698 Progress Report –

My independent study is going well – with only a few weeks left I need to submit a 1st draft soon – I plan on posting the final paper up here, in the meantime here’s a teaser –

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Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” – more on the ‘power of relics’

Tonight in Cinema Studies we saw Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the first film that adhered to the Dogma 95 ‘vow of chastity’. Here’s the plot taken directly from Wikipedia (spoiler alert):

Respected family patriarch and businessman Helge (Henning Moritzen) is celebrating his 60th birthday at their family-run hotel. Gathered together are his loyal wife Elsa, his daughter Helene, his sons Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), and other guests. Christian’s twin sister, Linda, had recently killed herself at the hotel.

Before the celebration dinner, Helene finds Linda’s suicide note, but hides it. Later, during dinner, Christian makes a speech to the family in which he accuses Helge of sexually abusing him and his late sister, Linda. Helge’s family and friends initially dismiss the accusations as absurd, a joke, or a figment of Christian’s imagination. During a toast, Elsa makes a series of back-handed compliments towards her children, accusing Christian of having an overactive imagination as a child, and asking him to apologize. Christian responds by accusing her of interrupting Helge during a rape. Michael ejects Christian from the hotel.

At the end of the film, Christian’s accusations are confirmed when the younger sister, Helene, reads Linda’s suicide note. Linda’s note states that she had begun to have dreams in which her father was molesting her again, which led to her suicide. Helge admits to the abuse, saying that it was all Christian was good for.

The next morning, Helge admits the abuse of his children and the destruction of his family. Michael nevertheless sends him away from the table, pointing out that he has to go so that they can have breakfast.

Right when Helene takes out the suicide note I was reminded of my post on La Notte when Lidia pulls out an old love letter from Giovanni. The power of the written word, of something physical, is so powerful it becomes a form of testimony. Despite Christian’s status as the favorite son and most dependable, his claims are questioned all throughout the film until they’re verified by his dead sister’s letter. While the short letter doesn’t delineate in graphic detail the abuse that occurred for years, unlike the videotape in Primal Fear, our imaginations are able to fill in the gaps. The letter is so potent that even the abusive father stops trying to derail the truth from getting out. We don’t dare question the voice of the dead, maybe it’s a form of tribute to them.

And yet we’re somehow aware of the gap between the relic and ‘the truth’. The monuments that ancient civilizations have left for us are not only the means by which we understand them but also how they wanted to be remembered. The details that were left out, that lie in the shadow of the past, our imaginations can only illuminate.

Berlinale Highlight #3 – Berlin, ‘City of Ghosts’

Unfortunately, we remember and understand a city through the prism of the small number of people we met and experiences we had while there. This is even more problematic when our visit is so short. Maybe that’s why we take so many pictures and buy trinkets for our shelves before we leave a new place – we’re aware of how little we experienced but nonetheless afraid of forgetting it.

Such was my situation while in Berlin during the Talent Campus. While I had grand plans of visiting all the landmarks and museums, the reality is that we had very little time with the panel sessions during the day and films in the evening. But with all the walking in between, I did get a chance to experience a little bit of Berlin’s urban space.

Continue reading

Another try –

I went back to my blog posts to find a more structured approach with parameters and a plan for my 698:

A starting point (individual memory),
a middle point that I wrote about last semester (National Memory)
and an attempt to put learning into practice through my current screenplay “I Dreamt of Empire”

Here’s a rough outline in terms of structure & proposed filmography:

1. Individual memory:

  • example of a protagonist trying to forget – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • example of a protagonist trying to remember – Memento
  • connections, differences and failures of these two protagonists’ journeys through their memories
  • examine a group of protagonists (Rashomon) that individually are able to remember what they ‘saw’ but because their memories don’t add up something is assumed missing or corrupted –

**This should dovetail with a deeper discussion of a specific type of collective memory – ‘National Memory & associated nostalgia or pain’

2. Collective memory:

  • confronting national memory & loss – Stray Dog
  • forgetting national past – ‘Still undecided Film from Fassbinder’

3. Concluding with ‘learning put into practice’:

Analysis of a Work in Progress Script ‘I Dreamt of Empire’ written by Kasem Kharsa

  • An analysis of a screenplay with such undertones of memory and memory loss, as an individual and as part of a citizen of a fallen nation, by examining a project screenplay of the writing concentration class. Connecting to the aforementioned films and techniques of storytelling

What do you think?

‘Cinema: Part-Machine, Part-Man’

Progress Report on my Independent Study – it’s taking a very strange and exciting turn, tell me what you think:

‘CINEMA: PART-MACHINE, PART-MAN’

There are a couple of ‘dots’ I want to try to connect and here’s two lines I think I can do it with:

  • ‘theology of cinema’ – art & technology as a form of creation – as a way of emulating God – as a way of building a theology out of the chaos of life.
  • ‘cinema as consciousness’ – cinema is more than art – narrative that tells a story caught by someone’s eye (via the camera), edited for casuality and brevity – similar to the way we store memories.

Each of us has a theology. We’ve either accepted an established religion or pieced one together from our life experiences – each valid options. Even if you don’t believe in a supreme being or think Man a divine creation, those ‘disbeliefs’ sum up a personal theology.

This personal theology represents a huge part of who we are, how we interpret the world around us and what we aspire towards. It’s strange that we rarely talk about it when discussing one of our loves – films. Somehow the theater is secular. Maybe because each of us has our own set of beliefs we try to find common ground in talking about the cinematography, set design, etc – things we can all see and agree upon – the world has enough conflict as is.

