Sunday, April 22, 2007

These boots are made for walking ...

I am not an American, nor do I live in the U.S., so maybe my voice should not be heard in the debate, but I simply had to get this off my chest.

As the world was yet again watching in amazement as a Korean madman gunned down 32 people in Virginia, followed by an avalanche of expressions of grief and sorrow from the entire nation, I was quite honestly asking myself "So what ?".

I know that I am supposed to say that my heart is with the victims, but it is not. I am just refusing to feel any further compassion on the misfortunes of a nation that condones the ownership of guns as if it were children's toys. Remember the Nancy Sinatra song ?

These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do; one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."

Well, in my opinion, like boots are made for walking, guns are made for killing and that's just what they'll do. If anyone can point out any other use there is to a gun, I'll be glad to learn about it. In the Virginia shooting, there were two guns and people got killed, so where is the surprise ? Did the victims get killed by weapons that were purchased in the underground circuit ? No, they weren't. The first weapon apparently was purchased by Cho in a pawnshop near the campus, after which he went to Wal-Mart to buy a few rounds of ammunition and later on he went to Raonoke to buy the second gun. As an "alien resident", Cho had the "bad luck" of having to show both his driving license AND his green card for these purchases. If he were a native American, Cho could have purchased these weapons even if he'd been twelve years old in Virginia. So what is all the outpouring of grief about, I ask myself ? As long as people cherish their guns as if they were a phallic symbol and as long as there is this crazy twist in the mind linking weapons to freedom, the nation is going to be complicit to murders to come.

And where are all those Christians filling the churches and singing the praise of the Lord ? Did the Lord not command: "Thou shall not kill" ? So why would you allow a Constitution that gives any nitwit, be he Christian, Muslim, headen or George Bush himself, free access to tools that have only this use: to kill ? How come nobody has ever been able to kill the Second Amendment ? In a civilized world, which I consider the U.S. till further notice still to be part of, there is no need for a weapon to make it through the day. What freedom is it that needs to be defended by every citizen by himself ? I don't want that kind of freedom. I am not living in an ideal state myself (no-one is), and "shit happens" also here, but when we have laws dating back to Napoleonic times and they are outdated, we change them. The U.S seems to think it is a worse sacrilege to touch upon a law instituted at the time of the Founding Fathers than it is to kill cold-blooded a couple of dozen of people. Where I live, there is no ban on weapons either, but don't imagine walking in a shop with your driver's license and walking out with enough gun-power for a game of "Columbine Revisited", without anyone even so little as asking you what you gonna use that for.

If the U.S. (and pardon me for not distinguishing in this case between the defenders and contesters of the current gun-laws, for there is only one reality: guns ARE a free commodity) continues to refuse to cope with a clear and present threat on people's lives by giving in to the National Rifle Association lobbyists , I refuse to further mourn any victims of this kind of utterly senseless, state-licensed violence for lack of trying to deal with it. There has not even been a start of trying.

I'll rather mourn the 162 victims that got killed by bomb explosions in Baghdad on the same day the Virginia Tech massacre took place, lest we forget and lest we forsake also a minimum of decency and perspective in the media.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Beauty Beyond Words

Ten people enter on stage, taking their place in the dark. They will not move one inch from that place anymore during the entire length of the performance. Lights turn on, music starts and then there is that one voice from a woman with long red hair, sitting behind a harp, piercing through the silence yet seemingly leaving it intact:

My love said to me
My mother won't mind
And me father won't slight you
For your lack of kind
Then she stepped away from me
And this she did say,
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day"

Loreena McKennit sets off on the first words of "She Moved through the Fair" (from the album "Elemental") and I was there to enjoy the graceful touch of the sublime.

Let me shelve China for a little while, at least for the length of this post, if that is okay with you. There have been times in the past year since I run this blog that I wanted to write about something not directly related to China and that I put it off because of that reason. Now I realize that's not what I wanted at the outset. All I wanted was a space to ventilate some thoughts and though I am quite happy with the China focus I gave it, it should not be an obstacle to some musings on different topics also.

So there I was, last Friday, in that music hall for a performance I had been happily anticipating for over a week. In fact, I think I had been anticipating it for quite a few years already, ever since I'd heard for the first time Loreena's "The Book of Secrets"-CD which I'd bought after reading some rave reviews in some magazines. I had no idea who she was, I had no clue what music she produced, I just thought I'd give it a shot. That shot has never stopped resounding ever since.

