Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Wall

The wall is a hill
without its sloping sides.
It shields the view beyond it.
To see what’s there,
you have to climb up to the top.

All Squared Out: MoMA Garden

Round and Round: Columbus Circle

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mistérios de Lisboa

Sprawling and convoluted it is, the 4-1/2 hour film by Raul/Raoul Ruiz Mistérios de Lisboa [Mysteries of Lisbon], 2010, just as the 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Bronco on which it is based is said to be. The film is, however, incessantly engaging. It starts as a story of an orphan Joao, which as it unravels leads to another and then to another but ever returning to Joao. It left some viewers mystified, or else confused, and struck them as infinitely boring; but it received accolades from critics and film buffs.

What has not been sufficiently emphasized in the published reviews is its visual magnificence. By this I don’t mean the beauty of the shots per se; they are certainly exquisite, each and every shot, in framing, mise-en-scene, point of view, and palette and lighting. By visual magnificence, I mean that this is a film that is thoroughly a visual narrative, as distinguished from an illustrated narrative that most narrative films are, where filmed images provide visual details as fillers to the story. Viewers accustomed to the latter get impatient with films without a narrative closure; they say, “Nothing happens” or “It just goes on and on,” because they see films as stories enacted by recognizable actors they like impersonating the characters in a suitable set and decor, They are illustrated story books, even if technologically sophisticated.

Ruiz insistently tells the story with filmed images. They are beautiful but also strictly functional, each made to describe the narrative incident it concerns together with the emotion experienced by the characters enacting that incident, and one incident leads to the next fluidly with the Orphulsian roving camera punctuated musically with static shots. Ruiz is a filmmaker with a naturally judicious cinematic eye, and his carefully chosen compositions never feel contrived because they are perfect correlatives to the segments of the story they embody. The film unfolds with the height of interest in the splendor of its present moment, sequence after overlapping sequence, one mystery opening to another mystery linked to it, continuously intriguing; this goes against the conventional film narrative where the interest is unambiguously directed toward its anticipated conclusion, but it is the draw of the present that makes it tirelessly fascinating -- an aesthetic close to that of the 19th century novel in general as, say, opposed to the short story. If Proust made a film, instead of writing a novel, he would have been Raoul Ruiz. In fact, he filmed Le temps retrouvé [Time Regained], 1999. Before his recent death on 19 August, he made some 150 films but only a few have been shown here. I know only L’hypothèse du tableau volé [The hypothesis of the Stolen Painting], 1979, and a short film Colloque de chiens, 1977.

Life in its richness has no closure; our own life, even if it may seem uneventful, is an elaborate network of events and associations, trivial perhaps in themselves with no notable drama but amazingly rich, too complex to be told but remarkable as an ensemble -- a jumble lacking in coherence but spectacular as an experience. For, always, telling inexorably simplifies, When an experience is reported verbally, one has to edit it, trim down the digressions, leave out culs-de-sac, eliminate details even if interesting, and make the long story short and keep the listener on the track; a narrative is never complete as a surrogate experience. Mistérios is experientially realistic; the fact that the actors are unknown to most of us, without the actor’s persona to obstruct our entry into the world of fiction, adds to this sense of realism.

Mistérios is currently on view in New York, and I spent last Friday afternoon from 1:00 to 6:00, with one break. I suggest it should be screened ideally without a break. Most films are like a routine dinner out; we place an order, the dinner is served, we eat, finish, pay, and walk out. The meal might be good, good enough, more often just passable, and I don’t expect more. Now, consider a leisurely dinner at a topnotch restaurant with your best friends -- exquisite wine, superb cuisine, fascinating conversation, elegant ambience, and perfect service -- a dinner that takes the whole evening. One would not dare interrupt it with a break. I would want such an evening to go on and on and on.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

High Line, NYC, July 2011

Old wall New windows

High Line beyond 18th St. by Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Iván Fischer's Don Giovanni

Less is more is apparently Iván Fischer’s creed and he demonstrated it admirably in his Don Giovanni (Prague version, 1787), in a staged concert as a part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, for which he directed the singers and conducted the orchestra. The production had the singers lightly costumed in street clothes with no sets and props but with sixteen young actors, recruited from the Budapest Acting Academy, all sprayed ashen gray from the top of the head to the tip of the limbs to look like statues who arranged themselves on the stage singly and in groups. Through the opera they rearranged themselves to suit the production needs, serving as a set (for example the window where Elvira appears), a prop (for example the banquet table to which the Commendatore is invited, and as the chorus (for example, in the ballroom scene where some members of the orchestra appear on stage as musicians). Without sets and props, the orchestra and the singers were duly foregrounded to good effect, Don Giovanni, discovered by the Commendatore, instead of injuring him in a duel, pushes a statue group over him; and the “living” statues close in on Don Giovanni at the finale and devour him with much more horrific effect than the the hell fire. Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the cast of fine singers somewhat with more brawn than grace and this made Don Giovanni more a villain than a playboy and his accusers more ferocious, all for a more vigorous drama. Fischer teaches us that so much can be accomplished with a fraction of the cost of the spectacular full productions, so dear to the Met and yet too often so self-defeating however grand they may be.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

