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“Rocks in My Pockets”–more than just another animated feature film

November 23, 2014

Signe Baumane‘s new feature-length animated film “Rocks in My Pockets” makes good use of this medium to enter a territory that more conventional films cannot reach—that of your own mind. Her characters, simply rendered in two dimensions, wind their way through fanciful paper mache landscapes into some of the darkest, bleakest recesses of the mind—Baumane’s, her extended family’s, your own. Her deeply personal statement becomes universal.

It begins with the courtship of her Latvian grandparents and the unasked, unanswered questions of the madness in her family background, that we might today call mental illness. Their marriage evolves, as many do, into something less than romantic, with growing disillusionment and a concurrent resolve to do our best with the choices we have already made. There are moments of joy, but more of resignation, of sorrow, and they seem to resonate through succeeding generations in the film.

In 1941 war comes to Baumane’s native Latvia, laying waste with singular ravages such as we in 21st century USA can only imagine. Those who claim to defend and protect individuals and society instead betray and destroy them. These calamities give her family history a weight that bears down on her, and them. The hardships of their lives gave that depression, a richer, more fertile ground in which to thrive. We all of us have dysfunction in our families, in our own lives. Denial is woven through the narrative of this movie, as it is in all our lives.

The story takes place in Latvia. It is narrated in English entirely by Baumane; the accent of her native tongue places it outside our comfortable United States, in a foreign land where we find ordinary people in their inward human hearts no different from us. The artwork is entirely hers, thousands of handmade drawings moving through dozens of richly decorated paper mache sets giving a three-dimensional feel to this patient singleminded animation, produced in her apartment/studio in Brooklyn. Lighting, technical effects, script advice and voice coaching by Baumane’s long-time companion actor/director Sturgis Warner.

When asked how her family reacted to such exposure, Baumane indicated that some were aghast, some indifferent, and some appreciated that someone who know from inside who knew the truth had chosen to shine a light on it. This was one of the choices that she had to make on her own, free of the preconceptions of how others might respond drive her decisions of what to say, and how to say it.

Whether the film would make money, or find a wide audience, did not really enter into the decisions. This was a story she wanted to tell, in her own way. The essence of art.

There is light within, through, and beyond the darkness. Moments of joy, of dark humor, of connection and redemption. The rocks in our pockets have a dangerous weight, but with insight and resolve their weight can can be reduced; they can be cast away.

At Rafael Theater Monday, November 24 at 7:00.
1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA 94901 415.454.5813 Main Office 415.454.1222 Info-Line for
Film Website: http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/
Review by David Hirzel

Three great things about Golden Gate Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” (11/9/14)

November 11, 2014

As is occasionally the case with my posts here, this one comes after the close of Golden Gate Opera‘s very short run of “Madama Butterfly” (two performances in one weekend, now ended) and can’t have much impact on filling seats. However, here are three things that made this performance particularly memorable.

1. Although the producer’s pre-performance comments from the stage included an apologia for a solo pianist (Andrew Dixon ) filling in for the orchestra, this one fact, this substitution added instead a wholly unexpected and marvelous aspect. For some of us, especially us novices in the art of opera-appreciation, there is already almost too much going on for our brains to accommodate: a story of great drama told in a completely foreign language, superb acting in a uniquely operatic manner, beautiful vocal arias and duets, costume, staging, backdrop. . . . By taking out 39 pieces of orchestra, there is that much more mental capacity to take in all these others. For me, this was an enhancement, not a detriment.

2. The libretto in English was not posted for all to view. For reasons just cited, my brain was not distracted from the performance. Reading is reading, it is not watching, it is not listening, it is not feeling. This allows the philistine opera-goer’s mind to pay attention to the drama unfolding before him, rather than reading and then interpreting as the show goes along. By filling in the intellectual gaps with the content of his own imagination, the listener becomes a part of the creative process, in a way one with Puccini, and the singers. A much better way, I think, to absorb the story, the drama, and Puccini’s memorable, often familiar music.

