Yearning for Catharsis: The Transitory Sound and Movement Collective

When we get caught up in evaluating performance, life, and art, become uninspired. How do we refresh our vision?

I found my seat in the darkened room. A soundless film was projected upon the bare wall and musicians waited in the darkness at the sides of the space. Soon, low electronic sounds began to enter that space, building slowly and steadily, and a dancer began to unfold herself into the light and shadow. The musicians phased in, bathing the room with a matrix of vibrations, living sounds. Something about the way the sound resonated in the room and within my own body reminded me of a session with a friend who plays therapeutic gong. It wasn’t about notes. It wasn’t about narrative. It was about vibration, vision and motion.

The first time I encountered the Transitory Sound and Movement Collective, it took me a solid twenty minutes to slow down enough to shed the excitement and yes, the anxiety and disorientation, that I felt in order to connect with the piece. One is accustomed to a story, or least a framework and purpose that one can perceive. One is used to evaluating the execution of those things. This is a different kind of experience, a physical encounter with sound and how it moves us, not far removed from meditation. I was lucky to have this experience twice last month. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing TSMC again in a few days and enjoying the Zen-like atmosphere these artists create with through the vulnerability of improvisation.

Founder Lynn Lane is an important force here in Houston. He is quite probably the busiest arts photographer in town, shooting performances all over the city: dance, music, theatre. He’s shot me as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus many, many times. But we had never met until my friend Julia Fox invited me to Echoes of Solitude in Grand Central, Transitory Sound and Movement‘s February show at the Rec Room, a new and exciting venue here in Houston that supports local artists with their Artist Residency Program and inexpensive rentals. I didn’t know what to expect, and that always peaks my interest.

Echoes of Solitude featured Ron Kiley’s film of foot traffic through Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Travelers moved through the frame, becoming solid and “real” only when they paused in their walking. In front of this visual offering, dancer AJ Garcia-Rameau and singer Julia Fox moved. Lane provided a matrix of electronic sound and field recording into which Fox and the instrumental musicians could enter, meander and exit, just as the film’s travelers had done physically in Grand Central. Ben Roidl-Ward (bassoon), Emily Nelson (flute/piccolo), Emmy Tisdel (violin/viola) and Caitlin Mehrtens (harp) occupied the shadowed edges of the performance space. The interaction of the aural, visual and physical planes, as well as that of the pre-recorded and the improvised, created a sense of being together and yet being apart, a feeling of loneliness within a group. The work rose and then receded, leaving a feeling of peacefulness, like the calm after a storm.

Echoes of Solitude capitalized on catharsis, the healing element in music and art, which seems often to suffer from our desire to evaluate and sometimes even from our desire to understand. I knew then and there that I wanted to see more. Luckily, there was a private loft performance the following weekend which I was able to experience as well, a different piece with many of the same musicians and familiar, yet different elements. The second time I was swept up immediately. This healing music is habit forming.

TSMC - Rehearsal Photo - Photographer - Lynn Lane - WEB-1

Rehearsal for Untitled: Darkness and Light in Eight, photo credit: Lynn Lane            

I wholeheartedly recommend Untitled: Darkness and Light in Eight, the next show presented by the Transitory Sound and Movement Collective at the Rec Room on Tuesday, March 14th. TSMC is presenting a new piece there each month and I can’t wait to see where they will go next. Please follow these artists on the group Facebook page.

 

Literary and Theatrical Magic: Suspension of Disbelief and Resilience

We all spend time with illusions: books, movies, television, theatre. Does the ability to suspend disbelief contribute to human resilience?

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice, God or Merman © Bev Sykes with CCLicense

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice, God or Merman
© Bev Sykes with CCLicense

In the theatre we often speak of the suspension of disbelief, the willingness to temporarily accept an illusion as truth. The term was coined in 1817 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was actually speaking of literature. Coleridge felt that, if an author created “human interest and a semblance of reality”, then the audience would respond with a desire to believe the narrative presented, even if it was implausible. An audience willing to suspend their normal everyday world is able to enter a new world created for them, losing touch with their own physicality and allowing themselves to feel as if the events described or enacted are truly happening. The greater the skill of the creator, the more enticing the spell.

