Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Wind Rises, The Sun Sets, We Look On



This post will be dense, partly because so many feelings and thoughts occupy my mind begging for analysis pertaining to my recent viewing of Hayao Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises and partly because it aroused within me a concern for how we look upon works of art and how we are conditioned to look at art in a certain manner. This all is unified, quite curiously, because I feel that the essence of The Wind Rises is about how Miyazaki, himself, perceived what seemed to be his hero in Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the infamous Zero aircraft that became the lethal missile it was as the kamikaze vehicle (kamikaze, for your information, means, "Spirit Wind," in Japanese). If there was ever a flaw that Miyazaki articulated in his surreal film about Jiro, it might be that he was too much of an idealist.

I mentioned an intriguing point to my friend after we both watched the film: in the film Jiro dreams of being with his hero, Caproni, and of what his hero would say to him. Caproni mentions that his planes should never be used to fight but will be anyways. This is a direct echo of what Jiro is told by his mother at the very start of the film, who says there is no justification for fighting. Knowing that, don't you think that in his dreams, Jiro is projecting his own philosophy onto his recreation of Caproni? I mean, Caproni always refers to Jiro as the, "Japanese boy," even though he is grown up at the end of the film. Do you think Caproni really is like that? So, do you think that Caproni's representation is only the reflection of Jiro's mental state and evolution of his passion? Now, take this a step further and ask yourself, do you think Miyazaki is projecting his own ideals of Jiro onto film the same way Jiro is projecting his ideals within his dreams? I'd say there is a good argument for that and I trust that Miyazaki knows this possible phenomenon and he drips his fantastically personal and somewhat factual story with melancholy.

I bring this up because I feel like this is the heart of the controversy surrounding the film that seems to be glossed over, something that the media as done time and time again in recent memory, being unsettled by stories about characters that go against our progressive thinking today (thinking that...well...may need some reflection and discussion). It's as if stories are not allowed to enter into worlds we think are bad or offensive or...the key word here...ambiguous. The Wolf of Wall Street follows Jordan Belfort's sexed and drugged up lollapalooza of financial domination and Zero Dark Thirty observes the coldness of Maya as she hunts down the man, the symbol, of American austerity. In this Miyazaki film, something similar happens and, just like these other films, audiences are hesitant to praise it because of some sort of social consequence. So, I'll save the ranting for the end (and boy do I have a rant) and now focus more on the film and what it does to convey a intensely personal message of one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, a Japanese filmmaker who I would unflinchingly put alongside the 'Three Masters,' Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Hopefully, even without the rant, this will convince you that, once again, these films are crafted with enough intelligence to go beyond such criticism and be works that express a curious ambiguity that, to me, strengthens the human condition.

Jiro Creates Dreams, So Does Miyazaki
There are a lot of f-bombs, naked women, and drugs in Jordan Belfort's story. Likewise, there is a lot of detachment and austerity in Maya's manhunt. Many people who come out of the theatre wonder why in the hell these films functioned in such an unapologetic manner, sometimes leading to superficial criticism. What many people seem to ignore is one of the most fundamental narrative elements in storytelling: perspective. Perspective as a narrative tool drives the tone of the story as well as what we are able to witness in a film but, almost as importantly, what we don't see in a film. Without getting to involved with the other aforementioned films, much of the opposition derives from this lack of access to things they want to see (the victims of fraud and the victims of torture) yet the perspective of the story, specified to one character (with the exception, sometimes, of several scenes), denies viewers of the option, and we are left to cling onto a personality we may not agree with.

The opening shots of The Wind Rises are in the dreams of our protagonist, Jiro, whose fascination with the flying machine coupled with his lack of knowledge, results in an ideal birdlike plane with feathered fingers at the tip of the wings facing off against a quagmired zeppelin, sooted and dark. These machines could easily be connected to many of the Miyazaki's earlier films, particularly Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky. It is more important, right now, to contemplate that the viewer is thrusted into a historical film through a character's dreams. That is not the best way to assure your audience that this is all fact (even though, let us not forget, it doesn't even say it is based on a true story). It is in the second dream sequence where we meet his hero, Caproni, and Caproni and Jiro begin talking with each other, with Caproni showing the young Jiro his latest aircrafts (which, if you are keeping score, look a lot like the planes of Porco Rosso). The dialogue between the two should already be a point of suspicion based on the acknowledgment of perspective. Indeed, taking into account the second paragraph of this essay, one could deduce that Jiro is talking to himself, or, more elaborately, his ideal vision of Caproni based upon his own experiences, mindsets, and what he reads in his english magazines. Or, hell, maybe his idealization of what he wants to be in the future where Caproni is merely a facade.

The dream sequences that heavily populate the film formulate a surreal edge to this otherwise realistic (by Miyazaki standards) historical fiction film. There are even moments in the film where we do not know if what we are looking at is a dream or real. As Jiro helps save the books from the burning library during the hellfire earthquake, we see a cut from the 'real' to a shot of Caproni asking Jiro a question in which it cuts back to Jiro in reality answering. Such casual transitioning plays upon the established idea, established in the first scene, that we are viewing this world through the eyes and mind of a man caught up in his romanticized dreams of creating dreams. The film never strays from this practice, even when it strays from Jiro momentarily to focus on Naoko or Kayo (the typical, but awesome, 'Miyazaki girl').

