Native American culture in film and more

This month we dive into Native American culture, starting with Dances With Wolves—a longtime favorite I’ve been eager to re-watch for a couple of years—especially after reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Then thematically, I’m taken back to a favorite CD of mine from 1995—Between Father Sky and Mother Earth. And finally—curious about the American frontier at the turn of the century—a new discovery: Photographer William Henry Jackson.

Film
Dances with Wolves (1990) led the charge for revitalizing the western genre after it died out in 1980 when bad reviews led to an unprecedented financial disaster for Heaven’s Gate. Cinematographers around the globe eagerly welcomed back the genre—ever nostalgic for the dirt, dust, mud, candles, lamps, campfires, vistas, legends, and every-man heroism that made for a tantalizing big-screen event. For Dean Semler, it wasn’t his first Western, nor was it his last. He had previously shot Young Guns 1/2 and Mad Max 2/3, while post-haste lensing City Slickers (1991), and eventually The Alamo (2004), Appaloosa (2008), and The Ridiculous 6 (2015) while continuing to shoot epics in other genres for industry titans such as John Milius, Randall Wallace, and Mel Gibson. With Wolves, he garnered one of the film’s seven Oscars—out of twelve academy award nominations.

The film was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It started as a spec script written by Michael Blake in the ’80s. But after shopping it around, he couldn’t sell it. Costner—a friend from Stacy’s Knights (1983)—suggested he write the story as a novel. Blake conceded, however numerous publishers gave it a pass. Finally, in 1988, it got a paperback release, and Costner purchased the rights. However, development woes continued—due to the western genre’s dead flame—as studio after studio passed on the project. Finally, a deal was struck with Orion Pictures after some strategic management with foreign rights, and production started on July 18, 1989.

Indigenous peoples—mostly Sioux—played all the Native American roles in the film, and Indian communities largely embraced it. So much so that Kevin Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. With a twenty-two million dollar budget, it grossed over four hundred million worldwide, and new interest in Native American culture began to manifest abundantly. It wasn’t long before the US National Film Registry selected the film for preservation due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

What strikes me most is the film’s authenticity. Costner wanted the film to look like it was a child’s view of the west—fresh, romantic, and painterly. And he thought the way to achieve that was to be as authentic as possible. Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft dedicated himself to extensive research to achieve it. And is forever grateful to Dean Semler, often commenting that “It feels like a painter lit it.”

Semler says the look of the film evolved, “Costner had very specific images in mind, and we built on that.” Costner really enjoyed working with Dean as his first experience collaborating with a DP, and he often talks about how gracious Dean was.

The film’s compositions evoked an undying admiration for the subjects and their place in the world. The camera placement, blocking, and lens selection precisely serve this—often looking at the Indigenous and Costner as heroes of great stature.

The editing served the performances. Neil Travis’s strategy was to let things happen without trying to hurry it along with cuts. But to approach the running time the distributor wanted, Travis admits, “it got to a point when cutting scenes felt like losing an arm or a leg.” Eventually, the distributor loosened its grip, and—upon picture lock—Travis found very little that was wrong with it.

Downloadable Resources 
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin CostnerJake EbertsJim Wilson
Written by Michael Blake
Based on a novel by Michael Blake of the same name
Starring Kevin CostnerMary McDonnellGraham Greene
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by William HoyChip MasamitsuSteve PotterNeil Travis
Production Design by Jeffrey Beecroft
Production Company:  Tig Productions, Majestic Films International, and more
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Running Time: 181min, 236min (extended edition)
Aspect Ratio: 2:39:1
Camera and Lenses: Panavision Panaflex Gold II and Platinum, Primo, C, & E Series Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 500T 5296
Printed Film Format: 35mm, 70mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: USA
Language: English, Sioux, Pawnee
Reported Budget: 22,000,000

Book
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer aims to challenge Dee Brown’s claim in his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” 

After a brief look at the Indians first exposure to Europeans, through to the Wounded Knee massacre, Treuer picks up the narrative where Brown left off—post-massacre in 1890. He takes us through the dark years following wounded knee—an endless barrage of inhumane practices administered by the US government in an attempt to “re-educate” the entire culture, literally stripping them from their families, languages, traditions, and existence. It’s an overwhelming and unbelievable accounting. But once he gets through it all, he takes us on a journey to the now—introducing us to thriving indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, artisans, politicians, activists, businesses, and more—highlighting their resourcefulness and how they’ve carved their own path to reinvention.