Books, along with stage and screen works, exude a magic that gives the human spirit release and escape from reality. But is it only a breather, a moment of frivolity, before we return to normal life or is there something more practical happening?

Charlton Heston in The Ten Coomandments

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments

Our favorite stories inspire strong feelings and are able to reach us when we fail to connect with real life. These illusions can shape our worldview by showing us things we might not otherwise see and by encouraging us to imagine a world in which things we take for granted are not established fact. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they may also delete uncomfortable truths and confirm our prejudices. In much the same way a child role plays situations with dolls, we are invited to play out a scenario that does not immediately alter the world around us, but allows us to practice and build our responses to life. We are presented with situations that we will never encounter in our reality and are able to build empathy or hatred for both imaginary and actual beings, beings we may never meet face to face.

We desperately need a place to explore ourselves and dream out loud. This magic place is well established in the literary and theatrical arts, although, by nature, it is never completely free from manipulation and propaganda. The space cannot be completely controlled or it loses its magic, but we do have some control over how we respond to the things brought to life there. The greatest good it contains may be the realization that there are other interpretations of life apart from our own.

Here is a montage called Making Magic by David Anderson. By partnering images of famous directors and actors creating illusion with spoken quotes from films he explores the potential movies have for inspiring us and creating empathy. What powerful enchantment!

Video via David Anderson on Vimeo

Through the Dream of a Child: Brent Bonacorso’s West of the Moon

There is pain and struggle in life that is universal. How can art help us to approach these things differently?
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Brent Bonacorso has directed videos for Elton John (Home Again) and Katy Perry (Unconditionally) as well as numerous commercials. Technically stunning and innovative, as well as emotionally charged, his signature style is filled with striking images, bright and dreamy, set in imaginative narratives that sparkle with magic realism. He is able to use the absurd to get at truths that a more logical approach shies away from. His jaw-dropping short film West of the Moon is no exception.

Video via Brent Bonacorso on Vimeo

This film began as a documentary project. One hundred children were interviewed and asked to speak of their dreams. As Bonacorso worked through the interviews, he was moved to look inward and to create a film that would touch on universal themes and explore dreamscape as an alternate reality that coexists with our own. He used green screen technology to create this dreamscape and found a talented lead actor, veteran Jacob Witkin, to lend the right mix of humor and gravity to the piece. What resulted was West of the Moon, which, like most dreams, is rich with symbolism and understanding that “real life” doesn’t often exhibit.

I am particularly moved by the image of the heart. Our hero, or at least his alter ego, has been sent off to war and is wounded not by the enemy, but by a bullet from his own gun that circles the entire Earth and returns to pierce him. It is his own violence that destroys his heart, which his captors replace with a hand grenade. He tries to live softly and safely so that the fragile grenade will not explode, putting pillows under his feet on the stairs, soaking in his tub and shutting out the world. He is horrified when his grief at losing his lover causes him to cough up the pin to the grenade, and goes so far as to send his pet monkey, dubiously raised from a seed, in through his ear in a vain attempt to replace the pin. In the end it is not his own heart, but the heart of his lost love that he must heal. This involves risking his own life by allowing himself to feel again, which may make his heart explode.

None of this is logical, but we can relate to it emotionally by virtue of the dream images used. If we live long enough, we will all wound ourselves in life. We will experience time in which we harden our hearts to escape and override the pain and time in which we must allow that heart of stone to melt and beat again. The absurdist and childlike approach of West of the Moon helps coat the allegory, and by extension, our own experiences, with humor. It is a story that heals. Bravo!

West of the Moon

Winner of Best Short film @ Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Winner of Best Short film @ Aspen Shortsfest
Winner of Best Short film @ Rushes Soho Shorts Festival
Winner of Best Short film @ Carmel International Film Festival
Winner of Best Short film @ Florida International Film Festival.
Official Selection @ St. Louis Film Festival
Official Selection @ Palm Springs Film Festival
Official Selection @ Milwaukee International Film Festival
Official Selection @ Worldwide Short Film Festival
Official Selection @ Atlanta International Film Festival
Official Selection @ Gold Coast International Film Festival
Official Selection @ Maui International Film Festival
Official Selection @ LA Shortsfest
Starring Jacob Whitkin, Michael Garbe, Amber Noelle, Christopher Tomaselli, and Michael Galvin
Produced by Thom Fennessey
Cinematography by Tarin Anderson
Music by Devotchka
A Collaboration Factory production

Body in Motion: Climber Natalija Gros in Le Tango Vertical

The human body is capable of impressive feats. Is there an artistic and creative element present in athletic accomplishment?

