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Poetic Realism: the film genre a director died to make

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

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...

Not fool of facts

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

Nagual Art by William S. Burroughs

william_burroughs.jpgWilliam S. Burroughs, like Yukio Mishima, is a difficult writer. Like Mishima, I am not sure if I will ever get around to reading his books in full, but I can not help but admire, even secretly envy this author’s insight and perception—even if at times it is shaded by a cruel, cynical undertone which, although an understandable response to the madness of this world for some, I personally cannot stomach. Of all the beat writers, Burroughs was the only one not to be strongly influenced by Buddhist thought—a strong interest of my own from years gone by, and thus a reason for my semi-disdain. Still, he has a razor-sharp humour, a straight to the point, spade is a spade clarity, and an obvious talent with words—although it took the insistent encouragement and personal assistance of friends Kerouac and Ginsberg before he finally recognised the fact, first beginning to write aged well into his thirties.
Nagual Art by William Burroughs In the Carlos Castaneda books, Don Juan makes a distinction between the tonal universe and the nagual. The tonal universe is the everyday cause-and-effect universe, which is predictable because it is pre-recorded. The nagual is the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open. There must be a random factor: drips of paint down the canvas, setting the paint on fire, squirting the paint. Perhaps the most basic random factor is the shotgun blast, producing an explosion of paint into unpredictable, uncontrollable patterns and forms. Without this random factor, the painter can only copy the tonal universe, and his painting is as predictable as the universe he copies.
Klee said: 'An Artist does not render Nature. He renders visible'.
That is, he glimpses the nagual universe—the unseen—and, by seeing, makes it visible to the viewer on canvas. If the door to the random is closed, the painting is as predictable as the universe—it can only copy, and for many years painters were content to copy Nature. What I am attempting then, can be called Nagual Art. The shotgung blast that exploded a can of spray paint, or a tube or other container, is one way of contacting the nagual. There are, of course, many others. The arbitrary order of randomly chosen silhouettes, marbling, blotting . . . He who would invoke the unpredictable must cultivate accidents and randomness . . . the toss of a coin, or a brush, the blast of a shotgun, the blotting of color and form to produce new forms and new color combinations. He can carry the process further by arbitrarily inserted silhouettes, the outline of a man, a house, a tree, can be as random as an explode paint can, leaves dropped at random on the surface, grids, masks, circles, pieces of broken glass on picture puzzles, and word. I have used a phrase like 'Rub out the word to wind' then translated this phrase into Egytian glyphs. The word is being used, not for its meaning, but as image. Since the nagual is unpredictable, there is no formula by which the nagual can be reliably invoked. Of course, magic is replete with spells and rites, but these are only adjuncts, of varying effectiveness. A spell that works today may be as flat as yesterdays beer tomorrow. The painter is tied down to the given formulae of form and color applied to a surface. The writer is more rigidly confined, to words on a page. The nagual must be continually created and re-created. The bottom line is the creator. Norman Mailer kindly said of me that I may be 'possessed of genius'. Not that I am a genius, or that I possess genius, but that I may be, at times, 'possessed by genius'. I define 'genius' as the nagual, the unpredictable, spontaneous, capricious and arbitrary. An artist is possessed by genius sometimes, when he is so lucky. January 1989