The American Indian Dream is as much about looking back and bringing the culture along with it as it is about looking ahead. – Treuer writes.

Treuer grew up as an Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota. When starting college, he set his sights on a Ph.D. in anthropology—specifically studying Native American life—past and present.

From the NY Times to the Andrew Carnegie medal of excellence, his book has garnered consensual praise amongst the Nation’s most prominent literary critics.

Chapter after chapter, it’s like one shattered myth after another. – NPR
 
An informed, moving, and kaleidoscopic portrait… Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. – New York Times Book Review

Photographer
William Henry Jackson was a photographer at the turn of the century. He was 47 when the Battle at Wounded Knee happened and lived to be 99 years old—dying in 1942. Like Brassaï and Orson Welles, painting was his first creative passion, and after fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, he was able to forge a living selling his original works amongst post-civil war society. In 1867 he started a photography business with his brother and started documenting the Indian tribes in Omaha—the Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes, and Omahas. He then started working for the US Geological Survey, going on photography expeditions to Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains, making him the first photographer to capture all the landmark scenery in these regions.

The kit he traveled with included three different cameras; an 8×10 inch glass plate camera, an 18×22 inch glass plate camera, and a stereoscope camera. The glass plates had to be coated and developed onsite with exposure times varying from five seconds to twenty minutes, and he usually had five to seven men assisting him. It was a very fragile undertaking—he once lost a month of work because one of his packing mules lost its footing.  

Downloadable Resources
10 photographs

Music
Between Father Sky and Mother Earth is a compilation of indigenous music that I’ve enjoyed since the ’90s. My favorite track is the Healing Song—it never fails to help ground me in the present and often invokes a trance-like state. It’s also hard not to sing along and meld with the vibratory rhythms in harmony. 

The track is performed by a duo known as Primeaux and Mike in the Native American tradition of healing and peyote songs. Johnny Primeaux comes from a lineage of noted peyote singers. He is known as an Oglala, Yankton/Ponca singer and songwriter. Mike is from Kitsili, Black Mesa, Arizona. His Mother’s clan is Near the Water People, and his Father is from the Salt Clan.   

It looks like the tracks may have originated on Primeaux, Mike & Attson, an album of Healing and Peyote songs in the Sioux and Navajo languages. Healing songs are a newer style of a cappella harmonized chanting to facilitate meditation. When I first heard these songs, I lived on a street named Sioux Dr. while knowing very little if anything about the Sioux people.

Quote
That Native American cultures are imperiled is important and not just to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. When we lose cultures, we lose American plurality–the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.—David Treuer

Related

Child Prodigies and Rennaisance Men – Orson Welles, Brassaï and more
Bruce Lee’s philisophical movies and more
Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

Child Prodigies and Renaissance Men

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. This month’s web of curiosity spins from a resolute whim to re-watch RKO 281— awakening interests in child prodigies and renaissance men, the influence of theatrical lighting on film, the influence of night photography on film noir, and more.

Film I’m Studying

RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, is a reflexive cinema gem. The title is derived from the original production number for Citizen Kane. The first half of the film covers the genesis of Citizen Kane, and the second half chronicles a nearly successful campaign to stop the film from being released and to burn all the negatives and prints. Offended and disgraced by the depiction of himself in the filmWilliam Randolph Hearst led the charge. He had the studio executives in his corner–ready to accept bribes–but he was going bankrupt and couldn’t follow through. RKO 281 is based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. 

