Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Archive for May, 2011

Alt. Feature: DOG STAR MAN (Stan Brakhage)

Perhaps one of the strongest endorsements for a work of art is to acknowledge one’s ambivalence toward it.  I change my mind about Dog Star Man each time I see it.  Again and again I reconsider its symbols, endure its pacing and marvel at its virtuosity, and I am never able to digest it.  In part, this is a good thing.  I find that the best art, by and large, actively prevents one from getting too cozy with it.  However, this is not the kind of uneasiness I feel watching a given film by Cassavetes, Bergman or Bresson.  My ambivalence about Dog Star Man is almost strictly intellectual as opposes to the emotional discomfort and uneasiness elicited from repeated viewings of A Woman Under the Influence, Scenes from a Marriage or Une Femme Douce.

The biggest difficulty I have with Dog Star Man is the lack of narrative complexity.  Despite Brakhage’s reputation for visual abstraction, this is a narrative film; make no mistake about it. It is the story of human life, the great myth of the existential journey through the figure of the filmmaker/protagonist.  It is as P. Adams Sitney describes it (paraphrasing Brakhage I believe), one of the tales of the tribes.  But unlike the narrative cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky that Brakhage so admired, his narrative is clunky and his symbols seem trite and loud.  As a tale of the tribe, Dog Star Man comes across overdone and lacking any shade of subtlety.  Yes, it is intense, messy, visceral, physically and psychologically grueling, but I wonder if the film’s effects are multi-dimensional or just singularly taxing.  This is not to say that it lacks formal complexity.  Dog Star Man is in fact quite adventurous formally, but I cannot help feeling that the message cannot catch up to the method.

He uses images as if they were musical notes, though Brakhage knew that this very concept was dubious.  Images can never really function as notes do.  He describes trying to defend his movies to Andrei Tarkovsky for precisely this reason: “I remember saying, wait a minute, just like I had before Window Water Baby Moving, I have some pure music coming.  Because he’s arguing, this isn’t music, it has symbols, things that are nameable.  It was a very intelligent argument, maybe one of the most intelligent I’ve ever had, but it’s totally dedicated to destroying the possibility of my kind of films.” (Brakhage Meets Tarkovsky 2)  I’m rather inclined to agree with Tarkovsky, at least regarding most of Brakhage’s camera films, because the ultimate effect is one of overload, rather more cacophonous than musical.  A note is a note, but an image is a sign with all kinds of meanings carried with it.

This method renders Dog Star Man exceptionally challenging for first-time viewers.  Why all the trees, breasts, stars, organs?  A clever student will make the symbols into metaphors: trees to stars, breast to moon, etc, and there is indeed some of that to be had.  A close-up of a vagina superimposed over a baby’s head followed by an image of a stained glass Madonna heavily relies on the viewer’s understanding and familiarity with a set of pre-established signs, namely the iconography of Western mythology and Christianity.  But a much more ambitious sign arrangement propels Dog Star Man.  Vaginas are not just vaginas anymore; dogs are not merely dogs.  They are explicitly materials – images to be manipulated like two colors of paint one would mix together to come up with the desired color.  That I am left unable to give these signs a denotative meaning or assign a name to these colors is quite likely the filmmaker’s intention, and possibly one of the film’s great strengths.

Documentary filmmaker, Fred Wiseman, says the problem of cinema is that the director tries to show what is inside a person by photographing his or her outside.  This sounds like exactly the opposite of much of what one can see in Brakhage’s work.  More than just using stock footage of the inside (cells, organs, etc.), Brakhage tries to visualize an inside and project it on the screen.  Maybe scratched up celluloid, overlaid images and optical printing effects are not what you see in your mind’s eye, but for Brakhage those techniques function as metaphor.  Let us be certain to understand his purpose.  Brakhage does not represent the internal; metaphors do not represent, signify or stand in.  Metaphors compare.  They change the meanings of the things they compare.  In Dog Star Man it is often difficult to distinguish between internal and external, that is the eye and the mind’s eye, even if you have a good grasp of the symbols and mythology.

This movie is about really basic stuff.  Why am I here?  Brakhage explores this question from various fairly well known angles – the struggle between man and nature, the miracle of birth, the simultaneous beauty and agony of sexuality, confronting the otherness of woman.  All of these are pretty standard canonical tropes in the history of western literature and art.  Dog Star Man is the story of the same journey we know from the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and As I Lay Dying.  It is the western myth in which the protagonist first becomes self-aware, and then attempts to come to terms with his or her place in the universe by confronting and struggling against basic human fears.