To die in sleep

To die in sleep is a bliss. It’s the most peaceful way of taking a leave of this world. That is how Mother passed away in her 80s; after a warm bath, she sat up and watched television for a while and went to bed, and my sister found her dead the next morning. She died peacefully in all likelihood of cardiac failure. But on reflection, it occurred to me that for anyone living alone, dying in sleep could mean, given that the dead cannot speak, that the body, after expiring, may lie undiscovered for days, even weeks, well after rigor mortis, until maggots start crawling out of it. For a single person, getting injured or sick first so that she or he is taken to the hospital and die there, is surely a much preferred choice.

死ぬなら寝ている間が幸い。これが、何よりも穏やかにこの世を去る道ですね。 母は八十何才で、こうして亡くなりました。お風呂に入って、暫くテレビを見て床に入り、そして眠りにつき、翌朝既に死んでいたのを姉が見つけました。多分心不全で安らかに息を引き取ったのでしょう。でも、考えて見ると、独り住まいのひとの場合には、睡眠中に死ぬと、死人に口なしで、死後何日も、或は何週間も、放置されたまま発見されず、そのうちに死体は硬直状態を過ぎて、蛆が走り廻る事になるでしょう。独りでしたら、まず負傷するか病気になって、病院に運ばれて、そこで死ぬのが選択としてはずっと好ましいですね。

Friday, August 5, 2011

Alÿs's sheep

I love Alÿs’s sheep, Francis Alÿs’ sheep in his video work entitled Cuentos patrióticos (Patriotic Tales), 1997, recently shown at MoMA in the retrospective exhibition A Story of Deception. The video is 24:40 minutes, and I can watch it over and over like a child insisting on having read the same favorite story every night at bedtime.

Strictly speaking, I should say I love Alÿs’s video which features a flock of 25 sheep going around a pole. The pole is the flagpole in the center of the Zòcalo in Mexico City, well known to Mexicans as the site of political protests where once, in 1968, a group of civil servants were herded there and, to suppress a demonstration, bleated like sheep with their backs against the tribune. But without the implied political iconography, the video is remarkable in itself.

The video starts with Alÿs himself leading one sheep on a tether and going around the pole. When he completes the circle a second sheep comes in and joins the first, then the third and so on, one after another, at the completion of each round until the flock of 25 sheep completes the circle. Alÿs then removes the tether and now follows the last sheep, and the head sheep leaves the circle after another round and then others follow suit one by one, after each round, until one is left and then none.

It’s utterly simple, almost silly. We are reminded of children’s counting rhymes and a game of rounds, or a dance in a circle, like “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” for example, but no narrative event. What makes it mesmerizing, despite its simplicity, is the infinite variety embodied in the repetitive action because sheep are sheep. They don’t march in a military discipline; they don’t count. As we watch intently we begin to notice a lot, however. We note not only that every sheep is different in shape and size and movement but also in their gait and pace. Some stride on, others dawdle; and the slowpokes quicken their steps now and then to catch up. In trying to catch up, some trot, others make skipping steps. Some keep the circle, others starts to wander off but, as if realizing the error, hop back to the circle. Since the pace varies, so the head bobs up and down differently, too, and the distance between one sheep and the next changes constantly. Moreover, the sunlight illuminates the sheep differently depending on their position on the circle. With each round, the number of the sheep is one more or one less. So, the repetition is illusory, or rather, only nominal. There is no regularity in the pattern of form, movement, or pacing; moreover, each change follows no rules and is unpredictable. The design embodies the variety that one sees in the group of uniformed nursery children on excursion; they stay in line more or less -- more less than more. The complexity is made visible by virtue of the simplicity of the circular line-up; but it is visible only if one sits through the entire routine; a casual glance eludes it.

Subtle diversity in the seemingly uniform was what Andy Warhole explored in his multiples representing products we expect to be perfectly repetitive in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as we find in his Coca Cola bottles and Campbell soup cans. They also demand us to inspect carefully from one panel to another.

