Category Archives: Journeys

Moments of Ecstatic Passion

Just last week I was able to hear Werner Herzog in conversation with film students at UMass.

What was so cool was Herzog’s advice to film students to read, read, read the world’s great literature. Here’s his “Rogue Film School” reading list.

•    Virgil: Georgics
•    J.A. Baker: The Peregrine
•    Hemingway: The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macumber
•    Diaz del Castillo: The Conquest of the New Spain
•    Warren Commission Report on the assassination of JFK

Interesting assortment, no?

Someone asked why his films featured only, or nearly only, male characters. He spoke about screenplays he’s written with female leads that he hasn’t found funding for yet. I noted to myself that the film industry is still predominately a “white guys rule” world. Though women are up and coming, especially in documentary.

Discussing his Antarctic film Encounters at the End of the World, he described the impossibility of explaining the enormity of the continent. Making that film, he realized you don’t explain the world in film, you name the glory. He showed a clip where that seemed to happen. Here’s the trailer, which opens with a Russian song that “names the glory.”

The books on his reading list are all about naming the glory.

His remarks on editing struck a chord with me, as I spend most of my writing time selecting what works, cutting what doesn’t. Most of what I write ends up on the cutting room floor.

Here’s his process. He goes through all footage with editor in a sitting or two, and keeps a log with rough time indicator. He notes what’s there and puts ! or !! or !!! by footage times that he thinks are really good. Three exclamation points for footage that he feels life wouldn’t be worth living if he left them out.

Then he selects only the footage with the exclamation points and makes that into a film. He says the best footage will fit together. You don’t have to worry about preparing an arc before hand, or outlining. What is most important is the tone of a film, and using only the footage that “names the glory” keeps the tone consistent.

The most important thing for a filmmaker is to know “the heart of man.” Life experience tells you where to look, what to ask your subjects, how to find “moments of ecstatic passion,” “moments of illumination.”

He doesn’t think of himself as an artist, he thinks of himself as a soldier.

True enough. To be a filmmaker–or a writer–one does have to combat all the obstacles the world imposes, including critics and the demands of an overly commercialized market place. In the process one suffers wounds the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” At times one must make tactical retreats. And then again one “takes arms against the sea of troubles” and moves forward.

Yeah, Shakespeare had that “moments of ecstatic passion” thing down pat.


Post-Colonialism, Post-Soviet Style

Post this under “recently read.”  The book club read Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan–set in post-Soviet Azerbaijan–a few months ago, and then, after finding the book incredibly sexist, decided to read a female take on the changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. For that Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife–set in the former Yugoslavia–by fit the bill perfectly.

A propos of Absurdistan is the featured book on the Leonard Lopate show book club on WNYC-FM. Shteyngart will be on to discuss his novel on January 10, 2012.

On the Lopate Book Club page, you can find interviews with Salman Rushdie on Midnight’s Children (also one of our book club post-colonial-themed reads).

On Absurdistan, I found it interesting that Halliburton and the oil industry have replaced the Soviets as a colonizing force. One of our members felt the main character had some of the characteristics in the “holy fool” tradition in Russian literature. Others disliked the book–either because the satire didn’t ring true, they were offended by the profoundly negative and sexualized depiction of women. That all the female characters were prostitutes or near-prostitutes bothered me as well. It seemed to me to be a cheap path for an author to take, although I did find the humor and the critique of post-Soviet globalization sharp and incisive.

The World as It Should Be

Tintin at Sea

Over the holiday, I saw three movies that I really liked. Tintin, Hugo, and The Descendants. Of the three, I found Tintin to be the most unusual. This New York Times review by Charles McGrath pinpoints some of the reasons why. And this New Yorker review by “Front Row” blogger Richard Brody teases out a few more reasons why.

McGrath points out that Tintin is an unusual adventure hero, having no extraordinary powers. Brodie underlines the lack of violence and murder despite the tremendously fast pace of the film.

These two reasons are probably why I enjoyed the film so much. It was tremendously charming and fast moving, without ever creating the anxiety that adventure films usually do, even though there was plenty of fighting and numerous explosions. Part of this was the result of the visual beauty of the film.

