Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Praise of Pina

In spite of the company's yearly season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Tanztheater was largely ignored by the US dance community. Every time I tried to bring her name up in conversation I was met with uncomprehending stares. Here we talk Balanchine, Mark Morris and Martha Graham.

However Pina Bausch has developed a large following in Europe and Asia during her  twenty-five years of tenure in Wuppertal. In May 2008 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a month later. Many of her works have been available as cult classics on You Tube and are still performed by her company in extensive international tours.

My first contact with Pina's work was at the beginning of Almodovar's film "Talk to her". Two men sit side by side in a theater watching a performance of "Café Müller", a parable of longing, search and disappointment, that brings both to tears and into closer acquaintance. The film ends with another Pina piece, "Botafogo", a nostalgic and sensual danzón.

Pina Bausch has often seen her performances quoted and included in films. In 2009, at the Cinemathèque Française I watched a two hour draft of a film by Jérome Cassou, a French filmmaker who had worked with her, mingling his steadycam with her dancers during performances at the Théatre du Chatelet. I was dazzled by the unedited sequences that Cassou hoped would open him to authoring a biopic or anthological film on her life. It was not to be; Wim Wenders, her compatriot, has finally produced a magnificent remembrance of what she accomplished, a homage titled "Pina", nominated at the 84th Academy Awards for best live documentary.

Pina is not identifiable with any of the well-known ballet schools in use in the USA. She stems directly from the German Expressionist school, with flavors taken from Martha Graham. Born in 1940, she studied under Joost, a survivor of the Weimar era, and landed at age 19 in New York, where she studied at the Juilliard School, and danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the Paul Taylor Company. Those two years, she has said, made her free.

She then returned to Germany, to study under Günther Folkwang. She started to choreograph for him and later, after his death, formed the Folkwang Ballet. In 1973 she went on to form her own company, the Tanztheater, in Wuppertal, a heavily industrial city in the metallurgical Ruhr basin, explicitly moving away from the denomination "ballet". "Tanztheater" literally means "theater of dance", giving her the freedom to express her distance from traditional ballet.

In the twenty-five years of her tenure she has produced some thirty works, and gathered around her a devoted body of dancers from around the world. Many of them have been with her for most of their careers, and she has always found material in people of all ages. Wim Wenders centers his just opened film around some of them, young and old, to illustrate her working style. She looks for the inner resources of her dancers to produce the deeper landscape that the dance aims to express. Wenders includes an old clip of hers, explaining why she will not work with words "...they are only symbols, stand-ins for  emotions."  Her most frequent admonition to the people around her is to keep on looking for that deep-felt motivation.

The interviewed dancers recognize Pina's talent in unleashing their own potential, to examine and understand themselves, to bring out the most recondite feelings in them, and to shape that material into powerful messages of humanity. An Argentinian dancer recalls the day when Pina asked him to come up with a movement expressing joy. When he did so, she developed around it a whole sequence for the ensemble.

Pina addresses human longings, loneliness, its vices and sequels, and the drives and aspirations of men and women in their isolation.

She is known for bringing onto the stage natural elements, water, peat, rocks, flowers and shape the dance around them. One of her best known works, "Vollmond" (Full moon), is centered around a huge, metallic-grey boulder, sitting in a pool of water, in which the dancers swim, slither, pursue  each other, splash and cavort throwing elegant semicircular silver plumes of water.

Her most dramatic work, to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", is danced on a stage covered with dirt. A sacrificial maiden is chosen by the tribe to be offered to the gods. Men do the choosing from a tight cluster of terrified girls, dancing in unison in short and staccato gestures, in their togetherness, visual echoes of Rodin's "Citizens of Calais" and Käthe Kollwitz's workers and peasants, towards submission and death.

--Thilo Ullmann

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Academia Nuts

This week, the Saratoga Film Forum screens the Israeli film Footnote, which could perhaps be subtitled “Ibid., therefore I am.” This wry comedic-drama pits father-and-son professors against each other as they vie to win a prestigious scholarship prize.

The lowly footnote is one of the most contentious stylistic objects in academia as well as elsewhere in researchland. NASA, for example, goes to great lengths to explain best practices for footnote usage, while the U.S. Government Printing Office style book devotes several pages to footnotes (and, for the record, only features one footnote). Most stylistic authorities recommend minimizing the use of footnotes (although they are preferable to parenthetical asides—see?).

Anyway, back to the film. Although the characters and plot are purely fictional (“any resemblance to persons living or dead...” and all that), writer/director Joseph Cedar was inspired by the very real department of Talmudic Studies at the real Hebrew University:

The Talmud department at the Hebrew University is a remarkable place. It is the smallest department in the university, but it is famous worldwide for its uncompromising methods, and its unforgiving attitude toward the notion of “mistake.”