When Natalija Gros retired from competitive rock climbing in 2012, she was recognized as one of the finest climbers in the world. The Slovenian athlete made it to the World Cup podium an astonishing 23 times during her career, also carrying off a silver in 2004 at the European Championships and a gold in 2008 in Paris at The European Bouldering and Combined Championship. She won the coveted Serre Chevalier Master in both 2004 and 2009.

Rock climbing isn’t a glamorous sport. Hands, elbows, shoulders and knees get scraped, wounded and calloused. Even with hooks and ropes, climbers regularly find themselves jerked into the air, swinging painfully against rocks. This doesn’t even hold a candle to what can happen without equipment. This short film by Jure Breceljnik called Le Tango Vertical, or The Vertical Tango, shows a completely different side than most climbing videos: artsy, sensual and alluring.

After a swim, Gros comes out of the ocean in her bikini and proceeds to climb, completely unaided, a rock formation along the beach. Granted, it isn’t the Alps nor Yosemite, but it isn’t safe either.

There are two main forms of rock climbing: aid climbing and free climbing. Aid climbing involves the use of ropes and pegs in the rock to pull the climber up the face of a cliff. Free climbing may also include the use of ropes and pegs, but only to protect the climber in case of a slip or fall.  Free climbers prize the sense of achievement and artistry that come from developing a close relationship to the vertical surface. This allows them to compose a route that traverses that surface, called a line. This route is unique, suited to their own body and skill set.

Climbing, like life, is never without risk, never completely safe. Ropes can break, pegs can become dislodged. Gros has chosen to forego such gear completely, feeling that she can handle this formation without them. And she can. What amazing physical strength and confidence! Watch her stomach muscles to see how much squeeze she maintains while holding on, thinking, and moving. She possesses unbelievable core and arm strength. I don’t know about you, but I’d be jelly up there.

Still from Le Tango Vertical

Still from Le Tango Vertical

Le Tango Vertical is an apt title. Like a tango dancer, Gros moves in a practiced, sensual way, sometimes slowly and smoothly, sometimes aggressively and decisively, feeling her way across the stone shelves. She must know them intimately in order to gauge that they will hold her weight. She must also know the limits of her own body to avoid overextending herself.

This isn’t the only film of Natalija Gros. She is the subject of Breceljnik’s documentary Chalk and Chocolate and was also featured in his documentary New Dimension, which delves into urban bouldering in Argentina. Amazing work from both artists.

Natalija Gros being filmed by Jure Beceljnik for Chalk and Chocolate. This portrait was commisioned by Mladina weekly. © Borut Peterlin, used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Natalija Gros being filmed by Jure Beceljnik for Chalk and Chocolate. This portrait was commisioned by Mladina weekly and is designed to poke fun at the contrast between climber and artist, thus the comfy red chair. In reality, both the climber and artist had to do some crazy things to get the footage they captured.
© Borut Peterlin, used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Sadly, Jure Breceljnik died two months ago in 2015. If you would like to know more about this talented man, a graduate of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, please read this tribute from his friend and colleague Borut Peterlin.

A Tale of Two Conchitas: Reflections on That Obscure Object of Desire

Why do we frequently make judgements on others based upon their appearance and manner without taking into account their actions?

The two Conchitas, Carol Bouquet and Angela Molina © Allan Tannenbaum

The two Conchitas, Carol Bouquet and Angela Molina
© Allan Tannenbaum

If you are familiar with Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire, you know that the film is unusual because two actresses play the same part, that of the heroine Conchita, a beautiful and poor flamenco dancer from Seville. From scene to scene, and occasionally within the same scene, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina alternate in the role. The actress originally cast as Conchita, incidentally neither Carole nor Angela, had a disastrous argument with Buñuel, resulting in producer Serge Silberman’s decision to discard the film. Over a few drinks, Buñuel jokingly suggested that two actresses could play Conchita. Silberman loved the idea and allowed filming to resume on the condition that this was the case.

