Monday, 28 December 2009

The complete list of Holiday Leftovers Reading - books given to me for Christmas or bought with Christmas money.

Once in high school a friend's dad asked me what I got for Christmas, and I said, "Oh, a lot of books, and a pair of socks." He felt so sorry for me he actually offered to buy me something "fun." I never really saw what the big tragedy was.

And the reading list is...

Ayn Rand, Anthem

The Portable Dorothy Parker

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged: given to me by brother Joe, who is not a huge fan of Rand, prompting him to give me in the same package:
George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays

Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Stories
(I've read Billy Budd, but that's my only Melville so far. I liked it a lot though, and it's also the inspiration for one of my favorite movies, so I thought I'd try his others.)

David McCullough, 1776
From the parents, encouraging my realization that just because high school failed to teach me early American history, I shouldn't sit around and mope about it - I could actually bother to learn it myself.

...and two books on learning the guitar from brother David, who sweetly listened to me talk about how I wanted to pick it up. Unfortunately, I didn't think as far as how I would get Dad's old guitar back to DC with me, so until my parents visit, that gift will have to take a temporary vacation on the Shelf of Useless Reference, between my German-English dictionary and a book of London streetmaps.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Post-Christmas Reading

Beginning with The Portable Dorothy Parker.* Incidentally, the copy I picked up includes the original Portable plus several hundred pages of extra material, all in a sturdy trade paperback edition, making it slightly less than...erhm...portable.

This means I can choose to haul this tome in my purse for commute reading - jettisoning, along the way, high heels and possibly lunch - or I can read a smaller book on my commute and save Dorothy for nighttime reading. The problem with this compromise is I always get more involved in one or the other of the books, so I'll gulp down the traveling book while I'm all comfortable in bed, and then I'll drag the huge book on the Metro with me because I miss it too much when I leave it at home. This is what happened when I tried to alternate America's Constitution with a pocket copy of The Fountainhead. Eventually I ended up carrying Amar's huge book around until I felt like a highschooler between classes. At least I never felt afraid walking home at night. You could kill a man with that hardcover edition. I am not kidding.

*Well, technically it began with Ayn Rand's Anthem, but I finished that on the train. I started it on the train, too.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Dispossessed

I have a fantastic Christmas haul of books to read, so it's good that I was already so close to the end of The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's the third I've read by her (after The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness) and like the others, it took a couple of tries before I dove in. Le Guin is most easily classified as a scifi novelist, but her books are more about cultural anthropology than technology or prediction; she uses the plot vehicle of space travel to explore microcosms of human behavior, often posing at least one prominent difference from Earth's reality. In The Left Hand of Darkness, she explored a world with absolutely no concept of gender, split between two nations: one feudalistic, the other, a totalitarian state.

The Dispossessed is a bit more complex, simply for not defining a single difference from ordinary society as striking as the absence of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness. Instead, she begins with two worlds: one resembles an idyllic Earth, with elements of eighteenth-century opulence and nineteenth-century industrial expansion. The second is its moon, which has been colonized by socialist anarchists, self-exiled. Though I'm skeptical as usual of Le Guin's politics, I'm also grateful for her own skepticism, written most plainly in the book's subtitle: An Ambiguous Utopia. Despite the protagonist's multi-world tour of clashing economic models, the book is often surprisingly tender and personal. Le Guin caught me, just as she did in the other two books, with her disarming moments of pure observation. Her own improbable skepticism and ambiguity stems from an understanding of people, the simple understanding that an individual human will always be more important, more complex, and more fascinating than any economic idea.

My now-battered paperback is riddled with dog ears to mark the quotes I liked. This is one of the passages that moved me the most. It reminded me of the feeling of making films, or of losing myself in a story I'm writing. The feeling of doing the work that fills you with passion and purpose.

The wall was down. The vision was both clear and whole. What he saw was simple, simpler than anything else. It was simplicity: and contained in it all complexity, all promise. It was revelation. It was the way clear, the way home, the light.

The spirit in him was like a child running out into the sunlight. There was no end, no end...

And yet in his utter ease and happiness he shook with fear; his hands trembled, and his eyes filled up with tears, as if he had been looking into the sun. After all, the flesh is not transparent. And it is strange, exceedingly strange, to know that one's life has been fulfilled.