Once I started hearing stories from within this department, about mythological rivalries between scholars, stubbornness on an epic scale, eccentric professors who live with an academic mission that is bigger than life itself, even if its topic is radically esoteric, I fell in love with them all, and they became the centre of this story.

As for the origin of the title, says Cedar:

One Talmud researcher, who is known to be very sparse and dry in his writing, once explained to me his use of a footnote like this: “it is a piece of information, sometimes an anecdote, that is not necessarily verifiable, sometimes even outrageous, or silly, often only remotely relevant to the main text, but at the same time it is just too irresistible and juicy to leave out entirely...”

I heartily concur!*
And as befits the academic milieu, the actors did their, um, homework. Stage comedian Shlomo Bar Aba, who plays Eliezer (the father), returns to films after a 20-year hiatus, and spent six months preparing his character. Lior Ashkenazi, who plays Uriel (the son), took actual Talmud classes at the Hebrew University and spent six months letting his beard grow.

* I once co-authored a book that boasted no fewer than 160 footnotes, many of them jokes. When the printed book was converted to a Kindle e-book, the footnotes were converted to end notes (since the idea of a “page” is a fluid concept in an e-book), which is far less effective. This is my attempt at adding a footnote to a blog post. Meh. Score 1 for print!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wake Up, Little Sushi

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word sushi first entered the English language in 1893, thanks to the book A Japanese Interior by Alice Mabel Bacon. (However, the word “bacon” did not enter the lexicon thanks to a book by Alice Mabel Sushi.) Oxford defines sushi as “a Japanese dish consisting of small balls or rolls of vinegar-flavoured cold rice served with a garnish of vegetables, egg, or raw seafood.” It’s interesting that the primary ingredient in sushi is the rice, not the fish. Sushi is not to be confused with sashimi, which are thin slices of raw fish, sans rice. (The word sashimi literally means “pierced flesh,” and entered the language in 1880.) I strongly recommend a trip to Sushi Thai on Phila Street to closely examine the difference between the two. In fact, I’ll meet you there in 10 minutes...
If the previous paragraph is making you a bit peckish, just wait until you see the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which the Saratoga Film Forum will be screening this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a tiny restaurant located in a subway station in Tokyo’s Ginza district. A bit unprepossessing, and here in the States we would probably look askance at a sushi restaurant—or any restaurant—located in a subway station, but Sukiyabashi Jiro has been acclaimed as one of the best sushi restaurants in the world—if not the best—and owner and sushi chef Jiro Ono has been recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure.
Sushi is a relatively recent culinary import to the United States, with the first sushi bars only cropping up in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in the mid-1960s. The first is believed to be Kawafuku Restaurant, which opened in 1966. Originally catering to expatriate Japanese who were immigrating to the U.S. at the time, as well as traveling Japanese businessmen, a few intrepid Americans were intrigued by the idea of raw fish and the idea gradually began to spread, becoming somewhat popular by the latter half of the 1970s. The California roll—rice and raw fish and/or vegetables, although a traditional California roll featured avocado, wrapped in seaweed—was invented by a chef at LA’s Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in the mid-1970s, and it is the California roll-style that is commonly, though not entirely correctly, thought of as “sushi” today. The cuisine prospered in the 1980s and 1990s, with the number of sushi restaurants quintupling between 1988 and 1998.
(Historically speaking, sushi is not a centuries-old Japanese cuisine, either, as it dates only from 19th-century Edo which, as historians and crossword puzzlers know, was the original name of Tokyo.)
Along with the number of restaurants, the variety of sushi also increased, such that it was subject to much experimentation, to the extent that—like many ethnic foods in the U.S.—much American sushi is unrecognizable to the Japanese back home, and in fact American-style sushi has been exported back to Japan. Apparently, in Tokyo, you can order a Nixon roll (insert own joke here). 
Sushi chefs think of themselves as artists, and sushi and sashimi dishes are prepared with not only taste but also appearance in mind. And remember: only dip the fish, not the rice, in soy sauce. As for mixing wasabi into the soy sauce...once an insult, it is becoming acceptable, but still may be frowned upon. Oh, and never rub your chopsticks together to ostensibly remove splinters. (If you are interested in the past and present of sushi in America, I strongly recommend The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson.)
Keep all this in mind as you watch Jiro Ono at work—and don’t be surprised if you end up dreaming of sushi.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Meet the Film Composer: Matthew Carefully

This Sunday, April 1, the Saratoga Film Forum will screen the documentary Brunswick. Joining us will be both director Nate Simms, as well as Matthew Carefully, a local multi-instrumentalist who composed the music for the film. He will be playing selections from the soundtrack on Sunday. The Film Forum spoke with Mr. Carefully via e-mail about his participation in the film.

What is your background? Have you scored other films?