What is essentially going on is Miyazaki applying a dreamscape to narrative realism; the story of this film is deeply rooted in historical fact...an element that even expects the viewer to understand that as not much is explained as time passes (Japanese viewers would be familiar, of course). The dreamscape is a Miyazaki norm, where worlds are constructed from the ground up that reflect a certain thematic significance that parallels the actual story. Think of the worlds of Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. They provide a visual blueprint of the narrative's nuance and themes, reflecting real-world connotation amid the dazzling details of strange, imaginative, and wondrous realms.

Besides the approach of realism in this film, the major difference between the role of these constructed landscapes in his other films and this one is that this is the dreamscape of Jiro, not Miyazaki, or, the dreamscape of Miyzaki's perception of Jiro (this seems a little confusing, but what I mean is that the dreamscape is not made from scratch by Miyazaki, Jiro is still the foundation for the dreamscapes that we see in the film). What we observe is not necessarily a new world the protagonist must enter but a world by which the protagonist has crafted and placed as a reaction to his real world interactions. His ambitions for designing planes is now the same thing as saying his determination to fully realize his idealization of his dreams...which is what creative spirit essentially is. Miyazaki fixates the perspective of the narrative on Jiro as a mechanism to illustrate, quite beautifully, this characterization, where the dreamscape and the real landscape are always in dynamic interplay. Thus, the absence of the real destructive force of the Zero plane shouldn't really be justified by any literal means, it is all set up at the very beginning as an intimate exploration into one man's dreams and one man's reality. The film remains consistent throughout.

Art, Passion, and Socioeconomic Context
There are derivative shots of the act of creating throughout the film, their meaning lies far beyond the scope of the story and lay firmly in the personal ambitions of Miyazaki himself. Consider early on in Jiro's employment at Mitsubishi. When he is enthralled by the shape of a fishbone and begins to sketch it on graph paper, a closeup details the elegant curvature that captures Jiro's imagination. Several times, we see closeups of him writing equations or using the slide rule; there is heavy attention to these moments as we join in on Jiro's meticulousness and focus, laying our eyes on each and every hand movement and what these movements eventually produce on paper. Miyazaki admires these movements, the act of creating something...in other words, we view these shots of designing an airplane as an artistic excursion. Later in the film, when Naoko returns into the diegesis, we encounter her perched on top of a rolling, grassy hill painting a landscape. Cut to a closeup of her hand stroking the canvas with a palette knife in a similar movement as Jiro's hand when sketching the fishbone. Again, the same attention to detail that only becomes crucial as part of a pattern of repeated shots throughout the film.

So, even within the film's narrative and visual structure, there are parallels between the art of plane design and the art of painting; both Jiro and Naoko have their own workstations. The parallel extends beyond the narrative and communicate with the director explicitly. Miyazaki's art is created in the same way, literally. Jiro's workstation can easily be transported to an animation studio. Moreover, the intrinsic characteristics of designing a plane and creating animations (not so much with painting, unfortunately) align with each other in that what is produced on paper is inanimate yet the ultimate goal of a plane designer and animator is to bring to life the inanimate skeleton that remains fixated in the restraining two-dimensional world of the paper.

Moreover, there is also an attempt to depict everyday objects as sources of inspiration. Besides the fishbone, there is one curious shot when Jiro and Naoko walk among the hard rain under an umbrella. As they discuss if the umbrella is doing its job there is a closeup of the underbelly of the umbrella, showing the pole and the ribs that extend outward from it in all directions. Within this narrative, it looks curiously like the ribs used for wings. Although it is not as apparent as the fishbone, one could imply a moment for Jiro as he looks up at the umbrella and directs his attention away from Naoko for a moment and back onto his planes. I will assume at this point (as in I have no evidence) that Miyazaki looks upon everyday objects with the same creative scrutiny. And when we bring back the significance of dreams, the realization of Jiro's dreams start with the paper and the same goes with Miyazaki. Between the sketch and the test flight, between the sketch and the final cut, they conceive about how the animated dream will function.

Now, this act of creating that is carefully and gracefully exhibited within the narrative is within a a historical socioeconomic framework (really, all Miyazaki films fall into this framework). In this case, it is pre-war imperial nationalism that continuously hovers over Jiro and his work. This creates an unfortunate difficulty in the way Jiro's authentic passion for building dreams conflicts with aggressive national sentiment and militaristic efficiency. The narrative clearly explains the undesirable position of Japan. The titanic earthquake hit in 1923 which was proceeded by financial depression. Japan was economically behind many of the superpowers and then some and there was a clamoring among the population to search for some new national identity that went through obfuscation in the first several decades of the 20th century, all as a fallout during the late 19th century attempt to westernize and with the dilution of traditional Japanese mentality (Edo period mentality, the samurai code[s], etc). Jiro's career was in part dictated by the historical events proceeding him. It is in his dream that Caproni first tells the young Jiro that their planes will be used for warfare. Was this Jiro's underlying doubt about his dream fueled by memories of World War I? This isn't necessarily explained but what is depicted is the narrowing path Jiro must take to appease the powers that be who, over the years following the depression, concocted a mentality of imperial angst constituting the bastardization of the bushido code.