It’s always nice to see someone win superhuman struggles without having access to superhero strengths. It appeals to my sense of justice in an unjust time — the world as it should be, not as it is.

Great Read

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I loved this book. Takes one from Proust’s Paris to contemporary Japan, via Vienna and the Holocaust. A history of Jews and anti-Semitism by following a tiny netsuke hare down the rabbit hole. Told by a ceramist with an eye for craft, kitsch, and beauty.

Yes, we can

Universal health care — we can….and we will.

More on Coral Reefs

From the BBC. Pretty pictures.

Porites coral on the Great Barrier Reef

Porites coral on the Great Barrier Reef

Externalized costs.

Dr Glenn De’ath and colleagues investigated 328 colonies of massive Porites corals, from 69 locations…. By looking at the coral skeletons, they determined that calcification – or the deposit of calcium carbonate – has declined by 13.3% throughout the Great Barrier Reef since 1990.

Such a decline is unprecedented in at least the past 400 years, they write.

Happy New Year!

Sicily on My Mind


I’m going to Sicily for a week to see championship fencing. In my carry-on bag are the following titles:

The Robb title is nonfiction, about the history of the Mafia on the island, literature and art as well. I read a similar book of his on Brazil (A Death in Brazil), which was riveting. Sciascia is a heralded crime novelist, also dealing with the Mafia. For light reading, I’m packing Lampedusa’s classic, The Leopard, about Sicilian life and aristocracy during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy during the mid-nineteenth century.

Day of the Owl

Next stop, India – Politics, Passion, and Pillage

In honor of my daughter and Mina’s daughter working and studying in India, the book club has decided to read Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

It helps that I’ve already read it*, so I can whole-heartedly recommend this vivid history of end of the British Raj and the founding the modern states of Pakistan and India. It’s a panoramic portrait of the tricky politics of religion, caste, anti-colonialism, and British attitudes toward imperialism.

Juiciest — and what sold my picky fellow readers — is the sex. Namely, the romantic triangle featuring the last Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbattan, who presided over the partition and the British exit, his glamorous wife, Edwina, and her passionate love affair with the handsome, lonely, and brilliant Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

Gandhi and Jinnah, the fiery Muslim who insisted on a separate state, the conflicts and violence among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and the British incompetence and indifference that led to horrific violence as the British left are described with cinematic flair.

It’s a great read, and should produce lively discussion.

*I prepared the index

Rainy Day Reading

One of the nicest experiences during my travels in Ireland was a rainy day. After ten days of nonstop hiking, biking, and sightseeing, it was delicious to have an excuse to cuddle up with a good book and lose myself in someone else’s adventures instead of having to sweat them out on my own.

While Paul Dombey and Sonwent searching for a prehistoric burial mound in the downpour, I curled up in bed and allowed myself to be swept away by Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Every so often, I paused to stare at the gray skies, the sheets of rain blurring the picture windows, the soft green pastures and rocky hills. What a luxury!

The plot unfolds slowly, but once it starts chugging, it is hard to put down this long novel. While the raindrops pattered and splashed, I wandered through the mean, labyrinthine streets of nineteenth-century London with its teeming crowds, unscrupulous villains, and wizened eccentrics. The novel relates the trials and tribulations of Florence, the neglected daughter of the proud and wealthy Dombey, who is furious because a daughter is unable in his eyes to carry on the name of his firm–Dombey and Son. When Florence’s mother dies giving birth to the much desired son, poor Florence must fend for herself in a cold, unloving household.

A reader does so want her to survive the many cruel twists in the plot. These include a kidnapping by the evil “good Mrs. Brown,” the illness of Florence’s beloved but frail little brother, her father’s loveless marriage to a haughty but beautiful stepmother, and the treachery of her father’s assistant, a scheming, catlike man, who contrives to divest her of her true love, Walter, by sending him off to the Barbados on behalf of the firm, where he is lost at sea.

Here’s a taste of Dickens’s description of the effect of the railroad on the layout of the town and people’s lives. The Charles Dickens Page, where I found this excerpt, is a wonderful resource.

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; Railroad enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; Continue reading