybody tell them, “believe the orthodox creeds about Jesus or you’re going to hell.” That makes no sense to them whatsoever. But they do find Jesus to be a powerful and attractive figure. The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount makes sense to them. If the church reflected that Jesus, then they might find something attractive in it, as well. Of course, that Jesus is the one whose own religious leaders sought to trap and, eventually, to have executed. That Jesus did not spend much time huddled behind stained glass windows. That Jesus did not surround himself with only the most respectable types. That Jesus did not care overly much for institutionalized religion. That Jesus was constantly on the move, and he was clearly much more interested in building a movement than in cultivating an institution. That Jesus was in the streets. That Jesus was occupying Israel. And from that midst of that occupied zone he offered up the most creative readings of his own ancient texts.

He went up on a mountainside – outside, occupying open space – and he said, at least the way my southern ears hear it, “y’all have heard the religious authorities teach you about what these ancient texts mean, but from where I stand – here, amidst people struggling in an unjust economic system with failing religious institutions – from where I stand those texts say something different. You have heard, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but from where I stand that just leaves the whole world blind. So I say, ‘do not return evil for evil. Pray for those who persecute you.’ That’ll confuse the hell out of them!”

Jesus offered up what I’ll call “occupied exegesis.” That is to say, he did his reading of sacred scripture not in the confines of the temple but out in the street where the theological rubber hits the road of life. That’s where he found himself confronted by the thorny question of taxes. Funny thing about that question: it turns out controversies over taxes are nothing new under the sun, and under the autumn sun shining down on the occupied zones in my part of the world this weekend you could find a lot of folks complaining about taxes – about who pays and who doesn’t, about who owes what to whom. When the powers that be confronted Jesus on the question of taxes he knew that if he said, “yes, pay them,” he would be capitulating to Rome whose taxes were a constant reminder of the hated occupation. On the other hand, if he said, “no, don’t pay them,” he would be executed immediately as a revolutionary insurgent.

Jesus’ response to the question about taxes – “render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar’s and to God the things that belong to God” – satisfied neither side, and it is not going to solve the problems that are at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, either. Nevertheless, his words are particularly instructive for the church if we want to have anything at all to say to the present moment.

Writing in Sojourners years ago, Jim Wallis said of this passage, “Jesus didn’t give a clear and direct answer to the specific question being asked. Rather, he put it in a larger framework of worship, idolatry, and ultimate loyalty. The issue at stake here is: what do we owe to whom?” (Jim Wallis, Sojourners, May, 1983). In a way, I think that the occupation of our cities is doing the same thing. If there’s one thing I heard over and over again from McPherson Square, it was a deep desire to move beyond the political logjam of Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, and the related accusation against the church for being too politically aligned with the Republican Party in particular. While that accusation is clearly not accurate for churches such as the one I serve, it’s abundantly clear that the loudest part of American Christianity for the past 30 years has been the conservative segment.

In pushing beyond that either/or, I believe the occupation is pressing us all to ask one basic question: “what do we owe to whom?” Critics have been complaining that there’s no clear agenda to the occupation, no set of demands, that nobody really knows what these folks want. I think what they want is for all of us to sort out what belongs to whom, and to figure out together how we return it. As it turns out, according to Walter Brueggemann, that is the Biblical definition of justice. Justice amounts to sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it to them. The church has history and insight with this question, and now the youth of our time are insisting that this question be front and center in our national conversation. Could this be, against all odds, our time?

(Church in America)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ann Hu: Shadow Magic

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic
image from the movie
(published by Elisabeth Wright in Senses of Cinema)

Beijing, 1902. An Englishman comes to the city, with some weird boxes and a pile of film reels: copies of the first motion pictures produced ever, Lumière, Edison, all that stuff. His aim is to create the first movie theater in China. People regard him with a mix of feelings, from indifference or mistrust to extreme caution or overt hostility. His Shadow Magic is just too much of an oddity, to say nothing that the Englishman himself is just too much of an oddity, with his European allure, with his funny way to pronounce the very few Chinese words he knows, with everything. And just a couple of years earlier European armies invaded the country and imposed an onerous peace treaty, so to say that any European is unwelcome here would be far from an exaggeration.

