Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Battleship Potemkin: Art & Agitprop

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin has been called the greatest propaganda film of all time by none other than Nazi Germany's very own poison dwarf, Joseph Goebbels. He called it "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema...anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."

I recently watched the fully restored, unedited version of Battleship Potemkin. All the greys and silvers have been buffed and polished and it looks gorgeous. The original score by Edmund Meisel has also been re-recorded with a few minor alterations and it sounds crisp, booming and surging with the ebbs and flows of the Black Sea, the setting for the film.

Eisenstein based the film on the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin and transformed the event into a metaphor for Lenin's ideal of revolution in general:
"Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just and truly great war. In Russia this war has been declared and begun."

At the time of its release in 1925, film was considered to be a fluid medium, open to edits and reinterpretations. Meisel's score was lost and substituted for a time with music by Shostakovich and others, including a version by the Pet Shop Boys as recently as 2004. Eisenstein said, "I told Meisel I wanted the score to be rhythm, rhythm, and, above all, pure rhythm," and the composer succeeded in delivering a riveting soundtrack in only twelve days.

It was banned, heavily edited and given an 'R' rating whenever it was shown in the west for fear it might stir up the riff-raff. It's a stirring testimonial to the power of early silent film and transcends propaganda simply because the drama is stronger than its didacticism. It was also considered to be extremely violent for its time, with most versions editing this scene out and more:

The image inspired some of the artist Francis Bacon's more disturbing work like this "Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X":

Here's an unedited version of the famous "Odessa Steps" scene:

Friday, April 23, 2010

Alain de Botton: Shadow Voyages

One of the best things about Alain de Botton's The Art Of Travel is reading about the guides accompanying him on his various peregrinations around the globe. William Wordsworth takes him through the Lake District, Charles Baudelaire & Edward Hopper through the solitary edges of shadow voyages...

...and Vincent van Gogh through the shimmering light of Provence:

If I could chose my ideal guide for a trip it would be Arthur Rimbaud on a voyage through Ethiopia. I'd love to hear what he'd say about the country he knew as Abyssinia and if he had any new ideas about making a buck apart from running guns. Probably not. Then we'd travel to Paris, drink absinthe and smoke hash in the bars around Montmartre until we pickled our brains.

As de Botton says in the brief clip below (looking uncannily like a young Brian Eno), one of the great problems of travel is that "you can't leave yourself behind." Perhaps, but you can always lose yourself...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sinead O'Connor: Vindication

On October 3, 1992, Sinead O'Connor appeared on "Saturday Night Live” and ripped-up a photo of Pope John Paul II while singing Bob Marley’s “War.” A ferocious backlash followed. Even today the scene is edited out on reruns of “SNL”, both a damning example of censorship in the age of “big media”, and a revelation about the clout of Catholics in America. What few people recall, however, was that it was to protest pedophilia in the Catholic Church, a worthwhile cause by anyone’s standards, but one which hadn’t yet permeated the American psyche. How times change. Eighteen years later, the rest of the world appears to have finally caught up with her.

Sinead was one of the original riot grrrlz; she took on the Pope, Margaret Thatcher, Bono and Frank Sinatra; she ripped the guts out of a man who dared to leave her and then threw her career away to become the first female priest in her own Catholic/Rastafarian/Lesbian Nunnery...or something.

She's a warrior. Like Van Morrison or Emmylou Harris she goes straight for the heart of a song, takes it by the scruff of the neck and shakes it free from any protective plumage. Her gorgeous, stark voice, at times childishly tender or mawkishly cruel, picks up on the essentials, while leaving all superfluity behind.

When she first leapt into the limelight in the late ‘80s, she came on as Kate Bush gone to boot camp: head shaved and shrouded in the anger and mythology of songs “Troy” and “Mandinka.” Barely 20 years old in 1987 when she produced her debut, The Lion and The Cobra, she helped pave the way for the female artists that followed in her wake such as Liz Phair, Alanis Morrissette and Fiona Apple.

Last month she wrote a piece in the Washington Post explaining why she felt compelled to target the Pope:
"Almost 18 years ago, I tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on an episode of "Saturday Night Live." Many people did not understand the protest -- the next week, the show's guest host, actor Joe Pesci, commented that, had he been there, "I would have gave her such a smack." I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn't believe in God. That's not the case at all. I'm Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation."
I'm with her, still waiting at the door.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thích Nhất Hạnh: Being Peace

“There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.” - Thích Nhất Hạnh
One of my heroes was born in Vietnam and it's not Yvon Petra. It's Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thay), a Zen Buddhist who lives the creed. He spins expectations upside down in such a way that it seems as though the world was always thus. Rather than the stereotype of detachment associated with Buddhists, Thay has spent the better part of his life espousing "engaged Buddhism." For me, this has meant simply being able to see what's at the end of my nose.

