I went on the March of the Living a couple years ago. It was the first time I’d ever been to to Poland, even though three out of four of my grandparents were born in (what was at least then) the country. It was a very interesting experience.
Poland used to be home to around 3.2 million Jews. To put that in perspective, if Poland had 3.2 million Jews today, it would have the third largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and America. Only about two hundred thousand of them survived the war.
Understandably, the ghost of the what was once European Jewry still lingers in Poland, and the country continues its attempt at coming to grips with this. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida can be seen as one such effort. It is the story of one such Jewish ghost who returns to haunt those who remain.
The title character, Ida, is a young nun who has grown up in the convent and is about to take her vows and confirm herself for G-d forever. Before she does though, one of her superiors (the head nun? I’m not sure how it works…) tells her that she must visit her sole living relative, an aunt named Wanda. When she does, she learns from her aunt – a judge and former prosecutor for the communist government – that she is, in fact, Jewish, and her parents were murdered in the Holocaust. She was handed over to the church as a baby, and so spared from being slaughtered along with them.
It’s hard to tell exactly how Ida receives the news, as her entire characters comes across as a blank slate coloured in only by religious ritual. Wanda, however, sees in her the sister she loved and lost, and more or less drags her along on a mission to find out where her parents were buried and transfer their remains to the family plot in the Jewish cemetery.
Along the way we see the damage the war and the communist regime has had on Wanda, as she drinks, hooks up with random men, and every now and then breaks her pissy demeanour to say something honest and show just how painful Ida’s appearance in her life is, reawakening old, painful memories. At one point she says to Ida, “I won’t let you throw your life away!” And we see how Ida too is forever lost to her, too far gone from her Jewish past and family and too engulfed in the world of Christian ritual and belief for the two to ever truly connect. Wanda wishes that they could, seemingly because she sees buried somewhere in Ida the only remains of the her sister’s soul.
The defining quality of the film is its understatedness. Though there’s not an extreme shortage of dialogue, it is for the most part quiet, calmly delivered. Rather, it is the film’s black and white cinematography that speaks to the viewer. Ida, in particular, cannot be understood through her speech at all; the viewer is forced to try to pierce her placid exterior to see from her movements, her facial expressions, her lack of expressions, how she is processing her incredible experience and hitherto unknown history. Actually, it would have been good if Pawlikowski took more time with Ida to explore what this news that she is Jewish and that her parents were murdered in the Holocaust actually means to her, as what should be the film’s focal subject is treated by its main character as an almost superfluous detail.
The cinematography’s other triumph is capturing the feel of post-war soviet Poland in its dreariness and confusion, caught between the old world and the slowly but surely encroaching new Western-dominated one. An excellent and very classical European soundtrack assists in this.
To me, Ida came across as something of an allegory for the death of Polish Jewry. Either it was murdered like Ida’s family, assimilated and erased like Ida herself, or removed of its own volition, like Ida’s aunt Wanda. All that is left of it is a memory, a faded black and white photograph, and a thunder of silence. I’m not sure if this was Pawlikowski’s intention – perhaps he simply wanted to reflect on a time and a place in Poland he remembered – but that’s what I saw in the film and what I see in Poland, a far off place that will always be one of memories inherited or imagined.
Halifax’s human endorphin-producing machine Rich Aucoin has a new album coming out called Ephemeral. Dropping September 9th, the full-length apparently syncs up with the 1979 claymation film adaptation of The Little Prince, which is just so perfectly Rich Aucoin. For those joining the party a little late, Rich synced up his 2007 Personal Publication EP with the animated The Grinch cartoon from the 60s.
If you can’t wait until the 9th to hear the full album, it’s streaming over at Exclaim.ca.
Wipers almost can’t be considered an obscure band simply because so many people and publications have written about them and their obscurity. Among those who have named them as an influence, the list, according to wikipedia, includes Dinosaur Jr., The Melvins, Nation Of Ulysses, and most notably, Kurt Cobain. And yet I’ve never heard anyone in real life talk about Wipers. Unlike other cult acts like Big Star and Death, there’s yet to be a big festival circuit documentary about the band. All of which, I guess, means we writers have to keep writing about them.
Started by Greg Sage in the late 70′s in Portland, Wipers played what we would now call proto-grunge punk, though Sage claims that at the time, what they were doing was too weird for the ‘punk’ tag. As the legend goes, their first three albums, Is This Real? (1980), Youth Of America (1981) and Over The Edge (1983) are the classics, perhaps some of the best records to emerge out of the Northwest punk scene of the era. Recently I checked them all out and the rep is legit: these albums are punk classics. They feel confidently assembled with a sharp lo-ish-fi sound, consisting of rough but catchy pop songs and one or two more experimental tracks each; none of the three are too long or too short. And there is something just a little weird about them, a little ‘Portland’, keeping them interesting after all the years and bands later.
The band continued to release albums through the 80s and 90s, and I’m looking forward to checking them out, but the general word is that the first three are the ones to beat. But who knows, maybe I’ll have to do a feature on one of those if it turns out there’s an unappreciated classic hiding in the discography, which is sometimes the case.