A young Chinese photographer befriends the Englishman. Liu, that's the name of the Chinese, is an enthusiast, very open to the world, he has learned by himself some rudimentary English and has the passion to understand (and if possibly to replicate) the inners of any new gadget that comes from the West. No wonder the two become partners and the Shadow Magic starts to attract audience. Very soon the young Chinese learns all secrets and the two even begin to film on the streets, recording scenes of everyday life, and then making a trip to the Great Wall.

Not all this runs smoothly: the young Chinese is torn between his attachment for the Shadow Magic and his loyalty towards people who reject the new distraction, for fear that it will work against their traditional ways. To make things more complicated, Liu is in love for the beautiful daughter of the much respected star of the Chinese opera. Will not success of cinema ruin Chinese opera?

And a lot of things happen, some of them just funny, some others dramatic; in the end the Englishman is forced to leave the country, but his Shadow Magic remains, and the history of Chinese cinema begins to unfold. While the English hero of Shadow Magic might very well be just a fictional personage, the other characters are as real as hell: the real pioneers of Chinese film industry.

So Liu, the photographer, was actually a real person (Liu Zhong-Lun), like his master Ren (Ren Jing-Feng), the owner of Feng Tai Photographic Studio, like the Chinese Opera star, Tan (Tan Xin-Pei): the three made in 1905 the first Chinese movie, Ding Jung-Shan, having Master Ren as director, the young Liu as cinematographer, and Tan, the famous opera lord, as star. Unfortunately the only print of this first Chinese movie was lost, by the end of the 1940's. A second movie followed in the same year 1905 (Long Hard Slope, with the same cast and crew). Several movies were produced there till 1909, when Feng Tai Photo Studio was destroyed by a fire. By that time another cinematographic center was emerging: Shanghai.

And Shadow Magic ends with images reenacted from these first Chinese motion pictures.

image from Ding Jung-Shan, the first Chinese movie
(reenactment in 西洋镜 - Shadow Magic)

(published Elisabeth Wright in Senses of Cinema)


西洋镜 - Shadow Magic, the first long feature film of Ann Hu (made in 2000, she was director, screenwriter and producer) is a very ambitious endeavor, working on multiple plans.

On one plan it is a tribute to the pioneers of Chinese movie industry. It was the way this tribute was conceived that made some reviewers to declare Shadow Magic a light movie, unpretentious, not to be ranged within the masterworks of today's China film.

Well, like any tribute of this kind, it is a warm story, the fathers of Chinese cinema are followed with genuine sympathy: like any pioneers in any domain they simply were not aware of their future role in history; the fathers didn't know that some day they would be THE fathers. They were seeing themselves just as common guys and were behaving as such, sometimes with mistakes, sometimes with naivety, sometimes like fools, sometimes in love, sometimes bad tempered.

Master Ren and Liu examining a phonograph (that Liu has found in the junk)

It is also another criticism brought to Shadow Magic: that it suffers from lack of originality, copying themes and moods from Cinema Paradiso.

It is true that the wheel cannot be reinvented each time one makes a movie about the beginnings of cinema. However I would note that Cinema Paradiso is built differently, on a play of memory and nostalgia, while in Shadow Magic there is no place for nostalgia: it is not about a vanished world of movie theaters; by the contrary, it shows the beginnings of what is today one of the most important schools of cinema worldwide.

Shadow Magic called in my mind rather another film, Diarios de Motocicleta, where the main character, a sympathetic medical student nicknamed Che is also totally unaware that one day he will become a famous (or infamous, matter of perspective) revolutionary leader.

There is also another plan (that was also in Ann Hu's previous Dream and Memory): the Englishman comes with his projector and suddenly East meets West in 1902's Beijing. This contact seems to be of great interest for director Ann Hu. What happens when the two universes come into contact? What happens there on the border? Do they explode, do they remain separate looking at each other across the trenches, or is a new universe emerging on the surface of contact?