There is the artistic idea of the, "death of the author," where, in general, once a piece has been made and broadcasted to the public then the piece is no longer the author's but the people's to interpret and mold. The author cannot control the thoughts and interpretations the audience has on the piece once it has been released. Of course, this can be generalized to an artist and even a plane designer. Jiro was developing a practical vehicle at a time when Japan was looking to catch up with other countries and bolster its pride. Now, I only believe in this 'death' to some extent but if there was ever an example that endorsed such an analysis it would be this situation. No matter the idealization of Jiro's dreams, was there ever any chance he could make planes without performing in favor of the militaristic regime that dominated the country? The followup question would be something along the lines of: was Jiro's dreams potent enough to propel (pun intended) him forward and continue his work despite his knowledge of this consequence? It was an early discussion with his friend, Honjo, that the ironies of his work were laid out and then later on Jiro notes how they are just making planes but not weapons, as if by saying it out aloud would authenticate justification. It seemed like Jiro was destined to 'die' and relinquish his planes to the abhorrence of their intended use. Can we say the same for Miyazaki?

What we can conclude is that through the specific socioeconomic lens of the time period, people's perception of Jiro's dreams have them identifying them only as war machines. There is an artistry and there is an art. There is a fascination and curiosity with shapes, form, and structure. Yet it means nothing when no one acknowledges it in that manner. In one pivotal scene, when Jiro lays out his plans for the Zero to his design team, he mentions that the plane could reach optimized efficiency if it didn't have a machine gun. The team laughed hysterically as if that the mere existence of such an idea was impossible. If his planes would only be perceived in one way and one way only, then any perception Jiro holds becomes nullified. The act of designing and animating the inanimate may be a glorious and creative task, but when the piece is done, it is handed over to everyone else.

A Love As Fleeting As Dreams Deferred
It is safe to say that the love story in The Wind Rises is treated with an unconventional touch of fleetness, even when Jiro and Naoko are in close proximity to each other (after almost fifteen years) they still don't see each other as much as they could because Naoko is bedridden with a fever. The fragility of Naoko becomes a huge cost for the time given to share their love and, indeed, upon request of Kurokawa, they get married on a whim justifying such a decision by this limited time given to them. There is a tragic admiration for such situation; the two lovers are already aware of the fleeting nature of this relationship...a love as fragile as the planes on their first flight.

What does this mean though? Why does Miyazaki decide to employ this sort of dynamic? It is worth noting that Naoko never existed in the real life of Jiro, so great liberties are being taken to apply such a major part of the story. Is it a counterpoint to the unfortunate consequences of Jiro's passion? Is it a complement? I think I will analyze this mostly through feeling and tone, as I feel Jiro's passion and Jiro's love are approached in the same way and are used to invoke the same emotional effect.

As Jesse Cataldo says about the film in this review, the film never shies away from the melancholic coating of Jiro's career during a time that created many evils and uncertainty. Irony is always present and there is only a small degree to which Jiro has even the slightest chance to acknowledge that. With the nostalgic and Italian-inspired score of Joe Hisashi, the dream sequences and love scenes play almost like how we experience a good memory. There is the initial moment of happiness, transporting yourself back to the moment that you immediately cherished. Nostalgia eventually dominates as we realize this memory also reminds us of the impossibility of going back to this moment. Consider the bits and pieces of dialogue between not just Jiro and Naoko but Jiro and Caproni. There is the often utterances between the two lovers that their time is precious and the love between them is amplified and more defined. Even before it was known of Naoko terminal illness, their first exchanges since the earthquake hinted at a fleeting nature. When Jiro remarks that Naoko's painting had been ruined by the rain, she remarks that is doesn't matter, she will remember this painting as the memory she had with him that day.

More curiously, however, is Jiro's conversations with Caproni (which, to make it complicated, may just be conversations with himself). Caproni's speeches are always laden with cynicism that there will always be opposition against creating planes for the pure beauty of watching them fly. He mentions to Jiro the idea that you only have ten years to produce your greatest work. After that, you will never return to such creative prowess. The same could be said about Jiro's time with Naoko. Just as we began the film with a dream, we end the film with a dream, a dream that culminates the loss Jiro has accrued in the last ten years. It is a moment of true blissful surrealism.