While watching the video, the thought that came to my mind was, “oh, it’s such fun to watch and watch.” We are reminded of the repetitive routine from day to day, which are essentially the same and yet never really the same, unless we blindly succumb to the illusion of sameness. Conversely, day-to-day events, though diversified, are subsumed in the earth’s rotation as night follows day and night day. Similarly the cycle of the seasons from year to year is never repetitive. Spring is spring but no two springs are the same; yet years repeat from one to the next. You cannot step twice into the same stream,” as Heraclitus taught. This is the aesthetic that underlies the fascination of Francis Alÿs’s video of sheep.

Fifth Avenue Mirage

Fifth Avenue across the Park viewed from Time-Warner Columbus Circle NYC at sunset July 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

まねき猫 - Beckoning Kitty

まねき猫招くは香織かキフちゃんか。 Beckoning kitty. Is she beckoning Kaori, or her kitty Qif.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Young and Old

I find it fascinating that at any point in one’s life, anyone younger is young and anyone older is old, regardless of her age. That is to say, at twenty-one I thought someone at fifty as very old, but now, approaching eighty, I think of a fifty-year old friend very young. An old person from my present vantage point is only those octogenarians and nonagenarians or older. Graduate students who looked so mature when I was an undergraduate impress me today a tender youth. I am old but also young, relatively. I remember Socrates saying in Plato’s Phaedo how Simmias, who is taller than Socrates but shorter than Phaedo, can be said to be both tall and short at the same time. This is how it is with one’s station in life. Whenever I was grumpy as a child, complaining of our misfortunes, Mother used to say “If you look up there is more above, and if you look down there is more below (Ue ni wa Ue, Shita ni wa Shita).” Thanks to her, even though I could not say that I had not experienced misfortunes, I have never really suffered discontent -- about my modest accomplishments and the median status in life.

Uproot/Downsize 2009

Late in May 2008 I made a decision to clear out of Swarthmore and move to New York. It was a momentous decision. But it came about quite unexpectedly and quickly. Three years later, I know without doubt that it was a wise decision.

Since my retirement from the college in June 2001, I have kept a pied-à-terre in the city, first subletting a studio apartment from a friend and then renting my own from January 2004. So, I had been maintaining a dual residence for seven years and I enjoyed weekly train commutes back and forth. As I stepped in the house back from New York, I always felt how nice it was to be back home. But I also felt the sense of coming home when I walked in the apartment returning from Swarthmore. I was content. I had the best of the two worlds: idyllic country living and the vibrant city life.

Still, I knew that at some point I’d have to make a decision, whether to move wholesale to the city or give up New York and return to the house in Swarthmore, or else retire into a retirement village. But it was a thought I packed away in the back of my mind in order to procrastinate the necessary decision. A friend visiting me from Boston posed me the question and urged me to think about it seriously now, not waiting until I was 80 as I proposed. She wisely warned me that if I waited until I started to be aware of the need to make the decision it would be too late because clearing the house and moving would then be too hard psychologically no less than physically. She went home and for three days I was hardly able to sleep.

Then, I decided, and my Project Uproot was launched. I looked for a one-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood and found one in a few days that suited me in location, size, layout, and price. It was going to be available in a few weeks; and I moved in on 16 June. The idea was to insure that I stick to my commitment, to enable me to estimate how much (or little) of the stuff from the house I could pack in the apartment, and to allow myself a year to clean up the house of the stuff to be disposed of and also get myself comfortable in the new apartment.

I lived in Swarthmore since 1966 when I got the teaching position at the college. I bought the three-bedroom house in 1980 and in the summer of 1989 I had the garage remodeled into a study/library with a bay window. We -- my partner and I --worked hard on the garden and made it our own and, in our opinion at least, the most beautiful on the block with changing blossoms from season to season. It was the place where I had lived continuously the longest time in my life; and it was a happy home. I had a deep root in the house and the town. But like a taproot it was not hard to pull out. My partner passed away in 1995, and I retired from teaching in 2001. The idea of spending what remained of my life simply, unburdened by the house and the huge possessions in it, and the car, was definitely appealing; and, having grown up in Tokyo as a child, I was strongly drawn to a life in a metropolis. So, once the decision had been made I felt comfortable about the drastic move and making the NY apartment my real home. It was fortunate to have had a friend’s sublet for two and a half years to test the waters -- to see how comfortable living in the city was -- and try it out for seven years. I found the urban pace, cacophony, and chaos, not to speak of the cultural amenities the great city offered, truly exhilarating; I was a fish in the water. It did not take a month to accept the rightness of my Project Uproot.

Planning and implementing the move was, however, entirely another matter -- not so much the Move itself but the process of reducing the possessions accumulated in the three-bedroom house house to fit the one-bedroom urban apartment -- what I called my Project Downsize. It was daunting, well nigh traumatic, a nightmare.

