Sunday, August 29, 2004

An American Odyssey

Mary Ellen Mark: Adopted Children, New York City, 1993

Went to see the exhibition of Mary Ellen Mark photography, American Odyssey and Twins at Manchester Art Gallery. American Odyssey consists of black and white images of American subjects, taken over four decades since the 1960s. Subjects range from homelessness (including a memorable image of a family living in a car, and the one above taken in a refuge for the homeless) to challenging images taken at a gatherings of Aryan Supremecists, anti-abortion actions, pro-Vietnam War rallies and a convention to celebrate fatness in America . All her photos are challenging because of the way they present the their subjects: squarely, and without the usual framing commentary, as unique human beings. The images have empathy, humanity and a penetrating vision. With American Odyssey, the Gallery was showing another series of Mark’s photographs, Twins.

Reproduced alongside the images, and providing a commentary on them, was Maya Angelou's poem Human Family:

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Motorcycle Diaries

Fuser and Alberto on the road in Motorcycle Diaries

Saw the new Walter Salles' film, The Motorcycle Diaries last night. It stars Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal as Guevara (seen previously in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien). The screenplay is based on Guevara's Journals and Alberto Granado's Travelling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary. Although the film does glamourise the young Guevara (through his romantic portrayal by Bernal, and his almost Ghandian response to the inmates of the leper colony) I thought it was impressive -especially in the use of amateur actors to portray the native Americans, peasants and lepers that they encounter along the way. The use of black-and white portraits of Latin America's dispossessed was also effective.
  • Motorcycle Diaries website: has an interview with Alberto Granado who visited the set during the film's production. Granado is now 81 years old and lives with his wife and children in Havana, Cuba.
  • Guardian review: discusses the growing Guevara legend, and reminds us of some of the realities of Guevara's later career.
  • IMDb

Saturday, August 28, 2004

100 Photographs

Lucien Freud, Head of Bruce Bernard 1985

Spotted Bruce Bernard's 100 Photographs at Salt's Mill, Bradford a couple of weeks ago. Delivered this week, it's a a stimulating and intriguing collection of images he was asked to compile for a wealthy patron. Interestingly, he's included several photos taken by anonymous amateurs. It complements Bernard's other, massive photo collection - Century - which contains 1000 images, 10 for each year of the 20th century.

He died in 2000; his Guardian obituary is interesting.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Roland Barthes and Jackson Browne: the arrow that pierces

I've just finished reading Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida in which he sets out to try to identify what it is that gives certain photographs the power to make you pause, to touch something in your heart. His quest is inspired by leafing through some photos of his recently-dead mother. There are many that are good likenesses, but only one - rather indistinct, taken as a child - that, for Barthes, captures her essential uniqueness.

Barthes suggests that a few photographs have this essential element 'that rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.' He calls this the photograph's punctum: 'that accident that pricks poignant to me'.

This reminded me of Fountain Of Sorrow, the second track on Jackson Browne's 1974 album, Late For The Sky:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz: Honourable Eyes

Czeslaw Milosz in a Krakow Park, 2000

Last week (August 14) the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz died:

Yesterday the Guardian printed this recent poem by Milosz, from a collection to be published in the autumn.

Eyes by Czeslaw Milosz

My most honourable eyes, you are not in the best of shape.
I receive from you an image less than sharp,
And if a colour, then it's dimmed.
And you were a pack of royal greyhounds once,
With whom I would set out in the early mornings.
My wondrously quick eyes, you saw many things,
Lands and cities, islands and oceans.Together we greeted immense sunrises
When the fresh air set us running on trails
Where the dew had just begun to dry.
Now what you have seen is hidden inside me
And changed into memories or dreams.
I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds of the world
And I notice in myself a distaste
For the monkeyish dress, the screams and drumbeats.
What a relief. To be alone with my meditation
On the basic similarity in humans
And their tiny grain of dissimilarity.
Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
That grows large and takes me in.

Published Saturday August 21, 2004 in The Guardian

On a similar theme, from the title track of Rodney Crowell's 2004 album, Earthbound:

With each new day that passes I'm in need of thicker glasses
but it's all O.K.
Someday I'll be leaving but I just can't help believing
that it's not today

Earthbound....hear the wind through the tops of the trees
Earthbound....summer sun nearly ninety degrees
Earthbound....big ol' moon sinking down......
think I might stickaround

Friday, August 20, 2004

Before Sunrise

Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

Last night saw Richard Linklater's film Before Sunrise (missed it, strangely, six years ago). A perfect film: the framing, the screenplay, the acting. A loquacious film (as the Guardian said) about two people communicating, learning about each other and talking about everything and anything: love, death, sex, men, women:

'I really believe that if there's any kind of God, he wouldn't be in any one of us - not you, not me, but just this space in between. If there's some magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone else, sharing something. Even if it's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, the answer must be in the attempt.'

One one level it's a film about serendipity: those chance encounters that make moments special (here, the riverbank poet, the basement harpsichord player).

Update 29 August: saw Before Sunset last night. Not really as good as the first film, though still some good lines. The spark between the two was present only intermittently, and the film took a while to get started. Perhaps the impact was less because, unlike the first film, this was primarily about the disillusionment that comes with experience.

Memory is a good thing if you don't have to deal with the past.

Other great loquacious films: Blue In The Face, Smoke, My Dinner With Andre.