It opens with a beautiful scene that inspires and excites the filmmaker in all of us. A young Orson Welles blows out the candles on his birthday cake,” Orson…” says his mother, “come into the light, never stand in the shadows, you were made for the light. Always remember that.”

And soon enough, we are watching a twenty-five-year-old Welles (Liev Schreiber), wandering around Xanadu in the middle of the night, conceiving the idea for Citizen Kane. “I’ve got it!” He says in voice-over, “I know what we are going to do, imagine a man who shaped his time, a titanic man of limitless ambition, a man with an empire at his feet, controlling the perceptions of everyone beneath him—a modern feudal lord. The great American biography, a journey into the heart of the beast.” 

A sequence ensues with a rat a tat tat exchange of inspired and passionate ideas between writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Welles. Themes like “Love on your own terms” are pronounced with gusto and glory as we watch the vision for Citizen Kane take shape. Then Mankiewicz reveals that—for many years—he’s been keeping a file on Hearst, and their collaboration begins.

It captures the collaborative spirit with joyful nostalgia, leaving butterflies in the stomach. However, this is only one version of the story. In Frank Brady’s Biography, Citizen Welleshe writes how Welles—at first—was just focused on finding the right character to play. He was looking for a larger than life persona that could highlight his talent and reputation as a theater performer and radio star. Brady then recounts a court testimony by Mankiewicz which suggests he was the one to offer up Hearst as the film’s subject:

In a court proceeding years later, Mankiewicz gave his account of how the idea of the Welles film began, saying that it evolved out of a discussion of technique: a character would be shown in a March of Time sequence, and then the film would tell us about the person. “We were going to do The Life of Dumas,” remembered Mankiewicz,” and then I told him about how I would be interested in doing a picture based on Hearst and Marion Davies. I just kept telling him everything I knew about them. I was interested in them, and I went into all kinds of details. In an odd way it wasn’t really Citizen Kane at all, because we were going to do a great love story, which you remember Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be…

Welles was under contract to write the screenplay, and the studio wanted it that way for publicity reasons. But Welles wanted Mankiewicz to write it. And Mankiewicz contractually agreed to write it without taking credit.

Serendipitous to my research, David Fincher just released Mank on Netflix this month. It centers around Mankiewicz’s experience writing Citizen Kane while flashing back to his life as a writer and his relationship with Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The film made it clear how critical Mank’s contribution was to Citizen Kane. And while I don’t recollect any reference to who suggested Hearst, it does address the credit in one of the closing scenes—starting as follows:

“You’re not going to like this Orson,” says Mank. “I want credit.”
“Come again,” replies Orson.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” clarifies Mank.

It’s unclear how Welles really felt about this. The scene continues with Welles taking offense and throwing a tantrum. But in the subtext, I think his outburst was just a way for him to reconcile with his ego, while deep down, he understood and wanted Mank to get credit. What we know for sure is that Orson excepted Mank’s script—American, at two hundred pages—knowing, as Brady writes:

For many reasons, Welles couldn’t use a great deal of the script of American, errors of continuity, logic, and motivation being the most prominent.

but then adding that:

What is known and agreed upon by all concerned is that Mankiewicz came up with the concept of “rosebud,” the enigmatic word uttered by the dying mogul, the verbal icon around which the film revolves.

Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it only won for best writing of an original screenplay—both Welles and Mankiewicz received Oscars. Years later, Orson admitted he couldn’t remember all the details of who came up with which idea.

Downloadable Resources 
Excerpts

Credits and Specs
Directed by Benjamin Ross
Produced by Su ArmstrongRidley ScottTony Scott
Written by John Logan
Based on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Starring Liev SchreiberJohn MalkovichJames CromwellMelanie Griffith
Music By John Altman
Cinematography by Mike Southon
Edited by Alex Mackie
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Production Company: HBO PicturesWGBHScott Free Productionsand more  
Release Date: November 20, 1999
Running Time: 86min
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Country: USA
Language: English
Reported Budget: 12,000,000

Book I’m Reading

Citizen Welles (1989) by Frank Brady is a detailed biography of Orson Welles. Brady spent a decade researching and writing the book resulting in the first definitive chronicle of Welles’ life, spanning from his birth to his death. Upon its release, the New York Times Book Review stated, “Citizen Welles may well be definitive.”