3. While a full house was missed for this matinee, and thousands of potential audience missed their opportunity to enjoy this wonderful opera—“A True Story: A diary, a novel a play”—in masterful performance, right here in San Rafael, those who did come had a chance to meet the performers in the Green Room after the show. You just don’t get this everywhere.

Among those performers in the Sunday matinee (11/9/14) were Miwako Isano as a lovely and poignant Madama Butterfly, and Alexandra Jerinic as her faithful maidservant Suzuki. The friendship between these two characters is the cement that holds the whole opera together, no better shown than in the stunning duet that ends Act One. David Gustafson‘s Pinkerton was tender and loving on his wedding day, and passionately distraught holding his one-time bride as her sad life passed away. Special note also for the set, the backdrop scrim and the lighting showing the passage of dusk to dawn.

In having seen the opera, in this way, I find my life that much the fuller.

My suggestions to you:
1. If you have a chance to see this or any opera with less than a full orchestra, view it as an opportunity rather than as a loss, a chance to see the familiar an an entirely new light
2. A streaming libretto does not necessarily add to your understanding of the story or your appreciation of the show.
3. When you can meet the cast and crew, take advantage. There is much more to them, their lives and yours than the show you have must shared.

–Review by David Hirzel–

Literary Journalism: A few thoughts on how to proceed, Part Two

October 21, 2014

Now, before you read further you have got to endorse my self-deception that I am no critic. My reviews—theatre, movies, books—are always complimentary. If I’ve nothing good to say, I don’t say it and my readers are never the wiser. Being a supporter of the arts by inclination, I would rather help fill the seats, or attract the readers by noting the estimable achievements of the producers, writers, actors, and so on. The arts is not an easy place to make a living, and only the lucky few do. Publicity take all, talent has little to do with it. This disclaimer applies to any critiques you may find in this website.

Hemingway I have come to only lately. The first story of his that I read, I was absolutely captivated and astounded. The second, I only finished out of loyalty to myself, for having started it. In the course of reading The Art of Fact [see post “Literary Journalism: A few thoughts on how to proceed Part One” September 18] I came upon a piece describing, in excruciating detail, the author’s (Lillian Ross) few days with the famed author. The piece seemed to be more about Ross than Hemingway, more about the details of attire they wore than anything of any depth. Fortunately for me the time came to board my plane, I dogeared the page and did not return to it for a month.

Being the sort that likes to finish what he started, I un-dogeared and proceeded.

And here is where it gets interesting. Here is where you have to consume the whole piece overlooking its obvious (to you, the discerning reader) flaws, because that is just the place where the whole piece comes into focus, and had you abandoned the work earlier, or let you justifiably honest critiques get the better of you, the loss would have been yours.

The players in Ross’s interview piece go to the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I learned to write by looking at paintings in the Luxembourg Museum in Paris,” said Hemingway. “I never went past high school. When you’re hungry and the museum is free, you to to the museum.. . . I don’t want to be an art critic. I just want to look at pictures and be happy with them and learn from them.” He paused before Cezanne’s ‘Rocks—Forest of Fountainbleau.’ “This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over. . . .Degas is another wonder painter. I’ve never seen a bad Degas. You know what he did with the bad Degas? He burned them.”

There are more words of wisdom from Hemingway in this piece. You’ll have to read it for yourself, the whole piece (“Portrait of Ernest Hemingway”, New Yorker 1950) or as excerpted in The Art of Fact. I close now with this quote, spoken before Manet’s Portrait of Mlle. Valtesse de la Bigne: “Manet could show the bloom people have when they’re still innocent and before they’ve been disillusioned.”

Now that is a matter of high art, one to which all writers should aspire.

“A Pattern Language”–Poetry, Architecture, and Human Understanding

October 21, 2014

THE POETRY OF THE LANGUAGE

–from A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fikshdahl-King, Shlomo Angel (Oxford U Press, NY 1977)–

Social creatures that we are, we humans speak to each other in many languages, heard and unheard, with words spoken, written, implied yet understood. This concept of language can be applied to other realms of human interaction, expressed in repeated and interchangeable patterns. The book A Pattern Language applies it to architecture and urban planning, but there is much more to the book and its ideas, as seen below in a quote from its introduction.