Telling this story again is not Brakhage’s achievement.  He makes it new.  He puts the viewer through the journey all over again in his own idiosyncratic way.  Even if the tropes and symbols are tired, Brakhage revives them by injecting film into the mythology.  Dog Star Man is not just animals, genitalia, the human circulatory system and heavenly bodies.  It is also self-conscience, deliberate and obtrusive celluloid.  The western viewer will be familiar enough with the journey.  One will recognize Brakhage’s concerns as the fundamental mythology of the Western world.  But the experience of Dog Star Man is to be lived through, rather than discussed afterward.  One must gaze upon its unique light and take part in its palpable duration.  Dog Star Man is not the story of a journey; it is the journey.



100-word Intro: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The melancholy gay Mozart of New German Cinema. Fassbinder’s prodigious genius yielded an astounding 42 features in only 13 years. Despite ceaseless experimentation across a range of genre, discursive melodrama best served the tension between his seething contempt for bourgeois hypocrisy and his infinite tenderness for his tragic protagonists—compelled by their natures to seek love and do right but restrained at every turn by social, moral and sexual forces beyond their control. In masterpieces like Ali and 13 Moons, Fassbinder utilized static blocking and intricately staged visual tableaus to conjure perhaps the saddest framing in all of cinema.

Feature: Festival Report (12th Jeonju International Film Festival) Part II


Why do I wake up? Good thing anyway because DK set his alarm for 8:00PM instead of 8:00 AM.

The hotel breakfast buffet is a travesty. The milk and orange juice are room temperature. There is no meat. I never thought of kim-bap as an early morning food, but there it is. I’m confused by the jelly packet.  “What am I supposed to do with this thing,” I ask DK. “Fold it in half and  squeeze the two sides together.”  Okay.  The thing explodes all over my suit and white shirt. There’s a flaw in the design of the jelly containers they have in this country. As I’m dabbing the jelly with cold water and a napkin, the red print from the hotel napkin bleeds onto my shirt. The jelly comes right out; the dye does not.

(DK: The ineptitude with which DJ handles modern conveniences such as tissues or jelly packs makes me fearful for the evening meal when we are almost assured of encountering wet naps.)

The ticket situation so far is quite improved from yesterday’s sopping and confused wait. I’m second in line and the dry, cool weather is nothing short of glorious. It’s actually pleasant to stand in a line for forty-five minutes with nothing to do but wait and look. I notice Harpo again. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I would see the same people in line every morning, but somehow her get-up and uncanny, unfortunate resemblance to the mute Marx brother is always surprising.

Hotel interlude. It occurs to me that I say “diddly” far too often. Let us hope that admission is the first step to recovery.

(DK: I forego the early screening in anticipation of an industry event later in the afternoon where I will dress up in a suit and masquerade as a grownup professional in hopes of generating some sort of interest for our Theater project. My plan is to arm myself with impressive documents and to smile and bow a lot.

Although I am not hopeful, I know that relying on DJ to accomplish any sort of productive human interaction is suicide. Simply suicide.)

The Nine Muses (2010, English, John Akomfrah)
I can tell you what I saw, but I don’t think I can tell you what this movie is about after one viewing. Akomfrah uses three basic ingredients: gorgeous digital photography of what must be Alaska or northern Canada, archive footage which deals mostly with black in England in the 1960’s though there is also some footage of Indians in England as well and intertitles and voiceover narration consisting almost entirely of Western Literature from Homer to Shakespeare to Beckett. It was all very interesting I just can’t say what it adds up to. I was taken with the DV sections that almost always showed a single person from behind looking out over a snowy landscape. I don’t know how the Western Literature contextualized those images, but they were always quite striking. The idea conflict of culture that results from the displacement of Africans was evident in the juxtaposition of the narration and intertitles to the images of Afro-English Diaspora, but on a first viewing, I have more questions than insights.

