Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Three meals again 再び三度の食事

As I was cooking a meal, it occurred to me how much time I spend each day preparing and three meals a day. I made a note of this before: “Three meals.” I gave a further thought on the effort of feeding myself, and remembered how much more hard work beasts of prey have to do. Little wonder that wild cats like lions, leopards, and tigers sleep so much, Hunting for food is all the work they do during their lifetime. Even squirrels have to scurry all day to hoard their provisions for immediate and future consumption. On the other hand, grazing animals do much less work than we do, though in the wild they may have to trek a great distance for their sustenance. Those who don’t work to feed themselves are many a husband, kids, and pets, like my cat Qif.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Zdenka's Terezín

Two weeks ago I went to 92nd Street Y and saw the documentary film, The Music of Terezín, which had its first public screening in North America. It was made in 1992 and shown on the BBC the following year. Simon Broughton, a British TV director, has a special interest in world music, and made documentaries on famous composers as well as Fado and the Sufi music. The story of the concentration camp is well known; the Gestapo made into a ghetto the fortified garrison town at Terezín (then known as Theresienstadt) where Jews from Czechoslovakia and surrounding areas were brought in to live before they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Broughton’s film portrays the creative life of composers and performers who continued to produce music under the horrendous living conditions that could only be described as subhuman. Yet, the musicians smuggled instruments, often in parts to be assembled in the camp and performed the music the composers wrote, at first in secrecy but later more openly as the Nazi supervision changed its tune. It was a beautifully crafted film, lucid and informative in its narrative, supported with interviews with surviving witnesses. Most of the interviewees have passed away since 1993. One of them, a Czech actress Zdenka Fantlová, accompanied the director who conducted a discussion after the film.

At 88 or 89, Fantlová was still beautiful, articulate, and high-spirited. She confirmed that neither she nor anyone else knew where the “train to the East” went. But in 1944 she was on the very last transport train to Auschwitz together with most of the musicians who eventually perished there. On arriving at Auschwitz, she managed, by falsifying her age, to be sorted to the group destined to the labor camp rather than the gas chamber, and survived. She told the audience emphatically that although the life was miserable in the camp, instead of dwelling on it, she learned a valuable lesson how to live the precious life fully day to day. Her words struck a chord in me, as I, too, lived the war years, certainly less horrendous but equally terrifying and deprived. In 2001 she wrote an account of her life during the war entitled My Lucky Star (after a Fred Astaire song), originally written in Czech in 1997. Then, in 2010 she had it updated and republished as The Tin Ring. I bought a copy, had it autographed by the author, chatted with her, and shook her hand. It was for me a terribly emotional, intensely moving experience.

I asked Broughton why the documentary slept all these 19 years, and he said that there was no interest. I did not have time to pursue the question. But I speculated that in these intervening years, the audience demanded and expected that the films that dealt with concentration camps focused on the horrors of the Holocaust and presumably found one that portrayed music-making at Terezín, even under the adverse condition, insufferably frivolous. Some may even have seen it as a gentle denial of the truth of the Holocaust, aligning it with the heavily-faked Nazi propaganda film showcasing Terezín for the Dutch Red Cross as a happy internment town. There were questions from the floor, in fact, asking to give (for the benefit of the audience) more details about the miseries in the camp life. Only in recent years, the works of the Terzín composers came to be recorded and publicly performed -- Viktor Ullman, Pavel Haas, Giedion Klein, and Hans Krása, among them, some of them students of Schönberg and contemporaries of Janacek. Time may be finally ripe for a larger audience appreciating the film that extols the courage, strength, and irrepressible creativity of those musicians (and actors and artists, too) of Terezín -- Zdenka’s Terezín.

The film The Music of Terezín was discussed at some length in The Observer/The Guardian at the time it was shown in England in 2010. See:

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Free Gift

If it ain’t free, it’s no gift, and there is most likely a hidden price one pays on receiving a free gift. Yet this advertising gimmick is so rampant, especially among institutions soliciting donations, regardless of the blatant tautology of the expression.

Bresson's A Man Escaped

Bresson’s films are insistently anti-narrative even though they may appear otherwise. I have already written how he subverts the convention of realism in the images he uses, and directs us to an experience that transcends reality. A Man Escaped, 1956, more than any other film of his, tempts the audience to see it as a neorealist narrative because it is nominally a thriller describing an escape from a prison; and it suspensefully engages the audience from the beginning to the end.

But, as a thriller, A Man Escaped is shoddy. What Bresson shows in 102 minutes is significantly uneventful; it consists of preparations for the escape but lacks large events, like a near exposure, a near escape, and a reverse of fortune. There are no large actions -- no accident, no scuffle, no fracas, no chase. Throughout the film, the camera focus on the face and hands of the prisoner Fontaine as he chips away the wall with a spoon, tears shirts into strips and braids ropes, and makes makeshift hooks; it veers away from him only occasionally, no more than absolutely necessary. His interaction with other inmates is sketchy; dialogues are minimal.

The screenplay, written by the director himself, was adapted from the real event, an account by André Devigny himself of his escape from a Gestapo prison in Lyon; and Bresson was meticulous in shooting on location and recreating the replica of the cell as well as the details of the costume and props, even using the ropes and hooks used by Devigny that had been preserved.

Documentary in visual style, the film nevertheless fails as a documentary film; the geography of the prison complex, even of Fontaine’s cell, is never made very clear. Then, the voice-over narration, instead of establishing a narrative continuity, elaborates only in segments, what the images informs us. In the filmmaker’s own words: “Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.”

The suspense we experience comes from the intensity of attention on the small cumulative actions, not from the overarching adventure. We know from the start that Fontaine escapes. The title announces it; it is more explicit in the original French title: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé. Bresson’s interest lies not in the actions shown per se but the obsession of bewildering depth in which we are forcibly made to partake in and experience. It is toward this end that he deploys the realism of the documentary style, strikingly in opposition to what was conventionally developed to bring us close to the empirical reality -- the impression of being there and then ourselves; instead, he shows an experience beyond its surface and insists that what seems ordinary is extraordinary. Something transcendental guides Fontaine to the escape he prepares for, without his being quite aware of it, and the final escape is a liberation as of death itself in Bresson’s other films.

The full title, in fact, reads: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, ou le vent souffle où il veut. The second title comes from St. John 3:8, which translates as “The wind bloweth where it listeth” in King James, and “The wind blows where it wills,” in a modern version. What completes the verse, well understood in the phrase, is profoundly significant: “. . . and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goes; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”