Music has been my main focus my entire life. The creation of, the listening to, the complete immersion in, the dependence on music. I’ve done everything from touring Russia playing drums in a jazz band to sleeping on couches across the U.S. as a mandolinist with The Kamikaze Hearts. Brunswick is my first full-movie soundtrack, though I have made music for trailers, Web series, and more. I had a great time making this soundtrack, am very proud of it and look forward to making more music for film in the future.

What are some of your other projects?

Currently, I’m working on a debut album for this instrumental acoustic guitar duo with Hunter Sagehorn (from the band Alta Mira) called Rosary Beard. This album should be out in early May and I am very excited about it. We’ve been working on the music for a few years now and are happy to finally be sharing our songs in recorded form.

I’m also working on recordings and some possible live performances with David Greenberger. He’s the wily gent behind the Duplex Planet zine and culture series over the past few decades. Our project is a band called “David Greenberger & A Strong Dog” which features local musicians Kevin Maul on guitars and Mitch Throop on guitars as well. I’m playing a floor tom and a garage sale Casio keyboard. Our first local performance will be at the Saratoga Arts Fest this June.

How would you describe your music?

I call my music “bedroom pop” primarily because most of my recording occurs in what could be used as a bedroom. There are more layers to that—many of my best ideas come from that half-asleep/half-awake time before and after drifting off; “pop” used as a reference to memorable, repeatable sections of music.

How did you get involved with Nate Simms and the film?

Nate and I found each other five years ago; he was already engaged with this movie project and I was eager to work on a project like this. Even just a one sentence description of the project was enough to get me signed up. The subject matter and the imagery easily evoked sounds and music for me—a great match. The editing and finishing of the film took quite a long time, so as it went, I’d share bits of music I was working on as Nate would show me sections of cuts he had been working on. I think we worked well together and I look forward to seeing where this project flies off to.

The theme of the film is that Brunswick is trying to balance economic development with retaining its essential rural character. Is there anything you’d add to that?

I’d add a dose of community/family drama to the mix as the issues you mention are illustrated in the movie by the story of farmer Sanford Bonesteel and the fate of his farmland in Brunswick. I think the movie begs you to ask these exact questions to yourself and your community members and families. What kind of growth is “healthy”? What is the best use for the land around us? Do we need another parking garage? These kinds of questions need to be asked and answered by everyone in every city.

Is Brunswick the only town you know of that is dealing with these issues?

It feels like there’s no way Brunswick could  be the only town dealing with issues like these! This is what’s most important about the movie to me; we need to be aware that a very large generation of farmers are beginning to pass on and while it is tempting to want to put something there in its place, perhaps there should be more talk of sustaining that land and nurturing that land to remain something vital and sustainable for future generations instead of locked in some failed development project idea.

What would you like viewers to come away with after watching Brunswick?

I would hope that viewers will be inspired to talk to their neighbors, go to their town board meetings, be involved in community government and simply be available to know more about what kind of decisions are being made about their surroundings. These decisions should be made by everyone in a community, not just a select few. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012


There is a danger in producing biopics about political figures, especially political figures that remain in the public memory, and especially especially political figures who were polarizing and controversial to begin with. Many of the same mixed comments and reviews that were made about Oliver Stone’s 2008 film W. are again being made about this year’s The Iron Lady, which the Saratoga Film Forum will be screening this evening (Thursday, March 29) and tomorrow (Friday, March 30) at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday at 3 p.m.

The makers of such docudramas likely go into these projects knowing that they just can’t win: half the audience will think it’s celebrating the ideology of the subject of the biopic, and the other half will think it’s a snide satire. As for the third half...well, perhaps they’re the only ones who go in with an open mind.

Still, audiences inevitably bring their own remembrances and political leanings to these types of films, something that normally does not happen if someone were to make a biopic about, say, President Martin Van Buren.

All of which serves to distract attention away from the film as a film and the story as a story. Meryl Streep of course won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Maggie, and as part of her research for the role, she attended Prime Minister’s Questions at the British Parliament, watching current PM David Cameron spar with Labour leader Ed Miliband. She also obviously studied every frame of archival footage of Thatcher, because she gets every nuance dead accurate. 

At heart, the movie is not about adoring or reviling Thatcher, but is rather more interested in looking at how she transcended race and class to become one of the leading figures on the world stage. Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter, a fairly humble origin, and in her early years addressing the House of Commons, you can feel the male condescension. Visually, in the film, she stands out as the lone female in a sea of blue suits, the only pair of high heeled shoes amongst the wingtips.

With a screenplay by Abi Morgan (who also wrote Shame, starring Michael Fassbender, a, um, slightly different movie...) and drawing on John Campbell’s definitive biography, The Iron Lady careens back and forth in time to show how Thatcher crashed the Old Boys’ Club.