DK is convinced that we have time to eat bi-bim-bap before the Claire Denis program. Alas, they are closed, so now we really have to move fast. Somehow we decide that we have time for sushi. After sitting there for about twenty minutes I mention that almost every other table in the restaurant has been served since we sat down. We timed this poorly. DK runs up and cancels our order, as it is now twenty minutes to 2:00. I don’t know what any of the street food is, and there are lines everywhere anyway, so we have convenience store food. I had a 1000 won Snickers and a 1300 won sandwich. I guess I can accept that price structure.

(DK: The uncomfortable subtext to our entire expedition is that I am somehow here to merely feed, shelter and entertain DJ. He complains incessantly about things that are out of my control, such as the availability of a certain type of noodle or the barometric pressure.

Were it not for the fact that we are about to go see Claire Denis in person and that I am thus impervious to his negativity, I would seriously consider putting out a hit on him. Also, I haven’t really been keeping notes during the screenings.)

35 Shots of Rum (2008, French, Claire Denis)
You see this is why I have no time for artists that I have given a fair shot, but who do not hold my interest because they are one-dimensional or overrated. There are too many great filmmakers that I don’t know yet, and when I discover them, I have to dive in. So, to all my friends who want me to watch more movies by Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman – to give these guys yet another chance, I have to say, sorry, but I just discovered Claire Denis.

(DK: I want to be more rigorous, explicit and mechanical in my explication of Denis’ genius, but her films inspire only adjectival hyperbole–masterfully assured! dizzyingly sensuous! subtly complex! You leave the theater feeling drunk on fine wine.

With a nod to Ozu’s Late Spring, Denis conjures another rhapsodic meditation on bodies, love and solitude. As always, attention to narrative exposition falls secondary to the exploration of individuals and behavior; yet 35 Shots feels more deeply personal and assured for Denis, as well. The way the camera and the characters revolve around the taciturn central figure of the father (Alex Descas) resonates with a kind of respectful adulation, while celebrating his masculine mystery. She delves freely into this little-seen West-African French milieu without a hint of self-consciousness. She makes black skin appear positively luminous. Rather than rely on plot, motivations and resolution, she appears confident in the ability of an accumulation of vivid details and the occasional non-narrative discursion–such as handheld shots of railroad tracks taken from the driver’s cabin–to complete the film’s emotional arc.

She is quite simply our greatest cinematic poet of human touch. Like Cassavetes or Wong Kar-Wai, she does not merely show people in contact, embracing, dancing, exploring or lashing out–she creates a palpable pulse of sensation and frisson through her heightened visual attention, long takes, close-ups and music. This is no more evident than in the virtuoso central dance sequence that also neatly serves to illustrate the complex confluence of plot, theme and character that is her signature. Watch the embrace between father and daughter (Mati Diop), the graceful exchange of partners, the first delicate clasp of hands between Josephine and Noe (Gregoire Colin), Lionel’s conflicted gaze, then Noe’s undoing of Josephine’s hair and her slight stiffening leading to his kiss and her firm break and re-direction as she gently, insistently pulls him down to sit beside her, intimate but estranged. This is a symphony of meaningful gestures, a ballet of significant touches.

As always, I could go on and on when it comes to her films, but I’ll let the work do the talking… and the moving… and the crooning…)

Lecture and discussion – what they call a “Masterclass” here at JIFF. DK split for an industry event to try to find someone who will give us money to open a physical Cinema Underground so we can show some movies and offer free film school. Interesting. I notice that Chris Fujiwara is the moderator. I know that name from somewhere. As they are getting set up, Claire smashes her head on the bottom of the screen. This trauma does not stop her from saying one brilliant thing after another and from turning bad questions to gold. After watching Kidlat Tahimik the night before, I get the sense that this is a skill you have to develop if you submit to these kinds of things.

Here are some quotes:

“I love a festival because that’s the best school for filmmaking. There’s nothing better [for young filmmakers] than watching films.”

“I always say more in my films than what I can express after.”

When asked about rooting her characters to their jobs: “As an audience [member] I like to know what is their job. I don’t feel secure when I don’t know where the money comes from.”

“Love is not given like a solid thing; it is made of movement.”

“Metaphor is sometimes a little puerile. I would not make a film around a metaphor and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so.”

If you’ve read the Cinema Underground Provisional Manifesto, you should have a good idea of what we think of film criticism and film critics in general. We both recognized Chris Fujiwara’s name, but since neither DK nor myself could think of anything he wrote I assumed the worst. In fact, when DK handed him our card I immediately thought I should go to my website and make sure that I didn’t eviscerate him in my review of the Tarkovsky Anthology. After confirming that I was safe on that front, I looked him up online and found this: http://www.insanemute.com/.

