Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Mark of Cain:

The Mark of Cain. Producer: Alix Lambert; Creative Commons license: CC0 1.0 Universal

The Mark of Cain documents the fading art form and language of Russian criminal tattoos, formerly a forbidden topic in Russia. The now vanishing practice is seen as reflecting the transition of the broader Russian society. Filmed in some of Russia;s most notorious prisons, including the fabled White Swan, the interviews with prisoners, guards, and criminologists reveal the secret language of The Zone and The Code of Thieve.

The prisoners of the Stalinist Gulag, or "Zone," as it is called, developed a complex social structure (documented as early as the 1920s) that incorporated highly symbolic tattooing as a mark of rank. The existence of these inmates at prisons and forced labor camps was treated by the state as a deeply-kept secret. In the 1990s, Russia's prison population exploded, with overcrowding among the worst in the world. Some estimates suggest that in the last generation over thirty million of Russia's inmates have had tattoos even though the process is illegal inside Russian prisons.

The Mark of Cain examines every aspect of the tattooing, from the actual creation of the tattoo ink, interviews with the tattooers and soberly looks at the double-edged sword of prison tattoos. In many ways, they were needed to survive brutal Russian prisons, but mark the prisoner for life, which complicates any readmission to normal society they may have. Tattoos expressly identify what the convict has been convicted of, how many prisons he;s been in and what kind of criminal he is. Tattoos, essentially, tell you everything you need to know about that person without ever asking. Each tattoo represents a variety of things; cupolas on churches represent the number of convictions a convict has, epaulets tattooed on shoulders represent the rank of the individual in the crime world and so on and so forth.

The unflinching look at the Russian prison system is slowly woven into the film. Cells meant to hold 15 hold 35 to 45 men. Drug resistant tuberculosis runs rampant through the prison populations and prisoners are served three meals a day of watery slop. There are allegations of brutality by the guards. As these men deal with pestilence, violence and grossly substandard living conditions, the prison guards and administration put on a talent show.

The film served as source material for David Cronenberg's 2007 dramatic movie, Eastern Promises. He commented, "This is a very courageous documentary on the tattooing subculture in Russian prisons. I don't know how it ever got made, but it's beautiful, scary, and heartbreaking."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Yellow House

The house at 59 Macleay St is a "Queen Anne" terrace, one of ten designed and built in the late 1890's by architect Maurice Halligan. Its design was in many ways a wide departure from the ordinary style of terrace adopted across Sydney in that era, differentiated by distinctive gables and balconies set back behind roman arches.

During the 1950s, No. 59 Macleay Street was a haven for many of Australia's best-known artists. It was the scene for the emergence and acceptance of an important phase of contemporary art within Sydney. The property’s resident owner, writer Frank Clune, author of dozens of popular books on history and travel, started this artistic link. In 1959 the Terry Clune Galleries opened on the premises, exhibiting Sydney's emerging abstract and modernist artists -- John Olsen, Robert Hughes (now New York based art critic for 'Time' magazine), the late Robert Klippel, Stan Rapotec and others. During this period the Clune family house was also home to a number of artists, including Russell Drysdale who lived there for a short time.

The building's most colourful and famous period began in late 1969. Martin Sharp was frustrated by the traditional gallery scene, so he approached the owners to make use of the disused Clune Galleries space. Sharp had returned to Australia in early 1969 after spending several years in London. During his period in the UK he created posters and illustrations for the infamous Oz magazine (working with his friend Richard Neville) as well as designing the famous covers for Cream's albums Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire. Sharp took up residency in the old Clune Galleries. Thelma Clune, the gallery director, had decided to sell the building,but was in no hurry to do so, so Martin was able to use the space to present his first exhibition after his return home. This was followed by ''The Incredible Shrinking Exhibition", which comprised photographs of the first show re-exhibited in small gem-like mirror frames.

These two exhibitions laid the foundations for The Yellow House. The project was inspired by an unrealised dream of Vincent Van Gogh, who had mentioned the idea in a letter to his brother Theo. Van Gogh envisaged setting up his house in Arles as a centre for artists to live, work and exhibit. During the late 1960s Conceptual Art had emerged as a major new movement, and novel combinations of music, theatre, film, slides, lightshows and live performances of music and/or dance -- "total environment installations" or "happenings" -- had . Public awareness of conceptual art in Australia was given a major boost by the French artist Christo, who came to Australia in late 1969 and created his famous "Wrapped Coast" at Little Bay.

Sharp produced a catalogue and coordinated the setting up of artists' spaces to be prepared for the Spring show of 1970. In many repsects, the creation of The Yellow House was the culmination of much of the activity on the Sydney "Underground" scene of the late '60s. Sharp's contact with the UBU film/lightshow collective led to several UBU members -- Albie Thoms, Aggy Read, Phil Noyce -- becoming closely involved in the Yellow House. The opening attracted considerable media attention. Sydney's Sunday Mirror called it .."the wildest, most way out happening of the week..", and commented that "...the guests wore really wild gear, and many looked as though they had come from a performance of Hair ... " -- which had opened a few weeks earlier at the nearby Metro Theatre in Kings Cross.