“This language [that is, “a pattern language” applied to architectural design], like English, can be a medium for prose, or a medium for poetry. The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used, differently. In an ordinary English sentence, each word has one meaning, and the sentence too, has one simple meaning. In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meanings and the sentence as a whole carries an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole.

“The same is true for pattern languages. It is possible to make buildings by stringing together patterns, in a rather loose way. A building made like this, is an assembly of patterns. It is not dense. It is not profound. But it is also possible to put patterns together in such a way that many many patterns overlap in the same physical space: the building is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space; and through this density, it becomes profound.

“In a poem, this kind of density, creates illumination, by making identities between words, and meanings, whose identity we have not understood before. In ‘O Rose thou art sick,’ the rose is identified with many greater, and more personal things than any rose — and the poem illuminates the person, and the rose, because of this connection. The connection not only illuminates the words, but also illuminates our actual lives.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
–WILLIAM BLAKE

“The same exactly, happens in a building.”

Literary Journalism: A few thoughts on how to proceed, Part One

September 18, 2014

I’d like to take a course in the writing of Literary Journalism, a field to which I have been aspiring the whole time of the writing of my Tom Crean books. That is, since 1995. I’m not actually taking the course, but I have great respect for Ken McGoogan, the teacher of this course, and The Art of Fact: a Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism even more for the book that is the text for it, edited by Kevin Kerrand and Ben Yagoda.

I haven’t owned the book for an hour. I opened it to the first page that split (pg. 64) and commenced reading where my eyes fell. And could not stop reading. The piece is “An Experiment in Misery” (published 1893) by Stephen Crane, about a couple of seedy characters in search of a boarding house for the night, and later a bite to eat, in a rundown part of Brooklyn. Each sentence, each paragraph is a wonder of description to which I can aspire but never hope to attain. The key here, that we should all take not of is: “could not stop reading.” If you have accomplished that, your goal as a writer has been met.

I got as far as this passage on page 69, when I was moved to write this post:

“The young man saw the dark entrance of a basement restaurant. There was a sign which read, ‘No mystery about our hash,’ and there were other age stained and world battered legends which told him that the place was within his means. He stopped before it and spoke to the assassin. ‘I guest I’ll git somethin’ t’eat.”

The entire scene, the nature of the two characters, the neighborhood through which they pass—-that is, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that stands-in for the world they inhabit, and that inhabits them—-is painted so large and true, with such a few strokes of the writer’s brush. Now, for me, back to Crane’s story, to find out what happens next.

* * *

This, by the way, is not apropos of the launch at Florey’s in Pacifica CA of my new book Rough Weather All Day: An Account of the “Jeannette” Search Expedition by Patrick Cahill. Said launch happens Saturday September 20 at Florey’s, 3:00-5:00. Patrick Cahill’s words, here transcribed, speak for themselves, with the honesty of a daily account of exploration, shipwreck, and survival that needs no further embellishment.

On the value of second-hand books

July 26, 2014

–quoted from Alexander Werth’s “Russia at War 1941-1945″ (Carroll and Graf, NY 1964)–

“When I went to Leningrad in September 1943, the German lines were still two miles from the Kirov Works, on the southern outskirts of the city. The total population had now been reduced to some 600,000 and the city, though beautiful as ever despite considerable damage cause by shells, bombs and fires, had a strange and half-deserted look. There was practically no more bombing, but the shelling was frequent, and often deadly.

“Yet, in a strange way, life seemed almost to have returned to normal. Most of the city looked deserted, and yet, in the late afternoon, there were large crowds of people walking about the “safe” side of the Nevsky Prospect (the shells normally landed on the other side).

“And the ‘Writers’ Bookshop’ near the Anichov Bridge in the Nevsky was doing a roaring trade in second-hand books. Millions of books had been burned as fuel in Leningrad during the famine winter; and yet many people had died before having had time to burn their books, and—a cruel thought—some wonderful bargains were to be got.”

Beauty is where you find it: Monteux School in Hancock, Maine

July 20, 2014

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