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Monthly Archives: March 2011

No, it’s not the set of some avant garde director, doing an updated version of a Beckett play.  Nor, as some would have it, is it a diabolical “act of god.”   Instead it’s the face of a life upturned in the most drastic of ways.  Surrounding this young woman are hundreds or thousands of the just-dead, buried beneath the detritus scattered by the forces of nature, forces perfectly natural and comprehensible, and which show themselves periodically in Japan, and elsewhere too.  These days, with far more humans on the planet, and our technologically instantaneous communications network, these events are no longer mysterious and hidden, but are immediately flashed around the globe.  What once insulated humanity from its traumatic moments has been dissolved by the internet.

Tahrir Square, CairoLibyan rebels in retreatGaddafi supporter as loyalist troops advance

Shunted momentarily to the background, and then abruptly shoved again to the front pages, events in the middle-east carry on unabated, though having taken a sharp turn from the Twittered Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia, and the largely peaceful over-throw of Mubarak in Egypt.  The youth-led wired generation there was, at least to outward semblances, victorious.  In Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya the same youth-driven forces have instead met with the brutal real-politic of resident “strongmen” – Gaddafi, Bahrain’s king Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ahmadinejad, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.  Some of these are America’s supposed “enemies” while others are our firm “friends.”  All of them though are resisting the Jasmine changes with the same old tools they have employed for decades: force, torture, repression.  In the case of our “friends” this is nothing that we haven’t known about, and tacitly approved – selling weapons, surveillance equipment, or sometimes renting out their torture facilities, and of course in most cases, buying their oil.

Pick the good one or the bad one

Since the conclusion of World War Two American policy in the middle-east has always been twisted and warped by our car-oil fetish, with one side of our mouth talking “democracy and freedom” and the other doing “pragmatism.”   This had gone on previously, though masked by British and French and Italian colonialism.  At the end of the war, those fell apart and America stepped into the breach – a vacuum further complicated by the new presence of Europe’s off-shored bigotry problem in the form of Israel.   Since then Washington’s policies have been a hypocritical mixture of the usual American “idealism” of preaching “democracy and freedom” while pursuing actual policies  which involved everything from subverting and overthrowing legitimate elections, as in Iran in 1952, to simply going to bed with whatever “strongman” suited our cold-war/oil-addiction policies.  For more than half a century we largely supported such sorts, supplying them with arms, “intelligence,” and tacit and overt support of behaviors which blatantly and obviously – especially to the locals – contradicted our idealist claims.  Sprinkling our military liberally throughout the area, we generated a lot of well-deserved hatred.   And now, our vaunted, multi-billion dollar “intelligence community” has once again been caught pants down, utterly blind-sided by events of the last few months.   Washington races to keep up, trying to tally the “pragmatic” costs of supporting or not, this or that Twitter revolution, calculating whether to support, deny, or simply be silent in the face of the upheavals brought about by that invention of the American military, the internet, and its subsequent “social networking” tools which turn out to have an impact far from just cluing friends into the next party.

Colonel Gaddafi having perhaps made a miscalculation French aerial attack on Gaddafi forces near Benghazi

In a similar manner was another miscalculation made, one not against the behavior of other men and political mechanisms, but against nature.  Since the early 60’s, when plate tectonics as a science developed, and our understanding of the structure of the earth’s crust became clearer, events such as cataclysmic volcanic eruptions,  Vesuvius in ancient days, or Krakatoa more recently, or major earthquakes, such as that which leveled Lisboa in 1755 or the 9.5 Richter scale one which hit Chile, or the 9 Richter scale one which has just occurred in the trench off the Japanese major island of Honshu, we have known that these are not “acts of god,” but rather the explicable physical mechanics of our planet, with its hot liquid core, and a shifting, constantly changing outer crust.  We now know much of the mechanical logic of these movements, of their potential and actual strengths, and of their inevitability.  And yet, knowing this, we have continued to build highly complex, and dangerous systems – whether they are dams which might rupture and drown a city down-river, or they are highly toxic nuclear generating plants.  And we have built them immediately adjacent to plate fault-lines or sometimes quite literally on top of them.

