“My Reincarnation” (documentary)

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This one took me by surprise. It’s a film documenting the relationship between the Dzogchen teacher Namkhai Norbu and his son, now known as Khyentse Yeshe (Dzogchen is a term indicating the pinnacle and most direct path within the ancient Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.) Filmed over the course of 20 years by Jennifer Fox, it surely must represent the most intimate visual portrait of a Tibetan lama to date. At times watching it, in fact, it’s hard to fathom how a family would put up with that degree of intrusion for so long: we see them at the dinner table, preparing for teaching events, and discussing all kinds of personal matters. It caused me to remember a comment in one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, to the effect that a bodhisattva has no room for privacy in their life at all, is completely open to the demands of the world.

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Namkhai Norbu, like a number of eminent teachers but unlike so terribly many more, managed to escape over the mountains from Tibet in 1959, during the Chinese invasion. He ended up in Italy, where he still lives, and married an Italian woman. At the beginning of the film his son Yeshi – as he was then called – is about 17, deeply respectful of his father but not all that connected to the practice of buddhism. We hear him lament the relationship he has with his father, which lacks the kind of ordinary, Italian familial warmth he wishes for.

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But that relationship contains an added wrinkle, because Yeshi, when still in his mother’s womb, was “recognized” as a tulku, the rebirth of a lama – in this case Namkhai Norbu’s own uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche (not the most famous such with this name, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, but a lama who died in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese). Without pressuring his son either to take up his vocation or even to practice, he nonetheless has made it clear how important a responsibility he feels is on Yeshi’s shoulders. And many others around him, too, have high expectations and await the time when he will begin to manifest as a teacher. Yeshi himself remembers many dreams he had at a young age of particular places in Tibet he had of course never seen. However, he chooses a job in the business world, marries, and begins raising a family.

The film moves leisurely through the years, giving us glimpses of Namkhai Norbu teaching and relating to his students.

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We see him, very ill, in a hospital bed, and then well again and out in the world (having decided, he says, that he needed to stay alive and continue teaching). And we also see – a highlight of the film – wonderful and equally up-close footage of the Dalai Lama during a visit to Italy (in the stills below Yeshi at about 17 is in the foreground).

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At a certain point I realized the film had crept up on me in a remarkable way. Yeshi begins involving himself more and more in Dzogchen practice and helping his father during teachings and empowerments. And then one day, without particular fanfare, he decides finally to visit Tibet, where he has been awaited by students of the previous Khyentse Rinpoche for over 40 years…

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Those for whom the entire tulku system is alien and maybe even suspect might not know what to make of this portion of the film. I place myself somewhat in the middle between such a group and those who have strong faith in that system – though probably a little closer to the former – yet I found these scenes very moving.

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The film ends with Yeshi beginning to teach as a lama himself – in a casual, 21st-century-style. He comes across as very genuine and open throughout the film, and in a scene between him and his father at the end there is a greater ease between them that is lovely to see. Here, Namkhai Norbu is playing the flute and joking that it would have been “much easier” if he’d chosen to be a musician instead of a teacher…

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In fact, I liked this so much I ended up watching it again a couple of days later… All in all, quite a beautiful look into the life of a beloved Tibetan lama, the pressures and difficulties of being a son of whom very much is expected, and the journey which the latter takes to come fully into his own.

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adieu Waterfront Video…

I haven’t been attached to a great many stores in my life but have been realizing over the past couple of weeks how much I will be missing Waterfront Video, which closed its doors on April 30 after nearly 17 years in business – I’d been a customer for the past six of those. (I unthinkingly began to link to their website just now, then remembered that of course it wouldn’t still be up, except that it turns out it is – which is even sadder…)

Waterfront made it far longer than most video stores in the country, in part due to the willingness of its owner to keep it going no matter what, and in part because it was quite special. It had a stock of something like 30,000 videos, a great many of which will never find their way into Netflix: all kinds of foreign, older, obscure, quirky titles that were always a pleasure to browse through no matter how many hundreds of times I’d been in the store. And the staff were the best – always cheerful, always happy to talk about movies.

