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Donald Richie on Reading Noh Drama


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Noh Theatre

Each note, each word must be savored, weighed, calculated, and then put again into context; the context and never the word alone creating the image.

The Text

It is not impossible to read the Noh as literature, but it is difficult. It requires the kind of imagination essential to anyone who sits in complete silence and reads a score. It also requires a like amount of skill—whether the text is translated or not. Going to the Noh in Japan is very like going to a chamber music recital elsewhere. Many have the text open in their laps. Since the language is so obscure, the delivery so slow, the syllables so drawn-out, most Japanese could not otherwise understand a word. Even with the text, as with the score of a Schoenberg quartet, one must study it both before and after performance for the subtleties to become apparent. The pleasure lies in comprehending the form, in discovering the retrogrades, in uncovering the canons; or in tracing the allusion, in understanding the ambiguity, in finding the richness of the associations. The text of Noh is a collection of poems, some by the author of the play, some not; it is a repository of popular songs of the day; language and often action turn on the pun, the pillow-word, the invented portmanteau, pivot-words, conceits. Reading Noh is like reading late Joyce, like reading St. John Perse, like reading Webern. Each note, each word must be savored, weighed, calculated, and then put again into context; the context and never the word alone creating the image. Noh defies translation, as Chinese poetry, as Donne defy translation. Properly, Noh should include two pages of commentary for every two lines of text. When Hagoromo dances for her robe and sings of the heavens, she does much more than just this. What we are given is a created cosmography in which float bits of T’ang poetry, pieces of earlier Japanese, traditional refrains, and transient songs of the day. The language turns, convolutes, rears back upon itself. A near approach is Middleton, Webster, Ford; or, in Shakespeare, the echoing poetry of Measure for Measure, the subjective rant, all association, of Thersites in Troilus. The language of Noh is like music of the Elizabethan period, like the parade of reminiscences—controlled but seeming not—in the Cries of London; like the drinking-rounds and canons, cunning and lapidary. The Noh is mannerist drama.

From: Richie, Donald. “Notes on the Noh.” The Hudson Review 18, no. 1 (spring 1965)

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Tribute to Pranavanta


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Australian Sri Chinmoy Centre member and painter Pranavanta John Montefiore passed away recently. Art critic, university lecturer, illustrator and exhibited seven times, Pranavanta was also an author 30 years in the making—his magnum opus on painting The Making of Paintings published in 2007.

Like spirituality in today’s unashamedly material world, Pranavanta the author remains mostly unappreciated… for now. Although yet to find a publisher, his voluminous self-published work received the highest possible praise from Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald, who said that “If everything on the planet were destroyed, some future race could reconstruct the practice of painting from this volume alone”. One suspects that like the famous painters he wrote about, Pranavanta will be better known by generations yet to come.

The following obituary for Pranavanta was written by Mark Juddery and appeared in the June 16 Sydney Morning Herald:

Profound painter and teacher

For his last 22 years the artist John Montefiore was known to many of his friends as ”Pranavanta”, a name given to him by his meditation teacher, Sri Chinmoy, meaning ”full of life energy”. You didn’t have to be a spiritual giant to know that this was a particularly apt designation. Even as he lay in hospital suffering from cancer, he couldn’t wait to leave and return to his painting.

Such enthusiasm resulted in epic works. His 18-metre-high, multi-panelled Life Series painting took him more than 20 years to complete – and was worth the wait. It won the Sir John Sulman Prize in 1993, awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW, and is now permanently at Macquarie University.

Montefiore was an aficionado, someone who could wax lyrical on many aspects of the world: not just the beauty that he strived to portray in his artwork but also the sweet sounds of music, the aroma of a flower, even the joy of a terrible pun.

When people say ”Words can’t express it”, they obviously never accompanied their words with the enthusiasm of Montefiore. His marathon artworks were best accompanied by his own commentary, as he guided you through the story he was telling with his work. Every dot of paint, its position and shape, had profound significance.

Read more about Pranavanta the artist and seeker:
Profound painter and teacher by Mark Juddery, Sydney Morning Herald, June 16, 2011

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Just a Bubble…


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Morning light reflected in a soap bubble over the fjord by Odin Standal

Just a bubble. Floating out of a Norwegian fjord with the sunlight reflecting in it.