So when I received an e-mail from my wife while I was at work last week, asking me (tongue-in-cheek, for she knew all too well what the answer would be) whether she could confirm the booking of two tickets for Loreena McKennitt's "Ancient Muse Tour 2007", I immediately replied with "YES!!!" five times in a row.

"A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."

I guess Sam at "The Useless Tree" would now wholeheartedly agree to this:

I am now more convinced than ever that the authors of the Tao Te Ching are wrong about traveling ("the farther you go, the less you know"). After a week in the Netherlands and France - a wonderful week I should say - I can say that moving about, even in a rather touristy manner, lends a certain randomness to life, an uncertainty about what might lie just around the corner, and a new view on the routines of daily existence. All of these things help to remind us of the contingency of our being and the fluidity and multiplicity of Way. Maybe that is why Chuang Tzu encouraged aimless wandering.

These words attributed to Laozi (mistakenly, after reading Sam's words?) which are the main theme of "Book of Secrets", sum up pretty well the experience of Loreena's music. Using the Celtic culture as a springboard, in her own words, she travels the world extensively in search of where that culture has spread it's influence or what has been the result of the cross-fertilization with other cultures. Her latest, "An Ancient Muse" has led her mainly to places along the Silk Road, but the Celtic heritage has led her in the past just as well to Ireland, France, Spain, Greece etc... The result of all those travels and encounters is what was summarized in a two and a half hour performance the day before yesterday.

How do you capture in words something that has left you breathless, as if you were there with the Saints, saintly sitting on their clouds, already ? It can not be anything but a faint shadow of the real experience. Still, for the sake of remembrance, let me give it a try.

The musicians enter on stage, Loreena among them, before the spotlights are turned on. Against a Moorish inspired background, clearly reminiscing the look and feel of the "Ancient Muse"-CD cover, there is no grande entry of the lead performer. She is one of her troupe and she behaves as such. With a voice like hers, I was wondering how it would sound live, without any technical studio remastering. After this concert, I feel ashamed to have even nurtured the thought that it might be less powerful and pure than on her CD-recordings. Loreena McKennit live, beside harpist, pianist, bandleader, is above all an astonishing vocal performer without equal in her line of music. The way she hits the high notes -the ease, the control and the purity- are almost not of this world, while with her band she takes the audience along on a relentless sublime musical experience.

From "The Gates of Istanbul" ("An Ancient Muse") over the enormously successful "The Mummer's Dance" ("The Book of Secrets"), I get to the first gooseskin moment when Sokratis Sinopoulos joins in on his bouzouki in "Penelope's Song" ("An Ancient Muse"). There will be more of those: I remember my grandfather when "Dante's Prayer" ("Book of Secrets") sets in, for we played that song at his funeral (what more meaningful thing could there be to ask at such an occasion than this "Please remember me" ?); I mumble "yes" between my teeth when Loreena starts on Lord Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" ("The Visit") for I have been listening to that song time and time again ever since I downloaded it from i-Tunes and by the time she ends with Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" (The Visit"), you expect the world to be totally at peace.

Loreena does not say a lot: apart from some obligate words of gratitude for having the audience there tonight, and lending credit where credit's due (talking about how she engaged in a conversation with somebody from the Far-Öer islands, telling her how they have a different version of a song of her, thereby directly placing her songs in a tradition and not as something uniquely created by herself, after which she sets off on the very pleasant "The Bonny Swans" ("The Mask and Mirror")) she lets the music and the musicians do the talking. And what a band it is she has gathered around her on stage. As I said, there's no moving around, except for Loreena moving from her harp to behind her piano, while always keeping close eye-contact with her other band members. Yet, from that still life of ten top musicians, handling such diverse instruments as the Greek lute, lyra, hurdy gurdy, viola, tabla, but also cello, violin (a tremendous Hugh Marsh), electric bass, drums etc ... comes a musical sound that could make Heaven itself weep.

Friday evening was by far the best experience of 2007 yet and the best gift my wife could have given me for being married eleven years on the very same day. For which I thank her with all my heart.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Still Life

China is a strange country. Consider this.