Its loss has reminded me yet again of how relentless is the internet’s whittling away of physical, ie real, community. Since I happen to live alone, some nights a visit down there served an added function of connecting with the world in a small way, having a chat with the folks behind the counter, seeing what was new.

Netflix just ain’t the same, at all… They do their best and my queues aren’t going to run low anytime soon, but again, there will never be anything close to the selection of less popular films available there, with the streaming catalog being of course even more limited. One of the best things about Waterfront was that if at 9:00 you suddenly remembered a movie you really wanted to see, you could go down there and more often than not pick it up, having it back home ten minutes later. And with their 4-for-3, five-day-rental deal, you could bring back a varied selection in case your first impulse didn’t grab you. But in that situation now, if Netflix hasn’t got it on streaming – and the chances aren’t very good that it will – you’re out of luck. So even at the level of convenience, which is what online commerce is supposed to be all about, it’s a serious loss.

Who knows, maybe one day specialist providers might appear and over time build up eclectic collections of film that might come (somewhat) close to matching Waterfront Video. But even so they can never replace the experience of being in a real-live space, surrounded by real-live people, being able to browse through real-live video covers. My very last batch of four included films by Kieslowski, Jarmusch, Howard Hawks, and Ozu – none of which, and in fact probably none or almost none of whose films at all – are available on Netflix streaming. Sure, having to pay late fees sucked, but mainly because I was just too disorganized to get things back in time…

I was also really saddened to read in the Seven Days article of the loss of George Holoch, who’d worked at Waterfront almost from the beginning. He was an award-winning translator of French, with numerous books to his credit, and a nice man to chat with when I happened to be in there during the day, which was rare. My memory is of him reading The New York Review of Books with a late Beethoven Quartet playing over the speakers.

So another loss to “progress.” It’s going to take probably a few months before the thought stops popping into my head at 9 or 10 at night: hmm, maybe I should pick up Wings of Desire, just in case I feel like putting it on later, or see what’s just come in… Adieu Waterfront.

Mark Cousins interview at Watershed

And speaking of The Story of Film, there’s an interview with Mark Cousins here about the series at the Watershed in Bristol (a place I used to live down the road from). Cousins’s passion for the cinema really comes across.

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One nice moment:

I’m really interested in this idea of how you build an appetite for something. When I was writing the book of The Story of Film, I was desperate to see this Ethiopian film – Harvest: 3,000 Years. It took me about two months, and $170, to get my hands on this. And now it’s literally a click away. So I think the longing for cinema, the desire for cinema – you know it’s similar to eros in some way – people don’t need to long for it in the way that they did previously, so there’s not that difficulty anymore….

I first heard about Citizen Kane nine years before I could get to see it, so that was nine years of expectation and imagination. And boy does that add something. There’s a kind of suspense in that, you know. So that’s gone. But something else has replaced it, which is a kind of ultra-availability, and that has its own pleasures and its rewards. And you can sort of binge in a way that you couldn’t previously.

So I think just the culture has changed, and what the role – I don’t need to tell you this, because Watershed is such a beacon for this kind of thing – but the role of Watershed and places like this is to put on Carl Theodor Dreyer films at lunchtime, which you’ve done – beautiful idea – and say to people: look at this splendid thing. And the fact that Adrian can do a score for one of the greatest films ever made, The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a way of saying to people, within all that blurry, overwhelming, smorgasbord plenitude of what’s out there: look at this thing, look how splendid it is.

That’s why we’ve got Lars von Trier in here saying: Dreyer is the greatest. Trier says Dreyer’s films are like a good soup when you boil them down and down to their essence, which is a lovely way of putting it.

And I think I’m quite an optimist about people and audiences. People want enriching experiences and they want connective tissue. And they want to go away from a lunchtime screening, having felt: wow, I saw something – that lovely phrase that Fenner Brockway, the politician, said: see the flame and go towards it. That’s what people want, you know. But there’s lots of stuff and noise in the way, cultural noise.