I cannot recommend his writing highly enough. In criticism I am as attracted to the salient dismantling of mediocrity as I am to insightful analysis of genius, perhaps to a fault. At least that’s my litmus test. So when I saw headings for Magnolia and Steven Soderberg’s Solaris, I went straight to them to see if Fujiwara would distinguish himself from the majority. I am happy to say that he did and does, and I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of one of the best film critics on the planet.

(DK: As usual when it comes to socialization, I was the one who had to initiate contact with Chris Fujiwara, make small-talk and contextualize our visit to Jeonju so as to make us appear as somewhat social equals. We chatted briefly about festivals and the exhibition scene in Tokyo, while I gave him my card and hinted about our theater project. At some point, I motioned to DJ as my “business partner” whereupon I think he blurted something about “I like movie!” effectively obliterating our dignity.)

Looking for the best bi-bim-bap? Get in a cab and ask the driver where he would eat. This might be better than the best bi-bim-bap ever from the first day. There’s certainly more bonchon, and that’s crucial. They even brought us some special paste that they apparently don’t give to everyone. The one thing this place does not have going for it: Harpo is here! It’s one thing to see the same eccentric in line with use every day, but what are the odds that she would end up in this restaurant that we only found out about from asking the cab driver? She’s like a real Marx brother, turning up where you would never expect.

Hotel interlude

The Turin Horse (2011, Hungarian, Béla Tarr)
First things first, the atmosphere in here reminds me of camping in Missouri in July. That’s not an ideal state to view such a slow movie. The entire audience fights against nodding off. I’m going to have to write a longer review of this film. It was deliberately grueling experience. I’ve seen nothing like it except maybe Sokurov’s Second Circle another film that, coincidentally, takes the mystery of death as its subject as well. I thought about what Claire Denis said about not making a movie out of a metaphor, and I wonder if that’s what Tarr has done.

(DK: The movie and its subject were relentlessly brutal–but not altogether dis-pleasing. It’s my first Bela Tarr movie and I feel intuitively I know where he’s coming from. He wants us to feel the terrible inertia of mortality, the dark terror of spiritual barrenness. And the theater is hot like a bloody sauna, while wild wind blows constantly over the soundtrack. It’s the kind of film that I know will grow in stature after I leave the discomfort of my immediate experience.)

Whatever it was, The Turin Horse is not uplifting, and I thought it would be disrespectful to go out partying afterwards. I don’t think it’s the kind of film you should ignore. Then again, who knows when we’ll be here again, so I agree to Miller Time on the condition that we agree not to talk about the movie. Should I be surprised that as we take our seats I see Harpo come in the front door? We had some really horrendous bar food and I believe that between the bar and the Hoegaardens in the hotel room we ended up drinking more than the previous two nights.

(DK: My reaction to the crushing gravitas of the Tarr film is to offer to shake it off with a few drinks and a few laughs in front of the local university. DJ’s reaction is to shun and denounce all form of pleasure or enjoyment. We compromise by going to a bar that we know will suck.)


The last day went off without a hitch. We had only one program to attend, so we took breakfast rather leisurely before checking out and setting off for the JIFF Project digital video program.

(DK: The JIFF Digital Project is the centerpiece of the festival as it represents the artistic culmination of JIFF’s commitment to digital filmmaking.  Every year three renowned directors are chosen to receive US$150k funding to create a digital short to be premiered at the following year’s festival. The works are shown together as part of a single program and also distributed through DVD and screened at other festivals and venues. Previous participating filmmakers include Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-Liang, Harun Farocki, Jia Zhang-ke and Bong Joon-ho.)

The first short was ludicrous. It was by Jean-Marie Straub, a veteran filmmaker whose works I have never had a chance to see. His early works make a significant appearance in Amos Vogel’s Film As a Subversive Art, so I will reserve judgment until I see a few more, because I do trust Vogel for the most part. DK said that An Heir is why people have a bad impression of art movies. I just thought there was no idea behind it, as if they had given him the money and he couldn’t think of anything so he filmed three shots of a guy talking.

(DK: An unbearably pretentious piece of shit. If I was JIFF, I would ask for the remaining US$149k back from Straub.)