According to Pitchfork’s feature on the band, Sage was invited to open for Nirvana on tour, and that could’ve been their breaking out moment. And Sage passed on the opportunity. What if he hadn’t? Would Wipers have broken out and become one of the defining grunge bands of the era? If so, maybe nobody would be writing about them anymore – they’d be a product of time and place. The upside is that the best cult bands are often the ones who were passed over in their time and so become timeless.
Level Five, a 1997 film by Chris Marker – the experimental French filmmaker best known perhaps for his 1962 film La Jetée, later adapted into the American film 12 Monkeys with Bruce Willis – is an incredibly odd and unique film. It was rereleased recently and I saw it at Cinema Village here in New York.
The film is centred around Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) as she tries to complete a computer game left her by a lover now gone. The point of the game is to recreate the battle of Okinawa, one of the most brutal battles of WWII between America and Japan. The battle is also notable for the deaths, many by suicide, of 42,000-150,000 civilians, instructed to kill themselves rather than be captured by the enemy.
As Laura tries to work on or through the game, she is reflecting, in a series of vlog-like clips, on the loss of her lover. Along with this, the film also serves as a documentary about the battle of Okinawa, with interviews with survivors and historians.
Unsurprisingly, its something of a schizophrenic film, dealing with a hugely important historical event as well as the sadness of a personal loss, the subjects connected only tenuously by a video game. It’s as if making a simple documentary was too simple a task for the visionary Marker, who uses all the subjects of the film to compose a strange, often techno-nightmarish collage for the purpose of exploring aspects of the human psyche and experience.
Though a very ugly film, Level Five‘s visual style, full of awful 90s computer graphics and VHS grain, was oddly ahead of its time, now resembling something of a full length film tumblr account devoted to such images. I’m not sure if at the time Marker consciously made it so ugly, or the graphics had yet to acquire the cultural cache they now have and were considered futuristic-looking or something. If the film were made today, it would be obvious what the director was going for, but it’s hard to say if in 1997 the intention was similar.
By the end of Level Five, the viewer has had a lot of ideas and emotions impressed upon them, and to wrap it all up, we’re shown an interview with an elderly man named Kinjo, who, as a 19-year-old Japanese soldier in the war, killed his mother and two of his siblings with the help of his brother to prevent them from being captured and tortured by American forces. Following this, Laura zooms the camera in on herself till all we see is her out of focus lips, as she elucidates further on her sadness. Hardly a happy ending. But it does feel conclusive, as though we’ve heard this story – told slowly – to its right conclusion, and have to understand that not everything is ‘alright in the end’. “None of them ever reached level five,” as Laura tells us earlier in the film. And maybe that’s just something we have to accept.
Off The Map was originally a zine of two punk girls from Olympia, Washington, Hib and Kika, detailing their adventures travelling across Europe. Publisher (and “decentralized anarchist collective”) CrimethInc came across it and began distributing it, but apparently it was so popular that they could only continue to do so if they turned it into a book. I found it at the anarchist bookfair in Toronto a couple weeks ago and since I’m currently writing my own little road trip zine/book, I thought it’d be cool to check out this one.
Nothing too crazy happens in Off The Map, there’s no sex or romance or drugs or anything. Hib and Kika go from town to city to country looking for punk squats, meeting interesting people they like, meeting some they don’t like, talking about capitalism, social/political change, feminism…The right word would be “leisurely”; it’s not about getting somewhere or doing something, but just moving and taking things in, processing them, contemplating them.
There are times when the feminism is a little much, like when one of them tries to interpret Medusa as just a really strong woman that men couldn’t deal with. (And this is coming from someone who read Men Explain Things To Me, The Purity Myth and Girls To The Front without ever thinking they were ‘a little much’.) And they never really get in-depth with their politics – though, depending on what you’re looking for when you pick up the book, that could be considered either a good or a bad thing. But the quality of the writing is excellent, especially when you consider that this was originally just a photocopied zine.
Technically, Matt Wolf‘s TEENAGE is a documentary, but more accurately, it’s a document. Or more accurately than that, it’s an incredible presentation of documents in a way never quite seen before in film.
Inspired by Jon Savage‘s book Teenage: The Pre-History Of Youth Culture 1875-1945, Wolf explores the birth and early evolution of what we now know as adolescence (or teenage-hood) between the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the second world war.
Over video clips and photographs of the youth of the period, actors like Ben Wishaw (I’m Not There, Cloud Atlas, Skyfall) and Jenna Malone (Donnie Darko, Into The Wild), among others, read diary entries from the teenagers of America, England and Germany while Bradford Cox‘s (Atlas Sound, Deerhunter) beautiful, ethereal, sampler-heavy score coos along, giving everything a dreamy, hypnotic feel. There’s no narrative, but a clear, basic picture emerges of Western youth before the baby boom generation.
The youth of the day wasn’t all that different from the youth of ours or our parents’. They pushed social boundaries and upset their parents, explored their sexuality, and fell in love with new sounds (jazz, swing) from other parts of the world. One very big difference, though, between our generation and theirs, is how much greater the impact of the political world was upon the youth of the age, with mandatory conscription in all three countries, all of which were involved in the two world wars.
TEENAGE is not a movie you watch casually – you have to sit down and experience it with the lights off. Let it wash over you. But if you give yourself over to it, you’ll get to see something beautiful in return.
It’s currently streamable on Netflicks.