For me, the book really humanizes Welles, but still in a legendary way. The sticking point thus far is his serendipitous childhood—a time when angels seemed to be dropping out of the sky to nurture his natural talents while he exercised a knack for averting any traditional childhood protocol. 

His mother Beatrice was a stalwart of his speech, and by the age of two, he was speaking in syntactically polished sentences. In the same year, he garnered a mentor in Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was enthralled by Orson’s burgeoning intellect. At four, he avoided Kindergarten by faking an attack of appendicitis. And was then homeschooled by his Mother, while Bernstein—with backstage access—took him to all the new plays. At eight, he wrote a scholarly paper called ‘The Universal History of Drama.’ At nine, his mother died. And at ten, he started smoking cigars while writing a critique on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

He continued to excel beyond his age level in many areas but was unable to add or subtract. When confronted with this weakness, he was known to shrug and say that he would always keep people around to do the math for him. But he did eventually learn.

His father—along with Bernstein’s support—sent him to the Todd School For Boys, where he turned his ambitions toward painting. But, Academically, his performance at the school was so poor, he barely graduated. And by that time, his father succumbed to Alcoholism.

Bernstein took Welles in, and at sixteen, he went to Ireland for a countryside walk-a-bout. He intended on starting a career as a painter but ended up joining the company at the Gate Theater in Dublin—making such a splash that it launched him into a theater career.  

After Gate, he spent a summer writing and illustrating a series of Shakespearean promptbooks. And when he was eighteen, they were published—to great success—by the world-renowned publisher Harper and Row. 

As his theater career continued, he began an adjacent career in radio, starring as an acclaimed regular on the March of Time radio shows. At this point, the Great Depression hit, and the US government started to sponsor theater projects. Welles—now twenty—was hired to run the Negro Theatre Project. And for the first time in American history, white people stood in lines to attend a black production. After 144 performances, Orson moved on to the Federal Theater, where he revived the great dramatic classics—several times a week—to great success. David O. Selznick—from Hollywood—came calling. But Welles wasn’t done with theater, and at twenty-two years old, he founded the Mercury Theater in New York. 

Welles learned a lot about lighting during these earlier years in theater, and the technology was advancing quickly. Abe Feder—master lighting technician—was a trusted collaborator:

Abe Feder was a master lighting technician—one of the best in the business—and followed, although not always agreeably, Welle’s dictates of helping to blend together the form and color of the set, the arrangement of the props, and the position and costumes of the actors, through the distribution of the variety of lighting. The slightly smallish stage caused design problems in creating the illusion of distance and perspective, and these, too, could be solved with nuances of lighting.

The light was the thing. As one writer pointed out two weeks after the opening, the effects were cinematic: as an actor moves downstage from under a shaft of light, his apparent size is seen to change most dramatically; in effect, the stage director is able to get more “shots” at distance and in close-up. When a sense of vastness was needed, the stage was more brightly lit; when compactness was necessary, it was dimmed. In all cases, the lighting followed the tempo of the play. To an audience brought up on evenly lighted rooms behind proscenium arches, the result was startling.

We haven’t even gotten to Orson’s famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds or come close to Citizen Kane. And this summary barely even scratches the surface of these earlier years. But the big question in the back of my mind is: Was he a child prodigy by nature or a child prodigy by design? His opportunities and influences seem to be so crucial to his genius; it makes me wonder.