In a carefully organized and rationalized industrial process, the Fukushima power plants were designed for maximum efficiency.  In the case they needed ready access to water, and so were situated, as many such nuclear power stations are, close to the shore of the Pacific Ocean (or rivers or lakes).  Also, for the sake of efficiency, 6 nuclear generators were placed in a row, one beside the next.  In order to minimize dangers of transportation, the storage of the spent fuel rods (theoretically temporarily – until the world decides how to safely dispose of them) was in pools immediately atop the generator buildings.  All of this was, from an industrial standpoint, rationalized as making for the most efficient, profitable, manner to organize the energy-making process.

Sited, as they were, immediately adjacent to an off-shore tectonic fault line famous for generating major earthquakes, the plants were engineered to survive the most major of events.  As the zone was also well-known for tsunamis generated by earthquakes, there were anti-tsunami barriers off shore, as there are along much of the coastline of the eastern coast of Japan.   While the major structures did survive the quake, the tsunami walls, here and elsewhere, proved woefully inadequate, and in Fukushima, the tsunami wave flooded the area.   Back-up diesel generators, present to provide emergency power for cooling in case of a loss of normal electrical, were located on the lower levels of the plants and were disabled by the tsunami wave.   Another battery backup system, good only for a few days, was intact, but while the architecture of the plants survived, the wiring and mechanical systems were seriously damaged and hindered or blocked alternative cooling systems.

In the face of the 9 point earthquake and subsequent tsunami the lines of defense all failed.  In failing they underlined the logical frailty of the industrial rationalizing which went into designing the plants.  Clustering 6 generators next to each other meant the serious failure of one made dealing with lesser failures in the others far more difficult; storing the spent fuel immediately adjacent, and in relatively flimsy structures not really designed to withstand an earthquake (only the actual reactors were so built), made these vulnerable to further failures.  One by one the design factors consciously and willfully carried out under one set of logic collapsed in the face of another logic.   The simple reality is that nuclear power stations are constructed for economic reasons, for which they are only logical if one keeps very bad accounting.  They are very costly to build and maintain; they inherently have a limited life-span owing to the toxicity of the process at the heart of their mechanism; they generate waste which remains toxic and there is not any meaningful disposal system for that waste (aside from dumping on some hapless lesser “other” world).  And when the life-span of the plant is over, it too is toxic.  Of course in the fiscal wonderland of the nuclear energy industry all these costs are ignored, to be passed on to the public after the money’s been made.

Fukushima neighbor being checked for radiationTomahawk rocket being fired at Libya from US Naval vesselGaddafi soldier after UN approved attackTsunami victimFamily memento, tsunami destroyed village

Tragedy is a human construct, something which our consciousness produces,  a mechanism to help us where we cannot reconcile ourselves to the reality which is the universe.  To explain it some invent gods to make explicable the horrors which nature visits seemingly at random upon us, or to explain or justify the horrors which we ourselves inflict upon each other.  In other hands it is some other ideology which provides the lever with which to explain our behavior.  In the case of the Fukushima nuclear generating plants it is not simply a matter of engineering, but of the system which prompted the engineering into being.  In this case it is a capitalist driven consumerism, for which Japan stands as emblematically a perfect example.  It is a nation which fell in a thrall to the wonders of industrialization and all the things which can be made through it.  It happens to have few natural resources outside of timber, a bit of coal, and in its embrace in the late 1800’s of industrialization and modernity, it found itself first forced into imperial policies to secure the resources it needed.  In consequence it went to war, and lost, profoundly.  Pursuing the same policies, it re-industrialized, and to power its factories, it was more or less forced to use nuclear generators as a power producing source.  As could have been easily foreseen, it was a bargain with the devil: there is no place on the small island nation of Japan where nuclear plants can safely be built – Japan is itself the product of tectonic plate collisions.   While it is doubtless fatuous to imagine it, now perhaps Japan – a place which most Japanese I know admit is not “happy”  – will lead the way towards de-industrializing, and adapting to a life with less – far less – in material terms, but perhaps richer in other more important things.