Nothing unusual there… if your definition of “usual” denotates the otherworldly as commonplace. One half expects to see trolls and fairies dancing in the background, or perhaps the reflection of God—probably with a rather self-satisfied smile on His face.

The photographer, Odin Standal, clearly playing down what one suspects are strong powers of sorcery, matter-of-factly describes capturing an image that might just win the internets thus:

We went out early one morning and tried to make giant soap bubbles. The sun was rising above the mountain behind us and I managed to capture the sunrise in the reflection of a bubble floating out the fjord.

You can see more photos by Odin Standal on his Flickr page.

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Happiness Machine


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Applause and awe-struck, gob-smacked smiles go to Barcelona based motion-graphics and visual effects studio Physalia, who created quite possibly the happiest entry in this year’s “Happy”-themed F5 Re:Play Film FestivalInductance. One giant magnet and hundreds of colourful capacitor-filled plastic balls later, and you can’t help but smile.

But is this superb creation from what is first and foremost a special effects studio—specialists in making the imaginary fly through the air—actually real? It’s no secret that happiness in life can be elusive, but it’s even harder to find through reasoning…

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Football Zen


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Football meditation by Pavitrata

Football and the art of meditation, a photo sublime on more levels than playing fields, by sublime photographer Pavitrata Taylor.

If you see art, try to see the Artist inside it. You will do this only by taking them as one. When you see art, you will feel that inside the art there is something which you need badly, and that is the Supreme. The Supreme is both art and artist, both creator and creation. When you realise this, you can easily meditate on the Supreme in art.
—Sri Chinmoy, Art’s Life And The Soul’s Light

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The Most Shocking Ending in All Literature


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“How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at the age of thirty-eight! His youth belongs to the distant past. Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression. And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth. He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier.”
–Yukio  Mishima

A Biography of Author Yukio Mishima

Three times nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Yukio Mishima is considered the most important Japanese novelist of the twentieth century, and until the arrival in more recent times of Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana, was the writer with the largest readership outside Japan.

Extremely prolific despite a comparatively short life, he produced forty novels, at least twenty books of essays, poetry, eighteen plays—including modern Kabuki and Noh dramas, some of which he also acted in—and one libretto. He was an astute critic—his talent rated higher by some than his fiction—and appeared in four films as an actor of some ability, one of which he also directed and produced. Mishima was considered to be the only author of his time talented enough to write Kabuki plays in the traditional manner; a professor from Kyoto University described him as a man of “frightening talent.”

Born Kimitaké Hiraoka, he was seized from his parents and raised by his Grandmother, the only one of the family of samurai descent, who both instilled in her grandson a love of literature, and according to some biographers, sickness and neuroses. Many trace his literary themes and later actions to these early, difficult beginnings.

At sixteen he assumed the pen name Yukio Mishima, a move alternatively explained as hiding his writing from an anti-literary father and hiding his true age. Yukio comes from the word yuki, which means snow, and Mishima is a town known for its view of the snowy peaks of Mt. Fuji.

Mishima avoided being conscripted by the army during World War II after being falsely diagnosed with pleurisy. While a student of law at Tokyo Imperial University he published his first collection of short stories, and the following year in 1944 published his first major work, The Forest in Full Bloom, a great achievement for any Japanese writer as few books were being published during the war. The first edition of 4000 copies sold out within a week.

All of his novels contain paradoxes: beauty contrasted with violence and death; the yearning for love and its rejection when offered; the dichotomy between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual barrenness of contemporary life; paradoxes he himself embodied—his writing was in all cases semi-autobigraphical, sometimes fully.

Mishima’s best known works include the autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, regarded by many as his most lasting achievement—he sent the final volume to his publisher on the day of his suicide.

At the end of The Decay of the Angel, the last volume of The Sea of Fertility, Mishima turned the entire series upside down, a single, blinding burst of prose undermining the very foundation of all that has gone before, a stunning plot-twist that the author pulled off brilliantly. Some reviewers suggest that committing seppuku immediately following writing such a passage is understandable—how could one continue living after writing something so brilliant?

The ending to The Decay of the Angel has been called possibly the most shocking ending in all of literature; it was followed by one of the most shocking endings of all real life—an author who vehemently didn’t want grow old or decline bowed out at the very top of his game, aged 45; following an elaborately planned yet guaranteed to fail coup attempt aimed at restoring traditional values to a Japanese society he deigned bereft of them, he committed ritual suicide, 25 November 1970.