Photographer that inspires me

Brassaï also intended to pursue a career as a painter and was a renaissance man like Welles. His name was actually Gyula Halász, but he wanted to save it for his “serious art” and used the pseudonym Brassaï for his writing, caricatures, and photography. He is best known for his night photography in Paris during the 30’s—published in the book Paris at NightHis dark and evocative imagery influenced photographers and filmmakers worldwide—feeding the aesthetics of an emerging film noir genre. Brassaï couldn’t escape his success as a photographer and made attempts—in his journal—to reconcile with his desire to be a painter: 

Even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.

To monetize his burgeoning reputation, he worked commercially shooting everything from car tires to cigarette lighters—all while enduring an unfulfilled desire to paint.

I want absolutely to return to the plastic arts. This desire becomes more and more a physical necessity. Photography is more of a stimulant. A complete success in photography leaves something in one’s being unsatisfied. It is choice and not expression. Its laws involve limits, even if I know these laws and respect them in all humility. I am not unhappy to be able to maintain my anonymity. After all, photography enabled me to step out of the shadows to show what I see. That’s something. But even so, I must express one day what I am.

Downloadable Resources
10 Brassaï photographs curated from the web

TV I’m Watching

The Queens Gambitnow streaming on Netflix, is another story about a child prodigy. This one, however, is fiction. It follows an orphaned Beth Harmon as she falls in line at a draconian orphanage where each child is administered a daily dose of a tranquilizer to keep them calm. As addiction to the drug brews, Beth stumbles upon the building’s custodian while he’s playing himself at chess—sparking Beth’s interest in the game.

The series is based on a novel with the same name written by Walter Tevis. It loosely draws from Tevis’ experience as a class-C chess player—learning to play when he was seven years old.

The show has been received well by both entertainment and chess aficionados. The cinematography and overall design are on par with the best of today’s episodic cinema. “Cinema,” in this case, is used to describe how the use of lighting and other aesthetics profoundly serve and enhance the storytelling. A trend on the rise—for tv—during the last decade or two—in large part superseding the sitcom, reality TV, and soap opera.

Quote I am pondering

To have success in a particular domain incites you and constrains you to exploit that success and to practice professionally as a “specialist.” what you have done with the joy of an amateur. The dilettante’s passion for an art will always be stronger than that of a man who is gifted to practice it, for the dilettantes passion, like a love without hope, always remains unquenched. To protect the amateur’s freshness of vision and combine it each time with the knowledge and the awareness of the professional, that is what I have tried to accomplish all my life, whence my constant infidelities, diverse curiosities, my numerous and parallel occupations… that apparent incoherence was my coherence. -Brassaï

Related
October Musings – Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more
March Musings – A five course mind meal: a list of independent films and more
November Musings – Poetry of a long tracking shot, surreal photography and more

Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

Sometimes it’s hard to explain things, and sometimes we lack the words, perspective, or experience to explain something even though we understand it and empathize with it. On this month’s journey into the rabbit hole, I explore racial division through cinema and literature. And uncover some nuances that have helped further my understanding and improve my communication skills.

Film I’m Studying

I Am Not Your Negro fully realizes its director’s conviction. Raoul Peck set out to bring forward a voice from another era—a voice he felt we now lacked and desperately needed. After working with many writers, he feared the project wasn’t going anywhere. But then he was handed an unfinished manuscript by the James Baldwin Estate. It was the novel Baldwin was working on before dying of cancer in 1987. Its working title was Remember This House, and it contained 30 pages of recollections about his friends—civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Suddenly, Peck’s film was upon him.

Sometimes people say I am an activist, I say no, I am a citizen, I take seriously the rights that I have, I take seriously my responsibility. I would love to be able to make horror movies without having to think, like Scary Movie 1,2,3,4,5, or 6, or Toy Story. But I take responsibility. I know the price we pay. I know the price my ancestors paid. I know the price young men like Medgar Evers, young men like Martin Luther King Jr., young men like Malcolm X, the price they paid, the price their kids paid, their whole family paid. How can we just say… well… we can just be happy and profit from whatever is going on? It’s my responsibility. The right to vote—people died for that. I know the price of my ancestors. – Transcribed from a special features Interview of Raoul Peck

And thus, a symphony ensues. Baldwin with his voice and pen, And Peck orchestrating a tale of yesterday amongst a tale of today.