Yet he kept looking, and going farther, with that same childish joy, until all at once he could not go any farther; he came back, and looking around through his tears saw that the room was dark and the high windows were full of stars.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Holiday Rand

Being surrounded by the happy insanity of my family for the holidays has reminded me of a quote from The Fountainhead: "All love is exception-making." This struck me as one of the most true, and most uncharacteristic (from my very limited experience with Rand) quotes in the book.

I started to wonder what exactly this Randian "exception-making" means. The closest I could come at first was "forgiveness," a term I imagine she recoiled from because of its frequent use in religion (again, based on my so-far very limited reading of her work). But to me, it seems that her concept of making an exception of and for the people one loves is a kind of forgiveness of their faults - and also a forgiveness of one's self for the bend in principle the first half requires. I think that this second half of forgiveness is what makes it Randian - rather than breaking or abandoning personal principle, the forgiveness, the "exception-making," is a conscious, individual judgement on that principle and its worth, compared to the worth of the person in one's heart.

Imagine I, on principle, reject all nail-biters as slaves to a compulsion. But I love you, though you are a nail-biter. My love is exception-making because I have made an exception of you, as an individual, from my cosmic rejection of nail-biters; this is the external half of my exception. I have also made an exception in my principled rejection of nail-biters; this is the internal half.

Roark's love of Gail Wynand is exception-making. Wynand is exceptional as an individual Roark respects, despite Wynand's failures. And Roark - even Roark - has made an exception to his rigid principles to preserve Wynand from his scorn.

This seemed necessary to write out and explain to myself; I'm not sure that it makes a lot of sense. But it seems that especially on the holiday, we're thrown together with a lot of people we love and make exceptions for; and sometimes, many of the proud and stubborn people I know ask themselves why they should tolerate the faults in others. My answer is simply that if love is exception-making, then you must make the exception not just as a charitable act, easily discarded when you get tired of it; true exceptions, the exceptions made by love, are also made to the part of yourself that objects to those flaws. At that point you begin to see the pettiness of the objection in the first place.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Happy holidays - I hope they're filled with art, joy and life.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Vincent Moon:

"The camera was just an excuse to create this, but after the first second they began playing, they forgot the camera and this moment existed. I didn't even need to record it. That's cinema to me. Then, the traces of such moments, in the films, are just dust, sometimes beautiful dust..."
I watched Hannah and Her Sisters again last night. It's my favorite Woody Allen movie. It also contains one of my favorite E. E. Cummings poems. It's one of the surprising moments of sweetness in the film: Elliot is trying to initiate an affair with his wife's younger sister, Lee. Throughout the movie, I find his character the hardest to forgive; he sees his actions as movements in an operatic drama, when in fact he's only a childish cheater. But in his desperate longing for Lee, he manages to make a genuine gesture that pries open her heart, like the little hands in the poem: he tells her to read E. E. Cummings's "somewhere i have never travelled." Below is the poem, and the clip from the movie in which Lee reads the poem (sorry for the subtitles and bad compression - it's the only version I could find online).

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Saturday, 12 December 2009

At college, we learned how to shoot 16mm film. I've been asked by a lot of people why our teachers even bothered with it.

In our program, the technical skills that we learned, especially in digital production, were those we chose for ourselves. Our instructors answered our questions and gave us suggestions when we asked for them, but our production classes were based more on aesthetics than technique, and more on problem-solving for the one-man-band kind of filmmaking than training in discrete roles like camera or sound.

16mm fit neatly into that kind of teaching, because shooting film is a discipline, and in our classes, we were expected to discipline ourselves. On the first day of Intro to 16mm Production, John Mann showed us the cameras, and the cold boxes that held tight sharp-smelling daylight spools, and before we could begin, he told us to respect the film. Never to waste it. Never to take it for granted. Because for all the decades of science that went into making that film, it only has one chance to be beautiful, and you are that chance. Each frame is counting on you to make it into something beautiful. You can't rewatch it right away, erase it and reshoot it. You have to care about every single shot.

In digital cameras, a lot of the quality is in the technology contained in the body. And it's too easy to assume a better camera will automatically give you better footage (despite your lack of skill or effort). It's also too easy to shrug off errors by assuming the problem is in the quality of the camera.