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Whether played by one actress or two, the character of Conchita is an enigma. She is pursued by an older “gentleman”, a rich widower named Mathieu, played by the suave Fernando Rey, who finds her irresistible, although she is more than half a century younger than he is. Conchita is simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by his affections, leading him on with intimacy, but refusing to consummate the relationship and torturing him mercilessly. The two are locked in a battle for control that makes them hurt each other over and over again, the emotional pain growing more intense each time. She’s a free spirit. His old world ways of buying her attentions cut against her brand of morality and devalue her. Her teasing strips away the veneer of respectability he has amassed over his lifetime and makes him little more than a pimp or a peeping Tom. Passion that cannot abandon the struggle for dominance has no future.

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How does the introduction of two actresses affect this already engaging plot? It could be a sexist invention that renders women interchangeable. After all, the film’s title refers to Conchita as an object, and there is a fair amount of female nudity while there is no male nudity in the film. Or it could be an attempt to find different moods within Conchita, to show how varied and special she is. What struck me most about it was that I did not like both actresses equally, even though they had the same narrative. They both teased, both plotted, both alternated running from Mathieu with pursuing him. So why was I more upset when Mathieu attacked my favorite?

That Obscure Object 2

Molina and Bouquet are both talented and beautiful actresses that have gone on to illustrious careers–you might remember Bouquet as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only–but Molina’s open face and the childlikeness that radiates from her big eyes are appealing to me, while I find Bouquet’s narrow face and eyes read more sullen, cool and withdrawn. Molina’s figure is rounder and seems more approachable than Bouquet’s model physique. Part of this may lie in the way each actress was shot, made-up, or costumed. Is my preference fair? Absolutely not, but my prejudice is undeniable, as much as it makes me uncomfortable.

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It’s easy to feel this way about actors because we don’t know them and can only react to the persona they play on film, onstage and in public appearances. But we make judgements like these in real life with far more devastating result. We avoid a person because we, for no specific reason, feel they are pretentious or angry, or we trust someone because they seem open and genuine, when the truth is that their facial structure, body language or temperament read that way. Have you ever hesitated to make friends with someone because they were good looking, because they seemed smart or because they were a different nationality or color?

We often treat people as if we have met them in a dark alley and need to ascertain whether they are friend or foe. Most of us don’t live in that kind of environment and we need to stop acting like we do before we create what we fear. We have time to see how a person behaves before we decide whether we want to be friendly or not. In the meantime, politeness doesn’t hurt.

That-Obcure-1

If we can’t abandon our struggle for cultural dominance, what future will we have?

All images used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

A New Image of Community: Lars and the Real Girl

Critics often praise pessimism over optimism. What if portraying the unconventional and exceptional helps create a kinder world?

Video via MOVIECLIPS Classic Trailers on YouTube.

Lars Lindstrom is twenty-seven years old, withdrawn and incommunicative. He’s only able to function because of the politeness and reserved nature of his hometown, which lies somewhere in the northern portion of the American Midwest. Whatever is going on within him, his neighbors and coworkers know it’s none of their business, so a smile and a few words suffice from day to day. As he passes between work, home and church in his tiny Toyota Tercel, he’s as frozen and cold as the snow that blankets the ground.

His status-quo is threatened when his brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin, move back home and announce that they are expecting a baby. On top of that, there’s a cute girl at work named Margo who seems curiously attracted to him. All of this creates a crisis for Lars, who is desperately afraid of human interaction, especially the kind of conversation and physical contact expected from family. He moves into a room beside the detached garage and keeps his distance. Karin is wounded and worried by his rejection, and her fears are justified when Lars decides to come to dinner with a guest, a life-sized doll named Bianca. Lars purchased her on the Internet and it soon becomes painfully obvious that he believes she is a real human being.