“The whole of Japan was under a curse. Everyone ran after money. The old spiritual tradition had vanished: materialism was the order of the day. Modern Japan is ugly.”

Toshiro Mayuzumi, close friend of Mishima’s for twenty years, explained: “He was a man of action. His suicide death was an attempt to change the world, at least to spur it by alerting the sensible population to the inconsistencies surrounding postwar Japan, the Constitution, the Self-Defense Forces, education, moral decay.”

Friend, former follower and fellow novelist Yasunari Kawabata honored Mishima with the statement “a writer of [Mishima’s] calibre appears only once every 200 to 300 years.” Ironically Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years earlier in 1968, the first Japanese to receive an award long expected to be Mishima’s.

His funeral was attended by 10,000, the largest of its kind ever held in Japan, and his commentary on the Hagakure—the moral code taught to samurai—immediately became a best-seller.

Mishima wrote in his diary “All I desire is beauty.” A dedicated body-builder, practitioner of karate and kendo master, he sought throughout his life to make himself more beautiful, and strong. He saw beauty as a form of purity which could also be realised through noble action, and death.

“If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death? No death may be called futile.”

Video of Yukio Mishima conducting the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra

Recommended books about Yukio Mishima

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Mono no aware: Beauty in Japan


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Meaning literally “a sensitivity to things,” mono no aware is a concept coined by Japanese literary and linguistic scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century to describe the essence of Japanese culture, and it remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word aware, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, life and love.

Mono no aware
gave name to an aesthetic that already existed in Japanese art, music and poetry, the source of which can be traced directly to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, a spiritual philosophy and practise which profoundly influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, but especially art and religion. The fleeting nature of beauty described by mono no aware derives from the three states of existence in Buddhist philosophy: unsatisfactoriness, impersonality, and most importantly in this context, impermanence.

According to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies for Japan beauty as a transient experience.

Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork—most commonly nature or the depiction of—in a pristine, untouched state.

An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism’s philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal—the ultimate source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in Zenrin Kushu (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of that which is unseen, existing behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.”

With its roots in Zen Buddhism, mono no aware bears some relation to the non-dualism of Indian philosophy, as related in the following story about Swami Vivekananda by Sri Chinmoy:

“Beauty,” says [Vivekananda], “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.’” Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated.

Excerpt from Vivekananda: An Ancient Silence-Heart And A Modern Dynamism-Life by Sri Chinmoy.

The founder of mono no aware, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), was the pre-eminent scholar of the Kokugakushu movement, a nationalist movement which sought to remove all outside influences from Japanese culture. Kokugakushu was enormously influential in art, poetry, music and philosophy, and responsible for the revival during the Tokugawa period of the Shinto religion. Contradictorily, the influence of Buddhist ideas and practises upon art and even Shintoism itself was so great that, although Buddhism is technically an outside influence, it was by this point unable to be extricated.

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Poetic Realism: the film genre a director died to make


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More a tendency than a genre in its own right, Poetic Realism was a highly influential yet short-lived movement in French cinema of the 1930s, a brief outbreak of lyricism sandwiched between the bludgeoning horrors of two world wars. Unlike Soviet montage or French impressionism, poetic realism was never a unified movement or ideology, rather a loosely conceived feeling and evocation: poetic, otherworldly at times, yet committed to showing reality “as it was”—a cinema of life and of heart.

Despite the fact that he only lived to make four films, director Jean Vigo is credited with founding poetic realism, first with Zéro de conduite (1933), an unusually realistic evocation of an unhappy childhood that was banned by censors, and his masterpiece, L’Atalante (1934).

Namesake of a Greek Goddess, L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to the director by distributors Gaumont, but Vigo transformed it completely, employing the dreamlike cinematography of Russian-born Boris Kaufman—who would later work in Hollywood—and a surreal, poetic style never before seen in cinema.

On the surface a straightforward romantic tale—two newly weds on a river barge cruise who fight, separate and then are reunited—L’Atalante is a masterpiece, for as New Wave director François Truffaut describes, in filming prosaic words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.

Separated from his wife, the distraught husband imagines her reflected in the water. Simultaneously, departed wife encounters horror after horror on the streets of Depression-era Paris; beggars and thieves are everywhere, men make unwanted approaches and her handbag is stolen—persons and actions all evocative of a broken and unhappy inner state. In deep regret she forlornly but fruitlessly searches for husband and barge—shots of her longing for him in silence. By chance a crew member discovers her and the couple are reunited.