For 16mm cameras, as long as the body is clean inside and light-tight and the motor is in working order, the quality lies entirely in the optics and the film stock. The filmmaker can't escape responsibility because she consciously chooses which stock and which lenses to shoot with. There aren't any mysterious computer components to blame errors on. And every single shot counts, because every time the camera rolls, hundreds of thousands of cold fragrant frames dash by taking their 1/24-second chance to be beautiful.

Of course we all took the time, around classes, to learn digital production. We took workshops at the digital media center, and weekends just getting to know the cameras. We spent hours compressing the same video different ways until that stickiness or the popping went away. We learned how to shoot on miniDV tapes and on cards and on hard drives. But we had the discipline to learn all of these things because we love film.

Diana finished this film despite terrible weather, unpredictable light, impossible equipment scheduling, and multiple camera failures. She kept working (this is why we are always covered in bruises at the end of a shoot, because we fight the elements) and captured some truly lovely 16mm footage of Wyman Park. Stay to the end of the credits and the film will say goodbye.

Moleque from Diana Peralta on Vimeo.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Work and life have conspired to keep me from the blog this week. For your entertainment, here's a quick video - my second assignment in Lost and Found class, my last year at college: Jimmy Stewart is looking out the Rear Window. Choose what he's looking at.

Jimmy and the Mole from Hannah Sternberg on Vimeo.

And a response to the prompt, "dating."

Girls Beware from Hannah Sternberg on Vimeo.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Lost and Found Film

Lost and found films are created with existing footage - old educational reels, home movies, even other films. Filmmakers take this material and cut it into something entirely new.

I've heard from several people that if you love film and filmmaking, you will love editing. I didn't understand that for a long time, and even found it discouraging, because whenever I sat down to edit, I was so frustrated with my own footage that the process was very painful. But then, in my senior year, I took a lost and found film class. Editing existing footage freed me from the obsession with the flaws in my own shooting technique and allowed me to focus entirely on the heartbeat of the cuts, the ability of shots to speak to each other, and the ways to use flaws to produce beauty. Lost and found is a mental exercise, especially in a class where you have to respond to a prompt using footage that may have no relation at all to your theme - it's stretching out your creative muscles.

After riffling through the Prelinger Archives I started to feel potential even in extremely mundane footage. I started seeing the hidden moments - a genuine smile in a 1950s reel about moral choices, or an off-beat moment of joy in a car commercial. Once I began cutting these together, the footage started speaking. And usually I drifted away from the strict words of the prompt into an idea that was inspired both by the prompt and by the footage, and finally, my own voice speaking through both.

That's how my response to "otherness," a prompt inspired by the philosophy of Satre and Lacan, turned into a reflection on childhood - the home movies I stumbled across are soft with time and feeling, familiar but alienating. And my response to "hyperreality" (see Baudrillard, Eco and Virilio) turned into...elephants. Both videos are below.

But first, I'd like to link to my friend David Golan's videos, which unfortunately I can't find a way to embed directly here. Dave was one of the first people I remember telling me about the connection between the love of editing and the love of film. He has a few lost and found projects on his site, as well as some 16mm work, one of which Carlos and I stayed up all night to help him shoot. I'd suggest starting with "Blossom" and "A Study of Hitchcock."

Here is my "otherness" lost and found film:

There Was a Child from Hannah Sternberg on Vimeo.

And below is my project on "hyperreality."

Wheels Across Africa from Hannah Sternberg on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Dance for the Camera

Last year, Carlos, Annie Holstein and I took a class that paired film students with students of choreography to make short dance films. It was an extraordinary experience, and I think we all learned a lot from working together. I still like to come back and watch the films we made then; below are two - one directed by Carlos, one by Annie. The prompt for Carlos's project was to create a film using only shots of feet - no photography above the knee. The project by Annie posted below was her final, from the prompt to use the long, narrow space of a hallway.

Carlos's film brings character, cuteness and humor to a seemingly restrictive prompt; Annie's film is chilling and atmospheric, a striking fusion of tension, music and location with wonderfully eerie light design and choreography straight from Caligari. Enjoy!

Dance for the Camera - Feet from Carlos Valdes-Lora on Vimeo.

Chimera from Annie Holstein on Vimeo.