Meet the Filmmaker: Nate Simms

This Sunday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m., the Saratoga Film Forum welcomes local photographer and filmmaker Nate Simms to screen and discuss his documentary Brunswick. The Film Forum spoke with Mr. Simms via e-mail about the film.

What is your background as a filmmaker?

I was an amateur still photographer for a few years, but always with the goal of trying to do something useful with the images. Those thoughts just shifted over into video when I first started working on this project [Brunswick], but I never had any formal training at all. This was really just a “figure it out as you go” type of thing. I guess the first time I ever filmed anything was the first day of working on this.

Tell us about the film and the issues it deals with.

To me it’s a few different stories being told at once. There is a personal story of a farmer and his relationship to his land and to another family he had known his whole life, but there is also a larger cultural and political story of how and why we collectively do things in America. That sounds pretty grandiose, but basically the root issues and topics to me would be things like farming, development, local politics, connection to place and land, trust, betrayal, and so forth.

As I understand it, the theme of the film is that Brunswick is trying to balance economic development with retaining its essential rural character. What are the tradeoffs? What are the challenges? Are there any solutions?

Well, that could be a really long answer, but any talk of economic growth assumes that we believe we should be living in an economy where “growth,” as it is commonly understood, is the goal. I guess I don’t buy into that entirely, so I am starting from a different place in that discussion. Despite the fact that towns like Brunswick talk a lot about how they value their rural character, it seems to me that they are not exactly being proactive in figuring out ways to actually help farmers make a better living (or to make a living, period), or encourage smarter building practices, or whatever. Although “solutions” is not a word I would want to use, I think the first step in progressing away from the current mess is to reject a few commonly held ideas (like what an economy should look like, or what constitutes success, etc.). That, of course, might not be possible.

Is Brunswick the only town you know of that is dealing with these issues?

I would guess that most towns are dealing with these issues everyday. Conflicts of interest in local government, farmers or land-owners facing tough decisions about what to do with their land, etc...Brunswick is just an example in my mind of what’s happening everywhere and a lot of people who have seen the film have said that their town was experiencing the same or similar problems.

What would you like viewers to come away with after watching Brunswick?

It would be great if people who maybe didn’t know what was going on in their town checked into it a little. When I started filming this, I knew nothing at all about what was happening in the area on that level and it was interesting to watch things unfold. Ultimately, even if someone doesn’t like the film, they might find themselves in a discussion about the issues raised and that would be cool.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Tolkein of His Esteem

The perennial challenge for anyone attempting to adapt a novel to the screen is to get all the important plot aspects in and have it all make sense—all without losing a lot of the details that made a novel worth adapting in the first place, or having the movie end up being eight hours long. Such was the challenge of adapting the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and such was the challenge of adapting the author who could perhaps be considered the Tolkein of espionage fiction: John le Carré. (It is also the challenge of the movie blogger to succinctly summarize an author’s rather eventful early life.)

Born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931, he went to school at Oxford and it was during this time that he started working undercover for the MI5, the British Security Service, spying on lefty organizations (or organisations, if you prefer) and searching for possible Soviet agents (this was the 1950s, after all). He became an MI5 officer in 1958, and two years later transferred to MI6, the foreign intelligence service. It was at this time that he began writing novels. An MI6 rule at the time barred Cornwall from publishing stories and novels under his own name, so he was required to adopt a pseudonym: John le Carré (French for “John the Square,” apparently). It took a few tries, but the third novel was the charm: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) was his international breakthrough. Just as well, too: he had to leave the service in 1964 (he could work full-time as a novelist by then) after his cover was blown to the KGB by a double agent. If this sounds like a plot from one of le Carré’s books, it kind of is: the British double agent who outed him—Kim Philby—inspired the character who turns out to be the mole George Smiley pursues in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (Like Cornwall, Smiley was forced into retirement prior to the events of the novel.)

The book was published in 1974 and was a bestseller, and was volume one of what would become known as le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy” (back to a Tolkein comparison), the subsequent volumes being The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979).

The current movie tie-in paperback edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy runs to 400 pages, and fairly dense pages at that, so you can see the challenge for a screenwriter. The BBC solved this problem when it first adapted the book in 1979—they did it as a seven-part miniseries (starring Alec Guinness as Smiley).

The latest adaptation, which the Saratoga Film Forum is screening this weekend—Thursday and Friday, March 22nd and 23rd at 7:30, and Sunday, March 25th at 3:00—is a “mere” 127 minutes. Look for a cameo by Cornwall/le Carré himself as an extra during one of the flashback “Christmas party” scenes.

And at 80, le Carré is still writing. His most recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, was published in 2010. And it’s only 320 pages.

Note that the Saratoga Film Forum will also be screening the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (starring Richard Burton) on Monday, March 26th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Spring Street Gallery at 110 Spring Street in Saratoga.