Although highly poetic, L’Atalante is also grounded in reality, the director alternating the bitter-sweet narrative of separation and reconciliation with unflinching images of the grit and ugliness of everyday life, a practise never before seen in contemporary cinema—usually located in the artificial and fantastic—and rare even today. The film is evocative of the Japanese conception of beauty, mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), in which beauty is said to exist even in its opposite; that which is ugly as reminder of beauty absent.

Critic Hal Hinson goes so far as to suggest Vigo’s poetic realism is other-world inspired:

“There’s such innocence and invention in Vigo’s style here that the film seems less a consciously constructed work of art than an emanation.”

He continues: “The mood Vigo creates here is a kind of enchanted melancholy, and we feel submerged in it… The effect is almost narcotic. The picture seems to drift, and though almost nothing appears to be happening, our senses are set at a heightened level, as if we were asleep and fully awake at the same time. Vigo moves the story forward by poetic association; there’s a logic to the way in which it’s ordered, but the links are imperceptible. They’re organised by feeling, not intellect.”

Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo

While making L’Atalante Vigo was so ill that he constantly risked collapse, and even directed some scenes from a stretcher. Remarking on the director’s state of mind during this period, Truffaut suggests that “It is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked,” and when a friend advised Vigo to guard his health, the director replied that “he lacked the time and had to give everything right away.”

Due to the high degree of realism employed in his films—often to unflattering effect—Jean Vigo was accused of being unpatriotic, his work heavily censored by the French Government. L’Atalante has never been fully restored from the butchering it received from distributors, who attempted to increase its popularity by reducing the running time and changing the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge)—the name of a popular song inserted like an axe into the film. L’Atalante was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty.”

Jean Vigo died of complications from tuberculosis in 1934 aged just 29, only a few days after the first disappointing cinematic run of L’Atalante. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him as he died, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out a window.

Vigo has been described as the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who fights every step of the way against lesser imagination and sensibility, and he is perhaps lucky not to have lived to see his masterpiece so barbarically hacked to pieces. History has viewed Vigo’s work more favourably, with L’Atalante being ranked as the 10th greatest film of all time in a 1962 Sight & Sound poll, rising to 6th best in 1992.

L’Atalante, together with similar works of poetic realism by contemporaries Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, significantly changed the course of French and world cinema, leading directly to the Italian Neorealist movement of the late 1940s, and the French New Wave (la Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 60s, which in turn inspired an increasing sense of realism in Hollywood cinema. Many of the Neorealist and Nouvelle Vague directors worked upon the sets of poetic realist films before beginning their own careers, and allusions to Jean Vigo and L’Atalante can be found in many of their works.

The Restoration of L’Atalante by Jean Vigo

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Bressa Creeting Cake: Palm Singing


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Quarter acre sections; a sky tower that doesn’t really go all the way to the sky; spotlessly clean suburbs; rolling, semi-green, semi-bald hills covered in sheep and mountain bikers; speedos for fashion rather than the beach; xylophones; a calypso beat, and druids in a city where almost nothing is older than 150 years—just some of the eccentricity galore in this irrepressibly happy, undeniably strange music video from Auckland, New Zealand band Bressa Creeting Cake—the only group with a truly awful pun for a name to win a national music award.

Or to describe Palm Singing in the words of the band:

“A very happy holiday song full of gaiety, summer, and love for one’s fellows.”

Strange backyard rituals around a bonfire aside, who on earth could possibly bad-mouth that?

My friend “Krazy Karl” was once a member of this band—before he made a stand for sanity. I need no longer wonder where the “Krazy” came from…

In New Zealand, the concept of “six degrees of separation” may not have been invented, but it always applies, and my crazy musician friend and Bressa Creeting Cake are just one example:

  • I work with the guitarist from semi-famous rock band Garageland;
  • I went to school with semi-notorious rock band Shihad;
  • Jemaine of HBO comedy show Flight of the Conchords was in my film classes at university;
  • A workmate was trying to sell a concept for a board game named based on this very concept—that you can connect one person to another through six degrees of separation or less.