As I watched, I felt a saddening wonderment underlined by a hint of anxiety. Things were fading away for Jiro, both his planes and Naoko, into the past. He is forever burdened and forever grateful for the memory of these moments that swiftly move with the wind. The concept of love in this film is that it is fragile and, as pointed out earlier, the fragility of these planes and more unfortunately the fragility of Naoko (recall the shocking scene of her blood spilling onto the canvas...a shot that could also be related to the aforementioned shots showing Jiro sketch). I found Naoko's decision to leave Jiro and die away from him to be piercingly tragic yet undeniably Japanese (honor came into play in the decision, I assume), but this moment of passing means more than just the passing of Naoko. It represents, maybe, a dream deferred, an ideal life that could of been had but it seems that, under the circumstances, was always conflicting with the world around it. This somber tone outlining many of the more internal themes (like of art and passion that I mentioned above) bears a heavy anti-war message, albeit subtle. Nevertheless, it does not and should not necessitate any visualization of victims pertaining to Jiro's creations.

Of Course, There Is the Animation
You know, I wonder how many people watched this and thought this could have been done, maybe more effectively, as a live-action film.  Maybe nobody thought that and that was just a volatile reaction stemming from my insecurity...anyways, there is a reason this story works so well as an animation and I think it has to do with surreal nature of the film and its constant exploration with dreams. I marveled at the colorful planes that glistened with the soft grass. One shot remains prominent in my mind of one of Caproni's planes taking off. The puffiness of the smoke squeezing out of the mufflers and the way it plays with the propellers as they begin to gain speed is a luscious feast for the eyes...there were many times where during my viewing of the film where my eyes were wide open and my mouth remained slightly opened.

Miyazaki is a master of invoking a certain tone with movement of shapes, disfiguring them to his liking just enough to invoke one feeling and then disfiguring enough to make a totally different meaning. Consider the earthquake scene, which also stands out as a remarkable auditory experience, as the landscape bends and folds in a gigantic ripple. It's shown with ferocious immediacy...it came and went and the destruction it left (and the fires it started) was devastating. And the wall of smoke that spawned soon after was musty in texture and deathly, holding immense weight with its shades of grey and a hint of hellish orange. Now consider one of the dream sequences where Caproni gives Jiro a tour of a gargantuan passenger plane that is in the middle of a festive party of unapologetic cheering and smiling. The plane amusingly morphs to compensate the fact that there are way too many people on the plane, also highlighted by the way in which the partiers burst out of every window. When Caproni and Jiro climb up onto the top of the plane via a ladder hatch, the hatch is immediately filled with partiers who burst like a pimple out of the hatch. The roundness and simplistic colors compliment the jovial Bacchian scene. It is a depiction of direct contrast to the earlier earthquake scene and it's anxiety-ridden realism.

Then there is also the cognitive reason that animation provides the viewers; the way in which we connect with the characters and are convinced of the feelings expressed. Motivated by the enlightening work of Scott McCloud, what animation does and what Miyazaki has capitalized his whole career with his fantastic characters is the amplification of emotions through simplification of visualization. In other words, the simplistic detail of Jiro's face or of Naoko's face allows the viewer to fill in the missing pieces of a certain feeling and, thus, allow more involvement from the audience. Thereby, hopefully, the feelings expressed by the characters will be amplified by the viewer's participation in adding their own familiarity of the feeling. Without getting into too much theory, this really stems from the idea that animated figures in anime, manga, comics, and the like are never drawn to look exactly like a real person and our cognition must compensate for this disparity.

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The Rant
From here on out I'll be forcefully raising my blood pressure in order to deliver a heated and passionate observation of the state of animation and how it has become defunct to the point where any sort of discussion is almost rendered worthless.

The main reason I watch the Oscars is that there is always a chance where the academy, with arguably the most famous awards ceremony, gives credit where credit is due.  That is not another way of saying if they choose what I want them to choose then it is alright; I have favorites but good choices, mind you, are not limited to my choices. It is just when something like this and this happen I question the integrity of not just the Oscars but the film industry as a whole. Instead of tackling this whole problem let's just focus on one of the voter's explanations, where he or she stated that his interest in animated films stopped at the age of six. Great, as a voter for one of the most prestigious awards in all of cinema, the conclusion you make for animated films is that they are only made for kids. Nevermind the fact that animated films make up a huge part of the industry today (whether the films are good or not) and nevermind that they have a crucial place in cinema history (Sergei Eisenstein said his favorite film happened to be Snow White, there's also Fantasia, Yellow Submarine, Chuck Jones, Miyazaki, Chomet...you get the point), let us just ignore the creativity, the necessity, and the relevance of such a form of art that has been cast aside as childish and, by an incredible skill of logic, negligible.

Could it be that there is still a potent conditioning factor our American industry has weighed down on it's audience such that these artistic products can be marketed with directness and clarity? Animated films, according to the business, can only be marketed to younger folk. With this mindset, could you really fault the voter for uttering something that could only be interpreted as stupidly ignorant? Of course not. I mean, it is the job of that voter to watch the films given to them such that they can make an honest choice no matter the ignorant ideologies they uphold...it's not like the Oscars are prestigious, right? Let's take a look at the gravity of this statement from another angle. If the Oscars are about celebrating the brilliance of an art form, why distort such a vision by disrespecting the ceremony, one, and disrespecting the men and women who worked their asses off to do what they love and say what they want to say.