© MGM used in compliance with Fair Use Policies

© MGM used in compliance with Fair Use Policies

Gus and Karin consult a psychiatrist who advises that Lars seems delusional and, due to his fragility, agrees to treat him while pretending to treat Bianca. The catch? She needs Gus and Karin to go along with his delusion. Gus, voicing the pessimistic thoughts of what we all like to call the “real” world, protests that “Everyone will laugh at him.” “And at you,” Dr. Berman answers with blunt honesty. There is no quick fix for Lars and no guarantee that he will ever snap out of it. Karin agrees to try Dr. Berman’s method, and, after a brief and futile attempt to talk some sense into his brother, Gus comes around too. As his delusion begins to affect the entire community, we see those around Lars deal with it for his sake.  As we come to understand why Lars has retreated into this fantasy and confirm how childlike he truly is, we come to root for him and look forward to the day he will have the courage for a relationship.

© MGM used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

© MGM used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

I found Lars and the Real Girl spellbinding, and I’m one of those who prefers a dark and violent film to a disingenuous and insincere film that bills itself as “uplifting”. The unconventional nature of the story and its setting in a northern Mid-West community of Nordic descent keep it from getting overly sentimental. The cast is excellent across the board. Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider are winsome and completely believable as Karin and Gus and it is their response to Lars (Ryan Gosling) that won me over. Gosling, who received several award nominations, is phenomenal as the anti-social and childlike Lars.

Some will not allow themselves to see this movie and will miss the gentle, sweet nature of the film and its potential for changing the way we see others. Yes, Bianca is an anatomically correct sex doll, suggested by one of Lars’s coworkers who is a lonely goofball and maybe a bit of a pervert. But Lars isn’t after sex. He’s after someone he can talk to and hold who won’t cause him pain. Much like a child who plays out grown up scenes with dolls or toys, he’s playing at human interaction. It’s a much healthier response than some outsiders take in our society.

© Lars and the Real Girl, Inc used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

© Lars and the Real Girl, Inc used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

Equally fascinating are the effects of Bianca on the community and Lars’s family. Some people enjoy dressing her and styling her hair, some take her to the hospital to visit sick children, who find her a wonderful distraction from the pain and fear they are experiencing. In fact, she becomes so popular that Lars feels left out and the fantasy begins to wear thin. Karin and Gus realize things about each other and their family while explaining them to Bianca, revelations that are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes wonderful. She gives them an excuse to talk about family matters and feelings, something that members of restrained families will understand. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Lars, inspired by Bianca, asks his brother how he knew he was a man. Gus’s answer takes a few minutes, but, after some fumbling, reveals his vulnerability and shame over his own selfishness. This in turn foreshadows Lars’s struggle with the selfishness of his fantasy world.

Miraculously, the film itself never stoops to cruelty, nor does it ever become obscene or even bawdy. Writer Nancy Oliver, also known for Six Feet Under, received an Oscar nomination. The work Oliver and director Craig Gillespie put into Lars and the Real Girl deserves accolades and attention. It isn’t easy to tackle a stereotype and make it a human story, especially when taboo is involved.

Video via Writers Guild Foundation on YouTube.

It has been said that the responses of the community are unrealistic and too positive. There are no beatings, no violence, and barely even any eye-rolling. We see a workplace in which coworkers communicate the potential of an awkward situation ahead of time and everyone does their best to avoid it. We see a tolerant Christian pastor and congregation which allow the health and well being of one lonely man to trump its traditional image. Lars and the Real Girl  portrays a world in which people help each other through mental illness without taboos, cruelty and judgement, a world in which the ultimate health of an individual is more important than the momentary discomfort of a community. That’s a world worth imagining, don’t you think?

 

There Ain’t No Place That Far: Disney’s Song of the South, 1946

History is not dead, but is constantly reinterpreted through the arts. Can we relate to earlier interpretations despite their controversy?

Song of the South, produced by Walt Disney for RKO Pictures in 1946, was one of the first films to combine live action with animation, allowing actors to interact with imaginary characters. Audiences had been delighted the year before by the sight of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, so the time was ripe for a film that made extensive use of this novel technique. Unfortunately, Song of the South would become more famous for its controversial picture of race relations than for its beautiful cutting edge technology. To date, Disney has not released the film on video in the United States.

Brer_Bear_and_Brer_Fox,_1881Walt Disney had been interested in Joel Chandler Harris‘s Stories of Uncle Remus for years. Joe Harris was a journalist in Atlanta who championed racial reconciliation during the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. As Joel Chandler Harris, he published numerous stories collected and inspired from African American folklore, seeking to preserve evidence of a period of time that he feared history would distort.