Scott’s Bluff, Neb.;  thanks to Todd MortenRalph Albert BlakelockHalo Reach video gameHousing tract

J.P.Morgan, NYCBuster KeatonForeclosureFire, San Bruno, Ca.Glenn Beck, ratings falling

The two permissible Parties

Barbara Davis, Beverly HillsJanis Joplin, San Francisco

Maricopa County, AZNuclear power plant, GeorgiaFire, blown gas mainsTom  McGuane, ranch, MontanaHarry Truman House,  Independence, Mo.Senators Paul Rand and Mitch McConnellWTC, Building #3Grafitti, New York subway

Winter is fading, its weather cataclysms slipping from mind, the promise of spring hinting at better things to come.  Such are the age-old cycles which, even in our technically distorted world, still function.  The cold gray lifts, the sun slants less obliquely, eros stirs.  Meantime out in the broader world other things are stirring, sending quivers through the Beltway calculus.  Utterly unanticipated, a Tunisian peddler set himself aflame, and in less than two months the entire middle-east, repository of America’s “national interests” in the form of oil, is likewise engulfed.  In Libya the tragi-comic figure of Gaddafi holds on, and Europe and America ponder whether to intervene to lessen the blood being spilled, though these policies are mitigated by a long colonial history of Western exploitation, which in truth is in large measure the cause of the current crises.  In America the faint glimmer of an alleged economic up-turn is now at the mercy of mobs calling for democracy and dismantling the dictatorships which had for some decades kept “stability” with the support of our oil hungry “democracies.”

Here at home, hot on the heels of their November winnings at the polls, the Republicans and their Tea-Party cohorts have reached quickly to translate their views into policy.  In Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, governors and firm Statehouse Republican majorities are looking to wipe out what vestiges of union life remain in America, and are taking their cleavers to budgets for almost everything (except the military).  In the US Congress they’re doing the same.  Carried out these should up the unemployment rolls a good bit, and trash the wheezing of the communal economic corpse even more.  Pundits theorize this is purposeful, to assure a victory in the Presidential elections in 2 more years.   I’m inclined to agree though I doubt the result will be the hoped-for GOP landslide, rather it would appear there will be a harsh backlash which will whip Obama back into office for another term – Obama, whose policies are very marginal improvements on those of his predecessor.  However articulate his tongue, this President appears to be a master of the jive and shuck, saying one thing but doing another, always able to say it is better than what the crazed far-right would do.  It now seems an obvious bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of our not-so-hidden rulers. In America we might say presidents are always “right.”

So while soon the flowers will bloom, and a sunnier disposition will be only natural, it will most likely be a pleasant delusion as the next steps of our national restructuring are carried out: more work, less pay (for those who have work); no work and no social support net for those without work.  This will be the order of the day, all in the name of saving the economy.  Meantime the CEO’s of the big banks and corporations will reward themselves with yet bigger bonuses.   400 individual Americans taken together hold the same wealth as 150 million other Americans share together.  Such is our nation.  Until, perhaps soon, the things we’ve seen in Cairo and Libya arrive here.

Spiral Jetty, from James Benning’s Casting a Glance

The Milky Way, our galaxy


Returning back from six weeks travel crammed with too much to ponder, a cloud of personal anxiety for Marcella who is still in Italy with medical problems which make me feel I should  be there with her,  the gray envelope of aloneness here in Seoul jangled only by the pressing matter of getting ready for academic chores, I found myself looking through computer files for something else, and bumped into this – a letter to both Jim Benning and Leighton Pierce, two filmmakers I respect immensely and like to think of as friends:

I hope you won’t mind me bunching this up, but since it’s about something by each of you, and kind of comparative, and as I am dead tired from finishing up (I hope to hell – the Jeonju fest runs tapes through a studio that is merciless, and I’d sent 3 so far, and each one has flaws I didn’t see – dropped pixels, shifted image, little buzz line at bottom of one passage – and I was up to 11 last nite and up at 5am working to 1:30pm before I took off for class and must make new tape tonite, poor me).