Director Li Yu was told by the Chinese Film Bureau that her latest movie, "Lost In Beijing" (苹果, literally "Apple", after the name of the female lead role) could not be screened at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival unless she would cut about 15 minutes of the original version. Otherwise she might be facing the same five-year ban as was bestowed on Lou Ye for neglecting the directives of the Bureau on his film "Summer Palace". What the Film Bureau didn't want the "foreign friends" to see were some sexually explicit scenes (do those really exist in Chinese cinema ?), some scenes about gambling, scenes with dirty streets and scenes where one could see ... the Chinese flag. China, after all, is living the "Harmonious Society" dream and requires the entire world to believe that dream is true.


Venice. September 9 2006. The Awards for the Film Festival are announced and Chinese director Jia Zhangke steps down the stage firmly holding the Golden Lion in his hand for his fictionalized documentary about life in the Three Gorges Dam region, "Still Life" (三峡好人). Jia didn't have to make any significant cuts, as far as I know, yet he touches on prostitution, gang violence, bribery and ... dirt, piles and piles of dirt an debris, in which the remaining people still try to eke out a living by tearing down the houses and buildings that used to be their homes, before the entire place will be inundated by the lake building up behind the world's largest dam. It is not a harmonious society that we get to see in "Still Life", for sure, either, so why did this get past the Film Bureau ? The ways of that venerable institution are quite enigmatic, to say the least.

Did Jia Zhangke, torchbearer of the so-called "Sixth Generation" of Chinese directors , produce a good movie ? Yes, he sure did, and we all should be happy that it seems possible to make this kind of movies in China. We are far from the visual bravoure of Zhang Yimou's masterpieces, an yet maybe not that far, albeit in a totally different realm.

Jia Zhangke shows the thin storyline of two characters, both looking for their husband / spouse. Sanming has come from Shanxi to look for his wife and daughter which he hasn't seen for sixteen years. Shen Hong has come to tell her husband, whom didn't come home for two years, that she has found somebody else and wants a divorce. Their characters wonder through this wasteland, connecting with other people, survivors just like them, and gradually becoming part of the local scene of the quickly disappearing Fengjie. Shelly Kraicer had this to say about the way Jia Zhangke build up the movie:

Still Life incorporates a complex symbolic system that suggests possible meanings without fixing them definitively. Most prominently displayed are the set of four ambiguous symbols of consumption and enjoyment that the film underlines with titles onscreen: cigarettes, wine, tea, and candy. They stand in as replacements for the standard four household items (fuel, rice, cooking oil, and salt) that represent the daily necessities of life in a set Chinese expression. Jia’s update replaces survival with pleasures, even addictions. Those looking to find support for an ambivalent interior critique of the concomitant pleasures and dangers of turning cinema itself into a series of tantalizingly consumable items could do worse than start here.

I myself believe that the four items have less to do with pleasure and addictions as they have to do with hospitality. Those are items you would traditionally take in China whenever you go and visit chinese friends. Like the inhabitants of Fengjie are more and more becoming guests in their own life, so do Sanming and Shen Hong immerse in this micro-society, as guests, passing by, looked at with suspicion at first but gradually taken in.

Though the movie looks desolate and paints a very somber picture, there's a lot of humanity in the characters and their struggle for survival. Jia wanted to show how life works for them after all the camera crews were gone. From an interview with Jia in "Three Gorges Probe":

Jia: In my view, the time of biggest change in the Three Gorges area was 2000 to 2002, when the mass resettlement was really under way, houses were being demolished and people relocated. At that time the media, from inside and outside China, went to the area and bombarded us with images of the dam being built, houses being torn down and people being moved.

But then the media withdrew, and the Three Gorges, both the people and the place, were forgotten. Nobody cared about them any more. It was at that time that we went to the area. We were interested in how people there were living their lives, how they had been affected by the big dam.

What we saw, behind the scenes of the big project, were the problems and difficulties people faced after relocation. And the changes they experienced -- having their houses demolished and being resettled, with the construction of the dam going on in the background -- look a lot like changes being experienced by people all over China. And so, in a sense, the changes occurring in the Three Gorges area represent the changes taking place in China as a whole.

That the director still manages to extract a lot of beauty where no one would expect to find it anymore (and though the word "beauty" may be stretching the limits of the content of that word a bit) is to be considered no minor feat and it leaves us anyway with a movie that sticks to the mind and hope for more good work to come from a great director.