Little Johnny’s father in Song of the South is no doubt patterned after Harris, as he also works for a newspaper in Atlanta, where he writes pieces that stir people up and make them angry. Even his wife is exasperated with him. We are never told the exact nature of his work, but are kept with Johnny in a magical bubble protected from adult reality. All we know is that things have gotten too hot in Atlanta for Johnny and his mother, who seek refuge at the plantation owned by his paternal grandmother. This is the first of many such omissions that make the film difficult to swallow, especially for modern audiences. In fact, the film does precisely what Harris, dead since 1908, had feared. It whitewashes history and fills it with awkward silences.

402px-Joel_Chandler_Harris_(%22Uncle_Remus%22)Some scholars have pointed fingers at Harris, saying he was a white writer of limited skill who stole stories from the African American community and used them for his own gain. “Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart’s desire,” said critic Robert Cochran. Was his motivation to steal from African American culture or was it to join with its dissenting voice to satirize and disparage a southern oligarchy that he despised? Harris grew up an orphaned son of immigrants and spent his teenage years working on a plantation, where he felt more comfortable in the slave’s quarters than among Southern whites. He did not write kindly of the Southern gentleman and dared to speak positively about intermarriage between races, which was considered criminal at the time and referred to by the pejorative term “miscegenation“. Reading his stories today, one might balk at the use of dialect and stereotypes, but, for his time, Harris was on the progressive side of history. Even in 1946 his leanings were not exactly mainstream.

The original screenplay for Song of the South was written by Dalton Reymond, who hailed from the South, specifically Louisiana. It was the story of Johnny, a young boy on the verge of running away because of tension he perceives between his parents, who is comforted by the stories of Uncle Remus, an elderly African American who befriends him. When Remus’s stories inspire Johnny to disobey his mother in order to help a poor white sharecropper’s daughter, mother orders the old man to leave the plantation, with disastrous effects that almost cost Johnny’s life. This story, built to couch Harris’s fables, is tepid and preachy, while Uncle Remus’s “critters” seem much more immediate and exciting.

Video clip via Aidan Ralph on YouTube.

Fearing that Reymond’s work might be too conservative, Disney hired left-leaning Maurice Rapf to rework the piece. Rapf didn’t initially want to do it; he was afraid the piece would be in the mode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of racial stereotypes. He was later fired from the film after a squabble with Reymond, which proved his own misgivings correct as well as those of Disney. In 1947, Rapf was blacklisted for having been a member of the Communist party and his career in Hollywood ended. The uneasy relationship between Rapf and Reymond contributed to omissions and incongruities in the film as they continually vetoed each other’s ideas.

399px-Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabySo why did the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear appeal to Americans after World War II? These are fables that show how a small character, quick on his feet and sharp-witted (Rabbit), can defeat a conniving and wicked one (Fox) paired with a large, stupid bully (Bear). This philosophy encouraged one of the more hopeful currents prevailing in the American psyche: that the United States had outfoxed the Germans, Japanese and Italians and brought World War II to an end. As Uncle Remus says at the beginning of the film, “Them what can’t learn from a tale about critters, just ain’t got their ears tuned for listening.” The moral here is that any means of defeating an evil enemy is justified, even if it requires doing something “tricky” like the irrepressible and ever lovable Br’er Rabbit. And yet Uncle Remus warns that Rabbit wouldn’t get himself into trouble if he didn’t go looking for it. Could there be isolationist sentiment along with war time guilt brewing somewhere under the surface of this children’s film? If so, it certainly hid these things with a happy smile.

Video clip via MegaRock64 on YouTube.

The stories of Uncle Remus are entertaining, beautifully shot and animated, as are the musical numbers. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, which went to filming before it had been blocked, is a incredible classic, with animated animals as back-up to James Baskett‘s heartfelt singing. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1946 and was something of an unofficial anthem for the Disney Studios for many years. The imagination and confident ease with which Baskett delivered the song, clearly visualizing animals who had not yet been placed in the scene, is a true marvel and testament to his acting and performing genius. It is the animator’s skill, the lively voicing of Rabbit, Fox, and Bear, and Baskett’s loving portrayal of Remus, despite the stereotypical nature of the role, that render this film watchable and give it its best moments.