Archived media from the civil rights era—interviews, stills, tv shows, and movie clips—build up the lion’s share of the movie. But to connect the history with what is happening today, Peck included stills and footage from modern-day protests and tragedies and some reality tv show clips. But it was—in good taste—kept to a minimum, not to distract from the actual history. And in the end, there are some very captivating modern-day video portraits.

Additionally, there isn’t a single contemporary interview in the film—scarce these days when it comes to documentaries. But the film is not without its genre tropes. Sequences with atmospheric b-roll garnish the film—mostly scenery as seen out the windows of a driving car. The footage was edited with an astute poetic sensibility and Samuel L. Jackson’s soft voice narration to invoke a sense of—this is James Baldwin driving around pondering the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeated the souls of blacks and empathizers throughout the era.

What touches me the most is the film’s embodied awareness. An awareness I was first exposed to in my late teens, thanks to some socially responsible friends. But this awareness did not come along with a good set of communication skills. And it was only the beginning of an ongoing journey—digging myself out of a deep cavernous pit flooded with naiveté. As featured in this film as a 1968 excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show, here are some words from James Baldwin that have helped me tweak my communication skills and understanding in regards to race. 

I don’t know what white people in this country feel. I can only include what they feel by the state of their institution. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether Labor Unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know if the real-estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know about the textbooks I have to give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my assistant, my children on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. – James Baldwin

Downloadable Resources
Excerpts
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Raoul Peck
Produced by Rémi GrelletyHébert PeckRaoul Peck
Written by James Baldwin,  Raoul Peck
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember this house.
Starring Samuel L. JacksonJames BaldwinMartin Luther King Jr.
Music By Alexei Aigui
Cinematography by Henry AdebonojoBill Ross IVTurner Ross
Edited by Alexandra Strauss
Production Company: Velvet Film
Film Festival Release: October 2016
Running Time: 1hr 33min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Printed Film Format: Digital (Digital Cinema Package DCP)
Language: English
Reported Budget: 1m

Book I’m Reading

Go Tell It On The Mountain–published in 1953—is James Baldwin’s first novel. The Modern Library and Time Magazine both list the book amongst their top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The book is semi-autobiographical, leaning heavily on Baldwin’s experience with an abusive stepfather—a sensationalist preacher. And ending on a depiction of his own “awakening” at the age of 14 when he became a preacher.

Baldwin scholars suggest that he invented his own way of writing and speaking that stemmed from his years as a child preacher. “He remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow, and the rhetorical flourish.”

It was Raoul Peck who inspired me to get familiar with Baldwin’s work. In a behind the scenes interview from I Am Not Your Negro, he states:

When you are born a black man in this country, you need to read Baldwin. Without question, no if or [about it], you need to read [him]. Whatever you do with it later, that is another question. It’s like learning how to read. That’s how essential it is. For me, that is what he did. He taught me how to read. He taught me how to read my life. He taught me how to construct my life. He taught me how to make decisions about my life. So once you have that kind of powerful thinking, you need to put it in the hand of every single child in this country.

Obviously, I am not black. But, I thought reading Baldwin for myself would help me to garner understanding. And after having an undeniable emotional response to the poeticism in Baldwin’s words as featured in I Am Not Your Negro, I was eager to read them first hand in one of his books. So why not start with his first. Here is an excerpt:

She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, who they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.

Photographer that inspires me

James Karales observed his college roommate sweating over chemical trays in a darkroom and was inspired to change his major to photography. He graduated in 1955. And after spending two years under the tutelage of W. Eugene Smith at the Magnum Photo Agency, he set his sights on the working class in Rendville, Ohio, for his first photo essay. In its earlier years, Rendville was one of the few towns in the US to allow for workplace integration and was a stop on the underground railroad. His essay got noticed, and in 1960, Look Magazine hired him to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. His access to key movement figures like Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in an incredibly intimate body of work, charged—by his compositions and choice moments—with undeniable emotional clarity.