In Dream and Memory the border is in the mind of Hong, the Chinese who (like director Ann Hu) moved long time ago to the US. For him one universe looks like a dream, unclear and remote, while the present universe needs the mechanisms of memory to reenact the lost dream. It's East coming to the West, and West trying to recuperate East: China is far away and long ago, America is here and now, China needs to be appropriated.

Here in Shadow Magic it is West that comes to the the East. England is far away, China is here and now. And the border is in the heart of Liu, the Chinese passionate to go beyond the limits of his known world, while torn out by the force of his loyalties. It's a pop-out and a push-back bringing the border now and then on the brink of explosion, while little by little a coalescing universe begins to take shape. Maybe this was also the case in the Big Bang model? Just kidding.

Shadow Magic is also a tribute paid to the charm of old Beijing, with its incredible mix of people and carts and camels on the streets, that incredible mix of present with its seemingly chaotic agitation and past with its quiet force; all these found in Ann Hu an exquisite artist painter. Here all reviewers are unanimous in recognizing her talent in rending the images, her sensibility for each nuance of color, for each detail of the street. Her mastership of the visual language is amazing, and also her science of controlling the movement of each actor on the scene. The movie has the synchronization of a ballet, any movement comes in its exact place, no earlier, no later, no slower, no faster, no shorter, no longer.

And I think nowhere in the movie it's the cinematic genius of Ann Hu as overwhelming as in the scenes at the Great Wall. When it came there I was afraid I would see kind of a tourist commercial (the risk any moviemaker is running when shooting in a famous place). Well, it was far from that. The Great Wall was playing together with the two actors, the Englishman and the young Chinese, witnessing their enthusiasm to be there, their feeling that they got the best life could give, because being there! It was the way the Great Wall was shot that made it an active part of the action! I saw only one other movie that gave me the same impression, Springtime in a Small Town of Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, cinematographed by Li Ping-Bin (a remake after another Chinese masterpiece). It was there, in the movie of Tian that I had this feeling, that the setting was an active actor in the drama!


I learned about this movie on the web, while looking for information about anthropologist Nancy Jervis, one of the important scholars interested in the rapport between culture and civilization.

Dr. Nancy Jervis was invited in the spring of 2001 to present Shadow Magic in an event organized in New York, dedicated to a battery of movies considered by the critics as coming attractions. Dr. Jervis was there in her capacity of Vice President and Director of Programs at China Institute in NY. She had lived and worked in China for three years (1979-1982) and part of that time she had been with China Film Corporation in Beijing. Earlier in the 1970’s she had worked with Joris Ivens on the English version of his Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains),

As I found this information about Dr. Nancy Jervis presenting Shadow Magic, I became immediately interested in the movie and I started to search the web to find as much as possible about it. Meanwhile I learned also about director Ann Hu and her other films.

Little by little I read on the web a lot of material about Shadow Magic. I knew now the plot in all details, without seeing anything from it. I was feeling sad that no fragment from the film was available. It was like I had the movie constructed in my head, only it was my movie, not the real one.

After long searches I started to find little pieces from Shadow Magic, firstly the trailer, then a couple of fragments.

Eventually I found the entire movie in 12 consecutive youTube videos: spoken in Mandarin and English, with no subtitles. It was a real treat, I watched it in amazement. It is rare to find a movie to keep high your interest for all its moments.

Then I started to write this post, and as I was coming each day with some corrections, with adding new details, I experienced the same feeling of joy that I had on reading about Shadow Magic, in imagining it, in discovering fragments from it and in watching the whole movie.

And here you have the 12 consecutive videos that compose Shadow Magic.

Though having no subtitles, it can be easily understood after reading somewhere the plot. There is a very good synopsis in Wikipedia at:

Also, to make your hand, so to speak, before watching the whole movie without subtitles, you should see a scene that has the translation in English:

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 1/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 2/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 3/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 4/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 5/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 6/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 7/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 8/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 9/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 10/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 11/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 12/12
(video by slzNO1)

(Ann Hu)

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