Now let's take a look at the other responses in bulk. Of course, this is only a limited scope into the minds of the voters but my accumulated observation tells me that none of them have any clear idea what the hell is going on in the animation category. None. Not one even mentioned the existence of an ambiguous, certainly not for kids, feature made by Miyazaki. Of course, I'm relentlessly bias, and I will say that I have not seen Frozen either. Fine, you can flog me afterwards, but hear me out. Whether or not Frozen is a good film, can you really praise it for its originality? I mean, wasn't it just a year ago that Disney came out with a very similar film called Brave? How different are they and in what ways is Frozen better? Is Disney offering anything new here? Frozen might even be an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a strong female character (which, by the way, has been Miyazaki's forte since 1984 with Nausicaa). If the voters had any inkling of understanding towards the films they should have watched anyways, shouldn't they be suspicious at how Miyazaki managed to make an animated film not for kids? Suspicious enough to watch it, maybe? Maybe not, and The Wind Rises suffers from two forms of prejudices now: it is an animated film and it is an animated film about a controversial figure that's not for kids.

Okay, so maybe original doesn't equate with good. Moreover, it is not that I do not like marketable trends in the film industry...I'm a huge fan of Hollywood's golden era which was dominated by marketable tropes left and right (though I would argue that I prefer those films because they are, inherently, different from what we see now in the mainstream). Nonetheless, what's the peril in bringing in and applauding a film that goes against the grain, makes us uncomfortable, and asks us to think as well as to feel? The Wind Rises is too good and too provocative to simply be ignored by academy voters who never look beyond their shorelines for animated stories. At the Oscars, there is always a chance to trampoline a film from obscurity, a good film, and into the limelight for further discussion and further observation from a wider audience. There is always a chance for the award to get people to notice a film that has come and changed the way we look at the world, or ourselves, or of cinema. This year had two chances, really, with the animated feature and the documentary feature (which is another story and just as tragic).

Whatever, maybe there are a lot fewer people who thought there was a chance for something other than Frozen to win and I hate that I am barraging it with my cynical comments but it is situated in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Between a suffocating perception of what animation is 'suppose' to do and the total lack of respect some people with too much authority have towards film and the art of expression through a visual medium, The Wind Rises has suffered from an almost irreversible wound of frightening idiocy. Don't tell me that, "Well, Frozen was good, so..." Is it safe to say that it is easier to predict what Frozen would entail than The Wind Rises?...and when we have people only watching the mainstream American film and not the Japanese film made, by the way, by one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the last twenty years, don't you think that's an unfortunate system we made ourselves, where we are so accustomed to only see what is brought to us on a silver platter. We've been conditioned to not explore what else is out there and question the status quo (please bear in mind that questioning is not the same thing as defying or rebelling). Ultimately, we can only go so far as to see the mixed reception of such a complicated and beautiful film that reduces to a certain shallow paranoia akin to how people are reacting to The Wolf of Wall Street and Zero Dark Thirty.

I'll stop now...rant over.

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Miyazaki's final feature- I hope that is not true- is a film that sparks curiosity about what the form of animation can talk about and what Miyazaki wants to say. It's a tough film as it mixes nostalgia, cynicism, beauty, tenderness, and melancholy with a subtlety and nuance of a fine fabric draped over an antique table. This has been the most real film he has created, yet flying is still a metaphor and there is still a wonderment of a dreamlike world dominating the senses. I hope people get a chance to see this film, to find out a personal account of a history they are usually never exposed to. Maybe then you can conclude yourself if Miyazaki is convincing enough with his narrative. He convinced me and he showed me that, like always, humans are more ambiguous, flawed, and graceful than they appear to be.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Science and Art, Hand in Hand

I feel there is a lot of unnecessary distancing between science and art. Yeah, fine, I know their places in society and, of course, fundamentally they are different such that they cannot be conflated. But, when we look at these from a high, lofty vantage point, we find that they are both interpretations of life, the universe, and everything; tools made by humans.

Okay, so there are several things that have got me pondering this topic over the last week, stemming from casual conversation, screenings, critiques, and pacing this way and that in my dorm. Of course, I think all of you may have some example of where science and art coexist and that is awesome. I guess my plan is to take it a step further to combat a mentality, very prominent in the college environment, that regularly separates these two ways of thinking through curriculum, student perception, and concern of future employment. Hey, a lot of this makes total sense and such thoughts that usually lead to uncertainty really endorse the immobility for art students to be concerned with science and science students to be concerned with art. Yet, like I said, this coordination of art and science is always apparent just sometimes overlooked (especially in an age where, I'm sorry to throw this out there, people make the conscious decision to use mart mediums like film and video games to just, 'check out').