Denis’ To the Devil is much more interesting. It’s pretty straight-forward documentary, but it tells a story you probably haven’t heard.

(DK: Denis has an arch taste, it seems, for misunderstood bad boys. It is why the delicately handsome Gregoire Colin figures so prominently in her works and also why, I suspect, she became so engrossed in this story of the outlaw Jean Bena. The film’s most telling moment is captured when Denis offers the man, now over 40 and seemingly engorged by a life of hardship, a photo of himself as a young idealist 20 years earlier. “Look at this young Jean Bena,” Bena beams with a mixture of pride and regret. The toll on the man is as apparent as the ground from which he and his associates strip-mine for gold.)

Memories of a Morning by José Luis Guerín was the standout work of the program. Like last night’s The Turin Horse it was also about death, but approached the matter from a completely different angle and with a lighter touch to put it mildly. Here is another filmmaker whose works I must now seek out.

(DK: Densely-layered, humorous and poignant. As unexpected a film about death as one could imagine.)

After the film Denis and Guerín where on hand to field questions, but everything was in French, Spanish and Korean, so I can’t say much about that particular discussion. I’ll leave it to DK and his parenthetical responses.

I see no need to bookend this tale with a description of our trip back, so I’ll draw this to a close. JeonJu was a great success for Cinema Underground. We met some filmmakers, saw some great movies and ate like kings for three days. Stay tuned for various articles about the specific films.

100-word Intro: Chantal Akerman

Akerman is a genius of the performative mode.  Meaning is bodily, whether between bodies like the lovers wrestling in je, tu, il, elle, or bodies in isolation like the titular heroines in Jeanne Dielman and Les rendez-vous d’Anna.  Anna lies in bed alone or looks out of hotel room windows like a woman in a Hopper painting.  Toute une nuit explores the embrace; couples fall together like Pina Bausch choreography.  Empty rooms and public spaces wait for people to occupy them.  When action is so thoroughly minimal, little things become events.  Jeanne misses a button, and that tells the story.

Review: THE TURIN HORSE (Béla Tarr)

I am surely not the first to say that Béla Tarr is unrelentingly serious, and I will not be the last.  Not since Alexander Sokurov’s The Second Circle have I watched a movie that felt so much more like physical endurance than an active intellectual and emotional experience.  I’m sure this will lead many viewers to call it pretentious.  It is certainly repetitive, quiet, minimal, long and, perhaps most crucially, very, very somber.  It forces you into its rhythm sooner or later, but you never get comfortable with the tone.

The Turin Horse is a punishing film.  The people in it are ugly and often cruel.  Their lives are repetitive and arduous.  There is little plot, little action, little change of scenery, but there are plenty of long, long takes in which no words are spoken.   When a talkative neighbor drops by to borrow some liquor, his speech, rather than providing new interst, quickly becomes tedious.

The prelude tells the apochryphal story of Nietzsche throwing his arms around a brutally beaten coachman’s horse, then reminds us that we know what became of Niteszche after this episode but we don’t know whatever happened to the horse.  I think this encourages some viewers to interpret what happens in the film as a punishment, but I would argue that this context is mere pretense.  It is a red herring.

I hate to use the word “allegorical” because I assume people immediately start thinking of The Matrix or some such.  The Turin Horse is allegorical, but it is absolutely not The Matrix.  The difference between the two kinds of allegory represented by both films is that The Matrix relies on static and clunky symbols, whereas The Turin Horse is rooted in physical reality and concrete details.

Just because it is an allegory it does not necessarily follow that every image is part of code that must be cracked.  So I would caution against the symbolic interpretation i.e. the potato represent this, the horse represents that.  How does one make a movie about death, about the journey into death, without resorting to symbols?  We are talking about representing the unrepresentable.  It isn’t what the horse or the potato represents that matters so much as the texture of the horses coat or the rippling of its muscles, the photographic reality of the act of peeling and eating a single steaming potato.

A narrative needs an engine, but we must not mistake the engine for the whole machine.  As Andrei Tarkovsky, no doubt one of Tarr’s great teachers, often had to explain when asked about Stalker: it is not a metaphor, it is a specific journey undertaken by specific people, and they have to confront challenges and negotiate obstacles along the way. He suggests, in short, that Stalker is not a metaphor for life; it is life.  The difference isn’t an easy thing to get your head around,  but if you can The Turin Horse will make more sense.