A roundup of books read this year

Richard Powers: The Time Of Our Singing
Monica Ali: Brick Lane
Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red
Jose Saramago: The Cave
Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones
Carol Shields: The Stone Diaries; Larry's Party
Margaret Atwood: Oryx & Crake
Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart

Tariq Ali: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree
Richard Fletcher: Moorish Spain
Michael Jacobs: Andalucia
Jason Webster: Duende
Chris Stewart: A Parrot In The Pepper Tree
Gerald Brenan: South From Granada

(Other books on Spain read previously:
VS Pritchett: The Spanish Temper
Camilo Jose Cela: Journey To The Alcarria
Norman Lewis: Voices of the Old Sea
Robert Hughes: Barcelona
Cees Nooteboom: Roads To Santiago
Michael Jacobs: Between Hopes & Memories - A Spanish Journey)

Cilauro, Gleisner & Steich: Jetlag Travel Guide to Molvania

Susan Sontag: On Photography
Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

Fahrenheit 9/11: a historic landmark

A new article on openDemocracy by John Berger argues that Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 is a historical landmark inspired by hope – and its maker is a true artist. Berger makes no reservations in his praise for the film and his assessment of the significance of Moore's intervention in the political processs:

'There is something else which is astounding. The aim of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to stop Bush fixing the next election as he fixed the last. Its focus is on the totally unjustified war in Iraq. Yet its conclusion is larger than either of these issues. It declares that a political economy which creates colossally increasing wealth surrounded by disastrously increasing poverty, needs – in order to survive – a continual war with some invented foreign enemy to maintain its own internal order and security. It requires ceaseless war'.

'It is always the poor who make the most sacrifices, Fahrenheit 9/11 announces quietly during its last minutes. For how much longer? There is no future for any civilisation anywhere in the world today that ignores this question. And this is why the film was made and became what it became'.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

25 Years of the Walkman: what's it done to the music?

It's 25 years since the launch of the Sony Walkman. The current issue of Songlines, the world music mag, quotes a recent article by Norman Lebrecht, in which he argues that the Walkman 'has destroyed any sense of a piece of music having a place in the world, in time, in our personal lives. Music, made portable, is removed from any frame of reference. It becomes a utility, undeserving of more attention than drinking water from a tap. The day the Walkman landed was the day the music began to die'.

I suppose his argument is strengthened with the arrival of mp3 jukeboxes, and the personal playlist. No need, ever again, to listen to an album as the artist intended.

Thinking about this a bit more widely: the way, these days, we are bombarded with so many representations of reality that didn't exist for the average person in, say, 1703. Think of an ordinary home then. Music: no recordings, only what people played or sang themselves. Images: no photos, no cinema, no TV, no art galleries to speak of (the idea of galleries open to and drawing a mass public is a modern thing); few, if any images in the home, the main contact with them being in the local church. Words: with literacy levels low and the vernacular culture being primarily a spoken one, few households were likely to experience words via books; some might encounter cheap newspapers or magazines.

But now we swim in a sea of representations of reality; so much of our daily existence takes place in a virtual reality of words, images and sounds. Take this blog!

[The cartoon is by Tim Kreider, who says about it: 'I've been thinking about some way to draw ... a series of cartoons about the entertainments we're offered to divert us from the little indignities and atrocities inflicted on us every day'. Walkman/iPod as opiate of the masses? ]

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Holiday reading

Read while on holiday last week.

George Monbiot: The Age Of Consent

William Faulkner: The Sound & The Fury

Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner

Carol Shields: Larry's Party

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Henri Cartier-Bresson

While we were away in Catalonia, Henri Cartier-Bresson died. Here are links to various obituaries and appreciations:

Monday, August 09, 2004

Chords for Change

This article by Bruce Springsteen, first published in the New York Times on August 5, appeared in the Guardian while we were in Catalonia. The Boss for Pres!

"A nation's artists and musicians have a particular place in its social and political life. Over the years I've tried to think long and hard about what it means to be American: about the distinctive identity and position we have in the world, and how that position is best carried. I've tried to write songs that speak to our pride and criticize our failures.

These questions are at the heart of this election: who we are, what we stand for, why we fight. Personally, for the last 25 years I have always stayed one step away from partisan politics. Instead, I have been partisan about a set of ideals: economic justice, civil rights, a humane
foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for all of our citizens. This year, however, for many of us the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out.

Through my work, I've always tried to ask hard questions. Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear? Why does the fulfillment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach?

I don't think John Kerry and John Edwards have all the answers. I do believe they are sincerely interested in asking the right questions and working their way toward honest solutions. They understand that we need an administration that places a priority on fairness, curiosity, openness, humility, concern for all America's citizens, courage and faith.

People have different notions of these values, and they live them out in different ways. I've tried to sing about some of them in my songs. But I have my own ideas about what they mean, too. That is why I plan to join with many fellow artists, including the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Jurassic 5, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, in touring the country this October. We will be performing under the umbrella of a new group called Vote for Change. Our goal is to change the direction of the government and change the current administration come November.

Like many others, in the aftermath of 9/11, I felt the country's unity. I don't remember anything quite like it. I supported the decision to enter Afghanistan and I hoped that the seriousness of the times would bring forth strength, humility and wisdom in our leaders. Instead, we dived headlong into an unnecessary war in Iraq, offering up the lives of our young men and women under circumstances that are now discredited. We ran record deficits, while simultaneously cutting and squeezing services like afterschool programs. We granted tax cuts to the richest 1 percent (corporate bigwigs, well-to-do guitar players), increasing the division of wealth that threatens to destroy our social contract with one another and render mute the promise of "one nation indivisible."

It is through the truthful exercising of the best of human qualities - respect for others, honesty about ourselves, faith in our ideals - that we come to life in God's eyes. It is how our soul, as a nation and as individuals, is revealed. Our American government has strayed too far from American values. It is time to move forward. The country we carry in our hearts is waiting. "

Link to original NY Times article