The Yellow House was an innovative 'multimedia' space, perhaps the first permanent "happening" in Australia. It included artworks by Sharp, Brett Whiteley and others, a special sound system created by Aggy Read, films by Read and Philip Noyce, "Lumino Kinetic" lighting presentations by Ellis D. Fogg, tapdancing by Little Nell (aka Laura Campbell, who later played Columbia in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and photography by Greg Weight. Other well-known names associated with the Yellow House included painters Tim Lewis, George Gittoes and Bruce Goold (now one of the group of artists who contribute designs to the famous Mambo clothing company), and film-makers Albie Thoms, Peter Weir and Jim Sharman.

The rooms were transformed into a range of environments, many reflecting the influence of the Surrealists. One was an homage to Magritte, another a bonsai room created by Brett Whiteley. The Stone Room contained everyday objects made to look like stone. The exterior was painted yellow and the building became known as "The Yellow House" as a tribute to Van Gogh. The House took on roles which extended beyond a simple exhibition space and it increasingly became known for its music and performances by people such as Little Nell, Bruce Goold and George Gittoes; films were screened and classes in film-making and folk music were organised by Albie Thoms. As well as exhibiting there, Greg Weight photographed the interiors of the House extensively, documenting this exciting moment in Australia’s art history. Weight’s photographs record the wondrous environments of the Yellow House, such as The Stone Room, but are also artworks in themselves, tributes to what Sharp claimed to be "probably one of the greatest pieces of conceptual art ever achieved".

The Yellow House continued in operation for most of 1971, but during the latter part of the year financial problems and artistic tensions led to the departure of Sharp, Gittoes and Thoms. The House continued as a performance space for some time after, presenting acts like The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and Lindsay Bourke, but without a clear artistic direction it became little different from other performance venues and it closed towards the end of the year.

The Yellow House was a milestone in the history of contemporary art in Australia and its importance was recognised by a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1990, coinciding with the centenary of Van Gogh’s death in Auvers, France on the 29th July 1890. Today The property is a private boarding house.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Yogis of Tibet: A Film for Posterity

The Yogis of Tibet: A Film for Posterity
Directed by Phil and Jo Borack
JEHM Films 12/02 DVD/VHS Special Interest Film
Not Rated

There has never been another culture and society quite like the one that existed in Tibet before the Communist takeover of the country in 1950. This extraordinary film was written by Barbara King and produced by Phil and Jo Borack with the cooperation of the monks of the Drikung Kagyu Tradition.

In the opening segment, the narrator describes the spiritual dimensions of life in this nation on top of the world. Its first inhabitants were nomads. Due to the harsh elements and the impermanence of life, they turned inward for peace. The Buddhism that developed in Tibet was organized around meditation and other practices and rituals. At one point, there were 6,000 monasteries, and one in every six males was a monk. Life in this country of prayer wheels and prayer flags literally revolved around the practices of the people.

The monastery monks not only perfected spiritual disciplines but studied science, philosophy, the arts, and medicine. The filmmakers define a yogi as "an individual who has spent years in isolated retreats practicing secret self-transforming physical and mental exercises, and through these techniques has developed extraordinary control over both mind and body." During the Chinese takeover, one million Tibetans were killed; many of them were yogis. Realizing that their tradition and impact on the future is now limited, some of these mind masters decided to share a few of their secret beliefs and practices with the world. They include H.E. Choje Togden Rinpoche, H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, Ven Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche, H.E. Chetsang Rinpoche, and H.H. the Dalai Lama.

Several yogis discuss teachings passed down through the generations about meditation, controlling the mind, and rising above the physical plane of existence. How do they differ from monks? Due to the rigors of their one- to three-year retreats in isolation, they are able to work more diligently on training their minds, controlling their bodies, and dealing with negative emotions. In a fascinating scene, a young yogi demonstrates a demanding breathing exercise which takes two years to learn and then must be repeated for two hours every day. Other yogis talk about their paranormal abilities and experience of teachers who achieved amazing feats in their deaths. These accounts are rendered with utmost seriousness so as to avoid ego-centered showmanship.