100-word Intro: Robert Bresson

The most daring inventor in the medium—or, more accurately, its most potent minimalist—and supreme exemplar of the visionary mode. Forsaking emotive acting, expressionistic mise-en-scene or visual/narrative explicitness, Bresson’s austere cinema of hands, passageways and disembodied sounds reveals spiritual essences through material substance. In Au Hasard Balthazar, a donkey serves as proxy for human suffering. In Pickpocket, dexterous hands perform a redemptive ballet. Behavior, bodies and sounds become freshly reinvigorated in his works. We not only learn to see with new eyes but, in the tension between alienation and immediacy, cultivate a physical awareness of the human spirit.

Feature: The Local Story – Kidlat Tahimik at JIFF

This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival featured a retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik.  In addition to showing all of his films, JIFF had scheduled for an event called “Cinetalk” to follow the screening of Turumba.  In addition, since he made himself available for a Q & A after Perfumed Nightmare, I assume that Tahimik did much more than his scheduled appearance.   He introduced Perfumed Nightmare saying, “I don’t make films; I let them happen.”  “If I make films,” Tahimik added, “then I make them with the cosmos.”

He was serene, thoughtful and deliberate during discussion, often mining gold out of superficial questions and staying on point throughout regarding the danger of losing local culture. His answers to questions often included the word “duende.”  The thing he said that I have been thinking about most was his advice to young filmmakers to tell the local story.

There are many cinema tropes we could apply to Tahimik’s movies.  Stan Brakhage once called it telling the tales of the tribes.  Murnau had a similar idea about the cinema as the means to create the new mythology.  Tahimik does make movies on this grand scale, yet his sense of humor, his do-it-yourself ethic and his self-taught, amateur filmmaking have also earned him comparisons to Ed Wood.  The mix of these is not only his charm; it is his genius.  Tahimik’s films show us how you can create a self in a global culture that seeks to eliminate such possibility.  They encourage us to do likewise as the fundamental means to effect societal change.

At the beginning of Perfumed Nightmare, Kidlat, playing himself, drives his jeepie across the only bridge in and out of his hometown.  In longshot we see the jeepie get almost all the way across then reverse.  This is the narrative trajectory of the film: leaving and coming back the way you came.  Shortly after this there is sequence that shows Kidlat working his way toward a state of readiness to depart.   He drags three versions of his jeepie across the bridge with a rope, first as a small push toy, next as a child’s peddle car and finally as the actual steel vehicle.  He announces, “I am Kidlat Tahimik.  I choose my vehicle and I can cross  this bridge,” then “I can cross any bridge,” and finally, when pulling the full-sized jeepie, “I can cross all bridges.”

The crosscutting between public events (a funeral, a beauty pageant, a wedding) and the lush countryside can seem disjointed, but it is establishing precisely the relationship between the two principle aspects of rural village life.  The influence of  the west is ever present.  The voice of America radio is but one major presence of the western world.  Kidlat leaves his country enamored with the West.  Indeed one would have to be to go off with such a cartoonish American dressed, as he is in shorts, safari shirt, sunglasses and a Smokey the Bear hat. It is unclear why the American takes an interest in him, and decides to take him to Paris.  I suppose it is enough that he is a comic representation of America and that as such he would take what he wants from the third world and think that he is doing someone a favor in the process.

The sense of humor, the light-hearted improvisational attitude about life is one of Tahimik’s most important qualities.  A local businesswoman hires Kidlat’s jeepy to haul a huge block of ice.  They don’t travel far before the block slides out the back of the vehicle and a chunk of is shatters on the pavement.  Children scurry around grabbing shards of it for themselves, and there is an insert shot of Kidlat himself taking a demonstrative bite out of a huge hunk and laughing.

One of his recurring interests is the way village culture adapts industry on a small scale.  In Perfumed Nightmare this is manifest in a long sequence of men working on old jeepies.  There are detail shots of grimy fingernails and dirty hands manipulating metal and swinging hammers.  The pings and crashes turn into soundtrack music.  “An old jeepie never dies,” he says, as the mechanics repair, replace and salvage.  Kidlat even makes a child-sized pedal-jeepie out of spare parts to give to his son.