I mean, let's take a look at one of the finest examples of art and science conflating in what seemed to be a movement of mind, body, and soul to a different understanding of reality. 1905 was a landmark year because a certain patent clerk named Albert Einstein developed a theory that would change the way we look at the universe around us. And, highlighted in many of his biographies, like Michio Kaku's compelling account, he came up with these theories by thinking about pictures, elegant and strange pictures. These projections of a new reality, in which he used mathematics as a tool to describe them as well as prove of their existence, required a conflation of alien imagery and sound understanding in mathematical logic. Although this is an assumption, I would guess such a feat would require not only knowledge of science but an undeterred sense of creativity, one that would allow for such bizarre provocation to happen.

Now take a look at this painting, one of my favorite paintings. Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting signifies much more than an abstraction of a body in motion. It signifies a new way to look at reality, one that obtains its influence from (maybe) the science that has spawned in the previous twenty years before but also one that extracts the societal and psychological significance of technology, maybe describing on a singular canvas the illusory foundations of the moving image, which was gaining interest among not just a select few but among the general population as a viable source of entertainment. Again, let us take that giant step back and climb up on our high vantage point, looking down at the big picture...in a way, and I may argue to a large extent, don't you think Duchamp and Einstein were doing similar things? Weren't they trying to express a new manner by which we see reality? Space and time as a fabric? Hmm...hey, I may be totally wrong but I'd like to think that there is an intriguing unity between the way in which the search for a 'different' reality matriculates a plethora of interpretations through a plethora of media. In the case of the Duchamp, the palette, brush, and canvas were the tools of interpretation. And, instead of being provable or practical, it provides emotional connection within each of us. It asks us to navigate our thoughts and feelings and articulate a response based of some sort of coagulation of these thoughts and feelings.

I think it is crucial for me to point out that no where in this piece am I trying to make the case that one is better than the other. What I am trying to do is express my thoughts that art and science compliment each other in a way that looking at both with a curious eye leads to a better understanding of not just the topics (spacetime, motion picture, modernism, etc.) but also the historical framework and cultural framework that provided the basis for these phenomena. To understand where I am coming from, ask yourself what is the cultural significance of the special theory of relativity, quantum physics, and black holes. Ask yourself what is the cultural significance of The Nude Descends the Staircase, Sherlock Jr., or even A Serious Man. I would argue that such thought and discussion would spot points of intersections between the impact of these scientific and artistic endeavors.

Another example I wanted to being up was one rooted in linguistic importance. I think it is safe to say that people look to someone like Shakespeare for intuitive accounts about the human condition that even scientists can use to explain some sort of experiment (eh...that did not sound convincing at all, whatever, this isn't suppose to be that rigorous). But let me introduce you to Marcel Proust, a French writer from the early 20th century (yes, there is a trend forming here...I'll leave you to figure out why). He made a titanic-sized book titled In Search For Lost Time that has also been broken up into smaller novels. I had the chance to read the first one, Swann's Way, in my history class. Though it is translated from French, what I found was that Proust seemed to want to intensely push the boundaries of language in an attempt to tap into the consciousness of the characters in a manner that elucidated every inch of the mental landscape of a human as if he was mapping the brain out not with data points or computer simulations but with elegiac prose and river-flowing sentences that gradually draw out what can only be deduced as immutable truths. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that Proust has been called a neuroscientist (it's not a definitive truth, mind you, but the mere fact that he has been labelled that holds weight). If not that, he certainly has something to say about psychology.

And it works the other way around, particularly in discussions of art (and many art students may know this already). I find that troubles with critiques or other forms of discussion about artwork originate from a lack of a common understanding or a common ground all parties can inhabit while they discuss there views all in an attempt to rid their opinions with superficiality. If you are one of the two avid readers of my blog, you know where I am going with this. A careful combination of poetics and hermeneutics, I feel, will result in a more formulaic foundation through which discussants or critics can based their opinions on. This is a more rigorous and, in many ways, scientific manner by which we approach art (art as some sort of experiment or research). The only way, though, to achieve such a combination is to understand form, whether it'd be video game form or film form). One of my heroes, David Bordwell, does an incredible job at expressing his approach using poetics and his pieces of many films are constantly illuminating and profound. If we ignore such a method we risk suffering the inevitable consequence of trying to define what words mean and then what they mean to the specified piece...that or a whole lot of unrelated, unnecessary tangents that carry a trajectory into the stratosphere. While, again, this isn't really science, it does have a scientific framework (or a framework influenced by the impact of the scientific method and other rules of logic).