Anyway today I looked at a film of each of you – #1, and Ruhr.  It would be hard to find two more wildly different films (unless I opted for totally badly crafted ones) and yet somehow they both did similar things, though coming from completely different angles.

I’ve seen #1 maybe 4 or 5 times before, but hadn’t seen it for quite a while.  Like almost all your work, Leighton, it rewards re-looking again and again.  #1 is so rich, a first look is almost too much to take in, one gets lost in the dust, the forms shifting so rapidly and organically, a wild painterliness almost overwhelming in its seeming pace, the sounds shifting, hinting, guiding.  But with each repeated look the rush of images takes on more and more orderliness, like peeling back the layers of some gorgeous plant, each layer leading to another equally beautiful and sensuous, yet still withholding its secret.   Today I felt I saw so much more than the last time, though it is clear this poem will remain ever elusive.  And enticing.  I am sure I could watch and hear it 100 times – which I think I might have done with some of your films – well that’s a bit rhetorical of course.  How about 30 or 40 times?  Anyway #1 is stunning, in quite a literal sense.

Then I saw Ruhr, on a sizable screen, with my good projector.  Even with the compression it was quite clear and detailed, though I am sure off original it is much more so.  The compression mostly induced some motion artifacts, little jerkiness – annoying, but one is able to read through it.

For a few decades, Jim, I’ve thought your work was sadly compromised by shooting in 16mm, and I fantasized your being able to do it in 35mm, though I understood only too well the brutal fiscal logic that didn’t let you do that (and why I pestered you for a decade and more about DV).  So seeing the HD, the wide-screen format, the far better sound was all a distinct pleasure.  And I was very very impressed with Ruhr, which as radical as it is I suppose for most people, I feel really works.  Though the viewer must give it an awful lot, which I know most (95% or more? of even supposedly adventurous festival goers?) aren’t game to give.   But if you do then you really look and see and listen, it is very rewarding, guiding one to be attentive to the smallest of things, and in a way out of what most would think as almost “nothing” you offer a lesson in dramatic construction.  The little leaf in the tunnel, inconsequential and in most circumstances unnoticeable, makes an ironic little dance; the dance of steel pipes in the making (reminded me a little of the lumber mill sequences in The Bed You Sleep In), forcing one to look and look (and listen and listen), all the while shifting one’s sense of time steadily to another state, while tuning up the eyes and ears.  The forest sequence was gorgeous, the composition really exquisite with the two heavier trunks constraining what almost seemed a spatially false space of light between them; the dark mass to the right pulsating – I found myself thinking of Caspar David Friedrick, and perhaps a touch of Gerhardt Richter (some things of his), and some of the denser images of Pollock, especially late painting.  The jets taking off, the long pause and then the rustle of the branches, autumn leaves falling – this almost “nothing” was ripe with space to think and ponder.  Its repetition was again a lesson in drama – the dramatic act, the long pause, the rustled response, the senses being tuned to what is in the image and the sound.  The mosque sequence seemed a bit strange, though being familiar with Germany, I knew it was not so strange, though I find this religious genuflecting dubious, sad, and a bit fearful – whether of Muslims or our home-grown erstwhile Christians.  The Serra cleaning was the one place where I itched to see a not-Benning turn:  as I watched and it came to a close I promptly thought that it would have been gorgeous (and truthful) to have the guy go off screen with his stuff, and then shot unchanged do a very very slow dissolve to the cleaned work, a large steel monolith in the middle of the screen.  Kind of thing I would have done.  The street scene – stolid, drab, echt deutsch – seemed an anti-climax, though it too took on its own burgerlich life, and off-screen the sound hinted at the wider world, the industrial sounds hovering just a step away (again, was reminded of Bed where the sound of the pulp mill was ever present on the track).