A collection of his work can be found in Controversy and Hopepublished in 2013. And James Karalespublished in 2014. 

Downloadable Resources
Select Karales photographs from the world wide web.

Article I am enjoying

Revisiting an anti-Latino past is an article written by Gustavo Arellano for the Los Angeles Times. It’s an honest reflection of the newspaper’s historical racism and how it has changed. What strikes me the most is how the newspaper is holding itself accountable with acute self-examination and commitment. Here is an excerpt:

The [Latin] elites were seen as cultured but good people whose best days were past. The rest were seen as halfbreeds and shiftless.” The dichotomy was there from the start. An 1883 story about northern Mexico’s “greasers” with the subhead “What They Are and How They Live” strove to distinguish for readers the difference between Mexicans with mixed heritage and those who were supposedly of pure Spanish blood. The latter were described as “bright, active and intelligent.” The Times cemented this myth in historical remembrances, serialized fiction, and news stories about society events where L.A.’s new white ruling class—including the Chandlers—dressed as the dons and señoritas of yore. Meanwhile, the city’s actual Mexican residents were written about largely in crime stories or what Gutierrez called “zoo pieces” — stories about Latinos not as individuals but as members of an ethnic group with little chance of being more than that.

Quote I am pondering

What I am trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible and so dead, no other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a white picket fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, then to marry and have the Plymouth and house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy that this is what we mean. – James Baldwin

 

Related
October Musings – Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more
A five course mind meal: a list of independent films and more
A photographic study of Latino culture

Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. Amongst a lot of catch up work—in life and business—I’ve been studying philosophy. In my latest research stream, I came across a book discussing the philosophies of Bruce Lee. It had been a while since I thought about Bruce Lee or seen any of his philosophical movies. But the book really spoke to me, so I decided to invest a little time in his life and work.

Book I’m Reading

The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee written by John Little, is a story about an artist who used philosophy to help guide him towards a balanced lifestyle of spiritual and commercial success—what most artists can only dream of.

As a child in Hong Kong, Lee was being bullied at school and sought martial arts training to protect himself. He learned the Wing Chun style of gung fu under the martial arts master Yip Man. And sums up his experience amongst his prolific writings:

Gung fu is a philosophy; it’s an integral part of the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, the ideals of giving with adversity, to bend slightly and then spring up stronger than before, to have patience in all things, to profit by one’s mistakes and lessons in life. These are the many-sided aspects of the art of gung fu; it teaches the way to live, as well as the way to protect oneself.

At 21 years old, Bruce majors in Philosophy at the University of Washington. He saturates himself in the writings of Lao-tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Descartes, and many others. And then self publishes his first book—Chinese Gung Fu, the Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.

The Warrior Within touches on philosophical concepts such as yin and yang, be like water, the need for honest self-expression, and the art of fighting without fighting. It then discusses how Lee expressed these in philosophical movies. One of his students, Daniel Inosanto, writes:

He felt very strongly that if he could get people to appreciate something in the Chinese culture, then they would appreciate something in other cultures as well. He felt that he was doing his small part in establishing something toward world peace.

Film I’m Studying

Enter The Dragon showcases the philosophy for the art of fighting without fighting and the need for honest self-expression.

Bruce Lee’s Chinese gung fu films stem from an explosion of swordplay films produced largely by the Shaw Brothers in post-WWII Hong Kong. They released up to fifty titles each year. One of their star directors Li Hanxiang started to combine Chinese opera styles and classical painting into his films, and the genre began to rise in artistic status. And with films like A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 1971), he began to infuse his films with philosophy—winning awards for technique at the Cannes Film Festival. And the Shaw Brothers swordplay epics started seeing widespread commercial success. At this time, Bruce Lee starred in his first leading role in The Big Boss, which launched him into stardom.