I know many people of the arts who cringe at the idea of bringing more science into their discussions and interpretations of art. I know some people of the sciences who look over art as a secondary form of interpretation to what is going on around them. This is a call to raise the awareness that science and art should not be at odds with each other but serve as compliments. That, in some very special ways, art can illuminate science and science can illuminate art. There sometimes seems to be a complete lack of understanding of how artistry plays a role in science and how much science there is in art (look at Avatar...really, all you have to do is just look at it). But what is really great about the nature of these two languages is those occurrences where humanity's many plans to understand their place in the universe converge at a point of commonality, at a point that highlights the nature of people's curiosity and the direction that their imagination takes them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hoop Dreams :: Reflections on Dreams Deferred



I mean, I was three years old when the documentary Hoop Dreams was released to the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, so discussing this film within the context of its twenty-year anniversary might not make so much sense. I will, though, still attempt to honor the film and its unequivocal legacy because it is a film that delves deep into the fundamental cores of why we go to the movies. It is an episode where we can enter another world, another culture, and another state of mind. It is a time where we notice in this different world the similarities of the human condition and of human struggle we all share. What started as a film that would generally observe the streetball culture in Chicago becomes a film, essentially, about life. Hoop Dreams, by Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert, is one of the most important documentary films ever made as well as one of the most important films ever made. I guess it goes without saying that this film is actually good (because important doesn't always mean good). What I want to explore is its idea of the evolution of a dream, or of a state of mind that is completely detached from the reality that the two main characters, William Gates and Arthur Agee, use as a formulation of their relationships to themselves and their families. In its epic length, the film shows us the ways in which the kids grow up and how this growth contributes to their understanding of their dreams they felt so passionate about in middle school. This understanding, in turn, contributes to the way in which the communicate their ideas and feelings to the people around them.

There are many powerful scenes that populate the film, some more subtler than others. An example of a subtle moment comes towards the end of the film, when Arthur makes his decision to go to Mineral Area Junior College. He sits on his couch, his mother on one side and his father on the other (after they have recently split...among other things). Both parents make it clear that it is up to him but his father lays it down that, if needed, they can financially support him. Both Arthur and his mother scoff at such a statement; at one point their power and gas were shut off and the mother on welfare so such a remark comes off almost as an insult. But what was felt even more was the direct fragmentation between mother and father, and the idea that Arthur is literally cast in the middle of this conflict, shown in the shot. The recruiter for the college sits there waiting for the answer. Eventually, with a very subdued tone, Arthur agrees to sign the letter of intent. The recruiter asks him if he is excited and with the same subdued voice he uneasily says yes. Is that what he really wanted? Or...was his subdued voice an actual reflection to his subdued persona?

These questions are what went through my mind as I watched this scene. Here is a moment that is generally a great thing (and it really is in this case) but it is coated with a tension that suffocates any sort of truthful feeling Arthur might be experiencing at that moment. Then, through these familial dynamics, a more crucial question rises: Whose dreams are being expressed here? Throughout the film, and obviously through the title itself, dreams are the focus in relation to the actions of these two boys-to-men but it does not just stop there. This film also observes the dreams of other families members and how that ultimately effects the two protagonists. Dreams can intertwine, can conflict, or dissolve not just within an individual but between individuals. Let's return to the aforementioned scene, Arthur's father had explained in detail that he is living his dream vicariously through his son. Combining his guilt he may feel for being a bad father (drug addiction and prison time), what we see is his emphasis of attempting to take substantial action in order to fulfill Arthur's dream or, more specifically, his dream within Arthur. His emphasis led him to make bold statements that seem highly improbably like financially supporting Arthur during college. Arthur's response to this event, and his muffled expression, is a common occurrence throughout the film after dropping out of St. Joe's prep school. Along with his restrained voice he always carried an uneasy smile, a big smile, but an uneasy one which the viewer always takes into account during these moments and wonders whether or not Arthur is making the right choice. Or maybe another way of looking at it is that is he making this choice as a direct result of his father's dreams or the fact that, to put it bluntly, he wants to get the hell out of there more than he wants to play basketball? Nonetheless, Arthur doesn't want to respond truthfully or emotionally when he is thrown into a situation like this, one that he had no control over. Maybe it is even the fact that he has lost trust in his father at that point.

Dreams collide and are obfuscated at this moment and what was once a clear goal is now obscured by experiences and relationships. But, as an evolution goes, the origin is simpler. The film starts out simply with William and Arthur stating that basketball is their lives and they want to make it to the NBA. Yet, throughout the film we encounter many individuals, with both good intentions and bad intentions, applying their dreams onto the two individuals, whether done knowingly or unknowingly. And what I mean by dreams in this context is that many of them construct a chronology (like the St. Joe's basketball coach and Arthur's father) of the boys as to where they will be at this time in the future. Others, and this is applied more to the mothers, essentially give some of their individuality up to share the dream of William and Arthur. William's mother tells the camera that after the failed attempt of Curtis (Will's brother) to go to the NBA, she placed all of her hope on William but her face is weathered in undeterred doubt. In regards to the mothers, whose exchange of their individuality leaves them almost at the mercy of their sons, it is heavily intriguing that both William and Arthur specifically want to better the lives of their mothers, calling attention to their desire to buy them a new house, away from this environment they grow tired of. Arthur goes as far as to explain this to the camera in front of his own father. Another question arises: Are these hoop dreams actually dreams manifested as a way to get out of their living condition? I recall the blues musicians living in the Mississippi delta in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Many of the these musicians, though romanticized years later as men who sang about their struggling but 'simple' lives, wanted to make it big and get out of the violent and ferocious world of the south and head to New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