From a Western perspective, which I take it upon myself to represent, there is a particularly excruciating scene that shows pre-adolescent boys “becoming men,” that is, being circumcised.  It is as graphic as it could be, complete with the isolated soundtrack noise of the “clap, clap” of the hammer on the handle of the blade as it slices through the tiny foreskins.

This may make you squeamish, it’s certainly difficult for me to watch, but the point is to paint a broad picture of the culture.   It is not meant to shock, but demands some negotiation on the part of the viewer to fit such a “primitive” practice into the world we have been getting to know so far.  It also will serve as a point of reference later, when Kidlat finds he cannot live in the wasteful and dishonest world of the West.

Kidlat seamlessly befriends people from all cultures. It should come as little surprise that the people he develops relationships with in Paris are the street vendors.  They constitute the community that is closest to what he left behind.  They are also the old world relics that are being pushed out of modern Paris.

However, it doesn’t take long for Kidlat to get over being enamored of the bridges in Paris, and the only thing left for him is to become a mythological being, to change the world with his breath.  He blows into the new incinerators, and they turn into spacecraft to take him back home.  Only it is not mere myth, for he does not proclaim himself a God.  Rather he declares his independence from the this world of limitless, unchecked “progress.”

Where Perfumed Nightmare makes a mythology of the local story, Turumba states it directly, and discloses the consequences of development explicitly.  Though it celebrates the local culture, Turumba also shows how village culture is exploited and threatened.

Turumba begins by detailing the village life focusing on the inventiveness and exuberance of the people.  The Turumba festival is the lynchpin of the narrative because it gives Tahimik a chance to reveal village life at its joyful best, but it also contains the seed of the familial disaster.  Because she appreciates their unique craftsmanship, the German antique dealer puts the family in business making paper mache dolls far beyond their traditional output.  They become rich and can suddenly afford television, phonographs and electric fans, but what begins as a positive boon quickly gets out of control. When business is good it begets more business and soon everyone is working overtime to meet the next order, skimping on quality and letting all other concerns, particularly the Turumba festival, fall to the wayside.

This is manifest most clearly in the character of the father who starts the film as an integral part of the traditional festival, but ends it as a callous businessman.  Tahimik includes several scenes of the father singing and leading band practice so that the audience can understand the loss.  It is a personal loss of his own values and a loss for the community because he is a revered participant in the festival.

In contrast to the father is Patí the blacksmith.  He uses technology as well but he does not let it use him.  In part Patí is presented as an alternative to the father because he is a proponent of rather old technology.  Metallurgy has been with us for quite some time.  The more salient aspect of his character, however, is that Patí is content to stay within certain limitations.  He has no lust for more, no desire to accumulate things.  His mind is rather one-track.  He loves steel, but he loves it for it’s potential.  Patí sees the trailer that has arrived to load the paper maché dolls into, and he thinks only of the machetes he could make out of its parts.

The fundamental tension in both films is between the positive and negative effects of progress.  Tahimik, after all, uses the most advanced technology of the time to record and preserve a culture that technology is destroying by progressing unchecked.   This was the predominant subject of Tahimik’s talk following Turumba.

During the Q & A that followed the screening, someone asked Tahimik if the community he documents exits anymore, and can it be brought about in the places it does not exist.  As he was answering, I thought of how the rural areas and small towns in the States tend to emphasize xenophobia and racism as key components of community building.   I wonder if this is a Western problem.  In the West when we make the family the center, even and perhaps especially when that family extends to the small community, it tends to foster mistrust and fear of outsiders.

I also wonder if we are not past these kinds of communities as a global possibility.  It seems to me that everyone everywhere just wants to be able to access the Internet from his or her mobile phones.  Most people don’t want to really live among the trees and rivers the way Tahimik believes is necessary.  Some people want retreats; they want vacations, but they don’t want to live like that.  Hell, I doubt I could live like that at this point.

Maybe wholesale rejection of cutting edge technology is not the only answer.  The best thing about Tahimik is that he leads by example.  I don’t see how anyone could be in his presence for five minutes and not want to live the life he espouses.  Maybe we don’t have to change the world if we are willing to change ourselves.  Both Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba show that we do not have to submit to the march of progress.  There are always options.  We can do as Kidlat does in Perfumed Nightmare; we can reclaim our independence through acts of defiance and love.