The new apartment was already adequately furnished from the earlier studio apartment. So I was prepared to forgo most of the furniture in the house, nothing of special value. The kitchen needed no more than the most basic items I already had. I drew the plan of the apartment to scale and had quite an accurate idea as to what and how much I could bring in. The huge part of my possessions were books, works of art, and the wardrobe, in that order. I had 33 full-size bookcases and several smaller ones, holding over 8000 volumes of books and journals, scholarly and literary, plus videocassettes taking up three bookcases, some 1000 CDs, 15 linear feet of vinyl LPs, five full-size cabinets of papers, and color slides galore, and then cartons of diaries, family albums, personal memorabilia, All the walls in the house, upstairs and downstairs, were covered with pictures and hangings; and clothing and accessories packed tight the two walk-in closets and two regular-size closets. I had to reduce the library to a third at maximum, the wardrobe to a fifth, and the collection of art to even less, given the available wall space in the apartment and the storage space next to none.

I drew up the plan of the apartment to scale and knew that, aside from two chairs, one side table to serve as a desk, and the stereo system with two large Polk speakers, exactly 11 tall bookcases and four short ones, all matching, and one file cabinet would fit, and I knew, too, exactly where they would be positioned. I planned on filling some shelves with smaller books in two ranks, front and rear. But I soon learned that the real pang of downsizing is not the reduction per se but the formidable task of sorting out what to keep and what to forgo. The process was like chipping away a solid wall with a chisel and a hammer to break open a crawl passage. As for the books I sold or gave away the bulk of titles in art, art history, and architecture; I decided early on to keep one monograph on each of the major artists I like. I kept all the poetry books, the collection of James Joyce studies, books on Duchamp, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, all of the plays and theater studies, some writings in criticism and art theory, most of the film studies (only because I had no time to sort them but not the running issues of a dozen film journals that I was sad to abandon), fashion books, and a half of the large collection of books in Japanese. It was a hard decision to have had to choose between books I owned and intended to read but hadn’t and still wanted to, on the one hand, and, on the other, the books I had read and felt attached to and found hard to part with. In the end I was eclectic but erred and had regrets; I had to buy back some titles later from second-hand bookstores on line. I kept all the CDs, a third of the LP’s, and all the videocassettes (which preempted a good many books that I should have kept). The mover’s van delivered the goods on 16 April: 15 bookcases, 106 cartons of books, three clothing cartons, and three dish packs. I had no room by and large for tools, appliances, tableware, and linens. By then, I had already transported on my weekly train trip from Swarthmore to New York, carrying as much as I could manage in two shopping bags filled with fragile and valuable possessions -- ceramics, works of art, jewelry, and a few kitchen appliances I decided not to do without. Once a friend visiting me from New York was driving back and I rode with him having packed up the car with items too large to carry by hand. Then, my son Giulio helped me move in his van the stereo system, heavy ceramics, some chairs, a side table, and large paintings -- items I didn’t want to trust the mover with. Then, there were family heirlooms -- my father’s architectural sketches and drawings and old albums -- that I sent back to my sister in Japan.

Of what remained in the house, I sold many items on line, shredded or recycled papers, carried bundles of clothing to the Goodwill -- 26 evening dresses, over a hundred day dresses, 67 skirts from maxi to micro mini, no pants (I don’t wear pants), and shoes and sandals and coats and blouses, bag after bag of them. Selling items I didn’t need was a drudgery, slow and often unrewarding. Finding homes for donations was even more tedious. I had three cartons of books in Japanese that my father authored on traditional Japanese architecture. Most university libraries already had most of them; they finally settled in the library of Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many works of art were sold off for pittance in the hands of the estate sales people who came and emptied the house mercilessly as was the Volvo in the few days left before abandoning the house. The good fortune I had of getting a buyer of the house in April, only a little over a month after getting it listed, a good fortune in view of the slow market at the time, was also a huge burden as, having promised to vacate the house by the end of June, I had two month to do a huge amount of work left to do under tremendous pressure. One year I allowed for clearing the house; the pressure grew in slow increment and then steadily in acceleration.

In the process of downsizing, I learned that accumulating goods is so much easier than getting rid of them without resorting to dumping them. Attic and basement are the banes of the house; these are spaces that conveniently serve for storage but, for that reason, become a hoarding place where we pack things we don’t need thinking they might come of use some time in the future which never comes. A few days before leaving the house, I had 16 packages to mail to New York, of which two were lost in transit and I had no idea what they contained. 

But I made it; my Project Downsize was done, and the sale of the house was closed on 30 June. I was relieved and exhausted, and remembering the experience two years later, I am dizzy. I cannot believe that it got done. My friend was right; I’m not sure if I would have made it through the ordeal two years from now, when I’m 80.