And then the coke tower sequence, where you lay down the gauntlet, and I suppose most would decline the offer.  I looked carefully the whole time, while it was brighter my eyes at a later point saturated with the contrast, popped back and forth, almost hallucinogenic, while the ears tuned to the sounds, seeming almost Penderecki or some Alvo Part, the song of the industrial apparatus, trying to synchronize the repeated noises that seemed to presage the sudden burst of steams, the light drowned by the industrial clouds, the sly rhythm again building the sense of drama.  The off-screen thump, the sequence of up/down siren(?) sounds announcing yet another deluge.  The light slowly dropping, and the coke tower coiled with black shadow, morphing into the WTC towers – such is what an hour will give you to fill in the screen with your own thoughts.

Great film, James.

What both films do, in completely differing tacks, is move the viewer to SEE and to HEAR.  #1, a slightly long poem, plunges the emotions, whips them into a frenzied sensuousness, and leaves you – like making love, satiated and wanting more.  Ruhr, a more massive work than its 2 hours suggest, takes another route, and likewise tunes the eyes and ears, but leaves a vast canvas for the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the process.  I felt Ruhr to have an ominous tone, a weightiness related perhaps to Anselm Kiefer.

Off the top of my head, those are my thoughts of the moment.  I’ll be chewing on them a bit and probably writing more or more clearly on cinemaelectronica in the next days – if I can get damned Swimming fixed and out of my hands.

Back in Seoul following my travels, I flicked on the computers which had frozen along with everything in my living box in my winter absence.  One put out a signal about DMI that sent me scrambling to Google to solve.  Five days later it’s back up.  And the others are under the harness, taking care of chores (mistakes discovered in screenings in Rotterdam and Jerusalem.)  Shortly it will be on to new work – scavenging the several hundred tapes to both get them on Hard Disks before my tape-running machines give up the ghost, and at the same time to look at the material gathered since 1996, and find whatever films are hiding in there.  I suspect there’s 3-5 features and lots more shorts waiting to be discovered and organized.  And along with that beginning to think about and take a few tangible steps towards shooting a film, narrative, in HD, in the summer, or perhaps next winter.

Perhaps it is getting on in age, the fabled mid-life crisis arriving rather late  (67 is not mid-life unless you  are Methusala), or perhaps it is a look at the changed world around me, but as I glance at the racks of tapes, or begin to write people about new film, I find I am less than enthused, and instead silently ask myself, “what’s the point?”

Certainly in my case it’s not the old stand-by, “to make a living,” as it is 100% certain that whichever of these – odd films culled from the backlog of footage, or a quasi-acceptable narrative shot in HD – they are not in the current world going to make any money, plain and simple.  They will cost a little or in the case of the narrative film, a little pile, of my own limited money with old age and its problems, more or less upon me, unprotected by any insurance for health, life, etc.  They’ll also cost lots of time and energy.   So no, it ain’t for money, which my work has never brought me, except belatedly here near end-game, tangentially, via a teaching job which I guess I “earned”  the right to have with 4+ decades of film/video-making.   Nor is it for the cultural pats-on-the-head of festivals showing your work, or retrospectives here and there, or an article written about one’s work.  I know some people like, appreciate, or even need such things, for their sense of self-respect or “ego.”  But being honest, such things really don’t mean much to me, perhaps because I am self-confident enough (or arrogant, depending how you look at it) that I really don’t need external approval: I know very well that I am very good at what I do, and given I am the one most acquainted with the actual processes and the penury involved, I know it better than anyone else could.   In fact often such sentiments are expressed in ways that are actually irritating for me.  So, nope, it’s not the back pats and gushing “loved it” that prompts me.  And when I watch the list of credits roll by in most films, and think someone just directed, or someone just did camera, and someone else edited, well….

Being honest with myself I wonder is it exhaustion, just a tiredness in the face of what this work is, and I think in some part it is.  After nearly 50 years (in 2013) it would be hard to say making a film is exciting or a thrill, as I read others imagine it must be.  It’s a perverse kind of non-paying job, or a bad habit, or, probably a compulsion.  I don’t know how to do nothing, to relax; instead I am a non-stop workaholic, doing one thing or another all day long.   And I know – from my own experience – that some others are very much the same.