He caught my attention about thirteen years ago when I was living in Japan and working with a Zen priest, Sakurai Sensei. Sakurai was an English teacher, a father of four daughters with his own patch of paradise and a small modest temple on Mount Higashi.

It was just up the hill from where I was living and I would attend sittings periodically. I had developed an interest through my readings of the Beats, especially the poetry of Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums. We'd pass the time sipping tea, discussing Zen, satori, the shape of a mudra and enjoying the odd beer once in a while. There wasn't anything mysterious to his practice, nothing ornate or pretentious. It was life lived in the moment - engaged being.

When I read Thay's Being Peace it had a profound effect and confirmed certain truths I was already in possession of, but wasn't really aware. That's what they say - the truth presents itself in ways that make you feel you've known it all your life. Inhale. Exhale. Be.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mekong Delta: Coconut Monks & Unicorns

Vietnam is a country thriving to achieve what it has been denied for centuries – prosperity. For the first millennium it was tangled in a series of battles with the Chinese and Mongols, then came the French and finally the Americans. All of these foes were invaders bent on occupying Vietnam and forcing its people into submission. All failed. For the past thirty years the country has been accelerating, making up for lost time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the energy and optimism of its youth.

Traveling throughout the country from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi has been a blast and an eye-opening experience. In Saigon, the city felt like a more European version of Hong Kong with a dash of Mandalay’s sleepy nonchalance thrown in.

The Saigon River winds around the edge of the old town like a snake slowly uncurling itself from under the city’s simmering heart. Over its surface glides a ferry carrying motorbikes and pedestrians.

Watching the sunset from the rooftop bar of the Majestic Hotel, the lights on the large riverboats flash on and off in the image of huge fish to entice tourists for an evening of dining and drinking.

We took a day trip out to the Mekong Delta and stopped at a Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho before taking a boat out on river.

Maitreya Buddha
Our guide, Luc, was a very pleasant guy in his thirties from the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. He spoke English well and made us feel right at home.

We were given the ubiquitous conical hats making us look like coneheads, and took a boat on the Mekong River over to Unicorn Island.

This part of the delta is known for the small islands named after mythical animals – Phoenix, Unicorn, Dragon, Turtle – and are inhabited by locals selling honey and tea. We were treated to a musical performance by this four-piece ensemble...

...played with a python...

...and then hopped in a smaller boat back out to the main river.

When we came to Phoenix Island we visited the home of the so-called "Coconut Monk". This was one wacky guy who got his name from living mainly on a diet of coconuts. He came from a wealthy family and was basically a charlatan bent on seeking publicity, even if his intentions were good.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Nhà Trắng: Beach Life

The sun sizzles in Nhà Trắng and we've got the burns to prove it. It's a great little city on the coast between HCMC & Huế in the South of Vietnam, one that hasn't yet been overdeveloped, and it's extremely hot. The waters are turquoise blue, the sand a chalky-white and now my skin is the red-lead colour of a rock lobster. We spent three days and took a tour of a few of the surrounding islands while squeezing in a bit of snorkeling around some of Nhà Trắng's gorgeous coral reefs.

This giant white Buddha at Long Son Pagoda is dedicated to six monks who burnt themselves alive in 1963 to protest the persecution of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and the escalating influence of the U.S. on Vietnam's internal affairs.

Thích Quảng Đức, Saigon, 1963

Po Nagar Cham towers, dating from the 12th century.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Saigon: Hope & Rebirth

We arrived in Saigon (the centre of Ho Chi Minh City) to the rush of scooters and motorcycles carrying everything from cases of beer, families of four and bundles of flowers. Everyone wears personalized balaclavas along with their own choice of helmet accessories, which can range from cute ladybugs to the more patriotic variety.

The city has a wonderful buzz, still riding high on the filthy lucre of the last decade.

As our guide, Luc, said, "you can find one of everything in the world in Vietnam." Unfortunately, in the case of war and its "science of destruction" that's the truth. The country was at war with the Chinese for a millennium, then the French, the U.S. and finally Cambodia and China again from 1975-1979.

"An American soldier with the skull of a Vietnamese Patriot"
One of AP photographer Henri Huet's best known images

At the War Remnants Museum (formerly the Exhibition House of American War Crimes) we revisited some of the atrocities that occurred during the U.S. "campaign" from the perspective of the Vietnamese, such as the vast amounts of Agent Orange and other chemicals that were dumped on the country. The Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4,000,000 victims of dioxin poisoning, but the U.S. still denies any conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and any of the victims.

Off in a separate room is this exhibition of children's drawings completed after a visit to the museum. Bursting with colour and hope, it's such a contrast to the gun-metal gray despair of the rest of the museum and is a much needed reminder of the healing power of innocence and of the country's phenomenal rebirth.