There is another scene, one far more potent and direct, that expresses a dream under fire. Arthur is playing basketball at a local playground; he hasn't seen his father for weeks but he randomly shows up, without a shirt and with a dazed smile on his face. After awkward exchanges between father and son, the father dawdles towards the corner of the street and the camera captures him purchasing drugs. Arthur watches in amazement. Here is a moment where the viewer feels as though they are intruding, a moment where the camera's presence contributes to a growing tension of what is being shot; the position of the filmmakers become part of the scene. What we also see is a dream being directly resisted; through the father's actions, realizations of inner-city life come into contact with the ideal dream of youth and if Arthur has any doubts that may or may not have crept into his mind over his four years of high school, moments like this lend a possibility of contribution to such doubt. Watching this scene, and seeing Arthur's facial expression, I think there was a similarity to feelings between him, the filmmakers, and the audience when we noticed his father walking by, a certain, if you will, "Holy shit," feeling that only simmered down when the scene ended, and this was one of the many moments where I said to myself how this could have all been possibly filmed.



The length of Hoop Dreams is always called into question, and it was the length that spawned the most criticism for the film when it was campaigning for the notorious Oscars of 1994. I personally feel that they are taking for granted an opportunity of understanding a culture that is not usually shown in theatres or on television, a culture not usually shown truthfully. And again, let us take a step back and return to the main point of my analysis. Here is a film that cares for its subjects and constructs a clear narrative of the evolution of a dream and how it is sometimes damaged, mismanaged, ignored, manipulated, or even fueled. One of the greatest moments this film has to offer is when Arthur's mother graduates as the top nursing assistant in her class. A dream accomplished for one, and it makes it easier for her to give up some of her own individuality to help Arthur achieve his goals. There's also a crucial piece of symbolism, manifested in the form of NBA legend and St. Joe's alum, Isiah Thomas. He appears in the first ten minutes of the film, the rest of the time, he appears on television screens and in glass cases next to trophies and acknowledgments. He wavers as a specter that seems to guide the two boys, especially William, whose interactions with the coach seem to be of direct influence of what happened with Isiah. The dream of Isiah, made into the dream of the St. Joe's coach, try to make its way into William's mind. As we watch the story unfold, of William's unlucky streak of devastating injuries and of Arthur's late rise to local stardom, here is a story that, as Roger Ebert said in his essay, "No screenwriter would dare to write this story." Nevertheless, this is a film about dreams, the different forms it can take within different people, and how they develop over time as reality weighs in and the passage of time is felt. This, and being a window into a place in America, my own country, where realities are far different from the realities me and many other people I know face. But, like I said in the beginning, despite these differences we are able to connect with the subjects through emotional familiarity. We cheer when Arthur carries his team to the State finals, we are saddened to see William miss his free throws because these shots are not just shots important to adding another game to the win column of the school's record. These shots mean so much more.


Looking back on it, the basketball games became almost less of a determinant of William and Arthur's choices of their future than what they experienced off the court. It is almost as if their hoop dreams never grow when playing basketball but grow (or shrivel up) when they are not playing basketball. Hoop Dreams will never lose its power, the story is so damn potent and the humans who occupy the story are as complex as we all are...because they are real. I know it will never lose any of its potency with me; there is a significant personal connection I have with this film. Besides the obvious socioeconomic difference I have in relation to William and Arthur, substituting 'Hoop' with 'Film' will encompass much of the same pressures I am dealing with. This is not an attempt for anyone to patronize me, but I wanted to make clear why this film speaks so clearly to me, and why, in contrast to those social and financial difference, I can relate to the two protagonists of the film. My passion for films started out as a dream and, to a very large extent, it is still a dream, a dream that is evolving as I engage myself in one experience after another. This film reveals the fragility of these dreams, and how much you have block from your mind in order to retain the grasp on the dream that you had when you first grabbed hold of it. And, like in the film, this evolution seems to take into effect more so when I'm not filming and when I am sitting here, writing this piece, reflecting on dreams deferred. There's a lot more I can say about that. Another time, maybe.



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I mentioned earlier that this film is a reason why going to the movies is so much fun, highlighting one of the reasons to be its enlightening insight into inner-city life in Chicago. Another reason is the formulation of such a story, meaning the act of filming these moments (some brutally intense), editing it for clarity, and presenting a story that seems like it was written for the screen but maintained its authentic approach. It blends editing styles similar to narrative fiction films with characteristics of the documentary form of cinema vertie. It continuously makes you wonder how this scene was filmed and what were the filmmakers thinking at this point. the acknowledgement of the filmmaker is always present, something documentaries are more clear about as opposed to fiction films. There is a lot that can be said with all of this yet that would require another essay of this length. There were many questions I raised throughout this piece, all of them without answers. How can I really answer them, honestly? I raise these questions in an attempt to approach these events in the film from many different perspectives, because I feel that is the only way to do so if one would like to understand as much as they can of what it going on, which includes how this film was made, which is chronicled in dramatic detail in this article.