The last section of the film focuses on the spiritual practice of compassion. The Dalai Lama tells about a Tibetan monk imprisoned by the Chinese who felt that the only danger he experienced was when he stopped loving his enemies. American Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman has called Tibetan monks and yogis "supreme artists of life." No wonder they are spreading the dharma all over the world. Yogis are now teaching in the United States, and their mind control techniques and example of inner freedom and peace continue to earn the respect of their students. This inspiring and edifying film allows an even wider audience to appreciate the special spiritual gifts of the yogis of Tibet.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Discipline of D.E.' -- Gus Van Sant & William S. Burroughs

The Discipline of D.E.' -- Gus Van Sant short film from 1982.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Adapted from the 'Exterminator!' piece by William S. Burroughs (1973)
- - -
IMDB Entry for 'The Discipline of D.E.':

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mounseer Nongtongpaw, or the Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris

The New York Public Library has animated the first book Mary Shelley ever worked on - a kid’s story called Mounseer Nongtongpaw, or the Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris. It was published by Shelley’s anarchist philosopher dad William Godwin in 1808 when she was a mere 10-years-old and is “probably the first book publication Mary Shelley was ever involved in,” said Charles Carter, a librarian from the Pforzheimer Collection, which houses the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his family and his friends. “She basically came up with a plot sketch for what was going to happen in the story. She had help from adults, but still, it’s very interesting.” In-house digital producer Jonathan Blanc put the video together in only a few weeks, Carter said, as a way to promote a new exhibit opening today called Shelley’s Ghost at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The show - a version of which will come to NYPL in 2012 - features 12 of the collection’s “greatest treasures,” said Carter, who wrote a blog post about it today. “I was trying to think of ways to promote it that would be adaptable to an electronic medium,” he said. “This particular item, because it’s so heavily illustrated, would lend itself well, I thought. I was thinking of a Reading Rainbow kind of thing.” Well done, and appropriate. The story was originally based on a comedic song from the early 1790s.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Man With the Golden Arm

The Man with the Golden Arm is a 1955 American drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Nelson Algren, which tells the story of a heroin addict who gets clean while in prison, but struggles to stay that way in the outside world. It stars Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang and Darren McGavin. It was adapted for the screen by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and Ben Hecht (uncredited), and directed by Otto Preminger

When Otto Preminger was willing to release his drug-addiction drama Man With the Golden Arm without the sanction of a Production Code seal, it proved to be yet another nail in the coffin of that censorial dinosaur. Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, expert card dealer. Recently released from prison, Frankie is determined to set his life in order -- and that means divesting himself of his drug habit. He dreams of becoming a jazz drummer, but his greedy wife Eleanor Parker wants him to continue his lucrative gambling activities. Since Parker is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car accident caused by Frankie, he's in no position to refuse. Only the audience knows that Parker is not crippled, but is faking her invalid status to keep Frankie under her thumb. Gambling boss Robert Strauss wants Frankie to deal at a high-stakes poker game; terrified that he's lost his touch, Frankie asks dope pusher Darren McGavin to supply him with narcotics. When McGavin discovers that Parker is not an invalid, she kills him, and Frankie (who is elsewhere at the time) is accused of the murder. He is willing to go to the cops, but he doesn't want to show up with drugs in his system. So with the help of sympathetic B-girl Kim Novak, Sinatra locks himself up and goes "cold turkey"-a still-harrowing sequence, despite the glut of "doper" films that followed in the wake of this picture. After Parker herself is killed in a suicidal fall, the path is cleared for Frankie to pursue a clean new life with Novak.

Amon Düül II Spielt Phallus Dei

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Rüdiger Nüchtern's film "Amon Düül II Spielt Phallus Dei" from 1968. And just as the title says, it shows Amon Düül II performing what soon would be the title-track from their first album. The film itself is very artsy, and mixes the band with footage of the sunrise above a forest, trees, clouds and general shots of the German countryside. The band plays in front of a wall with lots of animated psychedelic colours and patterns, but it surprisingly enough never becomes distractive or disturbing. The film is shot from only one angle, and in the beginning we see little else than Renate Knaup and Shrat, but the angle fortunately widens after a while, and we're allowed to see the rest of the band. The musical performance is very good, and the track lasts for 5 minutes longer than the studio version. Chris Karrer's dancing during the percussion part is priceless. "Play Phallus Dei" gives you not just a unique glimpse of some classic early krautrock, but stands also as one of the first examples of making a music video.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Gringo Shaman

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

This is the story of Ronald Wheelock, a man who dared to dream an impossible dream and succeeded at making it a reality. As the rainforests are being leveled and the indigenous peoples relocated to the city, it is up to people like Don Ron to keep the flame of shamanism alive so that future generations know more about the power of medicinal plants and the sacred context in which they thrive. Our world just might depend on it. A film by Matthew Vincent and Mendel Kaelen.

Fractals in African Architecture

Friday, April 01, 2011

Inside Job 2010

From Academy Award nominated filmmaker, Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight), comes INSIDE JOB, the first film to expose the shocking truth behind the economic crisis of 2008. The global financial meltdown, at a cost of over $20 trillion, resulted in millions of people losing their homes and jobs. Through extensive research and interviews with major financial insiders, politicians and journalists, INSIDE JOB traces the rise of a rogue industry and unveils the corrosive relationships which have corrupted politics, regulation and academia.

Narrated by Academy Award winner Matt Damon, INSIDE JOB was made on location in the United States, Iceland, England, France, Singapore, and China.

Produced, Written, and Directed by Charles Ferguson