Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Polish trifecta

Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds has all the hallmarks of a difficult European movie: it is concerned with an unfamiliar postwar history, produced under strictly controlled Stalinist oversight, and filmed with meager resources. Yet Popiól i diament is accessible, visually sophisticated, and startlingly modern. Some background, from Criterion’s entry on the film:

Popiol i Diament
In 1999, Polish director Andrzej Wajda received an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work—more than thirty-five feature films, beginning with A Generation in 1955. Wajda’s second film, Kanal—the first ever made about the Warsaw uprising—secured him the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and started him on the path to international acclaim, secured with the release of his masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, in 1958. These three groundbreaking films ushered in the “Polish School” movement and later became known as the “War Trilogy.” But each boldly stands on its own—testaments to the resilience of the human spirit, the struggle for personal and national freedom, and Wajda’s unique contribution to his homeland and to world cinema.

One quickly grasps the fundamental tension of post-WWII Poland necessary to get into the movie: the populace, dependent on the Polish Home Army (actually, the Sluzba Zwyciestwu Polski—Service for Poland’s Victory—or SZP) during the Nazi occupation, is put between the incoming Soviet-backed Communist regime and the SZP’s resistance of the Stalinists. If you’ll pardon me, I’d like to go directly to a key critical angle: Wajda was fishing for an viewers under similar constraints. As Paul Coates puts it in his essay for the War Trilogy package, “[c]riticize the Home Army too strongly and the audience will turn on you; offend the regime, and your film might be amputated or aborted.” Given the inhibitions under which Wadjda was operating, it’s remarkable that Ashes and Diamonds is so balanced and at ease; in fact, this balance is one of the wellsprings of its modernity.

Ashes and Diamonds still

The other source is Zbigniew Cybulski’s electrifying performance as Maciek Chelmicki, the SZP resistance fighter who is tapped to assasinate a local Communist party secretary; Cybulski, a fish out of water, dressed in fifties beatnik garb down to his dark glasses—the actor refused to don period costumes, unlike the rest of the cast—is near-unanimously likened to James Dean, a rough contemporary, but there’s something of a young Brando in him, too. (Wajda, on yielding to Cybulski’s sartorial preferences: “I think that was the moment when I became a director. I was able to not direct what didn’t need to be directed.”) By all accounts, the young audience for the film found, in him, a countercultural spokesman.

Ashes and Diamonds poster

Criterion’s extras on Ashes and Diamonds are typically excellent; of particular interest is a revealing interview with the director who, on the precipice of the era of the auteur, demurs. The imagery and cinematography is exceptional—many writings dwell on the scene where Maciek lights afire the shot-glasses of vodka on the hotel bar, evoking votive candles; or mention the scene where a white horse wanders into the frame outside the hotel; or the striking image of Maciek and the barmaid (who figures prominently in activating his emotions on the night they make love) in the churchyard, with an inverted, crucified Christ bearing a crown of needle-like thorns [pictured, although the reduced resolution does not do it justice]. Wajda reports that Andrei Tarkovsky was reputed to admire the penultimate scene, where Maciek’s wound is revealed as he is hiding amidst white bedlinens, billowing on an array of clothelines at the outskirts of town. As the assassin clutches a sheet to his abdomen, a red bloodspot is revealed—a visual allusion to the Polish colors, visible as Maciek departs the hotel on the way to his murderous act.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in spurning the auteur’s persona, Wajda found the balance that he sought, a balance that was necessary for the film to find its audience. Its presence is everywhere one looks: from politics to Maciek’s acute awareness of a choice between the seductiveness of a “normal” life with the blonde barmaid and the heroic life of the soldier fighting the Communists; the character of the party secretary, whose son is one of Maciek’s SZP brethren, is rendered in shades of gray; with the dynamic presence of Zbigniew Cybulski, it seems as if it were filmed ten years more recently than 1958. This is already an overly long post, so I ’ll end with a quote from the interview with Wajda, revealing a humility not often associated with artists, and illustrating, again, his effectiveness.

The secret of our war films was that with those films, we augmented our biographies. I didn’t participate in the Warsaw uprising, but I made Kanal. I didn’t find myself in situations like Cybulski or Maciek Chelmicki in 1945, but I made Ashes and Diamonds. I didn’t particpate in the kind of operations depicted in A Generation, or in the kind of bravado portrayed in the film Lotna. So these films became a substitute for parts of my life.