But what if cinema is religious – an inadvertent reflection of our own theologies?

What if cinema is religion – preaching a theology of its own?

Bear with me.

We learn a great deal about a religion through it’s creation-myth of the Earth and Mankind. Let us take Islam for example, which shares many similarities to Judaic-Christian stories of Adam’s origin:

‘. . . He first created man from clay, then made his descendants from an extra of underrated fluid. Then he moulded him; He breathed from His Ruh (Spirit) . . .’ [Quran 32.7-9]

Words fundamental to any theology like Ruh are very difficult to translate, especially considering there really is no definition of it in the Quran. But we can learn more about it, this divine element, through studying it’s context in other verses:

‘You Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a mortal out of dried clay, formed from dark mud. When I have fashioned him and breathed My Ruh into him, bow down before him’ [Quran 15.28-29]

To extend this crucial moment in Man’s creation and to fully appreciate his station because of this Ruh relative to the Angels & Creation let us look at:

‘When your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a khalifah (successor/deputy) on earth,’ they said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but He said, “I know things you do not.’ He taught Adam all the names [of things], then He showed them to the angels and said, ‘Tell me the names of these if you truly [think you can can]’. they said, ‘May You be glorified! We have knowledge only of what You have taught us. You are the All Knowing and All Wise.’ Then He said, ‘Adam, tell them the names of these.’ when he told them their names, God said, ‘Did I not tell you that I know what is hidden in the heavens and the earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?’ When We told the angels, ‘Bow down before Adam,’ they all bowed . . . [Quran 2.30-34]

What can we understand about Ruh in relation to Man from the context of these verses?

  • it is fundamental to what it means to be Human
  • it is the cause of Man’s position as khalifah of creation
  • it is our divine connection/software
  • tied to our ability to name things/language

And maybe  . . . our ability to create. This is not suggested by the verses but bear with me –

When I use the word ‘create’, I don’t mean in the sense of ‘forming something out of nothing’, but of combining existing elements.

We create through art – a relic of an emotion or thought – and through technology – tool-making that hopefully improves our lives.

Let us back up a little bit and talk about theology with broader strokes. Theology and religion are taught in terms of parameters – good & evil, this life and the hereafter, the body & the soul, etc. This idea of parameters, of the fathomable and impossible as somehow affected our own discussion of Man and his abilities. We have raised mankind’s uniqueness and gifts to the point that many of us believe there are limits to what our inventiveness will be able to accomplish. Specifically, some have suggested artificial intelligence is an impossibility. Why? It’s only a matter of time before we start terraforming planets and building things atom by atom. Acts of God. I believe eventually we will create human-like machines, able to reason, love and ‘create’, maybe even better at it than ourselves.

Not to be blasphemous but is it possible, that like God, we breath in our own spirit/ruh, albeit not as divine and perfect, into the things we make? Many of the things we create represent our yearnings, our shortcomings, and an attempt to make order out of chaos. If so – then why did we create cinema? Why do we continue to create cinema? Why are we so earnest to consume it?

I believe Cinema is part theology-building, a playing out of our moralities, origins, creation-myths, etc – THE NEW RELIGION – with celebrity idols, conventions of good & evil. Where we learn a scripture of what to aspire to and what to avoid. Where we witness stories of creation, destruction and salvation, related to us by new Prophets.

I believe Cinema is part man-building, building a Frankenstein-like consciousness out of a series of images and sounds, a voice that converses with the audience, like a real person or storyteller, in the form of a narrative. A narrative that depends heavily on your own brain to process and store. Cinema is not art, it is not simply an object that represents an emotion or object, it is built from the ground up like a Human memory that inserts itself through your eyes into our your own recollections as if you really experienced it.

Does this make any sense?

Cinema = Memory

I originally drafted my independent study proposal because I was interested in films that deal directly with the nature of memory such as Memento and Last Year in Marienbad. But in the last couple of days I’ve been contemplating how memory and history are part of cinema’s DNA regardless of the film story:

1 –
Think about how much of our history education, especially the last century, is derived from film footage – both fictional and newsreel. For example, most of us are familiar with the Holocaust because of films like Schindler’s List or Night and Fog – films have become our primary source of information, history and culture – they’ve become the foundation of our memories of our culture, collectively and individually.

2 –
Think about how one is able to pay tribute to another filmmaker by shooting a scene reminescent of an earlier well known director. Iranian director Ramin Bahrani refers to a concept of Persian poetry called tazmin which is a ‘a longstanding tradition of poets taking one line or one beat or one idea from an earlier poem, picking it up and putting it in their own poem and going on from there.” This form of referencing earlier work, which directors like Spielberg and Scorsese have openly acknowledged they do, is not only a form of flattery but a way of conjuring up the original stories/sequences they’re ‘borrowed’ from and piggybacking off the associated, earlier memories we already have of them.

3 –
A narrative works because our minds are capable of forming memories. If we were memory-handicapped like the main character in Memento, films would be ineffective, simply a stream of events with no relation to one another. A filmmaker depends on our brain as if it were an archivist, or a small theater that can project back on the wall of our mind’s eye earlier events in a film’s narrative so that the story-present makes sense.

Stay tuned – In the coming days I’ll try to tie these thoughts to my earlier post on ‘biomimicry’ and how maybe cinema is not only a form of storytelling but an attempt to model human consciousness and memory.