On another level, there is a kind of self-pleasure – doing something that pleases one’s self.  When I find in working something new, something I did not know or did not know I knew, there is a flash of cognition, and this triggers a mode of happiness.  That is the thing which, when others perceive it, and are able to articulate it, I am able to feel a genuine sense of connection, of  “communion.”   It is perhaps the mix of this kind of thing, along with the communion I feel with the work itself that keeps things going.  For example I saw this on Mubi, regarding James’ film, and I felt sure that when he saw this he felt a flush of something that I guess we could say verges on the  “spiritual.”

Matt Nelson

on Tue 02 Mar at 06:08 PM

As someone coming to Ruhr with almost no background in cinema or visual literacy, as a reader and writer, I have to say that Ruhr affected me like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I learned much about the world, about myself, through it⎯about how the translation of energy from one form into another forms rhythms which themselves are only interesting in their breaks because the breaks suggest larger, more mysterious rhythms at work, rhythms at higher levels of attention.

So the nature of my own attention seems different to me now because the film helped me attend to those rhythms. The question of art’s fidelity to reality is an old one, and quite misplaced, I think. As Mr. Benning points out, the shots were composed in a frame. And they are still in a way no human eye ever could be, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something that I never would have, even if I had been in those particular places at those particular times. I wouldn’t question any alterations made by the maker of the film than I would trouble with a composer organizing the notes into a score. The manipulation of the matter reality through a human consciousness is one way to understand art, and quite precisely personal, it seems to me.

And Ruhr changed my understanding of what might be an objective reality or a truth. That also seems quite personal to me—a translation one person’s personal into another’s—and I’m glad to my bones to have gotten the experience. So, should Mr Benning happen to read this: thank you.

Jim Benning

As it happens, while “known” in the rarified avant garde experimental film world when I met him back in 1977 or 78, I think at the Edinburgh Festival, James has mainly been in the cultural arts-world background, working away with a consistency similar to my own:  a workaholic.  But he had to juggle his pay-day job, teaching (for some time now at Cal Arts, since 1987; before that in NYC scrambling on grants and visiting artist gigs), from which I suspect he extracted most or much of the money to pay for doing his films.  His work required a lot of travel over the years, really a lot, and I think we can guess he spent the last 3 decades on a real work pattern – all for marginal money, and the usual festival/archive/museum screenings deal.  And for much of it having to cover the costs from his own pocket.   In the last years he’s been rewarded (!) with some retrospectives, and long over-due acknowledgment of the cumulative weight of his ouvre.  With an eye to the future, the Austrian Filmmuseum in Wien is beginning to make archival prints and K2 digital copies of all his films.  (Need I say there weren’t any US offers to do the same.)  And with his newer HD digital works I feel he’s taken a leap in his work, consolidating all he’s learned and applying it with tools that genuinely match his artistic sensibilities.   I confess a real pleasure in seeing this all unfold, however belated it seems to me to be.

With his new, appropriate for his work and far less expensive HD tools, I hope he can maintain the energies to carry on at the standard he set in Ruhr, and in the related Pig Iron 30 minute film which I saw in Jeonju last spring.

RuhrPig IronCasting a Glance (Spiral Jetty)13 LakesRuhrTen SkiesJames at work, Ruhr

Over the decades I’ve had the pleasure to share a small bit of time, usually over a beer, with Jim, and to see if not all his films, most of them.   He’s had kind words about my own efforts, which I appreciate.  Perhaps in a handful of years his work will be more readily available to share – on BluRay or whatever comes next that way.  Meantime if you’d like to take a stab at Ruhr, I think you can download it here.

Or for a bit of reading, you can try this or this.  But the best would be try to see some of his films if you can.

10 Skies

[In a week or two I’ll continue with this rumination, with some thoughts on Leighton Pierce.]