From the Imagination series
From the Loneliness series
From the “Imagination” and
“Loneliness” series (2005)

Pawel Fabjanski, a young Polish photographer who graduated from Polish National Film School in June, has been on a roll. His website touts several awards, current shows in Warsaw and Vienna, and a profile in issue number 424 of French Photo magazine, all since his degree; his commercial-savvy “pink rabbit” series was a winner of Arctic Paper’s competition that landed the nuclear power plant image [inset right] in the “Cool Solutions 2006” calendar. Not busy enough, apparently: the beautiful Christmas lights image is from his new “Loneliness” series.

TOMASZEWSKI: Symfonia pastoralnaLIPINSKI: Polowanie na but
TREPKOWSKI: Mistrzostwa Europy w boksieLIPINSKI: Zolnierki
Polish cinema posters

[Via Coudal, a] searchable database of classic Polish film posters, with images, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s; thumbs exhibited are the cream from Henryk Tomaszewski, Tadeusz Trepkowski, and Eryk Lipinski, original graphic designers commissioned in 1946 by Film Polski (a state film distribution monopoly). The site’s proprietor has commerce on his mind—“[t]he best works should reach the $10k range within a decade, and an average price may easily quadruple. Right now, they are still a bargain…”—but the rest of us can still admire.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The spotted opossum

I happened upon this site that examines the history of exploration of Australia whilst looking for opossum engravings—really!—and was able to establish that the European settlement of the continent began at the time of our constitutional convention (in 1787).

Spotted Opossum
Spotted Opossum, Peter Mazell;
hand-coloured copper engraving
from Voyage of Governor Phillip to
Botany Bay
by Arthur Phillip
(Rex Nan Kivell Collection)

It turns out that Captain James Cook was the first European to discover Australia—did I ever know this?—in 1770, first sighting the southeast coast in March.

He discovered and named Botany Bay, carefully explored and mapped the coast northward, and finally, on Possession Island in Torres Strait, took possession of the whole eastern coast, naming it New South Wales.

(Excerpts from his journals are available on the site.) But the first settlements (for the establishment of a penal colony—decidedly part of my elementary school curriculum) took place decades later while America was debating its new constitution. Arthur Phillip, an admiral in the British navy, led this first expedition, landing in Botany Bay, and began to settle the continent. Phillip’s journals include a wide-ranging justification of the endeavor; an impressive historical survey (natural, anthropological, and otherwise), and an accounting of the young government, such as it was. But all of this is a thinly-veiled excuse to put up an amazing print [inset left] of the spotted opossum, a creature that surely cannot be real, conjured from the feverish imagination of a colonial sailor and amateur natural historian, prefiguring Lewis Carroll.


Friday, November 18, 2005

City of lights

'Evening in Paris' perfume
Ads from the 1950s:
0 1 2 3 4

Crikey. I’ve been working long hours this week, and haven't gotten enough downtime to polish off the longer pieces that have been in the hopper for too long already, but a few short notes ere I fly to Nashville this eve.

Cindy passed along the following from Stumps, a company that specializes in products for planning proms and other similar events. In the 1940s, they offered “Evening in Paris,” the first large area decorating theme kit. Well, they’ve expanded hugely since then, and the endless catalog of theme kits is a sight to behold.

Midnight in Paris

My favorite is the “Midnight in Paris,” and now my mind is spinning to find a reason to buy one of these things. From the description, the kit contains

1 Paris Gate, 1 La Tour Eiffel, 1 Paris Skyline, 1 Set of Parisian Hedges, 1 Pair of La Tour Lamp Posts, 1 Set of La Tour Mini Lamp Posts. We created the background with black and gold star gossamer. We created the floor with dark green and cobblestone flat paper.

À bientôt, y’all!

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

“The Worst Record Covers of All Time”

Genesis’ Foxtrot
Genesis’ Foxtrot

Why do hipsters reject Genesis? Animal Collective couldn't try any harder to mimic them, from the prog-jamming down to the stupid album art.

—Brent DiCrescenzo
The Worst Record Covers of All Time,” on Pitchfork

[via Troy]

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Camouflage survey

It all started with a great score from Daedalus, a book I’ve been looking for for some time: designer Hardy Blechman’s Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia Of Camouflage (Firefly, 2004—it had previously been available only under a British imprint) for a cool $30—go and check it out at the source, or see Steven Heller’s review in Eye, or the one in Boldtype.