220px-Uncle_Remus_Disney_screenshotIn a cruel turn of events, Baskett was not able to attend opening night of Song of the South because Atlanta was segregated and no hotel would book an African American. To his credit, Walt Disney actively campaigned for an Oscar for Baskett, revealing that the actor frequently worked without direction and praising him as one of the finest actors with whom he had ever worked. In 1948, James Baskett became the first African American man to win an Oscar, which he received in honor of his portrayal of Uncle Remus and voicing of Br’er Fox two years earlier. Less than six months later he was dead of heart disease at the age of 44. 

472px-CottonNegrosSouthSong of the South can be applauded for making the case that white Americans have something to learn from African Americans, however clumsily it did so. These folk tales, which came from people that had endured oppression, had a great deal of value to a nation recovering from war. What is awkward is that the film wants to acknowledge that wisdom without recognizing the oppression. Set during Reconstruction, the film presents happy-go-lucky sharecroppers who sing and dance and get along with their former masters with hardly a hint of strife. This is not realistic. Slavery did not end quickly and easily at the close of the Civil War. The attitudes that made slavery possible still persist in some areas. Slaves that were freed often found themselves doing backbreaking work for little pay and less respect under bosses who still looked at them as slaves and were frustrated that the government no longer supported that view. Uncle Remus comes across as a magical character rather than a plausible portrait of an African American male living in post Civil War Georgia, a strange cross between a grandfather and a fairy. Perhaps the most baffling moment occurs when Remus tells Johnny that there was a better time in the past, when man was closer to nature. This nostalgia coming from a freed slave seems misplaced and insensitive and doesn’t agree with the film’s narrative. Aren’t these the good times at the magic plantation? Perhaps this is an artifact of Rapf’s left-wing sympathies telling us that all is not well.

This is not the only difficulty. If we accept that Johnny’s father, like Harris, is a man who writes about racial inequality in the south, then why is he presented in such a poor light for sticking to his writing and staying behind in Atlanta? Grandmother, who we are told likes the things he writes in the papers, cheers him on at the end when he abandons his post to care for his own family, giving up his inflammatory journalism. Apparently standing up for other’s rights is not a worthy cause if doing so threatens your own family. Then again, there is no racial conflict at the magic plantation, so an escape to that reality provides a convenient end to the story.

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The Poor People’s March, 1968

If we learn anything from America in 1946, let it be that hardship brings people of different backgrounds closer together. In the decades since we have come to understand that we only remain together if there is appreciation and understanding for who we are without that particular hardship. When the emergency is over, we have to deal with the difficulties that still exist. Fables, which evolve as human understanding changes, are not an escape from reality, but a preparation for it. As Uncle Remus tells Johnny, “You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”

All images used in this post are either Public Domain or are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

Creating from Nightmare: H.R. Giger’s Biomechanics and Alien

The arts attempt to convey visions and concepts from one mind to another. Is there value in translating nightmare?

© Ars Electronica with CCLicense

H.R. Giger Gigapixelpicture © Ars Electronica in accordance with Fair Use Policy

A brain is only capable of what it could conceive, and it couldn’t conceive what it hasn’t experienced.

Graham GreeneBrighton Rock

Biomechanical Landscape image © dreamside with CCLicense

H.R. Giger, Biomechanical Landscape
image © dreamside in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Everyone experiences at some point the fearful awakening from nightmare: the unelicited scream, the chest tight with overabundance of breath, the sudden jolt into consciousness. Whether the dream recoils quickly into oblivion or haunts us for hours or days, we know it has power over us, at least when we are asleep. Some artists are given to exploring their nightmares and fleshing out what lies there. The attempt to share fear, whether to amplify or dilute it, to bring others to a place where they can appreciate it, or simply to assuage loneliness has always been part of the human experience. If we recognize our own fears in the mind of another, there is both peace in realizing that we are not alone in our imaginings and horror in realizing that there may be something universal which operates inside or outside of our own selves.