Here in the land of four million people and forty million sheep, everybody really does know everybody…

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Not fool of facts


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Maria, a neglected poet from Moscow, a.k.a“Red Squirrel,” has tagged me to write eight random facts about myself. At this point I can almost see my collective readership heading towards to the little red button in the corner of their browser windows, long suffered already twenty-six facts about me, me, me (Thirteen Facts About Me as a Child and There’s a Sequel in this)—but hey, it’s an official invitation, and self-indulgence a near bottomless topic.

Eight facts about me, possibly involving a Russian theme

  1. One of the courses I enjoyed the most at university was a first year paper entitled“Russian Civilisation,” taken purely by chance and desperation after failing my first semester. It is a mystery to me still why I took Philosophy, Psychology and German (verrückt!), and not entirely a mystery why I failed—passing, I later learnt, requires actual study—but one thousand years of Russian history was something of a hidden gem, and inspiration when such was very much lacking—the Mongol hordes, Peter the Great, music of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, authors Dostoevsky, Checkhov, Gogol and Tolstoy, painter Kandinsky, the Revolution and of course Gorbachev—all avidly read, listened and consumed. Attendance of these eagarly awaited, two times a week lectures turned an until this point miserable academic career completely around, and as a bonus, was taught by actual Russians—sadly, the same positive didn’t apply earlier in the German faculty. Career diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs even walked down the road to give guest lectures.
  2. I had a school friend that was Russian. This was somewhat unusual in 1980s New Zealand, and so was he; I was nice to him really because no one else was—I felt sorry for him and the often self-perpetuated misery he was enduring. I even forgave him the time he announced that he had figured me out—“I worked out what you are—you’re pompous!” I tried his caviar sandwiches once but didn’t acquire the taste.
  3. I had a dream once of being in a large school hall surrounded by people from all over the world, feeling happier than I had since childhood, as though I was a child again, sitting on the ground talking to another child, a child who seemed to be my best ever friend—a Russian boy. Almost every aspect of this dream eventually came true.
  4. Despite long wanting I have never been to Russia—except in dream-flight. Another vivid night-time vision, at almost the same time as the previous saw me in Russia, and as a musician. While not exactly booking my flight or practising the piano, I am somewhat curious to see if this will one day come to pass.
  5. I am still waiting for a politician, possibly human being to admire more than Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan stopped the Cold War indeed…
  6. A film and drama major at University—once I discovered how to pass (and study)—I went through something of a Russian cinema phase; the watching of mother and father of modern film montage, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925), course prerequisite and introduction to a host of realistic yet lyrical, near forgotten works. One of my favourites, a example of poetic film-making rare even today is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930), which to quote one reviewer:

    Dovzhenko’s“film poem” style brings to life the collective experience of life for the Ukranian proles, examining natural cycles through his epic montage. He explores life, death, violence, love and other issues as they relate to the collective farms. An idealistic vision of the possibilities of Communism made just before Stalinism set in and the Kulak class was liquidated

    Lyrically beautiful, Earth is also deeply tragic, a poignant example of what could have been, in film and in real life; the last film of its kind before Stalin’s iron fist descended.

    I even sat through the dense, almost impregnable works of Andrei Tarkovsky—Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo Detstvo, 1962), The Sacrifice (Offret, 1986) and the original Solaris (Solyaris, 1972—Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake is surprisingly watchable, and worth it for the soundtrack alone)—all watched but not completely understood; example enough of the graphic realism, lyricism and otherworldly transcendentalism which I dream of one day etching as keywords to my own masterpiece.

    My favourite Russian film of all? Come and See (Idi I Smotri, 1985) by Elem Klimov, a film more brutal than I could stomach a second time, yet containing an near unique, hallucinatory otherworldiness and sensitivity—a young boy wanders in a daze through the countryside and the atrocities of World War II Byelorussia.

  7. My favourite author for a period was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Nobel Prize winner in literature. His combination of politics, realism, sense of justice, morality, absurdity and irony mirrored my own at the time of reading, and his personal account of some of the darkest days of Russian history are, like a car wreck, compulsive viewing.
  8. My eighth and final fact? Visitors from the Russian Federation rank eighth in the list of visitors to this site. And I really am not making that up.

Feeling quite the spammer already after my last post, I’m not going to personally tag anyone to participate in this meme, but should you want to list eight random facts about yourself, I’m sure you know the drill.

Come and See trialer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMKwMzLj8Ow

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