Mark Cousins – The Story of Film

It’s a 15-part, 15-hour documentary on the entire history of film, and very enjoyable.

Easy to take apart this kind of project. Are Cousins’s choices idiosyncratic in places? Of course – but how could they not be? Is any individual person going to agree with each of his sentences that begins “this is the greatest x, y, or z in the history of film”? Obviously not. Will some people find him insufficiently theoretical, or whatever else? No doubt.

“The story of film” is going to be a subjective one no matter who is telling it, and Cousins doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. What you find in this series is a very nicely organized narrative touching upon (necessarily briefly) an enormous range of highlights in the history of cinema. Each episode averages 35 or 40 or so clips (a list can be found here), and on the whole they are beautifully chosen. Cousins also often juxtaposes two scenes from quite different times and places as visual echoes – sometimes explicit inspirations for the director under discussion, sometimes not.

One of the crucial choices for the series – and the book which preceded it – was to re-orientate our usual focus upon Hollywood and American film more generally. Instead, Cousins spends greater time than is the norm on other continents – with East Asian, Latin American, African, Iranian film. So I am guessing the series will provide at least a few discoveries for all but the more widely-travelled filmgoer.

(from Wikipedia)
Episode 1. Introduction; 1895-1918: The World Discovers a New Artform; Thrill Becomes Story
Episode 2. 1918-1928: The Triumph of American Film…; …And the First of Its Rebels
Episode 3. 1918-1935: The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World
Episode 4. The 1930s: The Great American Movie Genres…; …And the Brilliance of European Film
Episode 5. 1939-1952: The Devastation of War…and a New Movie Language
Episode 6. 1953-1957: The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams
Episode 7. 1957-1964: The Shock of the New – Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe
Episode 8. 1965-1969: New Waves Sweep Around the World
Episode 9. 1967-1979: New American Cinema
Episode 10. 1969-1979: Radical Directors in the 70s Make State of the Nation Movies
Episode 11. 1970s and Onwards: Innovation in Popular Culture Around the World
Episode 12. The 1980s: Moviemaking and Protest Around the World
Episode 13. 1990-1998: The Last Days of Celluloid Before the Coming of Digital
Episode 14. The 1990s: The First Days of Digital – Reality Losing Its Realness in America and Australia
Episode 15. 2000 Onwards: Film Moves Full Circle – and the Future of Movies; Epilogue: The Year 2046

I’ve only just begun watching it and will probably say more over time. Am skipping around for some reason – have so far seen episodes 1, 3, 8, 10, and 13.

how to begin a movie…

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Yup, that works.

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I remember the first time I saw this film and how that introductory scene sucked me in instantly. The first faint, ominous sound of the distant helicopter, perennially presaging slaughter, as we will soon realize. (My first synth, an old Roland D-50, contained just that sound and called it, yes, “Apocalypse Now.”) Willard’s mind, lost, roaming feverishly in the jungle. Morrison’s pitiless voice, singing goodbye to his beautiful friend.

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I love films that promise an open-ended journey of some kind, where the world keeps expanding along the way, becoming ever stranger and more intricate. Vast, and then vaster. That’s partly why I prefer the first of the Lord of the Rings films, before the battles really take over. That sense of warm, comfortable, self-contained Hobbiton slowly opening out into the farther reaches of the Shire. Those first disturbing brushes with the ring-wraiths, and then … Bree, the world of Men.

And then … the big country – approach of mountains, realm of elven sacred space, dwarf-land deep in the earth, wilder and more unpredictable terrain, and finally … we reach the Great River, bordering, essentially, the end of the world. The final chilling scene of Frodo and Sam on the mountain, gazing out at that end, that terrifying unknown, and knowing it is their destination to enter its very heart.

After a bunch of weeks with no time for movies, I’ve been able to fit some in recently, and oddly even this one has a scene echoing that experience, although on a far smaller scale of course.