Alien egg, H.R. Giger image © dream side with CCLicense

Alien egg, H.R. Giger
image © dream side in accordance with Fair Use Policy

H.R. Giger is among the greatest nightmare artists of our time, known best for his designs for Ridley Scott’s Alien films. Born in Switzerland during World War II, he grew up with severe night terrors. Instead of running from them, he learned to convert them into art, sleeping with a sketch pad and pencils at his bedside. Drawing the terrifying creatures of his mind is a complex conversation with his subconscious, a tenuous collaboration that draws a livelihood from something which disturbs rest and health. He has described it as exorcism. Resolution of his fearful dreams might mean an end to creativity. On the other hand, can you imagine having such visions and not being able to share them?

Birth Machine, H.R. Giger image © Matěj Stuchlík with CCLicense

Birth Machine, H.R. Giger
image © Matěj Stuchlík with CCLicense

Growing up in a modest, middle class household, Giger left home to study architecture and industrial design in Zurich. This has proved invaluable in a career that ranges from painting, drawing and album art to sculpture and set design. In the late 1960s, he discovered the technique of airbrush, a means of spraying ink or paint, and developed his own style of surrealistic art, an unsettling combination of biological anatomy with mechanical design which he dubbed biomechanics. These dreamscapes were often rendered in near darkness, with just a hint of light revealing forms hidden there. It was this style that appealed to Ridley Scott, who was looking for an incarnation of pure evil to play the title character in Alien.

The Alien, H.R. Giger image © dream side with Fair Use Policy

Xenomorph, H.R. Giger
image © dreamside in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Giger would win an Oscar for his creation, a murderous alien stalking in the dark. He designed the alien Xenomorph in detail at all stages of its lifecycle as well as all of its environments. The monster progresses from egg to larva, shooting out of poor John Hurt in a scene that has been re-enacted by teenagers (and older enthusiasts) for decades. Eventually he grows into something dark, slithery and very biomechanical, which required an actor in a costume, Bolaji Badejo. The Xenomorph has aged well and is still incredibly scary, largely due to how little we see of it. The darkness allows us to imagine something much more terrifying and indulges our unique individual fears. Later films in the series never quite equalled the horror of the original, released in 1979. What is it that scares you most?

Alien, H.R. Giger

Xenomorph, H.R. Giger
image © dream side  in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Other film projects would follow. In addition to the Alien sequels, he would design Poltergeist II, Species and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unreleased Dune. A new documentary on that film will be released in 2014 and has already garnered numerous film festival awards. I can’t wait to see Giger’s work there. You can see a trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune here.

H.R. Giger and the Alien  © Ars Electronica with CCLicense

H.R. Giger and the Alien
© Ars Electronica in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Another great Swiss thinker, Carl Jung, spoke of the need to recognize, empathize and learn to love the dark side of our being, rather than repressing it and causing it to go rogue. He never said that this process was without danger or risk. Art allows us to give form to our shadow; it is up to us as artists and spectators to interpret this form. If we recognize a monster within, how do we approach it?

Autumn Patterns: The Mesmerizing Stop Motion of Ouroboros by sam3

© Leo Reynolds with CCLicense

An Ouroboros
© Leo Reynolds with CCLicense

Sam3 is an artist living in Murcia, Spain, whose work includes mural and street art as well as film. Today we feature the stop motion video entitled Ouroboros, which cuts together footage shot in Berlin in autumn 2008. Stop motion is a form of animation in which a subject is manipulated physically and filmed so that it appears to move on its own. The subject is moved between shots, creating the illusion of autonomous movement when the shots are edited into a continuous sequence. Sam3 has used this technique imaginatively to illustrate the cyclical nature of motion and life itself. Ouroboros refers to an ancient symbol of a dragon or snake eating its own tail, symbolizing recreation and rebirth, the mystery of beginnings and endings.

The music is by Persian musician Bijan Chemirani. The video is dedicated to “all the people who appear without permission”. Lovely!

The bicyclists by the roadway blow my mind, as different cyclists merge into one another and cars pass in both directions behind a foreground dominated and punctuated by arches. Trippy and extremely clever! Extra points must be awarded for the creative use of a bicycle chain and the word play between cycle and bicycle. Sam3 has a knack for capturing synchronicity.

You can see more of the work of sam3 here.