The selfish, selfless Yukio Mishima

I've been going through something of a Yukio Mishima phase again recently. I did once before, many years ago, until a cursory read of his biography saw me dismiss him as deeply flawed, and in his fascination with violence, perhaps more ugly than beautiful. But I am having second thoughts. I don't think I will ever condone his suicide—it bespeaks to me ultimately of selfishness, and short-sightedness, and for one so enamoured of the virtues of duty, strength, sacrifice and courage—the forgotten“bushido” code of the Samurai—even of weakness. He was a man who cared passionately for his country, and his pronouncement that she would gain little satisfaction through her headlong rush for material prosperity has been more than vindicated, yet it seems common sense to say that he would have been better placed to make his point living rather than dead. His word alone was newsworthy, and as one once connected to the wife of the Emperor and personal friend of the Prime Minister, he moved in circles that suggested a career in politics was there for the taking should he have wished. So his death can only be seen as a waste; his desire to live his life as a poem and die by the code of bushido ultimately a vain, selfish act that more served himself than the greater good. Still though, I find much to admire in his written and lived ideals, and it should be emphasised in Mishima's case that they were always lived—his death the ultimate example of that. He prided himself on turning ideas into action, a form of self-abnegation in which he sought to erase, in his view, the effeminate, ineffective intellectual of his youth, by becoming a man of strength and action. And I can’t help but secretly admire, half in horror half in awe, his final, mis-guided act, and the un-imaginable courage—or insanity —it must have taken to do such a thing. Almost completely un-heard of now, seppukku was near common-place in pre-modern Japan; Mishima’s however was the first recorded of the post-war era. In the short excerpt that follows, some will see simply an idealisation of self-destruction, and in the tale of a pre-war army officer, a glorifying of the militarism that so led Japan astray. But that would only be a shallow reading of the story, very much incomplete. Yes, Patriotism is a celebration of death, but not in a negative, destructive sense. Rather it celebrates the death of an army officer and his wife as the ultimate form of sacrifice—his death for belief and country; her death for him—the wife takes her husband’s beliefs as her own. Patriotism asks the question “what if?”—what if the sacrifice of 1936 Niniroku Jiken uprising, of which this real life army officer was a part, hadn't been in vain, if this last stand against the faction in favour of western style militarism and imperialism—forces incidentally which the “rightist” Mishima saw as negative, “un-Japanese” imports—had been successful. With the restoration of the spirit of bushido to the army, and its spirit of sacrifice and honour, of true service to the greater good, the destructive war with America might have been averted—a war which very near totally destroyed Japan outwardly, and, in Mishima’s view, in the occupation that followed, with its enforced constitution, robbed her inwardly of half her essence—the sword no longer beside the chrysanthemum. Mishima saw Japan as having lost her spiritual values, and in her excessive materialism, dying slowly from a “tediousness” and “insipidness” of the soul. Sadly, although largely proved correct, he left the earthly stage prematurely, and with surely much still to contribute. It is perhaps worth saying that his criticism of Japan is hardly unique to Japan; the whole world would do well to heed this warning near forty years old against materialism unchecked.

Life is but a dream…

A circumzenithal arc (upside down rainbow) by Andrew G. Saffas Serendipity: Thanks, Horace Walpole by Sumangali Morhall has left me reaching for superlatives and floundering in imitation. A total of two mentions to this web diary? Flattered beyond due, how could I not be effusive in my praise! On the topic of serendipity, still, I am reminded of a friend from very long ago, an art student and later fellow practitioner of meditation who introduced me to the concept that life itself could be art. My ears picked up at this point; being something of a frustrated artist—one who could and should be doing creative things, had always planned to do them but convinced self that he was not “good” enough to—I knew intuitively as soon as he spoke that here was a better way to live; a chord was struck within. In following this outlook, my friend and his art school acquaintances admittedly went to very unusual extremes. A flatmate of his, a particularly shy, awkward young man, took to roaming the streets in a reflective, silver spacesuit; several years later child-like quirkiness became full-blown strangeness, live art gallery performances and national magazine writeups of the very unusual party trick—sewing his own lips shut. Borderline psychosis of fleeting acquaintances aside, I very much admired my friend’s philosophy of allowing life to surprise him, the way he sought joy in the random, the unusual and completely unplanned. Like leaving small amounts of money “forgetfully” in pockets; in a week or a month when next worn—a pleasant surprise! To one used to planning and practicality but not terribly enamored of the consequences, seeing a person living thus opened my eyes, and ever since I have made a practise of always allowing life to surprise me. Like turning one's eye skywards to glimpse a rainbow, serendipity and chance are there when looked for; accept them upon their own terms, graciously and un-demanded, their workings far more beautiful than explanation. There is belief common to many religions and philosophies that maintains our world is an illusion. A more positive way of stating this, a way which doesn't negate the meaning of our fleeting human experience and reality, is to see life as a game. This is Sri Chinmoy's approach to living, and he describes it as God’s as well—a being whom he often refers to as an eternal child. If you take God to be omnipotent, omniscient and omni-present, and all the major philosophies do, then what could give such a being more joy than the unknown—a game of surprise? It is said that God deliberately limits himself, hides from himself and his full capacity, just to be able to enjoy Himself and his creation more fully. This the real meaning of life; our lives an experience of God-becoming in the midst of limitation, God enjoying himself and his creation here on earth in ever-new ways, through our eyes and our human form. Life, it is said, is the ultimate game of hide and seek...
Hide and Seek Every minute inspires me To attempt. Every hour perfects me To ascend. Every day illumines me To reach. In my attempt, I have come to learn what I can be. In my ascension, I have come to learn who I eternally Am. On my arrival, God and I shall stop playing our age-long Game, Hide-and-Seek. —Sri Chinmoy