And then, in rapid succession: a BB post on dazzle camouflage, followed by a call for papers for the upcoming Camouflage: Art, Science and Popular Culture, to be held at the University of Northern Iowa Department of Art on Saturday, 22 April 2006. (The conference is organized by Roy R. Behrens, whose False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage—Bobolink, 2002—is the wonky yang to Blechman’s stylish yin; proposals are due by 10 January 2006.)

dazzle Fiat Strada
A dazzly paint-job.

Some snips: in 1917, at the height of the U-boat scare during WWI, a former marine artist, designer, and illustrator—one Lt. Cdr. Norman Wilkinson of the Royal Navy—was assigned to a team tasked with visually altering British ships to improve maritime survivability. Interestingly, dazzle (as it came to be known) did not operate as conventional camouflage—which typically masks a body’s visibility—usually does: dazzle creates a vibrating visual field which makes it difficult for a human observer to accurately determine the position and heading of a potential target, crucial inputs for a successful torpedo-er (prior to the age of radar, sonar, and computerized navigation). Wilkinson’s band tested candidates by painting models and testing their effectiveness by rigging a turntable, water, and periscope optics. (The U.S. and France would follow suit, usually employing fine artists in the endeavor.)

DPM is a rich visual sourcebook, one that gets you heading in all sorts of fruitful directions: it covers camouflage in the natural world, in warfare (of course), but also provides fashion and pop images that serve as great fodder for free-association. Me? I’ve been pondering the morphing of camo from utilitarian to semiotic signal of the military, patriotism, and plainspeaking Americanism (in our fair city, football fans have adopted the uniform, with a bit of tailoring). And in the Costume Institute’s Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed (from 2001), one thread concerned the utility of fashion in hiding unflattering body parts.

For the scholars: a camouflage bibliography, courtesy of Behrens.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo
Eva Green as Venus de Milo
Eva Green in
The Dreamers

Addendum: From a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s awkward and forced Dreamers, actress Eva Green is depicted as the Venus de Milo when she camouflages her arms by wearing long black gloves and standing in a dark doorway, dressed only in drapery surrounding the hips. [cws::13 Nov]

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

New BüKs

S.C.U.M. Manifesto
Buy it
at the BüK Shop

Hey, kids: remember that nutty Valerie Solanas? Before she shot Andy, she published the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, an anti-male polemic—“her radical tract is a stunning salvo in the age-old battle of the sexes”—that has recently been reissued by the folks at BüK.

And what is a BüK? It…

…is an inexpensive pamphlet—just $1.49—containing one provocative essay, short story, portfolio of pictures, collection of poems, or other surprising entertainment, readable in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. At 5 x 7 inches and 16-32 pages, a BüK fits easily into a pocket, purse or backpack, where it is always ready to serve up absorbing material by or about architects, artists, actors, composers, critics, directors, designers, divas, educators, economists, environmentalists, essayists, models, moguls, novelists, photographers, politicians, poets, singers, and scientists.

Buy! There’s a fairly interesting and extensive catalog that includes titles on Liberace, Greenland, and the hobo lexicon.

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Production up

I’ve finally been able to shake off my writer’s block and have several columns that will go up tonight and tomorrow through the weekend [sample topics: literary Darwinists and television, camouflage, Blaze Starr, mystical video, and humility]. In the meantime, though, admire this remixed poster from the blog of the National Association of Manufacturers, whose “Wednesday Poster of the Week” feature highlights vintage imagery from a billboard campaign from the 1930-40s in conjunction with the Outdoor Advertising Association.

NAM poster
(Original here.)

“Grunion runs have ended for this season.”

So declares the Los Angeles Times’ latest “Fish report.” The California Department of Fish and Game provides grunion porn:
Grunion leave the water at night to spawn on the beach in the spring and summer months two to six nights after the full and new moons. Spawning begins after high tide and continues for several hours. As a wave breaks on the beach, grunion swim as far up the slope as possible. The female
grunions spawning
Those spawnin’ grunions.
arches her body and excavates the semifluid sand with her tail to create a nest. She twists her body and digs until she is half buried in the sand with her head sticking up. She then deposits her eggs in the nest. Males curve around the female and release milt. The milt flows down the female’s body until it reaches and fertilizes the eggs. As many as eight males may fertilize the eggs in a nest. After spawning, the males immediately retreat toward the water while the female twists free and returns with the next wave. While spawning may take only 30 seconds, some fish remain stranded on the beach for several minutes.
(For more grunion lore, see this article from LAist.)