Three films later—in 1973—comes Enter the Dragon. And it’s the first Bruce Lee film to target an American audience. Much of the camera work followed the “zoom boom” trend of the ’70s. Innovations in zoom lens technology started to make them easier to use and more affordable. And as zoom shots started to replace dolly and crane shots—Cinematographers struggled with controversies over its artistic integrity. In Enter The Dragon—it helped Director Robert Clouse emphasize interpersonal moments in the middle of fight scenes without getting in the way of the action, using additional cameras, or taking the time to reshoot the scene on a tighter lens.

The film was shot in anamorphic on an Arriflex 35 IIC camera with Panavision C-series and Angenieux Lenses. And the film stock was Kodak 100T 5254. It takes a lot of light to expose such a film stock properly. And when shooting in Hong Kong with Chinese crew and equipment—Cinematographer Gil Hobbs didn’t have access to all the light control tools that were common in Hollywood. This might explain why the high key lighting approach feels more utilitarian than expressive.

What touches me the most in this film is Bruce Lee’s determination to express himself. In a new book written by Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee—Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee—she accounts for how Bruce campaigned to change the title and how he rewrote the script to include the philosophical scenes and tune up any cultural discrepancies. While his push for changing the title from ‘Blood and Steel’ to ‘Enter The Dragon’ succeeded—his rewrite of the script did not. As a result, he refused to show up on set until the producers agreed to his rewrites. The producers fed the press a cover story—that he was too nervous to start filming. Meanwhile—for two weeks—Bruce held his ground. And finally, the producers gave in and re-issued the locked script with his rewrites. However, the cover story has held on for decades.

The release of Shannon Lee’s book this month is a nice coincidence. An excerpt from the book about the making of Enter the Dragon is available here.

Downloadable Resources
Film Excerpts
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Robert Clouse
Produced by Raymond Chow, Paul M. Heller, Fred Weintraub
Written by Michael Allin
Starring Bruce LeeJohn SaxonJim Kelly
Music By Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography by Gil Hubbs
Edited by Kurt Hirschler, George Watters
Production Company: Warner Bros
Release Date: 1973
Running Time: 1hr 42min
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Camera: Arriflex 35 IIC, Panavision C-Series and Angenieux Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak 100T 5254
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: Hong Kong, USA
Language: English, Cantonese
Reported Budget: 850,000

Photographer that inspires me

Yu Yuntian. I met Yuntian when I was a teenager.  He had some film to process while traveling for an exhibit and came into the Wolf Camera and Video store where I was working. Somehow we got to talking—he told me about his next photo expedition to Tibet and invited me to come along. It caught me off guard, and I was certainly apprehensive. Still, I thought to myself—“wouldn’t it be nice to have such flexibility in my life, just to get up and go to Tibet…” I didn’t go on the trip, but he gave me a copy of his exhibition booklet and the photographs within have always been an inspiration for me.

Yuntian writes, “it is photography that has enabled me to find man’s value and his entire dignity throughout my endless journeys.” And like Bruce Lee and his philosophical movies, it was the spiritual nature of his own art that drove Yuntian the most:

I think that, in our attitude toward artistic pursuit, we should have a spirit of perceiving nature and observing life with a reverent mind, a religious sentiment that is strong and earnest. It is precisely here that ‘art is willing to walk hand in hand with religion’ (from Goethe). This is the revelation of religion.

Downloadable Resources
Select images from the exhibition booklet

Links
Gallery on the Global Photography website
Profile and Gallery on the China Photographers Association Website

Video I am enjoying

Bruce Lee “Lost” Interview from the Pierre Berton Show in 1971. In his films, his voice was always dubbed, and his lines were always scripted. This interview gives us the rare opportunity to hear him speak freely with his own voice in English. “Be water, my friend.”