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The previous time I’d seen The Night of the Hunter I’d been distracted by some of the melodramatic aspects and the at times cheesy 1950s-style acting. This time though I was able to let enough of that go to focus on the film’s mythological quality.

I don’t mean “good vs. evil” so much, or even “the story of love and hate” (told by the utterly deranged and murderous “preacher,” played by Robert Mitchum, with the help of his knuckles). Rather, I think the movie is trying, in part anyway, to evoke the experience of “innocence” somehow, reaching towards some sense of it. It’s the lengthy river scene that most points in this direction. There is no dialogue – just the famous expressionist cinematography carrying the two children … where? They have no idea, no destination. They have suddenly entered a strange, enormous, uninhabited world of earth and sky and stars, with no map and no plan. They only know that forward is the only way to go.

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Rivers so often function this way in stories, as the borderland between safety and danger, known and unknown. The depths of the jungle where Kurtz rules, too, is another world — no ordinary civilization holds sway there. And the eerie, mirage-like river journey that takes us there has a spiritual quality. An old track from the Aloof samples it (and the great lama Trungpa Rinpoche said much the same thing): “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.”

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Sartre on anti-Semitism

Have been reading Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. Quite brilliant, with a number of very insightful passages. Still digesting it, but appreciating having to think through the dimension of class that he brings in.

Another interesting contribution is the film The Believer, which really … packs a punch. The (Jewish) filmmakers held nothing back in trying to reach the deepest level of pathology that is going on, and a lot of viewers were offended by this. But I think it’s a necessary thing to try and do. One scene stands out for me in this regard: Ryan Gosling (who is amazing in this) in a café with the New York Times reporter, laying out his philosophy. (His character is based upon a real person, a Jewish anti-Semite who became something of a terrorist.) Where Sartre focuses (at least so far, I’m only halfway through) on psychological processes of resentment and scapegoating, that scene takes the film perhaps even deeper, into “blood” and the body and sexuality–the Jew as culturally “effeminizing” force par excellence.

I find contemporary anti-Semitism quite terrifying in its paranoia and hysteria. “Anti-Semitism” isn’t actually a good word for it both because, of course, the Arab people are also Semitic, and because “anti” is far too mild a term to describe the literally deranged rantings one comes across online too often. I don’t know of any phenomenon quite like it. All the more reason that we descend as far as we can, and dare, to try and understand the swamps of confusion and fear out of which it arises.

Tirez sur le pianiste

Rewatched it recently and it was like seeing it for the first time. So fresh. They must’ve had some fun back then making movies, the nouvelle vague folk. It shines out of so many scenes in Shoot the Piano Player, a playful, open-ended, we-can-do-anything quality. This one had a lot of improvisation in it, apparently. They didn’t even know what the ending would be until it was time to shoot it.

One of my favorite scenes is near the very beginning. Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), the eponymous piano player, has a brother, Chico, who is being chased by two men (we have no idea why yet). Chico runs into the bar where Charlie plays, to hide. They have a brief exchange but it is time for Charlie to start a new set. Suddenly we are thrown into a hilarious tune (suggestive and somewhat surreal) sung and I think written also by Boby Lapointe (who by that point was fairly well-known in France). The three musicians have fixed and completely contrasting facial expressions throughout the entire sequence–Charlie in hang-dog (Charlie’s in hang-dog the entire film…), Boby Lapointe intense, super-serious, bouncing from foot to foot, and the drummer grinning from ear to ear. For part of the scene you get the faces together in triptych. Brilliant.

I believe the budget for this movie was virtually nothing, but that meant Truffaut and Co. could do whatever they wanted, and it also meant location shooting on the streets in Paris, trusting in intuition, spontaneity. There is farce followed by real pathos and back to farce again, fun from the opening chase scene to that final, unforgettable shot of … (don’t want to give anything away) … rolling down the snow-covered slope.

And then there’s the single most famous image (and justly so). But I won’t try to explain it–you’ll just have to see the movie…